Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 2)

Isaiah 36-39, continued

Chapters 36-37

In discussing chapters 36-39 (see last week’s study), the climactic portion of Isaiah 2-39, it was seen how that work neatly breaks into two divisions, with the main narrative occurring in the first half (chaps. 36-37).

The narrative in chapters 36-37 allows for valuable critical analysis—historical-critical, but also text-critical, source-critical, and literary-critical. The main focus must be historical-critical, since the narrative is clearly based on traditions regarding actual historical events—namely the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib in 701 B.C., involving the siege and conquest of a number of cities (in the Assyrian Annals, Sennacherib claims to have captured 46 Judean cities). The Assyrian forces turned back without completing the campaign and capturing Jerusalem. As previously noted, a second version of this same narrative is found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. There are a number of differences (mostly minor) between the two versions; the most notable difference being the lack of any mention of Hezekiah’s initial surrender and payment of tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16) in the Isaian version.

Commentators have noticed the similarities of outline and structure between 36:1-37:8 and 37:9-38, suggesting that these may derive from parallel traditions regarding the same essential historical event. Consider the following points the two sections have in common:

    • The context of Sennacherib’s Judean campaign (36:1ff; 37:8-9)
    • The Assyrian message to the king of Judah, warning of siege and destruction and advising a peaceful surrender (36:4-20; 37:10-13)
    • This message is reported to Hezekiah (36:22; 37:14a)
    • Hezekiah’s response, emphasizing the need for repentance and prayer (37:1, 14b-20)
    • The prophet Isaiah hears of the Assyrian message and the threat to Judah (37:2-6, 21a)
    • Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian invasion will fail and Sennacherib’s army will turn back (37:6-7, 21b-29ff)

The two versions are similar in the general outline, while differing in certain details. That we are dealing with parallel lines of tradition would seem to be confirmed by the different explanations given for how/why Sennacherib’s forces turned back (37:7, 36f). Moreover, at three points the tradition has been developed and expanded: (a) the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt (36:4-20), (b) Hezekiah’s prayer (37:16-20), and (c) the Isaian oracle[s] (37:22-29ff). Without these expanded sections, the two traditional narratives would more closely resemble one another.

It may be possible to trace the process of development with some measure of clarity; a plausible reconstruction is as follows:

Within a generation (i.e., 30 years or so) of the events of 701 B.C., two traditional accounts had taken shape (see above), similar in outline, while differing in certain details. At some point, these two accounts were combined together, to form the narrative of chaps. 36-37 as we have it. The dramatic force of the narrative was enhanced by the three poetic/literary expansions noted above, likely produced through the inclusion of separate traditions; in the case of the Isaian oracle(s) these may well have circulated separately, as in the other collections we have already noted. The final literary shape of chaps. 36-37 is as a continuous narrative, in which the second traditional section now builds upon the first. The Isaian oracles form the climax of the complete narrative, followed by an expanded historical notice regarding the failure of the Assyrian invasion and the death of Sennacherib.

The curious detail of the Nubian king of Egypt in 37:9 serves as the transitional joining point of the two lines of tradition underlying the complete narrative. As presented in the narrative (as we have it), this detail is bit ambiguous and confusing—not to mention anachronistic, since, by all accounts, Tirhaqa did not become king of Egypt until 690. Some commentators have raised the possibility that he may have served as military commander earlier (under king Shebitku), but this is quite uncertain. However the mention of Tirhaqa may be judged historically, it is clear what the literary purpose is within the narrative. The presence of the Egyptian forces (or reports regarding their arrival) prompt the Assyrian king (Sennacherib) to increase the pressure on Hezekiah, pushing for a surrender before any help can be offered from Egypt. This provides the context for a second message to Hezekiah (37:10-13), one which essentially repeats, in summary form, the first message by the Rab-shaqeh.

That chapters 36-37 now represent a single, coherent narrative, is evident from the clear literary and artistic design that pervades  the work. Note, for example, the distinctive symmetry of the narrative:

    • The Assyrian invasion in progress (36:1)
      • The Rab-shaqeh’s Taunt, in two parts (36:4-10, 11-20)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (36:22-37:2ff)
          • Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the invasion (37:6-7)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (37:9-20)
      • Isaiah’s Taunt, an oracle in two parts (37:21-29, 30-35)
    • The failure of the Assyrian invasion (37:36-38)

It may fairly be said that here, as in most literary works within the Old Testament, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Separate traditions regarding the Assyrian invasion of Judah have been melded into a powerful narrative punctuated by contrasting poetic passages (like arias in a musical drama):

    • The Rab-shaqeh’s taunt to Judah, directed to her king (Hezekiah) and officials, which questions the legitimacy of trust in YHWH in the face of the superior military power of Assyria.
    • Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, directed to her king (Sennacherib), declaring the weakness of Assyria’s political and military power in the face of YHWH, the God and protector of His people.

Isaiah’s taunt is part of a larger poetic structure that forms the climactic section of the narrative:

    • 37:15-20: Hezekiah’s prayer, indicating the true repentance and trust/dependence on YHWH that leads to salvation (from judgment)
    • 37:21-29: Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, contrasting the wicked earthly ruler (Sennacherib) with YHWH the Holy One
    • 37:30-35: Isaiah’s prophecy (sign and oracle) regarding the salvation of Jerusalem (and Judah), with YHWH turning back the Assyrian invasion

Having established something of the critical framework for a study of the passage, next week I will proceed to a more detailed examination of the three developed sections within the narrative—the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt, Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Isaiah oracle(s). These sections, taken together within the structure of the narrative, contain the essential message of the passage, both for the original audience in the 7th century B.C. and for us today. It will be worth devoting a brief critical and exegetical study to them.

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