Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 8’

A little oracle that dares to bring its low profile into the struggle of titans during Judah’s Syro-Ephraimite and Assyrian Crises deploys classic Isaianic irony and then a puzzle.

The LORD spoke to me again: Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.  

Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed; listen, all you far countries; gird yourselves and be dismayed; gird yourselves and be dismayed!

Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.

Isaiah 8:5-10 (NRSV)

The irony is a play on two kinds of waters. The Syrio-Ephraimite conspiracy has shaken the House of David to its core. One recalls reference to hearts shaking as do leaves before a wind. Mindless, purposeless, pitiful trembling.

Here the prophet probes at cause.

Trust in YHWH’s purposes for his Jerusalem has not been forthcoming. The operation of that purpose is represented here by a watery metaphor: the waters of Shiloah that flow gently. It appears that the spirit of Realpolitik has convinced Judah’s powers—such as they are—that gentleness is of no worth in such belligerent days.

One might wonder at precisely what kind of quietism Isaiah has in mind here. We know only a little about this, but we can certainly learn something by considering its opposite: the fearful search for a defending coalition among nations that do not name Zion-committed YHWH as their god.

In any case, Judah’s choice is defined as rejection or refusal (יען כי מאס) rather than by any gentler representation of choosing an alternative option. Even when speaking relatively quietly, the Isaianic tradition knows how to deploy its severer mercies.

The irony comes in when consequence is bolted onto cause. The refusal of quieter waters will now subject Judah to a raging flood.

(T)herefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River (את־מי הנהר העצומים והרבים), the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

Isaiah 8:7-8 (NRSV)

The discourse itself makes the contrast all the more severe, dedicating just a few words to Shiloah’s quiet waters while multiplying clause upon clause in a tumbling effort to portray Assyria’s capacity to overwhelm.

Then the puzzle.

The oracle ends with a peculiar expression, rendered by the NRSV as a cry of mingled desperation and hope: O Immanuel. The Hebrew meaning is less that completely clear. עמנו אל has no explicit particle that might render NRSV’s ‘O’. I think the NRSV has captured the meaning here, but this is not to say the translation it has provided is an obvious one.

Context helps a little, but not with determination.

Just a chapter prior to this oracle, a child is given the name that exactly anticipates the cry in 8.10. It will be important for the moment not to race too quickly to meaning when reading any one of these verses, whenever עמנו אל is in view.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (עמנו אל).

Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV)

Then, just two verses after the occurrence at 8.8 that is currently under scrutiny, the expression is used again.

Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us (כי עמנו אל).

Isaiah 8:10 (NRSV)

Here the frequently explanatory particle כי lends considerable assistance, virtually locking down the notion that NRSV provides with its translation by obliging an English reader to supply the verb is.

So what exactly is happening at the end of 8.8, serving as it does in the Massoretic tradition as the conclusion of the oracle quoted earlier.

Perhaps here, too, one must supply some version of the verb to be. Perhaps the oracle cries out affirmingly in its conclusion that ‘God is with us!’, lodging this formidable truth against the conspiratorial agonies of the moment.

Or perhaps it is not a declaration but rather a forlorn hope: ‘God be with us!’

In my view, each of these is grammatically and contextually possible and can be defended.

However, I prefer to read אמנו אל at 8.8 in a slightly different manner. It is an evocation of an earlier moment, indeed of the very public prophetic act of naming a child with this ambiguous but resonant expression.

Why this interpretive hedging of bets? It seems to me that the same powerfully suggestive ambiguity of the naming of the child at 7:14 carries over into the cry at the end of 8:8—in context, a necessarily allusive and evocative one—and bears all the same ambiguity.

Does it mean ‘God is with us!’? Perhaps it does, placing faith over against fear in a moment where the choice of one or the other is in the prophetic view determinative for the people’s future.

Or is it a humbler plea, ‘O God, be with us!’ Perhaps, underscoring the painful fact that results are not yet known?

NRSV’s ‘O, Emmanuel!’ preserves the ambiguity while opening its flanks to a new vulnerability, that of reading the cry as an invocation of a person named ‘Emmanuel’. I am not persuaded that in context it can be exactly that.

The oracle at 8:6-8 ends, in my reading, as in part a summons to pay attention while YHWH’s strangely invisible but substantially present hand moves among the conspiring players in this moment of critical and decisive Realpolitik. This book is, after all, חזון ישעיהו (the vision of Isaiah). True to form, it claims here that the prophet sees things that others do not yet contemplate, unless they join him in resolutely quiet consideration of unraveling events.


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The book called Isaiah clears a particular space for influential children.

Whether Isaiah’s story of redemption is considered as proximate to Judah’s fate amid the imperial episodes involving Assyria, Babylon, and Persia or across a trajectory involving New Testament messianic readings of the texts, the little ones exercise a surprising and potent agency.

In Isaiah 9—one must be aware that the Hebrew and English versification differ by a count of one unit—sudden and exuberant reversals are in play.

The section that comprises Isaiah 9:1-7 (English versification) swings on a hinge that might best be understood to usher in glorious light in place of hopeless darkness and peaceful celebration where moments ago the people knew bloody oppression. The tables are turned suddenly and in happy directions across these two ranges of experience.

The author of this revolution is understood to be YHWH, this by way of the second-person address in verses 3 and 4. I quote now the first five of the passage’s seven verses, with 3 and 4 italicized.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Isaiah 9:1–5 (NRSV)

Then Isaiah takes one of the tradition’s signature turns. I’ll again italicize, this time the references to the child whom the text now introduces.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:6–7 (NRSV)

This child’s birth is a monarchical moment of deep importance to our author. Scholars move quickly and understandably to map the birth of this royal child across what we know of Ancient Near Eastern kings and houses, a move that produces an interpretation that is very much contained within the text’s historical moment.

The grand titles attributed to the child may tug at the edges of such a reading, but it’s a viable understanding in its context. A child sired within the David household will presumably grow up to liberate the royal house and its subjects from imperial oppression. The resonant Hebrew expression כי ילד ילד־לנו בן נתן־לנו—For a child has been born to us, a son is given to us—locates liberation in the person of an infant or a mere lad. This is YHWH’s way of achieving his greatest redemptive feats by means of the least promising of human agents. The imperial yoke is broken and Judah erupts in grateful celebration.

It’s a stirring picture and not one whose utility for Israelite/Jewish understanding is difficult to appreciate.

It is of course not the end of the story.

Rather, the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew offers a complementary reading of the text. I choose the highlighted word carefully. It is not necessary to conclude and is in any case impossible to prove that Jewish messianic readers of the Hebrew Bible (in many cases via its Greek translation, the Septuagint) rejected or discarded an initial historically-contained reading of a text like this one. We may never know their precise assumptions in that regard. At the very least, an evangelist like Matthew offers an additional reading and admittedly one that for his community likely eclipsed almost altogether the earlier one.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Matthew 4:12–17 (NRSV)

Those same 8th-century tables have been turned. Gloom has again been displaced by glorious light. Imperial oppression of a different sort has been vanquished in a way that occasions peaceful celebration.

A blessed kingdom has regained or secured effective dominion.

Christian faith, then, understands the birth of Jesus in revolutionary, table-turning terms that resounds with the life-or-death gravity of the Isaiah oracle’s textures. As well, it embraces YHWH’s purported penchant for using ‘the least of these’—language that will become familiar on a grown-up Child’s lips—to accomplish his finest work.

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