Note on the Text of Isaiah 38:15-17

The text of Isaiah 38:15-17

(notes related to the Saturday Series study on Isaiah 38-39)

The Masoretic text of verse 15 reads (in translation):

“What shall I speak?
He has said to me, and has done (it)
I shall walk about[?] all my years,
upon [i.e. because of] (the) bitterness of my soul.”

The reading of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) differs at several points, and many scholars would adopt these, in order to make better sense of the lines. In the first two lines, best treated as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2), the Isaiah Scroll apparently has “and I said to my(self)”, instead of “and he said to me”. This would yield the following triplet, which I translate as:

“What shall I speak?
(so) I say to my(self),
(for) He has done (it)!”

It has the advantage of bringing out more clearly the emphatic position of the pronoun “He” (referring to YHWH) in the third line of the triplet. In the final two lines (the couplet) of verse 15, there is a difference in the verb form. The MT has hdda, vocalized as a reflexive imperfect form of the root hd*D*, “walk about (slowly)”; while 1QIsaa has hdwda, which may be a form of the separate root ddn (“move away, wander [off]”). In addition, some commentators (e.g., Blenkinsopp, Roberts) regard MT yt^onv= (“my years“) as a corruption (or mispointing) of yt!n`v@ (or yt!onv=), “my sleep“. If correct, then the first line of the couplet would be translated something like “I wander (restless in) all my sleep(ing)”. Roberts, however (p. 482), suggests that the verb form is better parsed as a third person feminine ‘Ithpael form, a sign of early Aramaic influence; the verb would thus agree with “my sleep”, and result in an even clearer line: “all my sleep went away (from me)”. If we adopt this interpretation, along with the emendations noted above, the verse as a whole would read:

“What shall I speak?
(so) I say to my(self),
(for) He has done (it)!
All my sleep went away
upon (this) bitterness of my soul.”

The situation in verse 16 is also difficult. The MT reads (in translation):

“My Lord, upon them [m.] they will live,
and for all in them [f.] (the) life of my spirit,
and (so) you will make me firm and bring me life.”

This appears quite unintelligible, and may be a sign that our received text is corrupt. The readings of the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 1QIsab differ somewhat, but provide little clarity on the matter. Any attempt at emendation would thus be highly speculative. The pronoun suffixes in the first and second lines are especially confusing: to whom or what do they refer? is the shift from masculine to feminine correct (1QIsaa has masculine in both instances)?

To begin with, one must recognize the possibility that here the plural verb form “they will live” may refer to the word <yY]j^, an abstract (or intensive) plural (of yj^) meaning “life”. Proper English syntax would require a singular verb, “it will live”. Along with this, it is possible to render the pronominal suffixes (“them”) in the sense of “these (things)”; yet one may prefer to read the second plural suffix as also agreeing with the plural form <yY]j^ (“life”), a point that we must, admittedly, extract from the ambiguity of the poetic wordplay. Thus, without emendation, we could plausibly translate the first two lines as:

“My Lord, against these (things) it may (yet) live,
and for all (that is) in it, (the) life of my spirit

In this context, the imperfect forms of the final line would best be understood in a jussive sense, reflecting the prayer/petition of the poet:

“and (so) may you make me firm and bring life to me (again)!”

While not entirely convincing, perhaps, this explanation does have the advantage of requiring little or no emendation to the text.

There are fewer difficulties with verse 17:

“See, (it was) for wholeness (that it was) so very bitter to me,
and you held my soul back from (the) destroying corruption,
for you have thrown down behind your back all of my sins.”

If verse 16 continues the poet’s prayer, verse 17 seems to reflect its answer; at the very least, he anticipates his healing and deliverance from the life-threatening illness. Possibly the perfect verb forms could be read as precative perfects, i.e., expressing a wish in terms of something that has already occurred. This could be translated as follows:

“See, (may it be) for wholeness (that there was) such bitter(ness) for me!
May you hold my soul back from (the) destroying corruption,
(and) may (it be) that you throw down behind your back all of my sins!”

As a text-critical matter, I read doam= (“very, exceeding[ly]”) for the second rm^ (“bitter[ness]”) in the first line, along with 1QIsaa. More questionable is Roberts’ suggestion (pp. 482-3) that the verb Ec^j* (“hold back”) be read in place of the similar sounding qv^j* (“attach, cling to [i.e. with love/desire]”); there is really no textual support for this emendation, but it seems to fit the sense of the verse much better, and so I tentatively adopt the suggestion.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

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