The book of Isaiah begins with a superscript:
“The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1).
This emphasizes the historical setting of Isaiah’s prophecy. For Isaiah, prophecy and history were inseparable. The reader is told at the outset how to relate to Isaiah’s prophecies: as realistic speeches with a specific historical matrix.
The historical matrix of the first eight chapters of Isaiah, the subject of this article, is the Syro-Ephraimite War.
The time is about 734–732 B.C. Assyria is emerging as the world’s superpower; it has already invaded some of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. Israel itself is no longer one nation as it was in the days of Solomon. The kingdom is now split—Ephraim (Israel) in the north and Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, in the south (as we learn from 1 Kings 12 and 2 Chronicles 10). The northern kingdom, Ephraim, has allied itself with its neighbor Aram (Syria) in an effort to withstand Assyrian penetration. Aram and Ephraim naturally want Judah to join their coalition. Nevertheless, Ahaz, the Judahite king, hesitates. When Ahaz continues to hesitate, Aram and Ephraim attack Jerusalem in order to replace Ahaz with their own supporter, Ben-Taval (see Isaiah 7:6), a man who is not even of the House of David!
The military campaign of Aram and Ephraim against Judah is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War. Syria refers to the kingdom of Aram; Ephraim was the most important tribal territory in the northern kingdom of Israel, so Israel is often referred to in this literature simply as Ephraim.
Aram and Ephraim quickly surround Jerusalem. The city seems to be in a hopeless situation. Conditions inside the city are aptly described by the narrator:
“When it was reported to the House of David that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, their hearts and the hearts of their people trembled as trees of the forest sway before a wind” (Isaiah 7:2).
The book of Isaiah, however, gives few details about the Syro-Ephraimite war. Except for the short passages referred to above (Isaiah 7:2 and 7:6),a the book provides no other details about the war itself. Everything else we know about it comes from elsewhere (2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28). Nonetheless, Isaiah was deeply involved with the Syro-Ephraimite War and with its religious-political consequences, but his interest is not in describing the war itself. Instead, he concentrates on the causes of the war and the political implications of the war in light of his prophetic perspective.
What is Isaiah’s understanding of the Syro-Ephraimite war? Isaiah is neither a statesman, nor a historian who analyzes the war as a consequence of specific political, military, economic or national conflicts. Isaiah is a prophet. From his prophetic-religious viewpoint, wars do not emerge in a religious vacuum, but occur in accordance with God’s plan.
For Isaiah, God dominates the political stage. Wars are His wars. The prophet’s purpose is to reveal the reason for God’s action.
Moreover, the prophet is neither a philosopher nor a systematic exegete; he does not present his thesis gradually or coherently. The prophet delivers speeches. Each speech focuses on particular point involving a particular situation.
Nevertheless, there is a certain chain of order in the speeches that form the bulk of chapters 1 through 8. The speeches composing these chaptersb may be divided as follows:
1. The cause of the war (1:2–20), a programmatic address concerning the relationship between sin and punishment.
2. A description of the city of righteousness (1:21–2:5), which outlines the societal sins of the rulers of Judah, pointing out the result: severe, punishment. This speech nevertheless presents an alternative, a vision of peaceful days to come (2:2–4). Isaiah thus invites the people to change their ways and colorfully depicts the political reward.
3. A speech concerning foreign policy: What is human power? (2:6–22). Here he argues that man’s power cannot fix the world’s political order. The world order is determined by God.
4. A speech concerning Judah’s leadership (3:1–15), a satire about the political elite of Judah who want to control the political order.
5. Jerusalem of today versus Jerusalem in the days to come (3:16–4:6). This speech describes the wicked behavior of the daughters of Jerusalem and illustrates their punishment. Again, however, the speech ends by presenting a bright alternative, if the daughters change their social attitude.
6. Judah’s moral misbehavior and the judgment (5:1–30). This speech describes the severe political consequence (that is, a disasterous military invasion of Judah) that follows from the moral misbehavior of Judah’s political leadership.
7. This speech describes Ahaz’s days: the reestablishment of prophetic authority and the continuity of the prophetic message (6:1–13), delivered in the year of the death of the Judahite king Uzziah (about 735 B.C.). Isaiah announces that he will continue his prophetic role during the reign of Ahaz, the new king in Jerusalem.
8. Prophecy versus politics (7:1–25). This speech is a discourse concerning the relationship between politics and religion: the contrast between man’s politics and God’s action.
9. This speech discusses an attempt to change Judah’s policy by an internal rebellion (8:1–20). The prophet stresses the worthlessness of man’s power versus God’s plan.
Overall, Isaiah condemns the social/moral behavior of Judah’s economic/political elite. In some of the most sublime poetry found anywhere in the Bible, Isaiah argues that by their behavior they have betrayed God.
“Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come
The Lord himself pleads the cause of the fatherless and the widow (Isaiah 3:13). The charge against the political leaders is “robbery”:
“It is you who have
ravaged the vineyard;
That which was robbed from
the poor is in your house.
How dare you crush My people
And grind the faces of the poor?”
The daughters of Zion are immodest and filled with unjustified pride:
“The daughters of Zion
Are so vain
And walk with heads thrown back,
With roving eyes,
And with mincing gait,
Making a tinkling with their feet.”
Are these indictments ends in themselves? Isaiah’s speeches provide the answer. Implicit in the order of the book is a specific theological scheme: Judah’s international political situation depends on its domestic conditions.
Isaiah’s chain of speeches containing social criticism culminates in a climax. The land is invaded. The enemy is strong and ruthless:
“Their arrows are sharpened.
And all their bows are drawn.
Their horses’ hoofs are like flint,
Their chariot wheels like the whirlwind.
Their roaring is like a lion’s.”
The fact that invasion and war provide the climax for the prophet’s series of speeches indicates that this is the divine response to—that is, the divine punishment for—the leaders’ domestic social corruption. The prophetic lesson is that the country determines its own international political future by the quality of its domestic social behavior.
This consequence of a corrupt domestic society is foreshadowed in the very first chapter of the prophet’s book:
“If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword.”
Although the poetry in the first eight chapters of Isaiah is extraordinarily powerful, it is also repetitious, especially in its criticism of Judah’s social behavior. This tells us something. The fact that Isaiah repeats his accusations, delivering his social criticism again and again, indicates that his theological-political concept of cause and effect—that immoral social behavior has brought about the country’s international political woes—is not widely accepted. Isaiah’s point of departure is that social misbehavior brings about the divine punishment. Only if he can convince his audience of this fundamental relationship of cause and effect will the prophet be successful in convincing his audience to change. Isaiah must persuade his hearers to accept his basic theological presupposition.
In point of fact, Isaiah’s almost exclusive emphasis on ethical social behavior represents a challenge to what was then considered the religious or theological norm. Isaiah addresses a society that fulfills its religious obligations by obedience to cultic regulations. In the biblical world, religion and cult were inseparable.
Contrast Isaiah’s emphasis on ethical behavior with Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8; see also 2 Chronicles 6). Solomon’s prayer signifies a common religious conception: There the emphasis was on prayer and ritual. If Israel is defeated, “prayer and supplication” are in order; the people should come to the Temple with offerings (1 Kings 8:33).
Isaiah, however, resents these offerings:
“ ‘What need have I of
all your sacrifices?’
Says the Lord.
‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings,
And blood of bulls…
Who asked that of you?
Trample My courts no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,
Incense is offensive to Me…
Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me,
I cannot endure them.
And when you lift up your hands
I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length
I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime—
Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.’ ”
Isaiah is thus disturbing—indeed, undermining—the very religious foundations to which his audience subscribes. For them, cult guarantees God’s salvation; for him, social behavior determines God’s response: punishment versus reward.
There is no doubt that Isaiah’s audience finds this difficult. At one point, he quotes the sarcastic response of those who reject his argument:
“Let Him [God] speed,
let Him hasten His purpose
If we are to give thought;
Let the plans of the Holy One of Israel
Be quickly fulfilled
If we are to give heed.”
Isaiah’s long, repetitive speeches of social criticism indicate that he does not give up, however. He is determined to persuade his audience to change its religious attitude.
Moreover, Isaiah does not confine himself to the role of messenger, merely proclaiming God’s judgment. He wants his prophetic truth to be effective. Thus, the repetitive criticism has a specific rhetorical function: he “dwells” on the subject; the repetition, the “dwelling,” conveys the idea of presence.
At one point Isaiah imparts his message by means of a parable (Isaiah 5:1–7): A vine grower (God) had a vineyard that he took special care of. He cleared the stones and “planted it with choice vines.” He built a watchtower inside the vineyard and even hewed a wine press in it. He hoped it would yield fine grapes, but it yielded only wild grapes. The vine grower decides to let the vineyard crumble and decay. He will tear down the wall that the vineyard may be trampled. He will not prune or hoe it. And even the rain will not fall on it.
Who is this vineyard in the parable?
“The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
Is the House of Israel,
And the seedlings he lovingly tended
Are the men of Judah.
He hoped for justice,
But behold, injustice;
But behold, iniquity!”
Why, all of a sudden, does Isaiah employ parable as a means to get his point across? Why this indirectness? After all, Isaiah is neither a storyteller nor an entertainer. But he is a master 014of language; and he knows he is having difficulty in convincing his audience directly of his political-religious thesis. The literary medium is a function of his rhetorical goal. The parable enables him to avoid a direct confrontation; by addressing someone else, he attempts to get his audience to confront themselves.
In addition, he seeks to win over his audience by juxtaposing punishment and reward:
“Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece.
If, then, you agree and give heed,
You will eat the good things of the earth;
But if you refuse and disobey,
You will be devoured [by] the sword.”
If the people rebel and sin they will be like a leaf that withers, a garden without water (Isaiah 1:30). On the other hand, if they follow the Lord, they can look forward to an idyllic future:
“In the days to come,
The Mount of the Lord’s House
Shall stand firm above the mountains
And tower above the hills;
And all the nations
Shall gaze on it with joy.
And the many peoples shall go and shall say:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.’
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus He will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not lift up
Sword against nation;
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
O House of Jacob!
Come, let us walk
By the light of the Lord.”
In chapter 7, the prophet addresses directly the situation facing Judah as a result of the Syro-Ephraimite attack. This prophecy is in effect a discourse on religion and politics. The question is: Can a state shape its political order by military power, or is the country’s political situation determined by God? The prophet tells the panicked Judahite king Ahaz, who is surrounded by his two enemies, Aram and Ephraim, that he must not be afraid. Their plan, the prophet assures the king, “shall not succeed (Isaiah 7:7). If, however, Ahaz trusts in human powers and ignores God, then God will turn Assyria itself against Judah (Isaiah 7:17). In short, if Judah joins Syria (Aram) and Ephraim in a coalition against the superpower Assyria, in an effort to re-shape the world political order, then Judah will bring disaster on its own head.
Judah must trust in God, not men:
“If you will not believe
Surely, you shall not be established.’
The prophetic demand is, in fact, to be politically passive, and to have faith in God:
“Hatch a plot—it shall be foiled;
Agree on action—it shall not succeed.”
Was Isaiah’s advice practical? Was political passivity a viable policy? Could Isaiah convince the policy makers? Isaiah himself is doubtful that he has convinced them:
“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among 015my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him” (Isaiah 8:16–17).
Isaiah will await the judgment of history.
Isaiah was the divine interpreter of the religious meaning of the political events of his time. He explained the political-military situation in unconventional religious terms: Isaiah rejects the people’s Temple sacrifices and prayers. For him, daily social behavior is the dominant factor determining the country’s political future. He maintains his own prophetic concept of cause and effect, a relationship between the domestic situation—justice—and external political and military developments.
He uses every rhetorical device, from poetry to parable, to appeal to his audience. He seeks to explain, to persuade, and, in the end, to restore justice in Judah. But his audience is stubborn, and he is sceptical as to whether he has succeeded in influencing them.
How did the Syro-Ephraimite War end? What was the result?
The Syro-Ephraimite alliance failed to achieve its anti-Assyrian political goal. Ahaz, the Judahite king, did not follow Isaiah’s advice to be passive politically and to trust in God. Instead, he sought the help of Assyria, even bribing its king, Tiglath-pileser III, with Temple treasure (2 Kings 16:7–9). Assyrian troops responded by attacking both Aram (Syria) and the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim); this relieved the Syro-Ephraimite siege of Jerusalem. Tiglath-pileser also conquered Damascus, Syria’s capital, and killed Syria’s king, Rezin (2 Kings 16:9).
Assryia then ruled over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, and the northern kingdom of Israel became its vassal. This occurred in about 733 B.C.; Israel never recovered.
About a decade later (c. 722 B.C.), Hoshea, the king of Israel, revolted against Assyria (2 Kings 17:4–6); Sargon II, the Assyrian king at that time, responded by conquering Samaria, Israel’s capital, and taking its inhabitants into exile, from which they never returned. Sargon recorded the event in cuneiform on one of the large stone slabs that lined the walls of his palace at Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin):
“I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it…. [The town I] re[built] better than (it was) before and settled therein people from countries which [I] myself [had con]quered. I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute (as is) customary for Assyrian citizens.”c
The same event is described from another viewpoint in 2 Kings 17:
“Then the king of Assyria marched against the whole land; he came to Samaria and besieged it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He deported the Israelites to Assyria and settled them in Halah, at the [River] Habor, at the River achieve Gozan, and in the towns of Media” (2 Kings 17:5–6).
In Judah, Ahaz continued to rule, but the state was no longer independent; Assyria required it to pay heavy tribute (2 Kings 16).
The Biblical chronicler condemns Ahaz for what he had done: calling on Assyria for support and introducing a foreign cult into the Jerusalem siege Temple (see 2 Kings 16:10–18 and 2 Chronicles 28:16–25). For this, when he died, Ahaz was not buried in the tombs of the kings of Israel (2 Chronicles 28:27).
010The book of Isaiah begins with a superscript: