The Prophets, Part II: Yeshaiyahu

In my last post, I introduced a blog series on my interpretation of the Prophets.  That introduction included a description of my approach to Biblical texts and prophecy.  You may want to read it before proceeding to read this post.

 Raffael - The Prophet Isaiah - 1511-1512

Our perusal of the Prophets begins with Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah), but not in the Book of Yeshaiyahu.  It begins in 2 Melekhim (2 Kings), during the reign of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah).  We are introduced to Yeshaiyahu ben Amoz as Hizkiyahu receives word of imminent Assyrian invasion, after Israel and the Shomron (Samaria) have already fallen.  Hizkiyahu’s father, Ahaz, had been a tributary king serving Israel and Aram (Syria). Yehudah allies itself with the Assyrians who defeat Aram and then conquer Israel and displace many of its inhabitants. Ahaz had done everything he could to appease the Assyrians including stripping the Temple of its gold. Sencherev (Sennecharib) the next King of Assyria was not interested in tribute, he wanted to conquer the Kingdom of Yehudah outright. The representatives of the court failed in negotiations with Sencherev’s emissaries.  Yehudah is facing imminent invasion and reconquest by one of the most powerful forces in the region–a force that has easily conquered more powerful nations.  All the while, Egypt is the main competing power in the region, and would gladly seize any opportunity to gain an edge over Assyria. To add insult to injury, early in the war the heavily fortified city of Lachish falls to the massive Assyrian army with little effort.

Devoid of hope, Hizkiyahu sends for Yeshaiyahu, a professional prophet from Israel, who along with many others from the conquered northern kingdom has taken refuge in Yehudah. Upon arrival, Yesheyahu delivers a message of hope, if the people of Yehudah will return to the Torah. Sure enough, Hashem saves Yehudah from the Assyrians, most of their army dies shortly after they lay siege to Jerusalem.

The Book of Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) includes a lot of different kinds of prophecies. Some are messages intended to help redirect the Yehudim back to the Torah, others are messages of condemnation by Hashem for the wickedness of the Yehudim who have gone after foreign deities and practices. Some are prophecies against other kingdoms that might be read as intelligence and strategic analyses, not generally meant for public consumption; the ancient version of Stratfor.  They tell us a great deal about the geopolitical climate of the time.

We are also told of Yeshaiyahu’s personal context.  He is a professional prophet, a prominent member of a hereditary class of individuals (both male and female) who act as advisors and critics for the priests, monarchy and court, and the populace.  The prophetic class seems to be an institution that had been more entrenched in the culture of Israel but is new to Yehudah, and Yeshaiyahu is aware that he is the member of a dying breed.  He even seems to believe that he is the last of his kind, having served as the last prophet of Israel, a state that no longer existed.  Indeed, the canonical prophets who follow him are not professionals, but individuals of diverse backgrounds, who carry an inspired message.  Many of the prophets that follow are also Kohanim (priests). They will also bear the unenviable burden of proving their individual legitimacy in a way that Yesheyahu never does.

Yesheyahu prophesied during the reigns of Azariah, Yotam, Ahaz, and Hizkiyahu–the second half of the 8th century BCE–and may have lived for some part of King Manasheh’s reign.  His childhood would have been influenced by stories of the recent conquest of the Edomites, attributed in part to King Amatsia’s obedience to a prophet.  As a young man, he would have been aware of King Azariah’s leprosy, which was attributed the king’s infringement on priestly power.  Early in his career, Yesheyahu would have worked alongside his father, Amoz, and possibly a prophet named Zechariah (whose works are now lost), both of whom prophesied an earthquake that shook the area.

Yeshaiyahu’s early career during Azariah’s reign also placed him in the court of a competent king who was very active in foreign policy.  His political knowledge, respect for the priesthood, and firm belief in the power of his own office, made him the ideal candidate for helping Israel in its plight.  Hizkiyahu was in a delicate position, having instituted significant reforms in his kingdom at the outset of his reign, and facing imminent destruction from invading forces.  Yeshaiyahu was, again, a perfect consultant for the king, in that he had prior experience with the Assyrians, thanks to Israel having already fallen.  Indeed, Yesheyahu was only called into Hizkiyahu’s service after negotiations with Assyria had broken down.

It is this context, negotiations with the Assyrians, which set the stage for the rest of the prophecies, indeed, the rest of the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible).  Future books will use the players in this story and their descendants as a touch stone not only for their own political context but to establish their own political legitimacy and to explain that of their allies and enemies.  We are told that the Assyrians have recently relocated the Israelites to cities belonging to the Medes, beginning a long and troubled relationship.   Eliakim ben Hilkiyahu, Shevnah the scribe, and Yoach ben Asaph the recorder are the negotiators Yesheyahu relieves, and these are names that will reappear throughout the scripture.

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