Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
2: First Isaiah
Continuing to follow Rabbi Sandmel as a guide, next up in the prophecies written prior to the 586-520 BCE exile of Judah in Babylon is the first part of the book of Isaiah which is sometimes referred to as First Isaiah. The lengthy (sixty-six chapters) book of Isaiah is a sort of anthology consisting of prophetic and poetic writings by multiple authors who wrote over a lengthy period of time. It may be that material with very different origins was at some point copied onto a single scroll which, with the passage of time came to be regarded as a single “book.” Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah, the only part actually related to the individual for whom the book is named, date to the years 742-687 BCE while chapters 40-66 reflect events that occurred about one hundred fifty years later. Here are some of the things that interest me about those first chapters. Chapters 40-66 I will get to later.
Isaiah chapter 6 relates the prophetic call of Isaiah in a magnificent visionary experience. Isaiah beheld Yahve seated on his throne in the Jerusalem temple which was was believed to be visited by the divine presence at certain times during the ritual year. Isaiah is terrified at beholding the deity: “Horrors! I am as good as destroyed, for I am a man of impure speech who dwells among people equally impure, yet my eyes have beheld the royal Yahve of the Hosts.” (6:5 Sandmel translation). But one of the six winged “fiery creatures” (“seraphim” in English translations) from above the throne of Yahve flew to him with a burning coal from the temple altar with which he touched and purified Isaiah’s lips. Then the voice of Yahve asked, “Whom shall I send? Who will go on our behalf?” To which Isaiah responded, “Here I am! Send me!” So Isaiah began his career as the messenger of Yahve.
Isaiah’s recorded prophecies follow a pattern similar to those of Amos and Hosea, denouncing Israel and Judah for forsaking the path of righteousness and foretelling national doom at the hands of enemy nations. Unlike the two earlier prophets, Isaiah lived in Jerusalem where he shared “the word which he saw.” Whereas Amos and Hosea were, as Sandmel puts it, “village gadflie(s), Isaiah was well known in the highest circles of the capital.”
Yahve is deeply disappointed in his chosen people. Isaiah relates a parable about a carefully tended vineyard which was expected to yield a wonderful harvest but only brought forth wild grapes whereupon the owner of the vineyard ordered that it be destroyed. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (5:7).
In addition to conveying his message in symbolic words, Isaiah performs what became with later prophets a common practice of symbolic actions. Isaiah is told to walk about “naked and barefoot for three years” in imitation of the desolation awaiting the enemies of Judah (20:3). Like Hosea, Isaiah’s children are given symbolic names related to their father’s prophetic message.
Isaiah like Amos is concerned with social justice, proclaiming “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field” (5:8), “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” (5:20). Yahve and his messages have been neglected as people have turned to “mediums and wizards who chirp and mutter,” and consult “the dead on behalf of the living” (8: 19). Echoing Hosea he proclaims “The faithful city has become a harlot” (1:21) As did the earlier prophets, Isaiah says Yahve hates the ritual services and sacrifices of a people who are unrighteous. Empty ritual, social inequity, and forming alliances with foreign nations are all instances of infidelity to Yahve.
In addition to the predicted ruin of Judah and Israel other nations will experience divine wrath and eventual destruction. But on the other hand, following a lengthy oracle condemning Egypt it is prophesied that Egypt and Assyria will repent of their evil ways and be united with Israel in worshiping Yahve (19:16-24), which obviously didn’t happen. It is more than a little confounding to the belief that the Bible is the literal word of God with a clear and coherent message throughout. Clearly disparate, sometimes clashing material was assembled into what became the book of Isaiah and not every prophecy was fulfilled.
A new development in the prophecy of Isaiah is the idea that Yahve does not, as in Amos and Hosea, simply passively abandon his straying people to their fate at the hand of other nations, but actively controls those foreign invaders. Yahve is a universal deity; nothing happens in the world without his involvement. Assyria destroys Israel, as Isaiah witnessed, because Yahve uses it as his instrument to punish his disobedient people. Israel’s god is the force behind all historical events. As Sandmel puts it, “History is the account of Yahve’s will and deeds as disclosed by historical events. . . . Isaiah was the first man to insist that Yahve is discerned in history and controls history.” This is became a central idea in Judaism and eventually Christianity which would insist on the historical as opposed to symbolic reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Isaiah is greatly concerned with the political situation of Judah, advising the king (who apparently often failed to heed Isaiah’s warnings) in his relations with other nations. It is in the course of one of these consultations that a text occurs which the Gospel of Matthew would use in support of the virgin birth of Jesus. In chapter 7 Isaiah meets with the king of Judah who is in despair because the kings of Syria and Israel have formed a military alliance to wage war on Jerusalem. Isaiah tells the king not to fear for both will be destroyed before they can conquer Jerusalem. The king is doubtful, so Isaiah gives him a sign (7:14-17). A “young woman” will give birth and before the child is weaned the kings of both Syria and Israel will be destroyed.
While the word used in the Hebrew text is the feminine form of “young man” which in other instances in the OT is translated as “young woman,” the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures, uses the Greek work for “virgin.” The Septuagint was evidently the source for the text quoted in Matt. 1:23. It may be that by the time, several decades after the death of Jesus, when the author of Matthew wrote his account belief in the virgin birth was an established aspect of early Christian tradition. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew there is an emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. So it would be natural to look for texts in Jewish scripture that would support various aspects of Jesus’ life including his birth. The only problem is that the text in Isaiah is not a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah but one foretelling the fate of Syria and Israel!
In reading Isaiah I came across several other texts which I recall being frequently quoted in support of a particular teaching that turn out to have a completely different meaning in their original context. For instance, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (28:9-13 for the full context). I was led to believe that this meant that scripture required long and careful study a bit at a time. But that doesn’t seem to be the meaning Isaiah intended when considered in the context of the text in which those lines, with their poetic repetition, appear. It is in fact addressed to those "who would not hear” the words of Yahve (i.e. Isaiah’s message) which are to them like words spoken in an alien tongue which they are unable to understand beyond “here a little, there a little” so that they will “fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”
Quoting texts out of context to prove a point wasn’t invented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. It was in fact common practice in early rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud is a very old collection of rabbinic wisdom, parts of which predate Jesus, in which scriptural texts are quoted along with accounts of how various rabbis expounded on them. Many of the remarks appear to have very little relation to the texts on which they are supposedly commenting. In some instances it seems like the rabbis were, to borrow a psychoanalytic concept, free-associating to a text which is taken completely out of context. This would seem to be what Matthew was doing with Isaiah 7:14.
Isaiah foretells a terrible time coming for Judah and Israel. But, in some of the most beautiful and lyrical poetry in the Bible, there are also extensive promises that exiles from Israel and Judah will return to Jerusalem and “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahve as the waters cover the sea” (11:9 RSV). These magnificent passages have made Isaiah one of the most quoted books of the OT. A “Prince of Peace” is promised in verses Christians believe were fulfilled by Jesus and which Handel used for his oratorio, “The Messiah.”
The “Isaiah Apocalypse” of chapters 24-27 foreshadows themes more fully developed in later apocalyptic writings, warning of a coming time when “the earth will be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled” (24:3). There are interesting bits of Canaanite and Babylonian myth here and there in descriptions of how Yahve will desolate the earth and punish the “host of heaven” along with the “kings of the earth.” The Canaanite sea monster, Leviathan will be punished and “the dragon that is in the sea” will be slain, echoing ancient Mid-Eastern creation myths in which a hero creator slays a monster from whose body the world is made. Isaiah’s “apocalypse” ends hopefully with a revised version of the parable of the unfruitful vineyard. This time the vineyard is “every moment” watered by Yahve and “Jacob (who Genesis relates was renamed Israel) shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the world with fruit” (27:6 RSV).
The apocalyptic chapters are followed by multiple prophecies of coming doom for various nations interspersed with promises of an eventual end of suffering as “the ransomed of Yahve shall return and come to Zion with singing. . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (35:12).
First Isaiah concludes with a sort of prose historical appendix (chapters 36-39) which is duplicated in 2 Kings 13-20 describing Isaiah’s involvement in three events. Judah was invaded by Sennacherib of Assyria who besieged Jerusalem, an event which an Assyrian account verifies as dating to 701 BCE. King Hezekiah “rent his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of Yahve” (37:1) from which he sent for Isaiah who told him that the siege would be unsuccessful. “And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. . . . Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home.” (37:36 RSV).
There is also an account of the illness, near death, and recovery of King Hezekiah which contains interesting evidence of scribal error in a misplaced text (38:21) in which Isaiah prescribes a treatment for the king which follows the account of his recovery. That the error occurred early in the repeated copying of Isaiah is evidenced by the fact that the text is also misplaced in the Dead Sea scrolls of Isaiah, the several copies of which date from approximately 125 BCE to 60CE, and the Septuagint. In the parallel text of 2 Kings 20 this detail is in its proper place earlier in the narrative.
The historical appendix ends with an incident (chapter 39) in which Hezekiah displays his riches to envoys from Babylon, alarming Isaiah who says that in some future time it will all be carried to Babylon along with Hezekiah’s sons who will be made “eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” To which Hezekiah, apparently more concerned with his well-being than that of his kingdom and family, replies that what Isaiah has told him is good, thinking, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
Isaiah’s oracles of approaching doom greatly outnumber those promising eventual redemption. Many scholars regard the hopeful verses as later additions to the book. In Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah early Hebrew religion expresses what Sandmel describes as a basic hopelessness about humanity’s ability to live up to Yahve’s expectations. Prophetic forecasts of doom seemed to be borne out as the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722/721 BCE never to recover. Judah survived for a little more than a hundred years longer before Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon and its people carried away into captivity. We will return to the more hopeful time of Second Isaiah and the return of Yahve’s people to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. But first there are a few more prophets from before that important turning point in the history of the OT and the Jewish people.
© 2021 James Moyers