Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 4)

Isaiah 36-37, continued

The traditional narrative of Isaiah 36-37 (on which, see the previous two studies) concludes with an oracle by Isaiah (37:21-35). Actually, it would be more accurate to describe this section as a construct of Isaian material, containing several distinct pieces of tradition. The material may be divided as follows:

    • The narrative tradition in verse 21, which also may be viewed as transitional, joining Hezekiah’s prayer (discussed in a recent note), to the oracle(s) that follow.
    • A judgment oracle (vv. 22-29), directed as a taunt against the king of Assyria (Sennacherib), functioning in the narrative as a parallel to the taunt by the Assyrian official (the Rabshakeh, 36:4-20).
    • A sign oracle (vv. 30-32), indicating that the kingdom of Judah will survive the Assyrian invasion
    • An oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance for Jerusalem and Judah (vv. 33-35)

It is worth looking at the three main oracle portions in some detail, with an eye on the different critical aspects as they relate to each.

The judgment-oracle (verses 22-29)

When considering this Isaian material, we cannot ignore the importance of textual criticism, with the goal of establishing the original text (as far as that is possible), taking into account any meaningful textual variants or differences. As it happens, for chapters 36-39, text-critical study comes from two directions: (1) examination of the major manuscripts and versions, especially the Dead Sea MSS (and the great Qumran Isaiah Scroll [1QIsaa]); and (2) comparison with the parallel version in 2 Kings 18-20. The differences between the Masoretic text [MT] and the Isaiah Scroll are of the most significance, particularly for the oracle in verses 22-29. A number of the readings in the Isaiah Scroll are perhaps to be preferred (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 467-8), and several will be noted below.

In terms of form and genre criticism, these verses can be referred to as a nation-oracle—that is, an oracle of judgment against a particular nation, given in a poetic (or quasi-poetic) form. Such nation-oracles occur throughout the Old Testament Prophets, and are frequent in the book of Isaiah (there is a concentration of them in chapters 13-27). However, here we have a special sub-genre of the nation-oracle: a message of judgment directed specifically against the king or ruler of the nation. Verses 22-25, in particular, represent one of the oldest such examples we have, being roughly contemporary with the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see the earlier study on this passage). As the king of a mighty conquering power, he comes to be the working symbol for the wickedness and arrogance, the worldly ambition and oppression, of the people as a whole. Moreover, it is the king who, in the ancient Near Eastern religious thought, was supposed to embody deity and the manifestation of divine power on earth. Thus, a great world ruler tended (and was expected) to act something like a god on earth; for the Israelite Prophetic tradition, this gross ambition and pretension to deity was more than ample reason for condemnation. This oracle against Sennacherib, along with the oracle in 14:4-21, provides the earliest instances of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Scriptures (Ezekiel 28:1-19 is another notable example). The motif reaches its peak in the book of Daniel, where the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes is clearly in view. It was through the book of Daniel that this motif would exert a profound influence on the early Antichrist tradition.

The oracle itself begins (v. 22 = 2 Ki 19:21) with a taunt from the city of Jerusalem, which would have been the next target of siege warfare by the Assyrians in their conquest of Judah. Jerusalem is personified as a young girl, a “virgin daughter”. Such scorn and derision coming from a woman would have been particularly galling and shameful for a (male) warrior, especially in terms of ancient Near Eastern cultural standards. The reason for the derision is that Sennacherib’s planned conquest of Jerusalem is doomed to failure, and so the “daughter” has nothing to fear from it. The would-be power and invincibility of the Assyrian empire, as expressed through the king’s ambition for further conquest, is the target of the taunt in verse 23ff (= 2 Ki 19:22ff):

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your servants you treated the Lord with scorn, and said:
‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 23-24)

The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself. The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). This same imagery is found in the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see above). The Mountain where God dwells is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹da±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (Š®°ôl)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak). God’s response to this worldly ambition and quest for power is harsh indeed (vv. 26-29). YHWH emphasizes, first, that the Assyrian successes and military conquests are part of His own plan, devised (and allowed) by Him:

“Have you not heard (how)
from a far-off place I have done it,
shaped it from (the) fore(most) days,
(and) now I have made it come (to pass):
(that) they should be (made) to crash (into) heaps,
(these) guarded (and) inaccessible cities,
and (the one)s sitting (in) them short of hand,
broken and (fill)ed with shame!”

This is a powerful (and accurate) description of the Assyrian conquests, and their effect upon the devastated population. Even the carefully guarded (read 1QIsaa n®ƒûrîm instead of MT niƒƒîm) and inaccessible cities (that is, raised on a hill/tell with walled fortifications) have succumbed to the siege warfare of the Assyrians. The fall of Lachish (see the notice in 36:1-2) is famously depicted on wall-reliefs from the palace of Nineveh (now in the British Museum, see below).

Jerusalem is another such raised walled city, and it would have been the next target of Sennacherib, and the climax of his Judean campaign. The horrors of siege warfare are implied in the closing lines of verse 27, along with the sense of helplessness among the population. The exact idiom used is “short of hand”, meaning without any strength or power—certainly with no way of defending oneself through physical or military means. The experience of siege and conquest leaves a people completely broken (µattû) and filled with shame (bœšû). This same idea is further expressed through agricultural imagery, comparing the people to the grass that is “scorched before the (hot) east wind” (following the reading of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll).

It is the very fact that the Assyrian conquests were predetermined by God, according to His own purpose, that their current intention to conquer Jerusalem is doomed to fail. YHWH declares to Sennacherib that “I know your standing (up) and your sitting down” (reading of 1QIsaa), “your going out and your coming (in)” —that is to say, everything the king says or does. God is also aware of the rage and the arrogance (again following the reading of 1QIsaa) that is essentially directed at Him by the Assyrian. In claiming that the God of Judah is unable to protect Jerusalem from conquest, Sennacherib has wedded his own arrogance (and divine pretension) to the cruel violence of his attacks. Those boasts are primarily what Hezekiah set before YHWH in the Temple, serving as the basis for his prayer—an appeal for God to defend His own honor in the face of an earthly ruler, a wicked tyrant. Ultimately, God’s response to Sennacherib is that He will turn back the Assyrian invasion, leading the king about (like an animal) with a ‘hook in his nose’, forcing him back on the path from which he came (v. 29).

The sign-oracle (vv. 30-32)

The oracle of judgment is followed by a sign (°ô¾) given by the prophet, to the effect that the kingdom of Judah will not be completely conquered or destroyed. A time factor is involved, making this tradition parallel with that of 7:14-16, set during an earlier Assyrian crisis (c. 734-732 B.C.). The point of the sign-message is that the kingdom of Judah (and the regions around Jerusalem) will recover, though not without considerable devastation to the land. Within three years, the people will be able to resume normal agricultural activity—effective planting and harvesting, without any further disruption or threat of invasion from Assyria. This is part of a wider Isaian theme—the faithful remnant that finds salvation and restoration—which would be developed considerably throughout the formation of the book (and its divisions) as a whole. This idea of a “remnant” is expressed here through the verb š¹°ar (“remain, be left over”), used as a substantive (passive) verbal noun— “the (ones) remaining”. This collective group is also referred to as “(the ones) escaping of [i.e. from] the house of Judah”. Thus, there will be a remnant, a residue of Judah that will be saved, spared from destruction, conquest, and exile by Assyria; and this remaining group of those saved will be centered on the capital city of Jerusalem (and its Temple). This conceptual imagery would have a powerful influence on the development of the Isaian traditions over a number of generations.

The oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance (verses 33-35)

The message and themes of the two previous oracles are repeated and confirmed in these closing verses, stating the promise of deliverance for the city of Jerusalem (and the failure of the Assyrian invasion) in no uncertain terms. Some critical commentators have raised the possibility that, in an earlier form and version of this material, verses 33-35 followed immediately after verse 22, thus forming the substance of God’s response delivered through the prophet Isaiah. According to this critical view (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 476-8), the oracle-material in vv. 23-32 is secondary in nature, having been inserted into the narrative from an earlier source. It is certainly possible that any (or all) of the oracles here in vv. 23-35 may have once circulated separately, or as part of different collections; beyond this, any detailed reconstructions of how chapters 36-37 were formed must remain speculative and hypothetical.

To be sure, the message in vv. 33-35 gives a more direct response to Hezekiah and the people of Judah, regarding the Assyrian threat and whether YHWH would rescue them from destruction. Compared with the poetic and rhetorical flourishes of the prior oracle-material, the poetry here is rather simple and direct:

“He shall not come into this city,
and shall not (even) cast an arrow there;
and he shall not go in front of her (with) shield(s),
and shall (certainly) not pour upon her (with) ladder(s)!
(But) in the path (by) which he came, he shall turn (back) in it,
and into this city he shall (certainly) not come!”

There will be no attack, no siege works set up against the city, and, as a result the invader (Sennacherib) certainly will not enter the city itself. This is not necessarily incompatible with Sennacherib’s own boast (in the Assyrian annals) that he shut up Hezekiah in the city “like a bird in a cage”. The Assyrian forces may have set up an initial blockade, preliminary to a full-fledged siege of the city. In any case, it is clear that the invasion ultimately failed and the Assyrian forces returned home without completing the conquest of Judah. Two different explanations for this appear to be preserved in the narrative (compare 37:7 with v. 36f); this will be discussed a bit further in the next study.

Ultimately, the essence of the prophetic message—both in chapters 36-37, and in terms of the book of Isaiah as a whole—is summarized and distilled in the closing lines of the oracle (v. 35), where YHWH speaks directly to His people:

“I will give protection over this city, to bring salvation (to) her,
in response to my (own will) and in response to David my servant.”

The seeds of the future Messianic hope are present here, and an early form of this line of interpretation can be found throughout the development of the Isaian traditions in the generations following the events of 701 B.C. In particular, the so-called deutero-Isaian poems (in chapters 40-55ff) would build heavily upon this thematic matrix, producing prophetic oracles which would extend the idea of salvation and restoration of God’s people to their return from Exile (in the 6th century) and beyond.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *