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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Isaiah - Introduction

It may come as a surprise to some readers to discover that the whole book of Isaiah is being dealt with in one article. One of the success stories of the historical-critical method of biblical study has been to establish that the 66 chapters of the book come from a variety of backgrounds, and the custom has been to treat chs. 40–66 independently of the earlier part of the book. These chapters are said to come from ‘Deutero’- or ‘Second Isaiah’ ( 40–55 ), usually with chs. 56–66 further isolated and ascribed to ‘Trito’- or ‘Third Isaiah’. It is argued that historical references and stylistic features alike enable them to be distinguished from the Isaiah of the earlier chapters, and it might seem perversely old-fashioned to go back to treating the whole book as a unity.

It may be helpful to rehearse briefly the relevant findings of historical criticism with regard to the different elements in the book. Broadly speaking they fall into three categories: historical, stylistic, and theological.

Many references in the early part of the book (e.g. ch. 7, chs. 36–9 ) as well as places in 2 Kings where Isaiah is mentioned by name (e.g. 19:2 ) make it clear that the prophet's life and activity were envisaged as taking place during the last third of the eighth century BCE, when Judah was under threat, first from its Northern neighbours, Israel and Damascus, and then from the Assyrians. But from ch. 40 all this has changed; the people addressed are pictured as being in Babylon, and Cyrus of Persia, who overthrew the Babylonian empire, is mentioned by name ( 44:28; 45:1 ). Cyrus became king in 550 BCE, and if we are to use any of the normal criteria of historical assessment the words referring to him must have been written after that date. It is generally agreed, therefore, that chs. 40–55 come from a Babylonian setting and should be dated in the 540s. Chs. 56–66 offer fewer clear indications of date, but the general consensus has been to place these chapters later still, perhaps in Jerusalem in the time when the work of restoration was going slowly forward in a disillusioned and demoralized community.

In terms both of detailed vocabulary and more generally of style there are important differences which come over clearly even in translation. Numerous phrases and expressions characteristic of the earlier chapters (‘briers and thorns’, ‘remnant’) are not found in the later sections, whereas such terms as ‘create’ and ‘redeem’ are peculiar to the later chapters. Again, there are marked stylistic differences, the sharp, brief, and often bitterly condemnatory oracles of the early chapters (e.g. the ‘woes’ of 5:8–23 ) contrasting markedly with the repetitive, dignified style of 40–55 , where many Psalm-like passages are addressed to God rather than to a human audience.

From ch. 40 onwards major theological themes emerge which have played little or no part earlier: concern with the Exodus and wilderness deliverance, clearly pictured as the model for a new return from exile to the promised land ( 40:3–5 ); the restoration of a destroyed Jerusalem as a symbol of renewed divine favour (ch. 52 ); the concentration on creation, with the use of the distinctive Hebrew verb bārā᾽, used in Gen 1 but rare elsewhere, to speak of divine creative action; the concern with the role of a servant. All these themes have no obvious parallel in the earlier chapters.

Until a decade or so ago these considerations were generally regarded as sufficient to justify treating the book of Isaiah as two, or three, separate and unconnected blocks of material. Some of the points made by historical critics may be less securely based than might at first sight appear; in particular their tendency to treat poetry as if it had precise reference to historical events can give a false sense of security. We shall note this particularly when we look at the ‘Babylonian’ chapters, 40–55 . Nevertheless the substance of their work has not been challenged. Yet despite this, the agenda of Isaiah studies has changed dramatically, so that a recent survey of such studies can speak of ‘the current focus’ of scholarly attention being ‘the final form of the book of Isaiah as a whole’ (Sweeney 1993: 141), an issue barely touched on in most historical-critical work.

A number of reasons for this shift can be put forward, but it may be helpful at the very outset to distinguish between two basic approaches, each concerned with the final form of the book. One approach looks for its unity in and through the circumstances in which it developed. It will envisage an Isaiah ‘tradition’ or a ‘school’, and seek to discern some basic elements holding the whole block of material together through differing historical circumstances. The other regards the concerns of this kind of historical approach as largely illusory; what we have is a book, so let us treat it as a book, regardless of the particular circumstances which are alleged to have led to its composition. We read and can appreciate a classic novel without enquiring into the background of its composition; similarly, it is argued, Isaiah can be read as a whole without exploring what are regarded as irrelevant details. There are obvious differences, for Isaiah is mainly poetry, without any storyline. Nevertheless certain basic themes run through the whole book which are of intrinsic importance.

The two approaches to which we have referred may for convenience, though with some ambiguity, be described as ‘historical’ and ‘literary’. They seem to be radically different; whether they can be reconciled to one another, as some have claimed, must remain doubtful. In the commentary which follows more attention will be paid to the second approach, partly because it has been less prominent in commentaries on Isaiah. It is hoped, however, that the important concerns of the first approach have not been ignored.

There are some issues which the two views have in common. We may accept that the various parts of the book of Isaiah are diverse in their origin. What next should be examined is the fact that this heterogeneous material has been brought together into one book. In this connection we must first of all remember the unanimous testimony of the ancient witnesses to the unity of Isaiah. The book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), in the Apocrypha, refers to Isaiah in an eighth-century context, but also ascribes to him the theme of comforting ‘those who mourned’ (Sir 48:24 ), a clear reference to Isa 40 , i.e. the later part of the book. The chronological problem is resolved by the supposition that the prophet himself ‘saw the future’. That evidence comes from the second century BCE. From roughly the same period the scrolls of Isaiah from Qumran, among the earliest found and best preserved of the Dead Sea scrolls, do not reflect any division between chs. 39 and 40 . From a somewhat later period it is clear that the New Testament regards Isaiah as one book. Among many passages which could be quoted, perhaps the most striking is Jn 12:38–41 , because of the way in which it links material from different parts of the book of Isaiah.

All the ancient testimony, therefore, points to Isaiah as being one book. It seems improbable, though the possibility cannot be totally ruled out, that that oneness consists simply in the bringing together of wholly disparate blocks of material, a merely accidental juxtaposition. Again, such theories as those which propose that the shortage of material in exile led to the reuse of existing scrolls, or that the prophet called Deutero-Isaiah was actually named Isaiah, and so had his work linked with that of his illustrious forebear and namesake, reflect more on the ingenuity of those who propose them than on any historical likelihood. There are, indeed, certain features which recur throughout the whole book of Isaiah (the characteristic description of God as ‘the Holy One of Israel’ is a case in point), which also make any suggestion of mere accidental linkage a most unlikely one. We are left with the conclusion that, though an authorial unity of the book of Isaiah, in the sense of it all going back to one individual, is most unlikely, there is a real sense in which we may view it as a redactional unity, that is, a work which has been brought together as a deliberately structured whole. It is to the nature and purpose of that redaction that much recent scholarly attention has been devoted.

Was there a School of Disciples? One theory which has been a good deal discussed in recent years is that Isaiah's own words were gathered together and handed down by his disciples over a period of perhaps two or three centuries. Some of those disciples, it is argued, were among those exiled to Babylon, and they included among them the great poet who came to be known as Deutero-Isaiah, who was responsible for chs. 40–55 of our present book. There are certain clues which seem to favour this line of interpretation. 8:16 is a difficult verse, but a typical translation is that of NRSV ‘Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples.’ (For other ways of understanding this verse, see the commentary.) Various scholars have supposed that this is an indication of the beginning of a process that lasted at least 200 years. Eaton, for example, detects a ‘definite connection of master and disciples with the centre of worship (i.e. Jerusalem), yielding a disciplined succession into and beyond the exile’ (Eaton 1982: 59). On this view there was a clearly structured tradition, owing its origin to the historical Isaiah of the eighth century (sometimes rather misleadingly described as ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’), closely linked in its concerns and manner of expression with the worship of the Jerusalem temple, and reaching new theological and liturgical insights as its conviction grew that the days of exile were coming to an end (Eaton 1979. Albertz 1990: 253–5 recognizes the force of these links, but notes also that the later stages of the Isaianic tradition drew on sources other than words attributable to Isaiah himself).

The existence of such a school is certainly possible, but other scholars have not been slow to point out some of the difficulties of this view. Clements, for example, notes that we know little of how such a school of authors (for whose existence there is, in any case, no certain testimony in the book of Isaiah and no independent evidence from other sources) would have evolved, or what kind of connection between different parts of the book is implied. His own proposal is that the material in chs. 40–55 was ‘intended to develop and enlarge upon prophetic sayings from Isaiah of Jerusalem’ (Clements 1985: 101). He then illustrates this point by drawing attention to a number of themes which are common to different parts of the book, in which it is possible to see a development throughout. We are in the world of redaction criticism; less interested in authors and precise historical circumstances, more concerned with the way in which particular themes and motifs developed within a specific literary tradition.

One important element in this development has its roots in the work of the historical critics. As we have seen, the conventional division was between chs. 1–39 and what followed, with 1–39 described as ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’. But it has long been recognized that a large part of chs. 1–39 could not simply be ascribed to the eighth-century Isaiah. Much in the foreign nations oracles (13–23) seemed to come from a period later than that of Isaiah. Chs. 24–7 betray some of the features of the apocalypses, and have usually been thought of as the latest part of the whole book. Chs. 33–4 have characteristics which again suggest a late date, while 35 has so much in common with 40–55 that it has sometimes been attributed to Deutero-Isaiah. Chs. 36–9 are substantially identical with 2 Kings 18–20 , and the dependence has usually been held to be on the side of Isaiah. Detailed critical study, therefore, has found material going back to Isaiah himself only in chs. 1–12 and 28–32 .

Even in those chapters, however, the tendency has been to discern a radical process of development. Kaiser at the outset of his commentary makes it clear that only ‘the earliest prophecies, contained in chs. 28–31 , should be identified with sayings of Isaiah’ (Kaiser 1983: 2). The remainder of this material only began to be collected in the fifth century, that is, at a time later than the traditional date for Deutero-Isaiah! Vermeylen engaged in a detailed study of the stages by which the book reached its present form, and suggested that the influence of those responsible for chs. 56–66 can also be traced in 1–39, again reversing the conventional order of composition (Vermeylen 1977–8 :757). The subtitle of Vermeylen's work gives a good indication of his view of the process of composition: ‘Isaïe I–XXXV, miroir d'un demimillénaire d'expérience religieuse en Israël’. An analogous approach is that of Ackroyd (1987 ), who examines some of the issues involved in the gradual development of the complete book of Isaiah, and then goes on to look in greater detail at chs. 1–12 , in which he is able to discern ‘the presentation of a prophet’—the reflection of a later generation on how the ideal prophetic figure should be delineated.

The above studies, and others that could be listed, retain something of a historical concern, but with a difference. Whereas in earlier writings questions of historicity related to the amount of material which could plausibly be traced back to Isaiah himself and the circumstances of the eighth century, now the historical concerns are those relating to the process of redaction and editing. Kaiser, for example, sees much of Isa 1–39 as an attempt to come to terms with and offer a satisfactory explanation for the downfall of Judah and the exile of its leading citizens in the sixth century. In a comparable way Vermeylen claims that one redactional ‘layer’ was a process of anti-Samaritan polemic which cannot be dated earlier than the fourth century.

More recently, however, a number of studies have rejected this historical concern out of hand. These represent what we have already referred to as a ‘literary’ rather than a ‘historical’ standpoint. In this approach what we have is a piece of literature, which should be read and appreciated like other pieces of literature, without constantly breaking off to speculate about the historical circumstances from which its elements emerge, either in their original form or in the process of editing. The title of Conrad's book (1991) is significant: Reading Isaiah. ‘Isaiah’ here clearly refers to the book; now only minimal attention is paid to the ‘historical Isaiah’, the eighth-century figure of whom we can in any case know very little. Indeed there is a real sense in which Isaiah becomes a fictional figure. We need not doubt that such a person did indeed exist, but it would be misleading to suppose that the book gives us access to his actual words and thoughts. But the other word in his title is also highly significant: it is the reading, and the reader who engages in that exercise, that take centre stage. For an approach of this kind it is a book to read, to savour as a piece of literature, to reflect upon its message. But this scarcely says enough. ‘To reflect upon its message’ may imply that there is an objective ‘message’ there, equally accessible to all. Much traditional interpretation of Scripture has indeed claimed just that, that it refers to something beyond itself. The emphasis on the reader, to which reference has been made, is inevitably much more subjective. For a start, it will ask: Who is the reader? Is it a man or a woman? There is much feminine imagery in Isaiah, some of it dismissive ( 3:16–4:1 ) but some of it much more positive. Sawyer (1989 ) offers an interesting and illuminating comparison between the ‘servant of the Lord’ and the ‘daughter of Zion’ imagery in the second half of the book. Or again: From what social and economic background does the reader come? The book speaks harshly against those who ‘join house to house…until there is no more room’ ( 5:8 ). One's attitude to that might differ according to whether one were involved in the property market, or were anxious to alleviate a housing shortage. Or again: What is the reader's attitude towards religious practice? Many readers of the Bible might be thought to be favourably disposed towards it; how then will they react to the fierce criticism of religious practice in 1:11–15 ?

In this kind of reading of the text not only the concerns of historical criticism, but also those of redaction criticism, are now dismissed as of no more than marginal relevance. Such an approach is a far cry from that of most traditional commentaries upon Isaiah. It is too early as yet to say whether it will become the norm, or whether it will itself be regarded as a curious sidetrack. Unclear also is the extent to which the historical and the literary approaches are totally independent of, and perhaps even hostile to, one another.

However that may be, it will be clear from the above brief survey that many of the questions habitually raised in introductions of this kind no longer seem to be as central as once they were. As recently as 1989, the excellent commentary by J. Jensen and W. H. Irwin on Isa 1–39 in the NJBC began with a section devoted to ‘The Prophet and his Times’, outlining the history of Judah in the last third of the eighth century and placing the activity and oracles of Isaiah within that context. Such an approach has become steadily more difficult, and will not be attempted here. It is likely that the final redactors of the book of Isaiah drew on something akin to our present 2 Kings as one of their sources, and the modern reader who wishes to find out how much we can know about Judah in the second half of the eighth century BCE must do the same. By the time that Isaiah reached its final form the time of the monarchy, the pre-exilic period, was a distant memory.

That is not to say that little or nothing of what has been preserved for us in the final form of the book goes back to Isaiah himself. Rather, it implies that the process of editing and shaping the collection of material, and then the composition of a completed book, gives us a different perspective, one which stretches over several centuries of the growth and development of the Jerusalem community. It has the simple practical consequence for this commentary that the word ‘Isaiah’ will, unless otherwise stated, refer to the book rather than to the figure of an individual. (Indeed the paucity of references to Isaiah as an individual within his book is striking; there are 16 such references, compared with more than 130 to Jeremiah in the book that bears his name (Conrad 1991: 34). It also means that more attention than has been usual will be paid to linkages within the whole of Isaiah, the sense in which the whole book is a unity. As has already been made clear, that need not have any implication that the individual Isaiah son of Amoz was not himself responsible for particular sayings; it does emphasize the clearly patterned overall structure of the book. For believers in particular the question may become acute. Is their concern as they approach the book of Isaiah a desire to find out the underlying historical circumstances of each part of the book, and to discover a specific point of reference—historical, doctrinal, ethical—in each passage? Or is it rather to come to the text as literature and let it speak to them as a ‘holy text’?

It is appropriate to end this introduction with an outline of what we shall be studying. It is a book, mostly of poetry, which begins by warning a religious community of the dangers inherent in its failures, dangers which must lead to punishment. These warnings occupy much of chs. 1–33 . There follows the triumphant proclamation that the time of punishment is now over, and that the way to restoration lies ahead; this theme is found in chs. 34–5 , and clearly underlies the stories in chs. 36–9 , chapters which function as a hinge upon which the whole book turns. As has long been recognized, the announcement of restoration predominates in chs. 40–55 . But the book ends with renewed notes of warning; the community must not suppose that in future ‘anything goes’. There are still dangers to be guarded against, patterns of behaviour which are incompatible with their religious claims. These warning signs are prominent in chs. 56–66 . Sometimes there are clues which suggest a particular historical background for particular pasages, but they are subsidiary to the main thrust of the book and liable to misinterpretation. We may be wiser to read Isaiah as a structured collection of religious verse, keeping this broad thematic progression in mind.

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