Isaiah ben Amoz: Political Prophet (Isaiah 1-39)

Isaiah's greatness lies not only in his ethical teachings, but in his central involvement--and prophetic intervention--in the political events of his day.

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It is generally agreed among scholars that only verses 1-39 of the book of Isaiah (commonly referred to as "First Isaiah" or "I Isaiah") were written by the prophet whose name appears upon the whole book; the reasons that scholars have concluded this are complex, but the main one is the historical divergence between verses 1-39, which deal with the Assyrian threat, and verses 40 and following, which are connected with the Babylonian exile, occurring significantly later in Israelite history. In this article, Michael Fishbane illuminates, from the text, the details of the political life of one of the most central prophets in Jewish religious thought and practice. This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Greatness of Isaiah ben Amoz

Isaiah son of Amoz towers among the giants of classical biblical prophecy -- repeatedly challenging the nation and its leaders with the ethical and religious will of God, and providing instructions and visions of moral renewal and universal peace. In such ways, he both dramatizes the engagement of a prophet with the social and political events of his times and expresses an impassioned concern for a life governed by covenantal values.

For Isaiah, deceit and dissembling, like moral blindness and greed, corrupt the religious spirit and are anathema to God. The ancient covenant is thus no abstract teaching, but a concrete challenge for rectitude and justice in daily life. Intensely alive in the troubled times of Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E., Isaiah's words and deeds have became a model for a life of prophetic witness to divine demands.

Isaiah's Immersion in Political Turmoil

Isaiah's prophetic career was enmeshed in the political and cultural turmoil of the times. According to the superscription to the book, this career spanned the last half century of the eighth century B.C.E. ‑including all or part of the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah (769≠ -733), Jotham (758‑743, regent), Ahaz (743‑733 B.C.E., regent; 733‑727 B.C.E.), and Hezekiah (727‑698 B.C.E.). According to the date provided in Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah experienced an awesome vision of the Lord in the year that King Uzziah died (733 B.C.E.). If this experience was his commission to divine service, then his prophetic career began with the death of the monarch. Alternatively, the vision marks a renewal or redirection of his prophetic career begun sometime earlier (and not otherwise indicated).

Aram and Israel Ally Against Judah.

We first find Isaiah involved in historical events during the reign of Ahaz, shortly after 735 B.C.E. At that time, according to the Book of Kings, "King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel (the northern Israelite nation) advanced on Jerusalem (the capital of Judah, the southern Israelite nation) for battle. They besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome [him]" (2 Kings 16:5). The account of this alliance against Judah and Jerusalem is expanded upon in Isaiah 7:1‑16. Here we learn that the two kings conspire to dethrone Ahaz and replace him with someone called "son of Tabeel" (7:6).

The reasons for this attack are not stated, though it is generally assumed that Aram and Israel joined as allies against Assyria and moved against Jerusalem in the hopes of overcoming Ahaz's resistance and dethroning him. Undoubtedly, this was part of a larger anti‑Assyrian alliance, in which Tyre and perhaps even Philistia joined in; but one should not dismiss long‑time rivalries between Israel, Aram, and Judah, in particular in light of Judah's expansion into Israel's trans‑Jordanian territory of Gilead during the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham. This event may have encouraged Israel to join with Aram in the hopes of weakening Judah.

Isaiah Appeals to King Ahaz: Do Not Ally with Assyria!

During the period prior to the invasion, Isaiah approaches Ahaz, who apparently intends to join forces with Assyria (2 Kings 16:7‑9; Isaiah 7:13, 20), and delivers several oracles. The prophet regards Ahaz's action as indicating a lack of faith in divine support, and he also believes that such an attack will not materialize.

†In Isaiah 7:3, Isaiah goes out to the Fuller's Field with his son Shear‑Yashuv (meaning "[only] a remnant will turn back") and confronts the king with the words: "Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart on account of those two smoking stubs of firebrands, on account of the raging of Rezin and his Arameans and the son of Remaliah.... It shall not succeed, it shall not come to pass.... If you [Ahaz] will not believe, you shall not be established" (7:4‑9).

The Prophecy Concerning Immanuel

Shortly, thereafter, the prophet refers to the fact that "the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son," who should be named Immanuel ("With us is God") (7:14). It is not clear whether this is to be the prophet's own son or a royal scion; in any case, he predicts that (in a short period of time) before the lad can "reject the bad and choose the good" (7:16), the danger will pass.

"Pillage Hastens, Looting Speeds"

Another prophecy, probably also from this period of imminent siege, involves the birth of another son to the prophet (whose wife is here designated "the prophetess"). This child will be named Maher‑shalal‑hash‑baz ("pillage hastens, looting speeds")--a reference to the despoliation of Aram and Israel at the hands of Assyria (Isaiah 8:1‑3).

†In 732 B.C.E., in fact, Assyria invaded and sacked Damascus, the capital of Aram. Thus was Jerusalem saved. Whatever prompted Isaiah to refer to Assyria as the agent of divine wrath against his people is not certain (see 10:5‑6); equally uncertain is the report of a military advance against Jerusalem in 10:27‑34.

Israel Revolts Against Assyria, and Falls.

The hegemony of Assyria over the western Asiatic kingdoms refueled the fires of revolt. In the year 724 B.C.E., King Hoshea of Israel decided to discontinue his tribute payments to King Shalmeneser V of Assyria and establish diplomatic ties with Egypt (2 Kings 17:4.). This proved disastrous. Shalmeneser V reacted with force and besieged Samaria. Sometime in late summer or early autumn of 722 B.C.E., Samaria buckled under the siege and fell. Shalmeneser's successor Sargon II repeatedly boasted of destroying Samaria, but it would appear that the city had already fallen.

The surviving region was made into an Assyrian province (Samerina). The upper class was deported to Babylonia and Media (2 Kings 17:6), and a new upper class was imported from Babylonia and possibly Syria as well (2 Kings 17:24). It was this great northern destruction that caused Isaiah's contemporary Micah to wail: "Because of this I will lament and wail; I will go stripped and naked! I will lament as sadly as the jackals, as mournfully as the ostriches. For her [the nation's] wound is incurable, it has reached Judah, it has spread to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem" (Micah 1:8‑9).

Isaiah Goes Naked to Illustrate the Consequences of Judah's Rebellion.

Several years later, in 714 B.C.E., a different revolt broke out in southern Palestine‑led by the city of Ashdod. This event is recorded in Isaiah 20. Once again the prophet took an active part, dramatizing the dangerous consequences of impetuous revolt against Assyria.

His symbolic and excessive performance (he went "naked and barefoot for three years," verse 31) probably had a greater popular impact than his ongoing oracles to the people of Judah to trust the Lord for victory and not to rely upon the words and weapons of Egypt (Isaiah 30‑32). Isaiah's warnings proved true. Sargon II smashed the coalition in 712 B.C.E., and while Judah participated in the event, there was no Assyrian action against her.

Assyria's Siege of Jerusalem

This was not the case, however, during the stormy political events of 701 B.C.E. In response to a widespread revolt in Palestine, Philistia, and Egypt that followed the death of Sargon II (705 B.C.E.), King Sennacherib of Assyria (701‑681 B.C.E.) invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem.

Isaiah's Oracle of Deliverance to King Hezekiah

Subject to taunts and destruction, King Hezekiah of Judah sought the word of God from Isaiah and received a prophecy of the salvation and deliverance of Zion. This miraculous episode is recorded in Isaiah 36‑38, but the reprieve did not save Judah from subjugation, tribute, and loss of territory (2 Kings 18:13‑16). The price of political activism was vassalage, for Isaiah's great appeal for trust in God's plan was ignored.

Isaiah, Court Prophet and Scribe?

Following these critical events, Isaiah's voice fell silent. His direct access to King Ahaz (Isaiah 7:3‑24), his familiarity with Shevna, the royal chamberlain (22:15), and his prominent position during the reign of King Hezekiah, when he was summoned to provide oracles for the city and prayers for the king (Isaiah 37‑38), suggest that Isaiah had some court position‑possibly of a scribal nature. It is of interest, in this regard, that the Chronicler refers to him as a royal historian: "The other events of Uzziah's reign, early and late, were recorded by the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz" (2 Chronicles 26:22). From this vantage point, he responded to the turns of political power with God's word to him.

Isaiah's Legacy in the Later Literature : Saint and Martyr

Looking back from the Hellenistic period, Ben Sira sang a song in praise of famous men and praised Isaiah as "the great prophet whose vision could be trusted" (Ecclus. 48:22). In due course, this revered prophet became the model of a saintly life. According to rabbinic and pseudepigraphical traditions, Isaiah died the death of a monotheist martyr, hacked to death during the reign of the ruthless paganizing King Manasseh (see B. Yevamot 49b and The Ascension of lsaiah 5: 11‑14).

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Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.