Isaiah 42:1; 61:1
In the previous note, we saw how the earlier traditions regarding charismatic (i.e., spirit-inspired) leadership and kingship were developed within the oracles and writings of the Prophets (in the 8th-6th centuries B.C.). The verses discussed (Isa 11:2; 28:6) were from the first half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 1-39), which, on the whole, is firmly rooted in the oracles and historical traditions of the prophet Isaiah from the late 8th century (c. 740-701). The situation is rather different with regard to the second half of the book—the so-called Deutero- (chaps. 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). Most critical commentators would hold that the oracles and poems in these chapters, while inspired by the Isaian themes and traditions, were written considerably later, during the Exile and post-Exilic period. Certainly, the main setting and subject matter involves the restoration of Israel and the return of the Judean people from Exile (cf. the reference to Cyrus in 44:28; 45:1, among many other details). While some would defend a traditional-conservative view of Isaian authorship, the message of hope in these passages is more intelligible, and makes more sense for the people of the time, if the exile had already occurred.
In any case, we are looking here at two key passages which draw upon the association of the spirit (j^Wr) of God with prophetic inspiration. In previous notes, we examined early traditions where the divine spirit comes upon (or “rushes” to) a person, resulting in an ecstatic prophetic experience. Such a person is shown to be gifted as a prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) for YHWH, and the speech/action that comes out of the encompassing charismatic/ecstatic experience is a sign that the person is “acting like a ayb!n`” (the denominative verb ab*n` in the reflexive or passive stem). The main passages for this line of tradition are Numbers 11:17-29; 1 Samuel 10:5-13; 18:10 (19:9); 19:20-24.
The poem in Isa 42:1-9 is generally regarded as the first of the “Servant Songs” in (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the theme had been introduced already in 41:8-9. The couplets in the opening verse establish the focus of the poem:
“See! my servant—I hold firmly (up)on him,
my chosen (one), (in whom) my soul delights!
I have given my spirit [j^Wr] upon him,
(and) he shall bring forth judgment/justice for (the) nations.”
The precise identity and nature of this “servant” (db#u#) have been much debated by commentators throughout the years. In 41:8-9, the “servant” is identified as the people of Israel/Jacob (the “seed of Abraham”) as a whole; however, here, and in subsequent passages, a distinct individual seems to be in view. Perhaps the best explanation is that it is a ayb!n` (prophet/spokesperson), patterned after Moses. The term is used specifically (and in a special sense) of Moses in Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1-2, 7, etc (cf. also Num 11:11; Deut 3:24). Moses was also the first (and supreme) ayb!n` of the early Israelite period (Num 11:17ff; Deut 18:15-18ff); on his role as spokesperson and intermediary between God and the people, cf. especially the tradition in Exod 20:18-21. Just as Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so a servant/prophet like Moses will lead the people in their return from the Exile.
What is clear is that, like Moses, this “servant” will be specially chosen by God to lead, and that the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH will be placed upon him. The spirit-inspired aspect of Moses’ leadership is surprisingly absent from the Pentateuch narratives, but there is at least one important passage where it is emphasized prominently—Numbers 11:10-30, discussed in an earlier note. The ideas expressed in that early tradition seem to relate in some way to the Prophetic theme of the Spirit being given to all the people (v. 29)—to the land and its people as a whole; this will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.
With regard to the poem in Isa 42:1-9, the initial theme in verse 1 is developed through the two main sections (or strophes) in different ways:
- Vv. 1-4—here the focus is on the servant functioning as leader for the people (Israel), establishing justice—i.e., rendering right judgment (fP*v=m!), and setting that pattern throughout the whole society. This justice is based fundamentally upon the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 4b).
- Vv. 5-7—the Instruction given to Israel is aimed at the wider world—the surrounding nations—as well. This cosmic aspect is introduced with an allusion to the Creation in v. 5, including the important motif of the spirit/breath of God that gives life to all people (cf. the prior notes on Gen 1:2 and 2:7; Job 33:4). The “servant” will apparently play a role in extending God’s covenant with Israel out to the surrounding nations.
The opening of the oracle in Isaiah 61 is similar in some ways to that of 42:1-9; however, here there is a decidedly stronger emphasis on the idea of Israel’s return and restoration. The opening lines in verse 1 also speak of the spirit of God being given to a chosen ‘servant’:
“(The) spirit [j^Wr] of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me
in that He has anointed me to bring (good) news to (the) oppressed;
He sent me to provide wrapping for the (one)s broken of heart,
to call out release for (the one)s led away (into bondage)
and an opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)”
Here we find again the theme of justice—especially for the poor and oppressed in society. Only now the role of the spirit-inspired figure is narrowed to that of giving a prophetic announcement. It is proper to refer to this individual as an “anointed herald”, similar in many respects to the “voice” ordered to call out a message of salvation and justice in the initial Deutero-Isaian oracles (chap. 40).
The kingship motif of anointing is present here (cf. the discussion in the previous note), only it has been applied specifically to a prophetic context. Scriptural evidence for the anointing of prophets is quite limited, but it seems to have been a perfectly valid line of symbolism. That there were Messianic (i.e. Anointed) Prophet figure-types in subsequent Jewish tradition is clear enough (cf. Parts 2–3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Indeed, the Anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff is the Messianic figure-type that best fits Jesus during the time of his active ministry, and is the one with which Jesus specifically identified himself, according to the Gospel accounts. The authenticity of this self-identification would seem to be confirmed, on objective grounds, by its multiple attestation in at least two separate Gospel traditions (Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:20-23 [Q], and Luke 4:17-21ff). There is evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of the passage at Qumran (cf. my article on 4Q521).