January 1: Isaiah 8:11-22

Isaiah 8:11-22

There are three pieces to this section, which bring the oracles of chapters 7-8 to a close. They seem to be only loosely connected, though thematically they all relate, we may assume, to the 8th century Assyrian crisis. The pieces may be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 11-15—A message of warning from YHWH to the prophet, emphasizing the need to trust in Him alone
    • Vv. 16-18—A biographical notice, referring to the sealing of Isaiah’s oracle(s)
    • Vv. 19-22—A message of warning to people (Isaiah’s audience) against relying on other religious means (rather than trusting solely in YHWH’s word) in time of crisis.
Verses 11-15

The first unit begins with an introductory notice of a powerful inspired (prophetic) state that grips Isaiah:

“For thus said YHWH to me, as (with) a firm grasp (of the) hand, and disciplined me (away) from walking in (the) way of this people, saying…” (v. 11)

The central verb in the MT is rs^y` (“discipline, correct, rebuke”), yn]r@S=y]w+ (“and He disciplined me”), which fits the forceful image of God taking firm hold (qzj) of Isaiah with the hand. The idea would be of a parent forcefully disciplining a child. However, the Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) has yn]r@ys!y+ (“He turned me [aside]”), a Hiphil form of rWs (“turn [aside]”). This would fit the motif that follows, of walking on a certain path (or avoiding it). Thus, both verbs would fit the context, and it is difficult to decide between them; unfortunately, the other Qumran fragments do not contain this portion of v. 11, so there is no additional help to be found there (cf. Roberts, p. 136). I think that the context slightly favors rsy, with the overriding sense that YHWH is giving a stern warning to Isaiah.

He is to avoid “the way of this people”, where the expression “this people” should be understood in light of the earlier occurrence in v. 6 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). Assuming that we are still dealing with the historical context of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis, Isaiah was caught in the middle of this situation. Some of “the people” supported the anti-Assyrian coalition, while others would have preferred to ally themselves with Assyria. There is some indication that king Ahaz of Judah vacillated between these two positions. The prophetic message of Isaiah ran contrary to both of these practical political/military approaches, and here YHWH is warning him against falling into such worldly ways of thinking.

A key word in this message is the noun rv#q#, from the root rvq, which fundamentally means “bind [together]”. In the context, it refers to a political (and/or military) alliance, such as the anti-Assyrian coalition, formed by Aram-Damascus and Israel, which sought to force Judah (through military pressure) to join it. The prophet is directed not to think or speak in such terms, and he is also exhorted not to be afraid, nor to fear the kinds of things people fear during such times of crisis (v. 12). Rather than turning to political solutions, Isaiah and his supporters are to place their trust in YHWH alone (vv. 13ff).

The root vdq, denoting holiness and separation/ consecration, provides a contrast with rvq, and there is even a kind of alliterative wordplay between the two. It connotes the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, along with the protection that He provides for those who are faithful and trust in Him. For the faithful ones, God serves as a holy place of protection (vD*q=m!), but for others, He is a stone that trips them up and causes them to fall.

One is reminded of the use of vv. 14-15 (along with Psalm 118:22) as applied to the person of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Luke 20:18 par; cf. also the declaration in 2:34 of the Infancy narrative). Here the  warning of judgment is equally comprehensive, addressed to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah alike—and, indeed, both would experience considerable destruction and suffering at the hands of Assyria. None of their political machinations would help them to avoid this fate, and only a remnant—including the city of Jerusalem (where YHWH’s holy sanctuary [vD*q=m!] resides)—would survive.

Verses 16-18

The inclusion of this biographical notice is curious, and originally it was probably part of the tradition in vv. 1-4 (cf. the prior note). There is certainly a continuation of the themes from that earlier passage, namely: (1) a notarized written record of Isaiah’s prophecy, and (2) the association of the oracle with Isaiah’s child. In this particular scene, there is a further juxtaposition between the presence of Isaiah’s disciples (<yd!WMl!, v. 16) and his children (<yd!l*y+, v. 18)—presumably the two children, with the symbolic names, connected with the oracles in 7:3-9 and 8:1-4. The disciples are associated with the binding (vb rWx, i.e., securing) and sealing (vb <t^j*) of the prophecy—i.e., a written record of one or more of Isaiah’s oracles, which doubtless served as a primary source for the document of 6:1-9:6 as a whole.

The children, by contrast, are associated with the message of the oracle(s), as the symbolic names and connected signs indicate. This is specified in verse 18, referring to the children as those “…whom YHWH gave to me for signs [tota)] and for portents [<yt!p=om] in Yisrael”. The oracles, and the accompanying child-signs, relate specifically to the judgment coming upon the kingdom of Israel (along with Aram-Damascus), which was fulfilled by the Assyrian conquests of 734-732 B.C.

The central statement of the episode (in v. 17), emphasizes the prophet’s trust in YHWH, contrasted with the general faithlessness of the Israelite kingdom:

“I will wait [vb hk*j*] for YHWH, the (One) hiding His face from (the) house of Ya’aqob; indeed I will wait [vb hw`q*] for Him.”

The prophet’s two declarations that he will wait for YHWH, using two different verbs, bracket the statement alluding to God’s judgment against Israel (“…hiding His face from the house of Jacob”). The ‘hiding’ (turning away) of God’s face essentially refers to the removal of His covenant-protection from the people, thus allowing for their conquest by the Assyrians.

Verses 19-22

In the first unit, the focus is on how people respond (out of fear) in a time of crisis, turning to political/military alliances as their source of hope and protection. Another way of responding is to seek out (vb vr^D*) other religious sources, apart from simply trusting in the prophetic word of God. That is the focus here in the third unit, which matches the first as a message of warning against following in the path of the people at large. The first message was addressed to Isaiah himself; the second, here, is presented as an oracle, by Isaiah, to an audience: “And (it is) that they will/may say to you…”.

The implied “they”, as the subject of the verb, are the people at large (and their leaders). In time of crisis, people will often seek out various superstitious practices to gain answers and find a sense of hope and security. Among these can be included various forms of divination—most of which are specifically prohibited in the Torah. The one mentioned here in vv. 19-22 is necromancy—attempts to obtain information and guidance from the spirits of the dead. Such things were outlawed by the Torah (e.g., Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut 18:11), but they continued to be practiced throughout Israel’s history (cf. 19:3; 26:13-19; 28:14-22; 29:4; Blenkinsopp, p. 245). The most famous Old Testament example is the episode at En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28.

The message of warning concludes on a dark and chilling note (v. 22), promising that those who resort to necromancy, looking down into the darkness of the underworld, will themselves be thrust down into deep darkness.

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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