The one I finished this morning at 4:30.
A new Sinai, not Cyrus’ Dike
Isaiah 43:14-21 (NRSV)
14.Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation. 15. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. 16.Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17. who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18.Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19.I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20.The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21.the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
Prophecy and Apocalypse
In George AF Knight’s commentary on Deutero-Isaiah he claims Isaiah 43:16 refers to Cyrus’ army diverting the main stream of the Euphrates. This was done so his troops could enter into the city by way of the drained riverbed, which ran between the impregnable walls of Babylon. An alternative understanding of this verse is that Deutero-Isaiah is referring to God taking care of His people in the Sinai during the Exodus event, thus setting up a paradigm for “a new thing,” that He intended to do. To answer the question of which of these two interpretations are correct, the contexts of Deutero-Isaiah the man and Deutero-Isaiah (from now on called Second-Isaiah to stem confusion) the text must be consulted.
Most scholars believe Second-Isaiah “originated nearly whole in Babylon in the late exilic period.” Blenkinsopp feels placing Deutero-Isaiah in Babylon is not necessary, but he is in the minority. A more specific date for Deutero-Isaiah’s writing (as the Exile spans half a decade) would be between 550-540 BCE, with a strong likelihood of being in 540 BCE. Second-Isaiah can be dated quite accurately because Cyrus came onto the scene in 550 BCE by deposing Astyages, and had captured Babylon by 539 BCE. Since Deutero-Isaiah wrote about Cyrus, but does not directly refer to the capture of Babylon, scholars tend to think Second-Isaiah had to have been written between the above two dates. If George Knight’s interpretation is right though, Deutero-Isaiah wrote after 539 BCE.
On the local level several events lead up to, and presumably shaped, Deutero-Isaiah’s writing. Three waves of the richest five percent of Judahites were deported to Babylon. These Judahites settling in Nippur, making up 8% of it’s population. Many of them dealt with being transplanted by syncretizing with Babylonian religion. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586, the same year King Zedekiah was deposed and the second wave of Judahites went into exile. On a more international level the Babylonians went through several kings; Nebuchadnezzar, Amel-Marduk, Nargal-sharezer, Labashi-Marduk, and then Nabonidus, who angered his people by championing the moon god Sin’s temple in Harran, and not performing his duty at new year festivals and who reigned during Babylon’s decline. Then, as noted above, from 550 BCE forward a “new era” dawned, “heralded by the conquests of Cyrus of Persia.”
There are a few things that can be supposed when trying to figure out who Deutero-Isaiah was. It is assumed that Deutero-Isaiah was one of the elite exiles in Babylon, meaning this anonymous author was relatively rich, the crème le crème siphoned out of Judah. With the break down of traditional Jewish societal structure the authority of prophets was in question, so Deutero-Isaiah had to rely on his power to persuade, not his role as prophet. “The exodus,” as Fishbane notes via Willey, dominated, “the prophetic consciousness of Deutero-Isaiah.” He may even have seen himself as a Moses figure.
There are several peoples, places, and geographic features, mentioned in Isaiah 43:14-21 that need to be expounded upon. The Chaldeans in verse 14 are the same people as the Babylonians. The bars broken down in verse 14 are “the woodenor metal crosspieces that held gates shut; to break them was to open the gates, allowing Israel to leave Babylon. God’s ability to control the waters in verse 16 is thought to be a proof that even though sea power was a major asset in Deutero-Isaiah’s time God could conquer that too. The way in the wilderness in verse 19 is pertaining to the impassable desert between Babylon and Jerusalem that Deutero-Isaiah wanted his people to pass through. The Arabs controlled this strip of land.
With the historical, social, and geographic context of Deutero-Isaiah out of the way it is time to touch the literary context of Second-Isaiah. According to Watts, Isaiah 43:14-15 is a salvation speech, and verses 16-21 are a closing argument to a “trail in the heavenly judgment hall,” which started in chapter 42:13. Watts sees this trial as a state of state the union type address, where, “the purpose is to convince and vindicate policy.” The policy is that of rousing Cyrus to bring freedom to God’s people. Petersen and Baltzer demur. Petersen sees verses 16-21 as a promise of salvation. Baltzer, on the other hand, sees verses 16-21 as an “independent textual unit,” because it starts off with “Thus says the Lord,” which is an introductory formula. Yet Watts can easily co-opt both Petersen and Baltzer by claiming “Thus says the Lord,” introduces the closing argument about the Lord’s salvation of His people.
Within these eight verses are two prominent features; they allude to the Exodus event (not to mention that they are also surrounded by allusions to the Exodus) and God’s position as creator is noticeable. Verses 16 and 17 evoke images of Exodus chapters 14 and 15, with God making a way, a path, through the waters for his people, and then when Pharaoh goes with his chariots, horses, armies, and warriors, into this path they are all extinguished. Further, this Exodus motif is quite constant throughout Second-Isaiah. In fact in chapter 52:11-12 Deutero-Isaiah goes so far as to tell the exiles to “go without haste… and to take none of the Babylonian spoils,” a reverse of the Exodus yes, but an acute reference to it as well. Still further, chapter 43:14-21 is flanked by subtle references to God revealing his name to Moses; in 43:11 God says, “I, I am the LORD,” and in 43:25 “I, I am He.” God proclaims Himself creator in verse 15, and that He formed his people in verse 21. To understand the type of creation Deutero-Isaiah is thinking of the modern scientific worldview must be thrown off. The type of creation he is talking about is, writes Blenkinsopp, a transformation brought about “in history, especially the history of Israel.” During the Exodus, the “former things” in verse 18, God created Israel by defeating pharaoh’s armies and Sea. The “new thing” of verse 19, happening during the Exile, is God destroying Babylon and the power of Desert.
Now that the contexts of Deutero-Isaiah, and Second-Isaiah have been expounded upon the two dueling interpretations of 43:14-21 can be examined. If the first interpretation, espoused by George AF Knight is correct then the passage must be read as follows.
Verse 14 appears to be about God sending someone other than Cyrus to Babylon, since God’s allowing Cyrus to capture Babylon happened in the past in verses 16 and17. Another possibility is that only Cyrus’ army has entered Babylon through the river entrance, and they are awaiting Cyrus to come. This latter interpretation could make a certain amount of sense, as Cyrus, not his army, would be the one with the authority to “break down all the bars” thus allowing the Judahites to return home. Verses 16-17 is where Knight’s line of reasoning really begins to break down. If it is accepted, as he writes, that “Cyrus then lays a route,… a path, through the waters of the Euphrates,” then it is puzzling as to who’s chariot, horse, army, and warrior are being brought out. Is it Cyrus’ men? Nabonidus’ men? The most logical thought is that Nabonidus and his followers are escaping from Babylon through the mucky riverbed path. In verse 18 this assault and capture of Babylon through “a path” are called “things of old.” Would the Judahites, with a history traced to Moses, to Abraham, to Adam, think of the recent assault on Babylon as an “old” thing? Most likely not. Finishing up Knight’s sequence of events after Cyrus arrives in Babylon, as predicted in verse 14, God’s “new thing” finally happens. Cyrus releases the Judahites and they go through the wilderness with water to spare and the desert animals greeting them.
An alternative to Knight’s version of events would go something like this. Verses 14 and 15 are a prediction that God will send Cyrus to Babylon along with his armies, break down the bars of Babylon, and cause the Chaldeans to weep. Then the story shifts to a time sort of like the Exile, the Exodus. The Judaites remember how God lead them out of Egypt through the Red Sea and then drowned Pharaoh like a wick. In verses 18-19 Deutero-Isaiah is suggesting believing in a past event, the Exodus, is not the same as believing in a present salvation, that God was working through Cyrus. Verses 19-21 close much the same in this interpretation as in the previous one, with the Judahites making their way through a watered desert from Babylon to their homeland Judah.
There are a few main things that separate the first theory from the second. Firstly, there is dating. Knight’s timeline would necessitate a dating of 539 BCE or later for Second-Isaiah, as Babylon had already fallen by the time Deutero-Isaiah wrote these verses. With the second timeline the more accepted dating of 540 BCE stays in tact. Secondly, the allusions to the Exodus are either convoluted with the destruction of Babylon, or a remembrance of how God saved his people and intended to do so again. There is an overall Exodus motif throughout Second-Isaiah, and to take an obvious reference to the drowning of Pharaoh and his army, as an event in the days of Deutero-Isaiah is to not read the text figuratively enough. Thirdly, there is the question as to why an event happening right before Second-Isaiah was written would be considered an old thing. Lastly, the second interpretation in general feels less forced.
It seems Knight found an interesting historical fact about the destruction of Babylon and decided to plug it into Second-Isaiah. With a little creativity it works out to an extent, but a more traditional reading still makes more sense. Isaiah 43:14-21 is not about Cyrus coming to collect an already conquered Babylon and the recollection of a recent destruction worked by diverting a river with a dike. It is about an imminent Cyrus, a remembrance of God’s saving actions with Moses, and about how a new thing, similar to the Exodus, is coming.