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The book of Isaiah is one of the longest and most diverse in the Bible, comprising sixty-six chapters composed and compiled over the course of multiple centuries. It has thus become a crossroads for historical and literary interpretations, and indeed for practically every method of critical study. The book's formation can even be considered as a kind of microcosm of the formation of the canon as a whole (Blenkinsopp 2002). Furthermore, it has taken on large theological significance in later religious traditions; Isaiah was second only to Moses as a prophet in at least one rabbinic tradition, and the book was esteemed as a “Fifth Gospel” by classical Christian interpreters (see further below, under “History of Interpretation”).

The book's superscription attributes it to “Isaiah son of Amoz.… in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1) indicating a prophetic career spanning roughly the second half of the eighth century B.C.E. However, even in the premodern period commentators realized that not all of the book was attributable to a single prophet working in that time. In short, while chapters 1–39 contain clear references to events in the Neo-Assyrian period, such as the Syro-Ephraimite war in the 730s and Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in 701, chapters 40–48 contain equally clear references to events of the end of the Babylonian period and the beginning of the Persian period, particularly Persia's conquest of Babylon in 539 and the edict of its king, Cyrus, to return the Judeans to their homeland in 538.

The gap of nearly two centuries between the career of Isaiah ben Amoz and the context of 40–66 has been understood—by interpreters both ancient (Josephus, Ant. 11) and modern (Oswalt)—to reflect Isaiah ben Amoz's supernatural foreknowledge. However, the idea that it instead reflects the book's long history of composition and compilation is one of the most widely accepted conclusions of critical biblical scholarship.

A further level of complexity is introduced by the fact that at least chapters 1–39 are widely recognized to have been augmented and edited by later tradents (that is, those who passed on the texts). Because of the intricacies of that topic, the two major sections of the book will be addressed first, followed by a reflection on the implications for theories of the book's formation. Since the influential work of Bernard Duhm more than a century ago, chapters 1–39 have been known as “First Isaiah,” chapters 40–55 as “Deutero-Isaiah” (or “Second Isaiah”), and chapters 56–66 as “Trito-Isaiah” (or “Third Isaiah”).

Chapters 1–39

Isaiah 1–2 as Overtures.

The first chapters of the book of Isaiah have extensive similarities with texts found in the rest of the book—so much so that it is commonly argued that they were composed or placed there to introduce the book's themes, like the overture to a symphony. Given their close connection to the language of the later sections, it is difficult to determine if they were composed anew for the purpose or relocated; in either case, it seems most likely that they were put there by a later author to give the book a greater sense of unity and cohesiveness, and thus they are treated below in the discussion of the book's redaction.

Isaiah 3–5 and the Social Background.

Isaiah 3–5 is characterized by a prophetic critique of Jerusalem and Judah, focusing on the failure of the nation's elites to carry out justice and righteousness (e.g., Isa 5:7). These cries for social justice are sometimes taken as formulaic, and the very existence of a social crisis in the eighth century has been called into question (e.g., Clines 1995). Therefore their historical significance is often discounted and their composition by Isaiah has been doubted. However, a recent wave of sociohistorical studies suggests that these texts are very plausibly grounded in Judah's economic situation of the late eighth century (Chaney 1999; Houston 2004).

Some of Judah's socioeconomic tensions seem to have derived from its subordination to the Assyrians. As a client state, it had to pay the imperial government a large tribute year after year in order to assure its safety. This tribute appears to have had a destabilizing effect on small nations. On the one hand, Judah does seem to have had significant wealth. Though sometimes portrayed as a sleepy, agricultural state, it seems to have had a large income from trade tariffs and tolls, creating wealth for at least the royal court and Jerusalem elites. This accumulation of wealth by a few is marked by a rise in the number of luxurious, individual tombs in the eighth century (Bloch-Smith 2002). On the other hand, the cost of vassaldom to Assyria was also quite high, resulting in the king imposing burdensome taxes on the people (cf. 2 Kgs 15:19–20). The effect of this was likely to bankrupt poorer landowners, causing them to have to sell their land to wealthier landowners, and perhaps work the same land as a sort of sharecropping class (cf. Isa 5:8).

The sum of the data points to an economic stratification of Judean society that is consistent with Isaiah's charges, for example: “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isa 3:15). There is no way to assign a date to these texts with any degree of certainty; they could even precede Isaiah 6's “call narrative,” which would make the latter text a call to a new purpose instead of the first event in Isaiah's career, as is often assumed (see Hayes and Irvine 1987 for a discussion).

Isaiah 6–8 and Isaiah's Prophetic Biography.

Discussions of the prophetic career of Isaiah ben Amoz customarily begin with the so-called Denkschrift (“memoir”) of Isaiah 6–8. That title is potentially misleading, however, in that these chapters are not a unified composition. Most notably, chapters 6 and 8 are in the first-person voice of the prophet, whereas his encounter with Ahaz in chapter 7 is in the third person. Nevertheless, the term “memoir” does reflect the fact that it is primarily here that one might derive a sense of a prophetic persona and role.

Isaiah's prophetic career took place in a historical period during which Jerusalem and all of Judah were in treacherous waters, geopolitically. Although the precise dates are notoriously difficult to pin down, Uzziah's death would have been close to the same time that Tiglath-pileser III ascended to the Assyrian throne in 745. Under Tiglath-pileser and his successors, Assyria exploded southward to the Levant and to Egypt over the ensuing seventy-five years. The Assyrian expansion in the latter part of the eighth century put great pressure on the smaller nations of the Levant, including both Israel and Judah.

Isaiah's interaction with Ahaz in chapter 7 relates to an incident caused by Assyrian pressure. In the past, coalitions of Syro-Palestinian states had been able to resist the Assyrian advance, and Israel thought to do the same in the mid-730s. However, Judah refused the overture to join a coalition, prompting Israel and the Syrian city-states to attack Jerusalem in the Syro-Ephraimite war of 734–732. In this context, Isaiah's message to Ahaz as presented in Isaiah 7:4 was one of reassurance: “Be still, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.” This message of independence and reliance on Yahweh appears to have been the core of Isaiah's advice throughout his career, and perhaps even reflected in his name (Heb. Yeša‘yahu, meaning “Yahweh is salvation,” or “salvation of Yahweh”). Isaiah was almost certainly correct that it would have been unwise to join the revolt against Assyria, though in the end Ahaz had to seek out support from Assyria (2 Kgs 16:7–9), a pact that Isaiah probably would have disapproved. Jerusalem withstood the Syro-Ephraimite attack, and the Assyrians eventually campaigned to the west to put down the uprising, killing King Pekah of Samaria and replacing him with Hoshea.

Although Isaiah frequently predicted divine punishment for the nation, his prophecies also seem to have held out a more global belief in a long-term divine plan for its well-being. Isaiah 8:17 captures this tension between present difficulty and future deliverance: “I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”

Isaiah 6 recounts a visionary experience that Isaiah underwent in the Jerusalem Temple “in the year that king Uzziah died”—this passage is usually taken to be a call narrative, and would in any case have been near the beginning of Isaiah's career. The encounter brings into sharp focus one of the book's major themes, the confrontation between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the people (Isa 6:3–7; see further under “Theological Themes”). In this same passage, Isaiah is commissioned to “make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not… turn and be healed.” This could appear as an act of divine cruelty, comparable to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the Exodus; in both cases, however, the biblical text portrays those judged as having earned their punishment. Arguably this verse means that in Isaiah's view, the short-term punishment was inevitable, in contrast to the frequent prophetic exhortations to turn away from wrongdoing. Thus (and despite possible exceptions such as 1:27 and 31:6), an explicit call to penitence may not have been part of Isaiah's original message. The themes of knowledge-versus-ignorance and making-known-versus-hiding (along with the imagery of hearing and seeing) run through the book as a whole, and seem to be rooted in its earliest layer.

Particularly if Isaiah did not expect to be heard or understood by most contemporaries, it is significant that he had his words recorded, and that he had followers, as attested in Isaiah 8:16–18: “Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples.” Writing was not as widespread in the late eighth century as it would be later (cf. the increase in Hebrew epigraphic finds during the seventh century, or the relationship between Jeremiah and the scribe Baruch), but the recording of prophecies is well attested in the ancient Near East (see Nissinen 2003), probably not least because of the concern for verification that is reflected in Deuteronomy 18:22 (which says that one could recognize a true prophet based on whether or not his words came true) was already operative in this period. Therefore, it may be that one function of this group of disciples was to record Isaiah's sayings. (It is reported in 2 Chr 26:22 and 32:32 that Isaiah recorded the acts of Uzziah and Hezekiah, respectively, but that likely reflects only the Chronicler's habit of attributing his history to inspired prophets; cf. 1 Chr 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 20:34; 33:19.)

The unpopularity of Isaiah's message and his group of disciples are among the indications that he was not a part of Ahaz's official Temple-palace divinatory entourage. Even the location of his meeting with Ahaz may testify to that; it would be atypical of the laconic biblical narratives to report the location if it were not significant. They meet “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field” (Isa 7:3). This is hardly the throne room; in fact, it seems more than a bit out of the way. Was Isaiah, despite his vision in the Temple and his obvious literary gifts, a “peripheral” prophet—that is, one who functioned not as part of the state apparatus but on its margins (see Petersen 1981; Wilson 1980)? Isaiah's seemingly impractical advice to “be still” and do nothing must have been controversial, and contrary to what Ahaz was being told by his court sages, since Ahaz in fact ignored it. That seems the most likely conclusion, although it has also been suggested that the water channel mentioned in this episode is instead connected to the city's defense (cf. Isa 36:2), so that the prophet intended it as a sign of the city's ability to withstand a siege.

The Denkschrift could be understood to shed light on the prophet's family situation as well. As in the book of Hosea, Isaiah's message is delivered partly through the naming of children. Isaiah 7:3 refers to “your son Shear-jashub,” whose name means “a remnant shall return,” and 8:3 describes the prophet fathering a child by a prophetess and naming it Maher-shalal-hash-baz, “swift is the plunder, speedy is the prey.” And 7:14 refers to a maiden bearing a son named Immanuel (“God is with us”)—although here the text is less clear about the child's relationship to Isaiah. While Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz are intended as words of comfort (the latter is framed as referring to the Assyrian plundering of Damascus and Samaria in protection of Judah), Shear-jashub strikes a more cautious note: is the return of the remnant a sign of divine grace or a threat (“only a remnant.…”)? Like the prophet's nudist period in Isaiah 20 (see below), these extravagant sign-acts probably strike the reader as somewhat bizarre and unlikely. In comparison with the reports of the actions of prophets elsewhere in the ancient Near East, however, they appear, if no less striking, then at least slightly more plausible (cf., e.g., the odd symbolic behavior of a Mari prophet who demands and then devours an uncooked lamb at a city gate in Archives Royales de Mari 26 206; see Nissinen, p. 38).

For apocryphal aspects of Isaiah's biography that were reported in later traditions but not in the Bible, see below under “History of Interpretation.”

Isaiah 9 and the Fall of Samaria.

Like Isaiah 7 and 8, chapter 9 reflects an engagement with political history. The condemnation of the “pride and arrogance” of Israel (9:9) in rebuilding seems to relate to the years following Tiglath-pileser's defeat of the northern kingdom in 731. Indeed, history suggests that Israel did not learn from the first defeat, since Hoshea in turn refused tribute and incurred another attack by the Assyrians in 722. Even in the horror of the Assyrian assault, Isaiah perceived righteous divine judgment: “The Lord did not have pity on their young people, or compassion on their orphans and widows; for everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly” (Isa 9:16 [NRSV 9:17]).

Isaiah 10, 28–31 and the Siege of Sennacherib.

As Isaiah's critique of social-justice transgressions of Jerusalem and Judah in chapters 3–5 has already shown, his condemnation was not limited to the northern kingdom. Throughout these early chapters the following refrain appears: “For all this his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still” (5:25; 9:11, 16, 20 [NRSV 9:12, 17, 21]; 10:4). Whether it was uttered by Isaiah or introduced by a compiler, that refrain surely reflects the prophet's own sense that the cataclysm that had swallowed up Samaria could threaten Jerusalem as well.

The threat of divine judgment against Jerusalem creates a tension for the prophet. On the one hand, Isaiah held that the Lord would protect Jerusalem (e.g., 4:5: “the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night”; see further below on “Zion theology”). On the other hand, Isaiah affirmed that the historical forces causing Judah to suffer were punishments from the Lord.

This tension between judgment and salvation is already apparent in Isaiah 4:3–5 (“once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem.…”), but it receives its most complex expression in chapter 10. Reinvoking charges of social injustice, the text continues with the identification of Assyria as “the rod of [Yahweh's] anger” against “godless” Judah (10:5–6). However, the prophet makes a distinction between the Assyrian ruler's own sense of his purpose and the Lord's actual purposes: “… this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few” (Isa 10:7). Although the Assyrian king is allowed his day, the Lord will later have a day of judgment himself: “When the LORD has finished all his work


The Taylor Prism.

Six-sided clay document recording the first eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704–681 b.c.e.), c. 691. The record of Sennacherib's third campaign in 701 is of particular interest. It describes the destruction of forty-six cities in Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. The Judean king Hezekiah (r. 715–686) is said to have sent tribute to Sennacherib (chs. 36–37; cf. 2 Kgs 18:13—19:37). Size: 15 × 6.5 inches (38.5 × 16.5 centimeters). Photograph by Zev Radovan.


view larger image

on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride” (Isa 10:12). The temporal reign of the empire is subordinated to the ultimate reign of Yahweh.

This balance between judgment and salvation would have been affirmed by the campaign of Sennacherib in 701, in which Assyrians overthrew some forty-six Judean towns (according to Sennacherib's own report) and besieged Jerusalem. The city, however, was spared at that time by some combination of factors that included Hezekiah's submission, Kushite support, and Assyrian military exhaustion. Clearly Jerusalem's survival amid national devastation—“like a hut in a cucumber field” (Isa 1:8)—played a significant role in the formation of Isaianic theology. The events were significant enough to the book that the historical accounts of the campaign and siege (2 Kgs 18:13—19:37) were later inserted into Isaiah (as what are now chs. 36–37).

The same general historical situation seems to have inspired much of chapters 28–33. Isaiah 28 certainly pertains to the Assyrian threat; 28:1–4 harkens back to the fall of Samaria and warns Judah of the coming “flood” (25:2, 15, 18)—an image of the Assyrian military that is frequently found in Assyrian inscriptions. It is thus clear that Judean biblical authors came into contact with the actual propaganda of Mesopotamian powers even during the preexilic period (see Machinist 1983).

The specific transgression that is most forcefully condemned in chapter 28 is that the Jerusalemites have made a “covenant with Death”—that is, with someone or something other than Yahweh. Many theories have been advanced about the nature of this covenant; however, it seems likely that the word “death” (Heb. môt) here is a play on the name of the Egyptian national goddess Mut, which would have sounded almost exactly the same (Hays 2010). Taking Mut as a symbol of or metonym for her nation, this interpretation would place the chapter's message in line with one enunciated more clearly in chapters 30 and 31—namely, that it is “rebellious children” who “make an alliance” against the Lord's will (30:1), who “go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD” (31:1). Although the Egyptians may at times have been able to offer some direct interference against the Mesopotamian powers (Isa 37:9; Jer 37:5), this last quotation from 31:1 reflects the fact that one of the primary appeals of alliance with Egypt was its ability to supply Judah's equestrian needs (cf. 36:9; 2:7).

Isaiah 29:1–8 contains another portrait of Jerusalem besieged and oppressed unto death, this time by comparison with David's conquest of the city. The city's suffering is such that its “voice comes from the ground like the voice of a ghost” (29:4), but at the last moment a mighty theophany of Yahweh blows the enemies away “like chaff” (29:5). This picture would reflect the relief of Jerusalemites and the reasons for the prominence of the city's salvation in the history of Judean theology. If the tension within Isaiah's theology has been correctly identified, then both aspects of the passage are probably authentic.

Chapters 30 and 31 contain primarily warnings against alliance with Egypt against the Assyrians: “Egypt's help is worthless and empty” (30:7). Isaiah viewed Judah's supplication of Egyptian aid and protection as a failure of faith in the national deity, Yahweh, and he threatened that “the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation” (30:3). Historically (and despite the lone possible exception of 701), these words accurately reflect the general inefficacy of the Egyptian military against the Mesopotamian powers. The Egyptians were at best a nuisance to the Assyrians in Syria-Palestine, and were themselves conquered in the early seventh century (see also discussion of Isa 18–20, below).

Isaiah 9:1–6 and Isaiah 11–12: Royal Announcements.

In the late eighth century, Judah's hopes for deliverance from the Assyrian threat were located not only in divine intervention but also in the rule of a good king. The oracles in 9:1–6 [NRSV 9:2–7] and in chapters 11–12 reflect such hopes.

Isaiah 9:3 (NRSV 9:4) announces as a fait accompli the breaking of the rod and staff (cf. 10:5, where those items are the tools of Assyrian aggression), and the disposal by burning of the garments of the Assyrian military (sōʾēn, “sandal,” in 9:4 [NRSV 9:5] is an Assyrian loan word). As is typical of Isaiah, deliverance is portrayed as divine light breaking into darkness: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (9:1; NRSV 9:2). However, the announcement is probably proleptic.

Although the Lord may be the implied agent of these actions, the specific occasion for the optimistic words is that there is a new son on the throne of David (9:5–6; NRSV 9:6–7). Given that the new ruler is called a “child” (yeled), it is tempting to suggest that this is a late insertion, perhaps at the ascension of the boy-king Josiah in 640. However, there is also a long tradition of scholarly interpretation that locates this statement within the ancient Near Eastern rhetoric of kingship as divine sonship: the new king becomes the son of a god when he takes the throne (von Rad 1947; Roberts 1997). The names given to the Judean ruler (“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”) have further been thought to reflect the kind of throne names assumed by the pharaoh in Egyptian coronation rituals. His reign is portrayed as one of peace and justice, two characteristics that are widely attested in ancient Near Eastern portraits of good rulers.

Chapter 11 begins by predicting the emergence of a shoot or branch from the stump of Jesse—“the Branch” was a common metaphor for the Davidic heir (Jer 23:5, 33:15; Zech 3:8, etc.). Even more clearly than in 9:1–6, the reign of the good king is portrayed in terms with deep roots in both Ugaritic royal epics (e.g., Kirta) and Mesopotamian law codes and royal inscriptions: he will judge justly the case of the poor and lowly (11:4). But the poem in verses 1–9 also abounds with fresh theology and poetry: the king will not judge by his own senses, but by the wisdom of the divine spirit that rests on him (vv. 2–3); and the image of the peaceable kingdom where dangerous animals coexist with the fragile and harmless (vv. 6–9) has rightfully earned a place in the history of world art and literature. It seems likely that at least verses 11–16, and perhaps verse 10 as well, are later additions summoning those outcast and dispersed (v. 12) by the destruction of Jerusalem to return after the Babylonian Exile. The image of God's making a way out of Egypt and Assyria in a kind of second exodus (vv. 15–16) is one that occurs repeatedly in the book's postexilic section. It is also possible, however, that these verses refer to the ingathering of northerners to the southern kingdom sometime after the exile from Samaria in 721 and/or the hoped-for reunification of Israel under Josiah (Sweeney 1996).

Chapter 12 offers a hymn of thanksgiving interweaving a number of theological themes from elsewhere in Isaiah and beyond. The opening statement that “though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me” (12:1) uses the same verb as the opening of 40:1 (“Comfort my people.…”), thus strongly suggesting a postexilic date. The next verse quotes from the ancient Song of the Sea (“the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Isa 12:2, cf. Exod 15:2). The ensuing call to proclamation to the nations (v. 4) and to “all the earth” (v. 5) is reminiscent of the broad vision of Deutero-Isaiah (e.g., 49:6). All in all, the redaction of these chapters demonstrates the adaptability of royal ideology to the postexilic situation. It is likely that the author of these additions, like Haggai and Zechariah, envisioned the reestablishment of the Davidic line after the return from exile.

Isaiah 13–23: Oracles Against the Nations.

These eleven chapters comprise oracles against foreign nations. Such sections are found in each of the major prophetic books (cf. Jer 46–51; Ezek 25–32). Despite the obvious role of redaction in the compilation of these sections, each of the oracles requires individual consideration to determine its provenance and significance. On the whole, it appears that as with the preceding chapters, one finds here a significant stratum of original prophecies augmented with later additions.

Chapters 13 and 14 contain oracles against Babylon (13:1, 19) and “the king of Babylon” (14:4). This might suggest a date after the beginning of the exile, but the contents are difficult to assess historically. Chapter 13 portrays the total destruction of Babylon, which was to be “like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them,” and “will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations” (13:19–20). However, when Cyrus took Babylon in 539, it was without a struggle (see below). This contrasts sharply with the vivid and specific historical information found elsewhere in the book. Then again, the reference to the “Medes” in verse 17 does reflect a threat to Babylon from the East. Thus it is possible that the text was composed when Babylon was under attack by the Persians, since indeed Cyrus conquered and destroyed outlying cities such as Opis earlier, and in a far more vicious manner; the Nabonidus Chronicle (iii.14) refers to a massacre there. Alternatively, the text might have been composed by an author who lacked such reliable historical information, and who was carried away with imprecatory zeal. The call to dash infants against rocks (13:16) evokes Psalm 137:7, and the image of the Babylonian wasteland at the end of the chapter is fairly formulaic and very similar to that of the devastated Edom in chapter 34—another passage almost surely exilic or postexilic.

Chapter 14 is more likely to be composite. The opening images—of restoration on the land, incorporation of outsiders, taking revenge on oppressors and captors, and a respite after national hardship—can only be reflective of the postexilic situation. On the other hand, verse 4 marks a shift, and the probable incorporation of an earlier composition, a taunt-song over a defeated king. While the opening verses have a certain amount of parallelism, they are not poetic in the same way as verses 4B–23. The song threatens the Mesopotamian monarch with death in battle (he is “covered with… those pierced with the sword”; v. 19) and subverts the traditional expectations a king would have had for his afterlife: He will be powerless (vv. 10, 12, and implicitly in 16–17); his body will be infested (v. 11); not only will he not take his place among the divinized royal dead (v. 18), but his corpse will be defiled and cast out so that he will have no rest at all (v. 19). All of these outcomes are recognizably nightmarish for a Mesopotamian monarch. Thus, it is artful reversal of certain atrocities practiced by the Neo-Assyrians in particular, who were prone to expose and defile the bodily remains of the royal ancestors of peoples whom they conquered.

Indeed, the king in question is probably not a native Babylonian ruler, but one of the Assyrian Sargonids who ruled Babylon. The imagery of being covered (“clothed”) in a pit with corpses that have been pierced by the sword further suggests a death suffered in military conflict. There is only one Mesopotamian monarch who fits this portrait: Sargon II (ruled 722–705 B.C.E.). The superscription naming the “king of Babylon” may even be original, since the conflation and confusion of Assyria and Babylon is of great antiquity and extent (Dalley 1994). Thus we have a taunt composed by Isaiah ben Amoz which has been absorbed into an exilic or postexilic context.

Chapters 15–16 comprise oracles against Moab, and chapter 17 against Damascus. Both seem to have their roots in early pronouncements against these nations, which were longstanding regional rivals and peers to Judah and Israel. In the case of Damascus, the point of departure is likely the aforementioned Syro-Ephraimite crisis of the mid-730s. Chapter 17 opens with a prediction of the devastation of the Syrian capital Damascus (vv. 1–3), and connects this to the destruction of the northern kingdom (“Jacob”; vv. 4–6). The remainder of the chapter may well be a later commentary that frames these national failures in ritual terms that sound like Deutero-Isaiah—“they will not have regard for the altars, the work of their hands, and they will not look to what their own fingers have made” (v. 8; cf. the anti-idol polemics in chs. 40 and 44). The formation of chapters 15 and 16 is more difficult to determine, since our knowledge of Moab's history is so limited, but none of these three chapters is often noted for its originality or literary brilliance; instead, they have parallels with traditional prophetic materials such as Jeremiah 48–49 and Obadiah 5 (Blenkinsopp 2000, p. 298).

The situation is slightly different in chapters 18–20, in that there is every reason to believe that the bulk of these chapters relates to the historical situation in the late eighth century. Chapter 20 refers to the “Ashdod Affair” of 713–711, in which Sargon II of Assyria campaigned to the Levant in response to an uprising in the coastal city of Ashdod. The king who had taken the throne, Yamani, fled to Egypt, but he was soon extradited back to Assyria. For Isaiah, the failure of the Egyptians to protect one seeking help must have served to confirm his distrust of them. Furthermore, the sign-act undertaken by Isaiah in chapter 20—walking around naked and barefoot for three years to symbolize the weakness of the Egyptians and Kushites who were to be led away naked as captives—would have been in keeping with a long ancient Near Eastern tradition of such strange activity on the part of prophets, as opposed to the more literary nature of later biblical prophecy.

Arguably, the entirety of chapters 18–20 shows an awareness of Egyptian events and culture in the late eighth century (Niccacci 1998). The references to Kush are consistent with the rise of Dynasty 25, which was based in Ethiopia but briefly conquered the Delta region as well, and which may have been a bit more effective militarily in Palestine than the Delta dynasties (“a people feared near and far”; 18:2, 7).

In Isaiah 19:2, the Lord purposes to “stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, one against the other, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom,” which would be an apt description of this time of warring dynasties at the end of the eighth century. However, many scholars have been skeptical of the passage's authenticity to Isaiah of Jerusalem precisely because its knowledge of Egyptian culture seems too accurate for a Judean prophet. In particular, verses 5–10 describe the drying up of the Nile and the suffering of those who depend on it, drawing on the Egyptian tradition of the “Nile Curse” and employing numerous terms that have been identified as Egyptian loanwords. Hans Wildberger leaned toward the conclusion that it was the work of a late author, presumably living in exile in Egypt: “this author is someone who does not know Egypt from secondhand reports only” (Wildberger 1997, pp. 234–35). However, this view probably underestimates the extent of cultural contact between ancient Near Eastern nations, and it has more recently been argued that Isaiah ben Amoz in fact is the author of at least verses 1–15 (Hays 2008), or more (Israelit-Groll 1998); on vv. 16–25, see the discussion of the nations below.

In sum, the rejection of foreign alliances and a trust in Yahweh to protect his holy city were at the core of Isaiah's worldview. Since Egypt was the great power most tempting to the Judeans in the face of the Assyrian onslaught, Isaiah repeatedly condemns the Egyptians and those who sought their aid.

The remainder of the oracles against the nations in chapters 21–23 are as complex in their composition as chapters 13–17, and are even more difficult to assign to specific historical periods or (in some cases) even geographical referents. Chapter 21:1–10 foresees the destruction of Babylon (v. 9; the reference to the sea in v. 1 may refer to the “Sealand” of Mesopotamia, a marshy region where the Tigris and Euphrates met the Persian Gulf). Since Babylon was conquered numerous times from the Neo-Assyrian period into the Persian period, it is likely that the oracle was reinterpreted over time, though the reference to the Medes and Elamites as attackers suggests a date of origin no earlier than 539, when Persia conquered Babylon. This chapter continues with a word against “Dumah,” probably meaning Edom (cf. Gk. Idoumaia), another nation particularly hated in the aftermath of Jerusalem's destruction; the Edomites were blamed for complicity with Babylon (cf. Ps 137:7; Obadiah). Both of these sections of chapter 21 incorporate the famous image of the watchman (miṣappeh, v. 6) or sentinel (šōmēr, vv. 11–12), although the use of different terms in the two sections could indicate that they were secondarily combined. The watchman, presumably the image of a prophetic figure, sees the fall of Babylon, but his enigmatic response to Seir (Edom) is much more difficult to interpret: “Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again” (v. 12). This is not the sort of word the later prophets spoke toward Edom (Joel 3:19; Obad 1:8–16, Mal 1:4). The chapter closes with oracles against Arabia and Kedar, two other peoples to the south of Judah.

Isaiah 22 is somewhat anomalous within the “oracles against the nations” in that its oracles are not directed against foreign nations per se, but rather concern “the valley of vision” (22:1–14) and a pair of Judean officials (vv. 15–25). The identity of the “valley of vision” has spawned numerous theories, the most likely of which connects it to the “valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 4:2, 12 [NRSV 3:2, 12]), which is the location of Yahweh's judgment of the nations, and perhaps the same as the Valley of Hinnom (Blenkinsopp 2000). If so, that valley was known as a location of illicit religious practices (Jer 7:31–32; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). Indeed, the oracle is framed in verses 1 and 13 by a condemnation of those who “go up to the rooftops,” where they slaughter animals and drink—very likely also references to heterodox rituals, in light of various other prophetic references to rooftop shrines (e.g., Jer 19:13; 32:29; Zeph 1:5). The image of Judah stripped and defenseless but not fallen (v. 8) evokes the situation of Sennacherib's siege in 701, and the references to defensive activities (tearing down houses to build a wall, and bringing water supplies more securely into the city) accord well with the archaeological and biblical records of Hezekiah's activities at about that time (cf. 2 Kgs 20:20; 2 Chr 32). The organizing principle that seems to hold the chapter together is the familiar Isaianic emphasis on trust in the Lord above all else, and not in what would seem to be practical defensive preparations, let alone in other forms of ritual.

The beginning of the oracles against the officials in 22:15–25 may fit into the oracles against the nations, because Shebna is being condemned for creating a lavish individual tomb for himself on the model of those of the Egyptians and Phoenicians (cf. the increasing wealth and individuation of tombs in the late eighth century mentioned above). The problem perceived by Isaiah was thus twofold: the tomb was not only wasteful and ostentatious in a way that might have offended a prophet with an eye for social justice, it also implicitly expressed a hope for the afterlife that was not strictly traditional in Israelite religion—the hope to be preserved individually forever, instead of being “gathered to one's fathers.” Isaiah's warning is simple: Shebna will not be allowed to enjoy rest in his tomb, but will be cast out (“The LORD is about to hurl you down, O mighty man!”; v. 17). He will also be replaced by Eliakim (vv. 20–24), but this one, too, will fail and be cut down by the Lord (v. 25, which must be a later addition). One must assume that these two officials are related to those by the same names in Isaiah 36–37 and its parallel in 2 Kings 18–19, but since there Eliakim is the steward who is “over the house” (Shebna's title in 22:15), and Shebna is a “scribe” (sōfēr), the sequence of events is not clear, unless Shebna had simply been demoted. In any case, the whole chapter testifies to the temptation that foreign cultures and foreign religious practices held for Judeans, making its location among the oracles against the nations somewhat logical.

The oracles again the nations are capped by an ironic summons to lament for Tyre upon the destruction of its harbor (23:1). As is the case with Babylon above, the problem is a surfeit of possible historical referents, from the Neo-Assyrian siege of Tyre by Sennacherib and Esarhaddon to that by Alexander in 332 B.C.E. The unclear reference to the Assyrians in verse 13 and to Tyre's citadels suggests an authentic oracle perhaps reworked in a later period (or periods). The description of the pride and glory of the powerful brought low (23:8–9) is one that runs through not only chapters 13–23 (13:11, 19; 16:6, 14; 17:14; 21:16), but through the early sections of the book (2:11, 17; 4:2; 9:8 [NRSV 9:9]; 10:11). For Isaiah and for his tradents, stature was relative: Yahweh asserted his own glory by bringing low those who opposed him and his people. This theological theme is probably of considerable antiquity (cf. Exod 14:14–18).

Isaiah 24–27.

The foregoing chapters having enumerated many nations that stand under the Lord's judgment, chapter 24 sweeps these up into a wider vision in which the land itself is violently ripped up, and its inhabitants are punished, seemingly without distinction: “as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master,” etc. (24:2). When the focus narrows, it is to a “city of chaos (tôhû)” (v. 10)—a word that is much favored by the prophet of Deutero-Isaiah (40:17, 23; 41:29; 44:9; 45:18–19; 49:4; cf. 34:11), and that may thus mark the city as Babylon. However, the city is to be broken down and left desolate (vv. 10–12)—which, as with chapter 13 above, does not match the events of 539 well. The Lord's bloody harvest is met with rejoicing from the nations east and west (vv. 14–16a). The plain sense of the text does not refer to any universal (let alone eschatological) devastation, but rather to natural disasters such as earthquakes (v. 1; cf. Amos 1:1), drought (v. 4), and plague (v. 6) that are interpreted as signs of divine judgment. It is the lack of specificity about the object of judgment that has allowed the idea of a universal judgment to take root in the history of interpretation.

The state of the question regarding the composition of Isaiah 24–27 has changed markedly over the past thirty years. In the wake of Duhm and other nineteenth-century critics, generations of students were taught that these chapters were “apocalyptic” in nature and reflected religious ideas that could only have been possible in a late period (cf. Rudolph 1933)—as late as the first century B.C.E. However, beginning in the 1970s, the pendulum began to swing back toward an earlier date, as the distance between these chapters and Hellenistic apocalyptic became clear. The Isaiah scrolls from the second century B.C.E. at Qumran not only rule out the latest dates that have been advanced, they also suggest the relative stability of the Isaianic text. Since William R. Millar's literary and thematic study (1976), most recent commentators place the text in the sixth century. Furthermore, since Millar showed that the text is lacking in linguistic and formal indications of lateness, it has become possible again to argue for an even earlier date.

The primary reason for scholars to maintain a postexilic date now is the assumption that the literary relationship of Isaiah 24–27 to other biblical texts is due to a later Isaianic author's interplay with snippets of earlier texts: scholars frequently make use of intertextual analysis in order to establish both the text's theological/ideological affinities with other biblical texts (or lack thereof) and its place in the relative chronological order of the book's composition (e.g., Hibbard 2006). Such research most often draws comparisons with other parts of Isaiah, but other texts such as Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah have also been adduced in this regard. The trouble with this type of intertextual analysis is the difficulty of establishing the priority of one text over another. Without recourse to criteria such as historical references (which are scant in chs. 24–27) or linguistic typology, one can often just as well assume that the texts in chapters 24–27 have priority over those elsewhere, or that both derive from a common source or tradition.

It is likely that at least parts of chapters 24–27 were composed during the reign of Josiah in the late seventh century (cf. Sweeney, who takes this view of ch. 27). Egypt had been conquered by Assyria, and then Assyria was conquered as well (Isa 27:7 may reflect this complex sequence of historical events). With the crumbling of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, there was a power vacuum in Palestine during which Judah was able to flourish. A tradent from that period has taken up some of the language of earlier passages to celebrate what seemed to be a major new era of peace and prosperity in Judah's history. In the elation over the restoration of political freedom, he envisions the concomitant restoration of Yahweh's rule over his land; this triumph is to be celebrated by a great feast on Mount Zion, in which the nations are even offered a place at Yahweh's table (25:6). In earlier passages Yahweh dealt death toward Judah's enemies in order to punish them, and the promise of life is typically a faint whisper if it is there at all, but in Isaiah 25 and 26, the promise of life comes to the fore, and the punishment of the wicked is pushed to the background.

There is also a significant shift in the voice or attitude of the people. In earlier texts the prophet's condemnations of the people's sinfulness and impotence had no discernible effect, but the first-person plural forms in 26:12–13, 17–18 confess faithlessness, apostasy, and powerlessness. The confession and softening of the people's hearts both responds to and makes way for divine grace.

Isaiah 32–39.

Although these chapters relate in various ways to the prophecies and historical backgrounds of Isaiah of Jerusalem, they may be understood largely as products of the editorial shaping of the book. See further below under “Formation of the Book.”

An exception to this observation is the “psalm of Hezekiah” (38:9–20), in which there are no indications of lateness, and which may indeed have been composed in Hezekiah's time (Barré 2005; Hallo 1976). In the psalm, Hezekiah's experience mirrors that of his city: he is near to death but spared by divine grace.

Chapters 40–66

Isaiah 40–48: Between Babylon and Persia.

The book's narrative skips over the years of the Babylonian exile almost entirely, picking up again near its end. The section opens with an injunction from the Lord (“Comfort, O comfort my people.…”) and chapters 40–55 have sometimes been described as a “Book of Comfort” or “Book of Consolation.” The historical shift is reflected in various ways. One is the sequence of perfect-aspect verbs in 40:2: “[Jerusalem] has served her term.…  her iniquity has been expiated.…  she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.” Not only do these phrases strongly suggest completed, past actions, the message itself is very different from that of Isaiah ben Amoz. The earlier prophecies of divine wrath had not only come true, they had arguably been surpassed with Jerusalem's total devastation. Now the message becomes more thoroughly positive than any of the messages from Isaiah ben Amoz.

The closing of chapter 40 promises that “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31). This seems to respond not only to the suffering of some of the exiles, but also to the massive effort and upheaval that moving back to Jerusalem and helping to reestablish the city would have entailed. Jerusalem was not rebuilt by the Babylonians; it was without both Temple and walls. The comforts and protections that a city would normally have afforded in the ancient world were absent. Although laments for Zion such as Psalm 137 might lead a reader to conclude that all Judeans were longing to return, Nehemiah 11:1–2 describes a very different situation in which people cast lots to determine one in ten who would live in Jerusalem, and those who did were blessed for making such a sacrifice! In that light, other texts in this portion of Isaiah also seem to reflect the struggle to repopulate the city (e.g., 49:19: “Surely your waste and your desolate places and your devastated land—surely now you will be too crowded for your inhabitants.”) The author of Deutero-Isaiah thus served an encouraging function during the restoration.

In Isaiah's vision of the restored Jerusalem and Judah, there is at least one very notable disjunction from the preexilic situation: the Persian emperor Cyrus, who captured Babylon in 539 and issued an edict in 538 allowing the Judeans to return home and rebuild their Temple, fulfills the role of the anointed (45:1) and divinely chosen human king. Although anointing was used for various purposes in ancient Israel, the title “the LORD's anointed” refers specifically to kings of Israel and Judah in the Hebrew Bible (Fried 2002). The passages referring to Cyrus are without a doubt the most positive words in the Bible about any foreign king. The Lord says to him: “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose” (44:28). Nevertheless, these favors accorded Cyrus are not an end unto themselves; the Lord promises to “go before you and level the mountains,” and to “give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (45:2–3), but it is “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen” (45:4) and so that all may know “that there is no one besides me” (45:6). Cyrus, like the Neo-Assyrian ruler in chapter 10, is portrayed not as a free agent, but as an instrument of the Lord's plan (see further below).

Although chapters 40–55 are full of gracious promises for Israel and for Cyrus, God's benevolence towards them comes at Babylon's expense. Chapters 47–48 are the primary locus of this judgment: “Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea!” (47:1). With its portrait of a sudden defeat (47:9) without any great destruction, it reflects closely the way in which Cyrus took Babylon. (Cyrus conspired to capture the Babylonian king, Nabonidus, before entering the city in triumph, apparently without encountering military resistance.) The passage is probably an instance of prophecy after the fact.

One of the exilic prophet's favorite devices is allusion to theological themes in the people's past, as is apparent in the well-known poem of chapter 40. Most notably, the prophet animates the process of restoration and return with images of a new creation (cf. 40:22, 26) and a new exodus. But this new exodus will be different from the old one: there will be no wilderness wandering this time, nor will the Lord take the circuitous royal road that Mesopotamians and Persians used to get to Palestine; instead, he is portrayed as going straight across the desert wilderness and the hills of the Levant: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa 40:3). In hastening Yahweh home by the shortest, straightest possible route, this text also emphatically reasserts that Jerusalem is to be Yahweh's home again after the desertion portrayed in Ezekiel 1:8–10.

These same themes of creation and new exodus can be seen in Isaiah 51. The rebuilding of Jerusalem is portrayed in terms that evoke God's first act of creation in Genesis: “For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (51:3). Indeed, the reestablishment of order in a ransacked and deserted Jerusalem must


Stela of King Nabonidus.

Representation of Nabonidus (r. 556–539 b.c.e.), last king of Babylonia. Size: 23 × 18 inches (58 × 46 centimeters). Cyrus the Great (r. 558–529) defeated Babylon and captured Nabonidus in 539. Chapters 47–48 detail Babylon's fall.


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have seemed like a task on the order of bringing life out of the primordial watery chaos. Later in the chapter, the new exodus is framed in the language of Israel's ancient military songs:

“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD!Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago!…Was it not you who dried up the sea,the waters of the great deep;who made the depths of the sea a wayfor the redeemed to cross over?So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,and come to Zion with a joyful shout.…”

—(Isa 51:9–11; cf. Judg 5:12; Exod 15:8, 13, 16, 19)

Elsewhere, the prophet alludes to Abraham: “He was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isa 51:2); behind this reference lies the idea that the barren patriarch and his wife are hopeful models for the postexilic Judeans who had to rebuild their population. All in all, it is hard to avoid the impression that this author had in mind a version of Israel's foundational story not unlike what is found in the Pentateuch as it exists today—such as might have been read publicly in the postexilic period (cf. Neh 8).

Distinctive theological features of Isaiah 40–55 such as their monotheistic and universalistic aspects are often noted; these are discussed below under “Theological Themes.”

The Servant and the Servants.

The use of the language of servanthood in Isaiah 40–66 has been one of the most notorious cruxes in the study of the Hebrew Bible, and has spawned so much literature that a number of monographic studies have appeared over the years just to summarize and assess it (North 1956; Haag 1985; Janowski 2004). At the end of the nineteenth century, Bernard Duhm delineated four Servant Songs (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–11; 52:13—53:12) as distinct compositions, but many scholars have argued in recent years that the songs are in fact integral to their contexts (e.g., Childs 2001; Seitz 2004).

The noun “servant” (‘ebed) occurs thirty-one times in chapters 40–66, in a diversity of usages that has consistently defied any single or simple explanation. Perhaps the most cogent analysis has been offered by Blenkinsopp (1983), who perceived a Deuteronomistic tradition of servanthood rooted ultimately in the person of Moses, which then diverged into the two related branches of prophecy and kingship; indeed, both Isaiah [20:3] and David [37:35] are referred to as “servant” elsewhere in the book. The language of servanthood is used in different ways in the three major divisions of 40–66: in 40–48, whenever the referent is clear, it refers to Israel (some seven times); in 49–55, the focus turns to an individual figure who is an agent of salvation to the people and the whole earth (e.g., 49:5–6). There is also a more negative cast to the later servant texts: in 50:10, he “walks in darkness,” and the image of the servant's suffering in Isaiah 53 is well known. If these texts all refer to a single figure, one might conclude that the servant—whose mission started off with bright hopes, and who symbolized the prospects of the whole nation—had failed, and even been killed (53:9: “They made his grave with the wicked”). If indeed the servant was killed, then he seems to have become a kind of martyr: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (53:5).

In 56–66, the singular “servant” disappears and there are repeated references to “the servants,” whom Blenkinsopp takes to have been converts to the message that the servant had brought, and as a forerunner of the Hasidic sects known from later in the Second Temple period. A strong distinction is finally made in these chapters between the servants, who are faithful, and the rest of the people: “My servants shall eat, but you [who forsake the Lord] shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame” (Isa 65:13).

Countless theories have been advanced about the historical identity of the servant (see North), but in the end the very difficulty of determining its original referent has only added to its intrigue, inspiring later readers to perceive new things in it (see below, under “History of Interpretation”).

Isaiah 56–66: New Grace and New Judgment.

In these chapters, the focus turns from the initial optimism of restoration in the land to some of the difficult realities of postexilic existence: Who is in the community and who is out? What are the limits of the grace and comfort of God that are proclaimed in chapters 40–55?

Despite the shift in focus, the status of these chapters as an independent book (“Trito-Isaiah”), secondarily joined to the rest, is not at all certain. There are two primary reasons commonly given for this disjunction: First, the references to the “house” of the Lord (56:5, 7, etc.) and the Temple (66:6) have suggested to some that the texts presuppose the rebuilding of the Temple (usually assigned to 515), rendering a date at least two decades after the end of the exile, which is usually where Deutero-Isaiah is placed. Second, some have perceived a shift in tone from comfort to judgment and posited that these chapters are addressed to a later situation in which discipline had supplanted comfort as the primary need of the hearers, in the view of the author.

It is not at all clear from these texts that the Temple had been rebuilt, however. In Isa 64:10 (NRSV 64:11), the people lament, “our holy house has been burned by fire,” and in 66:1, the Lord asks, “what is the house you will build [or “would build” or “are building”] for me?” In that light, references such as, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer” (Isa 56:7), may have reflected future aspirations rather than present realities. Such exhortations would be logical in such an atmosphere where it was necessary to generate support to rebuild the Temple (cf. Haggai).

The shift in tone is potentially more significant in establishing the relationship between 40–55 and 56–66, particularly the aforementioned division between “the servants,” who are portrayed as faithful to Yahweh, and others portrayed as blind sentinels (56:9–11) who cannot protect the people. When Trito-Isaiah condemns, it typically does so in harsh terms. There is an increased attention in these final chapters to ritual transgressions. Isaiah 57:5–14 contains a large and diverse catalogue of heterodox practices, from child sacrifice to illicit offerings to idol-worship. Separate from this is a condemnation of social injustice in fairly traditional terms in 59:7–8: “Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood.… The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths.” Perhaps most famous of all in this negative vein is the image at the end of the book (66:24): “the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me… their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” This graphic vision, which would inform many later images of hell, was disturbing enough that in Jewish tradition the haftarah reading does not end there, but repeats 66:23 in order to close on a more positive note.

Interestingly, even as this new outlook problematized Yahweh's relationship with his own people, it seems to have opened the door to some who would traditionally have been excluded from full participation in the community. Those newly welcomed include the foreigner and the eunuch—the latter group probably a subset of the former, since castration is not known to have been practiced in ancient Israel. Both of these groups would have been barred from the “assembly of the LORD” by Deuteronomy 23:1–9, although the underlying Hebrew terms are different. (Foreigners are also excluded in various ways in Exod 12:43, Lev 22:25, and Ezek 44:9.) The eunuchs who “keep my sabbaths, choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant” (Isa 56:4) are promised a remembrance in the Lord's house. The situation with other foreigners is even more surprising: They are invited to “minister to [the LORD]… and to be his servants”—a text which strongly suggests that foreigners were being accepted into the priesthood (cf. 66:18–21), though that has been disputed. The image of the Lord's Temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7; cf. 2:3; Mic 4:1), even to those who were excluded by the law of an earlier era, has been a powerful vision for inclusiveness throughout the history of the text's interpretation.

Despite the increasingly negative evaluation of the people in 56–66, the distinction from 40–55 should not be overdrawn. For example, Isaiah 48 deems Jacob obstinate (v. 4) and heedless of the Lord's commandments (v. 18), and ends with the refrain “ ‘There is no peace,’ says the LORD, ‘for the wicked.’ ”—which is nearly identical to that of 57:21. Furthermore, a division within the people is portrayed in Isaiah 53 as well, where a group confesses that they did not perceive the righteousness of the servant's cause while he was suffering (vv. 2–3), and go on to confess, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (v. 6). Although the outlook of these passages is more optimistic and forbearing than that of the later texts, it does not seem that they presuppose a fundamentally different social situation. And certainly harsh judgment and violent language are not foreign to the author of 40–55, although in those chapters they are more often reserved for foreign nations (e.g., 49:26: “I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine”).

Chapters 56–66, for their part, have a significant number of positive prophetic words, such as chapter 60's brilliant image of a rebuilt Zion as a beacon to the nations: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.… Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever” (Isa 60:1, 3, 21). This theo-political perspective, in which the foreign nations will be blessed, but only through an exalted Jerusalem, is entirely in keeping with that of Deutero-Isaiah (not to mention Gen 12:2–3). These same chapters also announce the creation of a “new heavens and new earth” (65:17, 66:22) as a cause to “be glad and rejoice forever” (v. 18), and God will rejoice as well: “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people” (v. 19).

In sum, Isaiah 56–66 does not represent a turn for the pessimistic so much as a reaction to the reality of the restoration period. Because it did not attain to the kind of holiness and righteousness that characterized the earlier Isaianic hopes, God is portrayed as taking a new tack by making sharper divisions among the people. The idea that there is a major disjunction in outlook or date between 40–55 and 56–66 is not well supported, despite widespread scholarly support for the idea. It is, of course, feasible to argue that the similarities between the sections are the result of redaction; but it is also entirely possible to conclude that 40–66 as a whole represents collected statements from a single prophet or author whose outlook evolved and changed over time. One's conclusions will be determined more by assumptions about how the book was formed (and how prophetic books in general took shape during the postexilic period) than by the content of the texts themselves.

The Formation of the Book (with Special Reference to Chapters 1–2 and 32–39).

The formation of the book of Isaiah was complex. All extant Hebrew manuscripts reflect spelling conventions of the postexilic period, so at a minimum the orthography has been updated, and it is probably very naïve to assume that the book could have gone unchanged otherwise. There are limits to how late one can posit redaction of the book. In addition to the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran mentioned above, which demonstrates the fixity of the book's shape by the second century B.C.E., there is also the roughly contemporaneous Sirach 48:17–25, which strongly suggests that at least Isaiah 36–39 was in its present order at that time. The final structure of the book is commonly assumed to have taken shape in the fifth century, since Trito-Isaiah is often assigned the same date; on the other hand, the considerations above have shown that the late sixth century would be possible as well. Later dates are also possible, but depend on the assignation of redactional strata to the later Persian period; because of the dearth of information about the Persian period in Palestine, such theories are highly speculative.

There have been two primary ways of viewing the book's formation. Duhm and some later scholars advanced a “unification hypothesis” (Vereinigungshypothese), which held that the material in Isaiah 40–66 (or 40–55 and 56–66 both) was composed as a separate work from that of Isaiah of Jerusalem, and only secondarily combined. In its most extreme form, this combination was said to be due simply to an excess of space at the end of ancient scrolls. However, as the foregoing discussion of chapters 1–39 and the discussion of themes below suggests,


The Great Isaiah Scroll.

Discovered in Cave 1 at Qumran in 1947, the scroll dates to c. 100 b.c.e. The four columns in the center contain Isaiah 58:6—63:4. Each column is c. 10.5 inches (27 centimeters) high.


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the interconnections between the book's sections are sufficiently extensive to favor the theory that the author of the later chapters was familiar with the earlier material, and indeed also redacted it (Williamson 1994). This “expansion hypothesis” (Fortschreibungshypothese) better explains the data.

The initial stages of the book's redaction can be better understood in light of recent studies comparing it with the compilation and editing of Neo-Assyrian prophecies (de Jong 2007). In the Sargonid royal courts, prophetic oracles were recorded in daily records on one form of tablet, and then often later compiled on a different kind of tablet for special occasions such as a major military campaign or the succession of a new king. Whether Isaiah's prophecies were initially recorded by court scribes or perhaps by himself and his disciples (8:1, 16), it is clear that at some point these were confirmed and validated, and were then collected, thereby taking on a sort of official status. (The year 701, when Sennacherib simultaneously devastated Judah and spared Jerusalem, would be a natural historical moment for that shift.)

The collection of Isaiah's original oracles would undergo editing over the years, but the extent and nature of that editing is very much in dispute. Some scholars limit the surviving work of Isaiah ben Amoz within the book to a handful of verses, but that is unduly skeptical and dismissive of significant grounding in the eighth century; if nothing else, this extreme reduction of Isaiah fails to explain why the book eventually grew to such great proportions and significance. More likely, large portions of chapters 3–23 and 28–31 are attributable to Isaiah.

The reign of Josiah may have been another important period for the book's formation, as it was for the formation of other parts of the Hebrew Bible. The theory of an “anti-Assyrian” redaction during the late seventh century has won significant support (Barth 1997; Sheppard 1985). The nature of this redaction seems to have been to accentuate the positive aspects of Isaiah's prophecies by augmenting them during a period in which the Assyrian Empire was crumbling, while Jerusalem and Judah enjoyed relative peace and prosperity (de Jong). It is possible that the optimistic words of, for example, 2:2 are attributable to this period: “The LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” (This represents a typical Isaianic conundrum, however: this passage has great similarities with the postexilic chapter 60; are they from the same hand, or is one dependent on another, and, if so, which is earliest and when are they each to be dated?)

Chapters 32 and 33, which are bracketed by images of good rule overcoming bad, likely constitute another redactional unit from Josiah's time. The reference to the “destroyer's” comeuppance—“when you have ceased to destroy, you will be destroyed” (33:1)—is reminiscent of Isaiah's earlier threats against the Assyrians, but these chapters are more abstract and less clearly connected to the events of the prophet's time. It is logical that, if they are part of a Josianic edition, he would be the righteous king (32:1; 33:17) who restored Judean freedom, so that the people would “no longer see the insolent people, the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend” (33:19), that is, the Assyrians. In light of the city's fall in 586, if one looks to a date that is much later than Josiah, the passage's vision of Jerusalem as “an immovable tent whose stakes will never be pulled up” (33:20) becomes difficult to explain.

Chapters 34 and 35 are likely later still. The extreme and violent judgment against Edom in chapter 34 is characteristic of the exilic and postexilic periods, since Judeans seem to have held Edom partly responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 (cf. Ps 137:7; Isa 63:1; Lam 4:21–22; Ezek 36:5; Obad 1:8–16, etc.). The joyous images of the restoration of peace and fertility in the land in chapter 35 owe something to the royal rhetoric of First Isaiah, but are even more similar to Deutero-Isaiah's images of restoration and ingathering (e.g., “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing” [35:10]). In short, these appear to be from the same period as Deutero-Isaiah; it may be that chapter 34 in particular was located with the earlier prophecies of Isaiah so as not to incorporate it into a section (40–55) in which the primary theme is comfort.

Isaiah is unusual among the writing prophets in that the Deuteronomistic History preserves stories about him. It is commonly observed that the Isaiah of the parallel prose accounts of Isaiah 37–39 and 2 Kings 19–20—as a wonder-worker and a servant to the king—looks rather different from the Isaiah of the earlier chapters of the book. His interactions with Hezekiah occur particularly in the context of Sennacherib's campaign to Judah. These were recounted in 2 Kings 18:13—19:37, where they are generally thought to originate, and were imported, with only very slight variations, as Isaiah 36–37. Isaiah spars verbally with the Assyrian envoys in chapter 37, renouncing their claims that Yahweh had handed over the city and thus comforting Hezekiah, who recedes weakly into the background (compare the brave Hezekiah of 2 Chr 32). The stories continue with the account of Hezekiah's sickness, which becomes the setting for the psalm of Hezekiah (see above). He is first given a negative oracular prognosis by Isaiah; but after the psalm, Isaiah prescribes the application of figs to cure him. Interestingly, the Isaianic passage omits Isaiah's sign of the sun moving backwards that is found in Kings, so that Hezekiah receives no concrete sign that he will return to the house of the Lord.

As a final borrowing from the history, Isaiah 39 reports the account of a visit of Babylonian envoys from 2 Kings 20:12–19, in which Hezekiah incurs the prophet's wrath for showing off Judah's wealth; it may be that this last story was important to the redactor because it has Isaiah foretelling the Babylonian exile, and thus creates a bridge to the postexilic portion of the book.

It seems likely that the book of Isaiah underwent a “double redaction” analogous to that of the Deuteronomistic History: we have noted that there is a distinct Josianic layer, and Isaiah 39 supplies a rationale for the fall of Jerusalem and the House of David, meaning that chapters 34–39 were likely added during the exile or just afterward. However, the comparison of Isaiah 39:4–8 with 2 Kings 24:3 (the former blames the fall of the Judean kingdom on Hezekiah, and the latter on Manasseh) suggests that the school of thought at work in Isaiah was distinct from the Deuteronomist's.

A final issue is presented by chapters 1 and 2, each of which has its own superscription. Both superscriptions refer to “Judah and Jerusalem,” a formulation that is characteristic of Chronicles and Ezra, and thus late. Each chapter deserves close analysis and may be of complex composition, but in general chapter 2 has much in common with 40–55 (notably the polemic against idols in v. 20 and the streaming of peoples and their offering to Jerusalem in vv. 2–4; cf. 49:22, 55:5), and chapter 1 with 56–66 (notably its judgment, especially upon “rebels and sinners” and those whose rituals involve oaks and gardens; vv. 28–29; cf. 57:4–5; 59:12; 65:3; 66:17, 24).

In sum, a simplified model of the book's formation would include:

  • 1) The prophet's original oracles, collected by a follower, or by court scribes, or both;
  • 2) the compilation and redaction of these original oracles, perhaps under Hezekiah in 701;
  • 3) a Josianic author reworking the first collection and adding at least 24–27 and 32–33;
  • 4) an author in the time of chapters 40–55 framing chapters 3–33 with chapters 2 and 34–39; and
  • 5) an author in the time of chapters 56–66 adding chapter 1 as a new opening to the book.

This highly schematic account is offered only as an overview, and is not intended to replace the more detailed reflections above.

Literary Features.

The literary artistry of the book of Isaiah has been widely recognized—and not that of one section or stratum only. Although diverse in its composition, the book seems to have been composed by a number of gifted poets and rhetoricians. The great literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold, in his 1883 translation of the book, professed to have received more “delight and stimulus” from Isaiah than from Shakespeare or Milton, those master poets of his own native language (Arnold).

Sections of the book usually attributed to Isaiah ben Amoz are richly imagistic, with portraits such as that of Jerusalem's nobility parading into the gaping maw of Sheol (5:14), an allusion to West Semitic mythology (cf. the Baal Cycle, Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places 1.5). There is also the complex imagery surrounding the king of Assyria, who is at one moment a raging flood (8:7–8), at another a robber of birds' nests (10:14), and at still another a rod in the hand of Yahweh with which to beat Judah (10:5). Isaiah was also creative in his employment of genres such as a mournful love song (5:1–7) and a mock-lament over a dead king (14:4B–23). One might note also the prophetic lawsuits in Isaiah 1:2–7 and Isaiah 43, although these are from different hands.

Wordplay is widespread in Isaiah, though it is difficult to capture in translation. As example, in Isaiah 5:7, the prophet says Yahweh expected justice (mišpāṭ), from Israel, but instead there was bloodshed (mišpāḥ), he expected righteousness (ṣedaqâ) but heard a cry (ṣeʿāqâ) of oppressed people. (The New Jewish Publication Society translation renders the latter word-pair as “equity” and “iniquity,” rendering a sense of the phonological play, if not the exact meaning.) Alliteration and assonance are similarly widespread; an extreme example of the former is found in 24:16: rāzî lî, rāzî lî, ʾôy lî, kî bōgĕdîm bāgādû û-beged bōgĕdîm bāgādû (“I pine away, I pine away. Woe is me! For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously”). It is clear that the poet delighted in the sounds of the language itself.

Two poetic devices are particularly characteristic of Isaiah ben Amoz. The first is paronomasia (punning), as in 28:15, 18, with its play on a “covenant with death (môt),” which can also be read as “a covenant with Mut,” one of the national goddesses of Egypt—the words would have sounded almost identical. The prophet thereby likens a pact with Egypt to a covenant with death (Hays 2010; see more generally Roberts 1992; Casanowicz 1893). The second is jus talionis (retributive justice), in which the prophet announces that the punishment will take the form of the transgression. For example, 30:15–16: “You refused [to trust Yahweh] and said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’—therefore you shall flee! and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’—therefore your pursuers shall be swift!” Another example, less obvious, is 8:19–22, where those who seek necromantic knowledge instead of listening to Yahweh's word are compared to the unhappy dead: underground, in darkness, without provisions.

The latter chapters of Isaiah are rich with literary beauty, beginning with chapter 40's word of soothing comfort to the people for whom the return to a devastated Jerusalem may have seemed more than they could endure. The ring of the Hebrew cannot quite be captured in translation, but with a rising drumbeat of poetic parallelism, the prophet set a magisterial cadence for the march from Babylon to Jerusalem:

Have you not known?Have you not heard?Yahweh is the everlasting God,the Creator of the ends of the earth.He does not faint or grow weary;his understanding is unsearchable.He gives power to the faint,and strengthens the powerless.Even youths will faint and be weary,and the young will fall exhausted;but those who wait for Yahweh shall renew their strength,they shall mount up with wings like eagles,they shall run and not be weary,they shall walk and not faint (40:28–31).

We have already noted above that the latter chapters are rich in allusions to theological traditions and even narratives about Israel's past (such as creation, exodus, and Abraham). Allusion and intertextuality are prominent literary devices in 40–66 in ways that go beyond the use of major traditions. For example, 11:12 says that God “will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth”; following that, Isaiah 56:8, after inviting foreigners into the community, attributes this new word to “the Lord Yahweh, who gathers the outcasts of Israel” and who says “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” Thus, in the postexilic period, an allusion to an earlier Isaianic text served as warrant for new theological and social ideas.

It is clear that even in announcing that God was doing new things, the author of these later texts emphasized continuity with former things (41:22; 42:9; 43:9; 46:8–9)—although there is a tension inherent in the text between the need to remember and the desire not to constrain God by reference to the past (43:18; 65:17).

Finally, the book has also been recognized for its dramatic character (cf. Watts 2005), and it has even been argued that chapters 40–55 were composed as a “festival scroll” for a ritual drama (Baltzer 1999). While it would be difficult to prove that these theories are grounded in any actual historical dramatic practice, they call attention to the many voices, implicit and explicit, that populate the book, and to the threads that run like subplots through the diverse historical backgrounds spanned by the book in its final form.

Major Theological Themes.

The book of Isaiah has rich potential for holistic theological reading, despite its diversity and its long and complex history of composition and formation. In addition to the theological ideas touched on above with reference to specific sections and passages, one can also follow certain threads through larger swaths of the book.

As an example of a motif that runs through the whole, one might take the complex set of intertexts comprising images of the divine potter (or shaper of clay), which are found in every major stratum of the book (29:16: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?”; 30:14: “Its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel”; 41:25: “He shall trample on rulers… as the potter treads clay”; 45:9: “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!”; 64:7 [NRSV 64:8]: “We are the clay, and you are our potter.”) Whatever the processes by which this motif became so widespread, it is interesting to note how each instance employs the theological idea, culminating in the striking confession of 64:8.

Some other pervasive themes include:

  • • social justice, that is, the idea that the Lord is specially concerned (and often enraged) about the treatment of the lowly by the powerful—from the eighth-century socioeconomic crises (Isa 3–5, etc.) to the postexilic struggles to rebuild Jerusalem and Judah (Isa 58; cf. Neh 5:1–5);
  • • the special place of Jerusalem/Zion in the Lord's sight, from his protection of it in the eighth century (e.g., 31:4, 9; 12:6), to his comforting of it at the end of exile (40:2; 51:3), to his supernatural re-creation of it in the exilic period (60:17; 65:18);
  • • messianic hopes, which invest the nation's aspirations for flourishing and righteousness in a single individual—hopes that are borne by Judean kings in the preexilic period (9:1–6 [NRSV 9:2–7]; 11:1–10), by Cyrus in the exilic period (45:1), and by the mysterious Servant in the postexilic period (Williamson 1998).

Several other widespread themes require more detailed comment:

Two theological ideas that run through the book seem to have logical and historical links, namely the theme of the divine plan, and the theme of monotheism. The passages from First Isaiah that assert a divine plan—overarching history and superseding the intentions of human rulers—already presume a kind of functional monotheism (Levine 2005). Isaiah 10:7 has the Lord say that the Assyrian ruler will punish Judah's faithlessness “though this is not what he intends,” and adds that “when the LORD has finished all his work on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride” (10:12; cf. 14:24–27). There is no mention of any agency whatsoever on the part of Assyrian deities; there is only the plan of Yahweh. That is already a significant theological statement, but Deutero-Isaiah famously makes the claim explicit: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other; besides me there is no god” (45:5, cf. 45:18, 21–22; 46:9). It is generally concluded that this moment in the sixth century is the first point at which the Bible expresses true monotheism in the sense of the denial of the existence of other deities (Smith 2001; Fox 2006). Both in the Neo-Assyrian period and in the Persian period, the assertion of the universal power of Yahweh may be understood as a reaction against the hegemonic claims of foreign empires and emperors, who already in the case of the Sargonids took titles such as “king of the universe.” Such claims could not coexist easily with the traditional jealousy of Yahweh, a theological claim of relative antiquity (e.g., Exod 20:5).

If the claims about the universal power of Yahweh had an impact on theology proper, they also seem to have had sociopolitical implications, resulting in a new inclusiveness toward groups who had previously been excluded—notably in Isaiah 56 (and 66:20–23), where eunuchs and foreigners are invited to join themselves to the Lord. Both those groups are explicitly excluded from the assembly of the Lord in Deuteronomy 23:1–6, and foreigners are inveighed against rather broadly elsewhere as well (Exod 12:43; Ezek 44:9); marriage to foreign women was clearly a particular flashpoint of controversy in the postexilic period (Ezra 9–10; Neh 13). The suggestion that foreigners may “minister” to the Lord (56:6) is widely taken to mean that they are accepted into the priesthood, which was a particularly galling idea to many later interpreters, and was translated out of a number of later versions of the text (Van Winkle 1997). It should be noted that these previously excluded groups are invited in only on the condition that they conform to religious practices such as keeping the Sabbath and the covenant.

The radical (and apparently somewhat scandalous) inclusiveness of Isaiah 56 must be distinguished from the intention of the Lord to bless the nations via their subordination to his people, which is much more widespread, especially in Deutero-Isaiah (cf. 51:1–6; 49:6) but is also found in Trito-Isaiah (60:1–22). It is possible that, as with monotheism, a universal grace on the part of God may be found in texts from Isaiah of Jerusalem as well, though this depends on the date of Isaiah 19:16–25, in which Israel is called “a third” next to Egypt and Assyria, and the Lord reveals himself to the Egyptians, who worship him. In any case, through later additions such as Isaiah 2:2–4 (“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD”) and the feast for the nations in Isaiah 25, the book becomes a rather interesting and surprising locus within the Bible for international peace and harmony (Cohen and Westbrook 1994).

Finally, the theme of death and life pervades the book (Hays, forthcoming); it consistently presents dichotomies and alternatives in which the negative or wrong side is portrayed as leading to death. Isaiah's use of death imagery, which draws on ancient Near Eastern mythic motifs and Israelite rhetorical traditions, falls into a few major categories. The first is threats of unhappy afterlife. Both in 14:4–23, where a deceased Sargon II is taunted and cast out from his tomb, and in 30:27–33, where another (probably Assyrian) king is burned, the author subverts traditional afterlife expectations of Mesopotamian royalty by prescribing the worst possible death and (non-)burial for the king. Isaiah 22:15–19 shows that Isaiah could also curse his fellow citizens to an unhappy afterlife.

Isaiah also threatened that the living would become like the dead if they rejected his exhortations. In 5:11–17, the debauched and greedy nobility of Jerusalem are imagined as parading straight into the gullet of Sheol. In 8:16–22, those who seek the dead for counsel instead of Yahweh receive more than they bargained for; the advocates of necromancy are portrayed as being like the unhappy dead—hopeless, angry, hungry, and in the dark. The people of the city are reduced to whispering from the dust like the dead. Ancestor worship (“cults of the dead”) is also condemned in 19:1–15, where the necromancy of the Egyptians is portrayed as being just as futile as that of the Judeans. Finally, the oracles beginning with the particle hôy that appear throughout the book have their roots in a cry of funerary lament. In the eighth century, such cries were still closely correlated with images and threats of death. These hôy-oracles thus function as a proleptic lament over the demise of the prophet's fellow citizens.

In general, death and its associated phenomena are always portrayed negatively in Isaiah. There is no hint of death as welcome as in, say, Job 3:20–22; 7:13–19. Death and its manifestations are consistently invoked as the judgment upon the enemies of the prophet. But for all its emphasis on death, the book does not, in its final form, revolve around that topic, but rather uses the threat and horror of death to draw stark contrasts with Yahweh's offer of life and hope. In the wake of the condemnations and warnings of 8:19–23 and 29:1–4, 9:1–6 (NRSV 9:2–7) and 29:5–8 portray Yahweh's overcoming of the state of death and his promise of life. Darkness turns to light and nightmares vanish. That power and that promise are developed even more clearly and extensively in 38:9–20; 25:6–8; and 26:11–21, in which Yahweh overcomes death explicitly. Hezekiah's psalm extols Yahweh as one who saves from death: in chapters 25 and 26, Yahweh swallows up death and the dead rise. Deutero-Isaiah seems to have picked up on the theme of salvation from death, since, in 41:14, Yahweh promises help to the “dead of Israel” (emended text). The negative use of the theme also continues in the later portions of the book. In 59:10, the people are described as “stumbling like the dead,” and condemnations of child sacrifice (57:5), Molech-worship (57:9), and rites involving “sitting in tombs” (65:4) suggest that cult-of-the-dead practices flourished in the postexilic period as well.

Isaiah's emphasis on punishment of wrongdoing in death was eventually extended into a supernatural plane that formed the foundation for later Jewish and Christian images of eternal torment. Isaiah 66:24, with its image of eternal fire, has already been alluded to above, and one might add 50:11's threat that those who reject the Lord will “walk in the flame of your fire, and… lie down in torment.”

Reception History.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Isaiah is discussed among the greatest prophets and is even considered a lawgiver like Moses (b. Mak. 24a). In some respects Isaiah is even considered to be superior to Moses, since he reduced the commandments from ten to six (a reference to Isa 33:15), and later he reduced the six to two—justice and charity (ibid).

The Babylonian Talmud also preserves a tradition that Isaiah's father Amoz was the brother of Amaziah, king of Judah (b. Meg. 10b). Other biographical legends about the prophet, such as the tradition that he was martyred by Manasseh by being sawn in half, are attested in a number of Hellenistic-period and later texts with varying details (including the Martyrdom of Isaiah, Lives of the Prophets, the Talmuds, patristic literature, and probably Heb 11:37). The latter portion of the Martyrdom, known as the Vision of Isaiah, takes the prophet on a visionary journey in which he ascends through the seven heavens, a common structure for apocalypses of the period.

Among the medieval Jewish commentaries on the book, the most influential have been those of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. The latter was one of the first known interpreters to question the authorship of chapters 40–66 by Isaiah ben Amoz (see his comment on 40:1)—an idea that would not reemerge in academic scholarship until the late eighteenth century. About half of the haftaroth (selections from the prophets for reading in the synagogue) are drawn from Isaiah. J. F. A. Sawyer has also noted that the book has played a very significant role in the modern Zionist movement, and that a “disproportionate number of place-names in the modern State of Israel are derived from Isaiah” (Sawyer 1996, p. 103). The Eretz Israel museum in Tel Aviv displays Isaiah 35:1 (“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” etc.) in large print on a wall, clearly with reference to 35:10: “The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” Isaiah's promises of restoration have had great power and significance. Furthermore, the name of Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is an allusion to Isaiah 56:5 (“I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name [yād wāšēm].…”). The Hebrew text of the verse is displayed in towering letters on the wall of a courtyard as a promise to remember those who were killed.

The book's reception in Christian tradition has also been extraordinarily rich and enthusiastic (for a survey, see Childs 2004). It was noted at the outset that the prophet was deemed a “fifth evangelist” by early Christian interpreters. Indeed, John 12:41 reports that “Isaiah saw [Jesus'] glory and spoke about him,” and Sawyer has shown how one can construct a rather full “gospel” from excerpts from Isaiah that were interpreted christologically by patristic interpreters (Sawyer 1996, pp. 49–50).

There is no way to do justice here to the large number of citations of and allusions to Isaiah in the New Testament (cf. Wagner [2002] on Isaiah in Rom 9–11), let alone the diversity of interpretations in later tradition, so instead one might take a text such as the fourth Servant Song (Isa 52:13—53:12; hereafter “Isaiah 53”) as an illustrative case study (see further Janowski et al. 2004; Bellinger et al. 1998). The difficulty of understanding the servant in historical perspective has been alluded to above; in the history of interpretation, that difficulty has opened the door for the New Testament writers and emboldened later Christian theologians to interpret the figure christologically.

Isaiah 53's primary theological innovation was the idea that the suffering of an innocent person could substitute for that of the guilty. That surprising and counterintuitive theme pervades the chapter, but the author expresses it particularly graphically with the image of the ʾašam sacrifice in 53:10. That sacrifice is specifically to make atonement with God for sin (Lev 5:6, etc.); typically it is a sheep, and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is the term used in any way comparable to Isaiah 53. Thus, this passage is the key prooftext for the image of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who by his sacrifice takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; 1 Pet 1:18–19; Rev 5:6; 7:14).

It is possible that Jesus himself invoked Isaiah 53 to explain his mission; in Mark 10:45 he says he came “to give his life as a sacrifice for many.” However, in Luke 22:35–37 he uses Isaiah 53:9 to portray himself as a political radical (“The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”; cf. Matt 10:34).

When the authors of the New Testament looked to the scriptures for explanations of the death of the Messiah, Isaiah 53 was one of the most important passages they employed. Paul invoked 53:9–11 to explain atonement in Romans 4:22–25 by identifying Jesus as the one “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4.) Paul also took Isaiah's reference to the incredible news about the Servant (52:14—53:1) to emphasize the importance of spreading the gospel (Rom 10:14–17; cf. Rom 15:18–21, which cites the Septuagint translation of 52:15; see further Wagner).

The evangelists also read the passage in new and interesting ways. John found in 53:1 an explanation for the disciples’ failure to believe despite all the signs that Jesus had performed in their presence (12:36–38). Matthew understood Jesus’ healings as the fulfillment of 53:4's reference to “bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases” (8:14–17). The significance of the passage in the history of Christian evangelism is reflected in Acts 8:26–38, in which an Ethiopian eunuch reads 53:7–8 and is converted, asking Philip to baptize him. The passage continued to serve Christian preachers as a call to appreciate the surprising nature of the gospel. For example, Augustine wrote, “a root is not beautiful, but contains within itself the potentiality for beauty” (Sermon 44.1–2)—that is, it grows into a tree. Augustine thereby evokes the image of the unlovely Messiah (53:2) who gave rise to the Church.

In various artistic traditions, Isaiah has also occupied a prominent place. Milton's portrait of the fall of Satan in Paradise Lost owes something to Isaiah 14's description of the fall of the Day Star. Robert Lowth's Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, which makes extensive reference to Isaiah, was influential on poets of his era by recognizing that Isaiah was not only a prophet but a poet. Isaiah has been alluded to in innumerable works of poetry (see Atwan and Wieder, 1993); perhaps the best known and most successful of these is Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib. Its expansion on the account of Jerusalem's salvation (Isa 36–37//2 Kgs 18–19) is the heart of the poem, but the opening lines also seem to allude subtly to Isaiah 5:29–30's description of the Assyrian military (“Their roaring is like a lion… like the roaring of the sea”):

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

In visual arts, Michaelangelo's portrait of a gray-haired and weary-looking Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling has attained a measure of fame, but the most widespread image of Isaiah in art is of his “call narrative” in chapter 6, which affords the opportunity to portray the divine throne room, the attending seraphim, and the submission (and subsequent mission) of the prophet. From numerous surviving Reformation-era woodcuts to versions by Marc Chagall and other moderns, the awe-inspiring scene has captured many visual artists’ imaginations. Other widespread motifs inspired by Isaiah include the beating of swords into plowshares (2:4), the “peaceable kingdom” (Isa 11:6–9), and portrayals of the prophet's martyrdom (see above). Texts from Isaiah have further been imported by Christian artists into images of Gabriel's annunciation to Mary (Luke 1, based on Isa 7:14) and of Jesus’ crucifixion (based on Isa 52:13—53:12), among others.

The rich poetry of Isaianic texts has also inspired musicians throughout history. The trisagion of Isaiah 6:3 (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) not only inspired Revelation 4:8, but also chants and hymns in the liturgies of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which might derive from as early as the apostolic era. It eventually found its way into such classic hymns as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” by Reginald Heber (1783–1826). Another well-known English-language hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Veni, Veni Emmanuel) derives ultimately from Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, and goes back to at least a fifteenth-century French tune.

G. F. Handel used texts from Isaiah extensively in his Messiah, the libretto to which was compiled by Charles Jennings. In addition to texts traditionally interpreted as messianic, such as 7:14, 9:5 (NRSV 9:6), and 52:12—53:12, Handel set the uplifting promises of chapters 40 and 60 as announcements


The Prophet Isaiah.

Fresco by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, c. 1508–1510.


view larger image

preparing for the Messiah's coming. Handel is reported to have claimed that while he was composing Messiah, he had a vision of “the great God himself upon his throne,” just as Isaiah himself had.

In more recent years, Isaiah's command to “prepare ye the way of the Lord” (40:3 KJV) was set to music in the long-running musical Godspell. It has continued to inspire popular musicians from Bob Dylan (who said, “Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn't want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots I suppose” [cited in Sawyer 1996, p. 176]) to U2 (whose refrain “How long? How long must I sing this song?” in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” recalls Isa 6:11).



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  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 56–66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 19B. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “The ‘Servants of the Lord’ in Third Isaiah: Profile of a Pietistic Group in the Persian Epoch.” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 7 (1983): 1–23.
  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth M. “Death in the Life of Israel.” In Sacred Time, Sacred Place: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, edited by Barry M. Gittlen, pp. 139–144. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002.
  • Casanowicz, Immanuel M. “Paronomasia in the Old Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literature 12 (1893): 105–167.
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  • Clines, David J. A. “Metacommentating Amos.” In Interested Parties. The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1995.
  • Cohen, Raymond and Raymond Westbrook, eds. Isaiah's Vision of Peace in Biblical and Modern International Relations; Swords into Plowshares. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. See pp. 139–149.
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  • Fox, Nili. “Concepts of God in Israel and the Question of Monotheism.” In Text, Artifact and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion, edited by Gary Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis, pp. 326–345. Providence, R.I.: Brown Judaic Studies, 2006.
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  • Hallo, W. W. “The Royal Correspondence of Larsa: I. A Sumerian Prototype for the Prayer of Hezekiah?” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by B. L. Eichler et al., pp. 209–224. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 25. Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1976.
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  • Hays, Christopher B. “Damming Egypt / Damning Egypt: The Paronomasia of skr and the Unity of Isa 19:1–15.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 120 (2008): 612–616.
  • Hays, Christopher B. “I Set Before You Death and Life”: The Rhetoric of Death in First Isaiah. Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 2 Reihe. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming.
  • Hibbard, J. Todd. Intertextuality in Isaiah 24–27: The Reuse and Evocation of Earlier Texts and Traditions. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 16. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006.
  • Houston, Walter. “Was There a Social Crisis in the Eighth Century?” In In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, edited by John Day, pp. 130–149. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 406. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
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Christopher B. Hays

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