Isaiah 36-39, part 3
Chapters 36-37, continued
As noted in the previous study, there are three literary set pieces in chapters 36-37, the first of which is the discourse of the Rabshakeh (36:4-20). Each of the pieces can be analyzed at both the historical and the literary level. There is an unquestionable historical core to these traditions, but they also have been developed in a highly creative way, involving a measure of artistic license in their presentation.
In the case of the Rabshakeh section, there is little reason to doubt the general historicity of the scene. The Rabshakeh (Akkadian rab š¹qe) was a government official with diplomatic abilities and experience. The expression literally means something like “great cupbearer” or “chief butler”, but, rather than designating a household servant, it came to be used as the title of a high administrative official. In his mission here, he is a part of a detachment sent to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem. There were several reasons for such a diplomatic overture, not least of which was the possibility of avoiding the cost involved in a long siege. The offer of a peaceful surrender, when rejected, also served as a rationale for the brutal methods of the Assyrians in their conquests. They gave the people the opportunity to accept a peaceful surrender, and thus avoid the horrors of siege and destruction.
The historical episode has been developed into the literary form of a discourse scene, entailing two distinct speeches by the Rabshakeh. These speeches reflect important themes found elsewhere in the book of Isaiah. The principal idea expressed and expounded in the discourse relates to the prophetic message of trust in YHWH. By turning to YHWH, and trusting in him for deliverance, the people of Judah (Jerusalem) may yet be spared the judgment of conquest and exile. In this regard, Jerusalem represents the faithful remnant—those who remain loyal to the covenant with YHWH. Faced with the Assyrian threat, such trust was difficult to maintain, and it was natural for the people (and its leaders) to look for a more practical diplomatic solution. One possibility was to seek an alliance with other nations (Egypt, Babylon), or even to enter into negotiations with Assyria itself.
That is the situation indicated here in the Rabshakeh scene, and, indeed, according to the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16, king Hezekiah was willing to pay off the Assyrians with tribute. The Isaian version does not contain these verses; if the omission is intentional, it may be due to the more important position Hezekiah has in the book of Isaiah. He is closely connected with the “God with us” theme in chapters 6-9 (7:14; 8:8, 10; 9:2-7; cf. 2 Kings 18:7), and features prominently in chapters 36-39 as well. As ruler, he represents the faithful ones among the people, and plays a key role in leading them to prayer and repentance (see below). In a number of the Isaian oracles, the prophet condemns attempts to avoid judgment through establishing diplomatic alliances, relying upon nations such as Egypt for help (e.g., 19:1-15; 28:14-22; 30:1-7), instead of trusting solely in YHWH. The Rabshakeh’s taunt in vv. 4-10 echoes this same criticism.
Another aspect of the taunt that seems to be in accord with the prophetic message is the emphasis on the Assyrian invasion as part of the just judgment decreed by YHWH. Indeed, there are a number of judgment-oracles in the prophets (and in Isaiah) where the conquests by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires are (to be) the means by which God brings judgment upon the people of Israel/Judah. The Rabshakeh declares something very much along this line in the climax of the first part of the taunt (v. 10), when he claims that it is by YHWH’s consent (and command) that Assyria is conquering and destroying the land of Judah.
All of this may be true, ironically so, but the Rabshakeh’s taunt turns insulting (blasphemous) to God in its second half (vv. 12-20). The point of the prophetic message in Isaiah is that, while God brings judgment upon the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, at least a portion of the latter kingdom will be saved—a faithful remnant, represented by the city of Jerusalem and her king Hezekiah. This is the point at odds with the Rabshakeh’s taunt—that Jerusalem is to meet the same fate (conquest/destruction) as the rest of Israel and Judah, and that nothing can be done to prevent this. Reliance upon YHWH (and his chosen king Hezekiah) for salvation is foolish (vv. 14-15). After all, if the gods of the nations that have already been conquered could not save those peoples, how will YHWH save Jerusalem? The concluding mention of Samaria (the northern Israelite kingdom) in verse 20 drives the point home, since they would have trusted in YHWH as well for deliverance (just like Judah/Jerusalem), and yet they were conquered—YHWH was not able to rescue them!
Notice, then, how the historical episode has been shaped especially to fit within the contours of the prophetic message, bringing out theological and moral aspects central to that message—and to that of the book of Isaiah. When faced with the possibility of the coming judgment, the people have two choices: (1) turn to God in trust and repentance, or (2) try to find other means to avert the disaster. The traditional Isaian oracles deal with both of these possibilities, stressing that only the former is a valid option. It is the path taken by Hezekiah in his prayer (37:16-20), and corresponds with the oracle uttered by Isaiah himself that follows in vv. 30-35. The Rabshakeh’s speech, by contrast, leaves only the second option: to avert the disaster by negotiating a surrender with the enemy (Assyria). Apart from the historical circumstances, later generations of Israelites and Jews would recognize the religious and moral implications of this. Even for us today, we can take the passage as a warning against seeking for expedient political solutions to the evils of the world, rather than trusting in God.
The thrust of the Rabshakeh’s taunt is repeated by the Assyrian envoy in 37:10-13 (on the apparent incorporation of parallel accounts and and lines of tradition in chapters 36-37, see the discussion in the previous study). Hezekiah’s prayer comes in response to his reading this message. The prayer in verses 15-20 will be studied in the upcoming Monday Notes on Prayer feature. Next Saturday, we will continue our analysis of the current passage, when we look at the taunt (and oracle) of the prophet Isaiah in vv. 21-35, which stands as an antithetic parallel to the taunt of the Rabshakeh—the word of God in contrast to the message of the world.