2016-06-30
From "The Prophets" by Norman Podhoretz. Copyright 2002 by Norman Podhoretz. Reprinted by permission, The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

"By general consent, the Book of Isaiah is regarded as the supreme example of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. In loftiness of thought, beauty of diction, and rhetorical force the Book occupies a place of its own, [wrote A. Cohen, an Orthodox Jewish commentator in 1949]."

Especially coming from a pious Jew, what this assessment reveals is that one of the major factors at work in establishing the immense prestige of the Book of Isaiah was--and is--its literary stature. Whether emanating from a single person or several, the first thirty-nine chapters of the Book of Isaiah unquestionably are a treasure house of some of the greatest poetry ever written in any language. And even against the stiff competition these chapters get from Amos, Hosea, and Micah, they carry the day. Amos, Hosea, and Micah are all great poets themselves, and their books contain passages that are on literary par with the First Isaiah. But he is more consistent in the overwhelming power that is generated by an imagination expressing itself through compressed verses that somehow keep escaping the bounds of their incredible brevity and exploding into spectacular flashes of light that blind the eyes with their brilliance and sear the mind and the soul with their heat.

At the same time, the First Isaiah exhibits a special skill and delight in wordplay, in assonance, in metaphor and symbol, in unexpected turns of phrase, in bold alterations of meter, and in shifts of tone from the reverential to the sarcastic. Not surprisingly, many of his phrases have infiltrated common discourse ("...let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die";"...LORD, how long?...";"...Watchman, what of the night?";"...and a little child shall lead them"; and on and on and on).

Would aesthetic considerations have kept the Book of Isaiah, and the prophetic literature of which it is a part, alive all by themselves? There is no way of knowing. Still, without going so far as William Blake did, critics like Robert Alter and Hillel Halkin, who study the Bible as literature, suspect that such considerations exerted an influence (perhaps unconscious) over the decisions by the rabbis who would shape the biblical canon in the centuries ahead, and who had to determine which of the many candidates for inclusion were divinely inspired and which were not.

The suspicion is heightened by the debates among those rabbis over "The Song of Songs," an erotic poem with no overt religious content that won a place in the Hebrew Bible through being interpreted as an allegory written by King Solomon of God's love for Israel (for which Christians later substituted Christ's love for the Church). Toward the end of the first century C.E., Akiva, the leading rabbi of his generation, suppressed the doubts that had been voiced by his colleagues about the sanctity of the book by exclaiming: "For all the world is not worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." The overstatement is a giveaway: Akiva adored this book so much that he would go to practically any hyperbolic lengths to make sure that it was preserved.

For all that, I doubt that it was primarily for its poetry that the Book of Isaiah achieved its reputation as the "supreme" volume in the whole of prophetic literature. The main factor, I would say, was that his book lent itself even better than those of the other prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. to the purposes of the same amalgam of groups we have already run across twice before (both Jewish and Christian), and ex-believers (also both Jewish and Christian) who credited the classical prophets with the invention or the purification of monotheism, or were unwilling or unable to throw out the Bible with the bathwater of faith. True, and as we have seen, the aims of this group could be and were served both by Amos and Micah (though not by Hosea to anything like the same degree). But Isaiah, a longer and richer book, was even more useful.

There was also another group--one we have only previously brushed against in the course of this story--that made more of the Book of Isaiah than that of any other prophet. This group was much older than the nineteenth-century amalgam, having come into the world as a byproduct of the birth of Christianity. The earliest Christians, all of whom were of course Jews, took to combing the "Old Testament" for prefigurings and promises of the future Messiah, and for "prooftexts" that this Messiah would be Jesus. For the mills of a "Christological" reading of the Hebrew Bible, no other prophetic book provided more or juicier grist than Isaiah.

The net result of the activities of all these groups, to put it bluntly, was that the Book of Isaiah earned its special reputation on false premises. To be sure, the false premises are not its own. They are, rather, the ones imposed on it first by Christians who misinterpreted key passages by reading meanings into those passages that were not there, and then by "enlightened" readers who picked and chose what pleased their sensibilities and ignored what seemed offensive to them.

Before embarking on this discussion, I wish strongly to disavow any intention of engaging in a dispute with anyone who believes that Jesus was the Messiah (albeit in a different sense from the one Jews have always understood by that term); that he was the son of God born to a virgin; and that in being crucified he took upon himself, and atoned for, the sins of all mankind--or at least that portion of it which accepted all this as true. As a Jew, I am by definition not among that portion, but the last thing in the world I want to do is challenge its faith. What I do feel it necessary to challenge, however, is the idea held by many pious Christians throughout the past two millennia that the Book of Isaiah foretells the coming of their faith.

The contention over this idea begins with the sign God gives to King Ahaz: the imminent birth of a boy whose name will be Immanuel (a transliteration of the Hebrew for "God-with-us"). So far, there is nothing to argue about, but endless debates have been conducted over the nature of the female now, or about to become, pregnant with this baby. In Hebrew she is haalmah, which means "the young woman," but which has until very recently been understood by all Christian translators, including the King James Version, as "a virgin." "...Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The problem is that the word for virgin in Hebrew is b'tulah, and since that very word appears twice within the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah (and twice more in Chapters 40-66), it seems highly unlikely that the author or editor of 7:14, whoever he may have been, would not have used it here if what he had wanted to say was "virgin."

An equivalent level of dispute has centered on the identity of Immanuel. Again until relatively recent times, Christians have assumed that he is Jesus, but few if any biblical scholars, even those who are devout Christians, still hold to that belief. The most popular candidate is Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, who will succeed his father on the throne of Judah in 715 B.C.E. It is Hezekiah as well who has come to be accepted by most commentators as the kings of whom Isaiah rhapsodizes (in a verse familiar from Handel's "Messiah" to many who do not know the Bible): "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The might God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

The extreme hopes that the First Isaiah, as a Davidic "legitimist," voices here for the young Hezekiah must have been produced by his disgust with and rage against Ahaz. But it seems probable that in the second of the two utopian (or eschatological) prophecies for which the First Isaiah is best known, he is thinking not of Hezekiah but of some future Davidic king. If the first of these two prophecies--the one that also appears in Micah--envisages a day when all nations will stream to the Temple in Jerusalem and accept the sovereignty of the God of Israel, the second ties that day to an infinitely more secure establishment of the Davidic monarchy than Hezekiah can or will ever achieve.

It is a day that will come, however, only after much suffering has been endured as a result of Ahaz's submission to Assyria--an act of policy that to Isaiah constitutes an abandonment of God. The Northern Kingdom will have been utterly destroyed, and Judah itself will be afflicted by no end of grisly curses. But God will then set about to punish Assyria for its arrogance in failing to understand that it has been nothing more than His instrument, the "rod" He has used to chastise his own sinful people:

Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the LORD hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom...Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift up, or as if the staff lift up itself, as if it were no wood.
The devastation of Assyria having been accomplished, and Judah liberated from its ungodly and tyrannical grasp, a faithful "remnant" of "the house of Jacob" will return to God. Conditions will then be ripe for the enthronement of a true scion of the house of David the son of Jesse:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall row out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breadth of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
But this messianic kingdom will not only bring justice to men; it will also usher in an order of peace and harmony in the natural world such as has not existed since the Garden of Eden:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
The First Isaiah then takes care to merge this vision into the one describing the conversion of the whole world to the religion of Israel: "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek, and his rest shall be glorious." Everything is then rounded out with the promise that the Israelites will come home from the various countries to which they have been exiled; that the separated Kingdoms of Judah and Israel will be united once again into a single nation; and that their former oppressors will now become their subjects.

What all this adds up to is that the messianic era in the First Isaiah's conception of it, both here and in the first vision of hte End of Days, is a timeof triumph for God over all the world. But it is simultaneously a triumph for the chosen people of God, who will be ruled by His law under the kind of His choice and who will extend that rule to all the earth. The idea is entirely worldly, even political, and so little does it entail any new "testament" or religion that can easily be reconciled with the words of Jesus:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
But if the attitude of Jesus toward the Law is consistent with the First Isaiah's, there is no way to make peace between Isaiah's vision of the utopian future and the messianism of early Christianity, as fashioned not by Jesus but by St. Paul. This new messianism requires an abrogation of the old Law, which Paul identifies with death, not its perfect fulfillment, and still less its extension to the Gentiles (just the opposite, in fact). The only thing the First Isaiah's conception has in common with this infinitely more radical view is the touch of the mystical in his vision of peace and harmony in the animal kingdom.


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