Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)

Gerald A. Larue

 

Chapter 23 - Life and Literature of the Late Period

ONE of the greatest writings of the Exile was produced near the end of the time of captivity during the period we are calling "The Late Period of the Exile" (ca. 555 to 538). The unknown prophet of Babylon whose work was affixed to that of Isaiah of Jerusalem was a proclaimer of a new vision of Yahweh and his relationship to his people, and was a keen observer of developing events and of contemporary society. To understand his work, patterns of international relations during the Exilic period must be considered together with some aspects of the festal life of Nebuchadrezzar's Babylon.

 

THE LAST DAYS OF THE NEO-BABYLONIAN EMPIRE

Nebuchadrezzar died in 562. During his reign he maintained control of his vast empire with difficulty. A rival, King Cyaxeres of Media, began to build a powerful state with its capital at Ecbatana. Median tribes were subdued, Armenians overcome and the new Median empire pushed into Asia Minor, only to be stopped by the Lydians. During this period, Nebuchadrezzar was campaigning in the west, attempting to quiet unrest that had developed, perhaps augmented by the efforts of the Egyptian Pharaoh Apries or Hophra (589-569). After a thirteen year siege, Tyre became a Babylonian possession with semi-independence (cf. Ezek. 29:17-20). Meanwhile, Pharaoh Apries was defeated by the Greeks at Cyrene (570). In 568, perhaps to prove to the Egyptians the folly of pressing into Asia, Nebuchadrezzar invaded Egypt.

When Nebuchadrezzar died in 562, his long rule was followed by a period of social upheaval and in seven years four different monarchs sat on the Babylonian throne. Amel-Marduk (562-560), a son of Nebuchadrezzar, died a violent death and is believed to be the Evilmerodoch of II Kings 25:27-30 who released King Jehoiakim from prison. Nergal-shar-usar (cf. Jer. 39:3, 13: possibly Nergal-sharezer), a brother-in-law, ruled four years (560-556) and just prior to his death suffered defeat in a battle with the Medes. His infant son Labashimarduk was scarcely crowned when Nabonidus or Nabu-na'id, who was not of the same family, seized the throne in a rebellion supported by chief officials of state. Nabonidus' mother was a high-priestess of the moon god Sin and his father was a nobleman, and Nabonidus came into conflict with the priests of Marduk, perhaps through his efforts to make Sin the chief god of the empire. A famine attributed to royal impiety, together with spiraling inflation, produced tension within the empire. Nabonidus moved to the desert oasis of Teima (southeast of Edom) and from this center established military and trade posts throughout the desert as far as Yatrib (later Medina) near the Red Sea. In Babylon, his son Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar in Daniel) ruled as regent from 552-545. The absence of the monarch created serious religious problems, particularly for the annual Akitu or New Year festival. Finally the monarch returned to Babylon, perhaps to lead his forces against Elamite raiders in southern Babylonia. But new forces were at work that were to deprive him of his crown and terminate the Neo-Babylonian empire.

 

THE AKITU FESTIVAL

The most important religious celebration of Babylon and one that provides a background for understanding II Isaiah was the Akitu festival1 observed annually from the first to twelfth of Nisanu (Hebrew Nisan: March-April). The festal origins may lie in Sumerian times; the rites continued to be observed into the Persian-Greek period. The chief figure in the cult during the Neo-Babylonian era was Marduk, god of Babylon and supreme deity in the empire. His temple, called Esagila ("House of the Uplifted Head"), stood near the great ziggurat.

Rituals of preparation occupied the first days and included lustration rites, the carving of images of wood, which were then overlaid with gold and ornamented with jewels and semi-precious stones (Isa. 40:18-20; 41:7), and prayers for blessing. The temple was ceremonially cleansed and wiped down with the body of a sacrificed sheep and with oils.

The recitation of the Enuma Elish,2 the creation myth of Babylon, was also part of the ritual. This myth relates the story of the birth of the gods, the battle between Marduk, champion of order, and Tiamat, symbol of chaos, and the creation of man in a god-ordered universe. Opening verses describe a time when there was neither heaven nor earth but only the watery abyss ruled by Apsu, symbol of fresh water, and his consort Tiamat, the sea. Out of the first principle, water, came heavenly beings, created in pairs. With the arrival of many offspring came noise so upsetting that Apsu and Tiamat planned to kill their grandchildren. The plot, overheard by the wise earth god Ea, was foiled with the killing of Apsu. But Tiamat was still alive. Mustering her creative powers, she formed frightful monsters and over this array placed one of her children, Kingu, pinning on his breast the tablets of destiny, symbolic of control of the future. The stage was now set for a dramatic, cosmic encounter of gods.

When none among the gods of order was able to stand up to Tiamat and Kingu, Marduk, son of Ea and his wife Damkina, entered the arena having been promised supreme kingship should he defeat the enemy. Kingu was overcome and the tablets of destiny became the property of Marduk. Tiamat was killed and split in two, like an oyster. With one half of the dead goddess, Marduk formed the arch of the heavens and with the other half, the earth. In the realm above he set Ann the sky god, in the realm below Ea, the earth god, and between the two the air god, Enlil. Other gods were given abodes in the heavens and the stars were formed in their likeness, with constellations to mark the passage of time. The sun, moon and stars were heavenly bodies with special courses to run.

Marduk was acknowledged as king by the other gods. To serve the needs of the deities, Marduk created man, moulding the human form out of clay mingled with the blood of the dead Kingu. A shrine was built to Marduk where the gods might visit and pay homage, and his city was called Bab-ilu or Babylon, "gate of gods."

On the days of the Akitu festival following the recitation of the Enuma Elish the king was ritually deposed, deprived of symbols of office and compelled to make a negative confession before Marduk. Subsequently he was restored to office in a ceremony in which his face was slapped until the tears ran, a symbol that Marduk was friendly. A human scapegoat, usually a condemned prisoner, was paraded through the streets.3 Scapegoat rituals are communal purgation rites in which the sins of the community are placed upon the victim. The expulsion and destruction of the scapegoat rendered the community cleansed of taint and ready to begin the new year.4

The next day the god Nabu (Nebo in Isa. 46:1) arrived from Borsippa, then, subsequently, the other gods. For a time Marduk disappeared later to reappear, suggesting some form of a death-resurrection emphasis. On the eleventh day, at the divine assembly held in the chamber of destiny, the fate of the nation for the coming year was determined, possibly by sacred oracles or by magic. To ensure fertility, a sacred marriage was performed. On the final day, at a great banquet accompanied by much sacrificing, the unity of the nation was cemented in commensality rites enjoyed by gods, king, priests and people. On this day the king took the right hand of the god, perhaps in a ritual in which the god was led to his throne but certainly as a symbol of divine favor and blessing (cf. Isa. 45:1). At the close of the ritual, the various gods returned to their own cities.

 

THE RISE OF THE PERSIAN EMPIRE

King Cyaxeres of Media died in 585 and was succeeded by his son Astyages (585-550). Among the formerly migratory Aryan groups that composed part of the empire was the tribe from Parsua, the land west of Lake Urmia, now settled in the area east of the Persian Gulf called Parsa, after their former homeland. By the middle of the seventh century, tribal holdings had expanded and incorporated the Anshan area north of the gulf. At the beginning of the sixth century, King Cambyses I, known as "King of Anshan," a petty prince within the Median Empire, married the daughter of the emperor, King Astyages, and the son born of this union was Cyrus, destined to become "the Great."

Cyrus became king of Anshan in 559, and Astyages, cognizant of Cyrus' intention to revolt, prepared to attack. A rebellion within his army frustrated Astyages' plans, and by 550 Cyrus was in control of the Persian-Mede empire and was beginning a series of brilliant military maneuvers. Nabonidus, fearful of Cyrus' power, entered into alliances with Croesus of Lydia in Asia Minor (560-546) and with Amasis of Egypt (569-525). Cyrus moved across northern Mesopotamia, removed Syria from Babylonian control, and disregarding the usual military practice whereby hostilities ceased during the winter months, attacked Croesus in his winter palace at Sardis and made Lydia part of his kingdom. The Babylonian-Egyptian pact was dissolved. Cyrus conquered Afghanistan and prepared to move on Babylonia.

Babylon was ready for Cyrus. Fifth columnists had been at work spreading pro-Persian propaganda.5 Babylonians, irritated by Nabonidus' long absence in the desert and troubled by the monarch's religious deviations, were willing to heed reports about the liberal-minded Persian. It is not impossible that the subversive work reached into the Jewish community.6 The Persians entered Babylon without battle. According to the Cyrus cylinder,7 Cyrus came at the invitation of Marduk who, angry with Nabonidus, searched for a righteous man and pronounced the name of Cyrus, commanding the Persian king to assume control of the land (cf. Isa. 45:4).8 Cyrus records that his army strolled toward Babylon, weapons sheathed, welcomed by the entire countryside. Upon taking control of the city, he forbade plunder by his troops, began a program of urban renewal, permitted captive peoples to return home, restored sanctuaries and returned sacred implements to their respective shrines. Cyrus speaks of himself as a worshipper of Bel-Marduk.9 Whether or not he was a follower of the prophet Zoroaster cannot be known for sure, but some parts of II Isaiah have been compared with the religious documents of Zoroastrian faith, known as the Gathas, and parallels suggesting dependence have been noted,10 but the evidence is still sub judice.

 

ZOROASTRIAN RELIGION

The date of Zoroaster's birth is not known and dates accepted by scholars vary from the pre-Exilic through the Exilic periods.11 According to tradition, he was born in eastern Iran, perhaps near Lake Urmia. Legends concerning his early childhood relate miraculous escapes from enemies who wished to destroy him. The account of his spiritual pilgrimage tells how he was led by Vohu Manah (Good Thought) to an assemblage of spirits and was instructed by Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd or Hormuzd) in a true or pure religion. His initial efforts to reach his countrymen were unsuccessful, but he eventually converted King Vishtaspa, chief of a small tribal federation. With royal support, the influence of the religion spread and attempts were made to convert neighboring groups by force through a series of holy wars. In one of these wars, Zoroaster died.

His teachings centered in a cosmic dualism in which Ahura Mazda, the all-knowing creator and sustainer of the world of good, was pitted against the powers of evil symbolized by Angra Mainyu, the epitome of evil. Here truth struggled with the lie and light battled darkness. Ethical values were attributed to the opposing forces by the prophet, so that right and wrong tended to have black and white characteristics. Man, endowed with free choice, is involved in the cosmic struggle and must choose between the sides. Within this cosmic bipolarity, Zoroaster envisioned history moving toward an ultimate goal. In the final epoch of time, truth and goodness would triumph. Then, in the eschaton, a savior would come to renew all existence and resurrect the dead, uniting the body and soul.

At death, man's soul approached the "Bridge of Separation" over which the righteous were able to pass to paradise but where the evil were turned back for punishment. At the end of time, after the resurrection, every man would be tested in a flood of molten metal. For the righteous the final test would be as entering a warm bath, but for the evil the fiery test would mean complete extinction. As one possessing free will, the individual could not be judged as a member of a group; nor could he be burdened with the sins of his ancestors. Each man, by personal choice and action, determined his own ultimate fate. The eschatological hopes promised rewards beyond man's wildest dreams or punishment that signified complete extermination.

When Cyrus seized control of the Median empire during the sixth century and founded his own royal Achaemenid line,12 the house of Vishtaspa, Zoroaster's patron, was terminated. Without royal support Zoroastrianism had to struggle for existence. What impact this religion may have had on Cyrus is not known. The Cyrus cylinder speaks of allegiance to Marduk, and Jewish records indicate that Cyrus spoke of being commissioned by Yahweh to build the Jewish temple (II Chron. 36:22 ff.; Ezra 1:1-4). Possibly Cyrus diplomatically employed the name of whatever god was in popular use in the part of the empire with which he was dealing.13 At present there is no way of knowing what god Cambyses II, son of Cyrus who ruled from 529 to 522, may have worshipped. Not until Darius I, the Great (521-486), the Achaemenid prince who rescued the throne of Persia from a usurper named Gaumata is there any tangible evidence of allegiance to Ahura Mazda and the religion of Zoroaster. On the other hand, the pervasive influence of the great teacher and his followers should not be underestimated, and it is not impossible that some of the expressions of the cosmological motifs in II Isaiah owe something to the teachings of Zoroaster.

 

THE WRITINGS OF DEUTERO-ISAIAH

Reasons for the separation of Isaiah 40-55 from the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem have been stated, but the criteria for dating these chapters in the closing days of the Exile have only been touched upon. To begin, there echoes throughout II Isaiah complaints of abandonment, forsakenness and loneliness similar to those more fully expressed in Lamentations, Ezekiel and Job (cf. Isa. 40:2, 27; 42:24 f.; 43:27 f.), coupled with promises of forgiveness and fulfillment (40:11; 41:8-10, 14-16; 43:1-7, 10-13). The period into which these statements fit best is the Exile. Further evidence for dating is obtained from the allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (44:26-28). It is clear that the Assyrian oppression is long past (52:4) and, despite the fact that there is no mention of the Exile as such, the announcement of the proximity of Babylon's fall (43:14; 47:1-3; 48:14, 20), the naming of Cyrus of Persia as the deliverer (44:28; 45:1) and less direct references to him (41:1-4, 25; 48:14-15) point to a time of writing somewhere between June, 546 when Cyrus began to threaten Babylonian supremacy and 538 when Babylon came under Persian control.

No mention of Cyrus is found in Chapters 49-55 and it has been suggested that Chapters 40-48 were composed before Cyrus took Babylon when the prophet's hopes for the captive Jews were highest and that Chapters 49-55 represent writings from 538 when Cyrus failed to fulfill the prophetic hope that he would become a Yahweh worshipper. On the other hand, the pattern may reflect editorial organization in which two collections of materials are represented: one of hymns and oracles about Yahweh and Israel and the fall of Babylon and the other centered in the new Jerusalem, Mount Zion and the mission of Yahweh's people. But even so broad a division may be oversimplification, as many themes overlap and are found in both sections.

Attempts to develop a structural outline have not been particularly successful, but significant studies have been made of the literary forms, stylistic characteristics and the use of illustrative materials in II Isaiah.14 Small units have been isolated, including consolation words (40:1-2; 43:1-2), mocking themes (44:9-11), diatribes (48:1-11), heraldic pronouncements (40:9-11). Four hymns on the "servant of Yahweh" theme were recognized by B. Duhm in 1892 and since that time have been the subject of much study. The usual listing of these songs is 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12, although some scholars would expand the first and third to 42:1-7 and 50:1-9 or consider 42:5-7 and 50:10-11 separate hymns. These poems will be considered separately. Themes of comfort, joy, thanksgiving for release from anxiety, promise for the future in the light of impending deliverance and salvation, and paeans of praise to Yahweh as creator, redeemer and savior, are threaded through the entire work, and despite the seeming disorder of the work, there is a flow of ideas linked by these recurring stresses. No attempt will be made to analyze the literary structure of Deutero-Isaiah for little more than a listing of components would result.

Read Ch. 40
The introductory chapter of Deutero-Isaiah touches upon major themes developed within the rest of the work and presents what may be a summary description of the divine commissioning of the prophet. The opening verses employ the familiar heraldic motif in which a messenger is dispatched by the king or the assembled court (of heaven) to proclaim a royal edict. The message announced the termination of the period of servitude and forgiveness for sin, which, in accordance with Jeremiah's prediction, had been a double punishment (Jer. 16:18). The message was designed as the beginning of Yahweh's comforting acts on behalf of his people and called for the preparation of a royal highway15 over which Yahweh would return to Jerusalem just as Marduk entered his city of Babylon on the level, paved, processional way. This theophany would mark the return of Yahweh's glory ( kabod) which Ezekiel had seen depart (Ezek. 9:3-10:22) and would Jeremiah assumed, signal the restoration of covenant relationships.

The summons to "cry" may be part of Deutero-Isaiah's prophetic call. In view of the numerous passages echoing aspects of the Akitu ritual, it is quite possible that the experience of divine commissioning may have come during the New Year festival. Deutero-Isaiah's response to the order to "cry" reflects something of the mood of Job: the frailty of human existence and the passive acknowledgment that Yahweh's will would be done. In striking contrast is the dynamic nature of the order to bring good news to Jerusalem, to present Yahweh with a cry reminiscent of Amos 4:12 as both majestic conqueror and tender ministrant to his flock (40:10-11).

The emphases on the creative role of Yahweh and on the revealing of future destiny are best understood against the background of the Akitu festival. Unlike Marduk who annually sought guidance for the creation ritual from the assembled gods, Yahweh needed no advisor. Passages mocking the stupidity of idol worship (40:18-20, which should be read with 41:7) reflect preparatory rites of the opening of the Akitu festival when images were carved.16 The dramatic contrast between man-made objects of adoration and the transcendent Yahweh illustrates the superiority of Israel's God, the true creator.

To those Jews who, like the exiles referred to by Ezekiel, believed themselves cut off from Yahweh, the prophet announced Yahweh's constancy and succor and called for an awakening to Yahweh's greatness. Jews were warned not to succumb to the rich ritual of Babylonian religion. Sustaining power promised for the weak and feeble introduces the theme of renewal of national life and strength and the promise of a new future. In effect, the prophet is announcing the long-awaited Day of Yahweh.

Read Ch. 41
The theme of Yahweh's control of history is now picked up, and in presenting the amazing exploits of Cyrus, described as "one from the east," an eschatological hope is unfolded promising a paradise as a demonstration of Yahweh's power. Once again Babylonian theology is challenged. Now the setting is the chamber of destiny where, in the Akitu ritual, the fate of the nation for the coming year was decided. Yahweh called for evidence that Babylonian predictions had ever been accurate, and it is argued that Yahweh determined Cyrus' mission and foretold his success. Just when or where the prediction was made cannot be ascertained, and the corrupt state of 41:27 only adds to the confusion. For the first time the servant motif is introduced (41:8-10). There can be no doubt that in this passage the servant is Israel, the chosen offspring of Abraham. Election began with Jacob.

Read Chs. 42-44
The initial verses of Chapter 42 reintroduce the servant concept but without indicating whether the prophet is referring to Israel, to some individual or group within Israel, to Cyrus of Persia, or to someone else. This servant was to bring justice to the world. Subsequent verses expand the theme, leading up to a mighty hymn of praise, eschatological in its promises. The problem of the "servant," which will be discussed later, grows out of passages that fail to identify what group or individual is meant. Several interpretations are possible. The significance of election to Deutero-Isaiah's message lies in the emphasis on the constancy of Yahweh's love for his people upon which the argument for future hope rests (ch. 43). It is possible that some echo of Zoroastrian theology appears in 43:2, but the ideas here are so broad that they could just as easily apply to the Exodus tradition.

Read Chs. 45-47
In Chapter 45, for the first time, Cyrus of Persia is specifically named, and Deutero-Isaiah arguing from the premise of a universal deity draws a neat syllogism to prove that it is Yahweh who directs Cyrus' destiny, whether Cyrus knows it or not! Indirect references to the Akitu festival appear in 45:20 ff. where guess-work predictions arrived at in the assembly of the gods are compared with the accuracy of Yahweh's pronouncements, and in 46:1 f., where one can almost picture the processional. Scorn for those who worship immobile and mute statues, obviously a reference to Babylonians, serves to introduce Yahweh who is beyond representation, whose will is made known and whose purposes come to pass. Here II Isaiah makes one of several clear-cut statements of monotheism (46:9).

Having promised the deliverance of the exiled people (46:13) Deutero-Isaiah now pronounces the doom of Babylon and mocks the inability of soothsayers and astrologers to deliver the nation (cf. Isa. 3:16 and 47:3).

Read Chs. 48-51:8
Within the message of hope and redemption, a solemn warning is issued to exiles drawn to Babylonian religion (48:5) or with serious doubts about the prophet's message. The exultant cry of promise draws on the tradition of the Exodus from Egypt, promising that what Yahweh did in the past he would do again (48:20-22). The servant theme in Chapter 49 is far from clear. The servant, chosen in the womb and predestined for his task, is to bring Israel back to Yahweh (49:1-5). This servant will be a light to the nations (49:6). If the prophet is continuing the servant theme in Verse 7, then the servant-redeemer is despised and abhorred. Could a member of the captive royal family be meant here, or is this a group within the exiled people, or is the reference to the exiled people personified as an individual?

The arguments of those who said that Yahweh had forgotten his people (49:14 ff.) or had, as Hosea had phrased it, divorced Israel (50:1 ff.) are denied. II Isaiah's appeal is to tradition, and the promise of redemption is renewed (51:1 ff.).

Read Chs. 51:9-54:17
The prophet now calls upon Yahweh to redeem as in the past, beginning his hymn with "Awake, awake" (51:9-11). Yahweh's response is a promise of release, and similar cries "rouse yourself, rouse yourself" (51:17) and "awake, awake" (52:1) are directed toward Jerusalem to encourage the people to rise to the challenge of the new tomorrow.

Within this section is the portrait of the suffering servant, a motif of redemptive suffering drawn from the Akitu rites where the human scapegoat bore the sins of many to bring new purification to the nation (52:13-53:12). In Deutero-Isaiah's use of this concept, the servant suffers and is cut off from the land of the living like the Akitu victim, but unlike the Babylonian scapegoat, the servant is promised that he will witness the fruits of his suffering (53: 10 f.) and will share the booty of the rich and powerful (53:12). Chapter 54 is a comfort hymn contrasting the state of abject misery with the promised good fortune.

Read Ch. 55
The final chapter continues the words of promise and urges repentance, for the time of Yahweh's inbreaking is at hand and the exiles must be prepared. The word of Yahweh had been spoken, the time for fulfillment had come.

 

DEUTERO-ISAIAH'S CONCEPT OF GOD

As we have noted, for the first time in Hebrew literature a full statement of monotheism is set forth. Yahweh alone is God; there is no other anywhere; all other gods are false (44:6, 8; 45:18; 46:9). This new theology placed everything under the control of one supreme deity, from creation through past history, from the present into the future. Nor is there any recognition of divine or semi-divine anti-god forces. Yahweh alone created weal and woe (45:7). The monotheistic presentation is given striking force by contrast with Babylonian beliefs.

Babylonian gods, fashioned by men out of common elements (40:19-20; 41:7; 44:9-20; 46:6), were completely helpless, most apparently so when rocking and swaying on the backs of animals in the festal processions (45:20; 46:1-2), or in their inability to move or respond to communicants' needs (46:6-7). Yahweh was not a created deity, but was the creator and, as Job had made clear, was above and beyond his creation, so transcendent as to defy confinement in descriptions or images (40:22-25). Nevertheless, Deutero-Isaiah argued, Yahweh revealed himself, not only in creation, but in history and through his spokesmen, the prophets.

The Akitu ritual traced creation to Marduk; Deutero-Isaiah announced it as a primal act of Yahweh (40:26; 42:5; 44:24; 45:7, 18; 48:13). Marduk's creation was a complicated affair; Deutero-Isaiah's was relatively simple as the prophet drew in part on the J tradition (42:5) but also incorporated ideas that point to the concepts found in the Priestly source (cf. Gen. 1:1-2:4a).

In the Akitu ritual an assembly of gods determined the shape of things to come for the year ahead; Deutero-Isaiah argued that the future, like the past and present, was in Yahweh's hands. Babylonian techniques for discerning events were unnecessary (40:13) for Yahweh had revealed his will in summoning the prophet to explain current happenings as acts of Yahweh. The validation of the future rested in the accuracy of past predictions. As Yahweh had chosen Israel (Jacob) while still in the womb and had delivered the people from Egypt to lead them to the promised land, so Yahweh called them again, and using the great Persian warrior Cyrus, would deliver them again to the promised land.

The majesty of the hymns of praise to Yahweh and the lyrical quality of the songs of joy are apparent in English translations. The prophet's words take wings as he conveys his understanding of Yahweh and Yahweh's plans for his people. If Job stood humbled and perhaps perplexed before the majesty of Yahweh, Deutero-Isaiah was triumphant and lifted for this was Israel's god, whose power and glory could not be overshadowed, even by the attempts of the Babylonians with their lofty ziggurats, numerous temples and elaborate rituals.

The holiness of Yahweh, so important in Ezekiel and the H code, is reflected in the repetitive use of the term "Holy One of Israel" (41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14, 15; 45: 11; 47:4; 48:17) borrowed from the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The unique relationship of Yahweh to Israel is implied, but the words seem to have lost the sense of making a sharp delineation between the sacred and the profane and have become a simple substitutionary label for Yahweh.

Perhaps a term holding far more meaning for the exiles when applied to Yahweh was "Redeemer" ( go'el) which appears over and over again (41:14; 43:14; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8). The depth of the covenant relationship as conceived by Deutero-Isaiah is revealed in this familial term usually applied to next of kin. The redemption motif was already present in the Exodus tradition and is clearly reflected in the cultic prayer recited at the Firstfruits festival (Deut. 26:5 ff.), but through the trauma of the exile in Babylon, the theme of deliverance was given a deeper and more intimate meaning, warmer in tone, closer in feeling, contrasting strangely with the vision of the transcendent deity.

 

YAHWEH AND HISTORY

The validation of Deutero-Isaiah's hope for restoration rested, in part, in his interpretation of history as the product of acts of Yahweh. The universalistic emphasis implied in monotheism is not completely abandoned as the prophet develops the theme of history, but it is certainly tempered by the concept of election which develops a strong particularism. The God of the whole word is Israel's God. Past history, for II Isaiah, is Israel's history (41:8-9; 51:2, etc.). Present history consists of events related to Israel's welfare (44:26-28; 45:1-4). The idealized future is predominantly centered in the exaltation of Israel (41:14 ff.; 42:14 ff.; 43:3 ff.; 47; 48:14). The newly redeemed nation is summoned to a new role following the new exodus,17 to become Yahweh's servant, the proclaimer of Yahweh's will, a light to the nations.18 Once again the theme is not completely new, for in J it had been announced that nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:3).

 

THE SERVANT OF YAHWEH

Of all the themes developed by Deutero-Isaiah, the one that has produced the greatest amount of scholarly theorizing is that of the servant of the Lord. In the many passages where the servant is clearly identified as Israel, no problem exists, but when no clear identification is made numerous hypotheses may be developed. The greatest amount of study has been concentrated upon the four servant poems: 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12.

Some have argued that the servant is to be understood as an individual, and identifications have included: Moses, King Uzziah, King Josiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel among II Isaiah's predecessors; Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel the descendant of Jehoiachin, Cyrus and the prophet himself among his contemporaries; and in a futuristic sense, a messianic figure, including the Christian designation of Jesus of Nazareth.19 Others have supported a collective interpretation and, in the light of the concept of corporate personality, such a point of view is feasible. Among the groups suggested are a prophetic order, ideal Israel and a pious remnant.20

Perhaps some clue to the problem can be found by comparing descriptions of the servant in the four poems with references outside of the poems to Israel as the servant. For example:

a. Both are formed in the womb by Yahweh, 49:1, 5; cf. 44:2, 24.
b. Both are chosen by Yahweh, 42:1, cf. 41:8 f.; 43:10; 44:1; etc.
c. Both are sustained by Yahweh, 42:1; cf. 41:10.
d. Both are to be a light to the nations, 49:6; cf. 42:6.
e. In both Yahweh is glorified, 49:3; cf. 44:23.

On the other hand there are differences. Whereas the prophet speaks of rebellious, discouraged Israel (40:27; 41:8-10; 48:4), he finds the anonymous servant to be undismayed and faithful (42:4; 50:5-9). Furthermore, whereas Israel is to be redeemed (43:1-7), the servant is to be the instrument of redemption (49:5).

No single argument for a corporate group or for an individual will satisfy all critics, and therefore, for the purpose of this book, it will be assumed that Deutero-Isaiah, in speaking to his own generation of the servant of Yahweh, had Israel in mind. If the servant poems are not discussed out of context, and it can be assumed that the prophet was unvarying in his references to the servant, then on the basis of identifications of Israel as the servant outside the four poems it should be assumed that the servant in the poems is Israel also. Nor was it unusual for the writers in Israel to personify the group in a single individual, for Abraham and Jacob are sometimes individuals and sometimes symbols of the nation that developed from them. Nor are the varying characteristics of the servant inconsistent with the differing roles of the servant and the changing moods of the prophet. As he viewed his people, he saw attitudes like those encountered by Ezekiel and reflected in Lamentations and Job. As he contemplated the potential of the captives, he moved away from negative evaluation, and as he interpreted their plight. he developed a theology of redemptive suffering. His imagery was drawn from past history, present circumstance, and future hope. Thus the servant could be viewed as the instrument of justice and a light to the nations in the first two poems, and as a sufferer and one whose suffering would redeem in the last two.

It is in the concept of redemptive suffering that the poet-prophet introduces a new theological understanding of the Exile. The event was not a meaningless stroke of ill fortune; nor was it to be understood only as punishment for sin-although he would not argue that point. The meaning went deeper. Israel was the scapegoat for the whole world, just as the poor stumbling sufferer in the Akitu festival was for Babylon. On Israel's head were the sins of the nations, and out of Israel's suffering would come redemption, salvation, a new beginning and a new world.

The future role of the servant was that of Yahweh's prophetic servant, to proclaim and make known the divine will to all peoples, to bring knowledge of Yahweh's will to the world, to introduce the new creation. The triumphant servant would see the fruits of his suffering. The hope is ideal and eschatological; the instrument was to be Israel, the servant of Yahweh.

Endnotes

  1. For detailed discussion see S. A. Pallis, The Babylonian Akitu Festival (Copenhagen: Andr. Fred. Host & Son, 1926).
  2. Like the Hebrew titles for biblical books, the Babylonian creation myth was known by the opening words enuma elish meaning "When on high." The myth may be read in ANET, pp. 60 ff., or A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), now in a Phoenix paperback edition.
  3. T. H. Gaster, p. 555, note 456, in J. G. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, T. H. Gaster, ed. (New York: Criterion Books, 1959).
  4. Ibid., "Scapegoats," p. 554. See also T. H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953), pp. 141 ff.
  5. Saggs, op. cit., p. 152.
  6. Morton Smith, "II Isaiah and the Persians," Journal of the American Oriental Society, LXXXIII (1963), 415 ff.
  7. The Cyrus cylinder is a small barrel-shaped clay cylinder upon which the monarch had inscribed the report of his conquest. Cf. ANET, pp. 315 f.; DOTT, pp. 92 ff.
  8. M. Smith, op. cit., speculates that Persian subversives may have suggested to the Babylonians that Cyrus was chosen by Marduk, and suggested to the Jews that he was chosen by Yahweh.
  9. The term Bel, a form of Ba'al, was used in conjunction with the proper name, Marduk.
  10. M. Smith, op. cit., pp. 418 ff.
  11. For a discussion of dates, cf. Jack Finegan, Archaeology of World Religions (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952), pp. 77 ff.; R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn & Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961), pp. 33 ff.
  12. Named after an ancestor "Hakhamanish" or, in the Greek form, "Achaemenes."
  13. Jack Finegan, Archaeology of World Religions, p. 94.
  14. J. Muilenburg, "Isaiah 40-66: Introduction and Exegesis," The Interpreter's Bible, V, 384-393.
  15. Possibly the prophet had in mind the King's highway linking Aqabah and Damascus. Cf. supra Part Two, chap. 5, "The Land."
  16. Cf. ANET, p. 331.
  17. For a discussion of Exodus typology, cf. B. Anderson, "Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah," Israel's Prophetic Heritage, B. W. Anderson and W. Harrelson (eds.) (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962), pp. 177-195.
  18. It is possible that the prophet meant that Israel, being highly exalted, would be a light or beacon to the nations. Cf. P. A. H. deboer, "Deutero-Isaiah's Message," Oudtestamentische Studiën, XI (1956), 80 ff.
  19. Isaiah 53 was often interpreted as typifying the passion of Jesus by New Testament writers. For a listing of passages see C. M. Dodd, According to the Scriptures (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), pp. 88 ff.
  20. For a detailed study, cf. C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), and Isaiah 40-55 (London: S.C.M. Press, 1952), also available in a Torch paperback.

Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Gerald A. Larue.

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