February 11: Isaiah 40:3

Isaiah 40:3

“A voice (is) calling (out):
‘Turn (your) face in the outback (to) the way/path of YHWH!
Make straight in the steppe a place (to walk) up for our Mighty (One) [Elohim]!'”

Verse 3 is the portion of the poem that was applied by early Christians to the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3 par). As I discuss in the article on this passage (in the series “The Old Testament and the Gospel Tradition”), there is strong reason to think that John the Baptist made use of this Scripture himself, as a point of self-identification and the reason for his presence and work in the Judean desert (cf. Jn 1:23). The Community of the Qumran texts identified themselves with this verse in a similar fashion (1QS 8:12-16, cf. the earlier article on the Dead Sea Scrolls and John the Baptist).

Here we must look at Isa 40:3 in the context of the poem of vv. 1-8. It opens somewhat ambiguously, “A voice (is) calling (out)” (ar@oq loq). Most commentators recognize a shift in speakers between verses 2 and 3. In vv. 1-2, God (YHWH) is the speaker (cf. the prior notes), however that no longer seems to be the case; indeed, it is possible to translate the opening words as “(the) voice (of one) calling out”, implying that this person functions in a manner similar to a royal herald—that is, one who speaks in the king’s place, announcing his edicts, etc. It is probably best to view this ‘herald’ as a heavenly (Angelic) figure, even though the motif of a voice speaking from heaven, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, often refers to the voice of God (in the Gospel Tradition, cf. Mk 1:11; 9:7 par; Jn 12:28ff). In some ways, the distinction is slight, since the God’s herald effectively speaks with His voice.

What is announced by the herald is a command by the King (YHWH) to build a great road. Major roads and highways have always been important building projects for governments and rulers, and this was no less so in ancient times. Such projects were of great prestige, and of economic significance, since they functioned as key land routes for commerce and trade. There was, for example, a major north-south route, connecting Damascus with the Red Sea port of Aqabah, called “the King’s Highway”, and which was related to the Exodus-route itinerary by which Moses sought to bring the Israelite people into the Promised Land (part of it went through the Transjordan, cf. Num 20:17ff; 21:22; Deut 2:27). The Exodus is an important theme of the Deutero-Isaian poems, with the Judean people’s promised return to the Land depicted as a new Exodus, a theme which authentically goes back to the oracles of Isaiah (11:16). In that earlier passage, the motif was applied to the exile of the Israelite Northern Kingdom (in Assyria); here it is being similarly applied to the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom.

This is to be a new road, one which is constructed in an otherwise desolate region. The desert-locale is expressed through two terms, used in each of the lines, respectively. The first is rB*d=m!, which means something like “place (out) back”, i.e., “outback”, indicating a wilderness region away from inhabited areas (thus “out back”), which likely includes a number of rugged and hilly features. The second term (hb*r*u&), by contrast, refers to a desert plateau or plain—i.e., desert “steppe”. Together, these terms encompass the entire geographic landscape of the desert region.

It is in this locale, that the great road will be constructed. It is identified as “the Way [Er#D#] of YHWH”, very much akin to the idea of “the King’s Highway” (El#M#h^ Er#D#, cf. above). Those who would construct this road are directed to “turn [their face]”  (vb. hn`P*) to it, devoting their time and attention to the task. This would become the central idiom of Isa 40:3 for the Qumran Community and John the Baptist—that is, their chosen role in ‘preparing the way’ for God. The opening of construction is indicated in the next line, where the verb is rv^y` (“make straight”). While this may simply refer to the careful planning and preparation (including surveying, etc) of the roadway, the root rvy is frequently used in an ethical and religious sense, signifying good and right(eous) behavior. Specifically, within the ancient covenant idiom, it can connote someone who is faithful and loyal to God (that is, to the covenant between YHWH and Israel).

The noun used in the second line (parallel with “way/path”, Er#D#) is hL*s!m=, from the root hls (“go up, ascend”); it literally means “place (that) goes up”, either in the sense of a place where one goes up (on a journey), or in respect to the raised character of the road itself—i.e., a path lifted up by embankments, which could thus be kept relatively smooth and flat compared with the surrounding terrain. The same term is used in 11:16, the earlier Isaian oracle (mentioned above) that prophesied the return of the Northern Kingdom’s population from their exile in Assyria. Clearly, the same basic tradition is involved here, along with the idea of the return as a “new Exodus”.

Further detail on the process of construction, and the ultimate purpose of this road, will be discussed in the next note (on verses 4-5). Something of the purpose is already indicated here, at the close of each line in verse 3. The roadway is said to be the “way/path of YHWH”, which can carry the specific meaning of a place where YHWH will walk. This aspect is confirmed by the wording in the next line, where the “highway” is designated as being “for our God”; again, this could be taken in the literal sense of the phrase as “a place for our God to go up” —i.e., God will be traveling the road. This will be discussed further in the next note.

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