Over the next several weeks, I hope to publish a series of posts presenting an interpretation of the Neviim (books of the prophets) contained in the Hebrew Bible, beginning with Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah). This interpretation is couched in the historical events and political context of Yeshaiyahu’s time and the years immediately following it. It is my belief that his writings were intended for his contemporaries and concerned events immediately relevant to them and their children. As such, I do not believe that Yeshaiyahu speaks of an “end time,” a messiah, or an afterlife. I also do not believe he was speaking of any events that have occurred over the last 2000 years or that will occur in our future, although history does tend to be cyclical as “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
That said, the prophecy of Yeshaiyahu is a divinely inspired and sacred text. He acted as a conduit for the delivery of information the Israelite people needed at the time in order to understand, interpret, and survive the tumultuous events they faced–the end of the world as they had come to understand it. More importantly, he was also able to provide vital political analysis for the kings with whom he served. A cursory review of modern history shows how difficult it is to make accurate predictions for the major events of twenty or fifty years, let alone 100. And we struggle today with making those predictions despite having the luxury of highly trained teams of analysts, sophisticated statistical modeling programs, historians, and psychologists at our disposal. For Yeshaiyahu to make the predictions he made in his time and incredibly complex context, he needed something beyond the tools and skills of mortal man: he needed Hashem.
I would also like to explain my approach to reading TaNaKh before embarking on this series. Frequently, scriptural interpretation takes texts one verse or short passage at a time. I have found that taking a larger, more holistic view is a more useful approach. It allows narratives to emerge when they exist and for the reader to bring knowledge from diverse parts of the TaNaKh to understanding the text (an understanding of Torah is very useful, for example, in reading Melechim [Kings]).
When reading for inspirational purposes, there is nothing wrong with going verse by verse or chapter by chapter. I frequently find myself switching between a larger and smaller focus in my personal reading as one verse or another catches my attention. But many messages come into clearer focus when put into a larger context: a verse into a chapter, a chapter into a series of chapters, a series of chapters into a book, and books into the TaNaKh. Many chapters in Yeshaiyahu seem obtuse when taken separately but form a logical narrative when grouped with their surrounding chapters. Such is the case with many of the prophets. Taken together the prophets warn the Israelites to abandon idol worship and serve Hashem by following the laws contained in the Torah. When the Israelites fail to do so, bad things happen. In some cases, warnings of doom given by prophets did not come to pass because the Israelites returned to a righteous path and Hashem spared them. All too often, however, the warnings of the prophets were ignored and tragedy ensued.
In Karaite tradition we hold that the scriptures should be read and interpreted according to the plain meaning or “p’shat.” Unfortunately, Karaite tradition, like Rabbinical traditions, have adopted a view of the prophets warped by the influences of Zoroastrianism and the Greek Mystery Cults. To that end many chapters and verses are deliberately read outside of their context and taken to refer to events in our future. This was a stretch 2000 years ago, when many Jews including the entire Sadducee movement, held that the prophecies were historical in nature and did not apply to future times, except in that they serve as a warning of what happens when the Israelites go astray of Hashem’s laws and commandments. In this area I must disagree with the commonplace interpretations of the prophets.
I thus prefer to take the prophets more literally than not. It has often been said that “the simplest explanation is usually the most likely.” When Yeshaiyahu refers to Egypt, the Medes. or the Chaldeans, I do not believe he is speaking in metaphor. My assumption is that he is speaking of the major powers of his time and region. Likewise I do not believe that references to Babylon, Tyre, or Assyria are codes for anything. And when he says that a certain passage is a prophecy that will be fulfilled in a certain period of time, I trust that he means it. It has been no end of frustration hearing people claim that references to the Chaldeans (the Babylonians) are actually referring to modern Iraq. Very few Chaldeans live in Iraq today and most are Catholics, a far cry from the Chaldean Empire with which our ancestors contested.
That is not to say these passages lack modern relevance. We can always learn from the past, and a metaphorical view can sometimes help us deal with modern problems. Reading a sacred text also often puts the reader in a mental state to be open to messages Hashem wishes us to receive.