Why the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah was the the greatest who ever lived
ABOVE: Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michaelangelo.
But is he one prophet or two prophets, or three?
By David B. Brooks, Adath Shalom Congregation
Why was Isaiah the greatest of the prophets? The Introduction to the Soncino Book on Isaiah says that Isaiah writes:
“with his head in the clouds and his feet on the solid earth, with his heart in the things of eternity and with his hands and mouth in the things of time, with his spirit in the eternal counsel of God and his body in a very definite moment of history.”
But is there really just one or two or three Isaiahs?
There are good literary and religious reasons for arguing that there were three writers of the Book of Isaiah, which is 66 chapters long and which can be divided into pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic periods:
- First Isaiah was written when the Kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were independent (Chapters 1-39);
- Second Isaiah was written when exiles from Jerusalem were in living in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple (Chapters 40-55);
- Third Isaiah—likely a collection of First Isaiah’s disciples—wrote when they were back in Jerusalem after King Cyrus of Persia freed them (Chapters 56-66).
The Book of Isaiah is one of the most exciting in the Hebrew Bible. A book of stark contrasts, Isaiah juxtaposes terrifying warnings of judgement and destruction with uplifting promises of hope and prosperity. By most accounts, the number of prophecies by Isaiah exceeds that of any other prophet. He is well known for his unpopular prophecies, but victories at that level are not his real goal. What Isaiah ultimately wants is that each person has a place in the World to Come, a world that is filled with righteousness and justice and that looks much like what he argues for in this world. Almost needless to say, both the ultimate and the proximate goals are attainable only by enthusiastically following the divine word of God.
My review of the Book of Isaiah is undertaken with two qualifications. First, it is a secondary because I do not base my work on the original Hebrew text, but on the work of modern scholars and interpreters. Second, Isaiah lived in the 7th century BCE when modern concepts of “history” were barely known. Worse, it was a turbulent time in the Kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, with little distinction made between military victories or divine miracles. Therefore, I only present as much “history” as is necessary to make the role of Isaiah meaningful.
ISAIAH: THE MAN AND THE PROPHET
Isaiah was the son of a man named Amoz, and had a wife and two sons. Beyond this, we know little of Isaiah’s family or his family life. We can infer that he was born into a well-to-do and a well-connected family in the Kingdom of Judah. That they were well to do is indicated by the fact that Isaiah spent the early years of his life in a study house. That they were well connected is evident from the names of his close relatives two of whom were kings. (Remember that the Kingdom of Israel split shortly after Solomon’s death in Judah in the south and Israel in the north, with only the former following the words of God.)
Isaiah 1’s call to prophecy began about 742 BCE and coincided with the expansion of the Assyrian empire, which threatened both Judah and Israel and which Isaiah proclaimed to be a warning from God to a people that spoke of God but had little respect for the concept. His prophetic writing spanned the reigns of four Judean kings during the 7th century BCE: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah—and may have extended into the reign of Manasseh.
Beyond his literary and oratorical skills, and of course his theological beliefs, First Isaiah is distinguished from other Biblical prophets in three ways. First, he had access to the throne and was able to deliver his prophetic messages directly to the individuals for whom it would have the most immediate impact. Second, those messages were not only theological; they were also political. And, third, in contrast to most prophets, he did not get his message in a dream or vision but somehow directly from God.
Isaiah and Christianity
Isaiah is widely quoted in the Christian Bible, and two parts of the Book are of specific interest to Christian readers. The first group are the several references to a faithful but suffering servant of God. Many Christians claim them to be prophecies about Jesus. However, this reference to God’s servant emphasizes his human characteristics, and certainly not a messiah. The second part presents Isaiah’s statement that forecasted the birth of a child named “Immanuel” (Hebrew: “God is with us”).There is no reference to the birth of Jesus 700 or so years later. Moreover, the word used to designate the birth mother is “ha-almah,” (young woman), not the appropriate word for virgin, which is “bethulah.”
Second Isaiah (Chapters 40 through 55)
If we had no other reason for suggesting that, starting in Chapter 40, there is a second author going by the name of Isaiah of Babylon, it would be that he is firmly and uniquely monotheistic: firmly because this is the only God for all peoples, not just Jews; uniquely because he is the first Biblical author to say so explicitly, as expressed in the words (41:4), “I am the Lord who am the first. / And with the last am the same.” And (44:6): “I am the first and I am the Last / And there is no God but me.” Remarkably, there is much in Torah that is ambiguous; even the Second Commandment leaves room for questions. No other prophet had asked what God is, as opposed to what He does. Second Isaiah believed that one God implies the oneness of all humanity.
Third Isaiah 3 (Chapters 56 through 66)
As mentioned above, Third Isaiah is probably not a single man but several of First Isaiah’s disciples who had moved back to Jerusalem after King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Chapters 56-66 return to First Isaiah’s themes with a mixture of prose and poetry, and of hope and despair at the same time. Third Isaiah addresses people who have returned to a devastated homeland as well as challenging those who did not get exiled to Babylon. (Think class conflict.) God’s words appear frequently, as does criticism of those who conduct business on the Sabbath or offer sacrifices without linking them to justice and righteousness.
ISAIAH’S MANY ROLES AS REFLECTED IN QUOTATIONS
- Peace in our time (2:4): And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / And their swords into pruning hooks; / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / Neither shall they learn war anymore.
- God’s world (33:22): For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our lawmaker, the Lord is our king—He will save us. Also (11:10-12): He will raise a banner for the nations, and gather the exiles of Israel; / He will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
- The need for justice for the poor (1:11-17): What need have I of your sacrifices? says the Lord… Devote yourselves to justice; . . . Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.
- Consolation, no matter the situation (40:1): Console, console, my people, says your God.
- His overall perspective (6:3): Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: / The whole earth is full of His glory.
- Against dualism (45:7): I form the light, and create darkness / I make peace and create evil.
DID ISAIAH EVER DO ANYTHING WRONG?
Though some of Isaiah’s parables and metaphors are too obscure for most people to understand, the greater concern about Isaiah’s writing is that it is confused. mixed up. As Bin-Nun and Lau write: “There is no complete story before us, and most chapters of Isaiah remain a mystery.” In short, neither Isaiah nor his scribes were concerned with chronology. It was much more important to him that the key oral materials become instruments of politics in government or precepts in religious services.
First, the main sources for my review of the Book of Isaiah can be obtained by an email to David.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, here is my favorite saying from all the Book of Isaiah (62:1)
For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace /
And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest!