Sunday, October 30, 2011

Isaiah 1: Overture? Preview? Promo?

I'm teaching an Old Testament survey course this semester. We just began our exploration of the Israelite prophets of the 8th B.C. And that means, above all, spending some time with Isaiah.

It's been a few years since I've done much work in Isaiah. In the mean time, I had forgotten what an imposing maze this book can be. So to get started, I just decided to do something that Bible teachers don't always do: I read the Bible. Of course, from the very beginning of Isaiah, I noticed several things that begged to be unpacked. Here, I want to focus on chapter 1, which at this point I'm thinking of as an overture, or promo for, or preview of the entire book. Here's why:

Isaiah 1 as a Unit

Isaiah 2:1 sets off the first chapter as an independent unit: This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem (New International Version). Someone could easily mistake this verse for the beginning of the book. At the very least it's the beginning of a new section of the book, and that effectively makes the first chapter the first major unit.

The Content of Isaiah 1

This first discreet section, Isaiah 1, reveals that the person or group who compiled the entire book intended for the first chapter to be seen as comprehensive in some way. Why do people think that? Because chapter 1 exhibits a number of striking word parallels with later sections of the book. For example, Isaiah 1, verses 2 and 31 (the beginning and the end of the chapter) and the last verse of the entire book, 66:24, include these words:

. . . but they have rebelled against me (1:2) . . . with no one to quench the fire (1:31).

And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind (66:24).

Here we have a signal (although it is well hidden!) that chapter 1 in some way stands for the entire collection from beginning to end. Other parallels between Isaiah 1 and the remainder of the book bear this out. For example:

my people do not understand (1:3) is a theme that the book later takes up and expands: my people will go into exile for lack of understanding (5:13).

In the Hebrew text, the words beaten . . . injured . . . welts (1:4-5) perfectly correspond to smitten . . . infirmities . . . wounds (53:4-5).

The language of Sodom (1:9-10) shows up again in an oracle against Jerusalem and Judah (3:9).

The Lord announces, When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; . . . (1:15), a theme that recurs in 8:17 and 59:2.

The image of refining by fire--I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities (1:25)--shows up again in 4:4 and 48:10.

Other examples can be cited. But these are enough to show a strong connection between chapter 1 and the remainder of the book.

What Should We Make of This?

Old Testament scholar David Carr has pointed out that the Book of Isaiah contains a number of significant themes that are not found in the first chapter. The upshot is that the word "summary" is not a precise description of Isaiah 1.

So, is something like "preview" or "promo" the best description of the purpose and function of Isaiah 1? What might this arrangement of the book signify, if anything, about how it is to be understood? If only a very close reading of this large collection reveals its intricacies, what might that say about the book and the assumptions of the writer and compilers?

Want more? Watch this video, which features Robert Wilson, one of my former teachers, and Stephen Cook talking about some of the basics of the Book of Isaiah.

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