Notes: Toward Explaining Multiple Authorship

These are notes I am collecting for an introduction to Isaiah explaining multiple authorship to an audience who might resist the idea based on faith in the final form of the text.

The perceptive reader grasps from the first chapter that the book of Isaiah is not chronological. The first chapter refers to events at the end of Isaiah’s lifetime. This already challenges the idea that Isaiah wrote his prophecies down as they came to him in some sort of chronological order.

The next observation might be that Isaiah is never referred to after chapter 39. Furthermore, chapter 40 begins with the assumption that the exile of Judah has already happened and is about to come to an end. Since Isaiah died more than a century before the exile started, this should be a sign that someone later than Isaiah of Jerusalem is writing these words. Readers have resisted this simple logic because the “Book of Isaiah” has been presented as a unity and it is natural to assume a book has one author.

What if, in the aftermath of ruin, people found the words of an old prophet comforting and true? He spoke of ruin and promise, dark days and light to come afterward. What if new prophets, literary prophets rather than the kind who spoke in the court of kings or in the public square, took up his words and arranged, expanded, re-used, and added to his words? What if they turned a written core of material dating to the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem and turned it into a collection of truth and hope about Jerusalem and its people?

They looked back on ruination and asked why. They lived with a history of apparent failure, with the seeming collapse of a divinely ordered society. They sought faith in a future with God.

And in their post-catastrophe situation they saw answers and found comfort in the words of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Isaiah ben Amoz, a prophet from before the catastrophe. Survivors and exiles and then after them returnees and survivors who had stayed in Jerusalem received words based on and related to what had come long before from the mouth and hand of Isaiah of Jerusalem. This whole collection was “Isaiah.”

. . . [this is a stub; I will add to it] . . .

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Notes on Jacob Stromberg, Isaiah After Exile, ch. 1

This post will likely grow as I work on it a little at a time. It is mostly a post for myself to organize some of the most cogent points from Stromberg’s monograph (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Stromberg presents positive evidence for a view that the earliest part of Third Isaiah is chapters 60-62 and the latest part is Isaiah 56:1-8 and chapters 65-66. Third Isaiah is a common designation for the book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66 (also called Trito-Isaiah). So the theory is that someone wrote Isaiah 60-62 sometime after the exile (during the Persian period), and the rest of Third Isaiah grew from it (same author? different author?) with the final touch being 56:1-8 and chapters 65-66, which form a frame around the rest (Isa 56:9 – 64:11).

We could label these two key parts of Third Isaiah as follows:

  • Early-TI = Isaiah 60-62
  • Late-TI = Isaiah 56:1-8; 65:1 – 66:24

Evidence that Early-TI is distinct within the larger text of Third Isaiah.

Isaiah 60-62 has a message that is distinct from the rest of Third Isaiah, especially from 56-59 and 65-66. In general, Isaiah 60-62 is completely positive toward Jerusalem and makes blanket promises. The nations serve Jerusalem and are definitely shown as inferior, humbled, and defeated prior to acknowledging Jerusalem and God. But this positive message is distinct from the qualifications and restrictions on promises in the rest of Third Isaiah as well as some more positive passages about the nations and some less than flattering depictions of Jerusalem’s residents.

Things that differ in the whole of TI from Early-TI include (Stromberg cites Emmerson, Grace, Isaiah 56-66, Old Testament Guides, Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1992):

  • Indictment of Jerusalem’s leaders (56:9-12).
  • References to worship of foreign gods and foreign methods of worship such as gardens (57:1-13; 65:1-7).
  • The charge that the people observe ritual without practicing social justice (ch. 58).
  • Hostile factions in Jerusalem (65:8-16; 66:5), as opposed to the united view of the holy city in chs. 60-62.

Stromberg adds to these stylistic differences:

  • Early-TI never uses the formulas for divine speech as opposed to frequent divine speech formulas in 56-59 and 65-66. This suggests a different author for the rest of TI from Early-TI.
  • Yet the rest of TI presupposes Early-TI, seeming to be a more complex reworking of Early-TI. Presumably the simpler (Early-TI) is earlier than the complex (the rest of TI).
  • The unconditional promise in Early-TI that the time of darkness will change into glory and light is qualified in the rest of TI. It depends on the people’s change of heart about social justice (58) and many reasons are given why the promise of Early-TI has not yet happened (59).

Furthermore, many similarities exist between Early-TI and Second Isaiah (Isa 40-55). This fits with the theory that Early-TI is soon after Second Isaiah and is consciously building on the promises found in it.

Things that bind 56:1-8 and 65:1 – 66:24 together.

56:1-8 was written to follow Isa 55.

65:1 – 66:24 was written to follow 63:7 – 64:11.

66:1-2 is not anti-Temple, but opposes the syncretizers who want to build it.

Late-TI modifies and adds complexity to Early-TI

Second Isaiah and the Gods of Babylon

He is a proponent of the incomparability of God and the nothingness of alternative deities. He is a fierce advocate, a committed dreamer who brooks no rivals for the dream of Adonai bringing water in the desert. New things are coming, greater than the former things. Adonai will give power to the faint, revive the hopeless, rising upon Zion like the dawn.

Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary) notes some arguments directed specifically against the gods of Babylon in Second Isaiah.

“Before me no god was formed,” (43:10).

“Who created these [stars]? He who brings out their host by number…” (40:26).

“Whom did he consult, and who made him understand?” (40:14).

“I made the earth and created man on it,” (45:12).

“… who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns,'” (52:7).

“There is none besides me; I am Adonai, and there is no other,” (45:6).

These kinds of statements take on a number of beliefs the people in Babylon hold to, including many Jews in exile who feel their former faith in Adonai is defeated. Jerusalem is destroyed. Babylon has conquered Judah. Seemingly Marduk has conquered Adonai.

Shalom Paul notes that in the Enuma Elish (a Mesopotamian tale, in I:83ff) Marduk is born. Yet Second Isaiah speaks for Adonai, “Before me no god was formed,” (43:10).

Marduk supposedly created the heavenly host (stars, Enuma Elish V:1ff). Thus Second Isaiah’s words: “Who created these [stars]? He who brings out their host by number…” (40:26).

In Babylon the gods had personal advisers just as human kings do (Enuma Elish I:47ff). But of Adonai we read: “Whom did he consult, and who made him understand?” (40:14).

Enuma Elish says Marduk made the heavens and earth (IV:136ff). Yet says Adonai in Second Isaiah, “I made the earth and created man on it,” (45:12).

Marduk is Babylon’s king. Repeatedly Second Isaiah refers to Adonai as Jerusalem’s king and “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news . . . who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns,'” (52:7).

Marduk is thought to be incomparable, the victor among the gods (VI:95ff). Second Isaiah won’t allow that idea to go uncontested: “There is none besides me; I am Adonai, and there is no other,” (45:6).

Quick Thoughts: Purpose and Isaiah

A friend asked me to quickly summarize the purpose of Isaiah. I am sitting outside a cafe jotting down some quick thoughts. I don’t think I’m ready to summarize Third Isaiah quite yet, but here are my thoughts on First and Second Isaiah.

First Isaiah (chs 1-39). The purpose is to warn the people and leadership that violence, greed, and oppression in the society God loves with a passion is bringing down judgment, which will come in the form of Assyria. The message is of a king in heaven frustrated with the failure of people, especially leaders, to do what is good. Human evil is ruining God’s project in Judah. They are like his vineyard, but they give only sour grapes. In the future, God’s ideals will triumph, but a dark time is coming first and it will come to the brink of Jerusalem’s ruin.

Second Isaiah (chs 40-55). The purpose is to encourage a beaten down Judah in exile, call the people back to Jerusalem from Babylon, break the hold that politics and the religion of idolatry have over the people, convince them of the incomparability of Adonai, and gently lead them back to Zion. The prophet stands in the tradition of Isaiah, perhaps because Isaiah had so accurately predicted the Assyrian destruction and the exiles saw their condition mirrored in what happened back in Isaiah’s day. But the hope Isaiah had forecast was very much desirable now for this depressed people in need of light and hope.

Isaiah 40:18-25 Hebrew, English, and Commentary

Israel’s God is incomparable. Statues and political personalities are nothings beside him. Vss. 18-25 are bracketed by the nearly identical question: “to whom will you compare God/me?” At issue is the nature of deity and the hope or hopelessness of the people. Will sculptures used as communication devices with gods bring about good? Will idols bring the people of Judah better hope than the God of their fathers?

Isaiah 40:18
וְאֶל־מִי תְּדַמְּיוּן אֵל
וּמַה־דְּמוּת תַּעַרְכוּ לוֹ׃
To whom will you compare God?
What image will you set beside him?

Isaiah 40:19
הַפֶּסֶל נָסַךְ חָרָשׁ
וְצֹרֵף בַּזָּהָב יְרַקְּעֶנּוּ
וּרְתֻקוֹת כֶּסֶף צוֹרֵף׃
The idol, a craftsman pours it out,
a smith hammers it out in gold,
[its] chains of refined silver.

Isaiah 40:20
הַמְסֻכָּן תְּרוּמָה
עֵץ לֹא־יִרְקַב יִבְחָר
חָרָשׁ חָכָם יְבַקֶּשׁ־לוֹ
לְהָכִין פֶּסֶל לֹא יִמּוֹט׃
The mulberry is a gift,
he selects wood that will not rot,
he searches for a skilled artisan
to set up an idol that will not topple.

Isaiah 40:21
הֲלוֹא תֵדְעוּ הֲלוֹא תִשְׁמָעוּ
הֲלוֹא הֻגַּד מֵרֹאשׁ לָכֶם
הֲלוֹא הֲבִינֹתֶם מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ׃
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
Weren’t you told from the beginning?
Haven’t you discerned the foundations of the earth?

Isaiah 40:22
הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל־חוּג הָאָרֶץ
וְיֹשְׁבֶיהָ כַּחֲגָבִים
הַנּוֹטֶה כַדֹּק שָׁמַיִם
וַיִּמְתָּחֵם כָּאֹהֶל לָשָׁבֶת׃
He who sits above the circle of the earth,
its inhabitants are as locusts,
he stretches out the heavens like a veil,
he spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.

Isaiah 40:23
הַנּוֹתֵן רוֹזְנִים לְאָיִן
שֹׁפְטֵי אֶרֶץ כַּתֹּהוּ עָשָׂה׃
He designates princes as nothing
and makes the rulers of the earth as waste.

Isaiah 40:24
אַף בַּל־נִטָּעוּ אַף בַּל־זֹרָעוּ
אַף בַּל־שֹׁרֵשׁ בָּאָרֶץ גִּזְעָם
וְגַם־נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ
וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם׃
Barely are they planted, barely are they sown,
barely have their stems taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them and they wither
and the storm carries them away like stubble.

Isaiah 40:25
וְאֶל־מִי תְדַמְּיוּנִי
וְאֶשְׁוֶה יֹאמַר קָדוֹשׁ׃
“To whom will you compare me?
Who do I resemble?” says the Holy One.

A few translation notes:

Vs. 18, תְּדַמְּיוּן. From דמה and related to the noun דמות, “likeness.”

Vs. 18, תַּעַרְכוּ. From ערך, “lay out, arrange.”

Vs. 19b, alt. translation “refining the gold and hammering it out.”

Vs. 19c seems to be missing something, a verb or pronoun. If a pronoun were present 19bc could be “a smith hammers it out in gold, its chains of refined silver.” I have supplied the pronoun in brackets to smooth the translation.

Vs. 20, הַמְסֻכָּן, is a word of debatable origin. Many translations relate it to a root meaning “to be poor.” The word is used only once in the Bible. However, in Akkadian texts there is a wood (mulberry) used for decorations on buildings (Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary).

Vs. 20, תְּרוּמָה, usually means a gift or freewill offering. It’s use here is difficult to understand. Many suggestions have been made to alter the text and interpret this is as something more suited to the context. One conjecture is that this wood comes from a fallen branch which seems like a “gift” from the gods to the person who decides to have an idol made from it.

Vs. 22, and in general this section, uses obscure words such as דֹּק and the root אתח (in the word וַיִּמְתָּחֵם), both of which are hapax legomena (words used only once in the Bible).

Commentary:

Idols were not replacements or stand-ins for deities in the minds of worshippers, but objects through which power could be focused. It is also quite possible that sophisticated worshippers saw them as nothing more than objects on which to focus their prayer to the true deities hidden in the higher realms. Nonetheless, even in the most sophisticated understanding, idols and images of any kind bring deity down, implying that the Divine is like its creatures, a being limited in time and space.

In contrast to the care needed to make an idol that is a durable image, the prophet draws the reader to look to something much older and more enduring, even to the foundations of the world. Transitory objects are inferior substitutes. Setting a mulberry statue beside a manifestation of God’s presence is an unthinkable scene.

Israel’s God is incomparable. Statues and political personalities are nothings beside him. The reigns of kings are so short to him they are as nothing compared to his eternal reign. The machinations of war and power are meaningless next to his timeless plan.

The deities of Babylon seem powerful since Babylon has conquered. But they are in reality lesser beings. In the ancient world view, gods were not ultimate beings. They had power over nature and the human and animal realms. Yet above them was a force, a higher energy which we might call magic. Skilled human diviners and workers of incantations could exert power against even the gods. They were not above the cosmos, but powerful beings within it.

As for God, as Job says, “In His hand is every living soul and the breath of all mankind” (12:10, JPS). The prophet calls his people in exile in Babylon to see that the calamity that has happened to Israel and Judah does not eliminate hope. If God says he will do something new in creation, then it will happen. Assurance is based on his incomparability, which is something much more worthy of faith than fetishes and kings.

Isaiah 40:12-17 Hebrew, English, and Commentary

This is creation language like the Wisdom literature (Psalm 8; Job 38; etc.) more so than the Torah (Genesis 1-3). References to creation in the wisdom literature are generally architectural (setting up pillars, measuring, sinking bases, etc.). So in Isaiah 40:12 there are four verbs of measurement (מדד, תכן, כל, שׁקל) looking at creation in terms of a divine building project. Commentators note that myths of Marduk measuring the waters lie behind this hymn to the incomparability of Hashem (see Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. Pritchard, 332, 389).

Second Isaiah argues that Israel’s God is the only true deity and that the future of Jerusalem is in his hands alone. He seeks to persuade the people during Jerusalem’s ruin to believe in God’s power. Hashem is of an entirely different order from the nature-sovereigns worshipped in Babylon. They are described in myth as builders who made the earth like a city or fortress, but he is above all things and to him the lands of earth are infinitely small.

Isaiah 40:12
מִי־מָדַד בְּשָׁעֳלוֹ מַיִם
וְשָׁמַיִם בַּזֶּרֶת תִּכֵּן
וְכָל בַּשָּׁלִשׁ עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ
וְשָׁקַל בַּפֶּלֶס הָרִים וּגְבָעוֹת בְּמֹאזְנָיִם׃
Who has measured out the waters in the hollow of his hand?
Determined the breadth of the heavens by the span of his hand?
Laid hold of the dust of the earth with a third-measure?
Weighed out with a pointer the mountains, with a scale the hills?

Isaiah 40:13
מִי־תִכֵּן אֶת־רוּחַ יְהוָה
וְאִישׁ עֲצָתוֹ יוֹדִיעֶנּוּ׃
Who has determined the measure of Hashem’s spirit?
What man informs him concerning his plan?

Isaiah 40:14
אֶת־מִי נוֹעָץ
וַיְבִינֵהוּ
וַיְלַמְּדֵהוּ בְּאֹרַח מִשְׁפָּט
וַיְלַמְּדֵהוּ דַעַת
וְדֶרֶךְ תְּבוּנוֹת יוֹדִיעֶנּוּ׃
From whom does he take counsel?
Who makes him understand?
Who instructs him in the path of justice?
Who teaches him knowledge,
And the way of understanding, who makes it known to him?

Isaiah 40:15
הֵן גּוֹיִם כְּמַר מִדְּלִי
וּכְשַׁחַק מֹאזְנַיִם נֶחְשָׁבוּ
הֵן אִיִּים כַּדַּק יִטּוֹל׃
Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket,
like dust of the scales they are reckoned.
Behold, the coastlands he weighs as a speck.

Isaiah 40:16
וּלְבָנוֹן אֵין דֵּי בָּעֵר
וְחַיָּתוֹ אֵין דֵּי עוֹלָה׃
And Lebanon is not enough to maintain a fire;
Its animals are not enough for a burnt offering.

Isaiah 40:17
כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ
מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ־לוֹ׃
All the nations are as nothing before him,
as naught and void they are reckoned to him.

A few translation notes:

In vs. 12, כָל is not the common word meaning “all, every,” but a word relating to measurement. Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary) notes that the term shows up in the Gezer Calendar (a tablet found in Israel from about 950 BCE). I have translated it here “laid hold of.”

Vs. 13, עֲצָתוֹ is from יעץ and is related to the term יוֹעֵץ found in Isaiah 9:5 (פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ, “wonderful counselor”). An עֵצָה is advice or a plan or scheme. The word is used again in vs. 14, with נוֹעָץ.

Vs. 14, נוֹעָץ, is a Niphal, “allow oneself to be advised.” It is passive and the point is that God is not passive in creation and requires no counsel. The wisdom of creation emanates from him and is not above him in any way. There is no higher plan or reality than God.

Vs. 17, מֵאֶפֶס makes better sense as כאפס. If we retain the Masoretic text’s מprefix the translation would be “from naught and void” or “made from naught and void.” Shalom Paul’s translation is catchy: “They are accounted as nil and naught” (Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary).

Commentary:

In Babylonian myth, Marduk was the king over the building project of creation, measuring and building (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed.Pritchard, 332, 289). Who has really done this, asks Second Isaiah? Only one and his name is Hashem.

Yet if the view of Hashem as a deity comparable to Marduk seems limiting, the next verse sets the record straight: he is more than a builder-deity. His spirit is immeasurable. Only Hashem can gauge the depth and breadth of the spirits of all living things (Prov 16:2). No one can measure Hashem’s spirit.

Furthermore, in vs. 14, Hashem does not require counsel. The wisdom of creation emanates from him and it is the highest reality. Wisdom is not something above God from which he draws intelligence. Knowledge has its origin in God and nothing is higher than him.

The events in the Near East during the period of Jerusalem’s ruin (586 – 516 BCE) made it seem as if empires and nations were all-important. Faith in Hashem relativizes the magnitude of political events and powers. Nations are as nothing compared to God. The prophet emphasizes a scale for divine majesty that exceeds the usual imagining. Lebanon is famous for its forest and wildlife, yet all the famed cedars there would not make a fire large enough for God to take notice and all its wildlife would not even be a sufficient burnt offering. The nothingness of the nations is hyperbole intended to express the incomparability of God. The fall of Jerusalem, the reign of powers like Babylon, these tragedies and injustices on the earth are overshadowed by the peerless majesty of the Greater-Than-Whom-None-Exists.

John Goldingay on Voices in Isaiah

New International Biblical Commentary, by John Goldingay, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001.

The Nerd understands many of his readers are not ready to accept the idea of multiple authorship in the book of Isaiah. Many of his readers are from a certain background where Jewish and Christian tradition has assumed single authorship and even turned it into a matter of faith. The Nerd asks, “Faith in what?” The book of Isaiah does not say it was all written by one man. In fact, it begins clearly in the voice of someone else: “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz.” And Isaiah is not mentioned after chapter 39.

But there seem to be multiple voices in Isaiah. One voice introduces the book and speaks of Isaiah in the third person. Another voice seems to come directly from the prophet who saw Adonai seated on a throne, who challenged Ahaz, who named his son “the remnant returns,” and who saw horrific events coming but also glimpsed better days. Then there is a voice during the exile, calling streams from the desert, taunting the makers of idols and those who put trust in them, and saying new things are coming that will make us forget the old things. Finally there is a somewhat shrill voice, welcoming to foreigners, promising light for Jerusalem, but foretelling terrors for those who worship in secret gardens and keep marring the Jewish people’s bright future.

Goldingay sees these four voices in Isaiah and thinks of them possibly as four separate author-editors (or even more than four). The Nerd differs slightly from Goldingay, and is open to them being two or three author-editors. Still the presence of the voices is hard to deny when you read the book of Isaiah without dogma, but only a willingness to see what is on the pages.

The first voice we hear is one Goldingay calls the Disciple. He speaks about Isaiah in the third person (1:1; 37:2; 38:1). Isaiah has limmudim (disciples) in 8:16, so perhaps this is one of them. There is a longstanding theory that the book of Isaiah went through an edit and expansion in the days of King Josiah (641-609 BCE, more than fifty years after Isaiah). And Goldingay thinks the prose sections are from the Disciple (or circle of disciples) while the poetic sections are from Isaiah.

The second voice is Isaiah himself, who is known in Goldingay’s introduction as the Ambassador. Goldingay says:

In chapter 6 he tells us of that vision that led him to volunteer to serve Yahweh. His voice speaks again in chapter 8. Here he tells of naming his son in such a way that he will embody his father’s message of receiving Yahweh’s warning that he should distance himself from his people’s paralyzing fear that is causing them to walk the wrong way, and of his duly turning his back on the people.

Isaiah speaks as one sent and is, therefore, an ambassador of the heavenly King. The words are Isaiah’s retelling of the message he heard from Hashem. So they are personal to Isaiah, in his own words, but they are constrained by what he has seen and heard from above. They are his and his words, Isaiah’s and God’s.

The third voice is on Goldingay calls the Poet. He is often known as Second Isaiah. He speaks during the exile to people who feel beaten down by a history of failure and verdict from heaven of guilt. They are a defeated people, a failed people, only they are not really and the Poet brings the message:

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service is over, that her guilty record is forgiven, that she has received from Hashem’s hand a double amount for all her offenses.” [40:1-2]

There will be waters of life in parched places, cedars where there was only scrub before, and those foreigners who made Judah desolate, theirs sons and daughters will bring the survivors of Jerusalem back in caravans and weight them down with gold. But like Isaiah himself, the Poet meets with resistance and says, “I have labored to no purpose” (49:4).

The fourth voice is the Preacher. He is actually gentle and humble, one who wants to bind up the broken-hearted, but his voice is shrill and he speaks of cruel wickedness that must be burned out at the source. He seems to be speaking after the exile and things are still not right. But Jerusalem will arise and shine and its light will come.

The Nerd thinks that the book of Isaiah is a collection. It has been reshaped, touched up. Two, three, or possibly more voices are here. Isaiah was under-appreciated by his own generation except for a circle of limmudim. But his words came to be seen as genius when Babylon rose up and events happened as Isaiah had foreseen. And over time, a wider and wider circle would have delighted in Isaiah’s words. The past tragedy was explained. Hope for present and future days was revealed. Goldingay’s explanation captures the essence of it and many specific theories and variations are possible.

The ambassador, disciple, poet, and preacher all speak. There is horror and hope. The vision is unclear. It is open-ended. It has not finished speaking.

 

John Goldingay on Prophesying in Isaiah

The book is Isaiah: New International Biblical Commentary, by John Goldingay, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001. I often say to people who ask, “If you own only one commentary on Isaiah, this one is short, but it will probably be the best introduction you can get to the book.”

What kind of “divine inspiration” could we expect to find in Isaiah? The Nerd knows that some people say, “It’s biblical.” The Nerd doesn’t think “it’s biblical” explains anything to a thinking person. And the Nerd reasons that since God made brains and gave human beings the privilege of being the only fully reasoning creatures on this planet, he wants us to think. So instead of saying, “Isaiah is divinely inspired because it is between the covers of a modern printing of a thing we call the Bible,” he wonders what Isaiah says about his own words and scenes and poems.

John Goldingay makes much of the fact that the words of Isaiah are introduced as a vision, not a message per se. Isaiah saw. He did not receive a verbatim message. He was given a scene, multiple scenes, a peek into deeper reality. In Goldingay’s words:

A prophet is one who has seen something, and has seen something because Yahweh has made the seeing possible. It is as if God opened a window in heaven. Indeed Isaiah speaks in almost these terms in chapter 6 telling us how he came to be “sent” to the people by Yahweh. He saw the Lord seated on a throne in heaven. With horror he realized that he had seen the King, Almighty Yahweh. And often the vision he was given to share was horrific rather than pretty (see 21:2). Yes, a prophet saw visions.

Furthermore, in addition to showing Isaiah things, Hashem sends him as a messenger, which must entail giving him some words or a message. Goldingay does not think this means a set of words are given which Isaiah must repeat verbatim. He says:

A sovereign leaves the representative to frame the detail of the words, of course, but they still have the sovereign’s authority. Presumably the same is true of Yahweh and the prophet. Yahweh give the gist of the message; the prophet frames the actual words, though these then have all Yahweh’s authority (and this process explains, in part, why Isaiah’s words differ from — say — Jeremiah’s).

Goldingay concludes that Isaiah saw things and was given things to put in his own words. The sovereign did not reveal to the messenger everything. He saw and said things that seemed horrific to him as well as beautiful. His words seem like polar opposites sometimes. The future will be beautiful. The future will be terrifying. Most people turn it in their minds into a simple story (terrible for a while and eventually beautiful) but it’s more complicated than that.

Maybe that’s why the first words are about Isaiah’s collected words being a vision. Things seen are ambiguous. Scenes give a glimpse without answering everything. At the center of this is the key vision Isaiah saw: Adonai seated on a high and lofty throne, majestic and frightening, inspiring and fearsome.

Isaiah 40:9-11 Hebrew, English, and Commentary

God has returned in Glory to Jerusalem across the desert (vss. 3-5) and the oppressing powers are but grass before his breath-Spirit (vss. 6-8). Now a female messenger announces the entrance of God the King into his city bringing returned exiles as his reward.

It is hard to tell here if the herald is Zion herself, which would explain why it is a she (מבשרת), or someone else. Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40-66, Eerdmans Critical Commentary) thinks the herald is Rachel and that the passage alludes to Jeremiah 31:15-16. Rachel wept in Jeremiah’s prophecy as she watched her children pass near her burial site on their way to exile. If Paul is right, the lady herald is Rachel rejoicing in their return. Some others take the lady herald to be Zion, jubilant that her people are returning.

Isaiah 40:9
עַל הַר־גָּבֹהַ עֲלִי־לָךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת צִיּוֹן
הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם
הָרִימִי אַל־תִּירָאִי
אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה
הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
On a high mountain, get yourself up, Lady-Herald of Zion;
Raise your voice in strength, Lady-Herald of Jerusalem;
Raise it, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!

Isaiah 40:10
הִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה בְּחָזָק
יָבוֹא וּזְרֹעוֹ מֹשְׁלָה לוֹ
הִנֵּה שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ
וּפְעֻלָּתוֹ לְפָנָיו׃
“Behold, the Lord Hashem comes in strength;
His arm rules for him;
Behold, his reward is with him
and his remuneration before him.

Isaiah 40:11
כְּרֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ יִרְעֶה
בִּזְרֹעוֹ יְקַבֵּץ טְלָאִים
וּבְחֵיקוֹ יִשָּׂא
עָלוֹת יְנַהֵל׃
Like a shepherd he tends his flock;
With his arm he gathers lambs;
On his chest he carries;
He leads nursing ewes.

A few translation notes:

מְבַשֶּׂרֶת צִיּוֹן could be “herald Zion,” a way of personifying the city as a messenger of good news. Yet the normal use of the construct form would make this “herald of Zion,” referring to someone who brings a message to Zion. The word herald is feminine here, whereas it is masculine in all other Isaianic references (41:27; 52:7). Thus I have rendered it “Lady-Herald.” Shalom Paul’s theory that it is Rachel who brings the good news is explained below concerning vs. 10.

“The Lord Hashem,” is my way of rendering אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה. The usual Jewish practice is to read the divine Name as Adonai, but Isaiah makes frequent use of the actual word Adonai. When reading אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה the Jewish custom is to say Adonai Elohim. The inaccuracy of this custom bothers me and so I prefer to use Hashem for the divine Name.

“His arm.” It was tempting to translate וּזְרֹעוֹ “and his might,” but this could cause readers to miss the poetic contrast between God’s victorious arm in vs. 10 and his tender arms holding his people like lambs in vs. 11.

שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ and פְעֻלָּתוֹ לְפָנָיו. “His reward is with him” and “his remuneration is before him.” Shalom Paul detects here an allusion to Jeremiah 31:16. God tells Rachel “there is a reward for your work” יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ. The words for reward and work (remuneration) are in both passages. This is strengthened by the connection between Jeremiah 31:10 and Isaiah 40:11 (see below).

“Nursing ewes” is from עול “nurse, suckle.” עָלוֹת is a feminine plural participle, “the ones nursing.” עול is a verbal root sometime called hollow, since middle vavs and yods often disappear in conjugated forms.

Commentary:

After a battle, messengers would go out to the towns affected by war and give the news, good or bad. The people would wait for the message in such times restlessly, since their very existence and safety depended on hearing good news. This messenger says King Hashem is arriving with compensation, a reward to make up for Judah’s suffering in exile. The good news is the return of Hashem, who previously had abandoned the city (Jeremiah, Lamentations) and is now filling it again with his Radiant Glory.

“Raise it, do not fear.” In First Isaiah there is a theme of quiet trust in God, which finds perhaps its highest point in 26:3, “A confident mind you protect in peace, in peace because it is trustful in you.” Similarly in Second Isaiah there is a theme of quieting the fears of the exiles about the road home. It is painful to hope for a return and then face disappointment if it does not happen. Here the Lady-Herald is told not to be afraid to proclaim, to believe.

“Behold your God!” The return of exiles into the city is equated with God himself returning. The restoration of the covenant, of the people of Israel being in the land, is like God’s return to Jerusalem.

“His reward is with him.” Lord Hashem is arriving with recompense to Israel for its suffering. The joy to come will be remuneration for the pain that was.

“Like a shepherd.” See also Ezekiel 34:12 (“As a shepherd seeks out his flock …” JPS) and Jeremiah 31:10 (“He who scattered Israel … will guard them as a shepherd his flock,” JPS).

“With his arm he gathers” forms a contrast to “his arm rules for him” in vs. 10. God is a warrior king as well as a shepherd.

Review Part 1: Reading Isaiah

by Peter D. Quinn-Miscall. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.

[Note: The Nerd has a lot less time in his life for blogging than he used to. So things like book reviews might have to come in multiple parts. It seems better to the Nerd than not doing them at all.]

Peter Quinn-Miscall’s book on Isaiah is something different in a word of boring Isaiah books. In my judgment, this is not a book for a beginner trying to figure out Isaiah, not a Cliffs Notes or Spark Notes. It will not be something you can use easily to get an A in the Isaiah course you signed up for at university.

Rather, it’s a book for people who have spent some time in Isaiah. It’s for those who have read a few commentaries (by read, I mean skim, of course). It’s for those who want to see some different ways of reading.

Quinn-Miscall’s reading is not your average one. Most people, traditional and academic, see the book of Isaiah in historical layers of some kind: past sin, present repentance, and future redemption. Quinn-Miscall sees the final book (there may be layers of writing and multiple authors, but he is examining it as a finished work of literature) as a piece of idealist writing. There is no simple progression from past sin to present repentance or from present repentance to future redemption.

Isaiah, he says, sees it as one whole, a sort of ideal to believe in and aim for. He is not specific and makes no guarantees. The mysterious messianic future will depend as much on God’s unknowable timing as it does on the reactions of Jerusalem and the nations. Perhaps Quinn-Miscall’s idealist reading can best be seen in the way he translates Isaiah 2:1-4 with present tense and modal verbs (a grammatically feasible notion for sure):

This will be in latter times:

The mountain of the house of the Lord is established

as tallest of mountains, as the highest of the hills,

And all the nations flow to it, many peoples come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths;

For teaching comes forth from Zion and the word

of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

He judges among nations and decides for many peoples;

They beat their swords into plowshares and their spears

into pruning hooks;

Nation does not lift a sword against nation,

and they no longer learn war.

ReadingIsaiah