Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 1)

Isaiah 36-39

These Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah conclude with an examination of chapters 36-39, the closing portion of the main book (so-called First Isaiah) covering chaps. 2-39. That book is comprised of four divisions, each of which conceivably could have circulated as a separate document, prior to being included as part of chaps. 1-39. There is also evidence, discussed at various points in these studies, that each division has, at its core, authentic Isaian traditions—oracles, poems, and historical-biographical material—from the 8th century B.C. The core Isaian material was developed over the course of time, forming the division-documents as we have them, a process that likely extended into the 6th century.

Even though each of the divisions is a significant literary work in its own right, having undergone a distinctive development, it is noteworthy that, in the overall framework of chapters 1-39, they are arranged in chronological order. That is to say, the authentic Isaian traditions, within each division, appear to be in chronological order, covering the period c. 740-701 B.C. This may be demonstrated as follows:

    • Division 1: Chapters 2-12
      Core Isaian material: 6:1-9:7[6], within the wider setting of chaps. 5-10
      Historical focus: The Syro-Ephramaite conflict, 734-732 B.C., with the Assyrian campaigns into the Northern kingdom (under Tiglath-Pileser III).
    • Division 2: Chapters 13-27
      Core Isaian material: the nation oracles throughout chaps. 14-20ff
      Historical focus: Events during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), which would be confirmed particularly if the theory is correct that the “king of Babylon” in chap. 14 is to be identified with Sargon.
    • Division 3: Chapters 28-35
      Core Isaian material: the oracles of warning, judgment, etc, in chaps. 28-33
      Historical focus: Events leading up to the Assyrian invasion of Judah by Sennacherib (704-681) in 701 B.C.
    • Division 4: Chapters 36-39
      Core Isaian material: the historical traditions in these chapters (esp. chaps. 36-37)
      Historical focus: The Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.

All of this is important for a proper understanding of chapters 36-39 and their place within the overall framework of the book. The invasion of 701 B.C., and the siege of Jerusalem, represents the climactic moment of the book, and anchors the message throughout. This is so even in terms of the apparent application of the Isaian material to the Babylonian period of the late-7th and 6th centuries B.C. (including the exilic period). Just as God saved Jerusalem from conquest and destruction, so he will also save a “remnant” of his people in the future, protecting those who trust in him, and eventually restoring them from their time of exile. Throughout chapters 1-39, this is expressed through the historical message of the prophet Isaiah—to the northern and southern kingdoms both—alternately declaring judgment and salvation for the people. Salvation is focused on Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah; insofar as the king (and people) are faithful, trusting in YHWH, they will be saved from destruction and conquest.

Chapters 36-39 are unique among the divisions of the book in that they are comprised almost entirely of Isaian historical traditions (clearly stemming from the prophet’s own time), with relatively little development. More accurately, one can trace most of the development to a relatively narrow period of time, extending into the mid-7th century, not all that long after the death of Sennacherib (in 681). The main focus of our study is thus historical-critical—that is, the relationship of these traditions to the historical events they purport to record, during the years c. 703-701.

It is also significant that there is a second version of this same material found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. This has led to various explanations: (a) Isaiah borrowed from Kings, (b) Kings borrowed from the book of Isaiah, or (c) each version is dependent upon a separate source document. In my view, the latter option is more likely; and, if correct, this would provide support for the theory (see above) that the four divisions of Isa 2-39 may have originally circulated as separate written works. This means there is an important source-critical component to any study of chaps. 36-39 (as indeed of the parallel version in Kings). The same historical traditions serve a different purpose, in the context of the books of Isaiah and Kings, respectively.

The parallel versions also are significant from a text-critical perspective. Textual variants between the two, while generally minor, have to be considered, if only to determine what role they play in the distinctive treatment (and/or development) of this material in the book of Isaiah. The two major differences between the Isaian and Kings versions are:

    • Isaiah does not include the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16 of Hezekiah’s surrender and the tribute paid to Assyria
    • The psalm (attributed to Hezekiah) in Isa 38:9-20 does not occur in 2 Kings.

It makes sense to divide this material between chapters 36-37 and 38-39, and I will be devoting a study to each, over the next two weeks. Even though chaps. 38-39 are presented after chaps. 36-37, it is clear that, at the historical level, the events described in them must have taken place earlier—c. 703 B.C., a couple of years (or more) before the invasion of 701.

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