Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (4): Isa 27:7-11

Isaiah 27:7-11

Isa 27:7-13 represents the final section of the “Apocalypse” of chaps. 24-27. It is to be viewed as a distinct unit, and the third of three eschatological poems which follow a common pattern: a main poem, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. The only question is whether verse 6 should properly be considered the beginning of this poem or the conclusion of the one prior (26:7ff). I prefer to view it as the conclusion of the earlier poem (see the previous note), though an argument can certainly be made for its inclusion as part of vv. 7-13. The scribe of the Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) appears to have regarded verse 6 as the start of a new section, based on how he spaced the text.

Commentators have found some difficulty interpreting this poem, due to the way that it seems to shift suddenly—from a discussion of Israel (Jacob) in vv. 7-9 to that of an unidentified city in vv. 10-11. I would say that the opening couplet in verse 7 provides the key; though stated elliptically, there is a definite juxtaposition between God’s judgment on His people and that of the other nations (esp. those who oppressed/conquered Israel):

“Was (His) striking him like the striking of (the ones who) struck him?
Is he slain like (the) slaying of (the one) slaying (him)?”

God struck his people with judgment (i.e. conquest/exile), but has also struck (or will strike) those who attacked and conquered Israel (Assyria/Babylon). The Hebrew syntax is very difficult; each line has three component words, the one in the first position being a construct noun (with) preposition. The verbal forms in the second and third positions create problems with establishing the construct chain of relationship. Adding to the difficulty of translation is the fact that all three words in each line are cognate—two roots are involved:

    • Line 1—n¹kâ (hk*n`), “strike”
    • Line 2—h¹rag (gr^h*), “slay”

This duality reflect two aspects of judgment: (1) the initial blow that “strikes” the people, and (2) the result of (many of) the people being killed (“slain”, implying a military attack).

“In driving her, in sending her, He contended with her,
He removed her with His hard wind, in (the) day of q¹¼îm;
based on this, (the) crookedness of Ya’aqob will be wiped (away),
and (with) this, all (the) fruit—(the) turning (away) of his sin.” (vv. 8-9a)

The language in these lines is most difficult, and any translation must be considered tentative at best. Three different verbs are used in the first line, the first of which is quite uncertain. It may mean something like “measure”, related to the word s®°â (ha*s=); however, other commentators suggest a root meaning “drive along/away”, based on the Arabic sa°sa°. I tentatively follow this latter option, as providing a better parallel to the wind-motif in the second line. Another difficulty is the apparent 2nd person verb form t®rnâ (“you contended with her”), which is otherwise out of place in this section; most commentators opt for emending to a 3rd person form (“He [i.e. YHWH] contended with her”), even without any clear textual support for this (from the Qumran scrolls or the ancient versions). The gender shift from feminine suffixes (v. 8) to masculine (v. 9) is also confusing, though not unfrequent in ancient Hebrew poetry (for a similar use of the feminine, see the previous note on verse 6).

The first couplet in v. 8 refers to the Exile, especially vivid with the imagery of harsh east wind blowing, driving the people away (into exile). I left the noun q¹dîm (<yd!q*) untranslated above; technically, it refers to the east-wind (i.e. qdm as alluding to the eastern direction). The root properly refers to something in front, that meets (or strikes) a person; in English idiom, we might speak of something “hitting you in the face”, which would be appropriate here, since the primary image is that of people receiving a blast from the powerful (and hot) eastern wind. This “wind” (rûaµ j^Wr, also meaning “breath” and “spirit”) symbolizes God’s action—the divine judgment that comes upon Israel (and Judah) in the form of a devastating military invasion. By this, YHWH “contends” (vb rî» byr!) with Israel on account of her sins.

Yet, in the case of His people, this divine judgment has a redemptive purpose—it serves to “wipe off/out” (vb k¹¸ar rp^K*) their crookedness (twistedness/perversion) and to “turn away” (vb sûr rWs) their sin. This idea reflects a common theme in the 7th-6th century Prophets: that there will be a faithful “remnant” left following the judgment. However, depending on the precise dating of this poem (see below), it is possible that the message here is meant as a warning to Judah, so that it might yet avert the same kind of punishment experienced by the northern kingdom. More likely, the reference is more general, referring to the return of the people (Israel and Judah) from exile; the removal of all idolatry and wickedness represents part of Israel’s restoration.

Imagery associated with Canaanite religion syncretism—i.e., worship of Canaanite deities along with YHWH—is used to depict wickedness and false religion in traditional terms that would certainly have been familiar to readers/hearers in the 7th-6th centuries. The destruction of pagan altars and the removal of Asherah-images (v. 9b) follows the Deuteronomic prescription—Deut 7:5; 12:13 (see also Exod 32:20; 34:13), etc—and the corresponding reform under Josiah (2 Kings 23:15 par). Thus the land of Israel in the period of restoration will be purged and free from idolatry.

The scene in verse 10-11 suddenly shifts from Israel to an otherwise unnamed “city”. This is best understood in light of the contrast between the judgment on God’s own people (which is redemptive) and the judgment on the other wicked nations (which results in total destruction). Thus the city in vv. 10-11 is similar to the devastated “city of confusion” in 24:10ff; note also the contrast with the secure, fortified city (of the righteous) in 26:1-6. Probably Babylon is most directly in view here, but functioning also as a representative figure-type for the cities of all the nations. The fall of Babylon, with its great city left desolate and in ruin, served as a powerful symbol in the exilic period—one which would last for many centuries (see esp. the use of the imagery in the book of Revelation).

The description in verse 10 begins:

“For the fenced [i.e. fortified] city (is left) alone,
a habitation (with people) sent away, and left (empty)”

The city is desolate and empty, the use of passive forms of the verbs š¹laµ (“send”) and ±¹za» (“leave”) specifically connoting the deprivation of any people—i.e., no one is left living in it. It becomes a pasture (play on the word n¹weh, translated “habitation” above) where animals graze and feed. The branches of once fertile trees and plants have become dry/withered and fallen off; they serve as kindling for the fire of the great Judgment (vv. 10b-11a).

“It [i.e. the city] has no discernment,
(and) for this (reason) the (One) making it has no care for it,
(and) the (One) forming it will show it no favor.” (v. 11b)

This lack of discernment/understanding (bînâ) is frequently brought as a charge against God’s own people Israel in the prophetic oracles of judgment. Here, however, the context suggests that we are dealing with the other nations, viewed collectively as a single “city”. Given the specific juxtaposition in verse 7 (see above), this should be understood primarily as a reference to the conquering empire-states of Assyria and Babylon (the latter being the more direct point of reference). God shows mercy to His people, even in the time of judgment, since the conquest/exile has a redemptive purpose (see above), with a restored people returning from exile into a New Age. By contrast, in the great Judgment against the nations, YHWH will show no mercy—the great City (of the nations) will be utterly ruined and destroyed, ultimately being consumed by fire.

Certain details and points of emphasis in the poem raise the possibility that it stems from a setting in which the Babylonian conquest of Judah (the southern kingdom) has not yet taken place. This could mean a date anywhere from the late 8th to the early 6th century. Some commentators (such as J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia [Fortress Press: 2015]) would date the entirety of chapters 24-27 to the late 7th or early 6th century, prior to the fall of Jerusalem (587). While this is possible, a time-frame more firmly in the mid-6th century seems to me more likely. Indeed, I would say that the final shaping of chaps. 13-27, as a whole, is best located in the mid-6th century, sometime prior to the fall of Babylon (539).

This will be discussed further in the next (and final note) of this set, as we consider the two “Day of YHWH” stanzas in verses 12-13.

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