Yeshaiyahu 1-9

The last two posts I made on prophetic analysis covered my approach to scripture and prophecy and the context of Yeshaiyahu’s (Isaiah’s) prophecies.  This post discusses the first nine chapters of Yeshaiyahu, and subsequent posts will cover similarly sized chunks of this book.

Before I discuss what I think are particular points of interest in this set of chapters, I would like to point out some common misconceptions about this portion of Yeshaiyahu.  These chapters contain passages that are central to messianic doctrine, but I believe those interpretations are due to foreign influences, shoddy translation work, and willful deviation from peshat.  Strong words, I know, but allow me to justify them.

Yeshaiyahu 9:2-7, one of the most famous passages in the book, is commonly translated as follows:

For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is given,
And the government shall be upon his shoulders.
And his name shall be called
“Wonderful, Councilor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

The “name” provided is a set of titles that both describe the ideal Israelite king and characterize the reign of Hizkiyahu, the last great king of Judah.  It’s a beautiful passage, and it is truly wonderful to have such a succinct description of the monarchical qualities prized by ancient Jews preserved to posterity.

The trick is that the translation does not make sense as a set of regnal titles.  The phrase translated as “almighty god” is better suited to the English “Hashem’s General” or “Great Warrior of Hashem.”  Indeed, the descriptor appears in 2 Shmuel (2 Samuel) as the title applied to David’s generals and great warriors.  And the concept befits the use of the title “Hashem Tsevaot” that Yeshaiyahu prefers in this chapter–Hashem, Master of Legions. “Everlasting,” while a reasonable translation, gives the wrong impression.  The Hebrew word  means “everlasting” in the sense of being a memorable, great, or timeless hero and leader, much as Americans might refer to George Washington as the “father” of the United States. And the word translated as “prince,” while it can mean “prince,” also more commonly means “minister.”

All that leaves us with the title “Wonderful, Councilor, Great and Mighty Warrior of Hashem Tsevaot, National Father, Minister of Peace.”  It is, indeed, an impressive regnal designation, and only a great man could aspire to fulfill all the implications it inspires, but no supernatural being need be called to mind.

The other famous “messianic” passage in these first chapters is 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; Behold, a virgin [young woman] shall conceive, and bear you a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Again, there are translation issues at play here.  The word translated as “virgin” means “young woman.”  It is also important that Immanuel means “Hashem is with us,” something not lost in the messianic interpretation, but taken far out of context.  This verse is part of a prophecy tells King Ahaz that Aram (often translated as “Syria”), under the rule of a king named Rezin is marching against Judah, that Ephraim is treacherously in league with Aram, but that Hashem will demonstrate his power by preserving Judah and, in 65 years, destroying Ephraim.  The use of proper names leaves no doubt as to the context of this chapter.

Hashem then sends, through Yeshaiyahu, a question to Ahaz:  How would it be best for Hashem to send a sign to both Ahaz and the people?  Ahaz may ask for anything, but it needs to be clear that Hashem is involved.  Ahaz refuses to request a sign, so Hashem decides to send a different kind of sign.  He sends the king a son, whose fate is to demonstrate to the people and the world that Hashem is with Judah.  It is a sign that does indeed come to pass.  Hizkiyahu demonstrates throughout his reign, as he fulfills the requirements of all his titles, that Hashem is with him, and that Hashem, more importantly, is with Judah.

Hizkiyahu’s fulfillment of these prophecies and the accuracy with which Yeshaiyahu foretells the political climate that will define the coming period of Judah’s history are both a wonderment and a sign.  They are a miracle in the sense of the word’s Latin progenitor, “miraculum”–something that makes you look in surprise.  They are an amazing proof of Hashem’s hand in worldly concerns.

Two things particularly struck me about these prophecies.  First, Jerusalem’s iniquity is distinctly recoverable, despite being an “utter” estrangement from Hashem (1:4).  Yeshaiyahu compares the city to a man with a putrefying sore (1:5-6).  True, it is a significant uncleanliness, but cleanliness is eventually achievable.  This is not a capital offence.
The comparison to the man with the infected sore is also apt, because Jerusalem is at a crossroads.  Either the city will realign itself with the Torah and the priesthood, or it will be destroyed.  A man with a putrefying sore must either submit to the treatment and cleansing of a priest, or the infection will destroy him.
True, Yeshaiyahu does mention Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9-10) in his indictment of Jerusalem, but he does so to warn Jerusalem that Sodom and Gomorrah no longer exist.  Jerusalem does continue to exist, and should not seek out Sodom and Gomorrah’s shared fate.  The message is not to be like Sodom and Gomorrah, rather than a comparison to them.
The other noteworthy element of these first prophecies is the seemingly contradictory predictions of barren fields and people sated with milk, curds, and honey (7:14-25).  I believe the point is to tell the city that a failure to reform (and by the end of these chapters the refusal to reform) will lead to what might be termed a “reboot”.  The city will be vanquished, and the fields will be overgrown with brambles, but the consequence will be at least a figurative return to pastoral life–a reliance on goats or cattle and wild or portable foods.  Indeed, Yeshaiyahu says that G-d will restore the shoftim, as at the beginning (1:26).  The monarchy is a failure.  City life and settled life have been fertile grounds for idolatry and iniquity.  Perhaps the old ways are best.
Finally, chapter 9 contains one of the most famous “messianic” passages in the entirety of the TaNaKh, (cited above).  This is the child, Immanuel, prophesied a few chapters prior as being born to a young woman, and who will eat curds and honey before he knows the difference between good and evil (7:14-16). This child is the future King: Hizkiyahu ben Ahaz.  Only one other son of Ahaz is mentioned in scripture: his firstborn, whom Ahaz sacrifices to idols.  Given that Hashem’s word concerning the birth of a child is generally reserved for the barren, it is fair to assume that Ahaz, albeit 9 years into his reign, has no heir.  Hashem’s sign is an end to a self-inflicted succession crisis that would have been of special concern to Judah with Aram on the doorstep.

Hizkiyahu’s infancy coincides with that of Yeshaiyahu’s son, whose conception and childhood are discussed in parallel (8:3-8).  Since Yeshaiyahu talks about the Assyrians in connection with the young prince, I believe he is establishing the time of upheaval to be in the young Hizkiyahu’s childhood.  The ultimate conquest was, of course, forestalled to Hizkiyahu’s reign, when he refuses to pay tribute to the Assyrians, but there was definitely turmoil in the region beforehand.

The discussion of pastoral life may also be metaphorical.  While the Judeans did not return to the nomadic ways of their forebears, they were uprooted, starting with the Assyrian invasion.  They were forced into diaspora, and lived in the Land or out at the pleasure of other regional powers. The dependency on outsiders they experienced was one that is common to nomadic peoples.  Then, as now, displaced peoples faced an existence as perpetual foreigners.  No matter how settled daily life may be, those who live in diaspora must always face the prospect of further displacement and cultural conflict.

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