Saturday Series: Mark 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:16

When dealing with New Testament criticism—textual criticism, in particular—an important area of study involves those passages with a strong Christological orientation. After all, since the Christian message is centered on the Gospel proclamation of who Jesus was and what he did, it stands to reason that a critical study of early Christian writings is at its most significant just where those aspects are being emphasized. With regard to the study of textual variants (variant readings), which lie at the heart of New Testament textual criticism, we may apply the principle that variants in a theologically significant passage are theologically significant. And there are perhaps no passages more theologically significant than those which are Christological in nature.

These Saturday Series studies this Fall will be taking a critical approach to a number of key New Testament passages, demonstrating especially how criticism relates to a sound interpretation of a passage, helping us to root our doctrine and theology in an accurate understanding of the text of Scripture. As noted above, such a critical study is arguably most important where the New Testament Scriptures are Christological in focus. It can also be a sensitive matter, dealing, for example, with variant readings when a vital point regarding the person of Christ is being made in the text. Here, textual criticism is at its finest, yet also, in many instances, its most controversial as well.

And, it must be said, Christological textual variants are more common than one may think (or wish to acknowledge)—indeed, there is a whole range of variants which came into existence precisely because of Christological concerns among early believers (including those who wrote and copied the Scriptures). By way of introduction, let us consider two relatively simple examples, in Mark 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:16. As it happens, both of these verses appear to evince a certain tension between the early strands of Christian tradition and later, more clearly developed Christological concerns.

Mark 1:1

Arch¢¡ tou euangelíou I¢soú Christoú huioú Theoú
“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the) Son of God”

This is the opening statement in the Markan Gospel, most likely the earliest of our surviving Gospels, according to the majority text—that is, the reading of the majority of manuscripts and witnesses. It is straightforward enough, functioning as the title of the work. However, in a number of key manuscripts and witnesses the text is shorter, reading simply:

Arch¢¡ tou euangelíou I¢soú Christoú
“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Here the words huioú theoú (ui(ou= qeou=, “Son of God”) are not present. This shorter text is the reading of the uncial manuscripts a* (Codex Sinaiticus) and Q, the minuscule manuscripts 28c and 1555, the Greek text underlying the Peshitta Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian versions; it is also attested by Origen, writing in the early-mid 3rd century (Commentary on John 1.13; 6.24; Against Celsus 2.4). When a minority reading is found in such a wide and diverse range of (early) witnesses, it must be taken seriously.

Is the shorter text original? It must be noted that the tendency among copyists was to add detail which enhanced the Christological portrait, and, in such instances, the longer text often must be regarded as secondary, following the general principle lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferred”). The shorter text here is sometimes explained as due to a copying error, where the eye skips over huioú theoú due the similarity of endings in the sacred names (nomina sacra). Mistakes of this kind were frequent, made easier because of the use of shorthand abbreviations for the nomina sacra. For example, Christoú (Xristou=) would appear in the manuscript as ++x+u, and similarly Theoú (Qeou=) as +q+u. However, in this case, a scribal mistake is unlikely, with the verse occurring as it does at the beginning of the book, prominently as a title; it is hard to see a copyist making such a blunder at the very start of a book. Moreover, the wide range of witnesses to the shorter text would seem to require that multiple copyists all made the same mistake at this point, independently of each other, which is not very likely.

If the shorter reading is original, as seems probable, it should not itself be taken as evidence of a ‘lesser’ Christology in Mark, as though the Gospel writer would eschew the title “Son of God” for Jesus. He clearly accepted the title (3:11; 5:7; 15:39); its relative rarity (compared with the other Gospels) and the way it is used in the narrative simply reflects an older/earlier stage of the (Synoptic) Gospel Tradition, which was developed considerably at many points in Matthew and Luke (for example, compare Mk 8:29 with Lk 9:20 and Matt 16:16). What it finally demonstrates was the power of early Christological belief, which made it so natural for scribes to add in titles such as “Lord” (Kýrios) and “Son of God” to the name Jesus. Such textual enhancement occurs throughout the manuscript tradition, and where better (and more appropriate) for it to occur than in the title of the Gospel? All believers at the time would have readily accepted and used “Son of God” as a title for Jesus, even if its precise meaning could be disputed (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3, 15, etc).

1 Timothy 3:16

Whatever one’s view regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters (and 1 Timothy in particular), commentators are generally in agreement that 1 Timothy 3:16 preserves an early creedal formula, marked by its terse, abbreviated syntax, with a series of parallel lines consisting of a verb + prepositional expression using en (“in”):

“…made to shine forth in (the) flesh,
made right in [i.e. through] (the) Spirit,
seen (among) (the) Messengers,
proclaimed in [i.e. among] (the) nations,
trusted in the world,
taken up in honor/glory”

Paul (or the author) made use of this formula as a way of summarizing what he calls the “secret of (our) good reverence (toward God)” (to t¢s eusebeías myst¢¡rion). It is at the point of the transition between the noun myst¢¡rion and the introduction of the creedal formula that there is a notable variant reading in the text, with some witnesses reading the noun theós (qeo/$, “God”), while others read the relative pronoun hós (o%$, “who, which”).

The manuscript evidence is rather evenly divided, though the earlier and better witnesses tend to support the relative pronoun. It is the original reading of the major uncial manuscripts a A C, the minuscules 33 365 442 2127, important segments of the Syriac tradition, as well as a number of Church Fathers writing in the 3rd-5th centuries (e.g., Origen, Jerome, Cyril, Epiphanius). The reading with the noun theós is found throughout the Byzantine manuscript tradition, a range of important uncials and minuscules (614 1739 al), and most of the later Fathers, from which it came to be the “Textus Receptus” reading. It is worth noting, however, that no uncial (in the first) hand prior to the 8th or 9th century has this reading, nor is it found in any Church Father prior to the late 4th century; the occurrence of theós in the MSS a A C D is a ‘correction’ coming from a second scribal hand (Metzger, p. 574). Support for the relative pronoun (hós) is increased when one considers the manuscripts (D* etc) which read the neuter form (o%), presumably as a grammatical ‘correction’ of the masculine hós (to agree with the noun myst¢¡rion, which is neuter).

Two factors make it all but certain that the reading with the (masculine) relative pronoun is original. The first involves what we call “transcriptional probability”; that is, which reading was more likely to be changed, giving rise to the others. Here we note how the uncial form of the relative pronoun os could be mistaken for the sacred-name abbreviation (nomina sacra) of the word theos (qs). Given the way the nomina sacra are rendered, with special demarcation (+q+s), it is highly unlikely that a similar change would have taken place in the opposite direction.

The second factor involves the poetic syntax of the creedal formula itself, in which the lines all depend on an initial relative pronoun. Examples are readily to be found, in Philippians 2:6 and Colossians 1:15 (both thought to introduce early Christological creed/hymns), which likewise begin with the relative pronoun hós (o%$). For additional detail, see J. Sanders, The New Testament Christological Hymns (Cambridge: 1971), pp. 15-17 (cited by Ehrman, pp. 77, 111).

How or why was the relative pronoun changed to the noun theos? Was it simply the result of a copying mistake (see above), or was it intentional? Whether or not intentional, the change is certainly purposeful, in that it serves a Christological purpose—namely, identifying and affirming Jesus Christ as the incarnation of deity, the (pre-existent) Son of God who came to earth in human flesh. As in the case of Mark 1:1 (discussed above), such a change was a natural addition for devout scribes to make to the text, since it reflected unquestionably the sort of pre-existence Christology that been developing throughout the late-first and early-second centuries. Such explicit identification of the pre-existent deity of Christ was especially useful in combating those segments of early Christianity which denied such a Christology, or held alternate, heterodox views.

In many instances, such Christological variants can be recognized as clearly secondary additions or alterations to the text. The situation is not always so simple, as the case of John 1:18 demonstrates, where commentators and textual critics continue to debate whether monogen¢¡s theós or monogen¢¡s huiós is the most likely original reading (I discuss this passage in detail in an earlier study). Whatever else one may say about them, such textual variants are far from trivial; they are imbued with the utmost theological and doctrinal significance, and cannot be ignored.

We shall encounter more of these fascinating Christological variants as we proceed through our weekly studies this Fall. You may also wish to follow along on a series of daily notes I am beginning this week, to run through the remainder of October, in which I will be presenting a detailed critical and exegetical study on the two “Christ hymns” noted above—Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20.

References above marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press: 1993).
Those marked “Metzger” are to the UBS/Metzger A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: 1994).


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

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

In the previous study, I introduced the tradition in Mark 3:28-29 par, as an example of the kind of distinctive critical questions that often apply to passages in the Gospels. The text-critical issue may involve, not simply the manuscript readings of a specific Gospel passage, but different forms of the same (or similar) Gospel tradition—that is, as they are preserved in the different Gospels. In such instances, textual criticism expands to embrace source-, historical-, and literary-criticism as well. Let us consider how this applies and relates to the situation of the tradition in Mark 3:28-29 par.

Source Criticism

Most critical scholars would accept some version of the critical theory known as the “Two Document Hypothesis”, which assumes that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke each made use two distinct source-documents: (1) the Gospel of Mark, and (2) the so-called “Q” (i.e. quelle, “source”) material, the latter consisting primarily of sets of sayings and parables of Jesus. Many scholars assume that this “Q” was a self-contained document or literary work, but in actual fact the designation simply refers to material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark.

According to the “Two Document Hypothesis”, since Mark and “Q” represent two distinct lines of Gospel Tradition, it is possible that each line of Tradition has preserved, independently, the same historical tradition—a saying, parable, or narrative episode of Jesus. This indeed would seem to have occurred in a number of instances, including the tradition we are considering here. The sayings in Mark 3:28-29 and Luke 12:10 are similar, but yet differ in some important details. The Lukan saying is part of the so-called “Q” material, since it also occurs in Matt 12:31-32. Since Matthew contains both the Markan version (albeit in much simpler form) and the “Q” version, this would seem to be evidence in favor of the “Two Document Hypothesis”. Luke evinces a clear tendency for avoiding ‘doublets’, i.e. similar or duplicate forms of the same basic tradition. As an obvious example, Luke records only one miraculous feeding episode (9:10-17), while Mark and Matthew have two such stories (of the 5000 and 4000 respectively, cf. Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10). If Luke knew of the Markan version of the saying (3:28-29), he did not include it as Matthew did, perhaps simply to avoid having essentially two versions of the same saying.

We can confirm that Matt 12:31-32 contains a form of the same saying in Mk 3:28-29, by looking at the two passages side by side (in a literal translation):

Mark 3:28-29 Matthew 12:31-32
“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).” Every sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but the insult(ing) of the Spirit will not be released. And whoever should say an (evil) word/account against the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but whoever should say (evil) against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age and not in the (Age that) is about (to come).”

The italicized portions in Matthew indicate the portions shared by the saying in Mark. Matthew’s version is clearly simpler—for example, it reads “men” instead of the longer expression “sons of men” (see below). The saying regarding the “Son of Man” does not correspond to anything in Mark, but it is close to the Lukan version of the saying (Lk 12:10), i.e. the “Q” version of the tradition:

“Every one who will speak an (evil) word/account unto the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.”

Thus, quite clearly we have two distinct traditions (sayings), which have been preserved independently within two lines of tradition. They are similar in that they each deal with the idea of speaking against the Holy Spirit, emphasizing that to do so represents a sin that will not (ever) be forgiven—a most serious matter indeed! Yet, in spite of this common emphasis, there are other notable differences between the Markan and “Q” traditions, and we must ask if these reflect (a) separate sayings given by Jesus on different occasions, or (b) are they different versions of the same saying which were transmitted and preserved separately? This is the key historical critical question that must be addressed.

Historical Criticism

On this question (above), traditional-conservative commentators usually opt for (a), while critical scholars and commentators tend to choose (b). In most instances, valid arguments can be offered for each position, and it can be difficult to come up with a definitive solution on entirely objective grounds (i.e., without relying on doctrinal or ideological presuppositions). In the case of this particular saying, there is one strong argument that favors the common critical view, which can be illustrated by a comparison of the first portion of the Markan and “Q” versions respectively:

Saying/Version 1 (‘Mark’)

Saying/Version 2 (“Q”)

“All/every sin(s) and insult(s) will be released for the sons of men [tois huioís tœn anthrœ¡pœn]…”
Matthew has the simpler “men” instead of “sons of men”
“Every one who speaks an (evil) word/account unto/against the Son of Man [ton huión tou anthrœ¡pou], it will be released for him…”

Is it possible that the Semitic idiom “son of man” was confused during the process of transmission? Originally, the Hebrew expression “son of man” (ben °¹¼¹m, Aramaic bar °§n¹š) simply referred to human beings generally, as a parallel to “man” (°¹¼¹m). The idiom is foreign to Greek—indeed, quite unusual—and the expression ho huiós tou anthrœ¡pou (“[the] son of man”) is found in the New Testament only in the words of Jesus, and in a few citations of the Old Testament.

With regard to the words of Jesus, the Greek is generally assumed to be a rendering of sayings originally spoken in Aramaic; and, by the time the Gospels came to be written (by 60 A.D. and following) and transmitted to the wider Greek-speaking world, many of the Semitic idioms and expressions had long since been translated or reworked into meaningful Greek. I have addressed the difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man” at length in earlier notes and articles.

Returning to the saying in question, did “son of man” in the “Q” version originally have the general/generic meaning—i.e., “whoever speaks (evil) against a(nother) human being…”? If so, then it would correspond roughly to the Markan version, and could conceivably be traced back to a single (Aramaic) saying by Jesus. However, it should be noted that Luke definitely understands this “Q” version of the saying as referring to Jesus himself (“the Son of Man”), as the context clearly indicates. Let me here summarize briefly Jesus’ self-identification as “Son of Man” in the Synoptic tradition, especially the Gospel of Luke, isolating the following usage:

    • In the generic sense— “human being” —but often, it would seem, as a substitute for the pronoun “I”, i.e. “this human being” (myself).
    • Many of the Son of Man sayings are related to Jesus’ earthly life and existence, by which he identifies himself with the human condition—especially in terms of its mortality, weakness and suffering.
    • A number of these sayings refer specifically to Jesus’ Passion—predictions of the suffering and death which he would face in Jerusalem.
    • There are also additional sayings where Jesus identifies himself with a heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”) who will appear, as God’s representative, at the end-time Judgment, largely influenced by Daniel 7:13-14 and resultant traditions.

Ultimately, the historical-critical question must be addressed as part of a literary-critical approach, examining the historical tradition within the context of the Gospel narrative, as developed and adapted by each author.

Literary Criticism

Let us begin with the context of the Markan saying (Mk 3:28-29); it is set in the context of Jesus’ exorcism miracles (vv. 22-27, cf. verses 11-12, 15). This central section is framed by two episodes which express the misunderstanding and/or opposition to Jesus by his family and relatives:

    • vv. 20-21—”the ones alongside him”
    • vv. 31-35—”his mother and his brothers”

The pericope concludes with the declaration that Jesus’ followers are his true family (vv. 34-35). The saying regarding the Holy Spirit in verses 28-29 must be understood in the light of this setting:

“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).”

Verse 30 which follows in Mark’s account gives a rather clear explanation of the saying:

“(This was in) that [i.e. because] they said ‘He has/holds an unclean spirit’.” (cf. verse 22)

In other words, certain people insulted the holy Spirit of God when they attributed Jesus’ miracles to daimon-power, rather than to the active power of God’s own Spirit at work in him (cp. Matt 12:28 / Lk 11:20).  The Greek verb blasph¢méœ, which is often simply transliterated into English as “blaspheme”, has the fundamental meaning to speak evil or abusive words, i.e. insult, revile, mock, slander, etc. I have translated the verb above simply as “insult”, though it is often used in the specific religious sense of insulting God, at that is very much the sense here as well. The Greek aiœ¡n, indicating an age/era or (long) period of time, is hard to render meaningfully into English, often being generalized as “(for)ever, eternal(ly)”, etc.; however, in the Israelite/Jewish idiom and thought world, there is a strong eschatological aspect which must be preserved. The expression “into the Age” specifically refers to the “Age to Come”, which is ushered in by God’s Judgment upon the world at the close of the present Age. Thus, those who insulted God by claiming Jesus worked miracles through the power of daimons would face God’s impending Judgment on them.

Matthew essentially preserves the Markan narrative context—

The “Q” version of the saying occurs at a different point in the Gospel narrative in Luke (see below); Matthew has included it in the Markan location, which results in a blending together of the two saying-forms. In Matthew’s account, certain Pharisees (in Mark they are referred to as “Scribes…from Jerusalem”), in response to Jesus’ healing/exorcism miracles, declare:

“This (man) does not cast out the daimons if not in [i.e. except by] ‘Baal-zebûl’ Chief of the daimons!” (Matt 12:24)

This differs slightly from Mark’s account, where the Scribes declare:

“He has/holds ‘Baal-zebûl'” and “(It is) in [i.e. by] the Chief of the daimons (that) he casts out the daimons!”

Matthew does not include the specific claim that Jesus has (lit. holds) the power of “Baal-zebul”. The focus has shifted away from Jesus’ own person, and instead the emphasis is on the source of Jesus’ power to work healing miracles. The key interpretive verse for the passage is Matt 12:28, a saying added, it would seem, to the Synoptic/Markan narrative from the so-called “Q” material (par in Luke 11:20), which I discussed in the previous study.

The narrative setting of the “Q” saying in Luke (Lk 12:8-12) is very different. Actually, it would seem that the Lukan context involves a sequence of (originally separate) sayings that have been appended together, being joined by thematic or “catchword” bonding (indicated by the bold/italicized portions):

    • Lk 12:8-9— “Every one who gives account as one [i.e. confesses/confirms] in me in front of men, even (so) the Son of Man will give account as one in him in front of the Messengers of God; but the (one) denying/contradicting me in the sight of men, will be denied/contradicted in the sight of the Messengers of God.”
    • Lk 12:10— “Every one who will utter an (evil) word/account unto 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.”
    • Lk 12:11-12— “When they carry [i.e. bring] you in upon the(ir) gatherings together {synagogues} and the(ir) chiefs and the(ir) authorities, you should not be concerned (as to) how or (by) what you should give account for (yourselves), or what you should say—for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour the (thing)s it is necessary (for you) to say.”

There is an important two-fold aspect to the sayings which bracket verse 10:

    • Publicly confessing (or denying) Jesus, the “Son of Man” (vv. 8-9)
    • The witness of believers being inspired by the Spirit (vv. 11-12)

This, I believe, informs the Lukan understanding of the saying in verse 10; I would summarize the interpretation as follows:

    • The person who speaks an evil (i.e. false, slanderous, mocking/derisive, etc) word or account to the Son of Man may be forgiven—this refers essentially to Jesus in the context of his earthly ministry, specifically his Passion/suffering (cf. Lk 22:54-62, 63-65; 23:2, 5, 10-11, 35-37, 39, etc).
    • The person who insults the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven—this refers primarily to the Spirit-inspired witness regarding the person and work of Jesus, i.e. the Gospel.

At first glance, verse 10 seems to contradict the saying in v. 9. However, I believe this can be explained in terms of a distinctive development within the Lukan handling of the traditional material. There is a shift away from the core Synoptic/Markan setting of the tradition (see above)—from Jesus’ ministry as a witness of God’s Spirit, to the proclamation of the Gospel (about Jesus). In the (older) Markan setting, the issue was that people were attributing the power of Jesus’ miracles to daimons rather than the Spirit of God, and thus were giving grave insult to God Himself. The Lukan setting, by contrast, is focused on a rejection of the Spirit-inspired witness of the Gospel, which is deemed the ultimate insult to God.

The “Q” version of the saying, especially as preserved in the Lukan context, can be quite misleading, as though an insult against Jesus Christ the Son of God (or even against God the Father) could be forgiven, but an insult against the Holy Spirit, for some unexplained (and unexplainable) reason, could not be. Such an understanding is reflected in the version of the saying preserved in the “Gospel of Thomas” (saying §44), which clearly represents a still later development (and a more Christianized version). It appears to be a superficial expansion of the “Q” saying, given in a trinitarian form:

“Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.”

This version grossly distorts the sense and thrust of the original saying, as though a direct insult against God the Father (or against Jesus as the Son of God) will be forgiven. Neither the Markan nor “Q” sayings suggest anything of the sort; in any case, taken thus out of context, the saying is far removed from the point Jesus himself was making at the time. As a miracle working Anointed Prophet—God’s own representative (n¹»î°), who was also His Son—Jesus was specially empowered by the holy Spirit of God. To slander or insult that power is to insult God Himself. This reflects a development of the Prophetic tradition(s) regarding the Spirit, focused uniquely on the inspired person of Jesus himself, as Messiah, Prophet, and Son of God.




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.