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

Isaiah 27:12-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 27:7-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The description in verse 10 begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 27:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (2): Isa 27:2-5

Isaiah 27:2-5 (and 5:1-7)

Verses 2-5 of chapter 27 represent the second of the two “day of YHWH” stanzas for the poem in 26:7-27:6. The first stanza (27:1, cf. the previous note) dealt with God’s Judgment on the nations; the second stanza here focuses on God’s people Israel. It involves the illustration of a vineyard to represent Israel, a symbolism found elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Psalm 80:9-17; Jer 2:21; 12:10-11; Ezek 15:1-8). In addition, the vineyard featured as a motif earlier in the book of Isaiah (1:8; 3:14), and especially the poem in 5:1-7; indeed, the vineyard poem in 27:2-5 clearly draws upon the earlier one in 5:1-7. This is an example of intertextuality (the citing or referencing of Scriptural texts) in chaps. 24-27, based here, in particular, on the critical theory that the Isaian “Apocalypse” was composed in the 6th century B.C., and develops, in various ways, the older Isaian traditions, such as the vineyard poem of chap. 5. In any case, 5:1-7 certainly is the older poem, and a proper understanding of 27:2-5 requires that we examine it first.

IsaIAH 5:1-7

“I will sing, now, for my beloved [y®¼î¼]
a song of my love [dô¼î] for his vineyard.”

So the poem begins with this couplet in verse 1a, involving some wordplay that continues to trip up commentators. Two related roots are involved—y¹¼a¼ (dd^y`) and dô¼ (doD)—each of which has the fundamental meaning “love”, especially in the context of romantic/sexual love. It is one of many examples in support of original biconsonantal roots that were expanded or developed into triconsontal roots in Hebrew (by the inclusion/addition of weak consonants, here w/y); in this case, the fundamental root would be dd (dd). The noun dô¼ can mean either “love” in the abstract sense or the object of love (i.e. “beloved”); here it must be understood in the former sense, as the context and the expression “song of love” (i.e. love song) makes clear.

It may seem odd to sing a love song for a piece of land, like a field or vineyard, but it was a common device in ancient love poetry. In traditional farming societies, the association between sexuality and agricultural fertility was natural and obvious—i.e. the (male) sky/heaven ‘impregnating’ the (female) earth through rain. A field or vineyard thus came to be a standard symbol for the “beloved”, the (female) object of love. It is well-attested in ancient Near Eastern love poetry, for which we need look no further than the Old Testament Song of Songs (1:6, 14; 2:3, 15; 4:12-16; 7:6-13; 8:12).

The “song” itself is brief, occurring in vv. 1b-2:

“There was a vineyard (belonging) to my beloved,
on a (mountain) horn, a son of fatness;
and he dug through it and removed (the stones from) it,
and planted it (with) red-flowering (vines);
and he built a great (high) place [i.e. tower] in its midst,
and also a (wine-)trough he cut out in it;
and he waited for (the) making of (good) grapes,
and it made (only) stinking [i.e. rotten] (one)s (instead).”

Some of the idioms and vocabulary may be a bit obscure to us, but the sense of the song is clear enough. The vineyard was planted in a choice location (the expression “son of fatness” means that it is characterized by richness and fertile [soil]). Moreover, the owner took great care to manage and tend the vines, and yet they only produced foul, rotten grapes. In verses 3-4, it is the owner of the vineyard (i.e. God) who speaks, in the first person. The illustrative meaning of the song follows in vv. 5-7; in particular, verse 7 interprets the vineyard as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (and their people), and the ‘rotten’ fruit it produces is the wickedness—the injustice, violence, and oppression—prevailing in the land.

The illustration serves to announce the coming judgment, on the northern kingdom of Israel, in particular. The poem is addressed to the people of Judah (v. 3), the southern kingdom, and this suggests that the primary announcement is of the coming Assyrian conquests in the north (c. 734-721 B.C.). The south would face invasion as well, but the fate of the north here serves as a warning for Judah, implying that there is still time for repentance. In all likelihood, this poem was composed prior to the fall of the northern kingdom (described in the oracle that follows in vv. 8-24), meaning sometime before 722/1 B.C.

Isaiah 27:2-5

In light of the earlier poem in 5:1-7, we can now consider the comparable vineyard-poem here in vv. 2-5 of chap. 27.

“On that day [bayyôm hahû°]—
a vineyard of delight, sing for her!” (v. 2)

There is a clear allusion to the earlier “song of love” for the vineyard, though the specific love-poetry context is obscured somewhat by the peculiar detail in this brief line. The expression “vineyard of delight [µeme¼]” captures the sexual/romantic metaphor of the vineyard (on which, see above). Also we have the feminine suffix (here and throughout vv. 3-4), even though the noun kerem (“vineyard”) is masculine. It has been suggested that here h– stands for the masculine suffix o-, using the older (pre-exilic) script. This is possible, and indeed such confusion is evident at many points in the transmission of Old Testament poetry. However, in my view, the use of the feminine gender, in this instance, simply preserves the love-poetry setting, with the vineyard metaphor (= the female beloved).

“I, YHWH, (am the one) guarding her,
(and) at (each) moment I give her to drink,
(so) that no (one) should visit (harm) upon her—
(yes,) night and day do I guard her.” (v. 3)

These lines correspond to the devoted care given to the vineyard by the owner in the original song (5:1b-2, see above). Only now the harsh and bitter juxtaposition of the owner’s care vs. the failure of the vineyard has largely disappeared. Instead, YHWH declares something more along the lines of an unconditional concern for the welfare of the vineyard (Israel). The fate of the vineyard still depends on the fruit it produces, but this is expressed in more hopeful terms:

“There is no hot (anger) for me (about her)—
who would give me thorn and thistle-brush,
I will rush (out) in battle on her,
I will consume her in a blaze as one.” (v. 4)

The message of the vineyard’s failure has softened considerably, represented by its producing “thorn and thistle-brush” rather than “rotten/stinking (grape)s”. There is also no mention of the wickedness in Israel and Judah that will bring about the terrible judgment of conquest and exile. The main reason for this has to do with the presumed 6th century (exilic) setting of chaps. 24-27. The message for Israel/Judah is one of hope and promise for restoration. Indeed, the focus in the Isaian “Apocalypse” is not on the immediate judgment of conquest/exile (by Assyria or Babylon), but on the Judgment that is coming for all nations, at the end of this Age. The warning for God’s people is that they must remain faithful, or risk experiencing the same judgment that faces the wicked nations.

If Israel produces “thorns and thistles” of faithlessness, then it is no human army, but God Himself, who will wage war against her, even as He will against the nations (with His great sword, v. 1). She would then be burnt up in the fire that will consume the earth at the end-time.

The curious syntax in v. 4 may be intended to express this idea that the judgment will come on the wicked/faithless ones in Israel, and not on the land or people as whole. The wording in the second line of v. 4 is: “who(ever) will give me thorn and thistle-bush” —these are the ones, thorns and weeds in the midst of the vineyard, who will be attacked and burned up, “as one” (i.e. all together). In other words, it is not the entire vineyard, but only those parts that produce thorns/weeds. This eschatological message, involving the separation of the righteous and the wicked, is comparable to Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; cf. also his vineyard parable in Luke 13:6-9, and also the vine-illustration in John 15:1-5.

The overriding message of hope, rather than judgment, in this poem (compared with that of 5:1-7) is indicated especially in the closing lines of verse 5:

“And (so) he shall [i.e. let him] take hold of my place of strength,
(and) he shall make peace to(ward) me,
(yes,) peace he shall make to(ward) me.”

The feminine gender (see above) has shifted back to the masculine, indicating that the love-poetry setting has disappeared, and that it is now a more direct reference to Israel as a people. The imperfect verb forms have jussive force, i.e. “let him take hold…”, “let him make…”. The precise meaning of the noun š¹lôm (<olv*) here is a bit difficult to express in English translation. The rendering “peace” (i.e. “make peace”) does not entirely capture the sense, which has more to do with the idea of safety and security, in light of the emphasis on YHWH’s “place of strength” (m¹±ôz zoum*) in the first line. It might perhaps be better rendered “he shall make (himself) safe with me”. By trusting in YHWH, and taking firm hold of Him as a place of refuge, the people of Israel find peace with God and are kept safe from the coming Judgment.

 

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (1): Isa 27:1

Isaiah 27:1

These notes are supplemental to the recent Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah, and the so-called Isaian “Apocalypse” of chaps. 24-27. The past three studies have offered a critical overview of these fascinating chapters, with introductory analysis of the main poems. As it was not possible to treat the material with detailed exegesis in those articles, I felt it would be good to devote several notes to a more in-depth critical examination of the last thirteen verses (27:1-13). This will allow for a demonstration of how critical methods and theories, for example, relate to a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis.

In the most recent study, I outlined the structure of 26:7-27:6, which I give again here:

    • Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
      • Exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment (vv. 12-13)
    • Part 2—Contrast between the fate of the righteous and wicked (vv. 14-19)
      • Exhortation for God’s people in the face of the coming judgment (vv. 20-21)
    • Stanza 1 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, 27:1)
    • Stanza 2 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, vv. 2-5)
    • Closing refrain—Israel’s restoration (v. 6)

The same pattern is found in 25:1-26:6 and the final section 27:7-13, and would seem to function as a thematic and poetic structuring principle for the composition as a whole.

Isa 27:1 is the first of the two “day of YHWH” stanzas, each of which involves the expression “in/on that day” (bayyôm hahû° aWhh^ <oYB^)—the “day” referring to  the Prophetic tradition of the “day of YHWH”, a time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment upon a particular nation or people. In the eschatological orientation of the Isaian “Apocalypse”, however, this day becomes a time when God will judge all of the nations together, at the end of the current Age. In this first stanza, the focus is on the judgment against the nations, while in the second, it is the people of Israel who are in view.

“On that day, YHWH will make a visit,
with His hard, great, and strong sword,
upon Liwyatan (the) fleeing snake,
even upon Liwyatan (the) twisting snake,
and He shall slay the monster that is in the Sea.”

This is one of the few examples in the Old Testament where ancient Semitic cosmological myth has been preserved. Stripped almost completely out of the Genesis Creation account, such language and imagery survives only in the older poetry, or in poems which intentionally draw upon ancient/archaic motifs. This use of cosmological myth can be glimpsed in the structure of the stanza here, in which the message is expressed through the joining of the last line to the first two:

“On that day, YHWH will make a visit,
with His hard, great, and strong sword…
and He shall slay the monster that is in the Sea.”

The first two lines, as a single poetic couplet, declare the coming Judgment, following the traditional “day” of YHWH motif (cf. above). The verb used here is p¹qa¼ (dq^P*), one of the most difficult in all the Old Testament to translate consistently, there being no viable English equivalent for its semantic range. It frequently connotes the activity of an authority figure functioning in a supervisory role—inspection, making appointments, administration of authority, rendering judgment/justice, and so forth; sometimes it is a specific military context (i.e. marshaling troops, etc) that is in view. Clearly, the context here is that of the (end-time) Judgment delivered by God upon humankind, with both its judicial and military aspects. For this purpose YHWH will “visit” the earth carrying his sword of Judgment—a sword characterized by three attributes: “hard” (q¹šeh), “great” (g¹¼ôl), and “strong” (µ¹z¹q). This indicates the severity and completeness of the Judgment. The same verb occurs a number of times elsewhere in the “Apocalypse”, and is a distinctive part of the vocabulary of the nation-oracle division of the book (chaps. 13-27)—cf. 13:4, 11; 23:17; 24:21-22; 26:14, 16, 21; 27:3.

This Judgment is expressed symbolically with the image of God slaying “the monster that is in the Sea”. The word rendered loosely as “monster” is t¹nnîn (/yN]T*), of uncertain derivation; the use of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament indicates a dangerous or powerful creature, typically in snake or serpentine form. The Egyptian setting in Ezek 29:3 suggests a crocodile; however, in passages such as Isa 27:1 (cp. Psalm 74:13), the reference is to a mythical sea-monster, drawn from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. This is confirmed by the two-fold mention of Liwyatan here in lines 3 and 4. Customarily transliterated in English as “Leviathan”, the Hebrew word liwy¹¾¹n (/t*y`w+l!) itself preserves a much older Semitic term, the exact meaning of which may well have been lost for Hebrew speakers in the 6th century B.C.

The reference here (and in Psalm 74:14; cf. also Job 40:25) would have remained obscure to us, if not for the discovery of the 14th century B.C. Canaanite texts from Ugarit. This same Liwy¹¾¹n (L£t¹n¥) is mentioned in the Ugaritic texts; in the cosmological Baal ‘Epic’ (III.3.41-42; V.1.1-2), it is the name of a “twisting” Snake-like figure (with seven heads) associated with the primeval Sea (personified, Yamm). The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), though in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister, and by Anat’s identity as a kind of personification of battle.

Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea. In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu. The same expressions “twisting serpent” and “fleeing serpent” occur here in Isa 27:1 (only with the root nµš instead of b¾n for “snake/serpent”). The same pairing of liwy¹¾¹n and t¹nnîn is also found in Isa 27:1 (and in Psalm 73:13-14). All of this confirms that the imagery in Isa 27:1 derives from ancient Near Eastern (Canaanite) cosmological myth.

In the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the primeval waters (“Sea”) represented the state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order (by God). It was viewed as a dark, watery mass, characterized by unformed chaos and confusion (cf. Gen 1:2). However, in cosmological myth, the (Creator) deity defeats or subdues this chaos, imagined as a battle against terrible monsters. In the case of the Canaanite deity Baal-Haddu, associated with the storm and rains, the “defeat” of the Sea meant that he had control over the life giving waters that surround the universe. The defeat of the Sea by El-Yahweh is not part of the Creation Account in Genesis, but it does feature at several points in the Psalms and other Old Testament poetry. For more on this “Conflict with the Sea” myth, cf. my earlier article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

The imagery was also used to express God’s judgment against certain nations, especially those who brought destruction and chaos through their wickedness and violent conquests. This association (Sea—Nations) is best known from Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic (cf. throughout the book of Revelation, esp. chapters 12-18), but its roots are found in the nation-oracles of the 7th-6th century Prophets. The most common allusion connects the sea-monster (t¹nnîn) with Egypt—cf. Ezek 29:3; 32:2, and note also Isa 30:7 (raha», another name for the sea-monster, cp. 51:9; Psalm 87:4). The association with Egypt is probably due to the motif of crocodiles in the Nile river (cf. above). However, the mention of Egypt at the close of Isa 27 (vv. 12-13) raises the possibility that the mythical sea-monster (t¹nnîn) in v. 1 is also an allusion to Egypt (Roberts, p. 337f).

In my view, 27:1 is not to be connected directly with vv. 7-13, but with the earlier poem in 26:7ff, and the references here to the sea-monster (liwy¹¾¹n and t¹nnîn) are best understood as symbolic of all the wicked nations (together), and of the Judgment God brings upon them. I have already noted, in the prior studies, how chaps. 24-27 make use of imagery and motifs from the primeval history (including the Creation account), and that the “conflict with the Sea” myth here relates to the primeval condition of the universe in Gen 1:2 (note the use of the keyword tœhû in Isa 24:10). The end of the current Age will be like its beginning—dissolving into darkness and disorder. This is due to the wickedness of the nations, but also to the devastating Judgment God brings upon them. Only after the Judgment, can the New Age begin.

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27 (concluded)

Isaiah 24-27, concluded

As we have seen, chapters 24-27 of the book of Isaiah represent a complex and multifaceted composition. This is indicated by the different ways that commentators have analyzed the structure of this material. While a variety of approaches might be adopted, I believe that a definite structure can be discerned, especially in chapters 25-27. I touched upon this in last week’s study; the basic pattern in 25:1-26:6 is found also in 26:7-27:6, and I would summarize it as follows: an eschatological poem, in several sections, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. These concluding stanzas, which involve the expression “in/on that day” (bayyôm hahû°), emphasize the coming Judgment by God upon the nations of the earth.

Isaiah 26:7-27:6

Here is my outline of this section, according to the pattern established above:

    • Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
      • Exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment (vv. 12-13)
    • Part 2—Contrast between the fate of the righteous and wicked (vv. 14-19)
      • Exhortation for God’s people in the face of the coming judgment (vv. 20-21)
    • Stanza 1 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, 27:1)
    • Stanza 2 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, vv. 2-5)
    • Closing refrain—Israel’s restoration (v. 6)

The main eschatological poem (26:7-21) is divided into two parts, each of which emphasizes a contrast between the righteous (i.e., the faithful ones of Israel) and the wicked (i.e., the faithless and the other nations). The initial couplet of 26:7 establishes this, focusing on the righteous, using the language of Wisdom poetry (and Psalms):

“(The) path for (the) just (person) is (all) straightness,
[Straight (One)], the track of (the) just (person) you make level”

In passing, it is worth noting the text-critical question involving the word in square brackets (y¹š¹r, “straight”). It disrupts the rhythm of the couplet (otherwise 3-beat, 3+3), and is omitted by the Greek Septuagint [LXX] version. If original, it involves a wordplay with the noun “straightness” (mêš¹rîm, an intensive plural); the path of the righteous is straight because the One who is straight (i.e. YHWH) makes it so.

Verses 8-9 describe the character and behavior of the righteous; by contrast, the character of the wicked is described in vv. 10-11. The paradigmatic Wisdom Psalm, contrasting the righteous and wicked, is Psalm 1 (discussed in an earlier article); and this section of the apocalyptic Isaian poem follows the same general wisdom-pattern. If the path of the righteous is “straight”, the wicked “twists” and perverts (vb ±ûl) things, moving away from YHWH (v. 10); such a person is unable to see God’s hand, even as it is raised to deliver judgment (v. 11). The righteous seek after God’s judgments, and, in the New Age, they become the vehicle through which God’s own righteousness is communicated to all people.

This raises an interesting point about the identity of the righteous and wicked. As in chapter 24 (see on vv. 14-16ff in the previous study), the focus seems to be on the righteous and wicked among Israel—the point of the message being that the faithless ones will suffer the same fate/punishment in the Judgment as the other wicked nations. This is how I understand the sense of the final couplet here in verse 11:

“and they will feel shame (at the jealous) zeal of (your) people,
even (as the) fire of your oppressors shall devour them!”

The construct phrases “zeal of (your) people” and “fire of your oppressors” are best understood as object genitives—i.e., the zeal God shows for His people (the faithful ones), and the fire He unleashes on His enemies. This language leads into the exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment, as is appropriate for the righteous (v. 12) and wicked (v. 13), respectively. In verse 13, the sense of the wicked has shifted to the nations (such as the Babylonian empire) who oppress God’s people and are enemies of YHWH.

Part 2 (vv. 14-21) of the poem deals with the contrasting fate of the righteous and wicked, in terms of death and the afterlife. Here the order of treatment is reversed: first the fate of the wicked (“[the one]s being dead shall not live”, v. 14), then that of the righteous (“your dead [one]s shall live”, v. 19). Bracketed within these two statements is a difficult passage (vv. 15-18) in which the people of Israel call out to YHWH, reflecting on their troubled history and suffering as a nation. It is worth considering these verses in a bit more detail; they may be further divided into two portions:

    • Vv. 15-16—Historical summary: The growth of the nation (v. 15) and its subsequent suffering (v. 16)
    • Vv. 17-18—Illustration of a woman in labor: Her pain (v. 17) and apparent miscarriage (v. 18)

The image of a pregnant woman (and her labor pains) came to be a widely-used symbol, in Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic, for the time of distress that marks the end of the current Age and beginning of the Judgment. Early Christian eschatology made effective use of the same motif (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3; Rom 8:22; Rev 12:2ff, etc). Here, however, it is the exile of Israel and Judah that is primarily in view, seen both as a time of distress (ƒar) and a chastening instruction (mûs¹r) by God. The motif of the woman in labor gives to this suffering an even greater sense of apparent hopelessness. The people writhe in pain and cry out to God (in His presence), and yet give birth only to the wind (rûaµ), not to a child; the wording here in verse 18 is significant:

“We were pregnant, we twisted (in pain), (but) as it (was),
we gave birth (to the) wind—
salvation we did not achieve (on) earth,
and (one)s dwelling (in the) inhabited (world) were not made to fall (as newborn children)”

The specific language is difficult, especially in the final line, and was apparently misunderstood by the Greek LXX. The word y®šû±â (“salvation”) is used in an ironic (negative) sense, referring to the failure to secure the lasting success of the people through child-bearing (understood symbolically). There may also be a specific allusion to a failure by Israel to fulfill its role as the people through whom God will bring the light of truth to all other nations (see above, on verses 8-11). Despite this lack of national success and blessing, the situation will change markedly with the restoration of Israel in the New Age. As in the famous prophecy in Ezekiel 37, this restoration-promise is here expressed in terms of new life from the dead (i.e. resurrection). The climactic words in verse 19 make this clear:

“Your dead (one)s will live,
your corps(es) will stand up (again)—
wake (up) and cry (for joy),
(you the one)s sitting in (the) dust!
For your dew (is) a dew of (pure) light,
and (the) earth will make (the) shades fall (as newborn children).”

As in verse 18, the use of the verb n¹¸al in the Hiphil stem (i.e. “cause to fall”) to refer to childbirth (i.e., the falling/dropping of newborn children), has caused confusion for both ancient and modern translators. Otherwise, however, the imagery is straightforward—the dead bodies of the righteous will live again in the New Age. The only real question is whether this resurrection-motif is simply symbolic (as in Ezek 37), or is to be taken literally as a promise of future bodily resurrection (cf. Daniel 12:2f).

Many commentators would question the extent to which Israelites in the Kingdom period believed in life after death, much less in a bodily resurrection; however, there would seem to be more afterlife allusions in the Old Testament than are commonly admitted, even throughout the earlier poetry. Such beliefs were expressed figuratively, primarily through a developed poetic (and mythological) idiom, and so are not stated as clearly as we might like. In any case, by the mid-6th century B.C., the increasing occurrence of resurrection-imagery in the Prophets suggests that the motif is drawing upon older, established traditions.

The poem concludes with an exhortation to the people of Israel (vv. 20-21) to prepare themselves for the coming Judgment. In particular, YHWH will punish the nations for their wickedness, violence and oppression, and the warning for Israel, repeated throughout these chapters, is that those who are unfaithful will share in this punishment. The emphasis on the Judgment leads into the two “day of YHWH” stanzas (27:1, 2-5), followed by a closing refrain (v. 6). I feel it is worth examining these verses in some detail, so I will be devoting several supplemental notes this week to their study, along with a separate note on the final poem of chaps. 24-27 (27:7-13). This will complete our study here on the Isaian Apocalypse, which must be considered only an introductory survey meant to illustrate how the principles and methods of Biblical criticism can help us understand such a challenging text of Prophecy, and to elucidate its message and meaning.

Next week, we will move further ahead in the book of Isaiah, to chapters 36-39, where we will explore how the historical episode of the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib (and the siege of Jerusalem) was handled within the Isaian Tradition.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27 (continued)

Isaiah 24-27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at the so-called Isaiah “Apocalypse” (chaps. 24-27) from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, along with a short exegesis of the initial poem in 24:1-13. This week we will continue our study with a critical survey of the sections that follow.

Isaiah 24:14-23

It is not immediately clear if these verses belong as part of the earlier poem (vv. 1-13), or are better understood as a separate poetic section of the overall composition. Certainly the eschatological theme of the coming worldwide Judgment continues from the earlier section; however, the abrupt shift to the subject of worldwide praise suggests that the verses ought to be read as a distinct compositional unit. Perhaps it is meant as a contrast to the destruction and desolation of the great cities of the nations. Even as the entire earth is shaken, the faithful ones of God’s people (living in exile) all over the world sing out in praise. This is the two-sided character of the Judgment—destruction for the nations, but salvation for God’s people.

The context of vv. 14-16a is the dispersion of Israelites and Jews among the nations, primarily as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. Quite possibly the central image of the sea (hayy¹m) here is meant to depict the nations in mythological terms, even as the motif would later be used in the book of Revelation. On the cosmological image of the Sea, as representative of the dark chaos of the primeval waters (Gen 1:2), cf. my earlier article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. The reason why there would be praise and singing coming from the “sea” (v. 14), i.e. from the nations, is that, for the faithful ‘remnant’ of God’s people in exile, this Judgment on the nations is a time of salvation. With the oppressive power of the nations broken, Israelites and Judeans will experience God’s deliverance. This rejoicing spans the earth from one end to the other (vv. 15-16a)—the realms of light (°¥rîm) in the East (i.e. where the sun rises) and the distant islands in the West. Quite possibly there is a bit of alliterative wordplay here between b¹°¥rîm (“in the [realm]s of light”) and b®°iyyê hayy¹m (“in [the] islands of the sea”).

Verse 16b poses a difficulty for interpretation. There is certainly a clear contrast intended, between the worldwide praise (of the faithful) in vv. 14-16a and the word of woe (against the faithfuless) in v. 16b-17. However, the point of transition in v. 16b is not entirely clear; the text reads:

“And (yet) I said: r¹zî-lî, r¹zî-lî!

The difficulty lies in the word r¹zî (yz]r*, doubled in exclamation along with (we may assume) the suffixed preposition (yl], “to me, for me”). The Greek Septuagint (LXX) omits the words in translation, perhaps an indication that the translator simply did not understand the meaning (such translation omissions can be found elsewhere in Old Testament poetry). Commentators and translators have typically derived it from the root r¹zâ (“be[come] thin, weak”), in which case the meaning of the exclamation could be something like “weakness for me!”, i.e. “I grow weak!”. Perhaps the sense is that, while God’s people around the world rejoice, the prophet is burdened by the realization that the faithless ones (among God’s people) will face judgment together with the other nations.

While the LXX does not translate r¹zî, other old Greek versions (Lucianic, Symmachus, Theodotion) understand it to be the Aramaic noun r¹z (zr*, “secret”) with first person singular suffix (i.e., “my secret”), and in this the Greek versions are followed by the Syriac and the Latin Vulgate translation. The sense would then be that, in the face of the worldwide rejoicing, the prophet holds a secret regarding the judgment that faces the faithless/disloyal ones among God’s people. If the exclamation does derive from the Aramaic r¹z (a Persian loanword, Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:6), then it would provide further confirmation that the section was composed in the Persian period (no earlier than the mid-6th century); on the historical-critical question, see the discussion in the previous study.

The restatement of the coming Judgment in vv. 17-20 provides another example of intertextuality in these chapters, apparently drawing upon earlier prophetic oracles and Scripture texts. We note, for example, the similarity between verse 18 and Jeremiah 48:43-44 (see Amos 5:18-20); or, again, how the opening of the windows in the high places alludes to the narrative of the great Flood (Gen 7:11; 8:2). These references indicate a blending of two Scriptural traditions: (1) the “Day of YHWH” in the prophetic nation-oracles, and (2) the great Flood; both motifs are used to express the idea of God’s judgment on the entire world at the end of the current Age (described dramatically in vv. 19-20). Subsequent Jewish and early Christian eschatology would make extensive use of the same two lines of tradition.

Verses 21-23 form a curious appendix to the poem(s) of chapter 24, and may be the product of a later editor. The heavenly entities (“armies of [the] high places [i.e. heaven]”), including the sun and moon, are set parallel with the kings of the nations on earth. From the standpoint of Israelite monotheism (in its more developed form), the worship of divine powers (deities) in the sky, sun, and moon, etc, by the Canaanites and other peoples, was a mark of wickedness and false religion—entailing a refusal to recognize YHWH as the (one) true God. In the great day of Judgment, YHWH will punish the nations together with the deities they worship (in the sun and moon, etc).

The basic idea has to do with the dissolution of the universe at the end of the current Age, especially as this is manifested in the heavenly places (of the sky); on the same eschatological imagery elsewhere in Isaiah, see 34:2ff. Possibly the motif of imprisoning the divine powers in a deep pit draws on a separate line of tradition (regarding heavenly beings [angels] who rebelled against God), similar in certain respects with accounts of war among the deities in ancient Near Eastern cosmological myths. Jewish apocalyptic literature would make much use of this tradition, and it also features prominently in the book of Revelation, including the specific idea of the wicked powers being held in prison for a long period of time before their final punishment (v. 22, Revelation 20:1-10).

Isaiah 25:1-26:6

The brief reference to praise in 24:14-16a (see above) is given much fuller treatment in chapter 25, where we find a poem of praise and thanksgiving to YHWH, composed in three main parts. The poem, and its components, emphasizing the faithfulness of God and the salvation He brings to His people, draws upon a good number of Scriptural and prophetic traditions, including a range of Isaian motifs. Compared with chapter 24, it is not so clearly eschatological in orientation; indeed, it shares much in common with a number of the Old Testament Psalms. A critical study of this section also reveals a more complex compositional setting; this may be noted by a survey of the three sections:

    • 25:1-5: A psalm, following in the Isaian tradition, which identifies (and characterizes) a great city of the nations, (to be) destroyed in the Judgment, as an oppressor of God’s people
    • [25:6-8: Refrain on the (eschatological) feast to be held on the mountain of God]
    • 25:9-12: Stanza 1 on the day of Judgment (“on that day…”)
      the great city (with its walls, etc) will be brought down to ruin
    • 26:1-6: Stanza 2 on the day of Judgment (“on that day…”)
      the fallen city will be taken over by the people of Israel/Judah

Complicating this picture are the lines on the eschatological feast (25:6-8) and the specific reference to Moab in vv. 10b-12—both of which seem to be intrusive to the remainder of the poem in its overall context.

The eschatological feast, at its core, represents a development of the ritual meal that marked the ratification of the covenant between God and Israel (see Exod 24:9-11), which took place on the mountain where God dwelt. The communal meal, with its sacrificial aspects, during the great pilgrimage festivals (e.g., Passover, Sukkot/Booths) draws upon a similar line of covenant-symbolism (compare Isa 55:1-3). It was only fitting that, at the end of the current Age, following the Judgment, the salvation of God’s people would be celebrated, in grand style, by a similar meal. Actually, the meal itself is mentioned only in verse 6; the emphasis in vv. 7-8 is on the New Age that is ushered in for God’s people, an Age in which suffering and sorrow will be eliminated. This suffering is the result of death, primarily (i.e. the motif of the mourning shroud), but also of the oppression and opposition Israel faces from the surrounding nations; this, too, has come to an end. All of it takes place on the mountain of God, a reference to the city of Jerusalem, cast in mythological/cosmological terms (see Isa 2:2-4).

The mention of Moab in vv. 10b-12 is more difficult to explain; it appears to be a holdover of the nation-oracles in chaps. 13-23 (see chs. 15-16), but is otherwise quite out of place in chaps. 24-27 where the emphasis is on all the nations of the world in a collective sense. Perhaps “Moab” serves as a cypher for Babylon here, much as “Edom” would for Rome among Jews of a later time. Certainly Babylon and Moab are closely connected in the Isaian nation oracles (chaps. 13-14, 15-16), and Moab was a traditional enemy of Israel, notorious especially from the episode in Numbers 25 (involving idolatry and immorality). Since the emphasis in Isa 25 is on the destruction of a great city of the nations, the insertion of Moab suggests that it represents either (1) Babylon as the wicked city, or (2) the cities of the nations (in their wickedness) as a whole.

The remainder of this survey will continue (and conclude) in next week’s study, where we will also consider the various critical aspects of chaps. 24-27 as a whole.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27

Isaiah 24-27

In these studies focusing on the book of Isaiah, we have had occasion to examine the division of the book spanning chapters 13-27. These chapters represent a unified and coherent work, characterized by the nation-oracle form and genre. A careful critical examination indicates that a core of authentic Isaian material—that is, nation-oracles from the time of the prophet (the Assyrian period, late 8th century B.C.)—has been set in the later context of the Babylonian conquests of the 6th century. In the previous study, as part of an exegetical analysis of the poem in 14:4b-21, I discussed the theory that the oracle refers to the Assyrian ruler Sargon II who held the title “king of Babylon” (cf. the Assyrian context of vv. 24-27). On the basis of this theory, one may posit that an anti-Assyrian oracle, prophesying the (eventual) fall of the Assyrian empire, was subsequently applied (and reinterpreted) as a message of judgment against Babylon in the 6th century (some time before its fall to Persia in 539). Chapter 13 is an anti-Babylonian oracle prophesying the fall of the Babylonian empire (cf. also 14:22-23; 21:1-10).

The 6th century Babylonian setting also seems to be in view in chapters 24-27, serving as an inclusio (with chapter 13) for the entire work, enclosing all of the other (Isaian, etc) material in chaps. 14-23. Certain similarities in tone and style raise the possibility that chapters 13 and 24-27, on the whole, may have been composed by the same author (see Roberts, p. 194, 306). It is not only the judgment against Babylon that is emphasized in these chapters, but the nation-oracle genre has been expanded and developed into message of judgment with cosmic scope—that is, the poems in these chapters represent an oracle against all the nations worldwide (Babylon being only the most prominent). While this wider outlook is found in chapter 13 (vv. 4, 9-11ff), it is even more prominent in chaps. 24-27, the poems of which evince an eschatological and apocalyptic orientation. Indeed, commentators often refer to chaps. 24-27 as the Isaian “Apocalypse”.

The dating of these chapters remains in dispute, and, while most critical commentators would date them well after the time of Isaiah himself, there is a range of scholarly opinion on just how much later they were composed. The eschatological elements present in these poems, along with other aspects of language and style, make it unlikely that they were composed prior to the 6th century and the beginnings of the Persian period. J. J. Roberts, in his fine critical commentary (First Isaiah, Heremeneia [Fortress Press: 2015]) would date the section to the late 7th or early 6th century, which would be among the earliest estimates. A setting of the mid-6th century seems probable, but we shall see how well the exegetical and critical evidence bears this out.

By all accounts, Isa 24-27, as a unit, represents the earliest surviving example of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writing. It draws upon both the nation-oracle genre and the well-established prophetic tradition of the “day of YHWH” —an expression which refers to the time of God’s judgment against a particular nation or people. For the most part, the “day” is related to a specific nation; however, by the 6th century, and into the exilic and post-exilic periods, this concept began to be developed into a “day” when God would judge all the nations together. Perhaps the earliest example of this development is to be found in the oracle of Joel 3, which may have been written at time roughly comparable to Isa 13, 24-27 (i.e. in the early-mid 6th century). In the book of Joel, it is likely that the Babylonian conquests are in view, and that the future restoration of Israel (return from exile, etc) is tied to God’s judgment, not only on Babylon, but on all the nations of earth.

It is sometimes difficult to know, in apocalyptic writing, whether the worldwide dimension is meant to be taken in a realistic, concrete sense, or whether a local/regional situation is being described in cosmic terms. It should also be noted that, in such an early example of Jewish eschatology, the eschatological aspect is not nearly so clearly defined as in subsequent writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. While a “New Age” is certainly envisioned for Israel and Judah, it is harder to be sure of how precise the author understood its connection with the end of the current Age (on a cosmic scale). However, the numerous allusions to the primeval history (including the Creation)—i.e. the beginning of the current Age—strongly suggests that the end of that Age is also in view.

The historical and literary factors outlined above provide the parameters within which we may embark on a critical study of the poems of chapters 24-27. It will not be possible to examine every verse in detail; however, a close study of key selected passages should prove most valuable, both for our understanding of the book of Isaiah, and as an example of Biblical (Old Testament) criticism in action. Let us begin with the opening lines of 24:1-13.

Isaiah 24:1-13

Verses 1-3

“See! YHWH is emptying out the earth and laying it waste,
and He twists its face and scatters (the one)s dwelling (on) it!” (v. 1)
….
“Emptied, the earth will be emptied out,
and plundered, it will be plundered—
for YHWH has spoken this spoken (word).” (v. 3)

The opening verses 1-3 emphasize that YHWH is about to make the earth empty and desolate (using the alliterative verb pair b¹qaq and b¹laq); the violence of this act is indicated by the additional verbs ±¹wâ (“twist”) and b¹zaz (“plunder”). The action is taken on the earth (i.e. the inhabited land) itself, in verses 1 and 3; however, in the intervening verse 2 the effect on the human inhabitants is described. The Hebrew noun °ereƒ can be translated “earth” or “land”; the former suggests a cosmic (worldwide) event, while the latter could be understood more plausibly as a local event. The Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) reads °¦¼¹mâ (“ground”) instead of °ereƒ (“earth, land”) in verse 1.

Commentators have noted many instances where these poems in Isa 24-27 seem to borrow from existing works, including the unquestionable oracles of Isaiah, but also from the other prophetic writings, along with the Torah, etc. The author/editor appears to be drawing from written works—that is, it is a literary phenomenon, often referred to in Biblical and textual studies as intertextuality. Even in these opening three verses we may note the following:

    • Similarities in vv. 1, 3 with the vocabulary and thematic emphasis of (earlier) prophetic passages such as Nahum 2:2, 9-10.
    • The comparison with different groups/categories of people in society appears to be an expanded version of Hosea 4:9 (cp. Isa 3:4ff)
    • The use of the verb pûƒ in the Hiphil (“break apart, scatter”) in v. 1 likely alludes to the dispersion of humankind in the Babel narrative of Genesis (cf. 10:18; 11:4, 8-9).

These intertextual references suggest two main themes at work:

    • A development of the prophetic Day of YHWH motif, from the nation/judgment-oracles in Nahum, Hosea, et al.
    • The use of imagery from the Primeval History (and the Creation narrative) in Genesis, to indicate the manner in which the end of the Age will resemble its beginning.
Verses 4-6

“It dries up, the (entire) earth withers,
it languishes, the inhabited (world) withers,
(the) highest place languishes with the earth;
and the earth is corrupted under (the one)s dwelling on her,
for they have crossed over (the) instructions (of YHWH),
they replaced (His decree) inscribed (for all time),
broke (the) agreement binding (into the) distant (future)!
Upon this [i.e. for this reason], a curse has devoured the earth,
and (the one)s dwelling on her face guilt;
upon this, dwellers of the earth are diminished,
and (the) human (being)s left over (are just) a few.”

A range of literary references and (poetic) devices are packed into these lines, emphasizing repeatedly the great judgment that is coming upon all humankind. That it will affect every human being, regardless of social position or status, was already made clear in verse 2. The author intends the situation to parallel that of the great Flood in most ancient times, in the days of Noah, when the vast majority of humankind perished, and only a few survived. The reference to the “agreement binding (into the) distant (future)” (b®rî¾ ±ôl¹m, i.e. ‘eternal covenant’) is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 9:16, and the covenant God established with humankind after the Flood. This is perhaps the first example of an eschatological application of the great Flood—that is, as a type-pattern of the Judgment that will come upon the world at the end of the current Age (Matt 24:37-38 par; 1 Pet 3:20ff; 2 Pet 2:5ff). Human beings, in their sinfulness, have violated this binding agreement (b®rî¾) with God, and so face the curse (°¹lâ) that is built into the ancient covenant format, as a punishment for failing to fulfill the terms of the agreement.

Verses 7-9

“(The) fresh (wine) dries up, (the) vine languishes,
(and) all (the one)s joyful of heart groan;
(the) delightful (sound) of tambourine has ceased,
(the) noise of (the one)s rejoicing has left off,
(the) delightful (sound) of (the) harp has ceased!
With a song they no longer drink wine,
(and the) beer is bitter for (the one)s drinking it.”

These verses provide a good example of how clever poetic form and style can serve to enhance the message of prophecy. A pair of couplets dealing with the drinking of alcohol (wine/beer) bracket a central tricolon on the joyful social activity and communal celebration that accompanies such drinking. The curse on the earth causes the wine to dry up, which ends up affecting human society. More than this, however, it illustrates how the joy of living is destroyed by the judgment, in ways that might not immediately be apparent.

The alliterative pairing of the the verbs °¹»al (“dry up”) and °¹mal (“grow weak, languish”) echoes that of verse 4 (see above). A separate(?) root °¹»al has the fundamental meaning “mourn, lament”, and it is likely that there is a bit of wordplay intended here—i.e., as the wine “dries up”, the people’s joy comes to an end and they being to “mourn”. The disappearance of joy is depicted in terms of musical celebration; the tricolon of verse 8 is a chiasm:

    • delightful sound of tambourine ceases
      • noise of the ones rejoicing leaves off (i.e. fades away)
    • delightful sound of the harp ceases
Verses 10-12

“(The) city of confusion is broken down,
every house is shut up from coming (in) [i.e. so no one can enter];
an outcry over (the) wine (is) in the (street)s outside,
all joy has gone down (with the sun),
(the) delight of the earth is removed.
Ruin is left (behind) in the city,
and crashing to ruins (the) gate is struck (down)!”

These three verses have a similar poetic structure to those of vv. 7-9: a pair of thematically parallel couplets (emphasizing destruction) surround a central tricolon dealing with the loss of joy in society. Again this loss of joy is tied to the image of the drying up of the wine (i.e. the withering of the vine on earth). Now, however, the sense of loss has shifted to the reality of a city facing destruction and ruin. This figurative city, using the synonymous nouns qiryâ and ±îr, is called “city of confusion” (qirya¾ tœhû), using the same word (tœhû, “confusion”) from Genesis 1:2, which describes the unformed chaos of the primeval universe before God established the created order. Given the context of chapters 13-27 (see above), it is possible that Babylon is foremost in mind, however, if so, it must still be maintained that this great city represents all cities of the nations. The book of Revelation famously makes considerable use of this same Babylon / Great-City symbolism. When the City falls in the Judgment, the order of the world—the natural and social order both—disintegrates, and the world falls into chaos and emptiness, just as in the primeval condition at the beginning of creation.

Verse 13

“For thus it shall be in (the) inner-part of the earth,
in (the) midst of the peoples,
as (the) shaking of an olive (tree),
as (the) gleanings when (the) harvest-cutting is finished.”

This rhythmically balanced quatrain closes the first part of the poem, and forms a thematic parallel with the opening verse (see above). The same themes of the destruction/shaking of the earth and the scattering of its inhabitants are found here, only set within the image of the harvest. The harvest, marking the end of the growing season and life-cycle, serves as a natural metaphor for the end of the current Age. Joel 3, possibly composed at around the same time as this poem, makes use of the same imagery in an eschatological context (v. 13). The book of Revelation, influenced by both passages, follows the same line of imagery, involving the vine harvest (14:14-20). The oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, with its use of the harvest motif (50:16; 51:33) is also relevant in this context.

We will continue this discussion in next week’s study, as we consider how the poem in 24:1-13 fits into the overall scope and thematic structure of chaps. 24-27.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27 (continued)

Isaiah 13:1-14:27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at Isaiah 13-14 from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, within the overall context of chapters 13-27. Of particular interest are the opening chapters 13-14, since they establish the thematic setting for the collection of nation-oracles, focusing on the fall of Babylon (and the Babylonian Empire) in the 6th century B.C. By contrast, the Isaian material—that is, the oracles and traditions stemming from the time of the prophet himself (mid-late 8th century), are from the Assyrian period. I discussed the historical-critical question, regarding the relationship of chaps. 13-27 to these two different time-frames, in the previous study. In particular, I mentioned the critical theory whereby the older Isaian (nation-oracle) material, focused on the Assyrian empire, was applied to the later context of the Babylonian empire. According to this theory, the linchpin is the poem in 14:3-21, which may have referred to king Sargon II of Assyria, who also held the title “king of Babylon”. Thus, an oracle against Assyria (14:4b-21, 24-27) may have come to be reinterpreted, being applied to Babylon (chap. 13; 14:4a, 22-23), with a new message for Israelites and Judeans in the 6th century: just as God brought judgment on the Assyrians, so he will do the same to the Babylonians.

Today, I wish to focus specifically on the poem in 14:3-21, approaching it from an exegetical-critical standpoint, much in the manner that I do in the (Sunday) Studies on the Psalms, looking at each individual couplet and strophe.

Isaiah 14:3-21

The introduction in verse 3-4a identifies this as a poem against the king of Babylon. While this may be part of the editorial layer that sets the Isaian material in a 6th century Babylonian context (see above), it could also reflect a genuine historical tradition regarding the identity of the king referenced in the poem. In the previous study, I discussed the possibility that Sargon II may have been the (Assyrian) king in view. Within the poem itself there is no reference to a specific ruler or nation, and certainly no indication that it is meant to refer to a king of the Babylonian empire (in spite of the notice in v. 4a).

The poem is part of the ancient nation-oracle tradition in the Prophets, and involves a very specific sub-genre, in which the nation is represented by its king. The ruler embodies the ambition, violence, and wickedness of the nation as a whole—especially for a nation that acts as an aggressive, conquering regional empire, such as is the case of Assyria in the 8th/7th century. A comparable poem, probably similar in date, is directed against the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.) in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). This prophetic denunciation (and taunt) is an the early instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif, emphasizing the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“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 messengers 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. 22-23)

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). Sargon II was the father and predecessor of Sennacherib, and, if he is indeed the king being referenced in Isa 14:3-21, then it means that this poem is an even earlier example of the “wicked tyrant” motif; indeed, there are a number of thematic similarities with the poem of 2 Kings 19:22ff par. For more on the subsequent development of the “wicked tyrant” motif, see my article on the “Antichrist Tradition”.

In verse 4a, the poem is specifically called a m¹š¹l—that is, a figurative discourse, where certain characters and situations are used in a representative, illustrative manner.

Isa 14:4b-11

The poem may be divided into two main sections, or stanzas. The first, in vv. 4b-11, addresses the tyrant in the 3rd person, before shifting to direct (2nd person) address in verse 8. The mechanism for this is a dramatic scenario, in which the trees of Lebanon speak collectively to the king. This is followed by a scene in which the shades of the dead speak similarly to him, as he arrives in the realm of the dead (Sheol). The section may thus be further divided, according to the structure of the mini-drama:

    • Opening taunt (vv. 4b-6)
    • The Trees of Lebanon (vv. 7-8)
    • The Shades of Sheol (vv. 9-11)
Verses 4b-6

“How (the one) pressing has ceased—
how (his) defiance has ceased!
YHWH has broken (the) stick of (the) wicked,
the staff of (the) rulers—
(the one) having struck (the) peoples,
striking without turning away,
having trampled (the) nations in anger,
pursuing without any (to) restrain (him).”

The taunt is directed at an especially notable “wicked tyrant” (cf. above), marked as one who oppresses other nations–i.e., pressing or exerting pressure (vb. n¹ga´) against them. He is also characterized by arrogance and defiance in his willingness to attack and conquer others. The noun in the second line of v. 4b is ma¼®h¢»â  in the Masoretic text, but the reading of the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa mar®h¢»â is likely correct, derived from the root r¹ha», with the basic meaning of “pride, arrogance, defiance”, and connoting a tendency to cause disturbance and alarm among people. With the stick/staff of his wicked rule (note the parallelism in the verse 5 couplet), he strikes others, but now has been struck (by God) in turn. Indeed, YHWH has broken the staff that symbolized the tyrant’s rule. The apparent invincibility of the tyrant, with his widespread conquests, is certainly appropriate to the Assyrian empire at its height, as well as being applicable to the later Babylonian empire (see above).

Verses 7-8

“(Now) all the earth rests and relaxes,
they break out (in) a cry (of joy);
even (the) cypress trees are joyful toward you,
(and the) cedar trees of (the) white (peaks),
(saying) ‘Since you were laid down (low),
the (one) cutting no (longer) comes up against us!'”

As in the taunt against Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19:22ff par (see above), the conquest of peoples is compared to the cutting down of trees. Indeed, both are characteristic of great nations and empires, and important to a king’s reputation and legacy. His building projects, requiring the cutting down of trees (i.e. acquisition of timber from the “snow-white peaks” [Lebanon]), and military conquests go hand in hand. The tradition of the king mounting an expedition to the Lebanon goes back to at least the ancient Gilgamesh tales of Sumer in the late-3rd millennium B.C. (see above). Now, however, with the death/defeat of the tyrant, the trees can rejoice in safety, without any worry of men coming to cut them down (at least for the time being).

Verses 9-11

Š§°ôl from below (also) stirs toward you,
to meet (you) in your coming,
rousing (the) shades (of the dead) for you;
it makes the (wild) goats of (the) earth stand from their seats,
all (the) kings of (the) nations—
all of them will answer and will say to you:
‘Even you are (as) worn (out) as we,
you have become like unto us!
Your exaltedness has been brought down to Š§°ôl,
your skin (to the) throng (of the dead);
beneath you (the) multiplying (worm) spreads out,
and (the) crimson-worm (is) your covering!'”

From the trees at the high peaks of Lebanon, representing the summit of human ambition and accomplishment, the scene shifts to the lowest point–the realm of the dead (Sheol) located far below the surface of the earth. As the trees speak (joyfully) to the fallen tyrant, so also do the shades (r®¸¹°îm) of the dead. These are specifically identified as the mighty “he-goats” (i.e. the chiefs/rulers) of the earth, who have their own kinds of ‘thrones’ in the underworld. No longer grand and exalted, in the realm of the dead it is a seat made of maggots and worms. The (Assyrian) tyrant thus joins all others like him—all other once-mighty kings who now have their seat among the throngs of the dead. Portions of this section are difficult to translate and interpret with precision; in particular, the second line of verse 11 is problematic.

Isa 14:12-21

A second taunt begins at verse 12, aimed more directly at the king. The tone follows that of the Sennacherib-taunt in 2 Kings 19:22ff, as also other examples of the genre, such as Ezekiel’s oracle against the king of Tyre (28:11-19). It emphasizes even more dramatically the contrast between the king’s grandiose ambitions and his undignified fate.

Verses 12-15

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my ruling-seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; compare 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” (mô±¢¼) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (°E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name ‚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). On the cutting down of trees as a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, see the discussion above. It is depicted 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 g¹¼a±) 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 (loav=)—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.

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).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms hêl¢l (“shining [one]”) and š¹µar (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler.

Verses 16-17

“(The one)s seeing you will stare at you,
and will give consideration to you, saying:
‘Is this the man making (the) earth quiver,
(and) making kingdoms shake (with fear)?
(who) set (the) habitable (world) as a desert,
and destroyed its cities?
(who) would not open [i.e. allow] its bound (captive)s (to go) home?'”

As in the first part of the poem, a group of people speak in response to the king’s fate. Here, the focus would seem to be on the population generally, commenting on the ultimate legacy of this tyrant. It is parallel to the declaration by the shades of the dead, emphasizing that the king’s fate is simply to join with all the (wicked) dead in the depths of Sheol. Most likely the exile of the northern territories (of Israel) is alluded to in the final line; it certainly would have had resonance for the Judeans exiled by the Babylonians as well.

Verses 18-21

“All (the) kings of (the) nations, all of them,
lie down in (great) worth, a man with his house;
but you, you are thrown out from your burial (place),
as a <stripped> (corpse), detestable,
(with) slain (bodie)s (as) a garment,
having been stabbed (with) a sword,
going down to (the) stones of (the) Pit,
as a carcass trampled under.
You will not be united with them in burial,
for you brought ruin (to) your land,
(and) slew your (own) people.
(Its name) will not be (re)called into (the) distant (future),
(it is the) seed of (one)s bringing evil.
(So then) establish slaughtering (for) his sons,
with the crookedness of their father;
they do not stand up any (more),
and will (not any longer) possess (the earth),
and (no more) fill (the) face of (the) habitable (world with) cities!”

Because of the king’s ignoble fate, involving death and defeat (in battle?), he will not receive an honorable burial with the rest of his “house” (i.e. ancestors). The claim that he “brought ruin” to his land and “slew” his (own) people, probably alludes to a military defeat. Attempts have been been made to identify this with events in the life of the Assyrian rulers Sargon II (see above) or Sennacherib, but a connection cannot be established with precision. What is clear, however, is that this king’s demise and disgrace will extend to his “sons” (i.e. descendants). This presumably refers to the eventual defeat and collapse of the Assyrian empire in the late 7th century (see below). Certainly, the wording of the last two lines suggests a nation that no longer has any empire-building power.

Isaiah 14:22-27

Most critical commentators agree that verses 22-23, with its specific reference to the fall of the Babylonian empire, are intrusive, belonging to the layer of editing that has interpreted and applied the Isaian nation-oracles to the later context of the fall of Babylon (see above, and in the previous study). This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verses 24-27, prophesying the defeat of the Assyrians. If all of 13:1-14:23 originally dealt with the fall of the Babylonian empire, then the sudden shift to Assyria would seem most out of place. However, there is strong reason to think that 14:4b-21 + 24-27 (and possibly also the opening vv. 1-2) together represent, in their original context, an oracle against Assyria. Only at a later point was the tradition regarding the Assyrian tyrant as the “king of Babylon” developed so that chapters 13-21ff applied to the message of judgment against the 6th century empire of Babylon. This composition-critical view, if correct, demonstrates the longstanding power of the Prophetic message, the inspired character of which cannot be limited to a single time or place. Certainly, Christians who accept many Isaian passages as inspired prophecies of Jesus’ Christ’s life and work—centuries later and far removed from the original context—should not be surprised if the same sort of thing were done by Israelites and Jews in earlier generations. Applying the Isaian prophecies of the Assyrian period to the time of the Babylonian empire may be considered just such an example of “inspired application”.

In next week’s study we will turn to chapters 24-27 which close this (nation-oracle) division of the book. It is a most intriguing section, sometimes referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Suddenly, the nation-oracle form is expanded to include a range of eschatological and quasi-apocalyptic elements. We will not be able to examine these chapters in detail; however, certain key representative passages will be singled out, along with an introductory survey.

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).