Friday, February 21, 2014

English: Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scro...
Fragment  of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 - 59:9), 1QIsa b
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to continue my Prophetic Literature comments going back to the eighth century BCE and looking into the first of the Major Prophets: Isaiah. 

I became interested in the study of the book of Isaiah, probably because of the beautiful poetic oracles and the efficient edition process this book has gone through which I learned to appreciate while learning advanced Hebrew and History of the OT at the Biblicum. For me, it is also very practical to have a preference for this book, since it appears quite frequently in the Sunday and Weekday lectionaries.

Although we are very far from finding a final agreement on the matter, many scholars see three periods (and also at least three “prophetic voices” according to historical content, style and theology) in the Book of Isaiah. Acknowledging the risk of oversimplifying things, it seems that the major parts of Isaiah 1-39 transpire the political realities of Judean region at the end of the eighth century BCE. Isaiah 40-55 record circumstances and figures extant in the late exilic period. The last chapters (56-66) reflect circumstances Jews encountered at their return to Judah under the Persian Empire during the late sixth century. The final product of the composition/edition presents sixty-six chapters containing biographical accounts, third-person reports, preaching, hymns, polemical discourses and liturgical language among other literary features that seem to develop a process or plan, historical and theological, that unfolded during ca. 750-500 BCE. How such diverse material came to form such a beautiful and meaningful collection is another theme of a heated debate among experts and very far from a satisfactory consensus.

After the Book of Psalms and Jeremiah, the Book of Isaiah is the third longest book in the Bible, probably taking its name from the prophet who ministered during the late 8th century into the early 7th century BCE. Apart from Isa 1:1, we do not find any more direct references to him except 2 Kings 19-20 (and its parallel 2 Chron. 29-32). However, the books contain several biographical details depicting the traditional portrait of an Israelite prophet: having a changing experience with the heavenly realm (6:1-13), performing symbolic actions (20:2-4), giving allegorical names to his children (7:3; 8:1-4), showing up in court and delivering oracles (38:1; 39:3-8), appealing to justice and condemning corruption (1:2-31), etc. There is also a tradition that Isaiah was martyred during the reign of King Manasseh (697-642 BCE). 

According to Isa 8:16-17, and as I mentioned in another post, it is very plausible that Isaiah of Jerusalem had a group of disciples that kept alive his tradition and expanded, adapted and enhanced them. It would be very difficult to identify who and how many these disciples were, when and how long they worked in the prophet’s oracles and written material. However, it is very likely that the prophetic material collected in chapters 40-66 (second, chs. 40-55 and third Isaiah, chs. 56-66) relates better with Isaiah of Jerusalem’s message than with any other of the rest of the prophets. 
(Photo credit: William Brassey Hole:
Isaiah Witnesses the Folly and Vice of Jerusalem)
As we read the book in its final and canonical form, the careful reader can discern a theological reflection on Judah’s experience of a faithful God that steps into human’s history. Jewish interpretation looks more into this direction while Christianity focuses on God’s presentation of the Anointed One.

The Isaian writings portray God as great and majestic, morally perfect, transcendent and omnipotent, creator of all and ruler of all creation. Most of all, the prophet presents YHWH as holy (this adjective is used 33 times in the book). For Isaiah this is God’s principal trait. The book also stresses YHWH’s appreciation and value he bestows on humanity. If man gives God the proper glory, true significance is found in man. On the other hand when sin takes a hold the consequences are dire. For Isaiah sin is rebellion that has its origin in pride. Isaiah thinks that all the evil springs from humanity’s refusal of acknowledge God as Lord. The more humans remain in sin the more it has negative consequences, even to the environment: war, disease and natural disasters. Although God is ready to punish those who persevere in the folly of sin (which Isaiah compares with idolatry), he also comes with salvation for those who turn back and put their trust in him. Even though salvation is an act from YHWH, through God’s anointed king, redemption can be obtained. This salvation comes through the Messiah ultimately, and nobody can attain it by themselves, except when they accept to become YHWH’s servants. 

Juan Miguel Betancourt
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