Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 1

Having completed our detailed critical-exegetical notes on the Song of Songs, it now remains to give serious consideration to questions surrounding the nature and purpose of the Song, including the ever-controversial issue regarding how best to understand love poetry of the Song as Scripture. This concluding discussion will be divided into several parts:

    1. Authorship and Dating of the Song
    2. Composition and Structure
    3. The Song as Scripture, with an evaluation of the three main interpretive approaches:
      1. The Allegorical-Symbolic approach
      2. The Mystical-Spiritual approach
      3. The Religious-Cultural approach
    4. Conclusion: A fresh approach to the Song

1. Authorship and Dating of the Song

Let us begin with the question of when the Song was composed.

The heading of the Song suggests that it was written by Solomon (“The Song of Songs, which [belongs] to Solomon”), and would thus date from his reign (c. 960-922 B.C.). The exact expression is hm)ýv=l! (lišlœmœh), with the prefixed preposition l= (“to, for”) denoting “belonging to”. This certainly could indicate authorship, as in the superscriptions to the Psalms, many of which are indicated as being musical compositions “belonging to David” (dw]d*l= l®¼¹wi¼). At the same time, it is possible to read hm)ýv=l! in the sense of “relating to Solomon,” in the manner, for example, of the titles of the Canaanite epic poems—lkrt, laqht, and lb±l. Since b±l refers to the deity Baal Haddu, clearly lb±l does not mean “written by Baal”, but that the composition is about Baal—that is, he is the subject and main character.

There are strong reasons to doubt that the Song was composed by Solomon. The attribution of so many Psalms to David reflects his legendary (traditional) status as a famous musician and singer-poet. In a similar way, it was natural for a wide range of writings to be attributed to the figure of Solomon, whose famous wisdom and prodigious literary output (1 Kings 4:32) were well-established in tradition and legend. Not only were the canonical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs ascribed to Solomon, but also such works as the Jewish Psalms of Solomon, the Christian Odes of Solomon, and doubtless many others that no longer survive. Moreover, the royal harem of Solomon with his many wives was also part of the historical tradition, and one can easily see how this grandest of love songs, specifically, might be attributed to him.

Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone reading the lines in 8:11-12 (cf. the recent note) could still be convinced that Solomon was the author of the Song. In my view, he is neither the author nor even a significant character in the Song. It is, rather, the milieu of his reign—the Solomonic Age—that serves as the literary setting of the Song. In a modern novel or motion picture, we might subtitle the Song, “A Love Story from the Time of Solomon”.

Even so, we must admit the possibility that the heading of the Song was intended to express the belief (or tradition) that Solomon was the author. By all accounts, the heading was a secondary addition, written by a separate hand, indicated by the use of the classical relative particle rv#a& rather than the prefixed –v# used everywhere else in the Song (cf. below).

As far as historical or cultural references that might give some indication of when the Song was composed, there is very little at hand. The reference to Tirzah as a prominent northern city (6:4) has been used by some commentators to date the Song to the brief period when Tirzah served as the capital of the Northern Kingdom (prior to the building of Samaria, 1 Kings 16:24ff). Such a conclusion, however, reads too much into this single reference, since Tirzah doubtless would have remained as a legendary northern city in the minds of many people for generations to come. All that the reference proves with certainty is that the composition of the Song post-dates the division of the Monarchy (cf. 1 Kings 14:17; 15:21ff; 16:6-9ff).

Most commentators rely on the language and style of the Hebrew to determine the relative dating for the Song’s composition. The most distinct linguistic feature is the consistent use of the prefixed relative particle –v# (še), rather than the particle rv#a& that is used throughout most of the Old Testament (writings from the Kingdom and Exilic Periods). It is the regular relative particle in later (Mishnaic) Hebrew, and occurs primarily (100 of 139 occurrences) in two Old Testament texts that are often regarded as of later (post-Exilic) date—Ecclesiastes (68) and the Song of Songs (32). This picture, however, is complicated by the fact that –v# also occurs, albeit rarely, in earlier Hebrew texts, including the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:7), one of the oldest portions of the Old Testament. Other pre-exilic occurrences are: Gen 6:3; Judg 6:17; 7:12; 8:26; 2 Kings 6:11; it also occurs 17 times in ten Psalms if uncertain date (122-124, 129, 133, 135-136, 144, 146), while the age of Jonah 1:7, 12; 4:10 is also debated; cf. Fox, p. 188. How is this evidence to be explained?

The particle v# indeed has very ancient roots, used in many Semitic languages/dialects over many generations and throughout a wide geographic range. Hebrew v# (še) is equivalent to Akkadian ša, and also cognate with Aramaic (cf. Dan 2:11, 23, et al) and Arabic ¼¥, etc. All of these variant forms go back to the use of the Proto-Semitic interdental ¼—which variously came to be spelled/pronounced as š/´, d, ¼, z, in the different languages and dialects, over the course of time. The best explanation thus would seem to be that v# was the regular relative particle in early Hebrew, to be replaced (for unknown reasons) by rv#a& in the Classical (Kingdom and Exilic) Period, only to return as the regular particle in later (post-Exilic) Hebrew, probably under the influence of Aramaic. Its occurrence in the Song of Deborah (and other pre-exilic passages) apparently represents an archaic vestige of the earlier usage. Cf. Pope, p. 33. The consistent use of v# in the Song can thus be explained two ways:

    • It is a sign of very early poetry (probably older than the Song of Deborah), or
    • It means that the poetry is quite late (i.e., post-Exilic)

Overall, the evidence strongly favors the latter. As noted above, the pairing of Tirzah/Jerusalem in 6:4 argues for a time after the division of the Kingdom (i.e., post-922 B.C.). The usage in Ecclesiates suggests a much later date, as do the signs of Aramaic influence and the linguistic/stylistic parallels with Mishnaic Hebrew. There are, indeed, many rare and usual words and phrases—including numerous hapax legomena (words that occur in the OT only in the Song)—and a number of these are attested in Aramaic and later Hebrew. Most critical commentaries provide convenient summaries of this evidence—cf. for example, Fox, pp. 187-9. There are instances where linguistic parallels (or possible cognates) for the hapax legomena can be cited from earlier examples in Akkadian or Ugaritic, so the evidence for a post-exilic dating is not absolutely decisive.

What of the content of the love poetry itself? Unfortunately, the nature of love poetry is such that it practically defies dating. Many of the same (or similar) motifs, images, idioms, and phrases can be found in Near Eastern poetry across thousands of years, from the early Sumerian love songs to modern Arabic (Egyptian, Palestinian, etc) poems today. I have cited a number of such relevant and representative examples throughout the notes. In terms of ancient Near Eastern love poetry, probably the closest parallels to the Song—in terms of both style and content—are found in the Egyptian love songs from the New Kingdom (19th-20th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.), though the Song as we have it is likely nowhere near so old. However, it is certainly possible that the author of the Song drew upon more ancient and traditional material—incorporating motifs, phrases, verses, and even individual poems—that are considerably older than the Song itself. Some of these possible sources (and sources of influence) will be discussed in the next section (Part 2).

If a post-exilic dating is correct, which would make the Song one of the latest of the Old Testament Scriptures (probably later than Ecclesiastes), then a time-frame c. 500-200 B.C. would be a plausible rough estimate for the time of composition. The earliest external, objective evidence for the existence of the Song are the four Qumran manuscripts (4QCanta-c, 6QCanta)—all quite fragmentary, but together covering the bulk of the Song. These Dead Sea MSS show that the Song was in existence (and being widely copied) by the 1st century B.C. There is an earlier reference in Sirach (47:15, 17) to a song by Solomon, but it is by no means clear that this refers to the Song of Songs (it may simply allude to 1 Kings 4:32). Cf. Fox, p. 189.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

September 24: Deuteronomy 32:43

Deuteronomy 32:43

The final lines in verse 42 bring the great “Song of Moses” to a close. The stanza functions as a refrain, serving as the climax to the entire poem; in particular, it builds upon the preceding couplets in verses 36-42 (discussed in the previous note) with their theme of YHWH’s judgment on humankind for its wickedness and idolatry (that is, worship of deities other than YHWH). The judgment is universal and applies to all people—the surrounding nations as well as His own people Israel. In verse 41 YHWH (figuratively) swears an oath that he will bring judgment against all those who are hostile to Him; and this promise of fulfillment, with the sword He has pointed (and holds firmly), is expressed graphically in verse 42:

“I will make my arrows drunk from blood,
and my sword, it will eat up (the) flesh—
from (the) blood of (those) pierced and taken captive,
and from (the) hairy head(s) of (the) hostile (one)s!”

The precise meaning of the last line is uncertain, but, in parallel with the prior line, it would seem to refer to the decapitation of enemy warriors (and/or their chieftains). In any case, it is a rather gory scene, doubtless a bit disturbing to our modern Christian sensibilities. However, what is important to remember is that the judgment described throughout the poem refers primarily to military attack—that is, God makes use of human armies to bring judgment on other peoples. Thus, as part of the realization of such judgment, it would not be at all uncommon to find evidence of bloody bodies pierced with the sword, along with actual heads cut off; such would have been typical of warfare in the ancient world.

When we turn to verse 43, we suddenly encounter a major textual difficulty. This is another example where the Masoretic text appears to be corrupt, in this instance due, it would seem, to a portion of the verse having dropped out. Here is the MT as it has come down to us (in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

Commentators have noticed the lack of poetic parallelism in the first lines, quite in contrast to the style and technique used consistently throughout the poem, and raising the possibility that the MT is incomplete. The bicolon parallelism is largely missing from v. 43, which, in the Masoretic Text, consists of 2 bicola (4 lines). Yet there is parallelism overlapping in the second and third cola, suggesting that there are perhaps two lines missing (just prior and after):

Make a shout (then), (you) nations, (for) His people,
{missing line?}
For He will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

Indeed, the Greek version is more complete, and, in part, this has been confirmed by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, where v. 43 reads as follows (note the differences in italics):

“O heavens, cry out [i.e. rejoice] with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all Mighty Ones [i.e. gods]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve the three-beat bicolon (3:3) strophic structure and parallelism characteristic of the rest of the poem. The Septuagint Greek is more expansive, which could indicate its secondary character. The first lines, in particular, appear to conflate (combine) the text from 4QDeutq and MT:

“Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O heavens, with Him,
and kiss toward [i.e. worship] Him, all (you) sons of God!
Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O nations, with His people,
and let all the Messengers of God strengthen themselves in Him!
…”

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=, b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (<yh!ýa$, °§lœhîm). The reading of the Septuagint for the first bicolon actually appears to be a conflation of two variant Hebrew versions, one corresponding to a text like 4QDeutq, and the other a precursor of the MT—resulting in four lines.

It is easy to see how the word <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm “gods”, LXX “sons of God”), along with the line containing it, might have dropped out or been omitted during the process of transmission. It could have been misunderstood as supporting polytheism in some way (i.e. the existence of other deities), even if here the plural <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels of YHWH) and not pagan deities as such. The LXX wording (“sons of God”) more accurately reflects the typical Hebrew usage in the Old Testament (see Psalm 29:1, etc; but note Psalm 97:7). In favor of the Septuagint reading is the close association of the nations and the deities (or Angels), such as we saw in what is likely the original reading of verse 8 (cf. the earlier note on this verse). Yet the Qumran text strikes me as being more precise and favorable to the ancient poetic (and religious) outlook. The call to the heavens also serves as a fitting conclusion, functioning as a parallel to the opening words of the poem (v. 1, “Give ear, O heavens…”).

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed. In the MT, and the second part of the conflate Septuagint text, it is the nations, who ‘belong’ to those divine beings, who are being addressed. In terms of the overall message of the poem, both aspects go hand in hand. However, if we adopt the text of 4QDeutq, with its emphasis on the relationship of YHWH to the other ‘deities’ (an aspect that is mitigated in the MT), then the coda of verse 43 actually functions effectively as a kind of summary of the entire poem:

    • Bicolon 1: Address to the heavens and divine/heavenly beings
      • Parallel to the opening address (vv. 1-3) and first section(s) of the poem, which establish the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the other nations (vv. 4-9ff)
    • Bicolon 2: Promise to pay back the suffering inflicted upon Israel (by other peoples) during the time of judgment
      • Parallel to the central sections focusing on Israel’s violation of the covenant, judgment upon them, and subsequent restoration (vv. 15-25ff)
    • Bicolon 3: The declaration of universal judgment on those who reject YHWH, with a promise of restoration/vindication for Israel
      • Parallel to the closing sections of the poem (vv. 26-42, esp. verses 36-42)

Conclusion

Finally, it is worth noting the relationship of the poem to the narration that follows in verses 44-47ff. It picks up the Deuteronomic narrative from where it left off (at the end of chapter 31), continuing with the same line of thought. The purpose (and importance) of the poem is re-stated, setting it in context with the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The “all these words” and “this Instruction” refer to everything recorded in the book of Deuteronomy—all of Moses’ discourses to the people, together with the poem of chapter 32—all of which is aimed at exhorting the people to be loyal to the covenant with YHWH, adhering to the terms of the covenant, outlined in the Instruction (tôrâ, Torah):

“…You should charge your sons [i.e. children] to watch [i.e. take care] to do all the words [i.e. everything as it is stated] in this Instruction.”

According to the ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural mindset, abiding by the terms of the covenant was of the utmost importance (for more on this, cf. the current articles on the Covenant in the series “The People of God”). Violation of them was thought to result (potentially) in terrible consequences, including death and destruction, suffering and disease, etc—the judgment of God (or the divine powers) released upon those who break the agreement. This is expressed most clearly in the vivid and graphic language of the poem (see above), but also in the closing words of the narrative here:

“For (indeed) it is not an empty word for you—it (is) your (very) life! and by this word you will lengthen (your) days upon the land which you are crossing over the Yarden {Jordan} there to possess.”

That is to say, if the people of Israel (and their descendants) will adhere faithfully to the Instruction, the terms of the covenant, then they will live long and secure in their Promised Land.

September 17: Deuteronomy 32:19-25

Deuteronomy 32:19-25

Before proceeding in this note with an exegesis of verses 19-25, it is necessary to address the (historical) critical question mentioned in the previous note (on vv. 15-18). As we do so, 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 prior notes) 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 very much 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 19-25

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

15And (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!

19And (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).

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 su^K^m! (“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 tyr!j&a^ (°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 rja) 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. Divine protection was one of the primary obligations for YHWH on his side of the covenant bond; violation of the covenant means that such protection is removed.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun roD set parallel to  <yn]B* (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated roD (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 Ep^h* (h¹¸ak, “turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun hk*P%h=T^ (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”, /Wma@) 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 (an~q*, q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (aýB=, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [la@]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [<u*]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (su^K*, k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [B=] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [<yl!b=h^]”, 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; cf. my earlier note on the meaning and background of the term). 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 (Moab, Aram-Syria, the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, etc), 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.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 4)

Exodus 32-34

In Part 3 of this article, we examined the covenant scene in Exodus 24, pointing out along the way the place of this episode in the structure of the book as a whole. The entire second half of the book, chapters 19-40, involves the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and his people at Mt. Sinai. From the standpoint of the narrative of the Pentateuch (or, at least the Tetrateuch, Genesis–Numbers), this extends to encompass the entire book of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers (up to 10:10)—all of which is set at Sinai.

Chapters 32-33 (+ 34:1-9) of the book of Exodus have a special place in this narrative structure, set between two blocks of legal material (instruction, Torah), 20:1-23:33; 25:1-31:17 and 34:10-40:15. At the same time, there have been numerous critical questions surrounding these passages, which continue to be studied and debated in earnest today. Because of the importance of Exod 32:1-34:9 in understanding the place of the Sinai covenant in early Israelite tradition, it is worth devoting an extended critical study to this passage. We may divide this study into the different areas of Biblical criticism:

    1. Textual Criticism
    2. Source Criticism
    3. Historical Criticism
    4. Exegetical analysis of the received Text

1. Textual Criticism

Generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch is consistent and secure, as compared with other portions of Scripture. The numerous Dead Sea manuscripts tend to confirm the later Masoretic Text (MT), with a few notable exceptions, one of which is the ‘paleo-Hebrew’ manuscript from Qumran labeled 4QpaleoExodm. This (fragmentary) copy of the book of Exodus covers the material spanning from 6:25 to 37:16. The text of this manuscript differs from the MT at a number of points, where it tends to agree with the Samaritan Pentateuch (against the MT). The differences are relatively minor, but they are significant enough to allow us to regard the manuscript as representing a distinct recension, or version, of the text. It appears to be the recension which, with some adaptation, was used by the Samaritans in their version of the Pentateuch. There is a particular example from our passage (Exod 32-34):

Exodus 32:10-11

The Masoretic Text (MT), following the BHS/Westminster critical editions, reads (in translation):

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

Now, note the reading of 4QpaleoExodm, in agreement with the Samaritan text:

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And with Aharon YHWH was very angry, (enough) to destroy him, but Moshe interceded on behalf of Aharon. And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

The portion in bold italics is not present in the MT. In such an instance, we must consider whether the longer text is original or represents an addition (interpolation). In this particular case, it is unlikely that the longer text is the result of an accident (copying mistake); nor can the shorter text be explained as an obvious mistake (omission). If, on the other hand, the change was at least partly intentional, then we must consider how or why it was made. The arguments cut both ways:

    • The longer text could be explained by the fact that the shorter text, if original, does not really record any reaction by God against Aaron, nor punishment, for his specific role in the Golden Calf incident; scribes thus might have been inclined to add such a detail, whether from authentic tradition or as a pious invention.
    • Scribes may also have been inclined to minimize Aaron’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf, and to eliminate specific details which cast him in too bad a light (esp. in comparison with Moses). This would be an argument in favor of the longer text.

It is not possible to make a definite determination on these grounds (though I tend to favor the shorter text at Exod 32:10-11a). In such cases, where there is corroborating evidence from Qumran to support either the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek Version(s), against the MT, we ought to give it serious consideration in our study.

2. Source Criticism

According to the common critical analysis of the Pentateuch (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis), Exodus 32-34 is a composite, made up of at least three distinct strands (or sources):

    • The core narrative of 32:1-33:23, usually assigned to the “E” (Elohist) source
    • The appearance of YHWH to Moses (34:1a, 2-13) and a parallel version of the Ten Commandments (34:14-28 [cp. 20:1-17]), assigned to the “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) source
    • A layer of editing and additional material, referred to as the “Priestly” (P) layer or source—31:18; [34:1b]; 34:29-35ff (to the end of the book).

Interestingly, the “E” source was so labeled based on its presumed preference for the divine name Elohim over Yahweh (YHWH). However, chapters 32-33 consistently use YHWH throughout, the only exception being in 32:16. In this instance, the critical theory is more properly based on the presence of “doublet” traditions (two ascents by Moses, two sets of tablets, two versions of the Decalogue, etc), as well as historical considerations (see below). Traditional-conservative commentators, while often respectful of these analyses based on the Documentary Hypothesis, tend to accept the text at face value, as a unified composition reflecting authentic historical tradition throughout. Even so, there are a number of apparent inconsistencies and peculiarities which require explanation. It is certainly possible to recognize the presence of various traditions which have been brought together in the narrative, without necessarily adopting the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole.

3. Historical Criticism

There are two aspects to what we call historical criticism: (1) analysis of the historical background of the text as we have it (including when it was authored, etc), and (2) consideration of the historicity of the events and traditions contained in the text. Both aspects have been somewhat controversial over the years, in the case of the Pentateuch, on the basis of two factors: (a) the detailed critical studies and hypotheses which indicate many different and varied traditions, and (b) the strong tradition identifying Moses as the effective author/source of the books. Students and scholars who adopt (or insist on) extreme positions regarding either of these two factors, in my view, end up distorting or neglecting important pieces of evidence related to the text. Let us briefly consider several critical approaches to Exod 32-34:

a. The blending of contrary or opposing traditions

Commentators who recognize different, distinct strands of tradition in the text, often claim that these are contrary or opposed to one another, in various ways. This may include:

    • Different wording or formulation of a tradition, such as in the two “versions” of the Decalogue—20:1-17 (usually assigned to “P”) and 34:14-28 (“J”).
    • Geographical distinctions—esp. interests of the Northern kingdom (Shechem, Bethel, Mushite priesthood), compared with those of the South (Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic legacy, Aaronid priesthood). The presumed source documents “E” and “J” are often thought to come from the North and South, respectively.
    • Religious and theological differences—e.g., the northern Bethel cultus vs. that of the Jerusalem (Temple), cherub-throne (the Ark) vs. bull-throne, the position of the priestly lines of Aaron and Moses, specific traditions associated with the religious centers of Gilgal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc.

As just one example, it is often thought that the Golden Calf episode in chapter 32, along with Aaron’s involvement in the incident (vv. 1-5, 10-11 v.l., 21-24f), is intended as a (Northern) polemic against the religious establishment of Jeroboam (at the sites of Bethel and Dan, etc). There can be no doubt that an intentional parallel is at work. All one has to do is to consider the basic iconography (of the bull) and the words used to introduce it:

“These are your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4, cf. also verse 8) “See, your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28)

How should this parallel be explained? There are two main possibilities:

    • The declaration in 1 Kings 12:28, and/or the golden bulls of Jeroboam’s religious establishment themselves, are meant to reflect the earlier Exodus tradition.
    • The Exodus scene of the Golden Calf reflects the later development by Jeroboam, being projected back into the time of Moses and the Exodus. At the very least, one might say that the Exodus narrative has been shaped (its wording, etc) in light of the later history.
b. The tendency to include traditions with variant details

Apparent discrepancies in detail do not necessarily mean that traditions are unreliable or inaccurate. However one views the composition of the Pentateuch, the author/editor(s) of the books as they have come down to us has included many different traditions, and narratives, which seem to result in certain inconsistencies. Consider, for example, the shifts in setting and emphasis in chapters 32-34, which do not always flow smoothly in the text:

    • The details surrounding the Golden Calf, including the fact that it seems to be understood as representing both distinct “gods” (i.e. separate from YHWH), and YHWH himself (his throne?)—32:1, 4, 5-6
    • The different expressions of God’s anger, judgment, and the punishment of the people (with multiple intercessions by Moses), without a clear sense of how they relate to each other in the course of the narrative—(these will be discussed in the last section of this study [#4]). In particular, Aaron does not seem to face any definite punishment for his role in the Golden Calf incident (see above).
    • The differing descriptions of what God says to Moses on the mountain, and how it relates to what Moses writes, and to what is written on the “two tablets” of stone—24:3-4; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1-5, 28-29, etc.
    • In this regard, there are also some interesting repetitions in the sections of legal instruction (Torah)—examine the passages closely, 25:1-31:17; 34:10-35:3ff, as well as the earlier “book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:23).
    • Certain apparent inconsistencies regarding where/how God appears to Moses, etc—chap. 19; 20:18ff; 24:1-18; 33:7ff, 17-23; 34:5ff, 29ff.

Our modern ideals of composition would perhaps require a bit more clarity, harmonizing and smoothing out of details in these various episodes and traditions. The ancient author (and/or editor[s]) did not compose and shape the text in quite this way. We must consider that the apparent rough edges and inconsistencies are intentional, meant to bring out certain details and aspects of the narrative which might otherwise be overlooked.

c. The unifying structure of the narrative

A number of the discrepancies or inconsistencies mentioned above, however one chooses to judge them from the standpoint of source– and historical-criticism (see the discussion above), can be explained, in large measure, when one considers carefully the structure of the narrative as it has come down to us. In this regard, the “doublet” and repeating elements, far from being problematic, are actually vital to a proper understanding of the narrative. Consider the basic outline:

    • Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives instruction (Torah) from God, which includes material written down on two stone tablets (i.e. the covenant)—24:15-31:18
      • The people violate the covenant and Moses descends—chaps. 32-33
    • Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and (again) receives instruction (Torah) from God, including that written down on two stone tablets (the covenant)—34:1-28
      • Moses descends and the covenant with the people is re-established34:29-35:1ff

The simplicity of this outline masks a richly-detailed structure of motifs and associations, particular points of emphasis, and the like. This is part of the uniquely inspired character of the text which cannot be reduced merely to questions of historicity.

4. Exegetical analysis of the Received Text

This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.

In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):

    • Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
      —The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
    • Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
      —The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
      —Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
      —The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
      —Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
    • Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
      —Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
      —Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
      —The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
      —Moses descends Sinai
    • Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
      —Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
      —Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
      —The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
    • Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
      —Moses descends Sinai
    • Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
      Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
    • Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
      —Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)

There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:

    • Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
      • The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
      • Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)

The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:

    1. The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
    2. As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.

Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, in Parts 1, 2, and 3. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. tyr!B=, b§rî¾), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to the fore:

    • The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
    • The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
    • The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails

1. Moses as the people’s representative

Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods.

The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.

2. The identity of Israel as God’s people

Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.

3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant

Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:

    • The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
    • Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
    • Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.

Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of (immediate) death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).

The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. In Part 5, we will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34. In particular, close attention will be paid to the dialogue between Moses and YHWH, and how this relates to the covenant theme of the narrative.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 4)

Isaiah 36-37, continued

The traditional narrative of Isaiah 36-37 (on which, see the previous two studies) concludes with an oracle by Isaiah (37:21-35). Actually, it would be more accurate to describe this section as a construct of Isaian material, containing several distinct pieces of tradition. The material may be divided as follows:

    • The narrative tradition in verse 21, which also may be viewed as transitional, joining Hezekiah’s prayer (discussed in a recent note), to the oracle(s) that follow.
    • A judgment oracle (vv. 22-29), directed as a taunt against the king of Assyria (Sennacherib), functioning in the narrative as a parallel to the taunt by the Assyrian official (the Rabshakeh, 36:4-20).
    • A sign oracle (vv. 30-32), indicating that the kingdom of Judah will survive the Assyrian invasion
    • An oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance for Jerusalem and Judah (vv. 33-35)

It is worth looking at the three main oracle portions in some detail, with an eye on the different critical aspects as they relate to each.

The judgment-oracle (verses 22-29)

When considering this Isaian material, we cannot ignore the importance of textual criticism, with the goal of establishing the original text (as far as that is possible), taking into account any meaningful textual variants or differences. As it happens, for chapters 36-39, text-critical study comes from two directions: (1) examination of the major manuscripts and versions, especially the Dead Sea MSS (and the great Qumran Isaiah Scroll [1QIsaa]); and (2) comparison with the parallel version in 2 Kings 18-20. The differences between the Masoretic text [MT] and the Isaiah Scroll are of the most significance, particularly for the oracle in verses 22-29. A number of the readings in the Isaiah Scroll are perhaps to be preferred (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 467-8), and several will be noted below.

In terms of form and genre criticism, these verses can be referred to as a nation-oracle—that is, an oracle of judgment against a particular nation, given in a poetic (or quasi-poetic) form. Such nation-oracles occur throughout the Old Testament Prophets, and are frequent in the book of Isaiah (there is a concentration of them in chapters 13-27). However, here we have a special sub-genre of the nation-oracle: a message of judgment directed specifically against the king or ruler of the nation. Verses 22-25, in particular, represent one of the oldest such examples we have, being roughly contemporary with the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see the earlier study on this passage). As the king of a mighty conquering power, he comes to be the working symbol for the wickedness and arrogance, the worldly ambition and oppression, of the people as a whole. Moreover, it is the king who, in the ancient Near Eastern religious thought, was supposed to embody deity and the manifestation of divine power on earth. Thus, a great world ruler tended (and was expected) to act something like a god on earth; for the Israelite Prophetic tradition, this gross ambition and pretension to deity was more than ample reason for condemnation. This oracle against Sennacherib, along with the oracle in 14:4-21, provides the earliest instances of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Scriptures (Ezekiel 28:1-19 is another notable example). The motif reaches its peak in the book of Daniel, where the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes is clearly in view. It was through the book of Daniel that this motif would exert a profound influence on the early Antichrist tradition.

The oracle itself begins (v. 22 = 2 Ki 19:21) with a taunt from the city of Jerusalem, which would have been the next target of siege warfare by the Assyrians in their conquest of Judah. Jerusalem is personified as a young girl, a “virgin daughter”. Such scorn and derision coming from a woman would have been particularly galling and shameful for a (male) warrior, especially in terms of ancient Near Eastern cultural standards. The reason for the derision is that Sennacherib’s planned conquest of Jerusalem is doomed to failure, and so the “daughter” has nothing to fear from it. The would-be power and invincibility of the Assyrian empire, as expressed through the king’s ambition for further conquest, is the target of the taunt in verse 23ff (= 2 Ki 19:22ff):

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your servants you treated the Lord with scorn, and said:
‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 23-24)

The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself. The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). This same imagery is found in the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see above). The Mountain where God dwells is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹da±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (Š®°ôl)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak). God’s response to this worldly ambition and quest for power is harsh indeed (vv. 26-29). YHWH emphasizes, first, that the Assyrian successes and military conquests are part of His own plan, devised (and allowed) by Him:

“Have you not heard (how)
from a far-off place I have done it,
shaped it from (the) fore(most) days,
(and) now I have made it come (to pass):
(that) they should be (made) to crash (into) heaps,
(these) guarded (and) inaccessible cities,
and (the one)s sitting (in) them short of hand,
broken and (fill)ed with shame!”

This is a powerful (and accurate) description of the Assyrian conquests, and their effect upon the devastated population. Even the carefully guarded (read 1QIsaa n®ƒûrîm instead of MT niƒƒîm) and inaccessible cities (that is, raised on a hill/tell with walled fortifications) have succumbed to the siege warfare of the Assyrians. The fall of Lachish (see the notice in 36:1-2) is famously depicted on wall-reliefs from the palace of Nineveh (now in the British Museum, see below).

Jerusalem is another such raised walled city, and it would have been the next target of Sennacherib, and the climax of his Judean campaign. The horrors of siege warfare are implied in the closing lines of verse 27, along with the sense of helplessness among the population. The exact idiom used is “short of hand”, meaning without any strength or power—certainly with no way of defending oneself through physical or military means. The experience of siege and conquest leaves a people completely broken (µattû) and filled with shame (bœšû). This same idea is further expressed through agricultural imagery, comparing the people to the grass that is “scorched before the (hot) east wind” (following the reading of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll).

It is the very fact that the Assyrian conquests were predetermined by God, according to His own purpose, that their current intention to conquer Jerusalem is doomed to fail. YHWH declares to Sennacherib that “I know your standing (up) and your sitting down” (reading of 1QIsaa), “your going out and your coming (in)” —that is to say, everything the king says or does. God is also aware of the rage and the arrogance (again following the reading of 1QIsaa) that is essentially directed at Him by the Assyrian. In claiming that the God of Judah is unable to protect Jerusalem from conquest, Sennacherib has wedded his own arrogance (and divine pretension) to the cruel violence of his attacks. Those boasts are primarily what Hezekiah set before YHWH in the Temple, serving as the basis for his prayer—an appeal for God to defend His own honor in the face of an earthly ruler, a wicked tyrant. Ultimately, God’s response to Sennacherib is that He will turn back the Assyrian invasion, leading the king about (like an animal) with a ‘hook in his nose’, forcing him back on the path from which he came (v. 29).

The sign-oracle (vv. 30-32)

The oracle of judgment is followed by a sign (°ô¾) given by the prophet, to the effect that the kingdom of Judah will not be completely conquered or destroyed. A time factor is involved, making this tradition parallel with that of 7:14-16, set during an earlier Assyrian crisis (c. 734-732 B.C.). The point of the sign-message is that the kingdom of Judah (and the regions around Jerusalem) will recover, though not without considerable devastation to the land. Within three years, the people will be able to resume normal agricultural activity—effective planting and harvesting, without any further disruption or threat of invasion from Assyria. This is part of a wider Isaian theme—the faithful remnant that finds salvation and restoration—which would be developed considerably throughout the formation of the book (and its divisions) as a whole. This idea of a “remnant” is expressed here through the verb š¹°ar (“remain, be left over”), used as a substantive (passive) verbal noun— “the (ones) remaining”. This collective group is also referred to as “(the ones) escaping of [i.e. from] the house of Judah”. Thus, there will be a remnant, a residue of Judah that will be saved, spared from destruction, conquest, and exile by Assyria; and this remaining group of those saved will be centered on the capital city of Jerusalem (and its Temple). This conceptual imagery would have a powerful influence on the development of the Isaian traditions over a number of generations.

The oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance (verses 33-35)

The message and themes of the two previous oracles are repeated and confirmed in these closing verses, stating the promise of deliverance for the city of Jerusalem (and the failure of the Assyrian invasion) in no uncertain terms. Some critical commentators have raised the possibility that, in an earlier form and version of this material, verses 33-35 followed immediately after verse 22, thus forming the substance of God’s response delivered through the prophet Isaiah. According to this critical view (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 476-8), the oracle-material in vv. 23-32 is secondary in nature, having been inserted into the narrative from an earlier source. It is certainly possible that any (or all) of the oracles here in vv. 23-35 may have once circulated separately, or as part of different collections; beyond this, any detailed reconstructions of how chapters 36-37 were formed must remain speculative and hypothetical.

To be sure, the message in vv. 33-35 gives a more direct response to Hezekiah and the people of Judah, regarding the Assyrian threat and whether YHWH would rescue them from destruction. Compared with the poetic and rhetorical flourishes of the prior oracle-material, the poetry here is rather simple and direct:

“He shall not come into this city,
and shall not (even) cast an arrow there;
and he shall not go in front of her (with) shield(s),
and shall (certainly) not pour upon her (with) ladder(s)!
(But) in the path (by) which he came, he shall turn (back) in it,
and into this city he shall (certainly) not come!”

There will be no attack, no siege works set up against the city, and, as a result the invader (Sennacherib) certainly will not enter the city itself. This is not necessarily incompatible with Sennacherib’s own boast (in the Assyrian annals) that he shut up Hezekiah in the city “like a bird in a cage”. The Assyrian forces may have set up an initial blockade, preliminary to a full-fledged siege of the city. In any case, it is clear that the invasion ultimately failed and the Assyrian forces returned home without completing the conquest of Judah. Two different explanations for this appear to be preserved in the narrative (compare 37:7 with v. 36f); this will be discussed a bit further in the next study.

Ultimately, the essence of the prophetic message—both in chapters 36-37, and in terms of the book of Isaiah as a whole—is summarized and distilled in the closing lines of the oracle (v. 35), where YHWH speaks directly to His people:

“I will give protection over this city, to bring salvation (to) her,
in response to my (own will) and in response to David my servant.”

The seeds of the future Messianic hope are present here, and an early form of this line of interpretation can be found throughout the development of the Isaian traditions in the generations following the events of 701 B.C. In particular, the so-called deutero-Isaian poems (in chapters 40-55ff) would build heavily upon this thematic matrix, producing prophetic oracles which would extend the idea of salvation and restoration of God’s people to their return from Exile (in the 6th century) and beyond.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 2)

Isaiah 36-39, continued

Chapters 36-37

In discussing chapters 36-39 (see last week’s study), the climactic portion of Isaiah 2-39, it was seen how that work neatly breaks into two divisions, with the main narrative occurring in the first half (chaps. 36-37).

The narrative in chapters 36-37 allows for valuable critical analysis—historical-critical, but also text-critical, source-critical, and literary-critical. The main focus must be historical-critical, since the narrative is clearly based on traditions regarding actual historical events—namely the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib in 701 B.C., involving the siege and conquest of a number of cities (in the Assyrian Annals, Sennacherib claims to have captured 46 Judean cities). The Assyrian forces turned back without completing the campaign and capturing Jerusalem. As previously noted, a second version of this same narrative is found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. There are a number of differences (mostly minor) between the two versions; the most notable difference being the lack of any mention of Hezekiah’s initial surrender and payment of tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16) in the Isaian version.

Commentators have noticed the similarities of outline and structure between 36:1-37:8 and 37:9-38, suggesting that these may derive from parallel traditions regarding the same essential historical event. Consider the following points the two sections have in common:

    • The context of Sennacherib’s Judean campaign (36:1ff; 37:8-9)
    • The Assyrian message to the king of Judah, warning of siege and destruction and advising a peaceful surrender (36:4-20; 37:10-13)
    • This message is reported to Hezekiah (36:22; 37:14a)
    • Hezekiah’s response, emphasizing the need for repentance and prayer (37:1, 14b-20)
    • The prophet Isaiah hears of the Assyrian message and the threat to Judah (37:2-6, 21a)
    • Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian invasion will fail and Sennacherib’s army will turn back (37:6-7, 21b-29ff)

The two versions are similar in the general outline, while differing in certain details. That we are dealing with parallel lines of tradition would seem to be confirmed by the different explanations given for how/why Sennacherib’s forces turned back (37:7, 36f). Moreover, at three points the tradition has been developed and expanded: (a) the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt (36:4-20), (b) Hezekiah’s prayer (37:16-20), and (c) the Isaian oracle[s] (37:22-29ff). Without these expanded sections, the two traditional narratives would more closely resemble one another.

It may be possible to trace the process of development with some measure of clarity; a plausible reconstruction is as follows:

Within a generation (i.e., 30 years or so) of the events of 701 B.C., two traditional accounts had taken shape (see above), similar in outline, while differing in certain details. At some point, these two accounts were combined together, to form the narrative of chaps. 36-37 as we have it. The dramatic force of the narrative was enhanced by the three poetic/literary expansions noted above, likely produced through the inclusion of separate traditions; in the case of the Isaian oracle(s) these may well have circulated separately, as in the other collections we have already noted. The final literary shape of chaps. 36-37 is as a continuous narrative, in which the second traditional section now builds upon the first. The Isaian oracles form the climax of the complete narrative, followed by an expanded historical notice regarding the failure of the Assyrian invasion and the death of Sennacherib.

The curious detail of the Nubian king of Egypt in 37:9 serves as the transitional joining point of the two lines of tradition underlying the complete narrative. As presented in the narrative (as we have it), this detail is bit ambiguous and confusing—not to mention anachronistic, since, by all accounts, Tirhaqa did not become king of Egypt until 690. Some commentators have raised the possibility that he may have served as military commander earlier (under king Shebitku), but this is quite uncertain. However the mention of Tirhaqa may be judged historically, it is clear what the literary purpose is within the narrative. The presence of the Egyptian forces (or reports regarding their arrival) prompt the Assyrian king (Sennacherib) to increase the pressure on Hezekiah, pushing for a surrender before any help can be offered from Egypt. This provides the context for a second message to Hezekiah (37:10-13), one which essentially repeats, in summary form, the first message by the Rab-shaqeh.

That chapters 36-37 now represent a single, coherent narrative, is evident from the clear literary and artistic design that pervades  the work. Note, for example, the distinctive symmetry of the narrative:

    • The Assyrian invasion in progress (36:1)
      • The Rab-shaqeh’s Taunt, in two parts (36:4-10, 11-20)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (36:22-37:2ff)
          • Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the invasion (37:6-7)
        • The message given to Hezekiah, with his response (37:9-20)
      • Isaiah’s Taunt, an oracle in two parts (37:21-29, 30-35)
    • The failure of the Assyrian invasion (37:36-38)

It may fairly be said that here, as in most literary works within the Old Testament, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Separate traditions regarding the Assyrian invasion of Judah have been melded into a powerful narrative punctuated by contrasting poetic passages (like arias in a musical drama):

    • The Rab-shaqeh’s taunt to Judah, directed to her king (Hezekiah) and officials, which questions the legitimacy of trust in YHWH in the face of the superior military power of Assyria.
    • Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, directed to her king (Sennacherib), declaring the weakness of Assyria’s political and military power in the face of YHWH, the God and protector of His people.

Isaiah’s taunt is part of a larger poetic structure that forms the climactic section of the narrative:

    • 37:15-20: Hezekiah’s prayer, indicating the true repentance and trust/dependence on YHWH that leads to salvation (from judgment)
    • 37:21-29: Isaiah’s taunt to Assyria, contrasting the wicked earthly ruler (Sennacherib) with YHWH the Holy One
    • 37:30-35: Isaiah’s prophecy (sign and oracle) regarding the salvation of Jerusalem (and Judah), with YHWH turning back the Assyrian invasion

Having established something of the critical framework for a study of the passage, next week I will proceed to a more detailed examination of the three developed sections within the narrative—the Rab-shaqeh’s taunt, Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Isaiah oracle(s). These sections, taken together within the structure of the narrative, contain the essential message of the passage, both for the original audience in the 7th century B.C. and for us today. It will be worth devoting a brief critical and exegetical study to them.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 1)

Isaiah 36-39

These Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah conclude with an examination of chapters 36-39, the closing portion of the main book (so-called First Isaiah) covering chaps. 2-39. That book is comprised of four divisions, each of which conceivably could have circulated as a separate document, prior to being included as part of chaps. 1-39. There is also evidence, discussed at various points in these studies, that each division has, at its core, authentic Isaian traditions—oracles, poems, and historical-biographical material—from the 8th century B.C. The core Isaian material was developed over the course of time, forming the division-documents as we have them, a process that likely extended into the 6th century.

Even though each of the divisions is a significant literary work in its own right, having undergone a distinctive development, it is noteworthy that, in the overall framework of chapters 1-39, they are arranged in chronological order. That is to say, the authentic Isaian traditions, within each division, appear to be in chronological order, covering the period c. 740-701 B.C. This may be demonstrated as follows:

    • Division 1: Chapters 2-12
      Core Isaian material: 6:1-9:7[6], within the wider setting of chaps. 5-10
      Historical focus: The Syro-Ephramaite conflict, 734-732 B.C., with the Assyrian campaigns into the Northern kingdom (under Tiglath-Pileser III).
    • Division 2: Chapters 13-27
      Core Isaian material: the nation oracles throughout chaps. 14-20ff
      Historical focus: Events during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), which would be confirmed particularly if the theory is correct that the “king of Babylon” in chap. 14 is to be identified with Sargon.
    • Division 3: Chapters 28-35
      Core Isaian material: the oracles of warning, judgment, etc, in chaps. 28-33
      Historical focus: Events leading up to the Assyrian invasion of Judah by Sennacherib (704-681) in 701 B.C.
    • Division 4: Chapters 36-39
      Core Isaian material: the historical traditions in these chapters (esp. chaps. 36-37)
      Historical focus: The Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.

All of this is important for a proper understanding of chapters 36-39 and their place within the overall framework of the book. The invasion of 701 B.C., and the siege of Jerusalem, represents the climactic moment of the book, and anchors the message throughout. This is so even in terms of the apparent application of the Isaian material to the Babylonian period of the late-7th and 6th centuries B.C. (including the exilic period). Just as God saved Jerusalem from conquest and destruction, so he will also save a “remnant” of his people in the future, protecting those who trust in him, and eventually restoring them from their time of exile. Throughout chapters 1-39, this is expressed through the historical message of the prophet Isaiah—to the northern and southern kingdoms both—alternately declaring judgment and salvation for the people. Salvation is focused on Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah; insofar as the king (and people) are faithful, trusting in YHWH, they will be saved from destruction and conquest.

Chapters 36-39 are unique among the divisions of the book in that they are comprised almost entirely of Isaian historical traditions (clearly stemming from the prophet’s own time), with relatively little development. More accurately, one can trace most of the development to a relatively narrow period of time, extending into the mid-7th century, not all that long after the death of Sennacherib (in 681). The main focus of our study is thus historical-critical—that is, the relationship of these traditions to the historical events they purport to record, during the years c. 703-701.

It is also significant that there is a second version of this same material found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. This has led to various explanations: (a) Isaiah borrowed from Kings, (b) Kings borrowed from the book of Isaiah, or (c) each version is dependent upon a separate source document. In my view, the latter option is more likely; and, if correct, this would provide support for the theory (see above) that the four divisions of Isa 2-39 may have originally circulated as separate written works. This means there is an important source-critical component to any study of chaps. 36-39 (as indeed of the parallel version in Kings). The same historical traditions serve a different purpose, in the context of the books of Isaiah and Kings, respectively.

The parallel versions also are significant from a text-critical perspective. Textual variants between the two, while generally minor, have to be considered, if only to determine what role they play in the distinctive treatment (and/or development) of this material in the book of Isaiah. The two major differences between the Isaian and Kings versions are:

    • Isaiah does not include the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16 of Hezekiah’s surrender and the tribute paid to Assyria
    • The psalm (attributed to Hezekiah) in Isa 38:9-20 does not occur in 2 Kings.

It makes sense to divide this material between chapters 36-37 and 38-39, and I will be devoting a study to each, over the next two weeks. Even though chaps. 38-39 are presented after chaps. 36-37, it is clear that, at the historical level, the events described in them must have taken place earlier—c. 703 B.C., a couple of years (or more) before the invasion of 701.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27

Isaiah 24-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 24:1-13

Verses 1-3

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

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

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

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

These intertextual references suggest two main themes at work:

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

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

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

Verses 7-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 13

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

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

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

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

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

Two of the most famous Messianic passages in the Old Testament occur in the portion of Isaiah we have been considering initially in these studies on the book (chaps. 2-12)—8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10. We must look at these passages from the standpoint of historical– and composition-criticism, as a way of highlighting the important principle that a proper interpretation needs to begin (and proceed) from a careful grammatical-historical approach to the text.

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

In the most recent studies, I discussed certain critical aspects of the composition of Isaiah 2-12. While the date and provenance of portions of these chapters may be debated, there can be no question that 6:1-9:6[7] derives from the prophet Isaiah’s own time, and contains key historical and biographical material from the prophet, covering the last 40 years of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701). This section centers on the Assyrian crisis (and the Syro-Ephramaite war) during the years 735-732 B.C., and provides a firm historical setting. At the same time, the situation regarding the surrounding chapters (2-5, 9:7[8]-12:6) is more complex. A plausible critical theory would involve a three-stage process of composition and editing/redaction:

    • 6:1-9:6: a core document, presumably produced by the prophet’s own disciples (see the notice in 8:16), not long after the events of 735-2; it contains authentic Isaian material—oracles, and historical-biographical traditions.
    • At some point, this document was placed within the context of chapters 5 and 9:7-10:34, which seem to represent authentic Isaiah oracles from the late 8th century (prior to 701). The emphasis is more on the theme of the impending judgment—warning Judah of the coming judgment from Assyria, and an oracle against the great nation of Assyria itself. Critical commentators are generally agreed that 5:25-30 and 10:1-4a have been misplaced, swapped from one location to the other; this may have occurred as a way of smoothing the transition when the 6:1-9:6 document was included.
    • The addition of chapters 2-4, 11-12. This material appears to stem from a later period of composition, but likely still includes authentic Isaian material (though perhaps in an adapted form). It would seem that the oracles and traditions, related to the Assyrian crisis and its effect on Judah (chaps. 5-10), have been adapted to the context of the Babylonian conquest (and exile) more than a century later. The historical parallels between the two periods are obvious, and such an adaptation by a later author/editor would have been most natural. Evidence for such a dating of chaps. 2-4 was discussed in an earlier study, and will be addressed again in the upcoming study on 11:1-10.

I discussed 9:5-6 [6-7] in some detail as part of an earlier article (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). I will be reproducing portions of that two-part article here (and in next week’s study), and you should consult it for an in-depth examination of the text. With regard to the historical background of 6:1-9:6[7] as a whole, it may be summarized for each of the sections/components of that document as follows:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah (discussed in the prior two Saturday Series studies), accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has also been discussed extensively in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It contains a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Clearly, 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] functions as the conclusion of the document, and there is some evidence that it, along with portions of 8:5-22, stems from a slightly later time than the rest of 6:1-9:6. Many commentators would identify this with the accession/coronation of Hezekiah, and in this they are likely correct. The beginning of Hezekiah’s reign is typically dated to 715 B.C., though some would locate that event as early as 729, placing it closer in time to the events of 735-2 (see above). Early Christians were quick to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy (of Jesus’ coming/birth, cf. Matthew 4:12-16), and it is simply accepted in this light by many Christians today as well. However valid such an interpretation may be, it is important to keep the original historical context of the passage in mind as we study it. That is to say, how would it have been understood in the 8th century, by the people of the time, to whom the oracle was primarily addressed? The original point-of-reference is almost certainly that of Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah at the time of the Assyrian campaigns, when the kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) was saved from destruction and conquest.

Keeping this setting in mind, we can see how, in 11:1-10, the same sort of tradition—regarding a king who would oversee a time of salvation and peace for both Israel and Judah—could be adapted to the later context of the Babylonian conquest, providing a message of hope to the people of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. It even makes possible a future/eschatological interpretation of the oracle, part of the Messianic expectation of Jews and Christians in generations to come.

In next week’s study, we will proceed with a brief, but thorough, exegesis of both 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10, touching upon important critical questions and issues, and other points of interpretation, along the way.