May 11: Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

In the previous note, we saw how the earlier traditions regarding charismatic (i.e., spirit-inspired) leadership and kingship were developed within the oracles and writings of the Prophets (in the 8th-6th centuries B.C.). The verses discussed (Isa 11:2; 28:6) were from the first half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 1-39), which, on the whole, is firmly rooted in the oracles and historical traditions of the prophet Isaiah from the late 8th century (c. 740-701). The situation is rather different with regard to the second half of the book—the so-called Deutero- (chaps. 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). Most critical commentators would hold that the oracles and poems in these chapters, while inspired by the Isaian themes and traditions, were written considerably later, during the Exile and post-Exilic period. Certainly, the main setting and subject matter involves the restoration of Israel and the return of the Judean people from Exile (cf. the reference to Cyrus in 44:28; 45:1, among many other details). While some would defend a traditional-conservative view of Isaian authorship, the message of hope in these passages is more intelligible, and makes more sense for the people of the time, if the exile had already occurred.

In any case, we are looking here at two key passages which draw upon the association of the spirit (j^Wr) of God with prophetic inspiration. In previous notes, we examined early traditions where the divine spirit comes upon (or “rushes” to) a person, resulting in an ecstatic prophetic experience. Such a person is shown to be gifted as a prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) for YHWH, and the speech/action that comes out of the encompassing charismatic/ecstatic experience is a sign that the person is “acting like a ayb!n`” (the denominative verb ab*n` in the reflexive or passive stem). The main passages for this line of tradition are Numbers 11:17-29; 1 Samuel 10:5-13; 18:10 (19:9); 19:20-24.

Isaiah 42:1

The poem in Isa 42:1-9 is generally regarded as the first of the “Servant Songs” in (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the theme had been introduced already in 41:8-9. The couplets in the opening verse establish the focus of the poem:

“See! my servant—I hold firmly (up)on him,
my chosen (one), (in whom) my soul delights!
I have given my spirit [j^Wr] upon him,
(and) he shall bring forth judgment/justice for (the) nations.”

The precise identity and nature of this “servant” (db#u#) have been much debated by commentators throughout the years. In 41:8-9, the “servant” is identified as the people of Israel/Jacob (the “seed of Abraham”) as a whole; however, here, and in subsequent passages, a distinct individual seems to be in view. Perhaps the best explanation is that it is a ayb!n` (prophet/spokesperson), patterned after Moses. The term is used specifically (and in a special sense) of Moses in Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1-2, 7, etc (cf. also Num 11:11; Deut 3:24). Moses was also the first (and supreme) ayb!n` of the early Israelite period (Num 11:17ff; Deut 18:15-18ff); on his role as spokesperson and intermediary between God and the people, cf. especially the tradition in Exod 20:18-21. Just as Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so a servant/prophet like Moses will lead the people in their return from the Exile.

What is clear is that, like Moses, this “servant” will be specially chosen by God to lead, and that the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH will be placed upon him. The spirit-inspired aspect of Moses’ leadership is surprisingly absent from the Pentateuch narratives, but there is at least one important passage where it is emphasized prominently—Numbers 11:10-30, discussed in an earlier note. The ideas expressed in that early tradition seem to relate in some way to the Prophetic theme of the Spirit being given to all the people (v. 29)—to the land and its people as a whole; this will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

With regard to the poem in Isa 42:1-9, the initial theme in verse 1 is developed through the two main sections (or strophes) in different ways:

    • Vv. 1-4—here the focus is on the servant functioning as leader for the people (Israel), establishing justice—i.e., rendering right judgment (fP*v=m!), and setting that pattern throughout the whole society. This justice is based fundamentally upon the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 4b).
    • Vv. 5-7—the Instruction given to Israel is aimed at the wider world—the surrounding nations—as well. This cosmic aspect is introduced with an allusion to the Creation in v. 5, including the important motif of the spirit/breath of God that gives life to all people (cf. the prior notes on Gen 1:2 and 2:7; Job 33:4). The “servant” will apparently play a role in extending God’s covenant with Israel out to the surrounding nations.

Isaiah 61:1

The opening of the oracle in Isaiah 61 is similar in some ways to that of 42:1-9; however, here there is a decidedly stronger emphasis on the idea of Israel’s return and restoration. The opening lines in verse 1 also speak of the spirit of God being given to a chosen ‘servant’:

“(The) spirit [j^Wr] of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me
in that He has anointed me to bring (good) news to (the) oppressed;
He sent me to provide wrapping for the (one)s broken of heart,
to call out release for (the one)s led away (into bondage)
and an opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)”

Here we find again the theme of justice—especially for the poor and oppressed in society. Only now the role of the spirit-inspired figure is narrowed to that of giving a prophetic announcement. It is proper to refer to this individual as an “anointed herald”, similar in many respects to the “voice” ordered to call out a message of salvation and justice in the initial Deutero-Isaian oracles (chap. 40).

The kingship motif of anointing is present here (cf. the discussion in the previous note), only it has been applied specifically to a prophetic context. Scriptural evidence for the anointing of prophets is quite limited, but it seems to have been a perfectly valid line of symbolism. That there were Messianic (i.e. Anointed) Prophet figure-types in subsequent Jewish tradition is clear enough (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Indeed, the Anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff is the Messianic figure-type that best fits Jesus during the time of his active ministry, and is the one with which Jesus specifically identified himself, according to the Gospel accounts. The authenticity of this self-identification would seem to be confirmed, on objective grounds, by its multiple attestation in at least two separate Gospel traditions (Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:20-23 [Q], and Luke 4:17-21ff). There is evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of the passage at Qumran (cf. my article on 4Q521).

May 10: Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

When we turn to the Prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find a significant number of references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God. These occur throughout the writings, but are concentrated especially in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They indicate a development of earlier lines of tradition, regarding the association of the divine spirit with leadership roles in ancient Israel—namely, that of the prophet (ayb!n`) and the king.

In previous notes, we examined the role of the spirit of God in the legitimate establishment and exercise of kingship. Going back to the time of Moses and Joshua, through the period of the Judges, and then with the first Israelite kings (Saul and David), there was a clear principle of spirit-inspired charismatic leadership. The spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH would come upon the person, enabling him/her to function effectively as ruler. The presence of the divine spirit was manifest primarily two ways: (1) giving the person the wisdom and discernment by which to lead, and (2) enabling strength and skill for battle, etc. The former was emphasized, for example, in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9, cf. Num 27:18), while the latter was stressed repeatedly in the Judges narratives. In the David-Saul traditions of Samuel, the connection was primarily between the spirit and the manifestation of an ecstatic prophetic experience (1 Sam 10:6, 11; 11:6; 16:13ff; 18:10; 19:20-24; cp. Num 11:17-29).

By the 8th century B.C., with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy, the older tradition of charismatic leadership more or less disappeared. However, the idea of the spirit of God coming upon the ruler continued, built into the very imagery of the anointing of the king. Thus, for example, we find repeatedly in the Prophets language to the effect that the Spirit of God is “poured out”, i.e. like water or oil. In particular, there are numerous passages which indicate that the anointing of a leader (king or ayb!n`) is in mind. This imagery occurs in numerous passages in the book of Isaiah, both in the first half (chaps. 1-39), as well as the second (so-called Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66).

Isaiah 11:2

Study of the book of Isaiah is complicated by composite nature of the material, and by the rather clear evidence that the book was composed in stages, over a considerable length of time. Even in the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39), which is much more clearly connected with the life and times of the prophet Isaiah himself, there is considerable debate regarding the date and provenance of the oracles, etc. For example, chapters 2-12 comprise a definite division; within this portion, chapters 5-10 unquestionably derive from the later half of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701), while much of 6:1-9:6[7] can be dated even more narrowly, to the time of the Assyrian crisis in the north and the Syro-Ephraemite war (735-732). The surrounding material in chaps. 2-4 and 11-12 is more difficult to date, with some evidence that it may have been composed a century or so later, though perhaps drawing upon authentic Isaian oracles, set in the context of the Babylonian conquest and exilic (or post-exilic) period. I have discussed this to some extent in recent Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah, and will not go over the matter any further here. Such critical theories are, by their nature, rather speculative and subjective, relying on limited evidence from within the text itself.

If Isa 11:1-10 is an authentic Isaian oracle, then it would date from the final decades of the 8th century, much like the rest of the material in chaps. 5-10. In 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7], the promise of a time of peace and prosperity (and restoration) for the people of the northern Kingdom is tied to the coming of a new king from the line of David in Judah (vv. 5-6 [6-7]). Many critical commentators would identify the original historical context of this passage as the accession/coronation of Hezekiah (715 B.C.?). In any case, the “birth” of the king (as in Psalm 2:7) almost certainly refers to the time of his coronation, and reflects the language and ritual symbolism of the ceremonies performed on such occasions. On the significance and background of the divine titles in vv. 5-6 [6-7], cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The same sort of language and imagery occurs in Isaiah 11:1-10, and likewise refers to the rise of a new king from the line of David. An 8th century setting may well have Hezekiah in mind, but, at the very least, would refer to a king coming after (or in place of ) Ahaz. Even if the oracle has a later period in view (Babylonian/Exilic/post-Exilic), the basic hope remains the same; not surprisingly, this came to be a key Messianic passage in later Jewish thought, though it appears to have been adopted less readily by early Christians.

The “golden age” that is ushered in with this king’s rule echoes the language in 2:2-4 (cf. Mic 4:1-4), and illustrates the clear (and intentional) parallelism between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. The king as a descendant of David is alluded to in the opening lines (v. 1): “And a branch will go forth from the trunk of Yishay {Jesse}, and a green shoot from his roots will bear (forth)”. By alluding to the origins of David, the implication is that the new king will recapture the greatness and character of David himself. This is indicated by the emphasis on the special spirit (j^Wr) that will come upon him (cp. this for David in 1 Sam 16:13, following his anointing by Samuel). This is given four-fold expression in verse 2:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH will rest upon him,
(the) spirit of wisdom and discernment,
(the) spirit of counsel and strength,
(the) spirit of knowledge and fear of YHWH.”

The emphasis is on wisdom and knowledge, rather than strength and prowess in battle, etc (in spite of the mention of hr*Wbg+, “strength, greatness, vigor”, in line three, with it possible allusion to military victory). That wisdom and discernment come from the spirit of God is attested, as a general principle, in Job 32:8 etc. The gifted leader was specially endowed with such qualities (e.g., Joshua in Deut 34:9, cf. above), a sign of divine inspiration, and so it is attributed to the new/ideal king here.

Isaiah 28:6

The same basic idea is expressed in Isa 28:6, at the conclusion of a brief oracle, contrasting the failed leadership of the northern Kingdom (which faced judgment in the form of the Assyrian invasions) with the promise of faithful leadership, under the Davidic king, in Judah. It is the presence of YHWH which will offer hope and salvation, even to the survivors of the destruction in the north, and this divine presence (marked by God’s spirit [j^Wr]) will extend to the faithful ruler of the people:

“In that day YHWH of (the heavenly) armies will be
as an encircling (wreath) of splendor and a surrounding (crown) of beauty for the remainder of His people,
and as a spirit [j^Wr] of (right) judgment for (the one) sitting upon the (seat of) judgment,
and as strength [hr*Wbg+] for (the one)s returning battle (at) the gate.” (vv. 5-6)

The two aspects of leadership (cf. above) are clearly delineated in verse 6:

    • “spirit of judgment/justice”, i.e. requiring wisdom and discernment, and
    • “strength” (hr*Wbg+, as in 11:2 [line 3] above)—that is, the vigor of the young warrior in battle; specifically the king leads his warriors to victory in the battle.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study on the references to the Spirit of God in Isaiah, including an examination of several key passages from so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19

Psalm 19

This Psalm is a hymn to YHWH, and, like the previous Ps 18, may represent a combination of two distinct compositions. It can be divided into three sections:

    • vv. 2-7 [1-6], which may be characterized as a nature-hymn, in praise of YHWH as Creator
    • vv. 8-12 [7-11], which extols the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH
    • vv. 13-15 [12-14]: a prayer by the Psalmist, that he would live according to the word and will of God

Many commentators would recognize a 2-part division, with two poems—A and B—joined together. Poem A (vv. 2-7 [1-6]) is thought to be considerably older than Poem B, but both make use of a common set of motifs, reflected in the Genesis Creation account, of creation through the word of God. This “word” is manifest in nature no less than in the written documents of the Torah. The binding image between the two parts of the Psalm is that of the sun (vv. 6-7), to which the Torah may be compared as a source of light for humankind.

The superscription to the Psalm simply indicates that is a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Psalm 19:2-7 [1-6]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“The heavens are giving account of (the) weight of (the) Mighty (One),
and the work of His hands the stamped-out (surface) is putting (up) front;
(from) day to day (there) pours forth (what is) said,
and (from) night to night (there is) declared (what is) known.”

These first two couplets are 4-beat (4+4) bicola. I have preserved much of the word order, as a way of illustrating how the parallelism of Hebrew poetry can be expressed in different ways. The first couplet is a chiasm, establishing the sphere of the universe (or at least, the upper hemisphere) as constituting the expanse (and boundary) of the created world:

    • the heavens (<y]m^V*h^)
      • are giving account (<yr!P=s^m=)
        • (the) weight of the Mighty One (la@ dobK=)
        • (the) work of His hands (wyd*y` hc@u&m^)
      • is putting up front (dyG]m^)
    • the stamped-out [surface] (u^yq!r*h*)

The “heavens” (dual <y]m^v*) represent the entire expanse of the upper hemisphere (of the universe), while the “stamped-out (surface)” is the firm ‘shell’ of the hemisphere that separates the heavens from the waters above. Cf. Gen 1:2, 6-8 for the simple Old Testament expression of this ancient Near Eastern view of the universe (cosmology). The term u^yq!r* literally refers to a surface that has been stamped (or hammered) out. Also parallel are the verbs rp^s* (“count, record”) and dg~n` (Hiphil “put before, set in front, set above”), which refer to something that is continually made known (the regular/continuous aspect indicated here by the use of participles). The central pair in the chiasmus explains what is made known—namely, the weight or worth (dobK*) of YHWH himself, which is made evident through “the work of his hands” (i.e. creation).

The second couplet has a simpler structure, with a precise synonymous parallelism. The main parallel is between “speech” (rm#a), i.e. what is said) and “knowledge” (tu^D^, what is known). The creation, which itself was made through the spoken word of God (Gen 1, etc), speaks in turn of its Creator. This takes place all the time, every moment, from “day to day” and “night to night”.

Verses 4-5ab [3-4]

“There is no(thing) said, and there are no words—
their voice cannot be heard;
(yet) in all the earth their gathering-call goes forth,
and, at the end of what (the earth) contains, their (word)s in response.”

This pair of 4+3 couplets expounds the point made in vv. 2-3—that is, how the universe can “speak” and declare (make known) the truth of its Creator, El-Yahweh. The world cannot actually speak (as a person would), yet it still has a wordless “voice” (loq) that can declare this truth everywhere and at all times. The negative point is stated in the first couplet, using the particle of absence (/ya@, “there is no…”) twice in line 1, and then a separate particle indicating failure/inability (yl!B=) in line 2. The corresponding positive statement is in the second couplet (v. 5ab). The parallel between “the earth” and lb@t@ is similar to that between “the heavens” and u^yq!r* in verse 2 (cf. above). Both indicate the boundary, and the extent/expanse, of the hemisphere of the universe. The noun lb@t@ is actually quite difficult to translate in English. The root lby has the basic meaning of “bring, carry, transport”, but the derived noun lb@t@, insofar as it relates to the inhabited earth/world, seems to refer to what the earth contains—i.e., all that lives and moves on/in it. I have attempted to convey this in the translation above, though not without some awkwardness. The “voice” of creation is manifest by the very life that exists dynamically in nature—it calls things to gather together, and they come, answering in response.

Verses 5c-7 [4c-6]

“For (the) sun He set a tent in them,
and he (is) as a bridegroom going forth from his covering,
he rejoices as a strong youth to run (along) his path;
from the end of the heavens (is) his going forth,
and his coming round (again) unto their ends—
there is no turning (away) from his pavilion.”

The structure and rhythm of these closing lines is curious. The two couplets of vv. 6-7ab (4+4 and 3+3, respectively) are flanked by single lines at the beginning and end. This would indicate an inclusio, suggesting that the first and last lines (5c, 7c) are parallel. For this reason, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 123) in reading the final word wtmjm as “from his pavilion [tm^j@]”, rather than MT (“from his heat [hM*j^]”). The word —mt (“tent, pavilion”) is known in Ugaritic (cf. Kirta I. col. iii. line 55), as well as in Arabic and other cognate languages. Less certain is the parsing of rT*s=n] as a reflexive t-infixed conjugation of the root rWs (“turn [away/aside]”), though that would seem to fit the context. The MT reads the verb as a simple Niphal form of rts (“hide, conceal”). Unfortunately, there is little help to be had from a comparative study of the Qumran texts, as Ps 19 is preserved in just one small fragmentary MS (11QPsc).

The focus on the sun (vm#v#) is quite natural, as the most visible (and sensible) manifestation of the creative power. The life-giving power of the sun is readily apparent, as is the extent to which human beings (and all living creatures) are dependent on it. Within the ancient Near Eastern milieu, it was in Egypt that we see the greatest emphasis on the creative power of the sun (Re), and as the manifestation of the deity as Creator (Re-Atum). However, such solar-imagery was equally applicable to El-Yahweh as the Creator; commentators have repeated noted the similarities, for example, between Psalm 104 and the hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun) from the Amarna period in Egypt.

Next week’s study will explore the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 8-15 [7-14]), the putative second poem praising the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10

Two of the most famous Messianic passages in the Old Testament occur in the portion of Isaiah we have been considering initially in these studies on the book (chaps. 2-12)—8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10. We must look at these passages from the standpoint of historical– and composition-criticism, as a way of highlighting the important principle that a proper interpretation needs to begin (and proceed) from a careful grammatical-historical approach to the text.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In the most recent studies, I discussed certain critical aspects of the composition of Isaiah 2-12. While the date and provenance of portions of these chapters may be debated, there can be no question that 6:1-9:6[7] derives from the prophet Isaiah’s own time, and contains key historical and biographical material from the prophet, covering the last 40 years of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701). This section centers on the Assyrian crisis (and the Syro-Ephramaite war) during the years 735-732 B.C., and provides a firm historical setting. At the same time, the situation regarding the surrounding chapters (2-5, 9:7[8]-12:6) is more complex. A plausible critical theory would involve a three-stage process of composition and editing/redaction:

    • 6:1-9:6: a core document, presumably produced by the prophet’s own disciples (see the notice in 8:16), not long after the events of 735-2; it contains authentic Isaian material—oracles, and historical-biographical traditions.
    • At some point, this document was placed within the context of chapters 5 and 9:7-10:34, which seem to represent authentic Isaiah oracles from the late 8th century (prior to 701). The emphasis is more on the theme of the impending judgment—warning Judah of the coming judgment from Assyria, and an oracle against the great nation of Assyria itself. Critical commentators are generally agreed that 5:25-30 and 10:1-4a have been misplaced, swapped from one location to the other; this may have occurred as a way of smoothing the transition when the 6:1-9:6 document was included.
    • The addition of chapters 2-4, 11-12. This material appears to stem from a later period of composition, but likely still includes authentic Isaian material (though perhaps in an adapted form). It would seem that the oracles and traditions, related to the Assyrian crisis and its effect on Judah (chaps. 5-10), have been adapted to the context of the Babylonian conquest (and exile) more than a century later. The historical parallels between the two periods are obvious, and such an adaptation by a later author/editor would have been most natural. Evidence for such a dating of chaps. 2-4 was discussed in an earlier study, and will be addressed again in the upcoming study on 11:1-10.

I discussed 9:5-6 [6-7] in some detail as part of an earlier article (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). I will be reproducing portions of that two-part article here (and in next week’s study), and you should consult it for an in-depth examination of the text. With regard to the historical background of 6:1-9:6[7] as a whole, it may be summarized for each of the sections/components of that document as follows:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah (discussed in the prior two Saturday Series studies), accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has also been discussed extensively in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It contains a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Clearly, 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] functions as the conclusion of the document, and there is some evidence that it, along with portions of 8:5-22, stems from a slightly later time than the rest of 6:1-9:6. Many commentators would identify this with the accession/coronation of Hezekiah, and in this they are likely correct. The beginning of Hezekiah’s reign is typically dated to 715 B.C., though some would locate that event as early as 729, placing it closer in time to the events of 735-2 (see above). Early Christians were quick to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy (of Jesus’ coming/birth, cf. Matthew 4:12-16), and it is simply accepted in this light by many Christians today as well. However valid such an interpretation may be, it is important to keep the original historical context of the passage in mind as we study it. That is to say, how would it have been understood in the 8th century, by the people of the time, to whom the oracle was primarily addressed? The original point-of-reference is almost certainly that of Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah at the time of the Assyrian campaigns, when the kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) was saved from destruction and conquest.

Keeping this setting in mind, we can see how, in 11:1-10, the same sort of tradition—regarding a king who would oversee a time of salvation and peace for both Israel and Judah—could be adapted to the later context of the Babylonian conquest, providing a message of hope to the people of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. It even makes possible a future/eschatological interpretation of the oracle, part of the Messianic expectation of Jews and Christians in generations to come.

In next week’s study, we will proceed with a brief, but thorough, exegesis of both 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10, touching upon important critical questions and issues, and other points of interpretation, along the way.

May 7: Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Before continuing in these notes on the subject of the association between the Spirit of God and prophecy (cf. the previous note), and how it was developed in the Prophetic writings, let us pause to consider briefly today the few references to the Spirit (j^Wr) in the Psalms. We already looked at Ps 51:12-14 [10-12] in an earlier note, where the three-fold use of j^Wr occurred in the context of the ancient tradition and (royal) theology, whereby the legitimacy of rule was based on a (charismatic) gifting by the presence of the spirit of God (discussed in prior notes). However, within the Psalm, this idea has been generalized somewhat, to the point where it could easily be applied the average person or the people of God as a whole. What is most important to note is the way that sin and impurity breaks the covenant bond with YHWH and stands as a barrier to experiencing the presence of His Spirit. This is the significance of the qualitative term “holy” —i.e. “your holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of your holiness”).

There are three other references to the “spirit” of God in the Psalms, and in each of these, the term j^Wr essentially stands for the presence of God, drawing upon the language and imagery of the Creation account (Gen 1:2, etc, cf. the earlier note)—that is, as a breath or wind that extends over the entire universe and gives life to all things.

Psalm 104:29-30

Psalm 104 is among the grandest of the Psalter, a hymn extolling the creative power of YHWH—that is, YHWH as the Creator God (identified with the Semitic ‘El). As many commentators have noted, the Psalm resembles the Egyptian hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun), composed during the Amarna period, in the way that it describes the deity’s life-giving and sustaining power as it touches the different parts of creation. Ultimately, however, this Psalm is a uniquely Israelite composition, adapting and applying the cosmological tenets of ancient Near Eastern thought entirely to El-Yahweh.

In verses 27-30, the focus is on the sustenance YHWH provides, for all living beings on earth, by way of His own life-sustaining power. This extends from the manifestation of His power within the natural order, through the food that is available to creatures (vv. 27-28), to a consideration of His immanent presence in a more general sense (vv. 29-30). This latter aspect is defined in terms of the contrast between life and death—i.e. His presence brings life, while the absence of His presence causes death.

The rhythm and meter of vv. 29-30 is irregular, and may reflect an adaptation of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format to produce a chiastic structure:

    • The face of God (His presence)
      • Death from the absence of His spirit
        • The dust from which humans were created
      • Life from the presence of His spirit
    • (His presence over) the face of the earth

Within this parallelism, there is a clear correspondence between the “face” of God and His “spirit/breath” (j^Wr). As far as the corresponding idea of the “face” of the earth is concerned, we may recall the imagery from Gen 1:2, where the spirit/breath of God hovers over the “face” of the deep (i.e. the dark mass of the primeval waters). With this structure in mind, here is a translation of the extended pair of couplets, with the additional/central line in italics:

“You hide your face and they are disturbed,
you gather (up your) breath [j^Wr] and they perish
and return to dust;
you send (out) your breath [j^Wr] and they are created,
you make new the face of the ground [hm*d*a&].”

In light of this parallelism, I am inclined to follow Dahood (pp. 46-47) in reading the <-suffixes in v. 29b as enclitics, rather than the 3rd person plural suffix. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa, which specifically reads “your breath” (as a correction?), confirms that this is the intended meaning. There may well be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay, since, clearly, the removal of God’s breath (spirit) leads to the removal of the human breath/spirit (i.e. their death). The reference to the “ground” (hm*d*a&, i.e. the surface of the earth) also involves some traditional (and longstanding) word-play with <d*a* (“man, humankind”).

Psalm 139:7

In this Psalm, of a type found rather frequently in the collection, the Psalmist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. The first half (vv. 1-13) is a meditative hymn on the all-encompassing presence and power of God, the heart of which, we may say is the couplet in verse 7, where we find the same parallelism of face / spirit as in 104:29-30 (cf. above). Both the terms “face” (pl. <yn]P*) and “breath/spirit” (j^Wr) fundamentally signify the presence of YHWH. The parallelism of the 3+3 couplet is simple and precise:

“(To) where shall I walk (away) from your spirit,
and (to) where shall I run away from your face?”

In later theological terminology, we would refer to this as part of an overall statement in the Psalm on the omnipresence of God—YHWH is everywhere, His presence extending over the entire “face” of the earth.

Psalm 143:10

Ps 143 may be regarded as a penitential Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 51 (discussed in a prior note), but more properly functioning as prayer to YHWH that justice be done. It consists of two parallel parts (vv. 1-6, 7-12). The word j^Wr (“spirit, breath”) occurs three times, each of which involves parallels or associations already encountered in these notes:

    • Verse 4— “spirit” (j^Wr) is parallel with “heart” (bl@), referring to the inner life-force or essence of a person; in his suffering and distress, the Psalmist feels his life-force emptying.
    • Verse 7—again the idea is of the Psalmist’s life-breath departing (ending, vb hl*K*), only now the association is with God’s own life-sustaining presence (i.e. His “face”) being removed (cp. Ps 51:13 [11]) from him.
    • Verse 10—as in Ps 51:14 [12], the emphasis here is on the Psalmist being renewed/restored by the stimulating and guiding spirit of God. The verse is comprised of a pair of 3+2 couplets, exhibiting synthetic parallelism:
      “Teach me to do your pleasure,
      for you (are) my Mightiest (One);
      may your good spirit [j^Wr] guide me
      into the straight [i.e. level] land.”
      The expression “good spirit” (hb*of j^Wr) is similar in certain respects to “holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of holiness”) and “stimulating spirit” in Ps 51:13-14 [11-12]. The “straight” land has a dual-meaning: (a) its smooth/level surface characterizes the heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and (b) it alludes to the straight (i.e. upright) character of the righteous.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms III: 101-150, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A (1970).

 

 

 

May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

May 4: 1 Samuel 16:13-15 etc (continued)

1 Samuel 16:13-15

In the previous note, we considered the role of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in determining and guiding political leadership in ancient Israel. In the case of the Judges, this involved primarily military leadership in times of warfare and national crisis. Previously this was also true of Joshua, though the Scriptures also mention the wisdom he possessed due to the presence/activity of the divine spirit. With the Judges, as also Saul and David in the book of Samuel, the spirit of God is said to “rush” (vb jl^x*) upon them, indicating a rather violent sort of experience. This was fitting for the inspiration of prophetic ecstasy as well as for the strength and aggression needed for military action.

Overall, these traditions suggest a concept of charismatic leadership, understood as being the product of possession by a divine spirit. In the ancient world, gifted individuals were seen as possessing such a spirit; the word genius in English preserves a vestige of this original meaning. The signs of such giftedness could be superficial, drawing on certain aspects of personal appearance, as well as based on the obvious markers of natural ability and skill, physical strength, etc. For example, Saul possessed these natural signs (1 Sam 9:2), making him a clear candidate for leadership. David in his own way had these same attributes (of beauty, strength, skill, etc)—cf. 16:18; 17:1-18:8—though the narrative in Samuel also makes certain efforts to downplay this, as a way of emphasizing the unique choice of David by YHWH (16:6-7, etc). An important detail in the narrative is David’s musical ability, in addition to all the other factors (16:16-18, 23), which serves as a clear contrast to Saul’s deteriorating condition.

Once God’s spirit “rushes” to David (16:13), it is clear that Saul can no longer serve in this role as leader, according to the ancient principles of charismatic leadership. In the very next verse we read:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH turned (away) from (being) with Ša’ûl, and an evil [hu*r*] spirit from YHWH terrorized him.” (v. 14)

While God’s rejection of Saul is explained, to some extent, in chapter 15, according to the prophetic viewpoint of the author, it scarcely suffices as an explanation for the phenomenon narrated here. It is difficult for modern-day readers to understand the ancient worldview, with regard to the cause-and-effect of certain psychological and physiological conditions. To begin with, the idea of an “evil spirit” (hu*r* j^Wr) does not necessarily imply the kind of malevolent personal power we often associate with the term. Rather, it is “evil” (ur^) in the sense that it is the cause of something bad—such as illness, incapacity, or any manner of misfortune. In the ancient Near East, virtually any physical or mental illness was seen as caused by the activity/influence of a deity or spirit. This same worldview existed among the Israelites, and is clearly reflected in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. However, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, all such divine activity was under YHWH’s control, and the spirits causing disease and death were sent by Him. That is why the text can state that the evil spirit comes from YHWH—just as He sends out a lying/deceitful spirit in 1 Kings 22:22-23. It is only much later that a more dualistic worldview developed, whereby the the spirits/powers causing evil were seen as operated separately from God (and opposed to him).

It is clear from the narrative that Saul is struck by a certain kind of illness—we would probably refer to it as a mental or psychological disorder (such as schizophrenia)—marked by paranoia, outbursts of anger and violence, etc. This serves as the basis for the conflict that arises between Saul and David. At first, the king is soothed and helped by David, through his musical ability (16:16, 23). This is described, from the ancient viewpoint, in terms of the evil spirit “turning away” (rWs, the same verb used in v. 14) and leaving Saul:

“And it was (that), in (the) (evil) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest coming [i.e. when it came] to Ša’ûl, and Dawîd took the harp and made music (on it) with his hand, (then) there was spirit/breath [jw~r*] (again) for Ša’ûl, and (all was) good with him, and (the) evil spirit turned (away) from (being) upon him.” (v. 23)

The relationship between the noun j^Wr (“breath, spirit”) and the related verb jw~r* (“breathe”) here is hard to convey in English translation. It is a reminder that the fundamental meaning of the root jwr is not “spirit”, but “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing).

1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-10

This same scenario is described again in 19:9-10, but this time David’s playing, apparently, is not enough to ease Saul’s illness. Things had deteriorated for Saul, and the king lashes out at David with violence:

“And the evil spirit of YHWH came to be to [i.e. upon] Ša’ûl, and he was sitting in his house and his spear (was) in his hand, and Dawîd was making music (on the harp) with his hand. And Ša’ûl sought to strike at Dawîd with the spear [and in(to) the wall], but Dawîd got through (away) from (the) face [i.e. presence] of Ša’ûl, and the spear struck in(to) the wall, and Dawîd fled and made (his) escape on that night.”

There is a doublet (a second version) of this tradition in 18:10-11, part of the complex situation surrounding the composition of these narratives, and how the various historical traditions were preserved and included. There are several details which strongly indicate that 18:10-11 genuinely represents a second (separate) preserved version of the historical tradition:

    • When the evil spirit comes upon Saul, he “acts like a ayb!n`” (vb ab*n` in the reflexive hithpael stem), that is, like an ecstatic inspired prophet; the spirit also “rushes” (vb jl^x*) on Saul, as it does upon the prophets and charismatic leaders (cf. above). Here, this is probably meant to convey several things:
      • The violent character of the spirit’s influence, resulting in unusual and aggressive behavior
      • That Saul was “raving”, seemingly out of his mind, uttering strange words
      • That he was truly possessed by a divine spirit, as the ecstatic prophets were—only this time it was an evil spirit of God (i.e. sent by God), which results in more negative and destructive conduct.
    • Saul’s intent to harm David is expressed: “I will strike Dawîd…”
    • It is said that David evaded his attack twice (an allusion to the second version of the tradition in 19:9-10?)

It is interesting that, in the overall course of the narrative, after this episode Saul again is struck by the ecstatic prophetic spirit (19:18-24). This largely repeats his earlier experience narrated in 10:5-12; it contains the same elements—the role of Samuel, a group of ecstatic prophets gathered together, a sacred “high place” site, etc. However, this time Saul arrives with the evil intent of arresting David, and the onrush of the (prophetic) spirit serves to waylay these efforts, disabling Saul for a full day and night. These two parallel scenes frame the period of Saul’s role as divinely-inspired leader. The first precedes the coming of God’s spirit on him (11:6), and the second follows the departure of that spirit (16:14ff). It is a vivid reminder of how closely connected the prophetic spirit was to the tradition of charismatic leadership in the ancient world.

In light of this theme of God’s spirit departing from a person, it is worth considering the famous expression of this idea in Psalm 51; this we will do in the next daily note.

 

May 3: 1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

In the previous note, mention was made of the tradition in 18:10 of the evil spirit from God that came upon Saul. This is part of a wider line of tradition in the book of Samuel, involving the conflict between Saul and David. The folkloric elements and style of these David narratives can make it difficult to discern clearly the shape of the underlying historical tradition. To this must be added certain text-critical difficulties, especially in instances where a basic tradition is narrated or explained two different ways in the text.

1 Samuel 16:13-15

The Saul-David conflict is introduced in 16:14ff, but within the overall narrative the theological basis for it was presented earlier, in chapter 15—a traditional narrative intended to explain, from the prophetic standpoint of the author, why Saul was rejected (by God) and David chosen in his place. The choice of David follows in 16:1-13, and ends with the climactic statement:

“And the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH rushed [jl^x=T!] to Dawîd, from that day and upward [i.e. beyond]” (v. 13)

We saw how this same verb jl^x* (“rush [ahead], push [forward]”) was used of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in 10:6, 11, where it referred to the affect of God’s spirit on those gifted to be prophets (<ya!yb!n+)—manifest specifically in ecstatic experience (and the strange/unusual behavior that accompanied it). Saul came to experience this same ecstatic onrush of God’s spirit, and it was some time after this that the spirit of God rushed upon him (again), enabling/inspiring him to act (as leader) on behalf of his people (11:6).

The two primary aspects of the Spirit’s influence that we have so far studied in these passages—(1) wisdom/discernment, and (2) violent possession of an individual—are combined together, equally we might say, in the gifted leader. We saw this role of the Spirit, in more general  terms, in the case of Moses as spokesperson (ayb!n`) and guide of the people. Though there is no apparent evidence in the Pentateuch for Moses undergoing ecstatic prophetic experience, it seems to have occurred among the 70 elders who partook in the prophetic spirit (of God) that was upon him (cf. the prior note on Num 11:13-30). It is not surprising that Moses’ successor, Joshua, as leader (and spokesperson for God) over the people, would also have the spirit of God present in/on him (Num 27:18). While Joshua was gifted with wisdom (aspect #1 above, cf. Deut 34:9), we may say that the divine spirit was manifest in him more properly in terms of his military leadership, since he oversaw the military campaigns involved in the initial Israelite settlement of the land.

The violence/aggression brought about through the presence of God’s spirit, was especially well-suited for military action, and it is no real surprise that the Spirit features in the narratives of the Judges—persons gifted by God to serve as (military) leaders in times of crisis. The military aspect of these rulers was prominent, the people being otherwise, in normal circumstances, governed by a representative federation of the tribes and clans. The author of the book of Judges makes no attempt whatever to whitewash or explain away the negative (even destructive) characteristics of these leaders, demonstrating that their gifting was, indeed, largely military in nature, and, on the whole, they scarcely would be held up as paragons of religious devotion or morality.

Let us here briefly survey the relevant references in Judges:

    • 3:10 (of Othniel): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon him, and he judged Yisrael and went forth to do battle
    • 6:34 (Gideon): “And the spirit of YHWH wrapped (itself around) Gideon {lit. Hacker}…” (and he sounded the horn, i.e. assembling the people for battle)
    • 11:29 (Jephthah): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon Yiphtah, and he crossed over…”
    • 13:25 (Samson): “And the spirit of YHWH began to ‘step’ (on) him [i.e. Samson, as a youth]…”
    • Three times in the Samson narratives the spirit “rushes” on him, using the same verb jl^x* noted above; the result is a burst of unusual physical power and aggression, including being directed against Israel’s enemy the Philistines—14:6, 19; 15:14.

In the next daily note, we will return to the Saul-David narrative in 1 Samuel, to explore a bit further how the presence and activity of God’s spirit relates to the (political) conflict between the two men. This will be instructive in terms of how the work of the Spirit was understood within the early strands of Israelite religion and tradition.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 4

Psalm 18:32-51

Psalm 18:32-46 [31-45]

Verses 32-46 [31-45] mark a clear section of the Psalm, and, according to many critical commentators, represent the bulk of an original poem that was combined (with vv. 1-31) to comprise the current work as we have it (in Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22). The theme throughout is that of the military victory that YHWH brings to the faithful ruler. Certainly this the line of imagery is rooted in the ancient Israelite/Judean royal theology, though we must cautious about reading specific historical circumstances into the text. The military/victory theme provides a suitable complement to the deliverance theme in the first half of the Psalm (esp. verses 4-20).

Verse 32 [31]

“For who (is the) Mighty (One) apart from YHWH?
Who (is the) Rock apart from our Mightiest (One)?”

The initial couplet extols YHWH as the Mighty One (la@, i.e. ‘God’). It is not a statement of absolute monotheism, but confirms that the only true (and proper) God for the people of Israel is El-Yahweh—that is, YHWH identified as the “Mighty One”, the ancient Semitic Creator Deity (‘El). On this qualified monotheism in the Israelite religion of the late-2nd and early-1st millennium, see, for example, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:3, 8-12, 15, 17-18, 30-31, 36ff). Cf. especially Deut 32:31, where the same divine appellative “Rock” (rWx) is used precisely to make this distinction that (only) YHWH is Israel’s God, greater and mightier than all others. A literal rendering here of la@ and <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty” and “Mightiest” is especially useful in preparing the way for the strength/victory motifs that follow.

Verse 33 [32]

“The Mighty (One is) my place of security,
and the (One) giving strength (of arms)—
(the) path of His (power is) complete!”

Verse 33 [32], in the text as we have it, would seem to be a 2+2+2 tricolon. Given the parallels between vv. 33-35 and Habakkuk 3:19, it is possible that a traditional 3-beat tricolon has been expanded (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 30). In the first line, Ps reads yn]r@Z+a^m=h^ (“the one girding me”), while 2 Sam has yZ]Wum* (“my place of security”); the latter is more concise and a more suitable parallel for the second line. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114, along with Freedman) in reading the MT /T@y] (“he gives”) as = participle /t@y) (“[the] one giving”); 2 Sam mistakenly reads the verb rty for /ty. I also understand yK!R=d^ in line 3 as preserving a y– 3rd person masculine suffix (“His way”); cp. the standard 3rd person o– suffix (oKr=d^) in 2 Sam. The royal theological background here also supports the connotation “domain, dominion” for ird, which I render above as “path (of power)”.  The corresponding line in Hab 3:19a is: “YHWH my Lord (is) my strength” (yl!yj@ yn`d)a& hwhy).

Verses 34-35 [33-34]

“Making my feet like (those of) a deer,
He lets me stand upon His high places;
teaching my hand(s) for battle,
He brings down (the) bronze bow (in) my arms.”

Following the relative difficulties in v. 33, verses 34-35 have a clearer sense, a pair of 3+3 couplets that expound the strength that YHWH gives to the Psalmist. The rhythm and idiom is a bit awkward, due to a mixing of motifs; the main difficulty is in the last line, where the precise sense of the image is unclear. Overall, the imagery relates to physical strength and prowess, used to represent military ability and leadership in battle. In the first couplet, the focus is on the feet—in terms of speed and leaping ability (the deer [lY`a^] makes for a natural comparison). The second couplet has the parallel idea of the hands (or arms)—there is no corresponding motif from nature, but a clear interpretation in terms of military skill. As the second line of the first couplet contains the idea of ascent, it seems likely that the verb tj^n` in the parallel line of the second couplet specifically denotes descent. The image seems to be that of a divinely-touched bow (tv#q#) descending (from heaven) into the Psalmist’s arms. The word hv*Wjn+ presumably means “bronze” (cp. Job 20:24); however, there are several distinct roots vjn in Hebrew, and Dahood (p. 115) would derive hvjn here from the root signifying enchantment (i.e. divination, etc)—i.e., an enchanted bow. Perhaps some such wordplay is involved, as there is also between vjn and tjn. In any case, the divinely-touched bow symbolizes military skill that is inspired/guided by YHWH.

The corresponding couplet in Hab 3:19b-c is:

“He sets my feet (to be) like a deer,
He makes me tread upon His high places”

As in the Psalm, it is best to read the y– of yt^omB* as preserving the 3rd person suffix (“His high places”), frequent in older poetry and easily confused with the standard 1st-person suffix (i.e., “my high places”).

Verses 36-37 [35-36]

“You have given to me (the) protection [i.e. shield] of your salvation,
[your right hand holds me up]
and your conquering (power) has increased m(y ability);
you have made wide my steps beneath me,
and (so) my ankles did not slip (out from under).”

Ps 18 has an additional line in the first couplet (in square brackets above), and the irregular meter also indicates likely corruption in the text; the shorter reading in 2 Sam is probably to be preferred. The imagery of military strength and prowess is continued from the prior couplets, only here the idea of victory and success (in battle) is included. The ‘shield’ of YHWH’s protection saves the Psalmist, and his own ability to conquer (root wnu/hnu) similarly comes from YHWH, bringing an increase (vb hbr) in his skill/strength. Similarly, God gives to him secure footing and strong support on the ground.

Verses 38-39 [37-38]

“I pursued my enemies and reached them,
and I did not return until I finished them;
I struck them and they were not able to rise,
they fell (dead there) under my feet!”

Here the Psalmist’s victory in battle is described, with a pair of 3+3 couplets that exhibit a more dramatic synthetic parallelism (the second line building upon the first). In both couplets, the text of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam 22, which reads “I destroyed them” instead of “I reached them” and “I finished them” (repeating the same verb from the end of the first couplet) instead of “I struck them”.

Verses 40-41 [39-40]

“You girded me (with) strength for (the) battle,
you bent (the one)s rising on me (to be) beneath me;
you gave my enemies to me (by the) neck,
the (one)s hating me—and I put and end to them!”

The slightly irregular rhythm of these couplets may be intentional, for dramatic effect, bringing a climax to the idea of the Psalmist’s victory over his enemies. The second couplet seems to build on the imagery of the first—the victorious warrior standing on the neck of his defeated enemy. I follow the reading of 2 Sam in the position of the w-conjunction in the last line, occurring before the final verb; again this adds to the dramatic effect.

Verses 42-43 [41-42]

“They called for help, and there was no (one) saving (them),
(even) upon YHWH, and He did not answer them;
I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path,
(and) like the mud outside I stamped them (down)!”

The defeat of the Psalmist’s enemies is complete in these two couplets, the second of which shows signs of corruption in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam. The Qumran Samuel manuscript 4QSama seems to preserve something close to the original reading of v. 43 [42]; in any case, it allows us to reconstruct it. As indicated above, the first line is:

I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path [jr^a)]

In Ps 18, jra seems to have been confused with jwr (“wind”), with the word yn@P= (“face of”) perhaps added to fill out the idiom (i.e. dust strewn about in the face of the wind). By contrast, in 2 Sam, jra was apparently misread as Jra (“earth”). The final verb of the second line in 2 Sam is <q@yr!a& (“I poured them out”), which appears to be a misreading of <u@q*r=a# (“I pounded/stamped them”), found also in Ps 18 but conflated with the synonymous <Q@d!a& (“I crushed them”).

Verses 44-46 [43-45]

“You delivered me from (the) arrows of (the) people,
and set me as (the) head of nations;
people I have not known shall serve me,
at (the) hearing of (their) ear they are made to hear me;
sons of an alien (people) submit themselves before me,
and are restrained by (the bond)s enclosing their (necks)!”

These closing lines of the poem of victory are most difficult, both textually and metrically, and in terms of sense. The precise imagery, for example, in the first couplet is hard to determine. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 117) in reading MT yb@yr! (“strivings/conflicts[?] of”) as = yB@r^ (“arrows [of]”), from the root bbr II; another possibility is oBr! (“multitudes”) from bbr I. Either of those two options seems better to fit the military imagery of the poem. Equally problematic is the second line of the couplet, where Ps has the verb <yc! (“you set me to [be] head”), while 2 Sam has rm^v* (“you guarded me as[?] head”). Dahood suggests that rm^v* is original, and that var) is not “head”, but a separate word (var)) meaning “poison”; this would yield a synonymous parallel:

“You delivered me from (the) arrows[?] of (the) people,
and guarded me against (the) poison of (the) nations”

However, it seems that a synthetic parallelism is more appropriate to these verses—i.e., God delivers the Psalmist, and so sets him as head over nations, that is, as a victorious sovereign over vassal kings. This would be fully in keeping with the underlying royal theology of the Psalm.

The textual difficulties in the last two couplets are even more acute. I follow McCarter (pp. 461-2), in reconstructing vv. 45-46 primarily on the basis of the shorter text in 4QSama. On this basis, it would seem that both Ps 18 and 2 Sam (MT) contain an extra (conflate) line: “sons of an alien (people) shrink [before me]” = “sons of an alien (people) cringe (?) before me”. The latter is preferred as the reading of v. 46a, though the exact meaning of the verb sj^k* is a bit difficult to determine. As this verb is used in the Old Testament, it seems to have the basic meaning “fail, fall short”, though on a few occasions it (or a separate root sjk) is used in the context of a defeated enemy, much as it is here (cf. Deut 33:29, also Ps 66:3; 81:15). Perhaps the idea in these instances is of a person showing weakness, either in the sense of submitting to the victorious party or cringing, etc, before them; both options are attested in the translations.

The final line, punctuating the poem, has its own complications. The verb rg~j* fundamentally means “surround”, sometimes in the sense of “restrain”, which almost certainly is the meaning here; Ps 18 incorrectly reads gr^j* (“tremble”) instead of rg~j*. The last word, a suffixed plural form of tr#G#s=m! (from rg~s*, “shut [up], close”), refers to something that encloses a person, possibly meant here in terms of a neck-collar that binds the prisoners of war (cf. verse 41 for the emphasis on the enemy’s neck). This is how I have chosen to render the line above (cf. McCarter, p. 472).

Psalm 18:47-51 [46-50]

The final portion of the Psalm is a brief hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH, similar in some respects to the concluding section of the first half (vv. 21-31), emphasizing the justice, etc, of YHWH.

Verses 47-49 [46-48]

“(By the) life of YHWH—blessed (be) my Rock,
and lifted high (the) Mightiest (One) of my salvation,
the Mighty (One), the (one) giving vengeance for me,
and (the one) bringing down peoples under me,
bringing me out from my enemies, and from (the one)s rising (against) me—
you lift me high up from (such a) man,
you snatch me (away) from (the) violent (one)s!”

After two couplets praising YHWH, the third opens up into a tricolon punctuated (in v. 49b) by a pair of two-beat lines extolling the deliverance and victory that God gives to the Psalmist. This again is part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, focused specifically on the Davidic line (cf. below). The rendering of uv*y# and hm*q*n+ by “salvation” and “vengeance”, respectively, can be rather misleading; here they need to be construed more narrowly in terms of military victory, and the vindication of the king’s rule, rather than in the more general moral and religious sense. However, the message certainly could be (and was) applied to the people of God more generally, especially as the Psalm came to circulate and be used in a worship setting. The emphasis on deliverance in v. 49 returns to the main theme in the first half of the Psalm.

Verses 50-51 [49-50]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] will I throw you (praise), O YHWH,
and make music to your name among the nations,
(the One who) makes salvation great (for) His king,
and acts (with) loyalty to His Anointed,
to Dawîd and his seed unto (the) distant (future)!”

The final two couplets form a doxology, bringing the Psalm to a close. Whatever we me say about the date or composition of the main portions (poems) of the Psalm, almost certainly this doxology was added when they were brought together into a single poetic work. The last line, with its reference to David, confirms the Davidic association of the Psalm (cf. the superscription and the location in 1-2 Samuel), and, most likely, the early Judean milieu, during which time the complete poem could be copied and transmitted (along with certain scribal errors and adaptations), before its inclusion within Samuel and the Psalter, respectively.

The noun ds#j# (“goodness”) is the key term for the idea of covenant loyalty throughout the Psalm—i.e., as the Psalmist is faithful/loyal to YHWH (as his Sovereign), so God will respond in kind, rescuing him in his time of distress and giving him victory over his enemies.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965). “McCarter” refers to P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 9 (1984).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.