Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

Post-Exilic Prophets


Second Isaiah

Biblical scholars agree that chapters 40-66, which they have labeled “Second Isaiah,” of the book of Isaiah weren’t written by the same person who wrote chapters 1-39.  Second Isaiah involves events that occurred about 160 years after the time of the prophet Isaiah and thus historically can be placed after Ezekiel.  It appears likely that what is now Second Isaiah was at some point put into a scroll with the earlier material to make the “book” of Isaiah.


There is disagreement as to whether Second Isaiah represents the work of more than one person.  There are several distinct parts, some of which seem to be in scrambled order.  It has been suggested that chapters 40-48 are more coherent when read in reverse order.  There is an obviously out of place satire against idolatry (44:9-20).  Some scholars have sought to “restore” what they believe to have been the original order via extensive rearrangement of passages.  As with other biblical manuscripts it may have been that the order of the parts of the scroll that  became the book of Isaiah were mixed up in the process of sewing them together.  Whatever may be truth as to its origins and early history, Second Isaiah contains some of the OT’s most outstanding examples of soaring poetic beauty and profound theological thought.


The Babylonian exile is a turning point in the history of ancient Israel and the development of Jewish theology.  In 539 BCE, almost 70 years after the elite class of Judah was taken captive to Babylon, the Babylonian empire was overthrown by Cyrus, the ruler of Persia.  Persia was tolerant of religious diversity and allowed the Judean captives to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.  This is the setting for Second Isaiah.


Chapters 40-55 have been titled “The Consolation of Israel.”  Second Isaiah opens with a very different message than that of earlier prophetic books: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her time of service is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from Yahve’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2).  “Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:10).


There are some passages recounting Israel’s past sins, denouncing idols, and a lamentation for defeated Babylon, but on the whole Second Isaiah’s message is positive and affirming.  There is a shift from the vindictive Yahve of prior prophets to a loving and forgiving deity.  God persisted with wayward Israel due to his loving graciousness not, as in Ezekiel, because of concern about his reputation “among the nations.”  Second Isaiah echos earlier messages saying that God doesn’t desire fasting and rituals but kindness and justice with the emphasis on kindness (58).


There is also a new focus on an explicit monotheism.  Israel’s God is no longer a tribal deity but is the only God who rules the entire world.  “I am God and there is no other. . . . Nothing takes place except through me” (45:5-6).  Salvation is not limited to the people of Israel but is open to “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (56:6).  According to Samuel Sandmel, “From this moment on it would be appropriate . . . to replace the word Yahve with the word God.”  And so I shall.


God is the redeemer of Israel which has been “tried in the furnace of affliction” and purified like silver (48:10).  Past transgressions have been blotted out.  The motif of the wife who “plays the harlot” is reworked.  Israel is like “a wife of youth when she is cast off. . . . For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you . . . with everlasting love” (54:7-8).


The time has come for the repentant Judeans to return home.  There are parallels with the Exodus from Egypt, but this time there will be no hurry to escape: “You will not come out as in haste, Nor go as if in flight” (52:12).


Israel is no longer just God’s chosen people but is described as God’s servant who will “establish justice in the earth” (42:4) and make his revelation known throughout the world.  The glory of God will be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “all flesh shall come to worship before me” (66:22).


In two separate sections (50:4-11, 52:13) which have no apparent relationship with the rest of the text there is a description of a mysterious “suffering servant” whose suffering and death enables salvation for others.  The idea of vicarious atonement appears nowhere else in Jewish tradition.  Sandmel speculates that the Suffering Servant texts were originally part of a larger poem which has been lost.  Whatever may be have been its original meaning in its Jewish context, Christians regard the Suffering Servant texts as a description of Jesus’ suffering in atonement for the sins of humanity.


Second Isaiah describes Cyrus as God’s anointed, literally “messiah” in the only Old Testament passage where messiah refers to a non-Israelite.  The Persian ruler, even though he doesn’t know God, is God’s instrument to bring about the return of Israel.  For Second Isaiah the defeat of Babylon and growth of the Persian Empire is all about the restoration of Israel.  The impact of Persia on virtually all of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world is largely ignored.  This reminds me of the Seventh-day Adventist tendency to regard world events as revolving around their destiny as “the remnant of Israel.”


God lovingly leads Israel’s return to the Holy Land, smoothing the way for them.  “Every valley will be raised up, every hill and low place will be lowered.  The crooked will become straight and the rough places will be made flat” (40:4).  “He leads his flock like a shepherd, in his arms he picks up lambs, he carries them in his bosom, and leads the young gently” (40:11).


Some verses indicate that not all of the exiles wanted to return to Jerusalem.  And history tells us that some did indeed stay in Babylon to form a thriving community that prospered under the rule of tolerant governments into medieval times.


Second Isaiah ends with several chapters describing the glorious restoration of Israel mixed with reminders of her past failings.  “I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (65:17.  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (65:25).  


I remember hearing many of Isaiah’s beautiful poetic texts again and again and being told that they described, not ancient Israel, but what would happen after the Second Coming of Jesus.  Which of course is how Christians, in a tradition dating back to the earliest Christian writings, have read the Old Testament prophets.  But there is nothing in the actual texts implying that they have reference to anything but the fortunes of Israel.  Which sadly turned out differently.  That is unless one believes that Christianity is heir to promises made to Israel which have yet to be fulfilled.

Haggai & Zechariah

I was not at all familiar with these two minor prophets from the post-exilic period.  I don’t recall ever reading them and, unlike other prophets so far, nothing in them sounds like a verse I often heard quoted in Adventist circles or literature.  


Haggai and Zechariah were leaders in rebuilding the temple who are also mentioned in the book of Ezra.  Precisely dated visions place both prophets in Jerusalem from 520-518 BCE, about twenty years after Cyrus’ proclamation allowing the return of the Judean captives to their homeland.  Glowing prophecies by earlier prophets of a restored Zion were a long ways from fulfillment.  Judah of the returned captives was a small Persian province.  God’s “anointed” Cyrus had died and been replaced by Darius as the Persian ruler.  Not much progress had been made towards rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem was seriously impoverished.


Political events are touched on in both books, but the details are less than clear.  Zerubbabel, a descendent of David, was appointed governor by the Persians.  Joshua was the high priest, the first mention in prophetic literature of that office, who seems to have been at least for a time a joint ruler with Zerubbabel.


In the course of the two books the theme of a Davidic king/messiah ruling over a perfected Land of Israel shifts to become an idealized hope for the distant future.  First will be an apocalyptic Day of the Lord in which all other nations will be conquered, after which they will come to Jerusalem to join Israel in worship of the one God.


Haggai is a very short book of two chapters which relates five visions occurring between August/September and October of 520 BCE.  The focus is the rebuilding of the temple.  Judah’s poverty is due to not having rebuilt the temple:  “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away.  Why? says the Lord of hosts.  Because of my house which lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves (each) with his own house.” (1:9)  But, once the temple is rebuilt, God will destroy all the other kingdoms of the earth and make Zerubbabel his messiah to rule over a restored Israel.


The first eight chapters of Zechariah describe a series of visions and dreams with many symbolic images which further develop Jewish apocalyptic tradition.  A man riding on a red horse accompanied  by three other horses “sent to patrol the earth” finds that “all the earth remains at rest.”  God is “very angry at the nations that are at ease” while Jerusalem and the temple have not been rebuilt.  But restoration is promised.  (1:8-17)


Four horns are cast down by four smiths signifying that the kingdoms which have scattered Israel will be overthrown.  Jerusalem will be so large no walls can contain it, but God will protect it with a wall of fire.  (1:18-21).


A flying scroll conveys a curse on evildoers (5:1-4).  Zechariah sees a large container with a woman personifying wickedness shut up inside.  Two winged women convey the container with the woman in it to Babylonia where it will be enshrined (5:5-11).  Another vision has four chariots going off in four directions.  The meaning is unclear but may involve the coming messianic age (6:1-8).


Zechariah contains several biblical firsts.  For the first time in prophetic literature a heavenly messenger to the prophet is described as an angel (1:8).  Zechariah 2:12 contains the only description in the Old Testament of Palestine as the “holy land.”


Zechariah 3:1-10 is one of the few instances in the Old Testament in which Satan - in Hebrew literally “the Accuser” - is named.  He is not the utterly evil being he became in Christianity but, as in Job, a functionary who brings up charges against humanity in the court of God.  Satan accuses the high priest, Joshua, of not being ritually pure.  But God rejects the accusation, gives Joshua new garments, and puts him in charge of the temple.


In chapter four’s vision of a gold lamp stand things begin to get complicated in relation to the role of Zerubbabel, the governor who Haggai describes in messianic terms, and Joshua.  Zerubbabel has “laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it.”  But there are “two anointed who stand by the Lord” which seems to imply that both the governor and high priest are messiahs (“anointed ones”).


Then in the sixth chapter there is a confusing passage in which singular and plural, priest and governor, are mixed up.  There are hints in Zechariah of a failed attempt to restore the Davidic monarchy.  It is thought the original text in which the governor was to be crowned king was revised to make Joshua and not Zerubbabel, of whom there is no further mention, the messianic figure who will rebuild the temple and rule Israel.  Whatever may be the historical events behind the textual confusion, there was no post-exilic monarchy.

As with other prophets, Zechariah conveys a moral message along with all the strange imagery.  “Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against your brother in your heart” (7:9-10).


Zechariah appeals to the Jews who are still in Babylon to return.  Echoing passages in Isaiah and Micah, the prophet proclaims that God is coming to dwell in Zion and many nations will join in worshiping him in Jerusalem.  “Many people and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, to worship him. . . . In those days ten men of all nations of different languages shall take hold of the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8:20-23).  This would seem to answer Ezekiel’s concern about God’s reputation “among the nations.”


Like Isaiah, Zechariah is divided into an initial part relating the prophet’s messages to Israel followed by material written some time later.  Chapters 9-14 are a series of poetic and prose oracles about a coming messianic age of peace when Israel’s enemies have been destroyed and/or converted to worship Israel’s God.  In style, vocabulary, and theology they differ from chapters 1-8.  There is no claim to authorship by Zechariah; the authors are unknown.  Mention of Greeks as the dominant power (9:13) places the date for at least some parts of the text sometime during or after the conquests of Alexander the Great who died in 323 BCE.  The oracles were probably not originally a series but at some point were collected together with someone deciding to attach them to a scroll containing Zechariah 1-8.  


The theme is the restoration of Israel.  A messianic Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd will ride in triumph into Jerusalem “on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass,” (9:9) (not the two animals Matthew 21:5, again based on a faulty mistranslation in the Septuagint, has Jesus somehow riding).  There is a rather bewildering mix of metaphors with the Lord’s sheep/people compared to a steed in battle, then in succession a cornerstone, tent peg, battle bow, ruler, and finally mighty men in battle (10:3-5).

  

Among the oracles are some rather mysterious passages  A shepherd breaks his two staffs of Grace and Union which represent respectively the covenant between God and Israel and brotherhood between Judah and Israel.  He is replaced by a “worthless shepherd.” (10:4-15).  God’s flock are scattered after their shepherd is slain, but a third of the flock is saved, refined and tested in the fire, ready to take their place as the new Israel (13:7-9).


The coming triumph of Judah over all nations will be followed by mourning for a person whom they have slain.  It is unclear if the reference is to a martyred individual or perhaps represents enemies who have been killed (12).


In another puzzling passage, along with idols who will be “remembered no more,” “prophets and the unclean spirit” will be “removed from the land.”  If anyone claims to be a prophet his parents must kill him “for you speak lies in the name of the Lord” (13:3).  Perhaps this means that prophecy will no longer have a place in restored Israel.  Or represents priestly animus against prophets who so often challenged cultic practices of the priests.


A final oracle in chapter 14 depicts an apocalyptic battle of all nations against Jerusalem in which the city will once again be destroyed with half its population exiled.  But “then the Lord your God will come, and all the holy ones with him to . . . smite all the people that wage war against Jerusalem.”  Survivors of the other nations will come annually to Jerusalem to keep the feast of booths (14:16).  The one God will reign over a land of “continuous day” with “neither cold nor frost.” “Living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem” and “it shall continue in summer as in winter” (14:6-8).  Living as I do in California which has a climate similar to that of Israel where everything dries up in rainless summer makes that last bit less of a mystery than it would have been when I lived elsewhere.


It’s clearer to me now why I didn’t hear much about these two books when I was an Adventist.  Except for some of the messiah and “new Israel” references the text is not as amiable to a Christian interpretation as are other prophetic books.  In addition the historical events behind the text are more than a little obscure, making it hard to explain the books to church school students.

Three More Post-Exilic Prophets

Obadiah, Malachi, and Joel were written sometime after the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon, a time of chaos and uncertainly with a politically weak Judah continually threatened by other nations.  There are no dates given for their prophecies and no mention of kings whose known reigns might provide a rough date.  No personal information about the prophets is revealed in the texts.  All three follow the usual prophetic pattern of condemning injustice and unfaithfulness to God, threatening divine retribution, and finally providing assurance that Israel will be restored to greatness surpassing that of its past.  The Day of the Lord is increasingly an apocalyptic event.


Obadiah has the distinction of being the shortest book in the OT, so short that it wasn’t divided into chapters in the medieval era like the other OT books.  Verses 1-15, which in part duplicates the oracle against Edom in Jeremiah 49:7-16, condemn Edom and describe how all the nations will join to destroy it.  


Edom, which occupied territory to the southeast of Judah, is a repeated concern throughout the writings of the prophets.   The Edomites were believed to be descendants of Esau while the people of Israel were descended from his brother, Jacob, whom God renamed “Israel.”  As Israel’s brother Edom should have come to the aid of Judah, but instead took advantage of the Babylonian conquest to move into Judean land.  There may also have been a treaty violation in which Edom joined others against Israel.  


The second half of Obadiah, verses 17-21, proclaims the Day of the Lord in which “the house of Jacob shall be a fire . . . and the house of Esau stubble” (26).  Edom will be subjected to Israel.  This seems to have become a fulfilled prophecy during the second century BCE when the Idumaeans (the Greek name for the Edomites) were indeed conquered and forcibly converted to Judaism.  They supported Judaea (as Judah was known in the Roman Empire) in the 1st century CE Jewish rebellion against Rome and disappeared from history after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.


Malachi, which translates as “my messenger,” may or may not have been the name of the prophet.  The first few verses again focus on Edom and the disasters that have befallen it as proof that God “loved Jacob but hated Esau” (1:2) after which the focus shifts to what is going on in Jerusalem.  The temple has been polluted by priests sacrificing blind and lame animals.  There has been intermarriage with people who worship “foreign gods” and divorce which God hates.  


But the Lord “will suddenly come into his temple” to “purify the sons of Levi . . . till they present right offerings to the Lord” (3:1, 3).  “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears,” (3:2) a text I often heard quoted as a description of the Second Coming of Jesus.  Which of course is not the meaning in its original context.


God will send “my messenger” (this use of the Hebrew malachi seems to make it doubtful that it was the prophet’s name) to “prepare the way” for the sudden divine appearance in the temple.  The wicked will be judged while the names of “those who feared the Lord and thought on his name” will be recorded in “a book of remembrance” (3:16).  The day will come, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall” (4:1-3).  While the first part of those texts I remember hearing in reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, that last bit I don’t recall ever having heard quoted by SDA ministers and teachers, most of whom it would be difficult albeit amusing to picture “leaping like calves.”


The last verse of Malachi, which seems to have been attached to the book as a sort of appendix, identifies the prophet Elijah as the messenger who will be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (4:5).  This text became important in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition, and in the Gospel of Luke was applied to John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus.  


Joel further develops the apocalyptic scenario of the Last Day.  It is the source for some very familiar verses that I recall being recited as rote phases related to Adventist expectations of “the end of time.”  For instance I was taught that “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (2:30 in the English translation of Joel in which the chapter and verse division differs from that of the Hebrew text) was a prediction of the “Dark Day” of May 19, 1780, more than sixty years prior to the 1844 date of the Second Coming as set by the Millerite Movement from which the SDA church emerged.  After years of hearing the Dark Day cited as a supernatural “sign of the times” I was surprised to learn that it was a local and very natural event caused by smoke from a vast wildfire to the west of New England.

    

Joel opens with a description of a plague of locust which has stripped the land bare.  The streams are dried up and terrible famine is affecting even the wild beasts.  A fast (which seems a rather dubious response to famine!) is proclaimed to petition God.  God, who is gracious and merciful, responds with deliverance and blessing.


With the locust repeatedly compared to an invading army, it is not clear whether they are to be taken literally as an insect plague or if they symbolize an actual human enemy desolating the land.  But whether they are symbolic or real, if God’s people “return to me with all your heart” (2:12) he will drive the enemy “into a parched and desolate land” (2:20).  Describing preparations for the war of the nations against Israel, Joel inverts the familiar texts of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3:  “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears” (3:10).  The nations gathered against Judah will be judged “in the valley of decision” (3:14) for their offenses against God’s people.  Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia, which have “sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks” (3:6). will have their own children sold to Arabian traders.  “Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness for the violence done to the people of Judah” (3:19).    . . . But Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (3:19-20).


Jonah

After all the often difficult oracles of the major and minor prophets it is a relief to come to the relatively simply and straightforward story of Jonah.  While the book of Jonah is placed with the minor prophets in both the Tanak and the Old Testament, unlike the other books of the prophets it is entirely narrative.  It is more like a short story by a skilled story teller similar to the novel-like books of Ruth and Esther.  


Jonah the son of Amittai also appears in 2 Kings 14:25 as an otherwise obscure prophet in eighth century BCE Israel.  The story of the reluctant prophet Jonah in the book bearing his name is set sometime before the 616 fall of Nineveh.  While the story may reflect an older tradition involving the prophet Jonah, linguistic and other considerations suggest that it was written sometime in the fifth or fourth century BCE .


Virtually everyone, even if they have very little familiarity with the Bible, has heard of “Jonah and the whale.”  My favorite version of the story is Herman Melville’s re-telling of it in Moby Dick in the sermon Ismael hears before setting out on his fateful voyage with Captain Ahab.  But the whale actually has a minor role in the Biblical book where it is not even identified as a whale but a “great fish . . . appointed by  the Lord to swallow up Jonah” (1:17 order of the text rearranged).


The narrative consists of three sections.  In the first part of the book the “word of the Lord” came to Jonah instructing him to go to Nineveh, a large idolatrous Assyrian city, “and cry against it” (1:2).  But instead Jonah boarded a ship bound for what is now Spain, which would be about as far distant from Nineveh as was possible.  God “hurled a great wind upon the sea . . . so that the ship threatened to break up.”  The terrified mariners prayed to their gods and threw cargo out in hopes of surviving the storm.  But the storm only grew more intense.  Jonah meanwhile was fast asleep below decks, unaware of any danger.


The captain awakened Jonah and implored him to also pray to his God.  The crew cast lots to reveal “on whose account this evil has come upon us.”  The lot fell on Jonah who confessed that he was “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” and told them to throw him into the sea.  The mariners were reluctant to do so and tried their best to save the ship with Jonah aboard but the storm continued to threaten their lives.  Asking God’s forgiveness for what they did, they tossed Jonah overboard and the storm ceased.  Whereupon “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”  In trying to run away from his divinely assigned task, Jonah inadvertently caused others to revere God (1:4-16).


So Jonah was swallowed by the “great fish” in whose belly he spent three days and nights.  In the Gospel of Matthew 12: 40 Jesus cites this as the length of time he would be in “the heart of the earth.” Although the gospels seem to indicate that the time between Jesus death and resurrection was less than forty eight hours, “three days and three nights” became fixed in Christian tradition as the time of Jesus’ entombment.   Matthew refers to the “fish” as a “whale.”  Regardless of the animal’s species, survival of any living thing within its digestive system for that long a period of time seems highly improbable.  But the Bible is not concerned with realistic depiction, especially when divine intervention in the course of earthly events is involved.  It is the narrative’s spiritual points that are important.  


While inside the fish Jonah offered up a psalm-like prayer of thanksgiving for his deliverance (2:1-9) which would more logically fit after rather than before the verse in which “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on dry land” (2:10).  It may be that Jonah’s prayer originated as a separate psalm which was inserted into the narrative in a somewhat awkward place.  Perhaps verse 2:10 was displaced from before to after the psalm sometime in the course of copying the book.


In the last episode of Jonah the prophet is again called to go to Nineveh to proclaim its destruction in forty days and this time does as he was told.  It may be that this was originally a different version of Jonah’s call which was incorporated into the book with the first story.  Most unexpectedly the people of Nineveh, including the king, heed Jonah’s message and repent.  God in turn “repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it” (3:10).


“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry” (4:1).  Apparently extremely embarrassed that his prophecy had not been fulfilled, Jonah begged God to take his life.  Which God did not do.  So Johan went outside the city and watched to see what would happen.  God sent a plant to grow up to provide shade for Jonah, and then the following night “appointed a worm which attacked the plant.”  The next day a “sultry east wind” and the sun beating down on him combined to make Jonah miserable.  The unhappy prophet went into another angry self-pitying snit in which he again begged God to take his life.  God, somewhat confusingly, confronted Jonah by asking why he pities the dead plant (but it is not the plant but himself that Jonah pities) more than the people of Nineveh who have been saved by God’s pity for them.  The story ends without a response from Jonah.


Except for the book of Jonah, there is no historical or biblical record indicating that Nineveh forsook its Assyrian gods to worship Yahve.  There wouldn’t have been a king in Nineveh which was not the capital of Assyria.  But again Jonah is not concerned with historical accuracy.  It is a story about obedience to divine command.  It also represents God as a universal deity whose benevolence is not limited to Israel.  


There is noticeable tension in the Bible, especially apparent in the post-exilic period, between particularism in which the covenant with God is limited to the descendants of Jacob and universalism which represents God as accepting of anyone, Jew or not, who, like the crew of the ship and people of Nineveh, “fears him.”  The choice for God is an individual rather than national decision.  The conclusion of the book of Jonah is a rebuke of particularism as represented in Jonah’s reaction to the salvation of Nineveh.  The anonymous writer joins several of the prophets in declaring that the blessings of the covenant are available to all.  This notion would be more fully developed in Christianity as it expanded beyond its Judaic origins to become a universal religion.  



© 2021 James Moyers

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