Saturday Series: Mark 3:28-30; Matt 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

The Saturday Series studies this Fall will focus on passages in the New Testament illustrating how Biblical Criticism (and especially textual criticism) relates to the overall meaning of a passage—including important theological and doctrinal points. This has been discussed in earlier studies, along with a number of examples which clearly show that, contrary to the claims of some scholars and theologians, the textual differences in the manuscripts, etc, do affect considerably the meaning and interpretation of certain passages. While other areas of Biblical Criticism will be explored, it is Textual Criticism which will be foremost in these studies, since establishing the text of Scripture is necessary for any proper interpretation.

If you are unfamiliar with the tenets and principles of Textual Criticism, I strongly recommend that you consult my three-part introductory article entitled “Learning the Language”. When we speak of “textual variants” (or “variant readings”) of the New Testament, this refers to differences that exist between the surviving Greek manuscripts, translated versions (in Latin, Syriac, etc), and citations (in early Christian writings). Many of these differences are minor and insubstantial, but others are substantive and must be considered carefully if one wishes to determine what was most likely the original reading of the text. While secondary readings may be of historical and theological interest, most scholars and commentators would not wish to base their exegesis of Scripture upon them. The primary goal of textual criticism remains the establishment of the original text, insofar as this is possible.

When it comes to the Gospels, and the sayings and traditions of Jesus recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, the text-critical situation is complicated considerably. For often we are dealing, not only with differences between the manuscripts of a specific passage, but with different versions of the same (or comparable) tradition as it has been preserved in the various Gospels. Here textual criticism blends with source criticism, historical criticism, and other areas of criticism as well. When looking at a particular saying of Jesus or a related tradition, it is important to compare the different Gospel versions, in addition to any textual differences within the specific Gospel passage.

As a simple illustration, let us consider the two versions of the saying of Jesus in Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20, respectively. In Matthew, the text reads:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

while in Luke we have:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the finger of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

Here the text of each version is secure, with the difference, or variant, occurring between the two versions. In dealing with such inter-Gospel differences, involving the words/sayings of Jesus, traditional-conservative commentators are sometimes inclined to explain (or ‘harmonize’) them by positing either: (a) that they represent separate traditions (i.e., something similar Jesus said on separate occasions), or (b) that the two versions each give only a partial record of an originally longer saying (i.e., Jesus said both things). While I consider such explanations often to be unconvincing on the whole, here neither approach is at all possible, since:

    • The two versions clearly represent the same saying—they are virtually identical, and occur in the same location/context within the Gospel narrative.
    • The relevant difference occurs at the same syntactical/grammatical point in the saying, involving a single word, making it virtually impossible that Jesus could have said both things (at the same time).

This leaves us with just two options:

    • The variation reflects a difference in translation (into Greek) from an Aramaic original, or
    • One version more or less accurately represents the original saying/tradition, while the other has been modified in some way; this modification could be the result of:
      (a) alteration during the process of transmission of the saying, or
      (b) a change by the Gospel writer as the saying/tradition was included within the Gospel narrative

In this case, the difference does not seem to be the result of translation from an Aramaic original. The best explanation, in my view, is that the Lukan version preserves the authentic tradition, reading “in/with the finger of God” (en daktýlœ Theoú). The Matthean version has altered this to “in/with the Spirit of God” (en pneúmati Theoú), apparently for the simple purpose of explaining the idiom “finger of God” for readers who may not be familiar with its significance. In the Old Testament, the idiom “finger of God” refers to God’s active power manifest (and visible) among human beings; it is used only rarely (cf. Exod 8:19; 31:18; Deut 9:10). Among early Christians (and Jews), this would more naturally be explained by referring to God’s Spirit (pneúma). Paul makes the obvious connection between God’s finger and Spirit when discussing the Exodus 31:18 tradition, in 2 Corinthians 3:3ff. The Gospel writer may well have done the same in Matt 12:28.

Fortunately, in this instance, the difference between the two Gospel versions makes no real difference to the essential meaning of the saying. The situation is not so straightforward in Mark 3:28-29 / Matt 12:31-32 / Luke 12:10—where we find different versions of the saying (or sayings) of Jesus regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit”.

This saying is preserved within two broad lines of Gospel tradition: (1) in the Gospel of Mark (3:28-29), a version of which is also found in Matt 12:31; and (2) the material contained in Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (the so-called “Q” material). For those unfamiliar with the terminology, “Q” is shorthand for German quelle (translated roughly as “source”); in Synoptic studies, it refers to a source (for sayings and traditions of Jesus) used by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most critical scholars assume that “Q” represents a distinct source document, though it properly refers simply to that material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. A widely held critical theory, called the “Two-Document Hypothesis”, holds that Matthew and Luke made use of at least two distinct source documents—the Gospel of Mark and “Q”. Matthew 12:31-32 would tend to support this hypothesis, as it contains together both the Markan and “Q” versions of the saying.

Those two versions, while similar, are quite different in several respects, which leads to the important critical question of whether we are dealing with two distinct historical traditions, or variant forms of a single historical tradition. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to opt for the former, while critical commentators typically assume the latter. The situation is further complicated by additional differences between versions of the Markan and “Q” sayings, the possibility of variation as a result of translation from an Aramaic original, and other factors (see above).

Matthew contains both the Markan and “Q” forms, joined together at 12:31-32, while Luke has only the “Q” saying (12:10). Let us compare the Markan saying as it is found in Mk 3:28-29 and Matt 12:31, respectively:

“Amen, I relate to you that all (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and the insults, as many (thing)s as they may give insult—but whoever would give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not hold release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age, but is holding on (himself) a sin of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal sin].” (Mk 3:28-29)
“Through this I relate to you (that) all (kind)s of sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but an insult of [i.e. against] the Spirit will not be released.” (Matt 12:31)

What of the “Q” form of the saying? Here are the Matthean and Lukan versions:

“And whoever would speak a word against the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but whoever would speak against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age, and not in the coming Age.” (Matt 12:32)
“And every (one) who shall utter a word unto [i.e. against] the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.” (Luke 12:10)

The general warning about speaking “against the holy Spirit” is the same in the Markan and “Q” saying-forms, but the setting of the contrast differs considerably. In the Markan version, the contrast is with sins and “insults” committed by human beings generally, while the “Q” version refers to any sort of insult against the “Son of Man”, which, in the Gospel and early Christian context would seem to mean speaking against Jesus. In this regard, the “Q” version is more problematic and creates certain difficulties for interpretation not found in the Markan version, where the point of contrast is more obvious and straightforward.

It is worth exploring these differences in more detail, which we will do in next week’s study. A proper interpretation requires that we consider the textual, historical, and source critical issues raised by these differences. How did the two forms/versions of the saying come to be preserved? Do they ultimately stem from the same historical tradition or separate traditions? If deriving from two main lines of Gospel tradition (Markan and “Q”), how did the respective authors of Matthew and Luke choose to deal with this material? Finally, and most important from a theological and doctrinal standpoint: how are we to explain the reference to the “Son of Man” in the “Q” version, and what exactly is the significance of insulting (or speaking against) the Holy Spirit, in particular, which demands such total condemnation and punishment? We will attempt to address these questions in our study next week.

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).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 5)

Isaiah 38-39

The second part of the work we have been discussing in the book of Isaiah, chapters 36-39, is comprised of the three tradition-units in chaps. 38-39. As previously noted, these chapters properly occur before chaps. 36-37, when examined in historical terms. It is interesting to consider the possible reasons for the current arrangement. Since the same order is found in both the Isaian and Kings version of this material, it is fair to assume that it was integral to the original work. The current ordering seems more appropriate to the overall literary context (and message) of the book of Kings, compared with that of Isaiah. This would be an argument in favor of the theory that the book of Isaiah borrowed these chapters from the book of Kings, rather than from a separate source; though, in my view, the theory of a separate source is more likely.

When studying chapters 38-39, it is the aspect of historical criticism that is most clearly in view. Such critical study involves careful consideration of the historical background (and historicity) of the text, and how the historical tradition(s) contained therein may have been developed and adapted by the author/editor(s) in the composition of the book (chaps. 2-39) as we have it. There are two main historical traditions in these chapters:

In between, the Isaian version contains a third traditional piece—a thanksgiving psalm for (Hezekiah’s) recovery from illness (38:9-20)—not found in the Kings version. The poem was almost certainly added by the Isaian author/editor, specifically, in composing chapters 36-39. There is clear evidence that the incorporation of the psalm has disrupted the context of the original historical (and prophetic) tradition, which is more accurately represented by the Kings version. In 2 Kings 20:8-11, Hezekiah asks for a sign from the prophet (Isaiah) that he will in fact be healed; this sign involves a shadow that will appear on the “steps of Ahaz”, with Hezekiah being offered a choice of two specific signs. This portion of the tradition has been altered in the Isaian version, displaced by the poem so that Hezekiah’s request for a sign (along with the poultice remedy instructed by Isaiah, v. 21) is out of place, and mentioned as an afterthought, with little significance any longer for the narrative. One can only speculate why the author/editor bothered to include vv. 21-22 after the poem at all; it may simply reflect a fidelty to the tradition, with a concern that it be fully included, however irrelevant it may have seemed to the overall narrative.

Isaiah 38:1-8: Hezekiah’s Illness

On verses 1-8, I have discussed the prayer of Hezekiah (vv. 2-3) in a recent study (in the Monday Notes on Prayer series). We do not know the nature of his illness, only that it was life-threatening, and that the initial message from the prophet was that Hezekiah would not recover. Following the king’s fervent prayer, the prophecy was changed, with YHWH answering the prayer and extending Hezekiah’s lifespan an additional 15 years (vv. 4-5). There was a clear parallel drawn between the personal situation with the king (his life threatening illness) and the threat to the city of Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion of Judah). This correspondence was part of the original tradition (and literary work) inherited by the author/editor of Isa 36-39, but it was an aspect he certainly emphasized (v. 6). It reflects a set of themes found elsewhere in the Isaian material—especially the historical/biographical traditions in chapters 7-9, where many commentators believe Hezekiah also plays a key role (cp. the “God-with-us” [Immanuel] references in 7:14; 8:8, 10-11 with the notice in 2 Kings 18:7). The salvation promised for Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat was symbolized in the person of Hezekiah—the king representing the city and its people in this regard. This certainly is the case in chapters 36-39.

Isaiah 38:9-20: The Thanksgiving Psalm

The psalm in vv. 9-20 is attributed to Hezekiah, but most critical commentators would hold that the poem is an anonymous composition (like, we must assume, many of the canonical Psalms), which has been included (and attributed to the king) because it fit the situational context of the narrative. Traditional-conservative commentators are perhaps less willing to accept such an explanation, as being at odds with a certain view of the inspiration of Scripture. However, the practice of placing (separate/independent) poetic compositions in the mouth of specific characters in the narrative was a common device used in ancient literary and historical works, and one could easily formulate a valid doctrine of inspiration that would allow for it. Nothing in the psalm requires the specific situation of Hezekiah, nor does anything militate against it as the context for the poem. Israelite and Jewish tradition did associate literary production with Hezekiah and his court (e.g., Prov 25:1; Babylonian Talmud Baba batra 15a).

In point of fact, this composition is quite similar to other thanksgiving (tôdâ) Psalms involving recovery from a life-threatening illness (and/or related danger); for a good example, see my recent study on Psalm 30, while one might also note Psalms 6 and 107, and a number of others. A tone of lament can also be found in such poems, particularly in the first portion, when the poet/protagonist decries his condition and prays to God for deliverance. A particular point, reflecting a genuine fear among people of the time, is that, once a person descends to Sheol (the realm of Death and the dead), one no longer has any contact with life, including contact with God (YHWH) himself. A repeated lament, intended as an appeal to YHWH, is that the dead are no longer able to give praise and worship  to God (vv. 18-19); we find the same idea expressed in Ps 6:6; 30:10; 88:11-12; 115:17. At the same time, the dead are unable to “see” YHWH any longer (v. 11); this reflects both a lament for the loss of life, but also alludes to the hope of eternal life (in the presence of God) which is cut off by an untimely death (see Ps 11:7; 17:15; 27:4ff; 88:5, etc).

An important point of interpretation relates to the question of Hezekiah’s repentance. There appears to be an allusion to this in the great weeping (his tears) that accompany his prayer (v. 3); however, more relevant is the idea expressed in vv. 16-17 of the psalm. Unfortunately, it is just at this point that the text of the poem is most difficult (and possibly corrupt). It may be worth briefly examining the text-critical problems in vv. 15-17, which I do in a special note.

The idea that Hezekiah repented, and thus was spared an immediate death, is of considerable significance to the Prophetic history, both in the book of Isaiah and within the Deuteronomic history in the book of Kings. Since Hezekiah’s life-threatening illness was set parallel with the threat of destruction to Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion), it would be natural that the response to the threat would effectively be the same in both instances. It was through the people turning to YHWH in renewed faithfulness (and repentance) that the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah would be saved; even then, salvation would not come without terrible suffering. In this regard, Hezekiah’s prayer (and psalm) in chapter 38 is parallel to his prayer to YHWH in 37:15-20 (discussed in the prior studies and a recent note). That prayer, asking God to save the city from destruction is set in tandem with an earlier response by Hezekiah to the Assyrian threat in 37:1-4, in which he called on the people to offer prayer to God for deliverance. The aspect of repentance in that prayer is indicated by the king’s gesture in tearing his clothes and putting on a coarse woven garment (‘sackcloth’), a traditional sign of mourning.

In Jeremiah 26:17-19, a related tradition is recorded, in which Hezekiah responded to a prophecy of Micah (Mic 3:12) that Jerusalem would (soon) be conquered and destroyed. It is indicated that he responded in a similar manner to what is preserved in Isaiah 36-39 par, calling on the people to turn to YHWH in prayer and repentance. The idea expressed in Jeremiah is that such prayer resulted in turning back and forestalling the prophesied destruction, with the warning that it was about to be realized in Jeremiah’s own time. The delaying of Jerusalem’s destruction corresponds to the traditional motif of Hezekiah’s life being extending by a number of years.

Isaiah 39:1-8: The Babylonian delegation

In this final historical tradition, we read of a delegation of officials from Babylon to Jerusalem, to meet with Hezekiah. At its core, this would appear to be an authentic tradition, which took place during the reign of the Babylonian king Marduk-apal-iddina II (= Merodach-Baladan). The visit from the delegation must have occurred sometime before the end of the Babylonian revolt against Assyria (703 B.C.). If the detail in verse 1, relating the visit to the time of Hezekiah’s recovery from illness (see above), is accurate, then the events in chapters 38-39 would have occurred around the same time, probably c. 704-3 B.C. Contrary to the notice in verse 1, which may reflect the stated diplomatic reason for the visit, it is all but certain that, at the historical-political level, the real reason for the delegation was to garner support for Marduk-apal-iddina’s rebellion against Assyria. In this context, the detail of Hezekiah showing them the wealth of his treasury (and armory), should be understood in terms of the financial and military support that the kingdom of Judah could provide.

The Prophetic tradition underlying 39:1-8 (2 Kings 20:12-19), however, has little interest in the realpolitik of the historical situation facing Hezekiah. Instead, through a marvelous bit of literary irony, the scene is used to prophecy the future destruction of Jerusalem, not by the Assyrians, but by the Babylonians–the very people with whom Hezekiah is here shown striking a potential alliance. This prophetic aspect is introduced with the appearance of Isaiah in verse 5, much as he tends to appear (suddenly and abruptly) in all of these traditions of chaps. 36-39. His message (vv. 6-7) is a word of judgment, prophesying the conquest of Jerusalem (and exile of its population). If the city had been saved in Hezekiah’s time, it would yet be conquered and destroyed during the reign of his descendants. This, of course, was fulfilled in 587/6 B.C., and leads to obvious critical questions regarding the historical character of Isaiah’s prophecy—that is, if it represents an authentic oracle by the prophet, or a prophecy “after the fact” (an ex eventu prophecy). For a moderate critical appraisal, allowing for the authenticity of the tradition (and the prophecy), see the discussion in Roberts (pp. 489-90).

A final bit of irony is recorded in verse 8, where Hezekiah apparently misunderstands the prophecy, treating it as a positive message: “Good (is the) spoken (word) of YHWH which He has spoken”. However, this must, I think, be read in the context of chapter 38 (see above), where the salvation of Jerusalem is defined in terms of the 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life. In this narrative, Hezekiah symbolizes the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem—a remnant of the kingdom that will survive the Assyrian crisis. This helps to explain the words uttered by Hezekiah (to himself?) that close the episode: “For there shall be peace [i.e. safety/security] and firmness in my days”. In other words, this time of peace and salvation is tied to the reign of Hezekiah (note again the Immanuel [“God-with-us”] passages in chaps. 7-9, cf. above). At the same time, the words contain a double meaning, since it clearly implies that after Hezekiah’s days, there may no longer be peace and security. To the author and audience of the book of Isaiah in the 6th century, the fulfillment of the prophecy would have been fully, and painfully, understood.

This brings us to the question of the order of the episodes in chaps. 36-39. Why were chaps. 38-39 placed after 36-37, when the events recorded in them clearly took place at least two years earlier? The best explanation was that it was important to use the tradition in 39:1-8 as a foreshadowing of future events, and this worked most effectively by having it conclude the narrative. This is very much to the purpose of the narrative in the book of Kings, which extends all the way to the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the Babylonian exile marks the culmination and climactic point of the narrative. Such an emphasis, however, does not seem to fit the overall message and thrust of Isaiah 2-39, which has a central theme the promise of salvation for Judah and Jerusalem. This is so even if we consider the possibility the Isaian oracles may have been adapted and reinterpreted by authors/editors in the 6th century. Even in the context of the Babylonian exile, the Isaian message of salvation is preserved, expressed in terms of restoration (and return from exile), much as it is in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems of chapters 40-55ff. Given this outlook, it would have made more sense, it seems, to close the work (both chaps. 36-39 and the wider work of chaps. 2-39) with the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat.

If the Isaian author/editor inherited the material from a pre-existing source (as seems likely), it may be that he simply did not feel at liberty to alter the existing order. Another possibility may be considered, if the “Deutero-Isaian” sections (some or all of them) were included as part of the book at around the same time as chapters 36-39. In such a scenario, the prophecy of the exile in 39:6-8 may have been deemed an appropriate launching point for the majestic oracles of restoration that follow in chapters 40ff. We are doubtless inclined to read the passage in this light, in the context of the complete book of Isaiah as we have it. Also to be noted is the way that oracles of salvation and judgment alternate throughout the Isaian material in chapters 2-39. If a word of warning follows a message of the hope for salvation, as it often does in the book, might not that serve as a suitable conclusion to the book, in its own right? It is interesting to speculate.

Next week, the Saturday Series studies will shift course, returning to the subject of New Testament criticism. I will be selecting a number of passages to illustrate how criticism relates to theology and key points of doctrine. The focus each week will be narrower, often looking at a single verse, but, at the same time, I hope to take you even deeper into a critical study of the text.

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

 

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).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 3)

Isaiah 36-39, part 3

Chapters 36-37, continued

As noted in the previous study, there are three literary set pieces in chapters 36-37, the first of which is the discourse of the Rabshakeh (36:4-20). Each of the pieces can be analyzed at both the historical and the literary level. There is an unquestionable historical core to these traditions, but they also have been developed in a highly creative way, involving a measure of artistic license in their presentation.

In the case of the Rabshakeh section, there is little reason to doubt the general historicity of the scene. The Rabshakeh (Akkadian rab š¹qe) was a government official with diplomatic abilities and experience. The expression literally means something like “great cupbearer” or “chief butler”, but, rather than designating a household servant, it came to be used as the title of a high administrative official. In his mission here, he is a part of a detachment sent to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem. There were several reasons for such a diplomatic overture, not least of which was the possibility of avoiding the cost involved in a long siege. The offer of a peaceful surrender, when rejected, also served as a rationale for the brutal methods of the Assyrians in their conquests. They gave the people the opportunity to accept a peaceful surrender, and thus avoid the horrors of siege and destruction.

The historical episode has been developed into the literary form of a discourse scene, entailing two distinct speeches by the Rabshakeh. These speeches reflect important themes found elsewhere in the book of Isaiah. The principal idea expressed and expounded in the discourse relates to the prophetic message of trust in YHWH. By turning to YHWH, and trusting in him for deliverance, the people of Judah (Jerusalem) may yet be spared the judgment of conquest and exile. In this regard, Jerusalem represents the faithful remnant—those who remain loyal to the covenant with YHWH. Faced with the Assyrian threat, such trust was difficult to maintain, and it was natural for the people (and its leaders) to look for a more practical diplomatic solution. One possibility was to seek an alliance with other nations (Egypt, Babylon), or even to enter into negotiations with Assyria itself.

That is the situation indicated here in the Rabshakeh scene, and, indeed, according to the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16, king Hezekiah was willing to pay off the Assyrians with tribute. The Isaian version does not contain these verses; if the omission is intentional, it may be due to the more important position Hezekiah has in the book of Isaiah. He is closely connected with the “God with us” theme in chapters 6-9 (7:14; 8:8, 10; 9:2-7; cf. 2 Kings 18:7), and features prominently in chapters 36-39 as well. As ruler, he represents the faithful ones among the people, and plays a key role in leading them to prayer and repentance (see below). In a number of the Isaian oracles, the prophet condemns attempts to avoid judgment through establishing diplomatic alliances, relying upon nations such as Egypt for help (e.g., 19:1-15; 28:14-22; 30:1-7), instead of trusting solely in YHWH. The Rabshakeh’s taunt in vv. 4-10 echoes this same criticism.

Another aspect of the taunt that seems to be in accord with the prophetic message is the emphasis on the Assyrian invasion as part of the just judgment decreed by YHWH. Indeed, there are a number of judgment-oracles in the prophets (and in Isaiah) where the conquests by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires are (to be) the means by which God brings judgment upon the people of Israel/Judah. The Rabshakeh declares something very much along this line in the climax of the first part of the taunt (v. 10), when he claims that it is by YHWH’s consent (and command) that Assyria is conquering and destroying the land of Judah.

All of this may be true, ironically so, but the Rabshakeh’s taunt turns insulting (blasphemous) to God in its second half (vv. 12-20). The point of the prophetic message in Isaiah is that, while God brings judgment upon the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, at least a portion of the latter kingdom will be saved—a faithful remnant, represented by the city of Jerusalem and her king Hezekiah. This is the point at odds with the Rabshakeh’s taunt—that Jerusalem is to meet the same fate (conquest/destruction) as the rest of Israel and Judah, and that nothing can be done to prevent this. Reliance upon YHWH (and his chosen king Hezekiah) for salvation is foolish (vv. 14-15). After all, if the gods of the nations that have already been conquered could not save those peoples, how will YHWH save Jerusalem? The concluding mention of Samaria (the northern Israelite kingdom) in verse 20 drives the point home, since they would have trusted in YHWH as well for deliverance (just like Judah/Jerusalem), and yet they were conquered—YHWH was not able to rescue them!

Notice, then, how the historical episode has been shaped especially to fit within the contours of the prophetic message, bringing out theological and moral aspects central to that message—and to that of the book of Isaiah. When faced with the possibility of the coming judgment, the people have two choices: (1) turn to God in trust and repentance, or (2) try to find other means to avert the disaster. The traditional Isaian oracles deal with both of these possibilities, stressing that only the former is a valid option. It is the path taken by Hezekiah in his prayer (37:16-20), and corresponds with the oracle uttered by Isaiah himself that follows in vv. 30-35. The Rabshakeh’s speech, by contrast, leaves only the second option: to avert the disaster by negotiating a surrender with the enemy (Assyria). Apart from the historical circumstances, later generations of Israelites and Jews would recognize the religious and moral implications of this. Even for us today, we can take the passage as a warning against seeking for expedient political solutions to the evils of the world, rather than trusting in God.

The thrust of the Rabshakeh’s taunt is repeated by the Assyrian envoy in 37:10-13 (on the apparent incorporation of parallel accounts and and lines of tradition in chapters 36-37, see the discussion in the previous study). Hezekiah’s prayer comes in response to his reading this message. The prayer in verses 15-20 will be studied in the upcoming Monday Notes on Prayer feature. Next Saturday, we will continue our analysis of the current passage, when we look at the taunt (and oracle) of the prophet Isaiah in vv. 21-35, which stands as an antithetic parallel to the taunt of the Rabshakeh—the word of God in contrast to the message of the world.

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 2)

Isaiah 36-39, continued

Chapters 36-37

In discussing chapters 36-39 (see last week’s study), the climactic portion of Isaiah 2-39, it was seen how that work neatly breaks into two divisions, with the main narrative occurring in the first half (chaps. 36-37).

The narrative in chapters 36-37 allows for valuable critical analysis—historical-critical, but also text-critical, source-critical, and literary-critical. The main focus must be historical-critical, since the narrative is clearly based on traditions regarding actual historical events—namely the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib in 701 B.C., involving the siege and conquest of a number of cities (in the Assyrian Annals, Sennacherib claims to have captured 46 Judean cities). The Assyrian forces turned back without completing the campaign and capturing Jerusalem. As previously noted, a second version of this same narrative is found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. There are a number of differences (mostly minor) between the two versions; the most notable difference being the lack of any mention of Hezekiah’s initial surrender and payment of tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16) in the Isaian version.

Commentators have noticed the similarities of outline and structure between 36:1-37:8 and 37:9-38, suggesting that these may derive from parallel traditions regarding the same essential historical event. Consider the following points the two sections have in common:

    • The context of Sennacherib’s Judean campaign (36:1ff; 37:8-9)
    • The Assyrian message to the king of Judah, warning of siege and destruction and advising a peaceful surrender (36:4-20; 37:10-13)
    • This message is reported to Hezekiah (36:22; 37:14a)
    • Hezekiah’s response, emphasizing the need for repentance and prayer (37:1, 14b-20)
    • The prophet Isaiah hears of the Assyrian message and the threat to Judah (37:2-6, 21a)
    • Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian invasion will fail and Sennacherib’s army will turn back (37:6-7, 21b-29ff)

The two versions are similar in the general outline, while differing in certain details. That we are dealing with parallel lines of tradition would seem to be confirmed by the different explanations given for how/why Sennacherib’s forces turned back (37:7, 36f). Moreover, at three points the tradition has been developed and expanded: (a) the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt (36:4-20), (b) Hezekiah’s prayer (37:16-20), and (c) the Isaian oracle[s] (37:22-29ff). Without these expanded sections, the two traditional narratives would more closely resemble one another.

It may be possible to trace the process of development with some measure of clarity; a plausible reconstruction is as follows:

Within a generation (i.e., 30 years or so) of the events of 701 B.C., two traditional accounts had taken shape (see above), similar in outline, while differing in certain details. At some point, these two accounts were combined together, to form the narrative of chaps. 36-37 as we have it. The dramatic force of the narrative was enhanced by the three poetic/literary expansions noted above, likely produced through the inclusion of separate traditions; in the case of the Isaian oracle(s) these may well have circulated separately, as in the other collections we have already noted. The final literary shape of chaps. 36-37 is as a continuous narrative, in which the second traditional section now builds upon the first. The Isaian oracles form the climax of the complete narrative, followed by an expanded historical notice regarding the failure of the Assyrian invasion and the death of Sennacherib.

The curious detail of the Nubian king of Egypt in 37:9 serves as the transitional joining point of the two lines of tradition underlying the complete narrative. As presented in the narrative (as we have it), this detail is bit ambiguous and confusing—not to mention anachronistic, since, by all accounts, Tirhaqa did not become king of Egypt until 690. Some commentators have raised the possibility that he may have served as military commander earlier (under king Shebitku), but this is quite uncertain. However the mention of Tirhaqa may be judged historically, it is clear what the literary purpose is within the narrative. The presence of the Egyptian forces (or reports regarding their arrival) prompt the Assyrian king (Sennacherib) to increase the pressure on Hezekiah, pushing for a surrender before any help can be offered from Egypt. This provides the context for a second message to Hezekiah (37:10-13), one which essentially repeats, in summary form, the first message by the Rab-shaqeh.

That chapters 36-37 now represent a single, coherent narrative, is evident from the clear literary and artistic design that pervades  the work. Note, for example, the distinctive symmetry of the narrative:

    • The Assyrian invasion in progress (36:1)
      • The Rab-shaqeh’s Taunt, in two parts (36:4-10, 11-20)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (36:22-37:2ff)
          • Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the invasion (37:6-7)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (37:9-20)
      • Isaiah’s Taunt, an oracle in two parts (37:21-29, 30-35)
    • The failure of the Assyrian invasion (37:36-38)

It may fairly be said that here, as in most literary works within the Old Testament, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Separate traditions regarding the Assyrian invasion of Judah have been melded into a powerful narrative punctuated by contrasting poetic passages (like arias in a musical drama):

    • The Rab-shaqeh’s taunt to Judah, directed to her king (Hezekiah) and officials, which questions the legitimacy of trust in YHWH in the face of the superior military power of Assyria.
    • Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, directed to her king (Sennacherib), declaring the weakness of Assyria’s political and military power in the face of YHWH, the God and protector of His people.

Isaiah’s taunt is part of a larger poetic structure that forms the climactic section of the narrative:

    • 37:15-20: Hezekiah’s prayer, indicating the true repentance and trust/dependence on YHWH that leads to salvation (from judgment)
    • 37:21-29: Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, contrasting the wicked earthly ruler (Sennacherib) with YHWH the Holy One
    • 37:30-35: Isaiah’s prophecy (sign and oracle) regarding the salvation of Jerusalem (and Judah), with YHWH turning back the Assyrian invasion

Having established something of the critical framework for a study of the passage, next week I will proceed to a more detailed examination of the three developed sections within the narrative—the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt, Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Isaiah oracle(s). These sections, taken together within the structure of the narrative, contain the essential message of the passage, both for the original audience in the 7th century B.C. and for us today. It will be worth devoting a brief critical and exegetical study to them.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 1)

Isaiah 36-39

These Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah conclude with an examination of chapters 36-39, the closing portion of the main book (so-called First Isaiah) covering chaps. 2-39. That book is comprised of four divisions, each of which conceivably could have circulated as a separate document, prior to being included as part of chaps. 1-39. There is also evidence, discussed at various points in these studies, that each division has, at its core, authentic Isaian traditions—oracles, poems, and historical-biographical material—from the 8th century B.C. The core Isaian material was developed over the course of time, forming the division-documents as we have them, a process that likely extended into the 6th century.

Even though each of the divisions is a significant literary work in its own right, having undergone a distinctive development, it is noteworthy that, in the overall framework of chapters 1-39, they are arranged in chronological order. That is to say, the authentic Isaian traditions, within each division, appear to be in chronological order, covering the period c. 740-701 B.C. This may be demonstrated as follows:

    • Division 1: Chapters 2-12
      Core Isaian material: 6:1-9:7[6], within the wider setting of chaps. 5-10
      Historical focus: The Syro-Ephramaite conflict, 734-732 B.C., with the Assyrian campaigns into the Northern kingdom (under Tiglath-Pileser III).
    • Division 2: Chapters 13-27
      Core Isaian material: the nation oracles throughout chaps. 14-20ff
      Historical focus: Events during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), which would be confirmed particularly if the theory is correct that the “king of Babylon” in chap. 14 is to be identified with Sargon.
    • Division 3: Chapters 28-35
      Core Isaian material: the oracles of warning, judgment, etc, in chaps. 28-33
      Historical focus: Events leading up to the Assyrian invasion of Judah by Sennacherib (704-681) in 701 B.C.
    • Division 4: Chapters 36-39
      Core Isaian material: the historical traditions in these chapters (esp. chaps. 36-37)
      Historical focus: The Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.

All of this is important for a proper understanding of chapters 36-39 and their place within the overall framework of the book. The invasion of 701 B.C., and the siege of Jerusalem, represents the climactic moment of the book, and anchors the message throughout. This is so even in terms of the apparent application of the Isaian material to the Babylonian period of the late-7th and 6th centuries B.C. (including the exilic period). Just as God saved Jerusalem from conquest and destruction, so he will also save a “remnant” of his people in the future, protecting those who trust in him, and eventually restoring them from their time of exile. Throughout chapters 1-39, this is expressed through the historical message of the prophet Isaiah—to the northern and southern kingdoms both—alternately declaring judgment and salvation for the people. Salvation is focused on Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah; insofar as the king (and people) are faithful, trusting in YHWH, they will be saved from destruction and conquest.

Chapters 36-39 are unique among the divisions of the book in that they are comprised almost entirely of Isaian historical traditions (clearly stemming from the prophet’s own time), with relatively little development. More accurately, one can trace most of the development to a relatively narrow period of time, extending into the mid-7th century, not all that long after the death of Sennacherib (in 681). The main focus of our study is thus historical-critical—that is, the relationship of these traditions to the historical events they purport to record, during the years c. 703-701.

It is also significant that there is a second version of this same material found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. This has led to various explanations: (a) Isaiah borrowed from Kings, (b) Kings borrowed from the book of Isaiah, or (c) each version is dependent upon a separate source document. In my view, the latter option is more likely; and, if correct, this would provide support for the theory (see above) that the four divisions of Isa 2-39 may have originally circulated as separate written works. This means there is an important source-critical component to any study of chaps. 36-39 (as indeed of the parallel version in Kings). The same historical traditions serve a different purpose, in the context of the books of Isaiah and Kings, respectively.

The parallel versions also are significant from a text-critical perspective. Textual variants between the two, while generally minor, have to be considered, if only to determine what role they play in the distinctive treatment (and/or development) of this material in the book of Isaiah. The two major differences between the Isaian and Kings versions are:

    • Isaiah does not include the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16 of Hezekiah’s surrender and the tribute paid to Assyria
    • The psalm (attributed to Hezekiah) in Isa 38:9-20 does not occur in 2 Kings.

It makes sense to divide this material between chapters 36-37 and 38-39, and I will be devoting a study to each, over the next two weeks. Even though chaps. 38-39 are presented after chaps. 36-37, it is clear that, at the historical level, the events described in them must have taken place earlier—c. 703 B.C., a couple of years (or more) before the invasion of 701.

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (5): Isa 27:12-13

Isaiah 27:12-13

This is the last of five special notes supplemental to the recent Saturday Series studies on Isaiah 24-27 (see #1 on v. 1, #2 on vv. 2-5, #3 on v. 6, and #4 on vv. 7-11). The poem of vv. 7-13 concludes with two “day of YHWH” stanzas, as do the previous poems in 25:1-26:6 and 26:7-27:6. We will examine each of these stanzas in turn.

“And it will be, on that day [bayyôm hahû°]—
YHWH will beat out (the grain)
from (the) stream of (the great) River,
unto the river-bed of Egypt,
and you will be gathered up
from (there) one by one,
(you) sons of Yisrael.” (v. 12)

The harvest imagery of beating out (i.e. threshing) the grain and gathering it up (verbs µ¹»a‰ and l¹qa‰) follows the line of agricultural symbolism in these poems, and is entirely appropriate to the eschatological orientation of chaps. 24-27 as a whole. The harvest, marking the end of the growing season, came to be a popular motif for the end of the current Age, and the threshing—the separating of the grain from the chaff—was likewise suitable for the idea of separating the righteous from the wicked in the great Judgment.

It is a judgment on the nations, particularly those surrounding Israel, spanning the entire territory of the ancient Near East, using the “(great) River” (Euphrates) and “river of Egypt” (Nile) as the traditional boundary points. God’s Judgment on these nations means a return from exile for the people of Israel. They will be “gathered up” (by God) and returned to their land. The two-fold use of the numeral °eµ¹¼ (dj*a#, one), i.e. “one by one”, emphasizes both the restoration of the people, and that each person belonging to the restored people will return. This alludes again to the threshing-motif, with each single grain being gathered up as part of the harvest.

“And it will be, on that day [bayyôm hahû°]—
(the signal) will be struck on (the) great horn,
and they (all) will come,
the (one)s being lost in (the) land of Assur,
and the (one)s being cast off in (the) land of Egypt,
and they will bow down (in homage) to YHWH,
on the mountain of holiness in Yerushalaim.” (v. 13)

The second stanza, brings the return from exile more clearly into view. The time for returning is announced on the great horn, as would be used on festival occasions. The lands from which the people come correspond with the boundary markers mentioned in verse 12:

    • “the (great) river” (Euphrates) = the land of Assur (Assyria)
    • “the river of Egypt” (Nile) = the land of Egypt

The fact that Assyria is specifically mentioned (and not Babylon) raises the possibility that these lines stem from a period prior to the Babylonian conquest/exile, and that the “sons of Israel” refer primarily to the captives of the fallen northern kingdom of Israel. Parallels with the oracle in 11:11-16 are noteworthy; indeed, Assyria and Egypt are mentioned together there in v. 11. The prophecy in v. 12 declares that both Israel and Judah will be gathered from the nations where they have been exiled. The historical circumstances of such references can be difficult to determine with precision. The obvious explanation is that the lines in 11:12ff were composed following the Babylonian conquest, and yet there were certainly Judeans who had been taken captive (exiled) during the earlier Assyrian conquests as well. Roberts (First Isaiah, Hermeneia [Fortess Press: 2015], pp. 189-90) suggests the possibility that, in the case of the poem in 11:11-16, an earlier Isaian oracle (set in the Assyrian period) was adapted and reinterpreted by a later author/editor (in the Babylonian period).

There can be no real question that chapters 24-27 do make such use of earlier Isaian traditions (I have discussed the point in the prior notes and studies), and that the time-frame of the poems is fundamentally that of the Exilic period of the 6th century B.C. It may well be that here Assyria, as the territory marked by the Euphrates, serves equally for Babylon—both nation-states representing comparable powers from the east that conquered and exiled God’s people.

As far as Egypt is concerned, its significance here has multiple layers of meaning:

    • It is the ancient site of Israel’s first captivity
    • It played a (political) role in the events surrounding both the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests
    • Israelites and Judeans took refuge in Egypt in the wake of those invasions, and many remained there as ‘exiles’
    • The return from exile would follow the type-pattern of the Exodus, with Israel being gathered out of Egypt (Isa 11:15-16, etc)

That being said, the reference to Israelites/Judeans in Egypt, most likely reflects the historical circumstances of the fall of Jerusalem (587/6 B.C.), when large numbers of Judeans fled in its wake (to Egypt), particularly after the assassination of the governor Gedaliah (see 2 Kings 25:24-25; Jeremiah 41ff).

On the (eschatological) theme of Israel’s restoration centered on the “mountain” of God—that is, the city of Jerusalem (Zion), couched in the imagery of cosmological myth—see the earlier study on Isa 2:1-5.

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (4): Isa 27:7-11

Isaiah 27:7-11

Isa 27:7-13 represents the final section of the “Apocalypse” of chaps. 24-27. It is to be viewed as a distinct unit, and the third of three eschatological poems which follow a common pattern: a main poem, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. The only question is whether verse 6 should properly be considered the beginning of this poem or the conclusion of the one prior (26:7ff). I prefer to view it as the conclusion of the earlier poem (see the previous note), though an argument can certainly be made for its inclusion as part of vv. 7-13. The scribe of the Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) appears to have regarded verse 6 as the start of a new section, based on how he spaced the text.

Commentators have found some difficulty interpreting this poem, due to the way that it seems to shift suddenly—from a discussion of Israel (Jacob) in vv. 7-9 to that of an unidentified city in vv. 10-11. I would say that the opening couplet in verse 7 provides the key; though stated elliptically, there is a definite juxtaposition between God’s judgment on His people and that of the other nations (esp. those who oppressed/conquered Israel):

“Was (His) striking him like the striking of (the ones who) struck him?
Is he slain like (the) slaying of (the one) slaying (him)?”

God struck his people with judgment (i.e. conquest/exile), but has also struck (or will strike) those who attacked and conquered Israel (Assyria/Babylon). The Hebrew syntax is very difficult; each line has three component words, the one in the first position being a construct noun (with) preposition. The verbal forms in the second and third positions create problems with establishing the construct chain of relationship. Adding to the difficulty of translation is the fact that all three words in each line are cognate—two roots are involved:

    • Line 1—n¹kâ (hk*n`), “strike”
    • Line 2—h¹rag (gr^h*), “slay”

This duality reflect two aspects of judgment: (1) the initial blow that “strikes” the people, and (2) the result of (many of) the people being killed (“slain”, implying a military attack).

“In driving her, in sending her, He contended with her,
He removed her with His hard wind, in (the) day of q¹¼îm;
based on this, (the) crookedness of Ya’aqob will be wiped (away),
and (with) this, all (the) fruit—(the) turning (away) of his sin.” (vv. 8-9a)

The language in these lines is most difficult, and any translation must be considered tentative at best. Three different verbs are used in the first line, the first of which is quite uncertain. It may mean something like “measure”, related to the word s®°â (ha*s=); however, other commentators suggest a root meaning “drive along/away”, based on the Arabic sa°sa°. I tentatively follow this latter option, as providing a better parallel to the wind-motif in the second line. Another difficulty is the apparent 2nd person verb form t®rnâ (“you contended with her”), which is otherwise out of place in this section; most commentators opt for emending to a 3rd person form (“He [i.e. YHWH] contended with her”), even without any clear textual support for this (from the Qumran scrolls or the ancient versions). The gender shift from feminine suffixes (v. 8) to masculine (v. 9) is also confusing, though not unfrequent in ancient Hebrew poetry (for a similar use of the feminine, see the previous note on verse 6).

The first couplet in v. 8 refers to the Exile, especially vivid with the imagery of harsh east wind blowing, driving the people away (into exile). I left the noun q¹dîm (<yd!q*) untranslated above; technically, it refers to the east-wind (i.e. qdm as alluding to the eastern direction). The root properly refers to something in front, that meets (or strikes) a person; in English idiom, we might speak of something “hitting you in the face”, which would be appropriate here, since the primary image is that of people receiving a blast from the powerful (and hot) eastern wind. This “wind” (rûaµ j^Wr, also meaning “breath” and “spirit”) symbolizes God’s action—the divine judgment that comes upon Israel (and Judah) in the form of a devastating military invasion. By this, YHWH “contends” (vb rî» byr!) with Israel on account of her sins.

Yet, in the case of His people, this divine judgment has a redemptive purpose—it serves to “wipe off/out” (vb k¹¸ar rp^K*) their crookedness (twistedness/perversion) and to “turn away” (vb sûr rWs) their sin. This idea reflects a common theme in the 7th-6th century Prophets: that there will be a faithful “remnant” left following the judgment. However, depending on the precise dating of this poem (see below), it is possible that the message here is meant as a warning to Judah, so that it might yet avert the same kind of punishment experienced by the northern kingdom. More likely, the reference is more general, referring to the return of the people (Israel and Judah) from exile; the removal of all idolatry and wickedness represents part of Israel’s restoration.

Imagery associated with Canaanite religion syncretism—i.e., worship of Canaanite deities along with YHWH—is used to depict wickedness and false religion in traditional terms that would certainly have been familiar to readers/hearers in the 7th-6th centuries. The destruction of pagan altars and the removal of Asherah-images (v. 9b) follows the Deuteronomic prescription—Deut 7:5; 12:13 (see also Exod 32:20; 34:13), etc—and the corresponding reform under Josiah (2 Kings 23:15 par). Thus the land of Israel in the period of restoration will be purged and free from idolatry.

The scene in verse 10-11 suddenly shifts from Israel to an otherwise unnamed “city”. This is best understood in light of the contrast between the judgment on God’s own people (which is redemptive) and the judgment on the other wicked nations (which results in total destruction). Thus the city in vv. 10-11 is similar to the devastated “city of confusion” in 24:10ff; note also the contrast with the secure, fortified city (of the righteous) in 26:1-6. Probably Babylon is most directly in view here, but functioning also as a representative figure-type for the cities of all the nations. The fall of Babylon, with its great city left desolate and in ruin, served as a powerful symbol in the exilic period—one which would last for many centuries (see esp. the use of the imagery in the book of Revelation).

The description in verse 10 begins:

“For the fenced [i.e. fortified] city (is left) alone,
a habitation (with people) sent away, and left (empty)”

The city is desolate and empty, the use of passive forms of the verbs š¹laµ (“send”) and ±¹za» (“leave”) specifically connoting the deprivation of any people—i.e., no one is left living in it. It becomes a pasture (play on the word n¹weh, translated “habitation” above) where animals graze and feed. The branches of once fertile trees and plants have become dry/withered and fallen off; they serve as kindling for the fire of the great Judgment (vv. 10b-11a).

“It [i.e. the city] has no discernment,
(and) for this (reason) the (One) making it has no care for it,
(and) the (One) forming it will show it no favor.” (v. 11b)

This lack of discernment/understanding (bînâ) is frequently brought as a charge against God’s own people Israel in the prophetic oracles of judgment. Here, however, the context suggests that we are dealing with the other nations, viewed collectively as a single “city”. Given the specific juxtaposition in verse 7 (see above), this should be understood primarily as a reference to the conquering empire-states of Assyria and Babylon (the latter being the more direct point of reference). God shows mercy to His people, even in the time of judgment, since the conquest/exile has a redemptive purpose (see above), with a restored people returning from exile into a New Age. By contrast, in the great Judgment against the nations, YHWH will show no mercy—the great City (of the nations) will be utterly ruined and destroyed, ultimately being consumed by fire.

Certain details and points of emphasis in the poem raise the possibility that it stems from a setting in which the Babylonian conquest of Judah (the southern kingdom) has not yet taken place. This could mean a date anywhere from the late 8th to the early 6th century. Some commentators (such as J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia [Fortress Press: 2015]) would date the entirety of chapters 24-27 to the late 7th or early 6th century, prior to the fall of Jerusalem (587). While this is possible, a time-frame more firmly in the mid-6th century seems to me more likely. Indeed, I would say that the final shaping of chaps. 13-27, as a whole, is best located in the mid-6th century, sometime prior to the fall of Babylon (539).

This will be discussed further in the next (and final note) of this set, as we consider the two “Day of YHWH” stanzas in verses 12-13.

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (3): Isa 27:6

Isaiah 27:6

There is some question as to whether verse 6 more properly belongs as part of the poem in 26:7ff or with what follows in 27:7-13. The scribe of the great Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) left a space after verse 5, which indicates that he felt verse 6 started a new section. In my view is seems better to consider it as the closing refrain of the poem in 26:7-27:6. After the two “Day of YHWH” stanzas (see the prior notes on v. 1 and vv. 2-5), we have this final declaration of what will take place for Israel in the coming days.

“(In) the coming (day)s,
He will cause Ya’aqob to take root,
He will make Yisrael blossom and sprout,
and they will fill the face of the t¢»¢l (with) fruit.”

This climactic stanza is a declaration of the restoration of God’s people in the Age to Come. The restoration of Israel (and return from exile) was a frequent theme in the 7th and 6th century Prophets, and one which gradually took on an eschatological significance. That is to say, Israel’s restoration/return would mark the beginning of a New Age for God’s people, coinciding with the end of the current Age. The end of the Age is the time of the great Judgment (the “Day of YHWH”) against the nations and the wicked on earth. This eschatological orientation is found throughout most of chapters 24-27, and is one of the reasons the section is commonly referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Later Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic literature (such as the book of Revelation) was greatly influenced by these chapters.

In our discussion of the vineyard poem in vv. 2-5 (see the previous note in this set), we saw how the severe announcement of judgment in the earlier poem of 5:1-7 was softened considerably in chap. 27, expressed more in terms of a message of hope for God’s people. The sense of warning remained, but framed as an exhortation for Israel to remain faithful to God, in the face of the coming judgment on all the nations of the earth.

The horticultural imagery of the vineyard poem continues in this final stanza, predicting the future fruitfulness of Israel and Judah. In the Age to Come (“[the] coming [days]”), YHWH will act out anew his role as owner of the vineyard, planting and caring for it. Now, however, instead of it producing rotten grapes or thorn bushes (in whole or part), there will be growth so prodigious, and fruit so complete, that it will cover the surface of the earth. The noun t¢»¢l (lb@T@), left untranslated above, is a tricky word to render precisely in English. It generally signifies the surface of the earth or land, along with what is contained in it. Sometimes this refers to the people who live and move about on the land—the earth and its inhabitants, i.e. the inhabited world—other times to natural and geographic features. Implicit in the noun, with its derivation from a root meaning “bring, carry, bear”, is the idea of the fertile parts of the earth—i.e.  those which bring forth and produce fruit. These are also the parts of the land where human beings are likely to set up communities, and where populations will grow. Thus the word t¢»¢l is essential to the overall agricultural imagery of the stanza, a fact that is almost completely obscured when translating it simply as “world” or “earth”.

The fruitfulness of Israel here relates to the common 6th century prophetic theme that the restoration of God’s people will involve a complete transformation of heart and mind—i.e. a new heart and a new spirit—brought about entirely by the action of God’s own Spirit. It is no longer a question of whether or not Israel will choose to be faithful to the covenant; the presence and work of God’s Spirit will ensure that His people remain faithful, holy and pure, now and into the distant future. This important emphasis represents the development of a more general motif—of God “pouring” his Spirit upon the land (and its people) as a whole (see Isa 32:15; 44:3, and my earlier note on these verses). The connection of this agricultural imagery with our passage here in vv. 2-6 is certainly clear enough.