The Authorship of Isaiah

ISAIAH 1 Although once universally accepted as the work of one man, Isaiah son of Amoz, the book of Isaiah is now widely believed to have been written by various authors over the course of several centuries.The standard multiple-author theory claims that Isaiah had at least three authors:

  • The first was Isaiah (1:1), the eighth-century B.C. prophet. Called "First Isaiah" or "Proto-Isaiah," he is thought to have produced the core of chapters 1-39.

  • "Second" or "Deutero-Isaiah" is assumed to have been an anonymous prophet of the sixth century B.c.,to whom are attributed chapters 40-55.

  • Another postexilic' prophet, "Third" or "Trito-Isaiah," is posited to have composed most of chapters 56-66, perhaps around 400 B.C.

Advocates of this theory attempt to demonstrate that the style, theology and background of Isaiah 1-39 are unlike those of either 40-55 or 56 —66. Second Isaiah—but not First—they argue, depicts God in purely monotheistic terms. Also, First Isaiah is seen as a prophet of judgment, who placed his hopes on the Davidic king, and Second Isaiah a prophet of comfort who pinned his expectations on the Lord's suffering servant.

More substantial are the arguments focusing on the backgrounds of the respective chapters. The Old Testament prophets in general are widely understood to have written from their own unique historical situations. Even if one acknowledges that Isaiah could have predicted the Babylonian captivity, it is argued, it is unlikely that he wrote chapters 40-55, since those texts were written from within the context of captivity. Also, the Persian king Cyrus (c.539 a.c.), is mentioned by name in 44:28 and 45:1, 13, suggesting that Cyrus was a contemporary of the author of chapters 40 —55.The background of Third Isaiah is posited to be different again. By this point Jerusalem had been rebuilt, its citizens no longer under threat from either Assyria or Babylon.

Against this, proponents of the single-author stance first assert that arguments based upon style and theology are weak:

  • An author's style depends upon a variety of factors (age, purpose, subject matter, audience, etc.), and stylistic factors like vocabulary are apt to change.

  • The three "Isaiahs" do share many phrases and words, suggesting stylistic unity. For example, God is called the"Holy One of Israel" throughout (e.g., 10:17; 41:14; 60:9).

  • The alleged theological differences are artificial. Isaiah is a lengthy book, but it does not incorporate any real internal tension or overt contradiction.

  • All of Isaiah is concerned with Canaanite idolatry. While scholars would expect such a focus from First Isaiah, they would not anticipate it in Second or Third Isaiah (e.g., 57:1 3); it was not a significant issue to postexilic prophets such as Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi.

  • From early on Isaiah promised that the Gentiles would submit to the God of Israel (e.g., 2:2-4), an expectation developed throughout the book (e.g., 42:4; 49:6) and a unifying theological motif for the whole of Isaiah.

Regarding the historical perspective and predictions of Isaiah, the following points are pertinent:

  • Isaiah did project himself into the future to describe events as though they had already occurred (e.g., 5:13-17; 9:1-7; 23:1,14). In fact, Isaiah 6, a foundational chapter, presents the exile as inevitable. Isaiah assumed that exile was certain and wrote chapters 40-55 with that in mind.

  • Isaiah's mention of Cyrus's name has a parallel in the prediction of Josiah's name in 1 Kings 13:2. It is true that predictions of this kind are fairly rare in the Old Testament, but they do occur.

  • In contrast to Ezekiel, who lived in Babylon,"Second Isaiah" gave no indication at all that he was familiar with life in Babylon. This suggests that the author of Isaiah 40-55 did not in fact experience Babylonian exile—which is just what we would expect if the chapters were written by Isaiah of Jerusalem.

The only related archaeological evidence comes from a Dead Sea Scroll designated 1Qlsa. This nearly complete text of Isaiah confirms the conservative position in that there is no break between chapters 39 and 40.

Matthew 3:3, 4:16 and Romans 9:27,10:20 all quote portions of Isaiah,ascribing each quotation to the prophet Isaiah.There is no tradition anywhere in ancient Jewish literature of an exilic prophet having written Isaiah 40 —55. Considering that Isaiah is supposed to have been one of the greatest prophets Israel produced, this silence would indeed seem strange.

Ancient Israelite Clothing and Jewelry

ISAIAH 3 Since the climatic conditions of Israel have made it difficult for ancient textile fragments to survive, knowledge of ancient dress comes primarily from textual and iconographic sources (i.e., from ancient documents and pictures). Egyptian funerary wall paintings at Beni-Hasan, dating to patriarchal times, picture a caravan of Semitic peoples dressed in brightly colored, woven garments.These appear to have been made of a single cloth wrapped around the body and fastened over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. Toggle pins of bone, ivory or bronze, which held the cloth in place like modern safety pins, have been located at various sites.

Tunics, with or without sleeves, are mentioned in Scripture as the principal garments of both men and women (Ge 37:3; 2Sa 13:18). These were typically ankle length and drawn up when working (2Ki 4:29). The rare textile remains are mostly of linen, with some of wool, but very few are comprised of both wool and linen threads (cf. Lev 19:19). The Black Obelisk' (ninth century B.c.), which visually records the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III receiving tribute from Israel, pictures King Jehu in such a short-sleeved, ankle-length robe with fringes along the bottom. The sash wrapped around his waist was of special significance for high ranking officials (Isa 22:21). Israelite tribute-bearers are shown garbed in tasseled mantles, a type of garment pictured regularly in Assyrian reliefs depicting Semitic peoples.Their shoes were upturned at the toes and appear to have covered the entire foot, although the Bible mentions leather sandals as the more common footwear (Ge 14:23; Dt 25:9).

As inner garments, men wore a linen waistcloth with a leather belt from which valuables could be hung, such as a knife or a signet seal (2Ki 1:8;Jer 13:1).2 The Lachish reliefs, (701 B.c.) picture Israelite captives in such loincloths, with a wide fabric belt around their waist whose fringed, vertical edge was passed over the belt to hang between the knees. Undergarments, mentioned only in association with the priesthood, were designed to cover the body from the loins to the thighs when the priests were engaged in sanctuary ministry (Ex 28:42 — 43; Eze 44:18). Cloaks with hoods, which could be pulled over the head or used to carry loads, were the typical outer garments of both men and women (Ru 3:15; 1Ki 19:13). Linen headdresses, twisted as turbans, were common for men, wealthy women, bridegrooms and priests (Ex 28:40; Isa 3:20; 61:10). At least for the wealthy, women's clothing was typically made of finer materials and perhaps richer colors than that of men (2Sa 1:24; Pr 31:22). Featured with the attire of the upper class were gauze garments, long veils, headbands and gold embroidery (Isa 3:18— 23;47:2).Women wore their hair long,with a head covering that reached down their back. An ivory from Megiddo pictures a woman with a long, fringed dress and shoulder-length head veil. In terms of jewelry items, hammered gold or silver was fashioned into arm bracelets, necklaces, earrings, nose rings and finger rings (Ge 24:22, 30; Est 3:10; Isa 3:18-21; Eze 16:11-12). The most common earring design of ancient Israel was the "lunate," an ovoid loop resembling a crescent moon. Along with other ornaments, two sets of five solid gold bangles each, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, have been recovered from Tell el-Ajjul, comparable to the ten-shekel weight of Rebekah's bridal bracelets (Ge 24:22).

Clothing and jewelry distinguished between ethnic groups (Nu 15:38-40) and signaled social status within the community itself. Mourners (2Sa 14:2),5 lepers (Lev 13:45) and prisoners (2Ki 25:29) also were sometimes identified by their dress. The garb of royalty and the effluent was most likely distinguished by profuse ornamentation (Ps 45:8-9; Eze 26:16). Since jewelry served to confer dignity and authority, in addition to its use as personal adornment, the articles mentioned in the catalog of Isaiah 3:18-23 may reflect the finery of wealth.

For a discussion of clothing in the New Testament era, see"Dress and Fashion in the Greco-Roman World" on page 2004.

The Syro-Ephraimite War

ISAIAH 7 The great promise of Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would give birth to a son and call him Immanuel, did not arise in a vacuum but from within a specific historical context. In approximately 734 B.C. Israel (the northern kingdom, also called Ephraim) and Syria (also called Aram) formed a military alliance in defiance of the growing power of Assyria.The king of Israel was Pekah, who had apparently assassinated his predecessor, Pekahiah, son of Menahem, seized power and instituted an anti-Assyrian policy in Israel., The king of Syria was Rezin. Syria had for a long time been a major opponent of the Assyrian Empire, which was at that time under the control of Tiglath-Pileser III.

Assyria (located in what is now Iraq) was strategizing an approach from the east against Damascus, the capital of Syria,, and then Samaria, the capital of Israel.' Pekah and Rezin realized that their position would be that much more difficult if Judah, to the south of Samaria, was against them. In such a situation, they would have had to fight a two-front war against Ahaz of Judah to the south and the Assyrians to the northeast. They decided to launch a preemptive strike against Jerusalem and to replace Ahaz with a puppet king, an individual referred to simply as the "son of Tabeel" (v. 6).5

A historical problem in this story is that 2 Kings 15:30 reports that Hoshea, the last king of Israel, assassinated his predecessor, Pekah, in the twentieth year of Jotham, father of Ahaz. If so, how could Pekah have led a war against Ahaz? The probable solution is that Ahaz was at the time of the war a coregent with his father, Jotham.

At the opening of Isaiah 7 the prophet found Ahaz at the conduit of the Upper Pool, perhaps inspecting the city's water supply in anticipation of a siege.6 The coalition of Syria and Israel had already devastated the territory of Judah. Isaiah offered Ahaz assurance from God that the city would not fall and urged him to ask for a sign from God, but Ahaz curtly refused. It appears that Ahaz did not want to be bothered with religious talk because he had already sent an appeal to Tiglath-Pileser for help.The Assyrian king did indeed respond and moved swiftly against the Syro-Ephraimite coalition.

But Isaiah was furious that Ahaz was placing his hope in Assyria rather than in God. He informed the king that Jerusalem would indeed survive but that Assyrian troops would pass through the land like a flood, decimating everything in their path.The Assyrians would sweep the land clean, like a razor that shaves all the hair from a man's body (v.20).The people of Judah would be reduced to near starvation. Since farming would be impossible under these conditions, the land would revert to pasture and wilderness (v.23). People would have to live off whatever they could hunt or gather in the wild, as well as the dairy products of whatever cattle they could manage to retain (vv. 21-25).

Just as Isaiah had predicted,the coalition of Syria and Israel came to nothing. Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, and Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 B.C. Hoshea would ultimately lead Israel to resist Assyria again, and in 722 B.C. Samaria would be destroyed and the northern kingdom would come to an end.' But Assyrian power nearly brought down Jerusalem as well. Ahaz's rejection of the sign had nearly cost Judah everything, but it did lead to God's giving a much greater sign in verse 14.

The Annals of Sargon II

ISAIAH 10 The siege and destruction of Samaria are attributed in the Bible to Shalmaneser V (r. 726— 722 B.C.; 2Ki 17:1-6). Since the Assyrian king died in the same year as Samaria's capitulation, however, the deportation of the city's inhabitants and its resettlement with foreigners were most likely carried out by Shalmaneser's successor, Sargon II (r.722-705 B.c.).

Prior to 1847,"Sargon king of Assyria" was known only from Isaiah 20:1. Since his name did not appear in classical sources, scholars concluded that the Sargon of the Bible was not a bona fide king but rather an alias for some other Assyrian ruler. Ironically, however, Sargon was the first name of an Assyrian king to be deciphered from Assyrian inscriptions when, in 1847, his vast palace of more than 200 rooms and 30 courtyards was excavated at Khorsabad in northern Iraq. The excavations also revealed reliefs and inscriptions on the walls comprising the annals of this Assyrian king. Now, thanks to the discoveries of archaeology, we know much about Sargon and the other kings of the Assyrian Empire.

Sargon II ruled from 721 to 705 B.C. He was probably a usurper without rightful claim to the throne; thus he dubbed himself"Sargon," which literally means "The king is legitimate,"a name recalling Sargon I, a great Assyrian king of antiquity. His usurpation of the throne led to such intense internal discord that outlying regions took the opportunity to reassert their independence from their overlords. The king of Hamath led a rebellion in the west that included the cities of Arpad, Damascus and Samaria. Sargon II quickly responded, conquering the insurgents at the Battle of Qarqar in 720 B.C. He then proceeded south to Egypt, marching through the territories of Israel and Judah along the way.

Sargon II campaigned in the region of Canaan three times (in 720,716/715 and 712/711 B.c.), in the process turning Israel into an Assyrian province and Judah into a vassal state. In 720 B.C.,following the defeat of Samaria by Shalmaneser V,Sargon boasted about having deported 27,280 Israelites to Assyria. In 712/711 B.C. he turned his attention to the area of Philistia. According to 20:1 he sent his commander-in-chief to capture the city of Ashdod. Assyrian records verify that Sargon remained in his capital at Khorsabad: He stayed "in the land,"ostensibly to supervise the construction of his palace. Not only is the Ashdod campaign documented in the Assyrian annals, but fragments of an Assyrian victory inscription were discovered in excavations at Ashdod itself. Moreover, a mass grave from the time of the Assyrian conquest yielded the remains of approximately 3,000 individuals, many of them decapitated.

The Bible, as indicated earlier, mentions Sargon II by name only in 20:1 a passage in which his capture of Ashdod is highlighted. It seems, however, that Isaiah also had Sargon's campaigns in mind when he composed chapter 10. In describing the pride of the Assyrian monarch, the prophet wrote about previous Assyrian victories over Carchemish, Hamath, Arpad, Samaria and Damascus (10:9). In prophesying God's future punishment of Assyria, Isaiah cited the recent abuses of Assyrian power to emphasize the Lord's justice.


ISAIAH 13 Babylon was one of the greatest cities of ancient Mesopotamia. Already a fairly important city by 2100 B.C., it became the hub of the Old Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.c.).Babylon soon declined after Hammurabi's death, however, and was sacked by the Hittites around 1531 B.C. But it became powerful again under Nabopolassar, who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire.This was Babylon's most glorious period; it dominated the ancient Near East from 625 to 539 B.C. The most famous king of this period was Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 B.c.), who, using the vast riches he had accumulated from his conquests, transformed Babylon into perhaps the most magnificent capital in antiquity.

The ruins of ancient Babylon, 53 miles (83 km) south of Baghdad in modern Iraq, encompass approximately 2,100 acres. Excavations have revealed the glory of the city constructed by Nebuchadnezzar II, particularly that of its fortification system. An inner city of around 1,140 acres was built up along both sides of the Euphrates River.This was surrounded by a wall 5.5 miles (8.9 km) long, incorporating an inner wall 21 feet (6.5 m) wide and an outer

Babylon wall 12 feet (3.7 km) wide, with a 24-foot (7.3-km) space between them filled with earth—resulting in a total defense depth of 57 feet (17.4 km).Outside the outer wall was a moat,fed by the Euphrates, ranging in width from 60 to 250 feet (1.5 to 76.2 m).To the east of the inner city were two more double walls totaling 4.5 miles (7.3 km) in length. To provide additional protection against invasion from the north, Nebuchadnezzar constructed an enormous wall 20 miles (32 km) north of Babylon. It was 16 feet (4.9 m) thick and extended from the Euphrates to the Tigris River, a distance of approximately 25 miles (40 km).2 Within the city Nebuchadnezzar's magnificent palace occupied an area of about 50 acres. Along with this were over 50 temples, as well as numerous shrines and other buildings.

Babylon held a prominent place in the minds of the prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah both predicted its downfall (Isa 13-14; Jer 50-51). Jeremiah also prophesied that the city's famous walls would be torn down (Jer 50:15; 51:44,58). In 539 B.C., after defeating the Babylonians at the northern defense wall, Cyrus the Great and his Medo-Persian army entered Babylon without a contest.3 The Babylonian Chronicle describes the fall of Babylon to Cyrus. In 482 B.C. Babylon's revolt against the Persian king Xerxes led to the razing of its fortifications.

Thereafter Babylon experienced a slow decline. Alexander the Great died there, and long after the exile the city was still home to a sizable Jewish population. In Revelation 18 Babylon represents godless human culture. To-day little remains of the city's former grandeur (see Isa 13:20-22; Jer 50:3,39 — 40; 51:29,37,43).

Beards and Hairstyles in the Biblical World

ISAIAH 15 In Isaiah 15:2 the prophet declared that every head was shaved and every beard cut off. In context, it is clear that this was a sign of mourning;, shaving the head and face was evidently not ordinary fashion but a way of expressing overwhelming grief. Baldness was subjected to mockery (2Ki 2:23 —25; we find the same attitude in the Greek comedies of Aristophanes in the late fifth century B.c.), while luxuriant hair seems to have been viewed as a sign of strength and vigor. But how did people in the ancient world typically wear their hair?

Fashions in hairstyles and beards varied in different times and places in the Biblical world. Paul stated that, in his cultural context, it was a disgrace for men to wear their hair long or for women to have theirs shorn (1Co 11:6,14-15). Samson and Absalom both had long hair (Jdg 16:13-19; 2Sa 14:26), but the very fact that the Bible draws attention to this may indicate that this practice was outside the norm. Israelite men typically wore their beards long,although during the intertestamental period and the New Testament period, under the influence of Greek culture, some Jewish men were clean is possible that some professions called for distinctive hairstyles. For example, Mesopotamian physicians may have shaved their heads, and Mesopotamian slaves were required to wear a particular hairstyle, with dire consequences for unlawfully altering it.

The Israelites, however, had some distinctive customs. Men were forbidden to trim their hair along the sides or the edges of their beards (Lev 19:27). A Nazirite who had made a vow did not allow a razor to touch his hair until that vow had been completed; at that time his hair was shaved and cast into the fire under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering he had presented to God (Nu 6:5-21). Hair and beards could have symbolic significance as well. While cutting off another man's beard was considered an insult (2Sa 10:4-5), cutting one's own hair or beard was a sign of mourning (Isa 15:2). Ezekiel, for example, shaved off his hair and beard as a symbol of the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Eze 5:1ff.).


ISAIAH 17 Damascus was, and still is, the capital city of Syria. As is the case today, ancient Damascus was often set against ancient Israel.

Continuous occupation of Damascus since antiquity makes excavation of ancient remains there virtually impossible. Nevertheless Assyrian, Syrian and Egyptian sources all shed light on the Biblical data.The city's location along the fertile Barada River at the crossroads of major trade routes (the Via Maris and the King's Highway) ensured continued prosperity. Damascus is mentioned in a number of ancient writings. In a text at the temple of Amon at Karnak, for example, Thutmose Ill of Egypt claims to have forced Damascus to submit to him (c. 1482 B.c.). Damascus was the dominant city of Aram (Syria) from the eleventh century B.C. to its annexation by Assyria in 732

The city and its kings had numerous dealings with the kings of Israel:

    • David subjugated the Aramean kingdom of Syria, but King Rezin of Damascus (r. c. 955-925 B.(*) regained independence during Solomon's reign.

    • Ben-hadad I (r. c. 900-860 B.c.) entered an alliance with Asa of Judah to attack Baasha of Israel (1Kgs 15:16-22), and Ben-hadad II (r. c. 860-843 B.c.) began an expansion that took most of Israel's Transjordanian territories. This project was interrupted in 853 B.C. when Damascus, Israel and other nations combined to check Assyrian expansion under Shalmaneser III at the Battle of Qarqar.

    • Under Hazael (r. c. 843-796 B.c.) Syria's expansion into Israel and Judah continued, despite losses Damascus suffered against Assyria.

    • Ben-Hadad III (r. c. 796-770 B.c.) was successful against Israel early in his reign and later headed a coalition against Zakur, king of Hamath. Under Jeroboam II Israel recovered territory previously lost to Damascus.

    • Rezin (r. c. 750-732 B.c.) and Pekah of Israel tried to force Ahaz of Judah to join an anti-Assyrian coalition, but Ahaz paid Tiglath-Pileser III to attack Damascus, resulting in its annexation into Assyria and in the death-of Rezin.

Damascus continued as an influential provincial city under Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. It was a major cosmopolitan center during the New Testament era, when it was home to a large Jewish community. Thus Saul of Tarsus traveled there searching for early Christians. "Straight Street" of Acts 9:11 may have been a major thoroughfare from the Roman period, called in Latin the cardo maximus.

The Abecedaries

ISAIAH 28 An abecedary is a type of ancient inscription containing letters in a standard alphabetical order. Many such writings appear to be nothing more than the elementary exercises of school children. However, these documents still yield valuable information concerning the development and transmission of the alphabet.The earliest abecedaries were found at Ugarit ("Map 1") and date to the fourteenth century B.C.1 The order of the letters preserved in these early documents follows the arrangement later adopted by the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic alphabets.Many have argued that the names of the letters, though not preserved in these inscriptions, must have developed simultaneously with the fixed alphabetic order by serving as a mnemonic device to aid in remembering the pattern. By analogy, modern American children use a rhyming song to learn their alphabet.

Parts of Isaiah 28:9-13 are difficult to interpret; verse 10 in particular looks like a series of nonsense rhymes. The NIV renders this as"Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there," but this translation is something of a guess.The translational difficulty in the Hebrew can perhaps be explained by the development of mnemonic tools such as rhyming for teaching children. The nonsensical Hebrew words that appear in this passage are probably consonants plus rhyming vowel sounds, simulating an elementary school lesson. Further evidence that the Israelites made use of the alphabet for memorization purposes can be found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalms 111 and 112 are acrostic poems that follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet.

Cuneiform and Clay Tablets in the Ancient Near East

ISAIAH 30 In ancient Mesopotamia the most commonly used writing material was the clay tablet (cf. lsa 30:8). The earliest ones were produced at the Sumerian city of Uruk ("Map 1) during the fourth millennium B.C. Clay was available in such abundance and was so easy to mold into writing tablets that there was no obstacle to producing a great quantity of such tablets.Thus, over a half million tablet-documents have been discovered to date from the ancient Near East. Writing first involved carving into the clay with a sharp stick or nail—thus described as"nail-writing."

No one knows exactly how writing emerged, but it probably began with clay tokens that were used as record-keeping devices. Marks placed upon these tokens eventually evolved into writing. At first "nail-writing" was practiced by drawing pictures and pictographic symbols (e.g., a depiction of a man to represent a man). Today we use pictograms to communicate simple ideas. A stylized likeness of a man or woman can represent the men's or women's restroom; a cigarette with a circle around it and slash mark over it has come to be understood as "No smoking."But it is impossible to communicate complex speech with such symbols.

As the need for record keeping increased, pictograms became more abstract and began to be formed with quick, straight strokes instead of curving lines (the picture of the man became more stylized and abstract —a symbol rather than a recognizable picture). By the third millennium B.c. cuneiform had been invented. Cuneiform (Latin for"wedge-shaped") is so named for the shape of the mark made by a reed stylus, triangular at one end, that was pressed into wet clay to make wedge-shaped lines.

With the advent of cuneiform, writing became even more abstract. Signs could now represent not only words but also syllables, several of which could be combined to represent the syllables of a word. For example, the Sumerian word for "barley" is she. In cuneiform, the sign for barley might literally mean "barley," but it might also denote some other word with the syllable she in it. Using English for our analogy, in this system the symbol for "man" might represent a man, but it might also represent the syllable "man-" in "manner"or"manufacture."As the system became more sophisticated and uniform, the number of signs needed for writing was reduced. Whereas as many as 2,000 signs are known from the earliest tablets, there were only about 200 still in use by the second millennium B.C. This allowed writing to truly represent speech, with all of its complexities of vocabulary and grammar. Thus myths, legends, history and songs began to be recorded.

Another development was the linear arrangement of signs. Originally, tablets were divided into rectangular boxes into which related signs were drawn in no particular order. These boxes were arranged in vertical columns. As writing became more abstract and rapid (c. 2500 B.c.), the signs within the boxes came to be written from left to right. Later the boxes were no longer drawn, and the signs were written left to right across the face of the tablet.This also led to a standardization of sign height, much as one finds to-day in ruled paper.

Cuneiform was first developed for use with the Sumerian language' but was adapted for other Mesopotamian languages. The Akkadians adopted this form of writing, and as their realm of influence grew, cuneiform writing spread. By the second millennium B.C. the Elamites, Hurrians and Hittites were employing cuneiform to write their own languages., Eventually Akkadian became the international language of diplomacy, and Akkadian cuneiform spread throughout the Near East.The Amarna Letters demonstrate that cuneiform was utilized in fourteenth-century B.c. Canaan and was readable in the Egyptian royal court.

Around 1600 B.C. the Phoenicians invented the precursor to the modern alphabet. In a true alphabet signs represent not words or syllables but individual consonants and vowels. This allows for writing to use a very small number of signs.With an alphabet there are fewer signs to learn, allowing almost anyone to become literate. Also, spelling becomes more accurate and uniform, resulting in less ambiguity and confusion. The efficiency of the alphabet eventually led to the decline of cuneiform in Syria-Palestine. The Aramaic language, which was written alphabetically, replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca (language of common, commercial use) of the ancient Near Eastern world.

The Great Isaiah Scroll

ISAIAH 34 Among the greatest treasures of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran was the Great Isaiah Scroll or 1 Qlsa. The technical name 1Q1sa means cave 1,Qumran,Isaiah, and the first or "a" copy of Isaiah found in that cave. Scholars recognized this scroll as the earliest-known complete copy of Isaiah (c.125-150 B.c.), replacing a copy dating back to the tenth century A.D.! Well preserved for nearly 2,000 years, this 24-foot-long (7.3 m) leather scroll has few holes and is essentially intact. In fact, it is the oldest complete copy discovered to date of any book of the Bible.

The traditional Hebrew text for the Old Testament is the Masoretic Text (or MT).1 The MT is the Hebrew Bible in use today, and except for 1Q1sa and other fragments of Isaiah from Qumran or elsewhere,the oldest known extant copies of Isaiah are all in the MT tradition. Though separated by 1,100 years, the MT of Isaiah and 1Qlsa show amazing agreement, except in minute details of spelling and minor word variations. 1 Qlsa demonstrates that the work of generations of Jewish scribes who produced the MT is trustworthy. We have every reason to believe that the MT is a reliable copy of the Hebrew Old Testament.

In addition, the discovery of this text suggests that as far back as the second century B.C. the text of Isaiah was viewed as having only one author. Many critical scholars maintain that chapters 1-39 were written by one author, while chapters 40-66 were composed by one or more different authors. However, chapters 39 and 40 appear in the same column in 1 Qlsa, suggesting that the ancient copyist viewed these two chapters as having originated from a single author. This ancient masterpiece now rests in a Jerusalem museum, the Great Shrine of the Book.

Hezekiah against the Assyrians

ISAIAH 36 After a lengthy coregency with his father, Ahaz, Hezekiah ascended to the throne of Judah in 715 B.C., six years after the northern kingdom had fallen to Sargon II of Assyria. He promptly restored the long-neglected temple and invited the remnant of the northern tribes to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem., In the beginning of his reign Hezekiah remained a loyal subject of the Assyrian king, refusing to revolt when the Philistine states did so in 711 B.C. However, when Sargon died in battle in 705 B.C., the transfer of power to his successor, along with internal pressures from the Assyrian heartland, occasioned many of Assyria's vassals, including King Hezekiah, to attempt to regain their independence. Sennacherib ascended to the Assyrian throne facing rebellion on all sides.

In 701 B.C. Sennacherib laid siege to Lachish, which guarded access to Jerusalem and its rebellious king.3 Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute at this time and released Padi, the pro-Assyrian king of Ekron,from prison in Jerusalem,while Sennacherib gave some cities of western Judah to loyal Philistine kings. Nevertheless Sennacherib sent forces to besiege Jerusalem, demoralize its people and try to persuade them to hand over their king (2Ki 18:19-35; 2Ch 32:10-19; Isa 36:4-20). The prophet Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah by prophesying the deliverance of Jerusalem and the return of Sennacherib to his own land.The angel of the Lord entered the Assyrian camp,slaying 185,000 soldiers.Sennacherib's own record boasts that he had shut up Hezekiah like a caged bird but does not explain how the siege ended. Sennacherib did in fact return to Nineveh, where he was later assassinated by two of his sons.

Differences in the Biblical and Assyrian accounts of Sennacherib's dealings with Hezekiah have led many scholars to posit the theory that Sennacherib led two campaigns against Jerusalem:one in 701 B.C. and the other sometime between 688 and 681.According to this proposed reconstruction of events,the first siege of Jerusalem would have ended when Hezekiah sent tribute to Nineveh (2Ki 18:14-16).5 Later, Hezekiah may have withheld tribute and relied upon Egypt as an ally powerful enough to resist Assyria.This may have roused Sennacherib to a second siege of Jerusalem, which ended when the Lord decimated the Assyrian army overnight. Regardless of whether we accept the theory of one Assyrian campaign against Jerusalem or two, it is certain that Hezekiah went to great lengths to prepare and fortify his nation for the onslaught:

  • He protected Jerusalem's water supply, channeling the Gihon spring through the city and building a wall and additional towers to prevent access to the spring from without (2Ch 32:5; cf. the reference to the two walls in Isa 22:11).

  • What is known as the Broad Wall was added to the western hill of Jerusalem, and an outer wall was added to the eastern side of the city expanding Jerusalem's area four-fold to accommodate refugees from northern Israel and western Judah.

  • Hezekiah stopped up water sources in outlying areas, fortified many Judahite cities and manufactured armaments.

  • Hezekiah's efforts to safeguard Jerusalem against prolonged sieges may be evidenced by the countless jars discovered throughout ancient Judah. These large jars, bearing the Hebrew letters ImIk ("belonging to the king") and dating to the time of Hezekiah, suggest that he was preparing and equipping store-houses of food and supplies throughout the land.

Although Sennacherib inflicted dire casualties upon Judah, the Lord delivered the city from the hand of the Assyrian monarch.God's protection, along with Hezekiah's preparations for war, proved successful against a fearsome foe.

The Sumerian Prayer Letter of King Sin-Iddinam

ISAIAH 38 The modern reader may be surprised that in Isaiah 38:9-20 Hezekiah's prayer is recorded as a"writing," or letter.The genre of the "prayer letter," however, is well attested in Sumerian and Akkadian literature.It is first known from the libraries of private individuals but later developed as a common means for royal figures to petition the gods. An example of this form of communication is the Sumerian prayer letter of King Sin-lddinam of Larsa (c. mid-nineteenth century B.C.).Sin-Iddinam wrote to Nin-Isina, the patron goddess of the city of Isin (the rival city of Larsa), complaining that although he had been a faithful shepherd of the nation under his care, the city of Isin continued to raid his territory. Furthermore, he had been cursed with an incurable disease that defied diagnosis. Appealing to the goddess as though she were his own true mother, Sin-lddinam begged Nin-Isina to petition her divine son Damu (the god of healing) on his behalf.The letter ends with the king on the brink of death, crying for Nin-Isina to have mercy and call upon Damu. A subsequent letter in the name of Nin-Isina to her divine son on behalf of King Sin-Iddinam appears to be the answer to the king's prayer.

Another prayer letter, this one an Akkadian missive written by a military officer, is addressed to the god Shamash. In it the officer asked for an oracle on the success of a planned campaign.

In Isaiah 38 King Hezekiah of Judah used the prayer letter genre to address Yahweh. Having been inflicted with a near-fatal illness, Hezekiah pleaded for healing while recounting his obedience and devotion to God. When the Lord heard his prayer and granted him 15 additional years of life, the king wrote another prayer letter, detailing the extent of his sickness and praising God for his healing restoration and loving faithfulness. In so doing Hezekiah demonstrated true loyalty: He did not call upon God only when experiencing life-threatening difficulty but remembered also to thank and praise him after his full recovery.

Sennacherib's Campaign Against Merodach-Baladan

ISAIAH 39 In Isaiah 39:1 Merodach-Baladan (a Hebrew form of his Akkadian name, Marduk-apla-iddina), the king of Babylon, sent envoys to Hezekiah. Merodach-Baladan, a ruler within the Chaldean tribe of Bit Yakin, spent his career trying to wrest Babylon from Assyrian control.

Although he paid tribute to the Assyrian Emperor Tiglath-Pileser III, Merodach-Baladan rebelled against Sargon II with help from the neighboring Elamites. By 710 B.C. Sargon II had defeated Merodach-Baladan and forced him to flee to Elam.' Upon Sar-gon's death his son Sennacherib became the Assyrian emperor, and once again Merodach-Baladan rebelled. Perhaps Hezekiah's aid was sought by Merodach-Baladan at this juncture, resulting in an alliance that may have led to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.2 To address this sedition Sennacherib faced Merodach-Baladan at Kish and again forced him into exile. Although a seemingly loyal puppet named Bel-ibni was installed by Sennacherib over Babylon, Bel-ibni led another revolt,and Merodach-Baladan reasserted his power in the aftermath of the insurrection.

With the demise of Bel-ibni's mutiny in Babylon and Sennacherib's control secured yet again, the Assyrian emperor sought a final solution to the troublesome Merodach-Baladan. In 694 B.C. Sennacherib sent his army to flush his nemesis out of the marshes in southern Babylonia, But with the Assyrian army so far south,the Elamites exploited this weakness and again seized control of Babylon. Although Sennacherib was eventually able to oust the Elamite incursion, Merodach-Baladan escaped his grasp and apparently fled to Elam, where he lived out his days.His brief appearance within Isaiah (and in 2Ki 20:12) is appropriate, given the elusive nature of his career.

Idols and Idol-Making

ISAIAH 44 The technical details of Isaiah's diatribe in 44:9-21 suggest that he was well acquainted with the idol-making practices of his day, including an important ritual known from Mesopotamian sources as the"mouth-washing"or"mouth-opening"ceremony (a similar rite is known from Egypt).Through a series of ritual acts and incantations, Mesopotamian craftsmen and priests believed that their deities were created and"brought to life"by means of the animation of the statues' sensory organs.An inert statue of wood or stone was thus in their view transformed into a living manifestation of the deity it represented.

However, some scholars argue that Isaiah's attack was based upon a superficial understanding of the mouth-washing/mouth-opening ritual. Isaiah claimed that the image remained a lifeless, artificial product, but at the close of the Mesopotamian rite was a disavowal of any human participation in the creation of the deity, suggesting that the pagans rejected the idea that human beings could manufacture a god. Furthermore,the mouth-washing texts include an acknowledgment that the transformation of the idol from man-made to divine was a work of the gods alone.

Was Isaiah aware of this important aspect of the mouth-washing ceremony? It is hard to imagine that he was not, considering how widely practiced it was in the ancient Near East. It seems, rather, that the prophet made a brilliant play on the idea by claiming that the transformation of the sensory organs occurred not in the wooden or stone image but in the heart and mind of the worshiper, who became dumb and blind (vv. 18-20) by being transformed into the inert image of the idol he or she worshiped. This same principle of "You are what you worship" is echoed in Psalms 115:1-8,135:15 —18 and in Jeremiah 10:14. However, for those who worshiped Yahweh, Isaiah promised a restoration of their sensory organs (Isa 32:3-4; 35:5-6), including eyes that would no longer be glazed over and minds that would experience understanding (44:18). Isaiah concluded his attack on idol-making with a fitting reminder to God's people that they had not created Yahweh. Rather, God reminded them, "I have made you" (v. 21, emphasis added)

Cosmology in the Ancient Near East

ISAIAH 45 Cosmology deals with the order and nature of the universe. Observations of nature by ancient peoples were transformed into metaphors by which they understood their place in the world. Many myths attempted to explain the origin and purpose of the human race.

In the most prominent Mesopotamian myth of creation, which was annually enacted at New Year's religious festivals, the ordered universe emerged out of a cosmic struggle of the gods.The Enuma Elish vividly imagines the origins of the universe as a struggle between chaos and order.' In this myth Marduk, the storm-god, defeated Tiamat, the sea dragon, and from her body created the universe. He also killed her consort, the god Kingu, and from Kingu's blood created humanity for the purpose of serving the gods.

The actual process of humanity's creation is better described by another Mesopotamian myth, Atra-hasis, in which Mami, the birth goddess and divine midwife, shaped clay moistened by the spittle of the gods and then pinched off pieces to deliver humans from the womb of the earth.The role of humanity, again, was to serve the gods by constructing their temples, working their lands and giving ritual service to the deities.

In the Memphite theology of Egypt, the god Ptah conceived the universe in his mind and brought it into being by his creative word. The fashioning of humanity, however, is ascribed to the potter god, Khnum,who molded people out of clay, crafting them on a potter's wheel, and then placed the fetus in the mother's womb. Reliefs in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple show Khnum sculpting her fetus and her ka, or"spirit," on the potter's wheel.

Yet another myth explains the origins of humanity as the joyful tears of the sun god, Ra (or Re; in Egyptian, remut means "tears" and remet means "humanity"). Although there is no clear Egyptian articulation of the purpose of humanity, there is an assertion that though human beings were created with equal opportunity to do good, they chose to devise evil in their hearts.

Biblical cosmology, treats natural phenomena from the standpoint of a monotheistic worldview.The primal waters are neither vilified nor deified. God commanded creation by the power of his word, shaping the cosmos in an orderly fashion and governing his world with wisdom (Ge 1; Pr 8:22-31). A person is not a servile being meant to fulfill the gods' need for food and worship; humanity is created in God's image and destined for communion with God and for the purpose of blessing (Ge 1:27-28).

Textual Criticism

ISAIAH 51 Any book copied by hand is likely to contain errors. Not surprisingly, there are copyists' errors (called textual or scribal errors) in ancient Biblical manuscripts.The original copies of the books were lost long ago. Thus our sources for the Biblical materials are limited to handwritten copies (of copies) of the originals.

We do also have access to copies of ancient translations of the Bible into other languages, as well as citations of the Bible by early rabbis and church fathers. Thus Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible, together with early translations and citations of Scripture, witness to the correct reading of a particular text.

How did scribal errors arise? Poor memory, impaired judgment, mishearing and errors of sight or misunderstanding often caused the best-intentioned scribes to omit, substitute or repeat letters or entire words. Sometimes scribes made matters worse when they deliberately altered the text in an attempt to rectify something they perceived as a problem (deliberate alterations are probably very rare, however). In time, the result was a series of accidental corruptions or intended improvements that departed from the original text.

Textual criticism is the attempt to restore the Biblical authors' original words by comparing and contrasting the various copies and translations of the Bible. Here "criticism" does not mean "finding fault with" but "evaluating" the existing copies of the text. Significantly, while textual errors do exist among the Biblical witnesses, they do not destroy the Bible's credibility or message. Just as an alert reader can understand a book or newspaper article that has

typographical errors in it, so too God's Word is able to speak for itself in spite of the minor corruptions that have arisen through scribal transmission. Most of the Biblical text is certain, and where variations do occur among existing copies,the original wording can usually be determined with a good degree of certainty by a thorough acquaintance with the available manuscripts. Most modern translations use footnotes to let readers know where the text is difficult or where scribal errors may exist.

An example of a textual problem is found in the last sentence of Isaiah 51:19. The New American Standard Bible translates the question "How shall I comfort you?', while the NIV words it "Who can console you?" (emphasis added for both translations).These different renderings reflect a difference of opinion over which manuscripts preserve the best reading.The NIV follows a reading that is found in a Hebrew manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls., This translation is also supported by the Greek (Septuagint), Latin (Vulgate) and Syriac (Peshitta) translations of the Old Testament.On the other hand, the standard edition of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic Text) reads"How can I comfort you?"and was followed by the NASB translators.

The above example also makes the point that most scribal questions involve minor points in the text. We have good reason to be confident that the translations now available faithfully, albeit never perfectly, reflect what the prophets and other Biblical authors originally wrote. The presence of scribal errors is not a reason to consider the Bible untrustworthy.

Precious Stones of the Biblical World

ISAIAH 54 Precious stones have been known and sought after since earliest antiquity—gathered as loose rocks, chiseled out of sandstone or mined in shafts (Job 28:1-11). One of the first, and finest, examples of jewelry known in the ancient world comes from the royal tombs of Ur (c. 2500 u.c.). Among the funerary hoard is a queen's diadem (crown or royal headband), exquisitely fashioned of hammered gold beech leaves and floral motifs in lapis lazuli, as well as bead necklaces of gold, lapis, carnelian and agate. Valued for their rarity and beauty, gemstones served a wide variety of purposes in the ancient world:

    • Adornment: Precious stones were used for ornamentation in both life and death (Isa 3:20-21).

    • Currency: Gems were coveted as a mark of wealth (2Ch 32:27) and exchanged as a form of currency preceding coinage., Their light weight, ease of transport and durability made precious stones in the form of jewelry the most common bridal gift and dowry (Ge 24:22; Isa 61:10; Eze 16:11-13). As a woman's personal possessions, they also became her inheritance.

    • Seals: Hard stones such as jasper, agate and onyx were among the favorites for engraved seals. Inscribed with pictorial scenes or letters identifying their owner (Ge 38:18; 1Ki 21:8), signet rings were pressed, and cylinder seals rolled, on wax or clay to leave their impression. Jewels naturally served as insignia of royalty (Zec 9:16) and, by extension, of royal authority (Ge 41:42).

    • Signs of National Power: Gemstones were exchanged as gifts between rulers (2Ch 9:9) and seized as spoils of war (Jdg 8:26).

    • Ceremonial: Ceremonial use of precious stones included their dedication to the Lord as an offering (Ex 35:22; Nu 31:50).The most abundant use of gems in ancient Israel was in the adornment of the temple (1Ch 29:2) and its chief ministrant, who wore a jewel-encrusted breastplate (Ex 28:17-21).

    • Theological Symbols: The value, luminosity and enduring nature of gems rendered them a most apropos literary image for the glory of the Lord (Eze 1:26) and for the recreated, eschatological (end time) people of God (Isa 54:12; Rev 21:18-21).

The Eunuch

ISAIAH 56 The compassion of God is poignantly illustrated in the reference to the eunuch in Isaiah 56:3-5,an allusion that must be understood in light of Deuteronomy 23:1, a text forbidding eunuchs from entering the assembly of the Lord. The word translated "eunuch" in Isaiah is saris, which is most likely a loanword from an Akkadian phrase meaning one at the head of [the king]." As is probably true in Hebrew, the Akkadian meaning evolved from the more general sense of "officer, official" to "castrated official." Potiphar, in Genesis 39:1, was a saris, but this early use of the word meant only"official,"not"eunuch." However, the time frame and context of Isaiah 56:3-4 require that the reader understand saris as"a castrated person." Although some have attempted to relate this reference to some kind of historical reality, specifically to a return of exiles who had served as castrated officials in foreign courts (perhaps including Nehemiah), the primary focus should remain on the message: What defiles a person before God is not physical deformity but an unrepentant heart (cf. Mt 15:10-20).

The divine promise to give a "memorial" and a name to the faithful eunuch is quite profound. A eunuch could never have attained a memorial or passed along his name by means of having children. Also, the deliberate choice of the Hebrew noun "hand" (translated "memorial") and the verb "cut off" in verse 5 is remarkable. In the ancient Near East the word hand was often used euphemistically for the male genitals. God will provide a symbolic overturning in eternity of what has been taken away from the eunuch in the present. The prophetic foreshadowing, possibly of Nehemiah and certainly of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, is striking.

The Offering of King Ashyahu

ISAIAH 60 Isaiah 60:9 describes the expectation that one day the ships of Tarshish would come bringing silver and gold to honor the God of Israel. "Tarshish" may have been either in Spain or in Sardinian and the "hammered silver ...brought from Tarshish" (Jer 10:9) was imported silver of high value. An ostracon dated through paleography to around the time of King Josiah (640-609 B.c.)2 reads, "So King Ashyahu has commanded you to give by the agency of Zakar-yahu silver of Tarshish for the house of the LORD: three shekels." But who was Ashyahu?

The names of Hebrew kings sometimes had elements inverted. For example,the name Ahaziah (2Ki 8:25) was inverted to Jehoahaz in 2 Chronicles 21:17.Both names mean"Yahweh holds," but in Ahaziah the word for "holds" is first and "Yahweh" is second (in the ending "-iah"), while in Jehoahaz"Yahweh" is first (as "Jeho-") and "holds" ("-ahaz") comes second. Ashyahu could be an inverted form of Joash, king of Judah (r. 835 —796 B.c.), but it is more likely an inversion of Josiah, king of Judah (r. 640-609 B.c.). Zakaryahu was probably the Zechariah of 2 Chronicles 35:8,a temple administrator in Josiah's reign, and the ostracon seems to be a receipt for the offering. When Isaiah prophesied that one day Gentiles would bring the silver of Tarshish to Yahweh's temple, he was alluding to a means of honoring God that was already being practiced in his own day by his own people.

The Winepress

ISAIAH 63 The winepress was a key component of ancient wine production) In its most basic form it consisted of three sections: an upper and a lower vat and a channel connecting the two. After the grapes had lain in the sun for a few days to increase their sugar content, they were placed in the upper vat and trodden with bare feet.The juice moved down the channel to the smaller, but deeper, lower vat.The husks that remained after having been trodden were pressed by a wooden plank, one end of which was secured to a side of the vat while the other was weighed with stones to facilitate the pressing process.

Some of the more elaborate wine presses that have been discovered have had three or four vats. The extra vats improved the settling process and reduced the amount of sediment in the wine. The juice would ferment in the lowest vat, a process requiring four to seven days. After this period the wine would be poured into jars or wineskins. Often there would be a spout in the lowest vat that would channel the wine into these containers. The jars or wine-skins would hold the wine as the fermentation process was completed,a period of two to four months. Isaiah used the imagery of treading the winepress to express divine judgment against the nations (Isa 63:1 —6).The act of treading represents God's vengeance against his enemies, whether through war or other disasters. The juice produced from the grapes represents the blood of the defeated, while the intoxication produced by overindulgence of the wine represents the effect of God's wrath on those he judges (v. 6). At the same time, however, God's vengeance against his enemies is coupled with his redemption of his own people (v.4).

Humanity and the Divine: Comparing the Bible to the Myth of Atrahasis

ISAIAH 66 The Bible, along with numerous other ancient Near Eastern texts, recounts the stories of creation and of a great flood., The commonality of a flood story can be misleading, however, causing the reader to suppose that the Bible has essentially the same outlook as that found in other ancient cultures. In fact, the Biblical understanding of God and of his relationship to the world sets the Old Testament record apart from pagan notions of the divine.

One Old Babylonian text that recounts the events of creation and the flood is called Atra-hasis (named after the hero of the story, a Noah-like figure). The tale begins with a lower class of gods, the lgigi, who are discontented because they have been forced to do all of the drudge work for the higher gods (e.g., dig irrigation canals and clear marshlands). One night their frustration boils over and they march against the houses of the high gods. Cooler heads prevail, however,and the high gods offer a solution: They will create human beings to do the drudge work for the Igigi. A god is sacrificed, his blood is mixed with clay and humans are formed under the direction of the mother goddess, Mami.

The humans multiply, however,and this creates a new problem:The people make so much noise that the gods cannot sleep.They try to reduce the human population through disease and famine, but it swells again. Finally,they determine to strike humanity with a flood. One man, Atra-hasis, is warned of the coming deluge, however, so that not all humans are wiped out. A solution is finally found: Through infant mortality and the sterility of some women, the human race will be kept to a manageable number.

By contrast, Isaiah 66:1 —2 reads,"This is what the LORD says: 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?' declares the Lord. This is the one I esteem: _ he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.— God needs no one to do his drudge work, nor is he disturbed by the most raucous or boisterous behavior of people. What he does seek is a humble heart.This is in keeping with what we see in - Genesis, where God created only by his word, needing no assistance, and where he judged people for their sin— not because their decibel level annoyed him. Superficial similarities between the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern myths should not blind us to their profound differences in outlook.