By April 14, 2008 Read More →

Commentary on Isaiah Chapters 13-27, Tziporah Levine, COJS.

Isaiah_Scroll (1)The Dead Sea Scrolls

Ch. 13-23- Oracles Concerning the Nations

The three major later prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—all devote considerable attention to the nations surrounding Israel, chastising them and prophesying their doom. Prophecies about the nations serve various functions in the different prophetic books.
Amos uses such prophecies as a foil, lulling the Jewish people into a false sense of complacency in order to shock them with their own guilt (Amos ch.1-2). Jeremiah’s message to the nations is found at the end of the book, after the account of the destruction of Israel. This placement suggests tacit comfort to the people- Though real comfort is impossible, Jeremiah speaks of the future destruction of Judah’s enemies, a reality that quietly hints to Judah’s return. In the book of Isaiah, the prophecies about the nations are in the center of the book, following prophecies of destruction and preceding those of comfort. The placement possibly reflects Isaiah’s sense of historical progression- The people of Israel have indeed sinned and will be punished, but their oppressors will in turn also be punished, ultimately leading to Israel’s spiritual and national revival. This cathartic view of sin, punishment, and redemption can be seen in Isaiah’s words at the conclusion of his message to the nations-

As a woman with child and about to give birth

writhes and cries out in her pain,

so were we in your presence, O LORD…

But your dead will live;

their bodies will rise.

You who dwell in the dust,

wake up and shout for joy.

Your dew is like the dew of the morning;

the earth will give birth to her dead. (26-17-19)

13-1-14-27- Oracle Concerning Babylonia

This unit of prophecy opens with a general description of a future war against Babylonia, in which Babylonia is destroyed. Considered a “Day of God”, the defeat of Babylonia is commanded by God, and carried out by the Medes, God’s messengers of demolition (13-1-22). Following upon Babylonia’s annihilation, the Nation of Israel will return to the land of Israel in strength (14-1-2). After envisioning Babylonia’s future punishment, Isaiah returns to the present, delineating the sins of Babylonia. He mocks the king for his ungrounded pride, contrasting his high visions with his shameful end (14-3-23). To further emphasize the inevitability of Babylonia’s downfall, Isaiah recalls Assyria’s destruction, stressing that just as in the case of Assyria, any kingdom attempting to conquer Israel, or any land not their own, will be brought low.

Isaiah lived at a time when Assyria represented the major superpower, with Babylonia just beginning to emerge as a significant threat. Thus, the prophecy does not relate to current historical events, but rather to the as yet distant future. The king of Babylonia’s pride (14-10-15) figures prominently in the description of his downfall, in keeping with Isaiah’s general protest against false pride.

[TV] 14-4- The last phrase of the Hebrew verse in 1QIsaa reads “How (his) assault has ceased”. In the Masoretic text we find “shavta madheva”, translated here as “How is oppression ended”. The term “madheva” is of unclear meaning. As an alternative translation to “oppression”, the term could mean “golden”, referring to Babylonia as a kingdom that plunders the wealth of its conquests.

14-28-32- Oracle Concerning the Philistines

An ambiguous prophecy, this passage seems to rebuke Philistine for rejoicing upon the King of Israel’s death, warning them that their day of downfall will yet come. The Philistines were long-time enemies of Israel, dating back to Israel’s entry into the land. Throughout the years, the Philistines engaged in many territorial wars with Israel.

[TV] 14-31- The last section in 1QIsaa reads “and there is none who metes out payment among its kinsmen”, though the translation of the final clause in 1QIsaa is unclear. The Masoretic Text reads “and there is no straggler in his ranks”.

[TV] 14-32- 1QIsaa reads “kings” (malkhei), as opposed to “messengers” (malakhei) in the Masoretic Text.

15-1-16-14- Oracle Concerning Moab

Isaiah here mockingly eulogizes Moab’s destruction, “My heart cries out over Moab” (15-5). He describes the enemy invasion (15-1-9), the refugees fleeing for shelter to Judah (16-1-5), and the devastation of Moab’s vineyards (16-6-12). The prophecy contains an addendum (16-13-14) that sets a date for the destruction. As elsewhere, Isaiah emphasizes that Moab’s ruin comes as a result of its unwarranted pride- “We have heard of Moab’s pride…Therefore the Moabites wail…” (16-6-7).

[TV] 16-8-9- Verse 8, beginning after the word “Sibmah” until the same word in verse 9, is omitted from 1QIsaa. It seems that the eye of the scribe skipped while copying. The longer text also appears in the Septuagint, with some variations.

Ch. 17-18- Oracle Concerning Damascus and Addenda

This prophecy is addressed to Damascus, the capital city of Aram in Isaiah’s time. Given Ephraim’s alliance with Aram against the superpower Assyria (see Historical Introduction, Notes to Ch. 7), the Northern Kingdom is mentioned in conjunction with Damascus’ downfall. The prophecy opens with the destruction of Aram and Ephraim (17-1-3), but subsequently moves away from Aram to concentrate on Israel’s destruction and subsequent resurgence. Isaiah describes the miniscule remnant that will remain of Israel after the destruction (v. 4-6), seeing in the destruction the seeds for Israel’s spiritual return (v. 7-8). Isaiah returns to the theme of destruction, stressing the connection between Israel’s betrayal of God and her downfall (v. 9-11). Ultimately, the prophet concludes with an image of God fighting for Israel, seeking vengeance on her enemies (v. 12-14).

In a cryptic addendum (ch. 18), Isaiah further describes the destruction of Israel’s enemies. By extension, these people are God’s enemies as well, and thus the chapter concludes with distant nations bringing gifts to God, signifying the ultimate universal acceptance of God’s dominion (v. 7).

Ch. 19-20- Oracle Concerning Egypt and Addenda

Similar to other oracles, the oracle to Egypt describes Egypt’s impending doom. Isaiah emphasizes the arrogance of Pharaoh’s advisors in presuming to know God’s intentions regarding them- “How can you say to Pharaoh ‘I am one of the wise men, a disciple of the ancient kings’?” (19-11). Here, as in previous chapters, destruction precedes spiritual return. In contrast to oracles concerning other nations, however, Isaiah describes Egypt’s future spiritual status in glowing terms. “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt…” (v.19). Egypt will become a center of the worship of God, finally acknowledging God and serving Him (v. 21). The vision culminates in the final fascinating verses-

In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. 25 The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (19-24-25)

Though the question of Israel’s superior status in the end of days remains open, these verses testify to Isaiah’s universalist approach to the nations. In the End of Days, the nations will acknowledge God, at which point they too will enjoy a close relationship with Him.

[TV] 19-18- The final phrase of 1QIsaa reads “City of the Sun”, in keeping with 4QIsaa, some Masoretic manuscripts, and several translations. The reading in the Masoretic Text varies by one letter, creating a word with multiple meanings. It can be understood in the same sense as 1QIsaa, or alternatively as “City of Destruction”. “City of the Sun” likely refers to Heliopolis, which was one of Egypt’s most prominent cities and was associated with sun worship.

Chapter 20 details Isaiah’s second documented intervention in the political sphere. By this point, Assyria, the dominant power in the region, had exiled the Northern Kingdom (722), and was continuing its policy of territorial conquest. During the years 713-711 the Philistine city of Ashdod, headed by its client-king Aziru, plotted rebellion against the Assyrian empire. Sargon II, then King of Assyria (722-705), was forced to return to the region to quell the revolt. Moreover, Egypt and Ethiopia, having expressed support for Ashdod’s rebellion, were expected targets of Assyria’s wrath. Isaiah here parades through the streets as a prisoner of war, prophesying Egyptian and Ethiopian defeat at the hands of the Assyrians. Isaiah’s vivid portrayal of the Assyrian victory was meant to dissuade Judah from further thoughts of rebellion.

21-1-10- Oracle Concerning Babylonia

As becomes evident from the end of the oracle (“Babylon has fallen” v. 9), “Desert Sea” (v. 1) is a literary reference to Babylonia. It is possible that Isaiah is referring here to the Assyrian conquest of Babylonia in 689. At that time, Hezekiah (King of Judah) was in favour of allying with Babylonia, against Assyria (see Ch. 39). Isaiah’s prophecy is thus meant to prevent Hezekiah from joining with Babylonia.

Alternatively, Isaiah may be referring to the final conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, King of Persia. According to this theory, the prophecy is actually meant to offer hope to the exiled people some generations hence, promising future relief.

21-11-17- Oracles Concerning the Arab Peoples

Of unclear intent, these oracles prophesy the downfall of desert tribes south and east of Israel. It is possible that these tribes were enemies of Israel, and thus the dire prophecies continue the direction of previous oracles, prophesying doom on all those who attempted to cause harm to Israel. Alternatively, these tribes may have also suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, thereby exemplifying the folly of rebelling against Assyria.

22-1-14- The Valley of Vision

“Valley of Vision” is the prophet’s poetical allusion to the city of Jerusalem, as evidenced from the continuation of the prophecy (see v. 9-10). After prophesying doom on all the nations surrounding Judah, the prophet focuses on Judah itself, underscoring that it is no different than any other nation when it comes to Divine retribution. The prophecy is probably alluding to Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem (Ch. 36-37), which could potentially have destroyed Judah.

Isaiah paints a vivid picture of the foretold destruction, attempting to jolt the people to repentance. The prophet opens with a lament over the transformation of the city (1-4), then describes the siege and Jerusalem’s preparations for war (5-11), and ends with God’s pronouncement of death upon the evildoers (12-14). In describing Judah’s behaviour, Isaiah clarifies the people’s sin-

The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail,

to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.

But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,

Eating of meat and drinking of wine!

“Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!” (22-12-13)

Instead of taking heed of the danger and turning to God, the people of Judah ignored the siege, continuing in their merry ways. And with this fundamental lack of faith, they sealed their own fate.

[TV] 22-5 The latter half of the verse in 1QIsaa reads “a battering down of his holiness on the mountains”. The meaning of the Masoretic Text is unclear. It could mean “a battering down of walls, and a cry for help to the mountains”. An alternative reading understands the terms as proper nouns- “Kir raged in the Valley of Vision, and Shoa on the hill”.

22-15-25- The Reprimand to Shebna

This prophecy is unique in the book of Isaiah in that it focuses on one individual. The prophet reprimands Shebna, the royal steward, for marking out his grave on a hilltop outside Jerusalem, as was the custom among the dignitaries. Isaiah informs Shebna that in fact, the steward will not merit an honourable burial, but instead will be cast from his position. Isaiah does not explain what Shebna has done to deserve this twist of fate; it is possible that Shebna was one of those people described in the preceding verses, who refused to turn to God in the face of imminent danger.

Ch. 23- Oracle Concerning Tyre

Tyre, situated on the coastline of Southern Lebanon, was the royal city of Phoenicia, a realm whose control spread over the coastal plain of Lebanon. Isaiah here mourns the downfall of the Phoenician kingdom. He specifically mentions Tyre and Sidon, two of the most prominent cities, but actually includes the entire kingdom in his elegy.

The prophecy opens by bewailing the downfall of Tyre, focusing on its shame (1-6). Isaiah then reminds the people of the Divine role in international affairs-

The LORD Almighty planned it,

to bring low the pride of all glory

and to humble all who are renowned on the earth (23-9)

The prophet does not specify the exact nature of Tyre’s sin, but rather rebukes the city in general terms- Tyre was brought low by God, in just retribution for its false pride (7-14). The destruction, however, will not be eternal- in seventy years (the classic number used to express a full life span), Tyre will be rebuilt (15-18).

[TV] The Oracle to Tyre has received particular attention in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains a number of readings that vary amongst the different scrolls, the Septuagint, and the Masoretic Text.

23-10- 1QIsaa and the Septuagint begin the verse with “cultivate”, as opposed to “traverse” in the Masoretic Text and 4QIsac.

23-15- 1QIsaa skips from “Tyre” to the same word later in the verse; presumably a scribal error.

24-27- Destruction, Salvation, and Thanksgiving

Following upon the oracles concerning the nations, Isaiah closes the unit with a combination of destruction, salvation, and thanksgiving.

Ch. 24- The Terror of Revelation

This chapter gives powerful expression to the terror and suffering that is inevitably bound up with ultimate Divine revelation. Isaiah describes a state in which society’s structures have crumbled, devastation thus affecting all equally (“it will be the same for priest as for people, for master as for servant…” v. 2). The chapter demonstrates the self-destructive nature of sin- Spiritual dissolution has given birth to physical disintegration (see v. 5-6). The chapter expresses conflicting emotions, contrasting the exaltation of the redeemed with the prophet’s own cries of pain, in anticipation of God’s judgement (v. 14, 16). In contrast to the idyllic vision of Divine revelation that one might expect, Isaiah emphasizes the high moral standard demanded of one in the presence of God. “The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed” (v. 23)- Throughout scripture God’s influence is likened to that of the sun and fire. Brighter even then the sun, God’s penetrating light will burn the wicked, while warming and nurturing the righteous.

It is unclear whether Isaiah is referring here to the entire world, or only to the land of Israel. Equally unclear is the time period referred to. The collapse of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, respectively, have all been suggested as possibilities, though the tone employed throughout this section (ch.s 24-27) hints to an eschatological era.

Ch. 25- Joyful Immanence

The day of judgement will usher in an era of clarity, in which God’s presence will be palpably felt and acknowledged. At that time, evil, represented by death, will vanish from the world (v. 8). The eradication of evil, in all its many manifestations, ushers in an era of Divine immanence. On that day people will be able to declare with joyful confidence “This is our God; we trusted in him, and He saved us” (v. 9).

Throughout the Bible man is unable to see God “No one may see Me and live” (Exodus 33-20). In contrast, in the time of salvation God will remove the shroud distancing man from God, allowing for unprecedented closeness between the Divine and mankind (v.7).

26-1-27-1- Pangs of Childbirth

Continuing the joyful tone of the previous section, this chapter contains a song of thanksgiving for God’s salvation. The nation of Israel returns triumphantly home, radiating trust in God, the “Rock eternal” (v. 4). Their God has brought low the haughty, and raised the poor (v. 5-6). The term sedeq (righteousness) appears repeatedly, in varying forms, throughout this song (v. 2, 7, 9, 10). Just as Isaiah has been prophesying throughout, the God of Israel is a righteous God, whose statutes are righteous, and who seeks to redeem a righteous people.

In keeping with the visionary tone of the book, Isaiah moves easily from thanksgiving over future salvation, to present yearning for Divine revelation and deliverance. His vision of Divine immanence (see notes to previous chapter) contrasts sharply with the present dark reality, evoking the cry-

“My soul yearns for you in the night;

in the morning my spirit longs for you” (v. 9)

The yearning is for both spiritual closeness and physical deliverance. Though many masters have ruled over the nation, the people of Israel ultimately recognize that they have only One true Master (v. 13). With this faith comes the heartfelt prayer that their suffering not be it vain. The prophet likens the tribulations of the Jewish people to the birth pangs of a woman in labour, beseeching that the long, painful travail yield fruit (17-19).

Isaiah concludes his prayer with the image of the earth giving birth to its dead, paralleling the woman in childbirth (v. 19). Jewish tradition has understood this verse literally as well as metaphorically, seeing in it a reference to the resurrection (cf. Ketubot 111a; Sanh. 90b).

After praying to God, Isaiah turns to the people, warning them to hide from God’s anger.

The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her;

She will conceal her pain no longer (26-21)

Divine retribution demands that even hidden evils be revealed and purged. The verse recalls the first murder; there God informs Cain that he has made the earth his enemy by forcing it to “open its mouth to receive your brother’s blood” (Gen. 4-11). The earth, personifying cosmic harmony, will absorb only so much iniquity before demanding purification.

The final verse of the section portrays God wreaking vengeance on the Leviathan and the sea monster, mythical creatures whose murder represents victory over evil (cf. Baba Batra 74b-75a).

[TV] 26-3 The last phrase of the verse in 1QIsaa, 1QIsab, and the Septuagint reads “because he is in you”. 4QIsac and the Masoretic Text read “because it trusts in you”.

[TV] 26-5 The meaning of the opening phrase is unclear in 1QIsaa; a possible translation is “For He has made drunk”. 1QIsab, 4QIsab, 4QIsac, and the Masoretic Text all read “For He has brought low”. In a similar vein, the text of the Septuagint is “For He has humbled and brought down”.

[TV] 26-8 The second half of the verse in 1QIsaa reads “Your name and Your law are our soul’s desire”. In 4QIsac and the Masoretic Text, “mention of You” appears instead of “Your law”.

27-2-6- The Vineyard Song (#2)

Isaiah opened his book with a vineyard song sung by an indignant vineyard keeper (see 5-1-7, and relevant notes). There, the farmer invests in his vineyard, only for it to yield sour grapes. In hurt anger, the farmer resolves to abandon his vineyard to the destructive forces of nature. The vineyard and its products represent God’s relationship with His people throughout the Bible (see notes to 5-1-7), and in this case the metaphor provides the rationale for the destruction. The second vineyard song reflects a later period, in which painful experience has brought wisdom in its wake. Now, God and His vineyard sing a duet together, affirming their mutual love and trust. Together, they form a united front to the world, battling attackers but welcoming those who come in peace. Isaiah here expresses the truth that, eventually, the people will come to live in harmony with their God.

27-7-13- Merciful Punishment

The destruction and exile is indeed painful, yet God’s enduring love for His people results in His eventual return to them. The prophet here compares Israel’s fate to that of her oppressors (v. 7). God commanded Israel’s oppressors to torment Israel only to an extent commensurate with her sins (v. 8), and accepted Israel’s repentance in lieu of punishment (v. 9). In contrast, the oppressors themselves received their full share of punishment, without mercy (10-11). Isaiah emphasizes that God does not wish to punish Israel, but rather seeks the people’s return to Him. Once they have forsworn idolatry, the way is clear for God to return His people to Jerusalem (12-13).

Posted in: Literary Prophecy

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