Lecture 19. Literary Prophecy: Perspectives on the Exile (Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 2nd Isaiah)

Professor Christine
Hayes: I’m going to go ahead now and get started with some
sixth-century material which–prophetic
literature–which confronts the issues that were raised by the
final destruction of Jerusalem. What was the meaning of this
event and how could it be reconciled with the concept of
Israel as God’s elect? How could such tremendous evil
and suffering be reconciled with the nature of God himself?
This is going to be a question
that will return in the next lecture when we look at the
wisdom literature and the Book of Job,
and some other texts as well as we proceed through the rest of
the course. In classical terms,
if God is God, then he’s not good if all these
terrible things happened, and if God is good then he
mustn’t be all powerful because he failed to prevent this evil.
That tends to be the dilemma,
the way it’s phrased. Now, Ezekiel was a priest and
he was deported in the first deportation.
You remember there was a deportation of exiles in 597,
and then the final siege and destruction and deportation of
exiles in 587. Ezekiel was among the deportees
of 597. He was therefore,
in exile in Babylon during the final destruction and the fall
of Jerusalem in 587, but his priestly background and
his priestly interests are clearly reflected in his
prophecies. He accuses the Israelites of
failing to observe cultic laws, ritual laws,
and his promises for the future and his vision of a restoration,
we will see, center around a new temple and
a restored Jerusalem and temple complex.
There’s a striking correspondence between Ezekiel
and the priestly sources in terms of language and theme,
particularly H, the Holiness code.
Now, the prophecies in Ezekiel,
conveniently and unlike many of the other prophetic books,
actually follow a fairly chronological order.
So the first section of the
book consists of prophecies that were before the final
destruction, between 597 and 587,
and then beginning in 33, it seems we have prophecies
that followed the destruction. He gets the report of the
destruction, and then we see how his tone and his message
changes. So in those first 24 chapters
where you have prophecies that are delivered in Babylon,
before the destruction, we have three chapters that are
devoted to his call and his commission as a prophet.
We see his inaugural vision.
I’ll come back and talk about
that in a minute as well as many other visions and symbols.
Then you have,
from chapters 4 to 24, oracles that are condemning
Judah and Israel. There are some interesting
elements within this. We have the depiction of the
kavod (which represents God) departing.
We’ll talk about that text in a minute.
We also have, in chapter 18,
a very interesting emphasis on individual responsibility for
sin. We’ll come back and touch on
that as well. Chapters 25 to 32 contain
oracles against foreign nations just as we have in Jeremiah and
Isaiah. Throughout, Ezekiel refers to
these nations as the uncircumcised.
The tone here is vengeful and very gloating,
and these oracles have exerted a very strong influence on the
New Testament, particularly the Book of
Revelation. After 587, Ezekiel prophesied
and those prophecies are contained in the latter part of
his book from chapters 33 to 48. So in 33 we hear of the fall of
Jerusalem, and then after that, oracles of promise and hope for
the future. The last chapters,
from chapter 40 to 48 are visions: Ezekiel’s visions of
the restoration, his vision of a rebuilt Temple
and a rebuilt Jerusalem. So the book opens with a
narrative account of Ezekiel’s call in about 593 or so in a
Jewish community that’s on the River Chebar,
which is a large irrigation canal off of the Euphrates in
Babylon. And this is the first time that
we hear of a call of a prophet outside the land of Israel.
It’s a remarkable vision.
Like many of the visions in the
Book of Ezekiel it has a sort of surrealistic,
almost hallucinatory quality. The vision itself is very
reminiscent of descriptions of Baal, the Canaanite storm god.
So there’s a stormy wind and a
huge cloud, and a flashing fire. God is riding on a kind of
throne chariot. He’s enthroned above four
magnificent creatures. Each of these has a human body
and then four faces: the face of a human,
the face of a lion, the face of an ox,
and the face of an eagle. There are four huge wheels
under this throned-chariot, and they are said to gleam like
beryl beneath a vast and awe-inspiring expanse or dome,
which gleams like crystal. Above that is the semblance of
a throne that is like sapphire, and on the throne was the
semblance of a human form that’s gleaming like amber,
and its fire encased in a frame, which is radiant all
about. So this kavod,
this cloud that contains or hides the fire that is Yahweh’s
presence–That is also the term that’s used in the Torah,
in Exodus and the priestly sources to describe the presence
of God among His people, this fire that’s encased in a
cloud, the kavod. In Exodus 24 we read that this
kavod had settled on Mount Sinai representing God’s
presence. In Exodus 40,
this cloud covers the tent of meeting;
it fills the tabernacle, so when Ezekiel sees it now he
says, that it “was the appearance of the semblance of
the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it,
I flung myself down on my face and I heard the voice of someone
speaking.” Notice this language;
it was the “semblance of the appearance of the Presence.”
Ezekiel wants to emphasize the
transcendent nature of the deity.
He’s having a vision of something which cannot in fact
be seen or perceived, which is a kind of paradox of
all of his visions. The prophet’s humanity is
emphasized in contrast to this transcendent divinity,
and that’s something that happens throughout Ezekiel.
He emphasizes his humanity with
this phrase “Son of Man,” ben adam.
Son of Man; it simply is the Hebrew term
for a mortal being as opposed to divine being.
Son of Man simply means a human, a morta.
Ben adam,
one who is like Adam. Now, the call of Ezekiel is
reminiscent of the call of Jeremiah and Isaiah.
He is sent to a nation of
rebels, rebels who will not be listening to him.
His commission is symbolized by
a scroll that’s handed to him, and we hear at the end of
chapter 2 that inscribed on this scroll are lamentations and
dirges and woes, and he’s commanded to eat of
this scroll and then go to speak to the House of Israel.
So he swallows this scroll and
all of its dreadful contents. It tastes to him as sweet as
honey and then his task is spelled out in chapter 3.
He is to be a watchman,
one who gives warning of danger, and people will either
heed him or not, but each one of them is
ultimately responsible for his or her own fate.
In a vision, in chapter 8,
an angel transports Ezekiel to Jerusalem and into the temple
courts, and there he sees and gives a
very vivid description of the shocking abominations.
These are represented as
justifying or explaining the destruction of the city and
these descriptions are characterized by more than the
usual amount of prophetic hyperbole.
As he watches the slaughter and the destruction that’s going on
there, Ezekiel sees the kavod,
that is the presence of Yahweh, arise from the Temple and move
to the east. Chapter 10:18-19:
…the Presence of the LORD left the platform of the
House and stopped above the cherubs.
And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the
earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed;
and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of
the House of the Lord, with the Presence of the God of
Israel above them. In chapter 11:23-25:
…The Presence of the LORD ascended from the midst of
the city and stood on the hill east of the city.
A spirit carried me away and
brought me in a vision by the spirit of God to the exiled
community in Chaldea. [So now he’s back to Babylon.]
Then the vision that I had seen left me, and I told the exiles
all the things that the Lord had shown me.
So this image draws on Ancient Near Eastern traditions of gods
abandoning their cities in anger, leaving them to
destruction by another god. The primary difference here is
that God, rather than another god, is himself also bringing
the destruction. Moreover, God doesn’t retire to
the heavens. He doesn’t abandon his people.
He doesn’t remain behind with
those left in Judah, but he moves into exile.
In the book of Ezekiel those
left behind are guilty. God does not stay with them;
God moves east with the righteous exiles.
Then at the end of the Book of
Ezekiel, we’re going to see a vision of a restored Temple,
this happens in Ezekiel 43, and here Ezekiel will see the
kavod returning from the east and back to the temple,
…And there, coming from the east with a
roar like the roar of mighty waters,
was the Presence of the God of Israel, and the earth was lit up
by His presence. …
The Presence of the LORD entered the temple by the gate
that faced eastward. …
…and lo, the Presence of the LORD filled the Temple.
That was 43:1-6. So just as the presence,
the Divine presence, went eastward with the exiles
so it will return with the re-establishment of Israel in
her home. What is significant here is the
idea that God is not linked to a particular place but to a
particular people. And the implication then is
that God is with His people, even when they are in exile.
So Ezekiel preached a message
of doom and judgment like his prophetic predecessors and his
contemporaries, but his condemnations tend to
emphasize the people’s idolatry and their moral impurity and
this of course makes sense of his priestly heritage.
His denunciations of Jerusalem
are among the most lurid and violent that you’ll find in the
Bible. Again, these prophesies were
likely delivered between the two deportations,
between 597 and then the final destruction and deportation in
587,586. And Ezekiel warns that
Jerusalem will fall deservedly. He says that rebellion against
Babylon would be treason against God.
He employs all kinds of very vivid metaphors to describe
Israel’s situation. Jerusalem, he says,
is Sodom’s sister except even more vile.
Jerusalem is a “vine” but a wild one or a burned one.
She produces nothing of use.
Purity language is employed
metaphorically throughout Ezekiel.
Jerusalem has been utterly defiled and there are all sorts
of images that inspire revulsion in these chapters.
So destruction is the only
possible remedy. There are metaphors of sexual
promiscuity throughout the book. God’s destruction of Israel is
figured as the abuse doled out by an insanely jealous husband
who is violent, and the images are disturbing,
they’re haunting, they’re quite nightmarish.
Ezekiel also engages in various
dramatic signs–prophetic signs or actions–to convey his
message. It’s something that we’ve seen
in some of the other prophets, but his are so bizarre and so
extreme sometimes, that he was accused of
insanity. He cooks his food over a fire
of human excrement as a symbol of the fact that those besieged
by Nebuchadnezzar will be forced to eat unclean food.
He doesn’t mourn when his wife
dies in order to illustrate the fact that Yahweh will not mourn
the loss of His temple. He binds himself in ropes;
he lies on his left side 390 days to symbolize the 390 years
of exile of Israel, and then he lies on his right
side for 40 days to symbolize the length of Judah’s captivity,
which he says will be 40years. Neither of these terms of
captivity turn out to be correct.
Finally, he shaves his beard and his hair and he burns a
third of it, he strikes a third of it with his sword,
and he scatters a third of it to the winds.
He just keeps a few hairs bound up in his robe.
This is to symbolize the destruction of a third of the
people by pestilence and famine, a third of the people by
violence, and the exile of a third to Babylon;
only a few will God allow to escape.
Ezekiel makes it clear that those who ignore the warnings
are doomed. Those who heed will be spared,
and in this, he sounds the theme of
individual responsibility that is so characteristic of Ezekiel.
I want you to listen to the
following passage and compare it to, or think about,
other verses or terms in the Torah that you’ve studied that
may relate to the same topic. How is he modifying those
earlier ideas? This is all from chapter 18,
various verses throughout: The word of the Lord came
to me: What do you mean by quoting this proverb upon the
soil of Israel, “Parents eat sour grapes and
their children’s teeth are blunted”?
As I live–declares the Lord GOD–this proverb shall no
longer be current among you in Israel.
Consider, all lives are Mine; the life of the parent and the
life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins,
only he shall die. …
A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt,
nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt;
the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to
him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be account to
him alone. Moreover, if the wicked one
repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws
and does what is just and right, he shall live;
he shall not die. …
Is it My desire that a wicked person shall die?–says the Lord
GOD. It is rather that he shall turn
back from his ways and live. So, too, if a righteous person
turns away from his righteousness and does wrong,
practicing the very abominations that the wicked
person practiced, shall he live?
None of the righteous deeds that he did shall be remembered;
because of the treachery he has practiced and the sins he has
committed–because of these, he shall die.
… Be assured, O House of Israel,
I will judge each one of you according to his ways –declares
the LORD GOD. Repent and turn back from all
your transgressions; let them not be a stumbling
block of guilt for you. Cast away all the
transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a
new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die,
O House of Israel. For it is not My desire that
anyone shall die–declares the Lord GOD.
Repent, therefore, and live!”
It’s an important Torah idea that Ezekiel is rejecting or
contradicting here. And that’s the Torah principle
of collective or even intergenerational punishment.
It’s found most famously in the
Second Commandment, the declaration that God
punishes children for the sins of their fathers unto the fourth
generation. Now, we need to note that we’re
talking about divine justice here and not human justice.
As we saw in our study of
biblical law in the sphere of human justice,
only the guilty are punished in Israelite law.
You don’t have literal punishment.
Someone kills someone’s son, then their son is put to
death–that idea is rejected in biblical law.
But God operates according to a
different principle–the principle of collective
responsibility. And that principle is
understood in the early sources quite positively.
That the sins of the father’s
are visited upon the children is an expression of God’s mercy.
Exodus 34:6 and 7 describe God
as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in
steadfast love and faithfulness and thus tolerating sin,
though not completely clearing the guilty.
As a mercy he spreads out the punishment over three or four
generations. So this notion is tied up with
the aspect of God’s mercy. But evidently there are some
who found this idea unjust and other biblical passages try to
bring a different sense of justice to this picture,
and they emphasize that the third and fourth generations
themselves must be wicked. That seems to be the case in
Exodus 20:5. The Book of Chronicles,
which is a rewrite of the historical material,
the historical narrative in the Book of Kings,
rewrites that material in a manner that never explains a
catastrophe on the basis of guilt incurred by someone other
than the one experiencing the catastrophe.
In other words, it rejects the Deuteronomistic
historian’s device of delayed punishment which you’ll remember
we discussed. It changes the narrative
account so that no one suffers for a crime committed by someone
else. It isn’t the sin of an earlier
generation that’s finally visited upon a grandson or a
king of a later generation. So it seems that after 586,
or certainly in Ezekiel’s case, some accepted the idea that the
nation was suffering because of the accumulated guilt of
previous generations, notably the Deuteronomist.
But for others like Ezekiel,
the idea of accumulated guilt and intergenerational punishment
seemed to lose some of its explanatory power,
perhaps because the destruction and the exile seemed
devastatingly severe punishments that didn’t fit the individual
crimes. So Ezekiel is one who rejects
the doctrine of collective responsibility in the operation
of divine justice. In chapter 18,
he responds to the idea of suffering for the sins of one’s
ancestors by declaring that God isn’t going to work that way
anymore. God will no longer punish
people collectively. Each one will be judged
individually. Only the sinner will be
punished–and that’s a major departure from Exodus 34 and
even from the contemporaneous Deuteronomistic view.
At this point,
I think, we would do well to remind ourselves of the nature
of the biblical text. In the opening lecture,
I asked you to set aside certain presuppositions about
the biblical text. One of them is that it is a
uniform or unified text with a single doctrine or theology.
I asked you to remember that
the Bible isn’t a book; it’s a library.
It’s a library of works that originate in vastly differently
historical periods, vastly different historical
situations. It responds to a variety of
shifting needs and events, and reflects a range of
perceptions about God and his relation to creation and to
Israel. It isn’t a book of theology,
that is to say, rational argumentation in
support of certain doctrines about God.
And it most certainly doesn’t speak with a single voice on
points of theology or matters that are of traditional concern
to the discipline of theology. Doctrine isn’t its concern.
Understanding and making sense
of the historical odyssey of the nation of Israel in covenant
with God–that is its concern. So we’re going to find many
different interpretations of the meaning of that history,
the nature of that God, and the meaning of that
covenant. And certainly there are some
basic points of agreement, but even some of the most basic
points of agreement do not pass without some contestation.
So for example,
the basic point that humans are free moral agents.
This seems to be clearly
assumed throughout most of the books of this little library.
But there are some isolated
episodes that would appear to contradict even that most basic
assumption. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
God seals the people’s ears
sometimes so that they will not hear the message of the
prophets, or will not understand them until a later day.
To be sure, there are only a
few of these contradictory passages, but they do exist.
And so here we find also a
major shift in the exilic period, away from the tendency
to see divine justice working through collective or
intergenerational punishment to the idea of the individual’s
culpability before God. I shouldn’t say a shift away;
we see arising a dialectic. This isn’t a linear progression.
These are different ideas
coming out at different times and receiving emphasis at
different times. But this kind of polyphony
didn’t impinge upon the authority of the Hebrew Bible
for the nation of Israel, because the Bible’s authority
doesn’t arise from some supposed consistency or univocality.
That’s a modern notion and it’s
based on Hellenistic ideals of truth as singular.
Western culture,
influenced by Greek philosophical traditions,
defines truth in monistic terms.
Only that which contains no contradiction is true and only
that which is true is authoritative.
Those notions are somewhat alien to the ancient
non-Hellenized world. The Bible doesn’t strive to
present philosophical truth. It presents the best efforts of
sages and prophets, and scribes and visionaries,
to respond to and to explain the crises of the nation over a
period of centuries. And its authority derives from
the explanatory power of its insights into and understanding
of God’s governance of the world and his plans for Israel.
So those insights and those
understandings may shift, and even stand in contradiction
with one another, but they are not mutually
exclusive and their contradictions don’t affect
their authority, their ability to explain,
to console–their ability to nourish the faith of a people
convinced that God would never desert them no matter how
difficult it may be to understand his interactions with
them. Back to Ezekiel now;
and in chapter 33 we learn that a fugitive from Jerusalem brings
news of the fall of Jerusalem. So it’s about 587,586;
and when he hears this, Ezekiel exchanges his message
of doom for a message of hope. Before the fall of the city,
his task had been to shatter the people’s illusions.
He wanted to shake them out of
their complacency, but now the people are reduced
to despair and remorse, and his task is to offer
reassurance and hope. God is going to initiate a new
beginning. Though Israel’s punishment was
deserved, it was not, according to Ezekiel,
a sign of the end of the relationship between Yahweh and
his people, and a new Israel would rise
from the remnant of Judah and Israel.
He expresses this restoration by means of many metaphors and
visions. So chapter 34 condemns the
shepherds. This is a very common Ancient
Near Eastern metaphor for the leadership of a people;
a king is always a shepherd and so on.
So chapter 34 condemns the shepherds of the people and
promises to set up in the future one shepherd of the House of
David to be prince among the people.
Chapter 36 uses metaphors of purity and cleansing.
Israel will be cleansed from
the impurities of the past. She’ll be given a new covenant
of the heart. This is in verses 24 and 25 in
chapter 36. I will take you from
among the nations and gather you from all the countries and I
will bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you [pure water upon you],
and you shall be clean: [Pure.]
I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all
your fetishes. And I will give you a new heart
and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of
stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;
and I will put My spirit into you.
Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to
observe My rules. [There are echoes here of
Jeremiah also.] Then you shall dwell in the
land which I gave to your fathers,
and you shall be my people and I will be your God.
So we have again this almost utopian redesign of human nature
that we heard in Jeremiah. One in which the problems that
are associated with the exercise of free will may be obviated.
Another metaphor that’s used
for the restoration of a new Israel out of the remnant of the
old, is the metaphor of revival from
death and this is found in chapter 37–a very,
very famous passage: Ezekiel’s vision of the valley
of dry bones: The hand of the Lord came
upon me. He took me out by the spirit of
the LORD and set me down in the valley.
It was full of bones. He led me all around them;
there were very many of them spread over the valley,
and they were very dry. He said to me,
“O mortal, can these bones live again?”
I replied, “O Lord GOD, only you know.”
[Very diplomatic answer.] And He said to me,
“Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones,
hear the word of the LORD! Thus said the Lord GOD to these
bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live
again. I will lay sinews upon you,
and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you.
And I will put breath into you,
and you shall live again, and you shall know that I am
the LORD!” I prophesied as I had been
commanded. And while I was prophesying,
suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came
together, bone to matching bone. I looked, and there were sinews
on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them.

The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood
up on their feet, a vast multitude.
And He said to me,
“O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel.
They say, ‘Our bones are dried
up, our house is gone; we are doomed.’
Prophesy, therefore, and say to them:
Thus said the LORD GOD: I am going to open your graves
and lift you out of the graves, O My people,
and bring you to the land of Israel.
You shall know, O My people,
that I am the Lord when I have opened your graves and lifted
you out of your graves. I will put my breath into you
and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your
own soil. Then you shall know that I the
LORD have spoken and have acted–declares the LORD.
In the interpretation that follows the vision,
we are told that the bones symbolize Israel now,
in this state, in exile.
In their despair they’re crying: our bones are dried up,
we’re dead, now our hope is lost.
And God promises to raise Israel from the grave,
which is a metaphor for exile, and restore her to her own land
as one people, north and south,
with one prince to rule over her.
This text has often been de-contextualized and cited as
an Old Testament or Hebrew Bible source for the doctrine of
literal resurrection after death,
as if it’s speaking about literal resurrection.
But I think in its context it’s
quite clear that it is one of many metaphors that Ezekiel uses
throughout this section for the redemption of the community from
exile, the restoration of the people
back in their own land. At the center of the restored
community that Ezekiel envisions is a new Jerusalem,
and at its center is a rebuilt temple.
And it is described in great detail in the last nine chapters
of the book. In Ezekiel’s utopian vision,
the land is equally allotted, it’s divided up and equally
allotted among all 12 tribes now, who will be brought back.
And Jerusalem lies in the
center with 12 great gates, one for each tribe,
surrounding it. This temple is the source of a
never-ending river that gushes forth from it,
a river that will make the Dead Sea flow with fresh water again.
Ezekiel sees Zadokite priests
presiding in the Temple, they are assisted by Levites
who are just menials (they are sort of demoted in his vision).
And he insists no foreigners
will be permitted entry. We’re going to see that that’s
a view that wasn’t shared by others in the post-destruction
era. While Ezekiel believed that God
would restore a purified Israel to its land under a Davidic
monarchy, and he prophesied to this
effect, he, like Jeremiah, also maintained that a
relationship with God was possible,
in the meantime–a relationship outside the chosen land.
And the Jewish diaspora
(“diaspora” refers to a community living outside of its
homeland)–the Jewish diaspora was a new thing;
it was a religious-national body of a type that had not been
seen before. You had a people remaining
loyal to their God, while in exile from their own
land (and what was believed to be that God’s land) without
worshipping him cultically, or by means of sacrifice.
Remember the only legitimate
site for an altar or for sacrifice to God is Jerusalem.
And in time,
slowly, a new worship will be fashioned;
one without sacrifice, one that consists of prayer and
confession, and fasts, and other kinds of ritual
observances. Three times a day Jews will
pray and they’ll pray in the direction of Jerusalem.
Worship in synagogues
eventually will come into being, and the importance of the
Sabbath will grow–the Sabbath as a memorial of the covenant
and the symbol of Jewish faith. And so you also find,
beginning shortly after this period, for the first time,
non-Jews are joining themselves to Yahweh, adopting this
religion of Israel out of religious conviction,
not simply because they may be residing in the land and have to
follow God’s laws. This is outside the land.
You have people choosing to opt
into this community. So again, we see that as the
history of the nation of Israel came to an end,
the history of Judaism, the “religion” Judaism,
begins. So in Ezekiel we’ve seen one
response to the national disaster and the exile:
the idea that while suffering and punishment are fully
deserved, a relationship with God remains
possible. God is with his people even in
exile. A second response to the
destruction and exile can be found in the anonymous writings
that are appended to the Book of Isaiah.
I mentioned these writings briefly.
We’ll be able to look now at what’s been called Second
Isaiah. So there are two discrete units
of material that are appended to Isaiah.
Chapters 40 to 55 are referred to as Second Isaiah,
and chapters 56 to 66 are referred to as 3 Isaiah.
And these chapters differ from
Isaiah proper, from the eighth-century
prophet, in several ways. It’s clear, first of all,
that these parts of Isaiah were written after the Exile .
Parts of Third Isaiah were
written after the Exile, all of second Isaiah,
(and Isaiah proper was clearly written in the eighth century on
into the early seventh century). Jerusalem is referred to as
destroyed. The audience that’s addressed
is living in exile. Babylon is the oppressor,
not Assyria. Assyria was the oppressor in
the time of Isaiah proper. The appended materials even
seem to know of the overthrow of the Babylonians.
That’s going to happen in about 539 when Cyrus of Persia will
conquer the Babylonians. We have passages that express
some euphoria over this, because Cyrus,
of course, authorized the Jews to return
from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.
There are also all kinds of
stylistic differences between First Isaiah and Second and
Third Isaiah. Second and Third Isaiah,
for example, have no biographical data and
First Isaiah has quite a bit. These materials also have a
different theology of history, a different understanding of
history, a different attitude towards
foreign nations and a very strong and renewed emphasis on
monotheism. These also mark it as different.
Among the scrolls that were
found in the caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea,
we have a very large and very famous Isaiah scroll,
which is now in a museum in Jerusalem.
On the scroll there is a gap after Isaiah 39,
and a new column starts with Isaiah 40.
So it seems to signal some sort of implicit recognition that
there’s a difference between these two sections.
They are not the same unit,
not the same author perhaps. So we’re going to talk right
now about Second Isaiah because this is a wholly post
destruction work. The opening or inaugural oracle
that occurs in chapter 40 is an oracle of consolation.
It’s an oracle of comfort,
and the prophet sees a straight and level highway prepared in
the wilderness for a dramatic procession of Yahweh the
shepherd who will lead his people back to Jerusalem.
It’s very, very famous–made
very famous by Handel’s Messiah actually.
So chapter 40 (taking from various verses in this chapter):
Comfort, oh comfort My people,
Says Your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her That her term of service is
over, That iniquity is expiated;
For she has received at the hand of the LORD
Double for all her sins. A voice rings out:
“Clear in the desert A road for the Lord!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God! Let every valley be raised,
Every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become
level And the ridges become a plain.
The Presence of the LORD shall
appear, And all flesh,
as one, shall behold– For the LORD Himself has
spoken.” A voice rings out: “Proclaim!”
Another asks,
“What shall I proclaim?” All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field:
… But the word of our God is
always fulfilled!” …
Behold, the Lord GOD comes in might,
… Like a shepherd He pastures His
flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms
And carries them in His bosom; Gently he drives the mother
sheep. So this highway will appear
leading the exiles straight to Jerusalem.
All of the topography will be flattened and God will lead them
as a shepherd leads the lamb. Why?
Because the word of the Lord is always fulfilled.
So what this voice is
proclaiming is a literal return from exile.
God is opening a highway, he’s leading His flock home
like a shepherd in a new exodus. And this is an idea that’s so
important that it recurs at the end of the unit as well in
chapter 55: the idea of a new exodus.
A second key theme that’s sounded at the beginning and end
of the unit again (so it happens in chapter 40 and again in
chapter 55) is this idea that the word of our God is always
fulfilled. Or in some translations,
the word of our God “stands forever.”
This idea is the essence of the Israelites’ hope during the
period of captivity and exile, and it appears in the first
oracle. It’s beautifully restated in
the last oracle, in chapter 55,
verses 10 through 12: For as the rain or snow
drops from heaven And returns not there,
But soaks the earth And makes it bring forth
vegetation, Yielding seed for sowing and
bread for eating, So is the word that issues from
my mouth: It does not come back to Me
unfulfilled, But performs what I purpose,
Achieves what I sent it to do. Yea, you shall leave in joy and
be led home secure.
Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
So the everlasting word of the Lord–it’s guaranteed
fulfillment (specifically–to bring his people home in a new
exodus)–these are ideas form an envelope or an inclusio,
that kind of literary structure where something is mentioned at
the beginning and again at the end to form an inclusio
or an envelope around the entire unit of SecondIsaiah.
We see also in Second Isaiah an
extreme monotheism. The monotheism is explicit of
course in Isaiah–implicit, I’m sorry, implicit in Isaiah,
but it becomes quite explicit in Second Isaiah.
As we’ve seen,
to come to terms with the destruction of 587 entails the
acceptance of the idea that Israel’s punishment was
deserved, and Yahweh’s control of history
means he controls not only Israel but all other nations as
well and can use them for his purpose,
including punishing Israel. There’s no power other than
Yahweh. So referring then to the rise
and fall of nations, Isaiah 41:4 states,
Who has wrought and achieved this?
He who announced the generations from the
start– I, the LORD, who was first
And will be with the last as well.
The first and the last–which is a way of saying everything,
all inclusive. There is nothing but me.
And Isaiah 44 satirizes those
nations who make and worship idols, and ridicules the folly
and stupidity of ascribing divinity to that which one has
created with one’s own hands. In Isaiah 41,
God states his case against these vain and useless idols.
He summons them to answer for
themselves, show that they are gods by announcing something
that will occur, announcing what will occur and
seeing if it comes true. Chapter 41:22-24:
Let them approach and tell us what will happen.
Tell us what has occurred,
And we will take note of it; Or announce to us what will
occur, That we may know the outcome.
Foretell what is yet to happen,
That we may know that you are gods!
Do anything, good or bad, That we may be awed and see.
Why, you are less than nothing.
Your effect is less than
nullity; One who chooses you is an
abomination. But this is only half the
picture because not only are the gods of the nations no gods,
but Yahweh is the true God of all of these other nations.
So who raised Cyrus of Persia
from the north to sweep through the Ancient Near East and
conquer the Babylonians? No one but Yahweh.
Isaiah 41:
“I have roused Him from the north, and he has come
…And He has trampled rulers like mud,
Like a potter treading clay …The things once predicted to
Zion– Behold, here they are!” [from
vv 25-29]. So in these passages,
the author of Second Isaiah is drawing the logical conclusion,
perhaps, towards which Israelite religion has tended
from its inception. Yahweh, once a Canaanite deity,
then the God of Israel’s patriarchs, then the national
God of Israel, is here the Lord of universal
history. The only real God,
Second Isaiah is claiming, is the God of Israel.
Second Isaiah is also quite
well known for the Servant Songs that it contains,
the famous servant songs. These occur scattered in
chapter 42, chapter 49, chapter 50, and then most
extensively 52:13 to 53:12, so much of 52 and 53.
The identity of this
servant–I’ll read some of these passages in a minute,
but it refers to this servant, God’s servant,
and the identity of the servant has been a puzzle to biblical
interpreters for centuries. Sometimes the servant is
referred to as a collective figure, sometimes the servant is
referred to as an individual figure.
In chapter 49 the servant is referred to or described as a
prophet with a universal message rather than a message for the
Israelites alone, but then there’s some ambiguity
here. The servant is first
identified, or the prophet–the servant or prophet–is first
identified as Israel herself. So in chapter 49:1-3:
…The Lord appointed me before I was born,
He named me while I was in my mother’s womb.
He made my mouth like a sharpened blade,
He hid me in the shadow of His hand,
And He made me like a polished arrow;
He concealed me in His quiver And He said to me,
“You are My servant, Israel in whom I glory.”
Yet, in verse 5 it would seem that this prophet/servant has a
mission to Israel to bring her back to Yahweh,
and that would imply that the servant or prophet is not
Israel. Verse 5:
And now the LORD has resolved–
He who formed me in the womb to be His
servant– To bring back Jacob to Himself,
That Israel may be restored to Him.
For He has said: “It is too little that you
should be My servant In that I raise up the tribes
of Jacob And restore the survivors of
Israel: I will also make you a light of
nations, That My salvation may reach the
ends of the earth.” Chapter 50 quite famously
refers to the servant as rebellious and as persecuted.
Verse 6:
I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hide my face From insult and spittle.
But it’s the famous and difficult passage in Isaiah 53
that most movingly describes the suffering and sorrow of God’s
servant. 53:3-11:
…He was despised, we held him of no account.
Yet it was our sickness that he
was bearing, Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God But he was wounded because of
our sins, Crushed because of our
iniquities. He bore the chastisement that
made us whole, And by his bruises we were
healed. We all went astray like sheep,
Each going his own way; And the LORD visited upon him
The guilt of all of us.” He was maltreated,
yet he was submissive, He did not open his mouth;
Like a sheep being led to slaughter,
Like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her,
He did not open his mouth. …
And his grave was set among the wicked,
And with the rich, in his death–
Though he had done no injustice And had spoken no falsehood.
But the LORD chose to crush him
by disease, That, if he made himself an
offering for guilt, He might see offspring and have
long life, And that through him the LORD’s
purpose might prosper. There have been many attempts
to equate this man of sorrows with all kinds of figures.
Early on, Jesus’ followers saw
Jesus as the suffering servant of God in Isaiah.
The New Testament writers
specifically borrowed passages from Isaiah, particularly this
chapter, chapter 53, when constructing
their narratives of Jesus, taking those verses and using
them in describing his story. So he is depicted as the
innocent and righteous servant who suffered for the sins of
others. In the teachings of Paul,
however, you have a different use of these verses.
Christians, generally,
are identified as the servant who suffers with and for Jesus.
Despite these later theological
interpretations, the anonymous writer of Second
Isaiah wasn’t writing about a remote Nazarean teacher and
charismatic healer who would live more than five centuries
later. Examined in its original
context, it appears most likely that the servant is Israel
herself described metaphorically as an individual whose present
suffering and humiliation is due to the sins of other nations,
but whose future restoration and exultation will cause
astonishment among those nations who will then be humbled to
Yahweh. But there are problems with
even this interpretation and you should be aware of that.
This has never been solved
satisfactorily. The main problem with
interpreting Israel as the servant is the verse that
describes the servant as having a mission to Israel.
It seems a little odd to say
that Israel bears a mission to Israel.
But this problem can be solved, if we remember that Israel was
often divided in prophetic rhetoric.
So perhaps the writer envisions a mission of one part,
the righteous part, to the other,
the part that has gone astray. Leaving aside this difficulty,
the more prominent motif in the servant song of Isaiah is that
the servant has a mission to the world.
That’s the more prominent motif, and that is a role that
would suit Israel quite well. Furthermore,
you have the phrase, “Israel, My servant,” appearing
in Second Isaiah about eight times.
So the idea of Israel as God’s servant to the nations is
clearly a part of Isaiah’s conceptual world,
and since we’re dealing with poetry rather than a rigorously
consistent metaphysical treatise,
it shouldn’t be too surprising that sometimes the servant is
spoken of as a group collectively,
sometimes as an individual. The same holds true of Israel
in general, by the way, throughout much of the
literature. Sometimes Israel is spoken of
in plural terms and sometimes as a single individual.
So in its original context it’s
likely that the servant refers to Israel herself.
If the servant is Israel,
then we can see how Second Isaiah is another response to
the events of 587. And it’s ultimately a positive
interpretation, a positive response.
The punishment that Israel
suffered even if excessive (remember Isaiah 40 claims that
Israel has suffered double for her sins,
so it’s been an excessive punishment)–that punishment
isn’t meaningless. It will lead to redemption.
Israel will be healed by her
wounds. God’s word will not be returned
unfulfilled. In addition,
suffering leads to a new role for Israel among the nations.
Second Isaiah expresses a new
self-awareness that is taking hold in the exile.
Israel saw itself as the
faithful servant of Yahweh, a servant whose loyalty to God
in this dark time would serve to broadcast the knowledge of God
throughout the nations. So Israel was chosen from the
womb to serve God’s universal purpose.
Israel suffered unobserved by others, but eventually this
would make possible the recognition of God by those
others. Where once God covenanted with
David to lead his people, Israel, he now covenants with
Israel to lead the nations of the world in God’s way.
It’s an expansion of God’s
purpose, and this is an idea that appears in Isaiah 55:3-5:
Incline your ear and come to Me;
Harken, and you shall be revived.
And I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
The enduring loyalty promised to David.
[The covenant and loyalty that was promised to David I’m now
transferring to you.] As I made him a leader of
peoples, A prince and commander of
peoples, So you shall summon a nation
who you did not know, And a nation that did not know
you, Shall come running to you–
For the sake of the LORD your God,
The Holy One of Israel who has glorified you.
So God makes an eternal covenant with Israel,
like that he once concluded with David.
And the function of the institutions of the old order
are transferred to the nation as a whole.
What kings and priests, and prophets did for Israel,
Israel will now do for the whole world.
As the mediator between the only God and the nations of the
world she is a light unto them, and all will ascend to her
because from her will come Torah, instruction in the divine
will and salvation. This is the idea of universal
mission that comes out of Second Isaiah.
When we come back on Wednesday, we’re going to take a look at
what I think is probably the single most profound book in the
Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job.
And again, I’ll remind you that final paper information will be
available on the Classes server tonight.
I want you to have it in time to be able to ask questions of
your TF or myself about the assignment.
It’s pretty detailed so sit and read through it carefully;
it’ll be there later tonight.

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