Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (1): Isa 27:1

Isaiah 27:1

These notes are supplemental to the recent Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah, and the so-called Isaian “Apocalypse” of chaps. 24-27. The past three studies have offered a critical overview of these fascinating chapters, with introductory analysis of the main poems. As it was not possible to treat the material with detailed exegesis in those articles, I felt it would be good to devote several notes to a more in-depth critical examination of the last thirteen verses (27:1-13). This will allow for a demonstration of how critical methods and theories, for example, relate to a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis.

In the most recent study, I outlined the structure of 26:7-27:6, which I give again here:

    • Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
      • Exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment (vv. 12-13)
    • Part 2—Contrast between the fate of the righteous and wicked (vv. 14-19)
      • Exhortation for God’s people in the face of the coming judgment (vv. 20-21)
    • Stanza 1 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, 27:1)
    • Stanza 2 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, vv. 2-5)
    • Closing refrain—Israel’s restoration (v. 6)

The same pattern is found in 25:1-26:6 and the final section 27:7-13, and would seem to function as a thematic and poetic structuring principle for the composition as a whole.

Isa 27:1 is the first of the two “day of YHWH” stanzas, each of which involves the expression “in/on that day” (bayyôm hahû° aWhh^ <oYB^)—the “day” referring to  the Prophetic tradition of the “day of YHWH”, a time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment upon a particular nation or people. In the eschatological orientation of the Isaian “Apocalypse”, however, this day becomes a time when God will judge all of the nations together, at the end of the current Age. In this first stanza, the focus is on the judgment against the nations, while in the second, it is the people of Israel who are in view.

“On that day, YHWH will make a visit,
with His hard, great, and strong sword,
upon Liwyatan (the) fleeing snake,
even upon Liwyatan (the) twisting snake,
and He shall slay the monster that is in the Sea.”

This is one of the few examples in the Old Testament where ancient Semitic cosmological myth has been preserved. Stripped almost completely out of the Genesis Creation account, such language and imagery survives only in the older poetry, or in poems which intentionally draw upon ancient/archaic motifs. This use of cosmological myth can be glimpsed in the structure of the stanza here, in which the message is expressed through the joining of the last line to the first two:

“On that day, YHWH will make a visit,
with His hard, great, and strong sword…
and He shall slay the monster that is in the Sea.”

The first two lines, as a single poetic couplet, declare the coming Judgment, following the traditional “day” of YHWH motif (cf. above). The verb used here is p¹qa¼ (dq^P*), one of the most difficult in all the Old Testament to translate consistently, there being no viable English equivalent for its semantic range. It frequently connotes the activity of an authority figure functioning in a supervisory role—inspection, making appointments, administration of authority, rendering judgment/justice, and so forth; sometimes it is a specific military context (i.e. marshaling troops, etc) that is in view. Clearly, the context here is that of the (end-time) Judgment delivered by God upon humankind, with both its judicial and military aspects. For this purpose YHWH will “visit” the earth carrying his sword of Judgment—a sword characterized by three attributes: “hard” (q¹šeh), “great” (g¹¼ôl), and “strong” (µ¹z¹q). This indicates the severity and completeness of the Judgment. The same verb occurs a number of times elsewhere in the “Apocalypse”, and is a distinctive part of the vocabulary of the nation-oracle division of the book (chaps. 13-27)—cf. 13:4, 11; 23:17; 24:21-22; 26:14, 16, 21; 27:3.

This Judgment is expressed symbolically with the image of God slaying “the monster that is in the Sea”. The word rendered loosely as “monster” is t¹nnîn (/yN]T*), of uncertain derivation; the use of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament indicates a dangerous or powerful creature, typically in snake or serpentine form. The Egyptian setting in Ezek 29:3 suggests a crocodile; however, in passages such as Isa 27:1 (cp. Psalm 74:13), the reference is to a mythical sea-monster, drawn from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. This is confirmed by the two-fold mention of Liwyatan here in lines 3 and 4. Customarily transliterated in English as “Leviathan”, the Hebrew word liwy¹¾¹n (/t*y`w+l!) itself preserves a much older Semitic term, the exact meaning of which may well have been lost for Hebrew speakers in the 6th century B.C.

The reference here (and in Psalm 74:14; cf. also Job 40:25) would have remained obscure to us, if not for the discovery of the 14th century B.C. Canaanite texts from Ugarit. This same Liwy¹¾¹n (L£t¹n¥) is mentioned in the Ugaritic texts; in the cosmological Baal ‘Epic’ (III.3.41-42; V.1.1-2), it is the name of a “twisting” Snake-like figure (with seven heads) associated with the primeval Sea (personified, Yamm). The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), though in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister, and by Anat’s identity as a kind of personification of battle.

Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea. In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu. The same expressions “twisting serpent” and “fleeing serpent” occur here in Isa 27:1 (only with the root nµš instead of b¾n for “snake/serpent”). The same pairing of liwy¹¾¹n and t¹nnîn is also found in Isa 27:1 (and in Psalm 73:13-14). All of this confirms that the imagery in Isa 27:1 derives from ancient Near Eastern (Canaanite) cosmological myth.

In the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the primeval waters (“Sea”) represented the state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order (by God). It was viewed as a dark, watery mass, characterized by unformed chaos and confusion (cf. Gen 1:2). However, in cosmological myth, the (Creator) deity defeats or subdues this chaos, imagined as a battle against terrible monsters. In the case of the Canaanite deity Baal-Haddu, associated with the storm and rains, the “defeat” of the Sea meant that he had control over the life giving waters that surround the universe. The defeat of the Sea by El-Yahweh is not part of the Creation Account in Genesis, but it does feature at several points in the Psalms and other Old Testament poetry. For more on this “Conflict with the Sea” myth, cf. my earlier article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

The imagery was also used to express God’s judgment against certain nations, especially those who brought destruction and chaos through their wickedness and violent conquests. This association (Sea—Nations) is best known from Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic (cf. throughout the book of Revelation, esp. chapters 12-18), but its roots are found in the nation-oracles of the 7th-6th century Prophets. The most common allusion connects the sea-monster (t¹nnîn) with Egypt—cf. Ezek 29:3; 32:2, and note also Isa 30:7 (raha», another name for the sea-monster, cp. 51:9; Psalm 87:4). The association with Egypt is probably due to the motif of crocodiles in the Nile river (cf. above). However, the mention of Egypt at the close of Isa 27 (vv. 12-13) raises the possibility that the mythical sea-monster (t¹nnîn) in v. 1 is also an allusion to Egypt (Roberts, p. 337f).

In my view, 27:1 is not to be connected directly with vv. 7-13, but with the earlier poem in 26:7ff, and the references here to the sea-monster (liwy¹¾¹n and t¹nnîn) are best understood as symbolic of all the wicked nations (together), and of the Judgment God brings upon them. I have already noted, in the prior studies, how chaps. 24-27 make use of imagery and motifs from the primeval history (including the Creation account), and that the “conflict with the Sea” myth here relates to the primeval condition of the universe in Gen 1:2 (note the use of the keyword tœhû in Isa 24:10). The end of the current Age will be like its beginning—dissolving into darkness and disorder. This is due to the wickedness of the nations, but also to the devastating Judgment God brings upon them. Only after the Judgment, can the New Age begin.


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