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).

 

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

Having approached the oracles in Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10 from a general historical-critical standpoint (see last week’s study), we will here look at them from a literary-critical point of view. Working from the structure and form of the oracles, we will undertake a short exegetical survey, drawing out information, inductively, for each section and verse.

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

In terms of the form and structure of this passage, it is best understood as consisting of a prosodic introduction (v. 23 [9:1]), followed by a poem (9:1-6 [2-7]), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). The poem proper may be divided into 6 stanzas corresponding to each numbered verse (vv. 1-6 [2-7 in English translations]):

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

It is a poetic oracle, the concluding piece of 6:1-9:6[7], a document consisting of unquestionably authentic Isaian material—oracles and historical-biographical traditions—from the period c. 740-701 B.C. (focusing especially on the Assyrian crisis of 735-732).

Isa 8:23 [9:1]

The context of the oracle is established in 8:23 [9:1], though it can be difficult to determine this with precision. Here a careful study of the text is important, but even then, scholars and commentators may be divided on the correct interpretation. Compare the translations in two leading critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]):

Roberts/Hermeneia

…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…

Blenkinsopp/AB:

There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…

These differences are based, in part, on difficulties surrounding the Hebrew. Note the following two examples:

    • Isaiah 8:23am¹±û¸ can be derived from ±ô¸ (“fly, flutter”) or ±ô¸ (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix –l¹h is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (°ereƒ [“land”], µ¦š¢kâ [“darkness”], or parallel ƒ¹râ/ƒôqâ [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.
    • Isaiah 8:23b—Does h¹ri°šôn (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun ±¢¾ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with h¹°aµ¦rôn (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs qll and kbd (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

Keeping in mind the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C., if this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]).

Isa 9:1-2 [2-3]

In the first two stanzas of the poem, God promises to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity. This is expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc. The contrast of darkness and light in verse 1 brings out symbolically this distinction between the suffering experienced by the Northern kingdom, and the imminent promise of future hope. This darkness and shadow specifically alludes to the threat of death, and evokes language associated with the realm of Death and the grave (see Job 10:21-22, etc). Light (as of the sun) is a corresponding image representing (new) life and salvation. It is naturally associated with God (as a divine attribute/characteristic), but applies just as well to the king/ruler who functions under God’s authority.

The imagery in verse 2 shifts to that of the harvest. The contrast (implied) is between the pain/toil involved in planting and the joy (´imµâ) that comes with the time of reaping. This is further compared, in the last line, with the rejoicing that comes after victory in battle. A small text-critical note: by reading haggîlâ (instead of haggôy lœ°) in the first line, the wordplay and parallelism of the stanza is properly preserved:

“You have multiplied the circling (with joy),
you have made great the (feeling of) gladness—
they are glad before your face,
like the gladness at the (time of) reaping,
like those who circle (for joy) in (the) dividing of plunder.”

Isa 9:3-4 [4-5]

The allusion to battle in the final line of v. 2 becomes the main theme of the next two stanzas. The promise of hope and salvation is defined precisely in terms of the defeat of Israel’s enemies. The image in verse 3 is that of an oppressive foreign power being overthrown, leading to freedom and independence for the people. Given the apparent historical context of the oracle (see above), it suggests the possibility that the Northern territories, turned into Assyrian provinces, would regain their independence. The “day of Midian” doubtless refers to the Gideon traditions in Judges 6-8, when the Northern tribes were similarly delivered from the control of a foreign power. Verse 4 gives a vivid and graphic depiction of a military defeat.

Isa 9:5-6 [6-7]

These verses, so familiar to many Christians, are almost always read completely out of their original historical context. Again, the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 would seem to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722). In this light, the standard Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] is out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage). Can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

It is also possible that Hezekiah is to be associated with the title ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) in the prophecies of 7:10-17 and 8:5-10. Certainly the name is suggestive of the words describing Hezekiah’s reign, in 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”). For a consideration of arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, see my earlier article on the subject. In that article, you will also find a discussion of the divine titles occurring in vv. 5-6. There are four such titles: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms. They are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…”.

It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7).

Isaiah 11:1-10

As in 8:23-9:6, a period of salvation and peace is tied to the rise of a new king from the line of David. If 11:1-10 represents an authentic Isaiah oracle (i.e. from the mid-late 8th century B.C.), then it may well refer to the same king (Hezekiah?) announced in the earlier passage. Many commentators, however, would assign the composition of chapter 11 to a later period. In the previous study, I discussed the critical theory that the document 6:1-9:6, having been included with the wider (Isaian) context of chapters 5-10, was subsequently placed in the later literary context of chapters 2-4, 11-12. Certain thematic and stylistic considerations suggest an exilic (6th century) or even post-exilic setting, though this is hardly decisive, and there are even some critical commentators (e.g., J. J. M. Roberts, cf. above) who would accept Isaian authorship, on the whole, for the oracles in chaps. 2-4, 11-12.

Isa 11:1-10 has a very precise (literary) structure, consisting of two main parts (or strophes), bracketed by references to the new Davidic king (using the idiom “root/trunk of Jesse”).

Verse 1

“And there will go forth a branch from (the) trunk of Yishay,
and a green (shoot) will bear (forth) from his roots”

The oracle opens with a simple parallel couplet, establishing the theme: the rise of a new king (over Judah) from the line of David. The similarity of language with Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15ff, suggests that a 6th-century/exilic setting is in view. On the other hand, a Davidic emphasis is present in the 8th century Isaian material (7:2, 13, and elsewhere in chaps. 2-39 [16:5; 22:22, etc]), and the Jeremiah references may have been inspired by earlier Isaian usage. An authentic Isaian oracle (from the 8th century) would only make more likely that Hezekiah is the expected king; or, in any case, that it is one who would come after (or in place of) the disappointing Ahaz.

Verses 2-5

The bulk of the poem (vv. 2-9) describes the reign of this new king as a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity for Israel (presumably a unified Kingdom), conveyed in ideal (and idyllic) terms. The first portion focuses on the theme of the justice that would be established throughout society during his reign. The wisdom and discernment with which he governs follows the ancient principle of Spirit-inspired leadership (v. 2, cf. my recent note on this point). It is marked by fairness and impartiality, reflecting the very character of God as Judge (v. 3). Of special importance is the way that he works on behalf of the poor and weak, protecting them from oppression and violence (v. 4). Righteousness and faithfulness (to YHWH) are the overarching attributes that explain and characterize the justice of his rule (v. 5).

Verses 6-9

The ‘golden age’ of the new king’s reign is described, in the second half of the poem (vv. 6-9), in more mythological terms, drawing upon the idea of a state of peace and harmony that may once have existed (and will once again) in the natural world. These are certainly among the most beautiful and memorable lines in the entire book. The emphasis of peace and security from wild animals, while drawing upon earlier lines of tradition (Hos 2:18 [20]), may be another indicator of a 6th-century/exilic date for the poem (compare Ezek 34:25-26).

The main point of this imagery is that it will be an ideal time of peace for God’s people. This was also the theme in 2:2-5 (discussed in an earlier study), one of several literary parallels between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. Roberts, in his commentary (pp. 180-1, cf. above), cites examples from Egypt and Assyria, where the accession of a new king is announced as a time of peace and security; however, in some ways, a closer parallel is to found in Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, however far removed it may be from the ancient Near Eastern milieu.

Verse 10

The closing lines reprise the motif of the rise of a new Davidic king (from v. 1), forming an inclusio for the poem:

“And there will be in that day a root of Yishay {Jesse},
which, standing, (will be) for a n¢s of (the) people;
to him (the) nations will go in search,
and his resting(-place) will be worth(y).”

An important aspect of this king’s rule will be the way that the surrounding nations come to him. In its earlier form, this idea simply reflected the sovereign-vassal relationship that existed between the kingdom of Israel and a number of nations in the region, during the reigns of David and Solomon. This Israelite ’empire’ was brief, and collapsed shortly after Solomon’s reign, but would remain an ideal, in terms of Israel’s restoration, for centuries to come. However, during the later Prophets of the exile and post-exilic periods, this motif of the ‘gathering of the nations’ came to be expressed in a new way, as part of a developing eschatological (and Messianic) understanding of Israel’s future restoration.

This same eschatological aspect was seen in 2:2-5 (cf. the earlier study), centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations. As I have noted, the theme is typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. From the standpoint of the composition of chaps. 2-12, this would mean that the (earlier) Isaian message promising deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion could well have been applied to the setting of the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

The new king will stand among his people, functioning as a n¢s for them. I left this word untranslated above; it essentially refers to something that is displayed prominently, serving as a rallying point for a group of people (such as a flag or banner). It also becomes a point around which other nations will gather as well, coming to the king (and his court) in search of truth and justice, etc. The religious emphasis of 2:2-5 (i.e. the nations joining Israel in worship of YHWH) is not as definite here, but it certainly would have been implied, in light of the language used in the rest of the oracle. There is likely a bit of wordplay in the final line, which could alternately be translated something like “and honor/worth will rest (on) him”. This honor/worth (Heb. k¹»ô¼, literally “weight”), in the context of the oracle, refers to the presence of God that is around the king, and the Spirit that comes upon him, gifting him with divinely-inspired wisdom (v. 2). Thus, in coming in search of Israel’s divinely-inspired king, they nations are effecting seeking after God.

Conclusion

Both of these remarkable oracles, however and whenever they were composed, announce the coming of a king (from the line of David) who will usher in an ideal time of peace and prosperity, bringing salvation and renewal to the people. A working critical hypothesis, based on the results of these two studies, might be outlined as follows:

    • The Isaian document of 6:1-9:6[7], composed sometime after 732 B.C., concludes with the announcement of deliverance for the Northern territories that had been conquered and annexed by Assyria. This was associated, most likely, with the birth (and/or accession) of Hezekiah, who did indeed make overtures to the North for them to join with him in a political and religious revival.
    • This hope, never realized during Hezekiah’s reign, came to be applied to the later context of the Babylonian threat in the early 6th century. As Jerusalem was saved from Assyrian invasion during Hezekiah’s reign, so the southern kingdom might be delivered under another faithful king from the line of David.
    • Ultimately, this ideal, and promise of future salvation, was reinterpreted from the standpoint of the Exile—i.e., the restoration of Israel in a post-exilic period as a golden age of justice and righteousness.

Such an outline would provide a veritable snapshot of Israel’s Messianic hope, in its early stages of development (captured within the complex literary structures of the book of Isaiah). It can be no surprise that Isa 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10 came to viewed as Messianic prophecies subsequently in Jewish tradition, and that early Christians continued this process, applying the oracles to the person of Jesus as the Messiah. That such a Messianic interpretation is a secondary development, quite apart from the original context of the prophecy, should be clear enough. However, this does not in any way diminish or devalue the Messianic (and Christian) view. The inspiration of Scripture is wide and expansive enough to encompass all of these aspects.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.

Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Literary Criticism

The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:

    • Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
      • Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
      • Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
      • Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
      • Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
    • Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13

If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:

    • Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
      • Love as fulfillment of the dual-command which marks the true believer, vv. 5-6
      • Trust in Jesus–warning against those who violate the command, i.e. those who mark themselves as false believers, vv. 7-11
    • The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12

Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.

In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:

    • Love: Sign of the true believer (vv. 5-6)
    • Trust: Warning against the false believers (vv. 7-11)

To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:

“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”

Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.

Historical Criticism

When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”

The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:

    • Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
    • They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
    • They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
    • This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth

The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:

“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”

In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).

Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:

“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.

Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.

Saturday Series: 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (concluded)

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, continued

Last week, under the heading of Literary Criticism (and Composition Criticism), we explored our passage (2 Cor 6:14-7:1) from the standpoint of Pauline authorship, both in terms of the immediate context of 2:14-7:4, and the letter of 2 Corinthians as a whole. In particular, at the close of the prior study, I gave consideration to the place of the passage within the entire letter, on the theory that our canonical book was, in fact, composed as a single letter by Paul. Compilation theories are common among critical commentators, and are plausible (more or less) to some degree, but they all face considerable difficulties with relatively little hard evidence to support them. At the same time, the structure and flow of 2 Corinthians, considered as a single letter, is also problematic.

Last week, I noted that there is a consistent (and apparently straightforward) letter at the core of 2 Corinthians, one centered on the financial collection for the Christians in Jerusalem (chaps. 8-9); it could plausibly be reconstructed as follows: 1:1-2:13; 7:5-16; chaps. 8-9; and 13:11-14 (or a comparable closing). What distorts this clean structure are the two lengthy discussions on Paul’s apostolic status and relationship to the Corinthians—2:14-7:4 and 10:1-13:10—which fit uneasily into the formal epistolary and rhetorical pattern, and which largely account for the shifts in tone and emphasis. Both of these lengthy sections could serve as the core of letters themselves, with a self-contained structure that extends and distorts the outline of 2 Corinthians when taken as a whole. Thus, the critical view that one or both of these sections come from separate letters. But what of the possibility that they were both authored by Paul as part of the same letter (i.e. our canonical 2 Corinthians)? This could have a considerable bearing on the place and purpose of 6:14-7:1, and so should be examined in a bit more detail.

If, in fact, the financial collection for Jerusalem is the center of the letter, and Paul’s main purpose for writing, then the two ‘digressions’ on his apostolic status (in connection to the Corinthians) could be related to this. Is it possible to explain the letter’s (current) structure on this basis? and what, then, is the relationship? To begin with, in the structure of the letter as we have it, the two apostolic ‘digressions’ are embedded as part of the sections that bracket the central instruction regarding the collection for Jerusalem:

    • Extended Narration (narratio)—1:15-7:16
      [2:14-7:4—Excursus on Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians]
    • Main Proposition (propositio) and Arguments (probatio) with Exhortation (exhortatio?)—8:1-9:15
    • Extended Exhortation (exhortatio), with concluding Argument/Appeal (peroratio)—10:1-13:10

Moreover, in spite of the differences in tone and style between the two apostolic discussions, they share a number of features and details in common, and are clearly related to the same basic subject—Paul’s role and status as an apostle to the Corinthians believers. Let us briefly consider the structure of these two sections—first, the discussion in 2:14-7:4:

    • 2:14-7:4—Excursus on Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians
      • Basic proposition (2:14-17)
      • Issue 1: On Ministers and letters of recommendation (3:1-18)
      • Issue 2: On the honesty/sincerity of true apostles (such as Paul) in the preaching and ministry (4:1-6)
      • Issue 3: On the (physical) suffering of apostles such as Paul for the sake of the Gospel (4:7-5:10)
      • Exhortation/Appeal to the Corinthians, regarding Paul’s role as Apostle (5:11-6:10)
      • Personal (Concluding) Appeal by Paul (6:11-7:4)

Second, that in 10:1-13:4:

    • 10:1-13:4—Extended Exhortation (exhortatio): Excursus on Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians
      • Initial Appeal and Statement (10:1-6)
      • Issue 1: The nature of Paul’s (apostolic) authority—theme of boasting introduced (10:7-18)
      • Issue 2: Comparison between Paul and other would-be Apostles who are influencing(?) the Corinthians (11:1-12:13)
      • Issue 3: Paul’s apostolic authority—exercise of discipline (12:14-21)
      • Closing appeal (13:1-4)

There is a general similarity in terms of structure: an initial statement, followed by three issues/arguments addressed by Paul, ending with a forceful exhortation/appeal. Admittedly, there are also significant differences, especially in terms of the thrust of each discussion. In particular, in 10:1-13:4 Paul uses a much stronger (and harsher) tone, similar in style and language to what we find in Galatians; as in that letter, Paul focuses on specific ‘opponents’, other (outside) leaders/ministers who are influencing the congregations he helped to found. There remains considerable scholarly debate as to just who these other (would-be) apostles are, along with the exact nature of Paul’s conflict with them. Based on the data in 2 Cor 10-13, we may plausibly determine the following details: (a) they were Jewish, (b) they came from outside the initial apostolic mission that founded the congregations, (c) they came with noteworthy credentials (commendatory letters), (d) they had a charismatic emphasis (more so than Paul), and perhaps were also more eloquent and impressive as speakers. It is unlikely that these were Palestinian Jewish Christians (from Jerusalem, etc); they appear to have been from the wider Hellenistic Jewish world, perhaps similar in background to Apollos. Interestingly, unlike in Galatians, Paul mentions no specific theological or doctrinal differences; his attack on them has more to do with how he viewed their personal character and understanding of the apostolic ministry.

Though it requires reading between the lines a bit, I believe the situation addressed by Paul in 10:1-13:4 is also in view in the earlier discussion of 2:14-7:4. In particular, the importance he gives to the question of letters of recommendation in chapter 3 is noteworthy. In an age when communication was extremely slow (and could be unreliable), transmission and presentation of letters played a key role in establishing a person’s legitimacy, qualifications, and intent. We also know from early Christian writings of the issues surrounding traveling ministers, the difficulties faced in establishing their pedigree and character, etc., including the potential danger an illegitimate itinerant minister could pose to a congregation. See, for example, chapters 11-13 of the so-called “Teaching (Didache) of the Twelve Apostles”. Apart from all other concerns, it was natural that a missionary like Paul would be highly protective of the congregations he played a role in founding. Moreover, from 1 Cor 1:10-17, it would seem there was a tendency among at least some in Corinth to identify themselves strongly with specific apostolic figures, in a partisan way that Paul found troubling. This could help us understand how influence from other outside ‘apostles’ could have quickly taken hold at Corinth, especially if such persons had impressive recommendations and/or demonstrated exciting charismatic abilities.

I think it may be possible to reconstruct a scenario that could explain why Paul writes as he does, including the two lengthy apostolic discussions. He wishes to see the effort of the financial collection for Jerusalem, so important in his mind, be carried through to completion (1 Cor 16:1-4, etc). However, significant problems had arisen which have disrupted and strained his relationship with the Corinthian congregations. He mentions one specific issue in 2:5-11, but it is clear that the conflict goes deeper and is more serious than this. He would not write so extensively defending and explaining his apostolic role and status, in relation to the Corinthians, were this not the case. Based on a careful reading of both apostolic discussion sections, it is possible to isolate two major (and likely related) issues: (1) the influence of other ‘apostles’ from outside who raised questions regarding Paul’s behavior and qualifications, etc, and (2) accusations/suggestions of misconduct by Paul. It is proper to consider them in this order and weight, since that is how Paul treats them in both discussions:

    • Extended discussion, with arguments, illustrations, etc, on Paul’s apostolic status and qualifications, both in relation to the Corinthians (emphasized in 2:14-7:4), and in comparison to these other ‘apostles’ (emphasized in chaps. 10-13)
    • At the close of the discussion, mention of accusations of misconduct, along with an implicit, but forceful denial.

Though less attention is given to the latter, it would seem to be the point that is most relevant for connecting the two apostolic discussions to the central matter of the financial collection for Jerusalem. The suggestions of misconduct occur at roughly the same point in each discussion—at the close of his arguments and in the context of the concluding appeal. In this first discussion, it happens to occur directly after 6:14-7:1 (a point to be further considered below), in 7:2ff. As I noted previously, Paul gives a concise three-fold denial of misconduct toward the Corinthians, using three verbs:

    • “we treated no one unjustly” (oudéna ¢dik¢samen)
    • “we corrupted no one” (oudéna ephtheíramen)
    • “we sought to have more (from) no one” (oudéna epleonekt¢¡samen)

In the second discussion, he addresses the matter in more detail, in 12:14-18:

“See, this (is the) third (time) I hold (myself) ready to come toward you, and I will not numb [i.e. weigh] you down—for I do not seek the (thing)s (that are) yours, but you. … And it must be (then), (that) I did not weigh you down; but (surely) (operat)ing under (an) all-working (cleverness), I took you with a trick! No, by any (one) whom I se(n)t forth toward you, did I seek to get more (from) you through him? I called Titus alongside and se(n)t him forth (to you) together with the brother; Titus did not (make) any attempt to get more (from) you (did he)? (and are we) not (moving) in the same track?”

Paul’s language here needs to be understood in light of the wider discussion in 2 Corinthians (especially here in chaps. 10-13), where Paul emphasizes that he did not burden the Corinthians with requests/demands for financial assistance (to support his ministry work)—on this point, see 11:7-11; 12:13, and the similar discussion in 1 Cor 9:1-18. The specific verb used in 12:14 (also 12:13 and 11:9) is katanarkᜠ(“numb down”), synonymous with katabaréœ (“weigh down”) in verse 16. This should have been viewed as a sign of Paul’s love and concern (his heart opened wide, 6:11); and yet, it appears to have played a part in suspicions and accusations against him. Twice in 12:17-18 (see the italicized words above), the verb pleonektéœ is used in this regard. It means simply “hold/have more”, but is often used in the sense of seeking to gain/get more from others (i.e. act greedily), sometimes with the harshly negative connotation of deceiving/defrauding others. This is one of the three verbs in Paul’s three-fold denial in 7:2 (see above), which would seem to confirm that the wrongdoing (adikía, “injustice”) of which he is suspected and/or accused relates primarily, if not entirely, to the idea that he is trying to get hold of money from the Corinthians through deception. If this is so, then it almost certainly is connected with the fundraising effort for Jerusalem (chaps. 8-9).

The accusation or suspicious criticism against Paul may have been along the following lines: He claims that he doesn’t ask any money of you for himself, but can you be sure he isn’t trying to defraud you with this collection? What if he is trying to trick you with these requests for money? Given the harshness of Paul’s attack in 10:1-13:4, it is likely that these other ‘apostles’ were at least partly responsible for spreading suspicions of this sort. As such, his collection efforts (and any accusations regarding them) cut right to the heart of his relation to the Corinthians as an apostle. Thus, he felt it necessary to expound and explain this to them in considerable detail—the nature of the apostolic ministry, and what it means for he (and his fellow missionaries) to be specially chosen and sent forth (i.e. an apostle) by God to proclaim the Gospel. At some level, he must have been hurt by any suspicions or accusation against him, however unfounded, and this comes through, especially in the first discussion, in the concluding exhortation/appeal (6:11-7:4), when he declares:

“Our mouth has been opened up toward you, Korinthians, our heart has been made wide; you are not in a narrow space in us, but you have (only) a narrow space in your inner organs (for us)! But (to give us) the (same) wage (back) in exchange, as (my dear) offspring, I say to you—make wide (your hearts) also to us, …. make space for us!

The striking difference in tone between 2:14-7:4 and 10:1-13:4 has been noted numerous times, and this, too, can perhaps be explained in context of the Jerusalem Collection (chaps. 8-9). Since the Collection is foremost in mind, central to the letter and Paul’s purpose for writing, it would make sense that he waited until the matters regarding it were addressed before embarking in his polemic against the would-be apostles that were influencing the Corinthians. In other words, the two apostolic discussions are, in effect, two halves of a single line of argument separated by the matter of the Collection. In the first half (2:14-7:4) Paul presents himself as a true apostle, whom the Corinthians should regard in their proper relationship to him; in the second half (10:1-13:4), Paul compares/contrasts himself with these would-be ‘false’ apostles. We may view this as two sides of the same conflict.

Even if this line of interpretation is essentially correct, how does 6:14-7:1 relate to it? In the previous study, I laid out a possible contextual relationship, relating the injustice (adikía) that characterizes the non-believer (6:14ff) with the accusation/suspicion that Paul has acted unjustly (vb. adikéœ, 7:2). As it happens, there is a similar sort of dynamic at the end of the second apostolic discussion; note the following comparative outline:

    • First appeal—for the the proper relationship between Paul & the Corinthians (6:11-13 / 12:14-18)
    • Warning against behavior that is improper for believers, drawing upon traditional ethical-religious instruction (6:14-7:1 / 12:19-21)
    • Second appeal—picking up and restating the substance of the first appeal (7:2-4 / 13:1-4)

Due to the harsher tone of 10:1-13:4, the warning in 12:19-21 seems less out of place than in 6:14-7:1, and it also happens to resemble more closely the type of traditional ethical instruction (utilizing standard vice lists) Paul gives elsewhere in his letters (Gal 5:19-23; Rom 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10). Even so, a strong argument can be made that 6:14-7:1 and 12:19-21 play the same role in both sections, and are evidence for the careful construction of those apostolic discussions within the setting of the letter as a whole. Though the context is less clear in the case of 6:14-7:1, it is strikingly evident in 12:19ff:

“In (what has) passed, do you consider that we are giv(ing) an account of ourselves to you? (It is) down before God in the Anointed {Christ} (that) we speak—and all th(ese thing)s, loved (one)s, (are) over [i.e. for] your (be)ing built (up). For I am afraid (in) no (little) way (that), (in my) coming, I should not find you like I wish (you to be), and I should be found like you do not wish (me to be)…”

In other words, the purpose of the apostolic discussions—both here and in 2:14-7:4—despite their apologetic character, where Paul seems to be defending his apostleship, is to the restore and preserve the proper relationship between Paul and the Corinthians. Note the important reciprocal language he uses: “For I am afraid … (that), (in my) coming, I should not find you like I wish (you to be), and I should be found like you do not wish (me to be).” Both sides of the relationship are threatened. This reflects a key theme that runs through both Corinthian letters—the importance of unity among believers, and how this aspect of our Christian identity is threatened by divisions and partisanship. In 12:20b, Paul neatly summarizes this disruption of unity through the popular ‘vice list’ format.

As in the case of 6:14-7:1, it is fair to refer to this as a description of what should not be present among believers (pístoi, those trusting)—rather, such disputes and divisiveness would more properly be characteristic of non-believers (ápistoi, those without trust). Moreover, the kind of immaturity that would lead to such division—including, to be sure the influence of the ‘false apostles’ and suspicions/accusations against Paul—might equally show one prone to more basic immorality and improper behavior. Again, as in 6:14-7:1, Paul refers to the immorality characteristic of non-believers, here indicating more directly that this may be a genuine problem for some Christians at Corinth (12:21). Thus, while Paul may deal with such ethical-religious matters in more detail in 1 Corinthians (5:1-13; 6:9-20; 10:14ff), it is not necessarily out of place here in 2 Corinthians, where the very character of what it means to be a true believer in Christ (in unity with others) is being addressed.

Conclusion

It may be helpful here, in conclusion, to bring together the strands of our study by way of a brief summary.

    • That there are a significant number of unusual or atypical details—words, phrases, style, points of emphasis, etc—in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, compared with the other undisputed Pauline letters, seems rather clear, as documented especially in our first study and in the separate note on 7:1.
    • For many commentators, these differences suggest that the passage is a non-Pauline interpolation, and thus not part of the original text. Such views are often related to the theory that 2 Corinthians is a compilation of letters (or parts of letters) by Paul.
    • The passage may be characterized as Jewish Christian homiletic material, based on a verse from the Torah (Lev 19:19), with a poetic exposition that includes a short chain (catena) of Scripture references, and concluding with a forceful exhortation (7:1) for believers. See our second study, as well as the article on 6:14-7:1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    • There is evidence that Paul not infrequently made use of various sorts of traditional material—creeds, hymns, baptismal formulas, vice lists, Scripture catena, etc—which likely were not entirely his own creation, but reflect the early Christian tendency to adapt and promote traditional ways of thought and expression. A strong argument can be made that just such traditional material/expression was utilized by Paul in 6:14-7:1—this would explain many of the apparent differences in vocabulary and style, without excluding Paul as final author.
    • All interpolation theories face the profound difficulty of explaining just why 6:14-7:1 was included at its current location, especially since nearly all commentators consider 2:14-7:4, at least, to be part of a single letter. Though not without its own problems, the theory that Paul himself included the material as part of his line of argument/exhortation at the end of 2:14-7:4 is preferable. It does, however, require that some attempt be made to explain the sudden shift in tone by which our passage appears to interrupt the flow between 6:13 and 7:2.
    • Compilation theories for 2 Corinthians as whole, while plausible in varying degrees, remain highly speculative and ultimately rest on slight support. In terms of the external evidence (manuscript tradition, early versions, etc), there is no indication whatever that 2 Corinthians ever existed in a form different than our canonical text. If it is a compilation, it had to made early on, well prior to the middle of the 2nd century. Thus, it is at least worth seriously considering, on objective grounds, the possibility that Paul intended, and wrote, the letter as we have it.
    • The difficulties of structure, as well as the shifts in tone and style, are largely due to the two lengthy discussions on Paul’s apostolic status—2:14-7:4 and 10:1-13:4—which extend and distort the epistolary (and rhetorical) form of the letter. If original to 2 Corinthians, these sections surround the central discussion in chapters 8-9, on the financial collection for Jerusalem, and would have to be connected with it in some fundamental way.
    • The two apostolic ‘digressions’, while differing in tone and emphasis, share many key themes in common, as well as a basic outline—(1) initial statement, (2) discussion of three issues (with arguments, illustrations), and (3) a concluding exhortation/appeal. The primary subject in each is that of Paul’s role as an apostle, and his relationship, as such, to the Corinthians. These parallels strongly indicate careful authoring, with each discussion set within the structure of the letter, surrounding the matter of the financial collection.
    • Toward the end of each apostolic discussion, Paul mentions suspicions/accusations of wrongdoing on his part. Similarities in language suggest that more or less the same issue is being addressed in each discussion, and that it involves deceit/fraud related to the financial collection (on this, see above).
    • Connected with this, in each apostolic discussion, Paul includes a warning to the Corinthians regarding behavior that is improper for a believer, framing it in traditional religious-ethical terms: (a) Jewish Christian homiletic in 6:14-7:1, and (b) Greco-Roman/Jewish ‘vice lists’ in 12:19-21. Such behavior contrasts with how a true believer should behave—indeed, it is characteristic of non-believers.
    • Thus, in each instance, as part of his appeal regarding his apostolic status (and relationship to the Corinthians), Paul includes a warning to the Corinthians that they not behave like unbelievers—acting in a divisive and (potentially) immoral way. There should be unity among believers, which involves preserving the divinely ordained relationship between a true apostle (Paul) and the congregations he helped to found. The restoration/preservation of this relationship was essential for the completion of the fundraising mission for Jerusalem, but ultimately points to deeper issues as well—regarding Christian identity and how believers ought to think and act in relation to one another.

While these critical studies do not resolve all of the questions surrounding 6:14-7:1, nor of 2 Corinthians as a whole, I hope they have served to demonstrate ways that critical methods and approaches can elucidate a Scripture passage. By confronting serious critical questions head on, without glossing them over or brushing them aside, it only strengthens our understanding of the Scriptures, giving us, I believe, more insight into the inspired text and how it came to be produced. The purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce any and all interested readers to the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism, and how they may be applied to our study of Scripture. Next week, we will shift are attention to an entirely different area of the Scriptures. I hope you will join me for this new study!

Saturday Series: 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (part 4)

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, continued

In last week’s study, we examined 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 from the standpoint of the critical theory that the passage is an interpolation, i.e. a secondary addition to the text. In particular, the apparent non-Pauline features—those considered unusual or atypical of Paul—were discussed (following the prior examination of the vocabulary and other details in Parts 1 and 2). This study came under the heading of redaction criticism—that is, the passage as included in the text by an editor/redactor, a view often related to the theory that 2 Corinthians as a whole represents a compilation of two or more letters by Paul (for more on this, see below).

Composition Criticism

This week, we will be considering 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 from the standpoint of Pauline authorship; our discussion now falls under the heading of composition criticism—i.e. how the passage came to be authored (or composed) in the context of the letter as we have it. The study will be divided into four sections:

    1. The structure and content of 2:14-7:4 and the (current) location of 6:14-7:1
    2. Pauline authorship of 6:14-7:1 and how it might relate to 2:14-7:4
    3. The overall context of 1:1-7:16 as a unified composition (and how 6:14-7:1 fits in)
    4. Questions regarding the letter as a whole (including chaps. 8-9 and 10-13)
1. The Structure and Content of 2 Cor 2:14-7:4

Nearly all commentators (even those who view 2 Corinthians as a compilation) consider 2:14-7:4 (excluding 6:14-7:1) to be a unified composition and part of a single letter. It is for this reason, as we discussed last week, that the inclusion of our passage in the middle of this section—i.e. after 6:13 instead of 7:4—is so problematic for any interpolation/compilation theory. It will be useful now to examine briefly the structure and content of 2:14-7:4 as a whole. Most commentators and New Testament scholars today recognize that Paul, in his letters, makes use of common rhetorical (and epistolary) techniques in presenting his arguments and exhorting his readers, etc. I will be discussing the structure of 2 Corinthians in this light in the sections below. Generally we may describe the rhetorical thrust of 2:14-7:4 as deliberative, centered on two interrelated themes: (1) Paul’s relation to the Corinthians as an apostle, and (2) the importance of this relationship being maintained and/or restored. Here is how I would divide this section as a whole:

    • 2:14-17—Basic proposition: Paul and his colleagues as apostles who are honest and sincere in their ministry
    • 3:1-18—Issue/Argument #1: On letters of recommendation (for apostles/ministers)
      • Illustration: The written tablets of the Old Covenant, in relation to the New (homiletic exposition)—letter vs. Spirit (vv. 3, 7-18)
    • 4:1-6—Issue/Argument #2: On the honesty/sincerity of true apostles (such as Paul) in the preaching and ministry
      • Illustration: Light vs. Darkness (blindness), alluding to the Mosaic veil in the prior illustration (vv. 3-6)
    • 4:7-5:10—Issue/Argument #3: On the (physical) suffering of apostles such as Paul for the sake of the Gospel
      • Illustration 1: The death and resurrection of Jesus—the participation of believers in it (4:10-15)
      • Illustration 2: The inner vs. outer nature of the human being (esp. the believer) (4:16-18)
      • Illustration 3: The body as a house or tent (i.e. clothing) that perishes, to be replaced by one that is imperishable (at the resurrection) (5:1-5)
      • Illustration 4: At home vs. away from home—i.e. believers in the present world (of suffering) vs. the future life in Heaven (5:6-10)
    • 5:11-6:10—Exhortation/Appeal to the Corinthians, regarding Paul’s role as Apostle
      • 5:11-15—His ministry is centered on proclamation of the Gospel
      • 5:16-21—Effect of the Gospel: The life of believers is new in Christ, and does not depend on the ‘old’ standards of the world; as an apostle, his ministry serves this dynamic of making things new.
      • 6:1-10—The Corinthians must receive, realize, and act according to this new identity in Christ (vv. 1-2), which includes recognizing Paul’s relation to them as an Apostle (vv. 4-10)
    • 6:11-7:4—Personal Appeal by Paul
      • 6:11-13—First statement (“make wide [your hearts] to us”)
      • 6:14-7:1—Illustration (?) from Scripture (Lev 19:19)—Homiletic exposition/exhortation {disputed passage}
      • 7:2-4—Second(?) statement (“make space for us”)

This outline shows that 2:14-7:4 admirably forms the torso of a letter with a deliberative rhetorical thrust (i.e. seeking to persuade/exhort the reader with regard to current/future action):

Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated when 2:14-7:4 is considered in the context of 1:1-7:16 (on this, see below). How exactly does 6:14-7:1 relate to this outline for 2:14-7:4? It appears to have little, if anything, to do with the specific matters being addressed—of Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians. As most commentators recognize, the transition from 6:13 to 6:14ff is sudden, appearing to interrupt the line of thought most abruptly. Nothing in 2:14-6:13 would prepare us for the style and tone (and subject matter) of 6:14-7:1. As I mentioned last week, 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 seems to have much more in common with Paul’s discussion(s) in 1 Corinthians (e.g. 5:6-8; 6:19; and 10:6-13) than anything we find in 2 Corinthians.

Perhaps a clue is to be found in the immediate context. In the letter as we have it, 6:14-7:1 is bracketed by two similar, and more or less synonymous, exhortations by Paul:

    • “make wide (your hearts) also to us” [platýnth¢te kai hymeís] (end of 6:13)
    • “make space [i.e. in your hearts] for us” [chœr¢¡sate hymás] (beginning of 7:2)

As commentators have noted, removing 6:14-7:1 yields a relatively smooth and consistent statement by Paul; for example, I translate with the temporary join indicated by italics and a vertical bar:

“Our mouth has been opened up toward you, Korinthians, our heart has been made wide; you are not in a narrow space in us, but you have (only) a narrow space in your inner organs (for us)! But (to give us) the (same) wage (back) in exchange, as (my dear) offspring, I say to you—make wide (your hearts) also to us, | make space for us! We treated no one unjustly, we corrupted no one, we (desir)ed to seize much from no one. …”

At the same time, it must be admitted that 6:11-7:4 represents the climax of the composition (defined here as 2:14-7:4), and, if such a dramatic piece of exposition as 6:14-7:1 belongs anywhere in this work, it would be just where it is currently located, in the middle of the climactic appeal. But does it truly belong there? To make a fair determination, let us now consider what Paul, as author, might have intended with this passage, and possible arguments for its inclusion at the point where we have it (between 6:13 and 7:2).

2. Pauline authorship of 6:14-7:1 and its current location

We have already examined some of the apparent “non-Pauline” features of this passage—words, expressions, style and points of emphasis that would seem to be unusual or atypical of Paul. These are significant enough to raise legitimate questions regarding authorship, and cannot simply be brushed aside. However, we have also seen enough genuine Pauline features to establish the possibility that he is ultimately responsible for the passage. A reasonable solution would be that Paul is here making use of traditional Jewish Christian material—in style and tone, if nothing else—adapting a piece homiletic exposition (on Lev 19:19), and applying it to his Corinthian audience. While this seems fair enough, and is more or less the explanation I would adopt, there is at least one serious challenge to Pauline authorship/use that must be addressed. This is the strong idiom of ritual purity in 6:14-7:1, with the corresponding emphasis on the need for believers to separate from non-believers. According to some commentators, this line of thought and mode of expression runs contrary to Paul’s own, based on evidence from his other (undisputed) letters. I addressed this argument in the previous study (see also the separate article on 6:14-7:1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls), but is worth outlining again here the most relevant passages where Paul draws on the idea of (ritual) purity from the Pentateuch/Torah, and uses it in a similar context of exhorting believers to avoid close association with immorality and/or ‘idolatry’. The passages are:

    • Rom 6:12-13, 19—there is perhaps a faint allusion to the purity of sacrificial offerings (i.e. service at the altar) in the idea of believers presenting themselves before (vb paríst¢mi, lit. “[make] stand alongside”) God (cf. also the quasi-ritual context of the image in 2 Cor 11:2); it is noteworthy that v. 19 contains the same juxtaposition of dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness”) and anomía (“lawlessness”) that we find in 2 Cor 6:14 (see below).
    • 1 Cor 5:6-8—Passover imagery (esp. that of unleavened bread) is applied to believers, exhorting them not to associate with persons engaged in sexual immorality (vv. 1-2, 9-13f); the main difference with 2 Cor 6:14ff is that here it directed specifically against believers engaged in sinful behavior and not non-believers.
    • 1 Cor 6:19—the bodies of believers are identified (symbolically) with the Temple, which had to be kept ceremonially pure (a primary concern of the Torah purity laws); here we find perhaps the closest example of ritual purity meant to symbolize believers separating themselves from the immorality of the surrounding society (vv. 9ff, 13-18).
    • 1 Cor 10:6-13—the application of the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32; note the implicit context of ceremonial purity in 19:10-15) to the very matter addressed in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, namely, believers separating from the idolatrous culture around them (vv. 7-8, 14ff).

The last two examples from 1 Corinthians, in particular, are reasonably close to the basic message of 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, and serve to demonstrate, I think, that Paul was capable of addressing believers (and especially the Corinthians) in such a manner. However, if 6:14-7:1 genuinely comes from Paul (even if as an adaptation of traditional material), can any sense be made of its use at the current location in the letter? Why would Paul address his audience this way, at this point?

Much depends on the nature of the problems existing between Paul and at least some in the Corinthian congregations. The extent to which he emphasizes both (a) his role as an apostle, and (b) the sort of relationship the Corinthians ought to have with him, in 2:14-7:4, strongly suggests that there has been a breach in the relationship, to some extent. The wording he uses in the climactic appeal at 7:2 raises the possibility that there had been accusations of wrongdoing and, perhaps, misuse of his apostolic authority. He strings together three verbal phrases, forming a three-fold denial of any such wrongdoing on his part; each beginning with an emphatic oudeís (oudéna), “no one”:

    • oudéna ¢dik¢¡samen, “we treated no one unjustly”
    • oudéna ephtheíramen, “we corrupted no one”
    • oudéna epleonekt¢samen, “we (wish)ed to take more (from) no one” (i.e., acting greedily, etc)

It is possible—and admittedly, it is only a possibility—that the digression in 6:14-7:1 is connected in some way to these ‘charges’. The initial verb used in 7:2 (adikéœ, “act without justice, act/treat unjustly, injure”) is related to the initial noun (adikía, “[being] without justice, injustice”) that establishes the contrast (between believer and non-believer) in 6:14ff. Perhaps the point Paul is making, by utilizing the homiletic of 6:14ff, is: believers are not to be closely joined with non-believers, but should not separate from other believers (unless they behave like non-believers, cf. 1 Cor 5:9ff); how much more, then, should the Corinthians remain closely joined with an apostle and minister like Paul, who has not acted wrongly toward them, but has honestly and faithfully preached the Gospel that led to their experience of new life in Christ. This could also explain Paul’s wording in 7:3: “I do not say (this) toward bringing down judgment (on you)”, i.e. I am not saying you are acting like this (i.e. like unbelievers, 6:14ff), nor that you are making such charges against me (7:2), which would be wrong. If 6:14-7:1 is actually targeting immorality or idolatrous associations among the Corinthians, such as are mentioned in 1 Corinthians, then it would, indeed, seem to be out of place in its current location. But, if the point, by drawing the contrast between believer and non-believer, is meant to enhance and emphasize the unity and bond between believers (and between minister and congregation), then the inclusion of 6:14-7:1 here could perhaps be explained. We will take this up again in the concluding study next week.

3. The context of 1:1-7:16 (as a unified composition)

Even a casual reader will notice that, after the long discussion in 2:14-7:4, the following section (7:5-16) picks up where 2:13 left off. This has led some commentators to posit that two letters have been spliced together: (1) 1:1-2:13 + 7:5-16, and (2) 2:14-7:4. I must say that I find little evidence to support such a theory; in which case, it would be more plausible to view 1:1-7:16 as (part of) a unified composition. However, this does complicate the structure of the letter considerably, since 1:8-2:13 + 7:5-16 appears to serve as the narration (narratio) portion of the letter—i.e. narrating the facts and historical circumstances, etc, related to the matter being discussed. Normally this section precedes the main proposition (propositio), presentation of arguments (probatio), and exhortation (exhortatio); for a clear example of this order, following the tenets of classical rhetoric and epistolary form, see esp. the outline of Galatians. As I noted above, 2:14-7:4 appears to have the character of the main body of the letter—propositio, probatio, exhortatio—but, if 1:1-7:16 is a single composition, then 2:14-7:4 instead functions as a (lengthy) digression in the middle of the narratio. It also would seem to require additional material to make up the body of the letter; such material, of course, would be at hand with chapters 8-9ff of 2 Corinthians as we have it. Thus, it will be useful, at the close of this part of our study, to consider the structure of the entire letter (our current 2 Corinthians), to see how 6:14-7:1 might relate to it.

4. The letter as a whole (including chaps. 8-9 and 10-13)

Upon examining chapters 8-9 and 10-13 we find two very distinct kinds of material: (a) instruction relating to the charitable collection for the Christians of Jerusalem (chaps. 8-9), and (b) a lengthy discussion on Paul’s status as an apostle, similar in some respects to that of 2:14-7:4, only much more pointed and harsher in tone, directed at specific opponents (and similar in style and manner of argument to Galatians). Thus, it is possible to isolate two structural lines, or strands, which make up the letter as we have it:

    1. A practical, and relatively straightforward letter, dealing primarily with the collection for Jerusalem, and
    2. Two lengthy treatments regarding Paul’s role and status as an apostle, and his relationship, as such, to the Corinthian churches

At first glance, these two strands seem to have little to do with each other; in particular, the harsh polemic of chaps. 10-13 appear at odds with the rest of the letter, which is why many scholars (including more traditional-conservative commentators) hold that chaps. 10-13 represent a separate letter from chaps. 1-9. If we were to remove 2:14-7:4 and chs. 10-13, temporarily, from the letter, a rather simple and straightforward outline emerges:

    • Greeting (Epistolary Prescript)—1:1-2
    • Introduction (Exordium)—1:3-11
    • Statement of the reason/purpose for writing (Causa)—1:12-14
    • Narration (Narratio)—1:15-2:13 + 7:5-16
    • Proposition (Propositio) [regarding the Collection]—8:1-7
    • Arguments/Instruction (regarding the Collection)—8:8-9:5
    • Exhortation (Exhortatio) [regarding the Collection]—9:6-15
    • Conclusion / Epistolary Postscript (?) cf. 13:11-14

The core of this letter relates to the Jerusalem Collection (chaps. 8-9). There have been some prior difficulties between Paul and the Corinthians, as he narrates (1:15-2:4); but, as was subsequently reported to him by Titus (7:5-16), to some extent at least, these seem to have been resolved. Now, following the preparatory work by Titus (8:6ff), Paul urges the Corinthians to complete their part in the Collection. How does 2:14-7:4 (much less chaps. 10-13) fit into this outline? As I have previously noted, a good number of commentators believe that 2 Corinthians represents a compilation of different letters from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Such theories, while interesting, and not entirely implausible, remain highly speculative, with little hard evidence to support them. Ultimately, though not without difficulties, it is easier to explain 2 Corinthians, as we have it, as a single letter. Assuming this, for the moment, how would 6:14-7:1 relate to the overall structure of this letter? The lengthy excursions regarding Paul’s role as an apostle, which clearly are of prime importance to the letter, at the same time distort the rhetorical picture. Commentators who accept the integrity of the entire letter, outline this complex picture in various ways. Here is a tentative outline on my part:

  • 1:1-2—Greeting (epistolary prescript)
  • 1:3-11—Introduction (exordium)
  • 1:12-14—Reason/purpose for writing (causa)
  • 1:15-7:16—Extended Narration (narratio)
    • 1:15-2:13—Initial narration: On the prior troubles between he and the Corinthians
    • 2:14-7:4—Excursus on Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians
      • Basic proposition (2:14-17)
      • Issue 1: On Ministers and letters of recommendation (3:1-18)
      • Issue 2: On the honesty/sincerity of true apostles (such as Paul) in the preaching and ministry (4:1-6)
      • Issue 3: On the (physical) suffering of apostles such as Paul for the sake of the Gospel (4:7-5:10)
      • Exhortation/Appeal to the Corinthians, regarding Paul’s role as Apostle (5:11-6:10)
      • Personal (Concluding) Appeal by Paul (6:11-7:4)
    • 7:5-16—Concluding narration: On the expected resolution of troubles between he and the Corinthians
  • 8:1-7—Main Proposition (propositio), regarding the Collection for Jerusalem
  • 8:8-9:15—Arguments (probatio), in support of the Corinthians faithfully completing the Collection
  • 10:1-13:4—Extended Exhortation (exhortatio): Excursus on Paul’s relationship (as an apostle) to the Corinthians
    • Initial Appeal and Statement (10:1-6)
    • Issue 1: The nature of Paul’s (apostolic) authority—theme of boasting introduced (10:7-18)
    • Issue 2: Comparison between Paul and other would-be Apostles who are influencing(?) the Corinthians (11:1-12:13)
    • Issue 3: Paul’s apostolic authority—exercise of discipline (12:14-21)
    • Closing appeal (13:1-4)
  • 13:5-10—Concluding Argument and Appeal (peroratio)
  • 13:11-14—Closing/Benediction (epistolary postscript)

The (possible) relation of 6:14-7:1 to this outline will be considered carefully in next week’s study, which will bring our discussion of this provocative passage to a close. I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (part 3)

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, continued

Literary Criticism

This is the third of five planned Saturday Series studies on 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, a passage thought by many commentators to be a (non-Pauline) interpolation. The evidence and arguments for this are significant, and worth pursuing as a way of demonstrating the importance (and value) of a thorough critical treatment of Scripture. The first study introduced the passage and looked at it from the standpoint of textual criticism; the second study examined it in terms of source criticism and form/genre criticism. Today, we will approach the passage through the eyes of literary criticism—that is, examining how it was authored and/or included in the letter of 2 Corinthians as a whole. This approach touches upon the style, circumstances, and purpose of the passage, as a section in the larger literary work. However, because of the serious questions regarding authorship and integrity of the passage—especially the thought that it may be a secondary addition (interpolation)—questions justified, at least in part, by the evidence we have considered so far, it is necessary to focus our study here in two ways. These reflect two other aspects of Biblical criticism:

    • Redaction Criticism—Here we will specifically consider the hypothesis that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is an interpolation, added to, or included in, the letter by an editor or compiler (i.e. redactor).
    • Composition Criticism—The focus shifts to explanations of the passage as the work of the author (i.e. Paul) of the letter.

Redaction Criticism

As mentioned previously, there are three different theories regarding 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 as an interpolation (i.e., a passage added secondarily to the letter): (a) Pauline, (b) non-Pauline, and (c) anti-Pauline. I will deal with these in reverse order:

Anti-Pauline theory

Some commentators feel that the unusual vocabulary, style and points of religious/theological emphasis, some of which we have already examined, are not only unusual to Paul, but actually run contrary to his way of thinking as expressed elsewhere in his letters. One prominent scholar who takes this position is Hans Dieter Betz, who discussed the matter in an article (“2 Cor 6:14-7:1: An Anti-Pauline Fragment?” Journal of Biblical Literature 92:88-108 [1973]), and again (as an appendix) in his outstanding critical commentary on Galatians (Hermeneia series [Fortress Press: 1979], pp. 329-30). He holds that the emphasis on the Torah, ritual purity, separation (from the ungodly/non-believer) in the passage, along with the strong dualistic manner of expression, better reflects the viewpoint of Paul’s Jewish Christian opponents (in Galatians, etc) than that of Paul himself. This seems rather to overstate the case, and on the whole I do not agree with such analysis; however, there is at least one supposition that needs to be examined seriously: whether the strong emphasis on separation from non-believers, so central to the passage, is foreign to Paul, or is in accord with his thought. In particular, this separationist teaching appears to run contrary to Paul’s specific instruction elsewhere to the Corinthian believers at three points: (1) the statement in 1 Cor 5:10, (2) the teaching regarding mixed marriage (1 Cor 7:12-16), and (3) relating to the issue of eating food that had been offered in a pagan religious setting (1 Cor 8-10, esp. 8:4-10; 10:23-30). It is worth considering each of these briefly.

In 1 Cor 5:1-12, Paul addresses the issue of a believer known to be engaged in improper sexual relations, and stresses that others in the congregation(s) should not associate with those involved in such behavior. The main difference with 2 Cor 6:14ff is that here the injunction to separate from immoral/ungodly people relates to believers, not the non-believer. Indeed, Paul seems to suggest the opposite of 2 Cor 6:14ff when he remarks, regarding this separation, that he is referring

“not (at) all (to) the ‘prostitutes’ [i.e. sexually immoral] of this world, or th(ose) looking to hold more [i.e. the greedy] and (who are) seizing (from others), or (to) the (one)s serving images [i.e. idols], (for) then you ought to go out of the world (completely)” (v. 10)

In other words, Paul is not telling them to separate (physically) from all the non-believers in the society at large, but, rather, to keep their distance from (lit. not to “mix together with”, vb sunanamígnymi) anyone claiming to be a believer (lit. “being named [a] brother”) who behaves in an openly immoral way (v. 11). In my view, the assumption that this instruction contradicts 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, while perhaps understandable, is misplaced. The same can be said of the other two instances mentioned above, even though, in many ways, those passages relate more directly to the teaching in 2 Cor 6:14ff.

In 1 Cor 7:12-16, as a part of wider teaching regarding marriage among believers in chap. 7, Paul specifically advises a man or woman, married to an unbeliever (lit. one “without trust”, ápistos), to remain together and not to separate, in the hopes that the unbelieving spouse might be converted. Following this, in chapters 8-10, Paul gives a most thorough and complex treatment on the question of whether believers should eat food that had been offered beforehand in a pagan religious setting (lit. food [meat] “slaughtered to [an] image”, eidwlóqyton, 8:1). This lengthy, nuanced instruction appears at odds with the stark contrast (and prohibition) given in 2 Cor 6:14ff. Paul, it seems, would permit believers to eat any such food as long as the act (and example) of doing so was not detrimental to others (those ‘weaker’ in faith). These two instances are notable, in relation to 2 Cor 6:14ff, in that they appear to be directly on point in several respects:

    • The same contrast between believer and non-believer (lit one “without trust”, ápistos) is made in both 1 Cor 7:12ff and 2 Cor 6:14ff. If, in the latter, the author (assuming it to be Paul) instructs a believer not to be “joined together” with a non-believer, how can he, in the former instance, tell them to remain ‘joined together’ in the marriage bond? Indeed, the very Scripture (Lev 19:19) upon which the homiletic in 2 Cor 6:14ff is based implies the sexual joining (i.e. breeding) of two different kinds of animals.
    • In 2 Cor 6:16 it is certainly implied that believers (as the “shrine of God”) should have nothing at all to do with the “images” (shorthand for the idolatrous deities) associated with Greco-Roman (polytheistic) religion. How, then, could Paul, if he is the author of the former passage, permit believers, under any circumstances, to eat food that had been offered beforehand to such ‘idols’ (cf. 8:4-10; 10:23-30)?

Does Paul’s teaching in these passages truly run counter to the exhortation in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (and vice versa)? In answer to this question, I would make several points related to each passage:

1 Corinthians 7:12-16—In 1 Cor 7:12-16, Paul is dealing with a very specific situation: instances where one spouse came to faith in Christ while the other did not, or has not yet, remaining a ‘pagan’ non-believer. In other words, the two were already married when the one spouse became a believer. This must have been a relatively common occurrence in the early years when the Gospel took root in a particular region of the Greco-Roman world (i.e., in a city like Corinth). Paul’s hope (and expectation) in his instruction to the believing spouse within a ‘mixed’ marriage clearly is evangelistic—that the non-believing spouse will be converted. This situational advice should not be mistaken for a general teaching regarding marriages between believers and non-believers. If a believer, upon coming to faith, were then to consider marrying a (pagan) non-believer, I am quite certain that Paul’s exhortation (and warning) would be very much akin to that of 2 Cor 6:14: “You must not come to be joined with (one who is) different, (one) without trust!”

1 Corinthians 8-10—The teaching in 1 Cor 8-10, regarding the issue of food (meat) that had been offered to “images”, also deals with a very specific situation, and ought not to be taken as a general principle, as some in Corinth may have done—e.g., if an idol is “not anything (real)” (8:4), then why should we be concerned about food that has been offered to it? I suspect that Paul, if left to his own opinion on the matter, would have been inclined to give a blunt prohibition along the lines of 2 Cor 6:16 (cf. also Acts 15:20, 29, and the context of Rev 2:14, 20). However, he seeks to balance two equally important concerns—(1) the freedom believers have in Christ, and (2) the need to avoid immorality and evil (associated with idolatry), etc. As such, 1 Cor 8-10 is a masterpiece of Christian homiletic, though admittedly different in scope and style from 2 Cor 6:14ff. Ultimately, Paul’s exhortation (10:14-22) comes very close to 2 Cor 6:16ff, though with the caveat of the sort of special instruction in 10:23-30 that is absent from the latter passage. This instruction is important to keep in mind, because it marks the distinction, and particular situation, Paul is addressing. Meat purchased in the marketplace, and thus presented at meals, often would have come from a sacrificial setting, as the byproduct of offerings made to deities. If such an association is clearly evident, then believers ought not to partake of such food (in accordance with 2 Cor 6:16); only when there is no public or known association with pagan religion, are believers free to eat, without worrying about the food’s origins.

1 Corinthians 5:10—The notice in 1 Cor 5:10 should also be viewed in terms of the specific circumstances of Paul’s instruction, and not as a principle to follow on its own. Paul is telling believers not to associate with another believer (or one calling himself/herself such) who is known to be involved in immoral behavior. This involved a real distancing, or separation, since living and meeting in close proximity was a sign of religious identity and (spiritual) union. This does not apply to other non-believers in society at large (“the world”), since there is no such union involved, and physical proximity per se had no intrinsic meaning. As such, there was no need for believers to avoid passing contact with non-believers; indeed, as Paul makes clear, to do so would require that they virtually “go out of the world”. Some might say that this is just the idea suggested by the citation of Isa 52:11 in 2 Cor 6:17—of a strict separation from the world. However, the language in 2 Cor 6:14-16 indicates a close joining rather than casual contact. If a believer were tempted to join together closely or intimately with pagan non-believers, Paul might well use similar language as in 2 Cor 6:14ff.

It is hard to see how the theory that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is anti-Pauline can be maintained. Even more decisive is that it is virtually impossible to explain how such an anti-Pauline fragment was ever included as part of a Pauline letter (on this, see below).

Non-Pauline theory

Even if it is not anti-Pauline, that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 may not have been authored by Paul himself (i.e. non-Pauline) still remains a possibility, given the evidence that we considered in the previous studies. The passage is to be characterized as a Jewish-Christian homiletic treatment of Leviticus 19:19, comprised of a poetic exposition (in Semitic style, parallelistic couplets) with a chain (catena) of Scripture citations. The poetic style, and reliance upon Scriptural passages, may explain the apparent non-Pauline features, at least in part. A fairer judge concerning authorship, I think, would be any unusual or atypical details in the concluding exhortation (7:1). I discuss these in a separate, supplemental note.

If the passage was, indeed, not composed at all by Paul himself, what are its origins and how did it come to be included as part of 2 Corinthians? One critical theory is that it represents early Jewish Christian (homiletic) material that was, presumably, mistakenly identified (by an editor/compiler of the letter) as coming from Paul. There are three notable details or points of emphasis that, in large measure, appear to be foreign to Paul, and, at the same time, may have more in common with other Jewish (and Jewish Christian) writings of the period. I highlight these as:

    1. The emphasis on ritual purity, and, with it, the idea of believers separating from the non-believers.
    2. A strong dualism in thought and expression, as a way of contrasting believer vs. non-believer.
    3. Use of the name Belíal.

In particular, on these three points, many commentators point out the parallels in certain of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls); I address these in some detail in a supplemental article which you may want to consult as part of this study. I will be discussing these ‘non-Pauline’ features, and whether, or to what extent, they may be compatible with Paul’s actual style, thought, and mode of expression, in the section on “Composition Criticism” (see below).

One problem faced by proponents of the theory that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is a non-Pauline interpolation, is the question of just how it ever came to be included as part of 2 Corinthians. It would seem to require two basic suppositions: (1) it was mistakenly attributed to Paul by an editor or compiler, and (2) 2 Corinthians is a composite work, made up of more than one letter by Paul. On the second point, I mentioned this possibility in a prior study, pointing out the variety of theories advanced by scholars, perhaps the most common being: 2-document (chaps. 1-9 + 10-13), 3 document (chaps. 1-8 + 9 + 10-13); and 5-document (1:1-2:13 + 2:14-6:13, 7:2-16 + chap. 8 + 9 + 10-13). In general, these theories would apply just as well if 6:14-7:1 was authored by Paul, or was itself part of a genuine letter; this will be discussed briefly below. However, both of these suppositions (1 & 2 above) remain highly questionable, and to require both makes the theory, my view, rather implausible.

A Pauline interpolation?

Finally, we must consider the theory that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is Pauline, at least in the sense that it comes from an authentic letter by Paul, perhaps as part of his Corinthian correspondence. From the New Testament evidence itself, we know that Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth—1 & 2 Corinthians, and the two letters referenced in 1 Cor 5:9 and 2 Cor 2:3-4. Indeed, it is quite natural that Paul would have written to believers there any number of times. Internal considerations regarding shifts of style, tone, and subject matter, have prompted many commentators to consider 2 Corinthians, as we have it, as representing several different letters (or parts of letters) that Paul wrote. In terms of 6:14-7:1 itself, the tone and theme of separation (between believer and non-believer) has led a fair number of scholars to identify it with the letter mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9, since it seems to relate to the sort of thing Paul is addressing there in 5:1-12 (see above). Indeed, 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 appears to have much more in common with the language and subject matter of 1 Corinthians (see esp. 5:6-8; 6:19; and 10:6-13, and my discussion in the supplemental article [on 6:14-7:1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls]) than anything we find throughout 2 Corinthians.

However, any interpolation theory, based on the idea of 2 Corinthians as a compilation, founders for lack of any explanation as to why 6:14-7:1 was included where it is now, since virtually all commentators agree that 2:14-6:13 + 7:2-4, at the very least, belong to the same letter. It would have made considerably more sense to place the passage (as a fragment from another letter) after 7:4 rather than 6:13, or even at a different location altogether. It would have been an extremely clumsy and/or inattentive editor (or copyist), indeed, who left 6:14-7:1 in its current location. No one has yet provided anything like a satisfactory explanation for the passage being included where it is located today.

If we were to summarize the evidence and analysis provided thus far (and above), I believe it would be fair to make two basic points:

    • There is strong evidence characterizing 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 as Jewish Christian homiletic material with features that are, in part at least, unusual or atypical of Paul.
    • At the same time, any theory treating the passage as an interpolation, even one based on a theory of 2 Corinthians as a composite compilation, rests on rather slim and questionable evidence, and is difficult to maintain.

Do you agree with either or both of these conclusions? Why or why not? Think over and examine carefully what I have presented in the studies thus far. How would you explain some of the curious or apparently ‘non-Pauline’ details in the passage, and way it seems to interrupt the flow between 6:13 and 7:2? In the next study, we will turn our attention to the supposition that Paul is the author of 6:14-7:1, in the sense that it is a genuine part of 2 Corinthians (or at least 2:14-7:16) as it has come down to us. This discussion will take place under the heading of Composition Criticism (see above), looking at 6:14-7:1, within the context of the letter as a whole, in terms of Paul’s style, mode of expression, rhetorical thrust, and ultimate purpose. I hope to see you here for this exciting study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

As we proceed through the Song of Moses (Deut 32), it is worth keeping in mind the structure of this great poem, as I have outlined it previously:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

The bulk of the poem is made up of two sections,  each focusing on one side of the (religious) history of Israel and its covenant with YHWH. The first section (vv. 4-18, discussed in the recent studies) summarizes Israelite history through the people’s settlement in the Promised Land, together with their subsequent violation of the covenant (vv. 15-18). The second section (vv. 19-42) similarly summarizes the judgment that will come upon Israel for violating the covenant, along with its aftermath. The core of this narrative of covenant violation/punishment lies at the very center of the poem (vv. 15-25), and is likewise central, in terms of theme and theology, to the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. It also happens to be one of the most vivid and colorful portions of the text, full of many striking poetic details and devices, some of which we will be discussing below. However, when considering the post-settlement context of verses 15-18ff, we are immediately confronted by an important historical-critical issue with regard to both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy itself; even though this was touched upon in an earlier study, it is worth discussing it again briefly here.

From an historical-critical standpoint, there are three primary historical layers (or levels) that must be considered:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book, as presented in 1:1-5 and throughout, placed just before Moses’ own death and prior to the people crossing the Jordan into the Land of Promise proper. The Song of Moses is clearly set within this historical-narrative framework (see chap. 31).
    • The date of the poem, as established (as far as possible) by objective criteria and critical method, independent of the narrative framework and related traditions
    • The date of the book of Deuteronomy, i.e. its composition, which may cover multiple versions or editions of the book

For traditional-conservative commentators who accept the entire book, with little or no qualification, as representing the authentic words of Moses (and other genuine Mosaic traditions), these three layers essentially collapse into one—all of Deuteronomy, including the poem, more or less dates from the time of Moses. Critical commentators, however, tend to look at each layer on its own terms, which means considering the date and composition of the poem quite apart from its place within the Mosaic setting of the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy.

The results of such critical analysis—examination of vocabulary, poetic style and form, the imagery and religious-theological concepts used, etc—have generally pointed to a relatively early date for the poem, in the mind of most scholars. A number of features would, indeed, seem to be characteristic of the earliest poetry preserved in the Old Testament; certain parallels with the language and thought found in the narratives in the book of Judges (e.g., Judges 5:8; 10:14 etc), suggest a comparable time-frame for the poem, i.e. in the period of the Judges (11th century B.C.?). This would likely represent the latest date-range for the poem in its original form, and its old/archaic features could conceivably go back earlier, to the 12th or even 13th century.

By contrast, most critical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy as a whole to the Kingdom period. The soundest such critical theory would, I think, posit an earlier/original form of the book (10th/9th century?) which was subsequently modified under the influence of Josiah’s reforms (late 7th century), along with possible later additions as well. Thus, if we consider the three layers above, from a modern critical standpoint, a fairly reasonable dating would be:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book—presumably mid-late 13th century
    • The date of the poem—12th-11th century
    • The composition of Deuteronomy—10th-9th century, with subsequent revisions and additions (7th century and following)

Now, let us apply this critical analysis to the poem—in particular, to the post-settlement context of vv. 15-18ff. If we take the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy at face value (i.e., the time of Moses, generally prior to settlement), then these verses, along with similar portions elsewhere in the book (such as in chapter 31), reflect divine prophecy, God’s revelation (through Moses) of what will take place in the future. If, on the other hand, we were to adopt some form of the critical theory outlined above, then such passages would have to be read as representing an historical situation which had already occurred, and which has been projected back into the Mosaic setting of the book (i.e. as an ex eventu prophecy, after the fact). Interestingly, if we accept the relatively early date of the poem itself (for which there is strong evidence on objective grounds), then we find ourselves somewhere between these two approaches—i.e. the prophecy of Israel’s violation of the covenant would have to refer to events which would, apparently, have occurred during the period of the early Israelite confederacy documented in the book of Judges. Certainly, the book of Judges records the influence of Canaanite religious-cultural influence on Israel at a number of points, and is part of the narrative structure of the book (see 2:1-5, 11ff). Many of the details in the book of Judges appear to be quite authentic to the period, reflecting a time when Israelite monotheism (featuring exclusive worship of YHWH) was still trying to gain a strong foothold within the larger Canaanite (polytheistic) religious environment.

This, indeed, seems to be what the Song of Moses is describing—an initial turning away, under Canaanite (and other non-Israelite) religious influence, but not yet a development of the full-fledged syncretism we find during the Kingdom period. And, while this turning away was already prefigured in several traditional episodes from the Mosaic period (e.g., the Golden Calf and Baal-peor episodes, Exod 32; Num 25), it would not be fully realized until a somewhat later time. The history of Israel in Samuel-Kings, influenced by the book of Deuteronomy in this regard, adopts a similar framework, recording history from the standpoint of whether, or to what extent, Israel and its rulers were faithful to the covenant with YHWH or violated it by worshiping deities other than YHWH.

Verses 15-18

Let us now turn to consider verses 15-18 and 19-25 of the poem. It may help to see these together in translation; here I offer a rather literal (but reasonably poetic) rendering:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)—
and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—
and He said:
“I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!
They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!
For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!
I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them—
hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.
(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The language is rough and vivid throughout, something which is often lost in most English translations; I have tried to retain and capture this roughness (even harshness) of expression from the Hebrew. Such a mode of expression is altogether appropriate, from the standpoint of the subject matter—a description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, and the resulting judgment which YHWH will bring upon them. It is here that we turn again to form criticism and literary criticism, to see how the distinctive form and style of this poetry relates to the meaning and purpose of the text. Let us first examine verses 15-18, a sequence of 6 bicola (= 12 lines) which more or less follow the 3-beat (3+3) meter of the poem consistently, with clear use of parallelism (both synonymous and synthetic) throughout. The first bicolon is striking in the way that the address shifts suddenly from third person to second person:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)

This would be an example of a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds dramatically on the first. The people are referenced by the descriptive title y®š¥rûn, presumably meaning something like “the straight (one)” or “the (up)right (one)”; y¹š¹r (“straight, right”) was used as a characteristic of YHWH in verse 4. In context, the title is used ironically, referring to what the people of Israel should have been—straight and loyal followers of the binding agreement (covenant) with God. Instead, they “grew fat” and “kicked” (like an unruly animal); this behavior is clearly related to the people’s feeding on the richness of the land (vv. 13-14), whether understood in a literal or symbolic sense. It is this aspect upon which the second line builds, with a repetitive staccato-like sequence of three verbs, which are almost impossible to translate accurately into English—

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

literally, it would be something like: “you grew fat, you became swollen, you became full”. The precise meaning of the last verb (k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. The shift to second person (“you”), something which occurs at several points in the poem, serves as an important reminder of the purpose of the poem, within the setting of Deuteronomy (chap. 31)—as a means of instructing all Israelites in future generations (“you”). The remaining 5 bicola (10 lines) essentially expound the first; the second and sixth (vv. 15b, 18) are similar and form an inclusio, framing the lines:

and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
…..
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

This repeats the central theme in the opening lines (vv. 4-6) of the section, that of YHWH as Creator and Father of humankind (and esp. of Israel). The title “Rock” (‚ûr) alternates with the Divine name/title “Mighty One” (°E~l / °E_lôah). The latter bicolon (v. 18) introduces the striking motif of YHWH as mother giving birth, i.e. writhing (vb. µyl) in labor pains. This makes all the more cruel the people’s abandonment of YHWH, who endured such pains in giving birth to them. In between, these six lines (3 bicola, vv. 16-17) give a summary description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, defined unmistakably in terms of worship of deities other than YHWH:

They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.

The first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. The last two bicola are more complex, emphasizing two interrelated points: (1) these other deities are lesser than YHWH and not “God” (lit. Mighty One) in the same way, and (2) they are “new” and previously unknown to Israel, presumably meaning that they reflect the local religious environment in Canaan (i.e. “from near[by]”). I have left the noun š¢d (plural š¢dîm) untranslated above; it seems to refer to deities in a general sense, akin to the word daimœn in Greek. The derivation and meaning of the last verb (´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root š±r (“know, perceive”), which provides a parallel to the idea of the deities as “not known” among Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan.

Verses 19-25

As in the preceding section, the first bicolon (v. 19) sets the theme, and the remaining lines provide the exposition. Here this format is used for a dramatic narrative purpose: the expository lines represent the direct words of YHWH, introduced (in the poem as we have it) by an additional word (“and he said”) which disrupts the meter. The tension in these lines is reflected in the opening bicolon in which the matter of YHWH’s judgment on Israel is stated:

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—

I have retained the structure of the bicolon—note the apparent awkwardness in the line division, something which is glossed over (and lost) in most translations in the attempt to provide more readable English. In the Hebrew as we have it, there is an emphasis on the word mika±as (“from [the] provocation”) which disrupts the poetic flow and injects a discordant tone into this section of the poem, entirely keeping with the ominous subject. In the first two bicola of YHWH’s declaration (v. 20) we have his own announcement of the judgment that is described in v. 19:

I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!

The first couplet (bicolon) provides an extreme example of synthetic parallelism—the second line literally refers to the consequence and result of the first (God hiding his face), and almost reads like a taunt. The noun °aµ®rî¾ with suffix could also be translated “their end” (i.e., “let me see what their end [is]”); this would fit the actual syntax better, but risks losing the important idea that the terrible fate for the people follows (root °µr) as a direct result of the action of YHWH hiding his face from them. In the ancient religious mindset, this image of God “hiding his face” essentially means a removal of the divine power that protects and preserves the life of humankind on earth.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun dôr set parallel to b¹nîm (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated dôr according to its fundamental meaning (“circle”, i.e. circle of life), though it is usually rendered “generation” (“they are a generation of…”), but the phrase could also be translated (“thei[rs] is an Age of…”. The basic reference is to the people alive during a particular period of time, but also to their connectedness as a common people. The root h¹¸ak (“turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun tahp¥kâ, connotes both the idea of perversion and destruction—i.e., the people both turned away from the truth and broke the covenant bond. This was an indication of their lack of true loyalty (lit. “firmness”, °¢mûn) to God and to the covenant.

The next two couplets (bicola) show a more complex parallelism, making use of wordplay that is difficult to capture in English:

They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!

Here, again, the parallelism (of form and style) is used to convey a very specific message: the punishment for Israel matches their crime (an extension of the ancient lex talionis principle). The parallelism in this regard is exact, something which may easily be lost in English translation:

    • Verb 1 (q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (b®lœ°, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [°¢l]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [±¹m]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [ha»lîm]”, a derisive term for the worship of other deities and associated ‘idolatry’
        “with a nation of fool[s]”, i.e. a foolish nation (that worships other deities)

What follows in the remaining lines (vv. 22-25) is a graphic description of the coming judgment. It begins with a powerful image of a wildfire, in a pair of bicola (4 lines) where each line builds—an example of how poetic form (here the synthetic parallelism of the bicolon format) serves to paint a visual picture (of a growing/spreading fire):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

The first couplet actually could be viewed as a kind of antithetic paralellism—i.e. from one extreme to its opposite. The first begins in the nostrils of YHWH, and reaches all the way to the deepest place under the earth (in š§°ôl, the realm of death and the dead). If this shows the fire’s spread vertically, from highest above to deepest below, the second couplet shows its horizontal spread—over the entire face of the land, covering it up to the base of the mountains. In verse 23, the imagery shifts from a natural disaster (wildfire) to that of a military attack—YHWH will shoot evils (i.e. misfortune, suffering, death, etc) upon the people like arrows, and so extensive will be the judgment that God will exhaust the entire complement of arrows:

I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them

These evils/arrows are presented in verses 24-25, with a descriptive sequence that strains and twists the poetic meter and rhythm; this is again an example of how a disruption of a common poetic format can be used to make a dramatic point. First in verse 24 there is a dual image of plague/disease and attack from deadly/poisonous animals:

hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.

The removal of YHWH’s protection (“I will hide my face”, v. 20) means that the people are vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the natural world. Moreover, in the ancient religious mindset, disease and famine, etc, were often seen as the result of divine anger and punishment on humankind, and so we find the same expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament. Even when subsidiary divine (or semi-divine) beings were involved (pestilence personified, Reše¸), according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism, it was YHWH (in his anger) who is responsible for sending these evils (“I will send on them”). Along with this, Israel also can no longer rely on YHWH’s protection from human enemies, and verse 25 gives a capsule portrait of the people hiding in fear as enemy forces attack:

(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The historical narratives in both the book of Judges and the “Deuteronomic History” of Samuel–Kings are replete with numerous examples which illustrate this idea. Indeed, the primary vehicle for God’s judgment upon Israel were the various peoples around them, each of which could fit the description of a “non-People” or “nation of fools” in the sense that they operated from a polytheistic religious point of view, worshiping deities other than YHWH. This is fundamental to the message of the poem, and much of the book of Deuteronomy as well, as we have seen. Central to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel is the idea that they will remain loyal to Him, and will not violate the bond by turning aside to embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations.

I hope that the analysis above demonstrates the importance that different aspects of Biblical criticism an elucidate important details of the text, especially in the distinctive (and often difficult) area of Old Testament poetry. Next week, we will conclude this study on the Song of Moses, by looking briefly at the following lines of verses 26-42, before delving more deeply into the closing lines in verse 43.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:7-9ff

In this Saturday Series study, we continue through the great poem “the Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, as a way of demonstrating how the different areas of Biblical Criticism (discussed in previous studies) relate to an analysis and understanding of the the text as a whole. In the previous Saturday study, we looked at verses 4-6; now we proceed to verses 7-9 and lines following (down through verse 18). Verses 4-18 actually form a major section of the poem, as indicated from the earlier outline I presented:

1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)

4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
—The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
—His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
—His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
—His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

The lines of vv. 4-18 comprise a summary of Israelite history, the parameters of which raise interesting (and important) historical-critical and literary-critical questions (see further below).

Verses 7-9

From the opening theme of YHWH as the Creator and Father of Israel (and all humankind), the poem progresses to the choice of Israel as the unique people of YHWH. Here are the lines in translation:

7Remember the days of (the) distant (past),
consider the years age(s) and age(s past);
ask your father and he will put (it) before you,
your old men and they will show (it) to you.
8In the Highest’s giving (property to the) nations,
in his separating (out) the sons of man,
he set up (the) boundaries of the peoples,
according to the count of the sons of the Mightiest.
9Yet YHWH’s (own) portion is His people,
Ya’aqob His own property measured (out).

The verse numbering accurately reflects the division of this section:

    • A call to remember and repeat (through oral tradition) the account of Israel’s history (v. 7)
    • The dividing of humankind into the nations/peoples (v. 8)
    • Israel as YHWH’s own nation/people (v. 9)

Verse 7 functions as the trope that sets the poetic/rhythmic pattern (a pair of 3-beat [3+3] bicola) for the section, followed by the (narrative) trope in verse 8, and a single bicolon theological trope emphasizing the covenant with YHWH (v. 9). The exhortation in v. 7 is entirely in keeping with the traditional narrative setting in chapter 31 (discussed previously), with an emphasis on the need to transmit the (Mosaic) instruction, contained in the book of Deuteronomy, to the generations that follow. In particular, Israel is to preserve and transmit the poem of chap. 32.

In an earlier study, I examined the text-critical question in verse 8, arguing that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. The idea that the number of the nations (trad. 70) was made according to the number of Israelites (“sons of Israel“, b®nê yi´r¹°¢l), has always seemed a bit odd. Even prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea manuscripts, some commentators felt that the Hebrew underlying the LXX (“sons of God”, Grk. “Messengers [i.e. Angels] of God”) would be the better reading. The MS 4QDeutj gives support to this (b®nê °§lœhîm, “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]”). However, it is the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy which seems to provide decisive evidence in favor of this reading:

    1. A careful study of the poem reveals a contrast between YHWH (Israel’s God) and the foreign deities of the surrounding nations—this is a central theme that runs through the poem, especially in vv. 15ff. It is also a primary aspect of the Deuteronomic teaching and theology, both in the book itself, and as played out in the “Deuteronomistic History” of Samuel–Kings. Turning away from proper worship of YHWH, to the deities of the surrounding peoples, is the fundamental violation of the covenant which brings judgment to Israel.
    2. The closest parallel, in 4:19-20, indicates that the nations belong to other ‘deities’ (such as those powers seen as connected with the heavenly bodies), while Israel alone belongs to YHWH. The wording in the poem, assuming the LXX/Qumran reading to be correct, likely expresses this in a more general way. The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic/Canaanite idiom, referring to gods/deity generally, but also specifically in relation to the Creator °El (the “Mighty One”). In the subsequent development of Israelite monotheism, there was no place for any other deities, and the concept shifted to heavenly beings simply as servants or “Messengers” (i.e. angels) of YHWH (the Creator, identified with °El).

Indeed, what we see in vv. 8-9 is this contrast played out as a key theological principle: (a) the nations and their ‘deities’ (distinct from the Creator YHWH), and (b) Israel who belongs to YHWH. Note the chiasm in verse 8 when the LXX/Qumran reading is adopted:

    • The Highest (±Elyôn)
      • the nations [70]
        • separating the sons of man (ethnicity)
        • setting boundaries for the people (territory)
      • the sons (of God) [trad. 70]
    • The Mightiest (°Elœhîm)

While this is the situation for the other peoples, for Israel it is different (v. 9)—they have a direct relationship with the Creator YHWH:

    • YHWH’s (own) portion [µ¢leq]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [µe»el naµ­¦lâ]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff.

Verses 10-14

A brief history of Israel is narrated in vv. 10-18, which may be divided into two sections (see the outline above):

    • His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
    • His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

Verses 10-14 is itself divided into two portions, 4 bicola each, with a YHWH-theological bicolon (v. 12, compare v. 9) in between. Here is my translation of vv. 10-12:

10He found him in the open land,
and in an empty howling waste(land);
He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
watched over him like the center of His eye.
11Like an eagle stirred (to guard) his nest,
(who) hovers over the young of his (nest),
He spread out his wings and took him (in),
carried him upon the strength of his (wing)s.
12By Himself did YHWH lead him,
and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

    • Vv. 10-11—The finding/choosing and rescue of Israel [Exodus]
      • Image of eagle swooping down to pick up its young (v. 11)
      • The eagle flying back up to place its young in a high/safe location (v. 13)
    • VV. 13-14—The settlement of Israel in a good/fertile land

This narrative poetry works on a number of levels, as we can see by the inset imagery of the eagle’s protection of its young, with a descent/ascent motif. In addition, there are all sorts of colorful details in vv. 10-18 which could be subject to a rich historical-critical analysis. While this is beyond the scope of this study, it would be worth comparing these lines to the narrative of the Exodus and Settlement in the Pentateuch, as well as other poetic treatments of the same (or similar) historical traditions. Let us briefly examine the language used in verse 10.

In these four lines (a pair of 3+3 bicola), there is expressed the theme of YHWH finding/choosing Israel as his people. It is a poetic description, and not tied to any one historical tradition. The main motif is the desert setting, an image which would appear repeatedly in Israelite/Jewish thought over the centuries. It is a multi-faceted (and multivalent) image; here I would highlight the following aspects and associations:

    • The idea of a formless wasteland echoes the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and, specifically, the Creation account preserved in Genesis 1. The same word tœhû (WhT)) occurs in Gen 1:2, describing the condition of the universe (“heaven and earth”) prior to the beginning of Creation proper (i.e. the ordering of the universe, in the context of Genesis 1). In the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this primeval condition is typically understood as a dark watery mass (and so also in Gen 1:2); here, however, this tœhû (emphasizing formlessness and chaos/confusion) is applied to the desolation of the desert (as a “wasteland”).
    • The allusion to creation means that, in a real sense, the people of Israel comes into existence (or is ‘born’) in the desert. This can be understood from several perspectives:
      (a) The ‘desert’ setting of Egypt and the Exodus, out of which the people truly came (as in a birth)
      (b) The religious ‘birth’ of Israel in connection with Sinai—introduction of YHWH, the meaning/significance of His name, place of His manifestation, etc (Exod 3; 19ff)
      (c) The period of labor in the wanderings throughout the Sinai desert, during which the people of Israel came to be ‘born’

Each bicolon of verse 10 illustrates a different side of this setting, from the standpoint of Israel’s relationship to YHWH:

    • Bicolon 1 (10a)—the emptiness, danger, etc. of the desert/wasteland
    • Bicolon 2 (10b)—the complete care and protection given by YHWH

It is a stark contrast—i.e. the world with and without God’s presence—and one that is enhanced by the parallelism that is characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry. This parallelism is built into the 3-beat bicolon meter and structure of the poem, and which is typical of much ancient Semitic/Canaanite poetry. In an earlier study, I demonstrated this meter/structure visually; however, let us consider verse 10 in particular. As indicated above, the verse is made up of a pair of bicola (i.e. four lines), each with three stressed syllables, or beats. There is a definite parallelism in each bicolon, with the second line (colon) parallel to the first. Here is a breakdown of the lines, with the parallelism indicated by indenting the second colon (as is commonly done in translations of poetry); the specific points of parallelism are marked by italics:

    • “He found him in the open land,
      Yimƒ¹°¢¡nû b®°éreƒ mi¼b¹¡r
      • and in an empty howling waste(land);
        û»¾œ¡hû y®l¢¡l y®šimœ¡n
    • He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
      y®sœ»»énhû¡ y®bônn¢¡hû
      • watched over him like the center of His eye.
        yiƒrénhû k®°îšôn ±ênô

The parallelism in vv. 10-12 would be called synonymous—the second line essentially restating the first, but with a greater intensity or pointedness. For example, in the first line of 10a, the common word mi¼b¹r (rB*d=m!) is used; originally indicating something like “remote, far back/away (place)”, it typically refers to the open space of the desert or wilderness. However, in the second line (10b), a more graphic description of this desert region follows, utilizing all three words of the line: (a) tœhû (“formless, cf. above), (b) y®l¢l (“howling”), and (c) y®šîmœn (“desolate/waste [land]”). The sequence of words together gives a vivid sense of chaos and danger. Similarly, in 10c, YHWH’s action is straightforward: “He encircled him, he watched him (carefully)”, with two suffixed verb forms, creating a calm, stable rhythm, as though resolving the harshness of 10b. This is followed (in 10d) by a more intimate and personalized description: “he watched over him like the center [°îšôn] of his eye“.

In vv. 13-14, the parallelism shifts to what is commonly referred to as synthetic parallelism—whereby the second line builds on the first, developing the thought in a more complex way. Consider, for example, the first bicolon (two lines) in verse 13:

    • “He made him sit upon the heights of the earth,
      • and he would eat (the) produce of the land.”

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (´¹d¹y) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e): “and the blood of grape(s) you drink, bubbling (red)!”. The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

In the middle of the four tropes of vv. 10-14, dividing the two sections precisely, is a middle trope, a single bicolon, that is decidedly theological, and perfectly placed at the center of the poetic narrative. It is especially important, in that it looks back upon the opening portions of the poem, and ahead to the key (dualistic) themes that dominate the remainder. It is worth examining v. 12 briefly:

    • By Himself did YHWH lead him,
      YHWH b¹¼¹¼ yanµenû
      • and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!
        w®°ên ±immô °¢l n¢k¹r

This parallelism could be called both synonymous and antithetic—the second line essentially restates the first, but also makes the opposite point, i.e. it was YHWH and not any other foreign ‘God’. Conceptually, this can be illustrated by way of chiasm:

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [b¹¼¹¼]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [°ên] with Him [±immô]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [°E~l]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next study, but it is worth considering verses 15-18, at least briefly, in this light.

Verses 15-18

If verses 10-11 essentially describe the Exodus, and verses 13-14 Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, then, it would seem, that what follows in vv. 15ff would refer to Israel’s conduct after the people had settled in the land. However, in terms of the setting within the book of Deuteronomy, which is presented as representing Moses’ words prior to the settlement, these lines would have to be taken as prophetic—foretelling the people’s future violation of the covenant, a violation already prefigured in the Golden Calf episode and other failures during the wilderness period. This raises again the historical-critical question regarding the date of composition, both of the poem and the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. I will touch upon the question further in the next study. Here, for the moment, it is sufficient to consider the poetic and thematic structure of these lines, which I view as another sequence of 4 bicola (vv. 15-17a), with a concluding bicolon pair (vv. 17b-18) that echoes the opening lines of this section (vv. 4-6, 7-9).

    • Statement of Israel’s rebellion, forsaking YHWH, their God and Rock (v. 15)
    • Description of the rebellion—worshiping other ‘deities’ (vv. 16-17a)
    • Concluding trope on their abandoning YHWH (vv. 17b-18)

It is possible to view this as a chiasm:

    • Israel forsakes their Mighty One (God) and Rock (v. 15)
      • Turning to worship false/foreign deities (vv. 16-17a)
    • You have forgotten your Mighty One (God) and Rock (vv. 17b-18)

As in verse 14e (also 15b), the sudden shift from third person (“he/they”) to second person address (“you”) is striking, and serves as a reminder of the poem’s stated purpose (within Deuteronomy) as an instruction (and warning) to future generations of Israelites. The poetic language in vv. 16-17a is especially difficult, and appropriately so given the subject matter; however, the form of the lines is actually quite clear, with a fine symmetry:

    • “They stirred Him (to anger) with strange (thing)s,
      • (indeed) with disgusting things they provoked Him;
    • They slaughtered to ‘powers’ (that are) not Mighty,
      • (but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them”

The first bicolon has a precise synonymous parallelism, with two ways of saying that the people provoked YHWH with foreign/pagan religious behavior, described by the euphemisms “strange (thing)s” (z¹rîm) and “disgusting things” (tô±¢»œ¾). The second bicolon builds on the first, explaining the behavior more directly. It is stated that “they slaughtered (sacrificial offerings) to š¢¼îm“, the word š¢¼ (dv@) being rather difficult to translate in English. It is a basic Semitic term referring to deities or divine powers generally, corresponding more or less with the Greek daimœn (dai/mwn). From the standpoint of Israelite covenantal theology, and especially the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy, worship (in any manner) of any deity besides YHWH represents a flagrant violation of the covenant. Given the common syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in ancient Near Eastern (polytheistic) religion, a blending of Canaanite religious elements with the worship of YHWH would have been quite natural, and difficult for the people of Israel to resist. This is why the point is hammered home so often in the book of Deuteronomy, as also in the “Deuteronomic History” and the messages of the Prophets. The repeated warning was necessary because of the dangers of cultural accomodation, and the tendencies in Canaanite society which could not but exert influence on the people of Israel.

With these thoughts in mind, I would ask that you read through the remainder of the poem, examining the language and imagery, the progression of thought and expression, most carefully. In the next study, I hope to provide a survey of verses 19-42 in light of the section we have studied here (especially verses 15-18). We will focus on several verses and lines in more detail, again illustrating how a sound critical approach to Scripture helps give us a much more thorough understanding of the text as it has come down to us.