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.

Trinity/Triad in Ancient Egypt

In commemoration of Trinity Sunday (June 7, 2020), and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is worth considering some interesting, albeit rather loose, parallels to the idea (and mode of expression) attested in other ancient religious traditions. Perhaps the most noteworthy examples come from ancient Egypt, where the symbolism of the number three was, in a variety of ways, consistently applied to concepts of deity, especially in terms of triadic structures and formulae—involving groups of three deities. In ancient Egypt, as in other cultures, the number three could be used as a shorthand to indicate plurality and multiplicity (i.e. the first number after two, beyond duality). In Egyptian script, the plural could be indicated by three strokes or by repeating a sign three times.

Triads of Egyptian deities are well-known, with numerous and varied examples at hand in the surviving texts and inscriptions. What is significant is the way that these triads express both unity and multiplicity—the one and the many (three)—at times using both singular (“he”) and plural (“they”) pronouns when referring to the triad. This will be discussed further below.

Different sorts of triads, typical of the syncretistic tendencies in Egypt whereby deities (and/or conceptions and manifestations of deity) are combined and united in various ways. This fundamental syncretism distinguished Egyptian religion from the other cultures of the Ancient Near East, where such combinations are attested much less frequently. Three kinds of triads may be mentioned:

    • Mythological—that is, deities described in the manner of human beings (with personalities, etc) about whom tales (i.e. “myths”) may be told
    • Cosmological—the work of creation and natural phenomena described in terms of the actions of, and relationships between, divine powers
    • Theological—i.e., deities related to one other conceptually, in an attempt to describe the nature and characteristics of deity, often in somewhat more abstract terms.

One common “mythological” triad in ancient Egypt is the natural combination of father, mother, and child (son), reflecting the dynamic of the human family. The best known examples of this sort are: Amun-Mut-Knonsu (from Thebes), Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem (from Memphis), and Osiris-Isis-Horus (from Abydos). The king (Pharaoh) is often identified with the son in this triad, understood as a manifestation (or ‘incarnation’) of the deity on earth. A similar incarnation, in animal form, is the Apis bull; the Memphite theology surrounding the Apis identified it, for example, with the divine triad of Osiris-Atum-Horus, or Ptah-Re-Horus (cf. Morenz, p. 143).

Perhaps the most famous (and well-known) cosmological triad involves the manifestation of the Creator deity [Re] in the form (or symbol) of the sun during its daily course: Khepri in the morning, Re in midday, and Atum in the evening. These associations are known as early as the Pyramid Texts, but find their definitive formulation in the later Turin papyrus, in which the deity says “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, Atum in the evening”. In the Book of the Dead, the Creator deity (represented by the Sun), is called “the aspect of the three” (Morenz, p. 145). With the setting of the sun, the deity Re is united with Osiris in the underworld (as Re-Osiris). A similar sort of combination was expressed, at Memphis in the late period, by the triad of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

A triadic construct, both cosmological and theological in nature, is the famous Ennead (group of nine deities) of the Heliopolitan theology. According to this cosmology, the universe is represented by three generations (comprised of four male-female pairs) of offspring from the Creator deity Atum, with whom they are ultimately identified. The best known theological triad from ancient Egypt is found in the Leiden Hymn to Amun (late 14th-century B.C.), which gives definitive expression to the identification of the Creator deities Re and Ptah with the high deity Amun (whose name means something like ‘the Hidden One’):

“All gods are three: Amun, Re, Ptah; they have no equal. His name is hidden as Amun, he is Re before (humankind, i.e. visible to them), and his body is Ptah.” (stan. 300)

This dates from the revivial of Amun-religion, in the time of Tutankhamun (following the reign of Akhenaten), and is similarly expressed, visually, on a trumpet from his burial treasure (cf. Hornung, p. 219):

Admittedly, these Egyptian triads, are quite different from the Christian trinity, in two important respects: (a) they are part of a highly developed polytheistic religious outlook, and are ultimately tri-theistic rather than trinitarian; and (b) there is no parallel whatever for the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Something roughly comparable to the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is, up to a point, found in Egyptian religious thought—i.e. the king (or the deceased) as the incarnate Son of the Creator (Re/Ptah/Atum)—but nothing like the Holy Spirit. What Christianity and Egyptian religion have most in common is the basic conceptual vocabulary of “one in three, three in one”, as applied to God, however different the overall religious culture might otherwise be. It is possible that this theological language (mode of expression) in Egypt exercised some influence on Christian theology during the two centuries prior to the council of Nicaea (and the establishment of the Nicene Creed). The importance of Alexandria is often cited as the connecting point with Egypt’s past, preserving ways of religious thinking and formulating that go back centuries. The first-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Philo of Alexandria offers an interesting comparison for how the ancient Egyptian triadic theological expression might have been preserved. In his Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo comments on God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three persons (Gen 18:1-2ff), and seeks to explain this in a manner not too dissimilar from the ancient Egyptian triadic formulation:

“…it is reasonable for one to be three and for three to be one, for they were one by a higher principle [kat’ a)nw/teron lo/gon]; but, when counted with the chief powers…He makes the appearance of three to the human mind. …. the spiritual eyes of the virtuous man are awake and see….he begins to see the holy and divine vision in such a way that the single appearance appears as a triad, and the triad as a unity.” (IV. 2, Loeb translation)

This statement by Philo lacks the ontological and metaphysical basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but, in its clear expression of God as both one and three—trinity (triad) and unity—it points in the direction the Trinitarian language utilized by believers, even to this day, as we attempt to approximate and express, in some manner, the mystery of the Godhead.

References above marked “Hornung” are to Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, transl. John Baines (Cornell University Press: 1982). Those marked “Morenz” are to Siefried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, transl. Ann E. Keep (Cornell University Press: 1973).

It has proven a challenge for Christians, over the centuries, to represent the Trinity visually in works of art; however, there have been a number of notable and worthy attempts. One of the most famous, to be sure, is the icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the early 15th century (c. 1410?). It draws upon the same Old Testament narrative (“The Hospitality of Abraham”, Gen 18:1-8) commented on by Philo (cf. above), but has been turned into a beautiful, stylized depiction of the Trinity. The tendency toward a kind of visceral realism in Western art, in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, made the Trinity a more difficult subject matter for the visual arts; however, a pattern was established by Masaccio (c. 1427) in his altar fresco for the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (second, below). This pattern, depicting the Father, Son (Christ on the cross), and Spirit (as a dove), was followed by Albrecht Dürer, in his magnificent “Adoration of the Trinity” altarpiece (1511) for the All Saints Chapel of the Landauer “Twelve Brothers House” in Nürnberg (third, at bottom).