God and Isaiah 2: Historical Analysis

The following is a paper written for an undergraduate Jewish studies course titled, “The History of God,” which was intended to present God in a historical manner, using the Bible as the main source document and the Documentary Hypothesis as the main tool for interpreting its contents.  The paper addresses Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22.

The professor left the following comment on the paper:

You show there are real forces beneath this passage – that it’s helping hearers find a way out of their problems. Bravo… You see the fact that religion and doctrines address people where they hurt.

There were a few minor criticisms, but I’ve corrected the most glaring one before publishing it online.  Also, despite the criticisms, the professor felt the paper was, overall, on the mark and marked it with an A/A-.  I’m not sure about how he rates things.  He usually left two grades on papers like that.

The Prophet Isaiah
The Prophet Isaiah (Image from Wikipedia)

Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22 is a complex message that describes Judah and Jerusalem’s future according to Isaiah. It presents a utopian view that sits in stark contrast to Isaiah 1, where Jerusalem is compared to a booth in a cucumber field, surrounded and isolated, or as an unfaithful whore, found in the previous chapter.[1] It looks even more out of place compared to the contents of Isaiah 3, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. However, the message being delivered has a purpose and fits an established framework.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, Isaiah 1-39 was written by an individual referred to as Isaiah 1 in approximately 720 BCE. Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a second author, and 56-66 are attributed to a third author.[2] These authors all wrote at different times and wrote for different purposes. Isaiah 1’s purpose was to explain the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, to fit it into an established framework that the people would recognize and understand, and then to give hope to the southern kingdom of Judah, that they could be preserved if they mended their ways.

Isaiah 2:2-3 describes the existence of Jerusalem in the future, when it has become a cultural center. Verse 2 establishes that Jerusalem will exist in the latter days and that all nations will flow to it. This was probably a very important message for the people to hear and be reminded of after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. The defeat of Israel not only called into question their political independence but the religious foundations of their society as well. According to Nathan, three-hundred and thirty years before in approximately 1050 BCE, God had promised to maintain the political solvency of David’s kingdom forever, telling him (through Nathan), quite literally, “Your throne shall be established forever.”[3] So, when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, Isaiah had to find a way to explain it, justify it, and then give hope that it did not mean the end of their way of life.

The only way to justify God’s apparent failure to uphold His end of the covenant was to say that He actually had not failed; the Israelites and Judeans failed God. Isaiah reasoned that God must have failed to protect the northern kingdom because the Israelites had turned their backs on God, or at the least, it was a plausible solution to the problem of explaining the breach of the covenant. He applies this logic by introducing a new concept, that sacrifice is not enough, and God never really wanted sacrifices in the first place. God tells the people He will not listen to them because their hands are full of blood. He tells them that instead of sacrificing, they should have been doing good, seeking justice, correcting oppression, upholding justice and pleading the widow’s cause.[4]

The point of this break with tradition is to shift people’s focus from the Temple rituals to practicing religion in their everyday lives. This idea is reinforced in Isaiah 2:3, where Isaiah prophecies that people will flock to Jerusalem in the future, not for its food or the climate, but for the law. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways…For out of Zion shall go the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”[5] This was not his attempt to stop the Temple rituals, but it was his way of laying the seeds of future faith, when the inevitable happened and the temple was destroyed.

Isaiah 2:4 further reinforces the Davidic Covenant and simultaneously acts to reassure the people that all will be well. It introduces the idea of God being bigger than just Jerusalem. He’s so big that He “judge[s] between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…”[6] This verse takes God out of the Temple. It separates Him from ritual and puts Him above the affairs of nations. It not only expands His powers, but it frees Him and his followers from religious destruction if the Temple is destroyed. The second half of Isaiah 2:4 describes people of the nations around Israel turning their weapons into agricultural instruments. They “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”[7] When confronted with the utter destruction of the northern kingdom, it must have been welcome news to hear that in the future, there would be no war, and, hence, no threat to Judah’s existence.

Isaiah 2:5 is a call to action. It asks the house of Jacob to come and walk in the light of the Lord. The ensuing diatribe in 2:6-22 against the materialism and idolatry of the descendants of Jacob, presumably in the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem, which have yet to be conquered, is probably intended to give the original recipients a road map for change that will allow them to avoid the same fate as their northern neighbors. Isaiah 2:6-22 basically tells them what they’re doing wrong, with 2:5 being the lead-in, warning them to steer clear of the following things that are against God’s will.

Isaiah 2:2-5 is a reminder to a people facing an imminent danger that threatens their way of life. It is a way out, a way to avoid the fate that befell the northern kingdom, and it is part of a message that explains why God did not uphold the covenant given to David, thereby saving the religion from destruction. By reaffirming the Davidic covenant and justifying the destruction of the northern kingdom, Isaiah reaffirms God’s dedication to David’s people and their well-being. Isaiah 2:2-5 is also an important turning point in the religion, bringing God out of the temple and into personal life.

[1] Isaiah 1:8 and 1:21. All references to Bible passages are from the English Standard Version.
[2] Arthur Patzia and Anthony Petrotta, Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies….
[3] 2 Samuel 7:16.
[4] Isaiah 1:11-17.
[5] Isaiah 2:3.
[6] Isaiah 2:4.
[7] Ibid.

Works Cited

Patzia, Arthur G. and Anthony J. Petrotta. Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies: Over 300 Terms Clearly & Concisely Defined. InterVarsity Press, 2002. Google eBook.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Amazon Digital Services: Crossway, 2011. Kindle eBook.