Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27 (continued)

Isaiah 24-27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at the so-called Isaiah “Apocalypse” (chaps. 24-27) from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, along with a short exegesis of the initial poem in 24:1-13. This week we will continue our study with a critical survey of the sections that follow.

Isaiah 24:14-23

It is not immediately clear if these verses belong as part of the earlier poem (vv. 1-13), or are better understood as a separate poetic section of the overall composition. Certainly the eschatological theme of the coming worldwide Judgment continues from the earlier section; however, the abrupt shift to the subject of worldwide praise suggests that the verses ought to be read as a distinct compositional unit. Perhaps it is meant as a contrast to the destruction and desolation of the great cities of the nations. Even as the entire earth is shaken, the faithful ones of God’s people (living in exile) all over the world sing out in praise. This is the two-sided character of the Judgment—destruction for the nations, but salvation for God’s people.

The context of vv. 14-16a is the dispersion of Israelites and Jews among the nations, primarily as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. Quite possibly the central image of the sea (hayy¹m) here is meant to depict the nations in mythological terms, even as the motif would later be used in the book of Revelation. On the cosmological image of the Sea, as representative of the dark chaos of the primeval waters (Gen 1:2), cf. my earlier article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. The reason why there would be praise and singing coming from the “sea” (v. 14), i.e. from the nations, is that, for the faithful ‘remnant’ of God’s people in exile, this Judgment on the nations is a time of salvation. With the oppressive power of the nations broken, Israelites and Judeans will experience God’s deliverance. This rejoicing spans the earth from one end to the other (vv. 15-16a)—the realms of light (°¥rîm) in the East (i.e. where the sun rises) and the distant islands in the West. Quite possibly there is a bit of alliterative wordplay here between b¹°¥rîm (“in the [realm]s of light”) and b®°iyyê hayy¹m (“in [the] islands of the sea”).

Verse 16b poses a difficulty for interpretation. There is certainly a clear contrast intended, between the worldwide praise (of the faithful) in vv. 14-16a and the word of woe (against the faithfuless) in v. 16b-17. However, the point of transition in v. 16b is not entirely clear; the text reads:

“And (yet) I said: r¹zî-lî, r¹zî-lî!

The difficulty lies in the word r¹zî (yz]r*, doubled in exclamation along with (we may assume) the suffixed preposition (yl], “to me, for me”). The Greek Septuagint (LXX) omits the words in translation, perhaps an indication that the translator simply did not understand the meaning (such translation omissions can be found elsewhere in Old Testament poetry). Commentators and translators have typically derived it from the root r¹zâ (“be[come] thin, weak”), in which case the meaning of the exclamation could be something like “weakness for me!”, i.e. “I grow weak!”. Perhaps the sense is that, while God’s people around the world rejoice, the prophet is burdened by the realization that the faithless ones (among God’s people) will face judgment together with the other nations.

While the LXX does not translate r¹zî, other old Greek versions (Lucianic, Symmachus, Theodotion) understand it to be the Aramaic noun r¹z (zr*, “secret”) with first person singular suffix (i.e., “my secret”), and in this the Greek versions are followed by the Syriac and the Latin Vulgate translation. The sense would then be that, in the face of the worldwide rejoicing, the prophet holds a secret regarding the judgment that faces the faithless/disloyal ones among God’s people. If the exclamation does derive from the Aramaic r¹z (a Persian loanword, Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:6), then it would provide further confirmation that the section was composed in the Persian period (no earlier than the mid-6th century); on the historical-critical question, see the discussion in the previous study.

The restatement of the coming Judgment in vv. 17-20 provides another example of intertextuality in these chapters, apparently drawing upon earlier prophetic oracles and Scripture texts. We note, for example, the similarity between verse 18 and Jeremiah 48:43-44 (see Amos 5:18-20); or, again, how the opening of the windows in the high places alludes to the narrative of the great Flood (Gen 7:11; 8:2). These references indicate a blending of two Scriptural traditions: (1) the “Day of YHWH” in the prophetic nation-oracles, and (2) the great Flood; both motifs are used to express the idea of God’s judgment on the entire world at the end of the current Age (described dramatically in vv. 19-20). Subsequent Jewish and early Christian eschatology would make extensive use of the same two lines of tradition.

Verses 21-23 form a curious appendix to the poem(s) of chapter 24, and may be the product of a later editor. The heavenly entities (“armies of [the] high places [i.e. heaven]”), including the sun and moon, are set parallel with the kings of the nations on earth. From the standpoint of Israelite monotheism (in its more developed form), the worship of divine powers (deities) in the sky, sun, and moon, etc, by the Canaanites and other peoples, was a mark of wickedness and false religion—entailing a refusal to recognize YHWH as the (one) true God. In the great day of Judgment, YHWH will punish the nations together with the deities they worship (in the sun and moon, etc).

The basic idea has to do with the dissolution of the universe at the end of the current Age, especially as this is manifested in the heavenly places (of the sky); on the same eschatological imagery elsewhere in Isaiah, see 34:2ff. Possibly the motif of imprisoning the divine powers in a deep pit draws on a separate line of tradition (regarding heavenly beings [angels] who rebelled against God), similar in certain respects with accounts of war among the deities in ancient Near Eastern cosmological myths. Jewish apocalyptic literature would make much use of this tradition, and it also features prominently in the book of Revelation, including the specific idea of the wicked powers being held in prison for a long period of time before their final punishment (v. 22, Revelation 20:1-10).

Isaiah 25:1-26:6

The brief reference to praise in 24:14-16a (see above) is given much fuller treatment in chapter 25, where we find a poem of praise and thanksgiving to YHWH, composed in three main parts. The poem, and its components, emphasizing the faithfulness of God and the salvation He brings to His people, draws upon a good number of Scriptural and prophetic traditions, including a range of Isaian motifs. Compared with chapter 24, it is not so clearly eschatological in orientation; indeed, it shares much in common with a number of the Old Testament Psalms. A critical study of this section also reveals a more complex compositional setting; this may be noted by a survey of the three sections:

    • 25:1-5: A psalm, following in the Isaian tradition, which identifies (and characterizes) a great city of the nations, (to be) destroyed in the Judgment, as an oppressor of God’s people
    • [25:6-8: Refrain on the (eschatological) feast to be held on the mountain of God]
    • 25:9-12: Stanza 1 on the day of Judgment (“on that day…”)
      the great city (with its walls, etc) will be brought down to ruin
    • 26:1-6: Stanza 2 on the day of Judgment (“on that day…”)
      the fallen city will be taken over by the people of Israel/Judah

Complicating this picture are the lines on the eschatological feast (25:6-8) and the specific reference to Moab in vv. 10b-12—both of which seem to be intrusive to the remainder of the poem in its overall context.

The eschatological feast, at its core, represents a development of the ritual meal that marked the ratification of the covenant between God and Israel (see Exod 24:9-11), which took place on the mountain where God dwelt. The communal meal, with its sacrificial aspects, during the great pilgrimage festivals (e.g., Passover, Sukkot/Booths) draws upon a similar line of covenant-symbolism (compare Isa 55:1-3). It was only fitting that, at the end of the current Age, following the Judgment, the salvation of God’s people would be celebrated, in grand style, by a similar meal. Actually, the meal itself is mentioned only in verse 6; the emphasis in vv. 7-8 is on the New Age that is ushered in for God’s people, an Age in which suffering and sorrow will be eliminated. This suffering is the result of death, primarily (i.e. the motif of the mourning shroud), but also of the oppression and opposition Israel faces from the surrounding nations; this, too, has come to an end. All of it takes place on the mountain of God, a reference to the city of Jerusalem, cast in mythological/cosmological terms (see Isa 2:2-4).

The mention of Moab in vv. 10b-12 is more difficult to explain; it appears to be a holdover of the nation-oracles in chaps. 13-23 (see chs. 15-16), but is otherwise quite out of place in chaps. 24-27 where the emphasis is on all the nations of the world in a collective sense. Perhaps “Moab” serves as a cypher for Babylon here, much as “Edom” would for Rome among Jews of a later time. Certainly Babylon and Moab are closely connected in the Isaian nation oracles (chaps. 13-14, 15-16), and Moab was a traditional enemy of Israel, notorious especially from the episode in Numbers 25 (involving idolatry and immorality). Since the emphasis in Isa 25 is on the destruction of a great city of the nations, the insertion of Moab suggests that it represents either (1) Babylon as the wicked city, or (2) the cities of the nations (in their wickedness) as a whole.

The remainder of this survey will continue (and conclude) in next week’s study, where we will also consider the various critical aspects of chaps. 24-27 as a whole.

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