December 23: Isaiah 7:1-9

Isaiah 7:1-8:10

The section spanning 7:1-8:10 contains a series of Isaian oracles, three of which are tied to the name of a male child—7:1-9, 10-17, and 8:1-4. In each case, the child’s name is relevant to the content of the oracle, and it may be the name was given (by the prophet) at the time of the oracle itself. The second of these oracles (7:10-17) contains the famous prophecy in 7:14 (to be discussed in the upcoming notes [for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day]), which, of course came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense and applied to the birth of Jesus.

The original historical setting of Isaiah 7:14—and, indeed, of the larger section 6:1-9:6 as a whole—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usurper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab°al” —possibly Tab°al is to be identified with Ittoba±al of Tyre (Tubail in Tiglath-Pileser’s tribute list from 737 B.C.; cf. Roberts, p. 111). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:1-9

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. The Aram-Israel coalition was a cause of great alarm for the kingdom of Judah (both the king and his people), as the historical/narrative introduction to the oracle makes clear:

“And (the news) was brought in front before (the) house of David, saying, ‘Aram has rested upon Ephrayim.’ And (at this,) his heart shook, and the heart of his people, like (the) shaking of (the) trees of (the) forest from (the) face of (the) wind.” (v. 2)
The precise meaning of the verb form hj*n` is disputed. Some commentators would explain it as a denominative verb (Niphal stem), hj*a*, from the root ja (“[be like a] brother”). It has also been explained in relation to the Arabic naµ¹ (“wind [one’s way], walk, turn [toward]”). It is probably best to hold to the customary derivation from j^Wn (“rest”), especially in light of the wordplay in the verse involving the verb u^Wn (“shake, waver”); the meaning, apparently, is that Aram has “rested upon” Ephraim (the Israelite Northern Kingdom), relying upon them as an ally (but perhaps also with the nuance of compelling them to be so).

This provides the background for the oracle in vv. 3-9, which begins with a command by YHWH to Isaiah (v. 3), directing the prophet to meet with king Ahaz. He is to bring along his son, who has the Hebrew name bWvy`-ra*v=. The meaning of this phrase-name, “A-Remnant-will-Return,” is explained in 10:20-23, and it likely carries much the same meaning here in the passage.

However, it is important to keep in mind the dual-significance of the name, in relation to the oracles of chapters 7-8, as those oracles convey both a message of judgment for the Northern Kingdom, and, at the same time, of deliverance for the Kingdom of Judah (esp. the city of Jerusalem). The latter aspect has the future invasion of Judah (by Sennacherib) in mind, in which a portion of the Judean Kingdom (including Jerusalem) will be spared. It also relates, more immediately, to the fate of the Northern Kingdom; after its conquest, and the exile of its people, the message “a remnant will return” offers the hope that at least some of the exiled population will eventually return, to be united with the Southern Kingdom.

Isaiah’s message to Ahaz is primarily an exhortation to trust in God:

“Guard yourself and be quiet! Do not fear, (and) do not let your heart grow soft (with fear) from (the) two tail-ends of these smoking firebrands (lit) by (the) burning anger of Rezin and Aram and (the) son of Remalyahu!” (v. 4)

Their plan to attack Jerusalem (vv. 5-6) will fail (v. 7), stated most bluntly: “It shall not stand, and it shall not be”. Then the oracle closes (vv. 8-9) with an announcement of judgment to come upon Aram-Damascus and the kingdom of Israel. As in the following oracles (vv. 10-17 and 8:1-4), here a time-indicator is given as to when this judgment (conquest by Assyria) will occur. At this point, however, the text is problematic. In the Masoretic Text (but confirmed by the Dead Sea MSS and the Versions), the declaration of judgment (v. 8b) interrupts the parallelism of the lines in vv. 8a, 9a:

8aFor (the) head of Aram (is) Damascus,
and (the) head of Damascus (is) Rezin;
8b[and in about sixty and five years Ephrayim shall be broken from (being) a people]
9aand (the) head of Ephrayim (is) Šomrôn {Samaria},
and (the) head of Šomrôn (is the) son of Remalyahu.

Many commentators would explain v. 8b as a later insertion; however, this is not entirely convincing, as the position of the ‘insertion’ is extremely awkward, and the time-frame of 65 years makes little sense. We would expect an announcement that the judgment would occur in the very near future of Ahaz (cp. the time-markers in 7:16 and 8:4). Roberts (pp. 111-4) offers the intriguing proposal that the current text is the result of an ancient scribal error, by which part of a line was omitted (haplography) when a scribe accidentally skipped over a line in the text because the line following began with the same words or characters (parablepsis). The LXX, for example, shows signs of such textual corruption in verse 5, and also here in v. 8a (Roberts, p. 112).

Roberts would reconstruct vv. 8-9 as follows:

“For (the) head of Aram (is) Damascus,
and (the) head of Damascus (is) Rezin;
and (the) head of Ephrayim (is) Šomrôn {Samaria},
and (the) head of Šomrôn (is the) son of Remalyahu.
In about five years Ephrayim shall be broken from (being) a people,
and in about six years Damascus shall be removed from (being) a city.”

According to this theory, the portion in italics was lost and the numbers five (vm@j*) and six (vv@) were conflated (into six[ty]-five). This all seems quite plausible, though the reconstruction remains entirely hypothetical, with no manuscript or versional support for it. It does, however, fit the framework of the oracles—both in terms of the Damascus-Ephraim parallelism, and a time-frame for the judgment within a few years. Damascus fell in 732 B.C., and the Northern Kingdom was also “broken” (though not completely) but the Assyrian campaigns in 734-733.

The final words of the oracle repeat the opening exhortation for Ahaz to trust in YHWH, but tinged with a sense of warning:

“If you do not remain firm [Wnym!a&t^],
then you will not be made firm [Wnm@a*t@].” (v. 9b)

The wordplay (which I have tried to preserve here) involves the verb /m^a* (“be firm”), which has a relatively wide semantic range. In the first line, the Hiphil (causative) form refers to Ahaz making (himself) firm—that is, firm in his faith/trust in YHWH; in the second line, the Niphal (passive) form refers to Ahaz (and his kingdom) being made firm (strong/established) by YHWH. The overriding message is that God will protect and  save those who remain faithful to Him.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

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