When Bernhard Duhm published his seminal commentary on Isaiah in 1892, the question of how one should approach the theology of this book seemed to be clear. Duhm identified three different prophets, called proto-, deutero-, and trito-Isaiah, whose messages dated from different periods in the history of ancient Israel and early Judaism. Duhm, as many of his contemporaries, assumed that theological innovation sprung from the minds of great individuals; and he understood the book of Isaiah to include the voices of three such great individuals.

The first one was Isaiah, son of Amoz, who, according to Isaiah 1:1 and 6:1, was called as a prophet of Yahweh in the death year of King Uzziah (around 740 B.C.E.) and continued his ministry for at least 40 years into the time of Hezekiah. Duhm portrayed this Isaiah as a figure at some of the most critical junctures in the history of the divided monarchy: the Syro-Ephraimite War (734/33 B.C.E.), the fall of Samaria (722), and the siege of Jerusalem (701), all of which were immediate effects of Assyrian dominance in the Levant during the second half of the eighth century B.C.E. Precisely because this was a time of political turmoil, Isaiah’s message for Judah and its kings was a call to unfaltering trust in the faithfulness of God. Any clever political strategizing and any allegiance with the empires of the time, Egypt and Assyria, would lead to Jerusalem’s demise. Isaiah 7:9B contains in a nutshell what Duhm saw as Isaiah’s core conviction: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” Beyond the political arena, Isaiah—in the line of his older contemporaries Amos and Micah—understood this exclusive faith in Yahweh also as the prerequisite for cultic and social change; or, as Duhm puts it, Isaiah was convinced that faith in Yahweh would bring about eine Religion des Charakters (“a religion of human character” [Duhm, 1892, p. 27]).

Interestingly, Duhm did not assume that there were any major thematic or theological connections between the eighth-century Isaiah and the prophet behind Isaiah 40–55. As a matter of fact, Duhm, with reference to 2 Chronicles 36:22, believed that deutero-Isaiah, as a voice from late exilic or early postexilic periods, was associated with Jeremiah and perhaps even written as an addition to the book of Jeremiah. This theory has been revived by scholars such as Berges (2009) and Fischer (2005), who have drawn attention to the Jeremianic type of a prophetic call in Isaiah 49:1–6 and 51:16. Be this as it may, in the context of the book of Isaiah, deutero-Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort and consolation presents itself as the fulfillment of what the eighth-century Isaiah had already anticipated: after the time of judgment and divine wrath, when God had allowed foreign nations to destroy his vineyard (Isa 5:1–7), there was going to be a time when he would rebuild it and bring it to fruition again (Isa 27:2–6). Deutero-Isaiah was the prophet chosen to announce the beginning of this new era. After Israel had “received double for her sins” (Isa 40:2) the way was clear for a new beginning.

Another purpose of combining proto- and deutero-Isaiah that Duhm and many other scholars have identified is the attempt to account for Israel’s checkered history from a prophetic point of view. Proto-Isaiah clearly presents itself as a book about the Assyrian period, whereas deutero-Isaiah alludes to events from the Babylonian and early Persian periods, including the depiction of Cyrus the Great as God’s chosen messiah for the restoration of Israel to its own land around Mt. Zion (Isa 45:1–8). Read as a historical book, Isaiah, much like Chronicles, provides a rationale for why the history of Israel and Judah ended in destruction and chaos but why there was also reason to believe in a better and brighter future. As a matter of fact, there is an optimistic overtone in some of the Isaianic salvation oracles that resembles especially the chronicler’s hope in the rebirth of Israel as a nation under its own political leader (see the reference to David in Isa 55:3).

While deutero-Isaiah’s message of comfort and renewal, crowned by a beautiful reflection on the dynamic character of the word of God that enters the world and does not return to God empty (Isa 55:8–11), could be the end of this book, obviously it is not. Rather, there are another 11 chapters, for which Duhm coined the label “trito-Isaiah.” There are almost no specific allusions to individual persons or events that would put trito-Isaiah on the historical map, which spoils the impression that Isaiah in its final form was meant as a prophetic companion to the history of Israel. However, trito-Isaiah highlights the end of history and puts an eschatological spin on the book, building up to the vision of a new heaven and a new earth (Isa 65–66, esp. 65:20–25) that resembles the perfectly peaceful world order in Genesis 1:1—2:3. The eschatological and in certain ways perhaps even apocalyptic atmosphere in trito-Isaiah does not provide any smooth continuation of deutero-Isaiah (cf. the darkness/light metaphor in Isa 60:1–22 or the scenario of a final battle, in which the wicked will be destroyed, in Isa 66:5–16). For this reason, Duhm identified trito-Isaiah as one of deutero-Isaiah’s less talented students; and while scholarship no longer supports this view, there is an awareness that, with chapters 56–66, Isaiah ends on a somewhat peculiar note.

In the framework of this largely influential view of the literary history of Isaiah it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a theology of the book of Isaiah. It is more or less only through redactional bridges and connections between its different parts that the book presents itself as an intentional composition of otherwise unconnected materials. While Duhm and others were certainly aware of the fact that there are leitmotifs (such as the language of mišpāṭ [“justice”] and śĕdākā [“righteousness”] or the notion of šālôm [“peace”]) and bracketing structures (e.g., the vision of the peaceful animal kingdom in Isa 11:6–10 and 65:20), the theory of the three Isaiahs was not sufficiently equipped to account for such observations. Thus, it is not surprising that scholars like Otto Kaiser (1981) and John Watts (2005) argued for the exact opposite of Duhm’s model. From their point of view, the book of Isaiah in its entirety was created in the late monarchic to early postexilic periods. While they acknowledge a certain level of literary development in the book, they see Isaiah as the result of a scribal effort around the time of the Babylonian Exile to provide an etiology for both the downfall of Israel and the new beginning that God granted after the time of judgment had passed. Especially Watts and, although limited to Isaiah 40–55 Baltzer (2001) have interpreted Isaiah as an unfolding drama, with judgment and salvation as two elliptical poles that give the composition momentum and direction.

While this approach does more justice to the linguistic and thematic links between different parts of the book than Duhm’s model, it tends to downplay its diverse and sometimes even self-contradictory character. Especially the theological unevenness that one finds throughout the book is difficult to explain if one assumes that Isaiah was written mostly by a single author or a group of authors in a very narrow time frame. To mention only one example of such diversity and difference, there are at least two different versions of the motif of the “pilgrimage of the nations to Mt. Zion.” In Isaiah 2:1–4, the nations come to Zion in order to receive instruction (torah); the notion seems to be that Zion is the political center of the world that provides the nations with the kind of wisdom and law that affords universal well-being and peace. The same motif occurs in Isaiah 49:18–23 and 60:3–14, albeit for a very different purpose. Here, the nations carry the scattered Israelites home on their arms and shoulders. The situation is that of a universal Diaspora that will end when God calls the Israelites home (a motif that the Septuagint version of Isaiah emphasizes beyond the Hebrew text; see Baer, 1994). In this rendering of the “pilgrimage” the former oppressors have become the oppressed; those who used to claim tributes from their vassals must now bring their riches to Zion.

As this example illustrates, one of the most challenging aspects of interpreting Isaiah is to account for sometimes significant theological differences that occur within the same linguistic and symbolic settings. There is something like an Isaianic tradition that runs through the book, which is difficult to explain if one uses Duhm’s model of three originally unrelated collections of prophetic material. However, this tradition is not as consistent as it should be in order for a mostly synchronic interpretation to work. So it is not surprising that most modern scholars employ interpretative models that focus on the literary history of Isaiah and, at the same time, reflect on how each new textual layer shaped and reshaped the character of the entire book. Steck (1992) and Williamson (1994) in particular have pointed out that especially the addition of Isaiah 40–48 effected a new edition of the book of Isaiah, which explains why there are deutero-Isaianic-sounding passages also in proto-Isaiah.

Two particularly striking examples of this kind of editorial work are Isaiah 12:1–6 and 35:1–10. Both are relatively short chapters that include visions of Israel’s return from exile with strong parallels to the language and imagery of the opening section of deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40:1–31). According to Steck (1992), Isaiah 12 and 35 never were “real” prophecy; rather, they are the result of scribal efforts aimed at creating a theologically harmonious composition that now included both proto- and deutero-Isaiah. Berges (2009) and Sommer (1998) have taken this approach one step further and argue that all of deutero- (and trito-)Isaiah should be viewed as Fortschreibung (“continuation, extrapolation”) of earlier prophetic materials. The notion here is that at some point (perhaps already during the Babylonian Exile but certainly in the Persian period) scribes rather than traditional prophets produced the prophetic books as we know them. A book like Isaiah may have started as a collection of prophetic words and divine oracles, but it was the work of these scribes that brought it to completion. Taking these recent developments in Isaianic studies as a cue, one can identify some of the topics and themes that appear to have been important in the transmission history of Isaiah and thus are characteristic of the book in its final form.

Holiness, Justice, and Salvation.

The language of holiness permeates the book of Isaiah. One of the preferred names for God in Isaiah is “the holy one of Israel” (e.g., Isa 12:6; 30:12–15; 41:14–20; 43:3–14; 52:1; 54:5) or simply “the holy one” (Isa 40:25; see also the “three-times holy” in 6:3), and holiness is also what characterizes God’s dwelling place (the “holy mountain,” Isa 11:9; 56:7–13; 65:11, 25; 66:20). It is tempting to believe that this dominant theme goes back to the historical Isaiah and that his call narrative expresses in fact what would become the most pressing concern of his prophetic mission: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). It is in fact a leitmotif in proto- and trito-Isaiah that God’s holiness does not translate into acts of justice and righteousness on Israel’s part. The expectation is that the people who live and breathe in the atmosphere of the holy mountain should, by their very nature, long for the good and shun evil. But Judah and Jerusalem do not know their God (Isa 1:3–4), or, as trito-Isaiah phrases it, their sins hide God’s face from them (Isa 59:2).

Unlike Amos or Micah the emphasis on social justice is not primarily a political matter. There is very little critique of the economic system or polemic against the arrogance of the leading classes. As such, Isaiah does not present himself as an advocate for the poor and the needy in the first place (Isa 10:1–4 is a notable exception); rather, the prophetic critique in Isaiah takes the broken cult as its point of departure. It is the disconnect between God’s presence in the form of his holiness and glory and Israel’s life before this God that lies at the heart of Isaiah’s theological and ethical message.

A second implication of Isaiah’s holiness theology is the reliance on Mt. Zion as the (only) location of Israel’s salvation. It seems that already the eighth-century Isaiah was convinced that, while Yahweh might use foreign nations for a time in order to discipline his people, he would never ultimately abandon his holy mountain (Isa 30:27–33). In contrast to other Old Testament traditions, there is no mention of God’s movability in Isaiah. In Ezekiel the glory of God can leave the Temple and settle with the exiles in Babylon (Ezek 11), and in the priestly transmission of the Pentateuch the tabernacle is a portable sanctuary that moves with the tribes of Israel through the desert (Exod 25–31; 36–40). Isaiah, on the other hand, insists that Zion is the only conceivable place of God’s presence in the world, which may explain, at least in part, why Isaiah never mentions the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Isa 58:12 is the only possible, although quite indirect, allusion to the events of 586 B.C.E.). In Isaiah’s interpretation of history, it was God who scattered Israel among the nations as a punishment for their inequities and it was again God who, when the time of exile was over, brought Israel home to their mother, Zion (Isa 40:3; 49:11–26), which allows Isaiah to create the impression that, through the ages, Zion stood firm and remained untouched by foreign hands.

Messianic Expectation.

More than in any other prophetic book, the salvation of Israel is tied to the appearance of a messiah. It is not always clear whether this “anointed one” is a royal, prophetic, or priestly figure; in fact, individual texts in Isaiah seem to differ on precisely this point. It is clear, however, that in much of Isaiah God acts through particular individuals in order to discipline, comfort, or save God’s people. A particularly instructive example is the so-called messianic triptych in Isaiah 7:10–16, 9:2–6, and 11:1–5. The famous sign of the Immanuel in Isaiah 7:10–16 may well be a text that goes back to Isaiah ben Amoz. It is a sign that symbolizes a time of hardship for the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah, supposedly the years when the kingdom of Judah was under pressure from its two most important neighbors, Israel and Aram. However, this affliction would end before Immanuel had reached an age when he could distinguish between good and evil (Isa 7:16). This Immanuel is not presented as a messianic figure per se, although he is a child whose growing up carries symbolic significance for the salvation of Jerusalem and Judah.

This, however, changes when Isaiah 9:2–6 enters the picture. Here, too, a child is born; and, read in context, one cannot but think that this is Immanuel again. But here this child is announced as a new ruler and, even more, as a king with godlike powers: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). If and to what extent this reflects hope in a particular historical figure remains uncertain. If, as some assume, this passage dates to the time of deutero-Isaiah, it would be conceivable that either a king like Cyrus the Great or, at a national level, a Jewish leader like Joshua or Zerubbabel is behind the vision of Isaiah 9. But even if such an allusion was intended, the language remains open and unspecific, allowing the prophetic oracle to unfold meaning beyond any time-bound hope. The same can be said for the third text of the triptych, Isaiah 11:1–5. Here, the messiah is depicted as someone empowered by the Spirit of God and who rules in fear of and obedience to God’s law. The effect of this reign is even more comprehensive and universal than in Isaiah 7 and 9: not only the human but also the animal world will be included in the reality of peaceful coexistence that unfolds in the presence of the Spirit-bearer (Isa 11:6–10).

While this threefold announcement of a messianic figure seems to be tailored to the compositional structure of Isaiah 1–12, the notion that the messiah infuses the world with the efficacy of the divine spirit reoccurs at crucial junctures throughout the book of Isaiah. If one reads the pertinent passages, their sequence reveals that this messianic figure is first announced (Isa 11:2, “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD”), then presented (Isa 42:1, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”), and finally introduces himself (Isa 61:1, “The spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me”). To be sure, these passages have quite different notions of the purpose of the messiah’s mission and, thus, may not come from the same hand.

Still, the way in which they are imbedded in the book suggests that what Isaiah “sees” in the beginning (Isa 1:1) is that through this messiah God’s own spirit will fill the world, reshape the political landscape, and even re-create the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth (Isa 65–66). The spirit as a leitmotif (see also Isa 4:4; 40:13; 44:3; 63:10–14) is a remarkable characteristic of Isaiah because of its parallels in other prophetic books, especially Ezekiel (1–3; 11) and Zechariah (Zech 4:6; 6:8; 7:12). In Isaiah, the hope for God’s own spirit and glory to rule in creation harks back to the book’s particular view of history. For Isaiah in its final form, there is a lesson to be learned from history, which one may summarize as follows: foreign nations come and go, they rule the world for a time, and God uses them for certain purposes, both to discipline and to save his people. However, as much as the power of these nations affects the course of history, it does not ultimately bring it any closer to its completion. In order for the world to become what it is meant to be, a different kind of “power” or “energy” is needed, which Isaiah identifies as God’s spirit and glory that issue forth from Zion as the axis mundi.

The Motif of Transformation.

The notion of change that permeates Isaiah also becomes apparent with regard to the compositional techniques that characterize the book. It has always been observed that in Isaiah prophecy of judgment and prophecy of salvation are not placed in separate sections of the book, as one finds, for example, in Jeremiah, but typically occur side by side. The opening passage of Isaiah is a prime example of this technique. Isaiah 1:2–31 portrays Jerusalem as a city that, because she abandoned her God, fell prey to foreign nations and remained as nothing more than “a shelter in a cucumber field” (1:8). It is conceivable that this assessment of Jerusalem’s dire situation goes back to the time of the historical Isaiah and, more precisely, to the year 701 B.C.E. when Sennacherib had devastated most of Judah and enclosed Jerusalem as the last stronghold of the king of Judah. As Sennacherib himself reports, he had locked Hezekiah into his capital city like a “bird in its cage.” This image of desolation and despair stands in stark contrast to its immediate context in Isaiah 2:1–4, where Jerusalem is depicted as the glorious midpoint of the world to which the nations stream in peace. It seems quite clear that these are not merely contrasting images but precise opposites. In both cases, Jerusalem is placed at the center with foreign nations surrounding it. However, whereas in Isaiah 1 these nations come to conquer Jerusalem and, thus, exercise God’s judgment on the city, in 2:1–4 they go on pilgrimage to the holy mountain in order to seek and receive instruction.

Combining these images, the composition creates the perception of transition and transformation: the shelter in the cucumber field will become the glorious center of the world of nations. This motif of transformation occurs throughout Isaiah, sometimes even where the contrasting elements do not immediately follow one another. The Israel-critical prophecy in Isaiah 58, for example, announces the salvation of Israel, if they leave their old ways and become a righteous people: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. Your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard” (58:8). The image of light and of the glory of God as signs of salvation links Isaiah 58 to the vision of Israel’s return to Zion in Isaiah 60, thus suggesting that the entire sequence (Isa 58–60) should be understood as an intentionally crafted composition: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (Isa 60:1).

From the Old Creation to the New.

The notion that the political and even the natural worlds are in a process of change toward what they are meant to be ultimately finds its most elaborate expression in Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The language of newness is introduced in Isaiah 42:9–10 and then reoccurs at important junctures of Isaiah 40–66 (43:19; 48:6; 62:2; 65:17; 66:22–23). Whereas the language of newness is introduced in a relatively general manner in Isaiah 43, 48, and 62, ḥădāšâ or ḥădāšôt (“new thing[s]”), announcing rather than explicating that something new is about to occur, the final chapters of Isaiah lift the veil and envision that heaven and earth, which is to say all of reality, are meant to become new.

It is worth mentioning that all three Major Prophets employ the language of newness in some form; in Jeremiah it is the covenant with Israel that is supposed to become new (Jer 31:31), and in Ezekiel it is Israel’s heart and spirit (Ezek 11:19; 36:26). Whereas in these two prophets the notion of newness is limited to something specific about Israel that needs to be changed or repaired, Isaiah sees the entire creation as in need of a complete makeover. Clearly, the language of creating a (new) heaven and earth points back to Genesis 1:1. In the Old Testament, only there and in Isaiah 65–66 does the combination of these words occur. However, it is more than just the terminology that establishes a connection here.

The depiction of the new heaven and the new earth in Isaiah is marked by a number of allusions to the primeval history, especially Genesis 1:1—6:4. In the new world that Isaiah envisions people will become old (again), which is reminiscent of the unusually high ages that humans reach (Gen 5) before God limits their life span to 120 years (Gen 6:1–4), and childbirth will no longer be a painful and dangerous experience as it used to be after the curse placed on procreation in Genesis 3:16 (Isa 65:20–23). Also, the new world will be a perfectly peaceful place since there will no longer be a food chain with predators and prey: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa 65:25; cf. 11:5–10).

While this does not immediately seem to include a reference to the creation account in Genesis, Isaiah 65 does in fact describe in poetic form what Genesis 1:29–30 establishes as the food order in the newly created world: all animals and humans should be vegetarians, which means that there is no need in God’s (very) good creation for any form of violence and killing, or, put in more modern terms, there is no food chain in the primeval world. Of course, this initial plan does not altogether work out, so God permits that, for the purpose of food acquisition alone, animals may be killed (Gen 9:4–6). Read in context with the Genesis texts, it seems that Isaiah’s new world is actually the world of Genesis 1:1—2:7 restored (although other Isaianic texts, like Isa 24–27 and 60–62, carry a different sense of the telos of history). Thus, this in-breaking of a new heaven and a new earth is not so much an eschatological event in the narrower sense of the word but something that brings the world back to what it was meant to be.

Reception History.

Taking a cue from the scrolls found in the caves at Khirbet Qumran, Isaiah seems to have been one of the most influential “biblical” books at that time. Only Genesis and the Psalms have a similar number of copies in the Qumran library, and, as especially 1QIsaa (because of its large number of mistakes) suggests, this book may have been used for scribal training. Especially those passages in Isaiah that envision the end of history as a final battle in which the righteous would be separated from the wicked could be used to illustrate the Qumran community’s own self-understanding as the children of light versus the children of darkness (1QM). According to Blenkinsopp (2003), the final stages in the literary history of the book of Isaiah should be assigned to sectarian circles with a similarly pronounced (proto-)apocalyptic tendency that one later finds also in Qumran.

A similar point could be made for the high regard that the New Testament authors had for Isaiah. There are at least 22 direct quotes from Isaiah in different New Testament books (e.g., Rom 10:15; 11:34; 14:11; 1 Cor 2:16; 14:25; 2 Cor 6:2.17) and probably even more indirect allusions. As one can expect, it is Isaiah’s messianic theology that provides an interpretative foil against which the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ were interpreted. A particularly instructive example is Luke 3–4, where, at first, John the Baptist is introduced as the “voice in the wilderness” (Luke 3:4–5 referencing Isa 40:3–5). Already in the next chapter, Isaiah, again, is referenced to disclose the true identity and significance of the Gospel’s protagonist. Here, Jesus is handed the Isaiah scroll and reads from the opening section of Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:14–21). The sense of salvific immediacy and presence that echoes in the words of Isaiah 61:1–3 finds a new historical and literary locus in Luke’s Gospel.

However, the reception of Isaianic texts in the New Testament is not simply a matter of how these materials were adopted and reinterpreted in new contexts. It also highlights something that is already present in the materials themselves, in this case the fact that no other text in the Hebrew Bible talks about fulfillment as much as Isaiah, especially in Isaiah 40–62. In Luke, however, salvation is not a matter of a more or less distant future. Rather, salvation has become a tangible reality, and it is the prophetic word that gives this message authentic expression. It is a likely assumption that precisely this sense of immediacy made Isaiah a key factor in the gospel authors’ account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, especially since this also included the image of the “suffering servant” (Isa 52:13—53:12; Matt 8:17; John 12:38).

Another part of Isaiah that plays a very obvious role in the New Testament is the concluding vision of the new heaven and the new earth (Isa 66) in Revelation (especially Rev 21:1–8). Several elements carry over from the Old Testament to the New Testament text: the violent ending and almost complete annihilation of the “old” cosmos (Rev 20:1–10) and the separation of those who are saved from those who will be condemned (20:11–15). Perhaps even more important than content is the definition of “canon” that Revelation in 21 achieves. As noted above, Isaiah 66 forms an inclusio with Genesis 1, which may indicate that Isaiah’s final redactors already understood the biblical canon as the “law and the prophets,” as one finds, for example, in Sirach 1:1 and 39:1 and in Matthew 22:40. By drawing on the terminology of the new heaven and earth, Revelation de facto extends the boundaries of this canon to include the New Testament witness as well.




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Andreas Schuele