December 29: Isaiah 8:1-4 (continued)

Isaiah 8:1-4, continued

In the previous note, I mentioned the close parallels between the two child-signs in the oracles of 7:10-17 and 8:1-4. The similarities are clear enough from the text itself; however, Blenkinsopp (p. 239) has conveniently presented these in a table form, which I reproduce here (modified slightly):

    • Immanuel
    • The maiden
    • “the maiden has become pregnant and will give birth to a son”
    • “she shall call his name Immanuel”
    • “before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose good”
    • “the king of Assyria” (7:17)
    • Maher-shalal-hash-baz
    • The prophet[ess] (8:3)
    • “(the prophetess) became pregnant and gave birth to a son”
    • “call his name Maher-
    • “before the child shall know  to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother'”
    • “the king of Assyria” (8:4)

Some commentators (e.g., Roberts, p. 107) would claim that the children mentioned in all three oracles belong to Isaiah. However, this does not seem to me to be correct. Isaiah’s relationship to the child in the first and third oracles, as father, is more or less specified; if this were intended the second oracle as well, one would expect it to be similarly mentioned. In point of fact, the context of the second oracle is specifically the royal court of Ahaz (7:10ff), and there is good reason to think that the “maiden” (hm*l=u^) who will bear the child is associated in some way with the royal court (cf. the earlier note on v. 14).

Moreover, the name la@-WnM*u! (Immanuel, “God [is] with us”) seems uniquely connected with the Judean kingship, and the special relationship between YHWH and the royal city of Jerusalem. I have previously discussed the theory that the name refers to Hezekiah, an identification that finds support from the reference in 2 Kings 18:7, in the context of the righteous conduct of Hezekiah, where it is stated that “YHWH was with him [oMu!]”. The prophecies in 6:1-9:6, insofar as they relate to the kingdom of Judah, anticipate the events at the end of the 8th century (in the reign of Hezekiah), when the Assyrians would invade Judah, conquering much of it, just as they did to the Northern Kingdom some 30 years earlier. Judah and the city of Jerusalem would survive, however narrowly, and as a ‘remnant’.

The immediate historical context is the Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-734, and the address to Judah primarily relates to the present crisis, while also anticipating (and warning against) future events. Thus the child-sign—its name and significance—applies directly to the situation facing Judah in this crisis. The time-indicator attached to the child-sign specifically relates to when the judgment against Aram-Damascus and the Israelite kingdom will occur. As can be seen from the parallels outlined above, the time-indicator in the second and third oracles is very similar. In the second oracle, it is described in terms of the weaning of the infant child, indicating a time-frame of within 3-4 years. In the third oracle, in reference to the infant first beginning to call to his parents (i.e., “my father,” or ‘daddy’, etc), the time-frame is more like 1-2 years.

In light of this, Roberts’ suggested reconstruction of vv. 8-9, discussed in an earlier note, becomes even more attractive. He suggests that the “sixty-five” years in v. 8b, originally was “five / six”, as part of a parallel couplet, one line of which has dropped out. According to this theory, the couplet originally would have been something like:

“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.”

The ‘numerical ladder’ device (of x / x+1) is a common feature in Hebrew (and Canaanite) poetry. It also fits the general time-frame of the other two oracles, rather than the peculiar “sixty-five years” which cannot be fit very well into any historical framework, nor would such a relatively distant time-frame have meant much to the original audience of the oracle, especially in the context of the immediate urgency of the crisis. Roberts’ theory is all the more attractive for the way that it allows for a dramatic ‘narrowing’ of the time when the judgment will occur:

    • Oracle 1—5-6 years
      • Oracle 2—approx. 3-4 years
        • Oracle 3—approx. 1-2 years

And, in fact, the judgment oracle was fulfilled, more or less accurately, in terms of this time-frame. If the oracles were originally given in 735-734 B.C., much of the kingdom of Israel and Aram-Damascus was conquered during the Assyrian invasions of 734-733, with Damascus itself falling in 732.

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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