Lesson #36: Isaiah Made No More Difficult than it Needs to Be (a.k.a. “The Glory of Zion Will Be a Defense”) #BCCSundaySchool2018

Isaiah 1-6

I am ordinarily very skeptical of books and articles that advertise some or another scripture “made easier.”  I think, we make the scriptures too easy already. I prefer James Faulconer’s approach in the Scriptures Made Harder series. We should not be too comfortable when reading the scriptures. They are supposed to be hard.

However, I make an exception with Isaiah. In my experience, Latter-day Saints (and most other Christians) make Isaiah much harder than it needs to be–not just because we insist on reading it in the King James Version of the Bible, which makes everything harder than it needs to be, but because we have loaded Isaiah up with a whole bunch of theological assumptions that (in my opinion) the text was never meant to bear. 

Even without these assumptions (and the King James Version), Isaiah would be hard. It’s composition guarantees confusion. Not only is Isaiah a composite text with at least three distinct authors. It is a virtual certainty that these authors were separated by a period of about two hundred years.

This needs some explaining. Latter-day Saints have long resisted the idea of multiple Isaiah’s, not just out of a reflexive Protestant biblical literalism (though there is some of that), but because the second-Isaiah’s traditional dating as a post-exilic text creates uncomfortable questions about certain chapters in the Book of Mormon.

We need to get over this. The evidence for a First and a Second (and probably a Third) Isaiah is overwhelming, and it comes from just about every aspect of the scholarly tradition: linguistic, textual, contextual, theological, literary. It all points to the facts that 

  • One prophet, named Isaiah, wrote Chapters 1-39 of the Book of Isaiah between 740 and 700 BCE. This Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and was, for a time, (probably) an official court prophet. During his long prophetic tenure, the Assyrian Empire threatened the two Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, destroyed and subjugated Israel in 721, and very nearly did the same to Judah in 701 BCE.
  • A second prophet, who may or may not have been named Isaiah, wrote Chapters 40-55 in Babylon, during the Jewish captivity, to convince the Jews that they were still God’s chosen people and that their destroyed city of Jerusalem would be redeemed and renewed into an everlasting city of God. Scholars call this fellow “Duetero-Isaiah.”
  • A third prophet, or group of prophets (called “Trito-Isaiah” by those in the know), wrote Chapters 56-66 (or maybe 54-66) a generation later, when the Jews had been freed by the Persian conquest of Babylon and permitted to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.

As I said, the evidence for these multiple authorial contexts is overwhelming, and the difficulties raised by insisting that God gave the 8th century Isaiah detailed knowledge of the 6th century context are about the same as those raised by believing that God dictated to Nephi the words that Deutero-Isaiah would one day write.

To these three different time periods that really are part of Isaiah, Christians insist on adding two more contexts that may or may not have been put there by the authors: 

  • Isaiah is, along with the Psalms, one of the two key sources of purportedly typological passages that refer, obliquely, to Christ. It is from Isaiah, for example, that we first hear that a virgin shall give birth and this her child’s name will be “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This has been taken as a prophecy of Christ since the earliest days of Christianity. And maybe it is. But Isaiah is also talking about another virgin and another child who have nothing to do with Jesus being born 700 years later. This passage may be ALSO a type of Christ, but it is something else first, and we do no service to the text when we don’t try to figure it out.
  • Isaiah is also the source of many Christian prophecies of the Second Coming, which, unfortunately, often means that we go through and look for anything that hasn’t happened yet and assume that this is going to happen at some vaguely defined period called “the Last Days.”

All told, then, reading Isaiah in a correlated fashion involves holding five distinct time periods in our heads and trying to fit every verse, and sometimes every sentence, into one of these five buckets based on what doctrinal point we want to prove. Very often, this means that we turn reading Isaiah into a symbol hunt, where we subject every word or phrase in the text to five different symbolic proof-text narratives and ignore the actual words on the page.

There is a lot of really interesting stuff in Isaiah sitting right there at the surface that we risk ignoring when we move too quickly to types and symbols. When we do this, we end up like the people who spent years of their lives looking for secret messages on Beatles albums proving that Paul McCartney was dead and ignoring the very fine music right there on the records. (Kids, you will have to Google “record,” but think of it as a kind of Spotify playlist grafted onto a Frisbee). 

What often gets lost in our symbol hunts is Isaiah’s actual context, which is fascinating, and the theological message that he was giving the people of his time, which is vital.

The first six chapters of Isaiah, which is our reading for this week, were written at a time when both Israel and Judah were relatively prosperous, but were playing a dangerous political game. Both nations (and several others) were fairly small potatoes caught between the world’s two great superpowers: Assyria and Egypt.  Both Judah and Israel were nominally allied with Assyria. And by “ally” I mean “vassal state.” Rather than conquering nations outright and destroying both resources and markets, the Assyrians preferred to keep local governments in place and require steep tributes. But, from time to time, both nations intrigued with Egypt to support them in rebellions and refusals to pay their tributes. 

Isaiah prophesied that Israel and Judah would be destroyed. This didn’t take magic powers. Anybody looking at the political situation at the time, and at the risks that the kings were taking, would have agreed with him. Anybody not prophesying Israel’s destruction was not paying attention.

But this is not Isaiah’s main point in the text. He knows that his country is in political danger. But he also sees them as being in grave spiritual danger, even though they perceive themselves as righteous because they (Judah at least) have the temple and sacrifice stuff. Isaiah tells them that the Lord isn’t nearly as big on sacrifices as the people seem to think:

Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.

When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:10-15)

This is harsh. He begins by comparing Judah and Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah, and then he goes on to tell them that the Lord is not impressed by their sacrifices because they are not righteous, and no amount of temple work will make them righteous because their unrighteousness is not the result of insufficient ritual. It is, rather, the result of insufficient justice:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil. Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. . . . But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water: Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. (16-17, 20-24)

For Isaiah, or at least the first one, this is Israel’s sin–not the worship of idols, as it is for the 6th century prophets, but it is the worship of wealth and the mistreatment of the weak. This is the Jerusalem that stands condemned and will be destroyed. But Isaiah is fundamentally a prophet of hope. Jerusalem will be redeemed, and it will then get a new name. it will be called Zion:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2: 2-3)

Isaiah’s Zion looks a lot like Joseph Smith’s Zion. Wealth will not be worshipped, the poor will not be oppressed or ignored, “and it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy (Isaiah 4:3)

And yes, we can find lots of other things in there too–references to the virgin birth, and the triumphant coming of Christ in the last days, and prophecies about Cyrus the Great, and nearly all of the words to Handel’s Messiah. But before we get there, let’s look at what eighth-century Isaiah was saying to eighth-century Israel.

Isaiah was a prophet and political counselor who saw his nation making foolish choices that were going to get them destroyed, while, at the same time, tolerating profound inequality and considering themselves righteous because they had a temple. He knew that they were not righteous, and he knew that they were not safe. But he also knew that God loved them deeply and that things could be much, much better.

Comments

  1. “the difficulties raised by insisting that God gave the 8th century Isaiah detailed knowledge of the 4th century context are about tge same as those raised by believing that God dictated to Nephi the words that Deutero-Isaiah would one day write.”

    Not your main point in the post, just something you say in passing. But certainly worth a discussion all its own.

    Aaron B

  2. “Spotify playlist grafted onto a Frisbee” is my new favorite phrase

  3. Wait, so what’s the other virgin birth referring to?

  4. Read Isaiah 7. All of it. Go to Bible Gateway and read it in several other versions. And pay attention to the verses that follow the famous one, and ask whether they can be made to refer in any way to Jesus. (Hint: they can’t, without some serious mental gymnastics.) And then read Nephi about “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” and realize that we don’t understand it either, just like Nephi’s descendants.

  5. Would you really mention to your class that there are three Isaiah’s? At least in my ward, I feel that would really upset some people as it seems most people are so literal. I certainly hadn’t heard it before, but it makes a lot of sense and helps me understand this book better.

  6. D Christian Harrison says:

    I would definitely mention it in my class… just like I told them Job and Jonah were inspired fiction… and just like I told them that God had nothing to do with the genocide at Jericho. If we can’t speak to adults as though they were adults, then we’re all lost; every one.

  7. D Christian Harrison says:

    Also: I’m with Aaron… this passage is pure gold:

    “the difficulties raised by insisting that God gave the 8th century Isaiah detailed knowledge of the 4th century context are about the same as those raised by believing that God dictated to Nephi the words that Deutero-Isaiah would one day write.”

    If God can give Isaiah a vision of the future, he can do the same for Nephi—and the latter doesn’t require us to ignore the text, the science, or our own eyes.

  8. Michael,

    I will be teaching this lesson next week and plan on briefly addressing the matter largely by dismissing it as hogwash. From my point of view, accepting the current prevailing skeptical scholarly point of view on the book if Isaiah is no different from accepting the JEPD view on the Torah, which, thank heavens, is finally falling out of vogue after too many years of acceptance. Documentary Hypothesis will get back to its original roots before it was polluted by this speculative rubbish parading as hard research.

    Now, before you reject me as some ignorant fool, I have spent years studying the book of Isaiah, have read more commentaries on it than I can remember, and have come to the conclusion that people who dont believe in God arent reliable sources when it comes to exegesis, or eisegesis in this case, when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures, or any other scriptures. They have a POV they ascribe to before they ever approach the text, just like anyone else. And, their point of view is to show the text to be the work of uninspired humans, not to understand the text as what it claims to be. A simple comparison on believing versus unbelieving commentaries (e.g, Interpreter’s Bible versus Anchor Bible) demonstrates that ably. Both sides are very well educated, learned, scholarly, accomplished, etc. And, both come to different conclusions on whether the text is what it claims to be and what it means. Arguing some believing people accept multiple authorship holds as much water for me as saying some believing people accept JEPD.

    The LDS perspective on Isaiah is unique, given it’s connection to the BofM, which you point out above. Accepting the skeptic’s point of view on their grounds on their evidence is ceding the argument without even trying. I reject their point of view, because their evidence is flimsy, and there is significant internal evidence that the book of Isaiah is a complete entity unto itself. I am not going to sit here and argue with you, or anyone else about it, because it will ultimately devolve into who is more learned than the other and how foolhardy it is to believe in one side or the other, which is ad hominem nonsense.

    If anyone wants a believing commentary on Isaiah from a person with impeccable credentials and more knowledge on ancient languages than any person has a right to have, I recommend them to Ebenezer Henderson. He wrote commentaries on all the major prophets in separate volumes and a commentary on the minor prophets in a single volume. In his introduction to the book of Isaiah he addresses this matter of multiple authorship and dismisses it for what it is. If you want to believe a bunch of atheist skeptics who see every verb tense change as evidence of yet another final redactor, then that is who you are casting your lot with. Me? Nope. I’ve spent enough time in this text to develop my own point of view, and I believe all of Isaiah was written by one man at one time. To me the BofM inclusions are largely irrelevant and non-controversial.

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