I.          Isaiah 51:1-3.

Textually, Isaiah 51 stands in the center of a “new initiative” for God’s people, announcing the role of a Servant Ruler who will bring about political change (49:1-52:12).[1] YHWH is exhorting his people to depend upon Him and not foreign nations for security. Isaiah’s prophecies stand at a historical climax for Israel.[2] Isaiah 51:1-3 is a passage of comfort (51:3) to those are pursuing righteousness and YHWH (51:1). This comfort comes from an exhortation to look back to the start of their redemptive history, looking at Abraham and Sarah, and how God brought forth his promises to them (Gen. 12:1-25:11). He promises an Edenic paradise that stands in contrast to their current dismal situation.

God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 12-17) and David (2 Sam. 7) are of vast theological concern in the denomination in which I grew up, and they are still a visible concern to the Jewish people. I picked this passage because God uses Abraham as an example many times in Scriptures, but this passage has some of the best imagery. This passage is a promise of provision to his people, and it bears an eschatological comfort: “his comfort, a comfort rooted in the evidence of history.”[3] Looking into the geographical and historical contexts sheds a light on how stark of a contrast that blessed hope was to the disenchanted Hebrews over 2,500 years ago.

II.          Geographical Context.

The land of Israel is a land of surprisingly varied topographical and climate features. In just 8,522 square miles there are deserts, lush valleys, rocky soul, fertile soul, and hard limestone.[4] Israel is divided into five geographical zones running east to west: the Coastal Plains, Central Mountains, Rift Valley, Trans-Jordanian Mountains, and the Eastern Desert. The annual rainfall in Israel will depend upon which of the geographical divisions is in question. During the rainy season (mid-October through April), there is 4-6” of rain per month, though most land east of the Central Mountains, and south of Jerusalem, will receive notably less rainfall than the rest of the nation.[5] The areas directly east of the Mediterranean Sea will receive the most rainfall, with the Upper Galilee receiving upwards of 48” of rain annually, a stark contrast to the Rift Valley and the Negev which will receive 0-8” of rain annually.[6]

Due to the lack of rainfall, Israel is heavily dependent upon the main river, the Jordan, or upon cisterns and irrigation for water. During the early years of Hebrew immigration there were many forests, yet early inhabitants removed these in order to best use the rainwater, irrigation, and landscape for farming.[7] Over the centuries Israelites developed a very sophisticated manner of handling the rain and water sources, making agricultural trade a part of the reign, Solomon.[8] During much of Israel’s history, use of water was an issue of life and death since agriculture is the main source or sustenance and livelihood.[9] Misuse of water could lead to seasons of famine.

III.          Historical and Religious Context.

It is the viewpoint of this paper that the book of Isaiah is to be attributed to the Prophet Isaiah, whose ministry lasted approximately from 740-690 BC.[10] This means that Isaiah was a prophet during the “pivotal point of history between Moses and Christ.”[11] After three kings leading one united nation, Israel split into two different nations (930 BC), with the northern ten tribes forming the nation of Israel, and Judah and Benjamin forming the southern kingdom (1 Kings 12). The northern kingdom lasted just over 200 years (930-722 BC) and was the epitome of instability, with there being four different capital cities, and the kingship changing families nine times in the nineteen kings, and with suicide or assassination causing the death of eight of the kings.[12] The southern kingdom lasted until 586 BC when Babylon captured Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:20b-25:26; 2 Chr. 36:15-21).

This means that the historical context of the prophecies and occasional narratives of Isaiah are situated between times of vast conflict and strife, or the occasional time of victory between the kingdoms in Israel and the surrounding countries. During the times of the monarchs, Israel was bordered in the southwest by Egypt, to the east it was bordered by Moab and Edom, and to the north it was bordered by Assyria. Babylonia was further east, but depending on the century it expanded all the way from the Persian Gulf in the east, it overtook the entire kingdom of Assyria which went from the Sinai Peninsula in the west, to expanding through part of ancient Greece and the Amanus and Malayta mountain ranges in the north (c. 586 BC).[13] Israel was the cross roads of both the trade routes and war paths of the surrounding kingdoms. Through the centuries of foreign trade, foreign rule, and exile, foreign worship methods, and worship of foreign deities moved into both the northern and southern kingdoms.

During the time of Isaiah, archaeologists see almost a 500% increase in artifacts with cultic imagery and also personal domestic cult objects.[14] These objects have astral and anthropomorphic representations of Assyrian deities such as Ishtar, Ninurtu, and Adad.[15] These gods were heavenly powers “seen as responsible for the flourishing of vegetation.”[16] The influx of cultic objects and imagery of foreign fertility gods and goddesses shows that there was an unholy acceptance of the local deity of foreign nations being sovereign over the land of Israel. Even in towns like Dan, where an almost exact replica of the Jerusalem temple was erected (1 Kings 12:25-33), multiple sets of maṣṣēbôt have been identified showing that syncretism was part of every city in a noticeable manner.[17] There was a growing contrast in how to approach a deity, and also which deity to approach for fertility and protection from Iron Age IIB into IIC; neither kingdom saw exclusive YHWH worship for much longer than an occasional glimpse during the reign of a southern king.[18]

Israel’s prophets differed from the prophets of other nations. Prophets of Israel brought direct messages of God to the people as well as to the royal council, whereas in Assyria or Babylonia the prophet spoke only to the king, or in Egypt where the kings were divine and lacked a need for prophets to tell them the ways of the deities.[19] Isaiah, as with the other prophets of Israel also stood in contrast to the prophets of the surrounding countries, especially Egypt, for he spoke of the personal God who steps into time and acts according to the needs of his people, and desires right ethics more than cultic conformity.[20]

IV.          A Look at the Text.

Isaiah 51:1-3 is a passage is a comfort (נחם 51:3) for the righteousness people of YHWH (51:1). This comfort comes from meditating on the start of their redemptive history—looking back at Abraham and Sarah, and how God brought forth his promises to them (Gen.12:1- 25:11). The image of one rock becoming many is an analogy for how out of one man and his wife came a people group which was innumerous. This analogy is beautiful in form and in the content of its promise. “The stylistic formulation of the allegory was influenced by the Ugaritic literary convention of gender conformity: the males are described in masculine terms (“rock” [צור]) = “Abraham”), and the females in feminine terms (“quarry” [בור מקבת] = “Sarah”).”[21]

The promise stands in contrast to three desolate places: חרבתיה, מדברה, and ערבת (51:3). The “desolation” (חרבתיה) is either an “uninhabited wasteland” or the rubble of a former settlement.[22] This is different from the general term for wilderness (מדברה), but promise uses these two words and ערבת to give the scope of an entire country and every desert being bountiful. Though all three of these words are virtually synonymous, the final “wilderness” is used has “theological importance… in its thematic associations.”[23] It also brings to mind the geographical reference twenty five miles of land south of the Dead Sea, an area in a continual state of being parched—good only for salt loving vegetation and being passed through as quickly as possible.[24]

V.          Related Texts and Interpretive Points.

For Israel’s population expanding in the future see Isa. 44:4; 49:19-21; Jer. 3:16; Ezek. 36:10-11; Jos. Antiquities 4.6.4. For God giving the choice to Israel between cursing and blessing see Deut. 28; 30:15-20; Lev. 26. For fertility from God see Deut. 11:13-21; Baruch 29:5-8; 74:1. For a call to look to Abraham/ Abraham and faith see Exodus 32:13; Sirach 44:19-20; 1 Mac. 5:51-55; Rom. 4; Gal.3:6-9; Heb. 11:8. For Jewish piety and zeal see 2 Mac. 2:1-28; 4:36-59; Jos. Jewish War  1.7.5; Mishnah Berakoth 4:3-5.

VI.          How the Study Tour Aided Interpretation.

Touring Israel helped give me a sense of how the Jews have a national pride that does not die. The tour guide continually gave Zionist interpretations of current events, even as a moderate non-practicing Jew. While we went through Jerusalem I was struck by the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) where there was a man literally mourning out Scripture as he cried out to God asking for Israel’s blessings to come. He believed he was a “seeker of righteousness” and a seeker of YHWH. We also wandered through many arid deserts that have no chance of being lush forests paralleling Eden. Only God could turn this land lush. We also walked through Hezekiah’s showing how war affected the nation, and how important water supply is. Modern tours can go to “Abraham’s Tomb”, showing that looking to Abraham is still on the minds of people in the 21st century, even if this has little chance of being his actual tomb.[25] After seeing the land, and feeling the lack of hope from the people, and seeing how they have turned, it makes me long for God to show forth his transformative power, turning peoples’ hearts to Him, and bringing peace and prosperity to a war torn land. Both of which can only happen by a miracle.

Bibliography

Borowski, Oded. Daily Life in Biblical Times. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

Elwell, W. A., and Yarbrough, R. W., eds. Readings from the First-Century World: Primary Sources for New Testament Study. Baker, 1998.

Hess, Richard S. Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Grand Rapids/Nottingham: Baker Academic/Apollos, 2007.

Keel, Othmar, and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

Murphy-O’Connor. J. The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1992.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah. 2 Volumes. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986-98.

Paul, Shalom M. Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary. Eerdmans Critical commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Rasmussen, C. G., Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. Zondervan, 2010.

Smith, Gary V. Isaiah 40-66. The New American Commentary, Vol. 15B. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2009.

VanGemeron, Willem A. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegessis, 5 Vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Watts, John D. W. Isaiah 34-66. Word Biblical Commentary 25. Waco: Word Books, 1987.

Young, Edward J. The book of Isaiah. 3 vol. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965-1972, reprint, 1992, 2012.

[1] John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (WBC 25; Waco: Word Books, 1987), 180.

[2] Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, (3 vols.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965-1972), 1.6-8.

[3] John Oswalt, Isaiah (2 Vols. NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2.333. Emphasis author’s.

[4] Carl G. Rasmussen, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, Revised ed., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 19, 26.

[5] ZAB, 28-30.

[6] ZAB, 30.

[7] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Languages, 2003), 27.

[8] ZAB, 147.

[9] Borowski, 26.

[10] John N. Oswalt, 1. 26.

[11] Young, 1.4.

[12] ZAB, 154.

[13] ZAB, 171.

[14] Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007),  312.

[15] Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, translated by Thomas H Trapp, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998),290, 292.

[16] Keel and Uehlinger, 295.

[17] Hess, 302.

[18] Keel and Uehlinger, 327-28.

[19] John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 209.

[20] Walton, 209-213.

[21] Shalom M. Paul , Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary, (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 358.

[22] A. R. Pete Diamond, “חָרְבָּה,” NIDOTTE 2.262-63.

[23] Diamond, “עֲרָבָה” NIDOTTE 3.526.

[24] ZAB, 56-57.

[25] Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide. 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1992), 281-284.

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