Friday, January 24, 2014

Isaiah 36:1-41:29


Chapters 36-38 of Isaiah are virtually identical to 2 Kings 18:13-20:18 and were probably copied from that source. These chapters  comprise a prose narrative of the Assyrian threat against Jerusalem. Hezekiah seeks Isaiah’s advice. Not surprisingly, Isaiah tells the king to trust YHWH. The city will be safe. All of this comes to pass when YHWH’s angel kills Assyrians in thir camp. Isaiah further says that Sennecharib, king of Assyria will go home and be assassinated. Again, it is no surprise when this actually happens.

 Hezekiah is taken ill but prays to YHWH and is granted another 15 years of life. Isaiah offers Hezekiah a sign and YHWH makes the sun move backward.

When Babylonian envoys visit Jerusalem, Hezekiah foolishly shows off all of his palace treasures. Isaiah declares that, therefore, the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem in a couple of generations. Hezekiah takes this as good news since it means that there will be peace during his own reign.

Most of the differences between this account and its parallel are small, a word here and a word there. Some of the changes seem deliberately editorial to me. Of course it is possible that the redactors who added this account from 2 Kings may have been using a variant text from the one that ended up in the Masoretic text. Any of these possibilities presents difficulties for those who maintain that the written text of the Bible is in some way inerrant.

A curious difference is that Sennecharib is said to have “dug wells and drunk foreign waters” in 2 Kings 19:24. The parallel verse, Isaiah 37:25 lacks the word “foreign” (though the New International Version “helpfully” adds it and thereby harmonizes the two passages).

More significantly, 2 Kings 18:14-17 told how Hezekiah at first capitulated to Sennecharib and, to pay tribute, stripped the gold from the doors of the temple. This passage is omitted from Isaiah. I speculate that this may be to make Hezekiah look better.

Isaiah 38:9-20 is a prayer of Hezekiah’s that is missing from 2 Kings. Again, this may be an addition to enhance Hezekiah’s reputation.

Scholars call Isaiah 40-55 "Second Isaiah" or "Deutero-Isaiah." The oracles in these chapters have linguistic and thematic similarities to those of earlier chapters but the historical setting is very different. First Isaiah addressed the people of Jerusalem during the period of the Assyrian threat (c. 742-701 BCE). Second Isaiah is the work of an anonymous prophet, or perhaps an Isaianic school of prophets, who spoke oracles of hope to the Judahites living in exile in Babylon (c. 605-538 BCE).

In chapter 40 YHWH tells the prophet to "Comfort my people" with the news that they will return to Jerusalem in a new exodus. They will travel a miraculous highway in the wilderness:

 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
   the rugged places a plain."
      (Isaiah 40:2-3, NIV)

All four Gospels apply verse 2 (punctuated differently) to John the Baptist. He is the "voice calling in the wilderness."

Verses 19-20 proclaim that idols are worthless, one of Second Isaiah's favorite themes.

Verse 21 introduces a poetic refrain "Do you not know? Have you not heard?" The almighty YHWH is God of all nations. He will give strength to his people. He will give them "eagle's wings" (verse 31). It is a wonderful image but it reminds me of a certain contemporary hymn of which I am not fond.

Chapter 41 continues the themes of chapter 40. The nations tremble before YHWH (verse 5). YHWH favors Israel, though it is just a "worm" or an "insect" compared to God (verse 14). Verses 6-7 and 21-29 are more diatribes against idols.

I borrowed the photo of the eagle from this website. The eagle that Isaiah had in mind was not an American bald eagle, a bird that is unknown in the Middle East. In fact, Isaiah might have been thinking of a vulture.

Next: Isaiah 42-44

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