This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.
The text of Isaiah is one of the hardest prophetic books to give a written date. This would seem to be a silly hardship since the first verse of the book plainly states that Isaiah prophesied during the middle of the 8th century BCE, under the reign of the kings of Judah named Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. But this becomes much less cut and dry when chapters 44 and 45 make specific reference to King Cyrus of the Medo-Persian empire in the late 6th century, a king who reigned some two hundred years after Hezekiah!
It seems the text of Isaiah was compiled from many prophetic oracles, utterances, and visions preserved since the time of the prophet Isaiah through the return to Jerusalem after the Medo-Persians had defeated Babylon. This is not unlike the book of Jeremiah, which also had a number of sections that were individually written in their original form but were later fused together in order to preserve the prophetic witness of Jeremiah. The Isaiah text is different from Jeremiah because, while there are a handful references to the prophet Isaiah in prophecies and in three short narratives, there is no overarching narrative progression throughout the whole text of Isaiah centered on the prophet. Instead, under the auspice of the prophet Isaiah’s memory and teaching, the plethora of preserved prophetic texts seem to have been woven together with prophetic reflections on the destruction of Jerusalem from exile in Babylon and the later hope-filled prophetic promises declared in the return to the land in order to create a beautiful “quilt” of prophetic judgment and hope for the people of God, specifically for those who would reside in or near Jerusalem.
This brings me to the conclusion that the text of Isaiah was most likely compiled and finalized in the late 6th century BCE. If this text was compiled near 500 BCE then it would have been produced in the city of Jerusalem in the midst of the rebuilding efforts, not least the wall by Nehemiah and the temple by Ezra. In the last dozen chapters there is clearly an elation that God has allowed the people to return to the land and begin to rebuild Jerusalem, but the redactor’s primary reason for this compilation of prophetic memories into the text of Isaiah is so that the people of God should never forget the judgment of God and lapse back into the evils of idolatry.
Some have argued that there are a few largely independent books in Isaiah that were brought together in such a way that it just became natural for later Jews to refer to the text as a unit. After studying the themes and language usages among the smaller grafted texts I don’t find this hypothesis convincing. The text of Isaiah seems to have been woven by a single redactor (group?) in Jerusalem in the Jews’ return to rebuild the city. The names for God and certain themes in the later chapters from the time of the return seem to be intentionally mimicking the early uses in Isaiah to show the fulfillment of God’s judgment and then direct God’s action towards blessing the rebuilding of the city.
The editor of the Isaiah text orders the book in a roughly chronological order opening the text with some of the oldest preserved visions, coming from the prophet Isaiah, against the city of Jerusalem. The redactor then places prophetic texts, sayings, and oracles that fit the vein of judgment by God, thematically bouncing from one to another. He gives a few narratives to show that God has been faithful to Jerusalem against the Assyrians, offered her hope by way of repentance and obedience, and reveals Hezekiah’s folly of inviting the Babylonians to see Jerusalem’s wealth. The redactor then shows how just God has been in punishing Jerusalem for her sins, and lastly how faithful he is to restore her, just as he had promised in the past, as the people repented in suffering through the Babylonian exile. The end of the book contains the latest prophetic reflections. They are hope-filled praises to God for his salvation from Babylonian exile and expectation about how great he will make Jerusalem now that she is a faithful worshipper of God alone. Of course, the redactor ends with the solemn warning that God has proven he will utterly destroy forever anyone who dares worship another god.
- I was unable to observe much else in my reading once I saw the literary beauty of Isaiah as a “quilt” of prophetic texts. I found this reality interesting and blatant as I read through the text. This literary process makes sense to me if Isaiah is understood as a bank of prophetic sayings, preserving those who were found to be true after the destruction of Jerusalem and its rebuilding. While there were surely other prophetic texts preserved in Jerusalem before its destruction, and even others made in the exile, these were retained because God vindicated these sayings by the fulfillment of his judgment against Jerusalem and then his restoration of the city.
- A subsequent project would be to study the themes and moniker connections between different sections and disparate texts. It would be interesting if such a project could parse out different developmental stages of theology in Jerusalem from the 8th century down to the time of the return and rebuilding. There are clearly some sections which strongly parallel the language of Joel with use of creational imagery, some sections emphasize God’s purification of the nations like Zephaniah, and some seem to pull from similar concepts of eschatology like Habakkuk. There are other themes too such as referring to God as “Rock” or “Holy One”. Interestingly, there are also sections which focus on themes from the Genesis or Exodus accounts as well.
- These last themes, ones that refer to Genesis and Exodus narratives, convince me that the compilation of these narrative texts are likely finalized by the end of the 6th century BCE as well. The sections of these narratives are older, as seen from references to these stories in other prophets as far back as Habakkuk and before him, Zephaniah. But near the end of the Babylonian exile and in the beginning of the return to the land under the Persians, these stories of Genesis and Exodus had become common enough to have Moses and Abraham referenced together in the same pericope.
 1:1, 2:1, 7:3, 13:1.
 20:1-6, 36:1-37:38, 38:1-39:8.
 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66.
 44:26-28, 49:5, 16-17, 52:1-2, 9, 56:6-8, 58:12, 61:4
 63:11 and 63:16 in 63:1-64:12.