Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:2-31

Isaiah 1:2-31

In the Saturday Series studies this March and April, we will be exploring the rich trove of prophetic and historical material in the book of Isaiah. The critical areas, as they relate to the book, were discussed in last week’s introductory study. This week we will begin turning our eye to the text of the book, in practical terms, looking at a number of key passages and portions. Our analysis opens with the opening oracle in chapter 1. As the superscription in 2:1 serves just as well for the introduction to Isaiah (and certainly to chapters 2-39), many commentators feel that chapter 1 was added at a later point in the formation and redaction of the book, serving as a summary of various elements and themes that would be found throughout—both in chapters 2-39, and the so-called “deutero”- and “trito”-Isaian portions (chaps. 40-66). And, just as the book itself is composite, so the introductory chapter has a composite character, apparently including pieces of various genres, and areas of emphasis, with indications of different time-periods (perhaps) being referenced. A careful study of the chapter will bear out this evaluation, to some extent.

Isaiah 1:2-3

“Hear, (you) heavens, and give ear, (you) earth!
for YHWH opens (His mouth) to speak:
Sons have I helped grow (strong) and raised (them high),
and (yet) they have broken (trust) with me!
An ox knows (the one) purchasing [i.e. who purchases] it
and a donkey (knows) the trough of its master,
(but yet) Yisrael does not know—
my people do not recognize (this) themselves!”

The opening call to heaven and earth resembles the beginning of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 (discussed in earlier studies):

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

Indeed, there would seem to be a number of Deuteronomic themes and points of emphasis here in chapter 1, include several that relate specifically to the Song of Moses and its context. The background involves the idea of the binding agreement (or ‘covenant’, Heb. b®rî¾) in the ancient Near East, the religious setting of which entailed calling on various deities as witnesses to the agreement—and to bring divine judgment if either party violates its terms. Since in Deuteronomy, et al, the binding agreement is between Israel and God (YHWH), there is no need to call on the Deity as a witness; instead, all of creation is called—i.e. heaven and earth, which were often considered to be primary deities in the ancient world.

Generally speaking, chapter 1 functions as a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that would come upon Israel—specifically Judah and Jerusalem—for violating the covenant with YHWH. Within the confines of the agreement, the Israelite people are recognized, symbolically, as God’s children (“sons”), His own people. This makes their violation, literally a breaking of trust (vb p¹ša±), a breaking away from God, all the more tragic; it is like a son betraying his own father. This motif, too, is part of the Deuteronomic language expressed in the Song of Moses (vv. 5-6, 11ff, 19-20), and is something of a common-place in the Prophets.

A bit of irony is made use of in verse 3, to emphasize the point. Even an animal (ox or donkey) knows enough to be faithful to the one who owns it (and feeds it), and yet Israel, God’s own children and people, do not seem to know or recognize their relationship to Him!

Isaiah 1:4

“Oh, (you) sinning nation,
people heavy (with) crooked(ness)!
Seed of (those) doing evil,
sons of (those) bringing ruin!
They have abandoned YHWH,
despised the Holy (One) of Yisrael!
They have turned aside, back(ward)!”

Verse 4 is a woe-oracle in miniature, beginning with a striking alliterative declaration, the effect of which is almost impossible to capture in translation:

Hôy gôy µœ‰¢°
“Oh, sinning nation…”

The final line of v. 4 is absent from the old Greek (Septuagint/LXX), but exists in the great Isaiah scroll from Qumran (and other MSS). While perfunctory in context, these two words (n¹zœrû °¹µôr) help to establish the theme of Israel’s wickedness (and corrupt religious practice) as defined in terms of false religion and idolatry—i.e., turning away from God to follow after other deities. In the 8th-7th century Prophets, judgment comes to Israel as a result of their adopting false religious practices; however, the emphasis here in chapter 1, as in many of the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophetic oracles, is on the corruption of religion because of the wider evils tolerated in society (i.e., injustice, mistreatment of the poor, etc). Thus there is here an interesting juxtaposition of earlier and later themes, very much typical of the book of Isaiah as a whole.

The title “the Holy One of Israel” (q®dôš yi´r¹°¢l) is distinctive to Isaiah, occurring repeatedly throughout the book, though some commentators believe that it tends to belong to a later stage/period of authorship. It may derive from the Temple liturgy (cf. Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:19; and note the context of Isa 6:1ff; Blenkinsopp, p. 183).

Isaiah 1:7-9

“Your land (is) a desolation—
your cities burned (with) fire,
your soil, (there) in front of you,
(those) turning aside are devouring it—
and a desolation like the overthrow of <Sodom>!
And Daughter ‚iyyôn is left (after it)
like a covered (shelter) in a vineyard,
like a lodging-place in a cucumber-patch,
like a city watched (by those surrounding it)!
(If it) were not that YHWH of the Armies (of Heaven)
had left (behind) for us (just) a few survivor(s),
we would have been (just) like Sodom,
(and) bear a resemblance to ‘Amorah!”

This again is an oracle in miniature—a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that will come upon Judah (and Jerusalem), in the form of a military attack, along with the devastation that comes in the aftermath of invasion. This aspect touches upon the area of historical criticism. If this is an authentic Isaian oracle (or at least from the late-8th century B.C.), then there are two possibilities for a military invasion of Judah that could fit this prophecy: (1) the invasion by the Northern Israelite kingdom and Aram-Syria (734-733), or (2) the Assyrian attack under Sennacherib (701), in which Jerusalem survived the devastation, but only barely so. The latter option is preferable, and well fits the historical scenario, of Isaiah’s own time, emphasized throughout much of chapters 2-39. Moreover, the imagery in verse 8, of Zion (Jerusalem) completely surrounded, certainly fits the circumstances of the Assyrian siege.

Rhetorically, this Judgment is framed by the ancient tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). Judah/Jerusalem barely avoids the fate of their complete devastation. The use of the noun mahp¢kâ (from the verb h¹pak) in the last line of verse 7, suggests the following word in the Masoretic text (also in the Qumran MSS), z¹rîm (“[those] turning aside”, i.e. foreigners, strangers, passers-by), repeated from the previous line, may be an error. Elsewhere the noun mahp¢kâ is always used in the context of the “overthrow” of Sodom; the motif of Sodom/Gomorrah here raises the strong possibility that the text originally read s§dœm (<d)s=) instead of z¹rîm (<yr!z`). Textual emendation should be done with extreme caution, and as rarely as possible, especially when the manuscript support for it is slight (or otherwise non-existent). However, here I do tentatively emend the final word of verse 7, indicated by the angle brackets in the translation above.

Isaiah 1:10-17

“Hear the speech [i.e. word] of YHWH,
(you) leaders of Sodom!
Give ear to the instruction of our Mightiest [Elohim],
(you) people of ‘Amorah!
For what (purpose) to me (are) your many slaughtered (offering)s?
(So) says YHWH—
I have had (my) fill of (the) rising (smoke) of strong (ram)s,
and (the burning) fat of well-fed (cattle),
and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats
I take no delight (in them)!
For you come to be seen (by) my Face—
(but) who seeks this from your hand,
(the) trampling of my enclosures?
You must not continue bringing (these) empty offerings
…!”

This exposition of Israel’s sin lies at the heart of the chapter 1 oracle. That it effectively represents the covenant-violation is clearly indicated by the repetition of the call to the divine witness (heaven and earth) in the opening lines of verse 10 (see verse 2 above, and compare Deut 32:1). However, there is no suggestion here of the traditional violation of the covenant, i.e. of abandoning YHWH to worship other (Canaanite) deities, despite the use of this language in verse 4 (see above). Instead, the people continue to worship YHWH dutifully, at least in terms of coming to the Jerusalem Temple and presenting the sacrificial offerings, etc, required by the Torah. However, these offerings have been rendered “empty” (š¹w°) and detestable to God because of the evil and injustice that exists throughout society (vv. 16-17ff). This is a very different sense of the corruption of religion, and one that is more in keeping with the later Prophetic tradition, though it can be found prominently in the 8th-7th century Prophets as well (see, for example, Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

From a form- and genre-critical standpoint, verses 10-17 are in some ways the most consistently poetic of the chapter. Throughout, the section utilizes a 3+2 bicolon format, with synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism, disrupted occasionally by emphatic points of tension. The 3+2 meter (a 3-beat line followed by a 2-beat line) is referred to as the “limping” or qînâ meter, often characteristic of a lament (also in vv. 21-23).

Isaiah 1:18ff

It may worth here considering the structure of the oracle, from a form- and literary-critical standpoint. In verses 10-31, judgment-oracles (vv. 10-17, 21-26) alternate with prophecies of salvation/restoration (vv. 18-20, 27-31) for the people. As a rhetorical (and poetic) device, a judicial setting is indicated in vv. 18-20, tied to the ancient context of adjudicating the binding agreement of the covenant—i.e. whether or not it has been violated. Only here this imagery has been turned into an exhortation for the people, indicating that it is still possible to re-establish their relationship in the binding agreement with God. The basic terms of the covenant are stated clearly in verses 19-20:

“If you are willing, and would hear [i.e. are obedient],
you shall eat (the) good of the land;
but if you refuse and resist/rebel [i.e. be disobedient],
you shall be eaten by the sword!”

In verses 21-23ff, we find another judgment-oracle, this time emphasizing more clearly the injustice in society, a wickedness that turns the once-loyal city of Jerusalem into a prostitute. The closing lines of this oracle (vv. 24b-26), like those earlier (vv. 16-17), leave open the way to avoid the coming Judgment, and from a literary standpoint, function as a transition point into the prophecies of salvation (vv. 27-31 and 18-20). The opening lines of the final section make clear that the city of Jerusalem will be saved in the judgment, but only those in her who repent:

‚iyyôn will be ransomed in (the) judgment,
and (the one)s in her (who) turn back [i.e. repent], in justice;
but destruction together (for those) breaking away and sinning,
and (the one)s abandoning YHWH will be completely (destroy)ed!”

In the closing lines of the chapter, the traditional imagery of abandoning God to follow after other deities, embracing false religious practices, etc, comes back into view. The motif of pagan cultic garden-sites functions as a kind of antithesis to the true religion centered at the Temple sanctuary of Zion, but also, perhaps, to the tradition of the Garden of God accessible to humankind at the beginning of creation. Indeed, the language and symbolism in these verses seems to parallel the final chapters of the book (Trito-Isaiah) with their eschatological emphasis, both in terms of salvation and judgment (e.g. 56:1; 57:1ff; 59:9, 16-17; 61:3, 10-11; 63:1; 65:3, 11-13; 66:3-5, 17, 24).

Thus, we can see rather clearly, I think, how the complexity of the book of Isaiah is reflected in this opening chapter. A wide range of themes, genres, sets of symbols, and literary-rhetorical devices can be discerned, which, in a very real sense, mirrors those of the book as a whole. It is certainly possible that the chapter represents an authentic 8th-7th century oracle; however, it seems more likely that it is an assemblage of different oracle-forms and pieces, which an author (or editor) has combined to form a powerful, though composite, piece of prophetic poetry. In terms of the final book of Isaiah, its primary purpose is literary—introducing the many themes and motifs which will be developed throughout the oracles, etc, that follow.

Next week, we will turn to the second chapter, which may be considered as the beginning of the book proper (esp. of chapters 2-39). This time, we will focus on a shorter passage—verses 1-5—devoting our study to a more detailed exegesis. I hope that you will join me, next Saturday.

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