The Not-Apocalypse of Isaiah

It is commonly accepted Isaiah is comprised of at least four sections, written by different authors and appended to each other. Setting aside later redactions and interpolations, Isaiah 1–35 is the earliest section — called Proto-Isaiah or First Isaiah — the contents of which are attributed to the historical prophet Isaiah. Here are prophecies concerning the fate of the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah, along with prophecies condemning various neighboring countries.

Chapters 40–55 — Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah — were written more than a century and a half after Isaiah lived. These chapters come from the final years of the Babylonian exile and are singularly focused on explaining why the exile happened and what its aftermath will entail. Chapters 56–66 — Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah — were written by an author disappointed in Judah’s condition following the return from exile, now setting expectations even higher for a brighter future yet to come.

Isaiah 36–39 was imported straight from 2 Kings 18.13–20.19, with relatively minor changes. These chapters narrate Isaiah’s interactions with Hezekiah, king of Judah, during the Assyrian threat which Isaiah prophesied in parts of chapters 1–35. The block of narration concludes with Isaiah predicting the Babylonian exile. These chapters were taken from 2 Kings to bridge the pre-exilic First Isaiah with the exilic Second Isaiah and post-exilic Third Isaiah.

The message and purpose of most prophecies in the Hebrew Bible are, for the most part, transparent to the reader. This isn’t to say there aren’t interpretive difficulties when it comes to the specifics. Yet, past the minutiae, the overall thrust of a prophetic text is easy to grasp.

This is not the case for a fifth section recognized within the Book of Isaiah. Chapters 24–27 have long been seen as a later insertion to First Isaiah, and they are notoriously difficult to interpret. Unlike the rest of the book, there are few points in the text that enable us to identify the section’s historical context: when it was written and why.

An Ambiguous Genre and Date

Identifying the genre of an ancient text can have large implications on how to interpret it. For many years, Isa 24–27 was regarded as an apocalypse, belonging to the same genre as Daniel, Revelation, or 1 Enoch. Over time, identifying this section as ‘the Isaiah Apocalypse’ began to slip, though it continued to be recognized as containing ‘some characteristics of apocalyptic writing’.1 What precisely these apocalyptic traits in Isa 24–27 were was vague, since the chapters lack the most common apocalyptic characteristics:

such as visions needing angelic interpretations, the re-interpretation of scriptures to new situations of crisis, the identification of pagan nations with mythical beasts, such mysterious numbers as we find in Dan 7:25; 8:14, and the tendency toward Dualism2

Isa 24–27 did become a source for later apocalyptic literature (e.g. Revelation has a handful of quotations and many allusions), but it is nevertheless ‘a distinctive form of prophecy’,3 now widely (and uselessly) called ‘the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse”’. Isa 24–27 implies a much more ‘universal’ type of judgment than is usually found in the Hebrew prophets, but it doesn’t resemble the brand of apocalyptic thought that became common in the Hellenistic period.

Adding to the difficulty in determining the message and purpose of Isa 24–27 is the overwhelming lack of historical references. We have very few points to anchor the passage into even a broad time period. In fact, other than references to Jerusalem or Zion, and Judah or Israel, these chapters only briefly uses five proper nouns: Moab (25.10), Assyria, Egypt, Euphrates (27.12-13), and Leviathan (27.1).4

There are a handful of references to a city or cities and a mountain or mountains, but none of them are named. The phrase ‘on that day’ is used seven times, but without any clear context for it other than divine judgment.

There are a few parallels with Canaanite myth. The image of Yahweh swallowing Death amid a feast (25.8) has its origins in the conflict between Baʿal and Mot, a god of death.5 Similarly, Isa 27.1 is a direct adaptation of a story in which Baʿal slays Lotan, the Ugaritic cognate of Hebrew Leviathan. (See footnote 2 on this earlier article.) Points like this establish the author’s familiarity with Canaanite myth, but they don’t help pinning down a time period.

Additionally, these chapters don’t contain any Aramaic or Greek loanwords as we might expect from a later origin.6 In fact, most unusual linguistic features in Isa 24–27 have parallels in early texts or lack parallels in later texts.

the rate of “late” features per word in Isa 24–27 is less than that of Isa 40–55, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.7

Except for a possible interpretation of the resurrection imagery, nothing in Isa 24–27 clearly indicates the passage’s origin in the Hellenistic period. Can the few proper nouns used in the text give us an idea when the author was writing?

Prideful Moab

While some interpreters identify the city of chaos (24.10 etc.) as a reference to Babylon, the bulk of evidence behind this view comes from textual allusions to Jeremiah’s prophecies concerning Babylon.8 This includes one very direct parallel.

In the present case, Babylon must be chosen as the city presupposed in this composition, because the citations of earlier prophetic literature in chs. 24–27 include Jer 48:43-44a (Isa 24:17–18a), which stems from the period in which Babylon […] constituted a major threat.9

Yet, this does not accurately convey the nature of this ‘citation of earlier prophetic literature’. Isa 24.17–18 and Jer 48.43–44 read as follows, respectively:

Terror, and pit, and snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth! And it shall be whoever flees from the noise of the terror shall fall into the pit, and whoever climbs out from inside the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows on high are opened, and the foundations of the earth are shaken.
Terror, and pit, and snare are upon you, O inhabitants of Moab! says Yahweh. Whoever flees from the terror shall fall into the pit, and whoever climbs out from the pit shall be caught in the snare. For I will bring these things upon Moab in the year of their punishment, says Yahweh.

Jer 48.43-44, obviously, is not about Babylon. We can’t be certain that Jer 48.43–44 even came before Isa 24–27. The order of dependence may be the other way around, or they might both be borrowing from another text altogether.10 Regardless, we have a second point of reference for Moab in Isa 24–27, though indirectly. The explicit reference comes a bit later, in 25.10b–12.

The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit. Though they spread out their hands in the midst of it, as swimmers spread out their hands to swim, their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands. The high fortifications of his walls will be brought down, laid low, cast to the ground, even to the dust.

Verse 12 describes Moab as if it were a city with ‘high fortifications’ on its ‘walls’, and the language of the walls being ‘brought down, laid low’ is echoed a bit later in 26.5, which speaks of ‘the lofty city’. These condemnatory descriptions of a city have parallels in Isa 2.6–21, where the idea of God’s enemies being ‘laid low’ is metaphorical for debasement and humiliation, not literal for a city’s destruction.11 Prophetic condemnations of Moab routinely fixate on its cities, towns, and fortifications (e.g. Isa 15–16; Jer 48.8–9, 15, 18, 21–24; Ezek 25.9), such that some think the ‘city of chaos’ in Isa 24–27 is a symbol of Moab due to 25.10b–12.12 Still, most regard the direct reference to Moab as a late addition, from an interpolator who had a grudge against Moab and felt the need to comment that the nation would not share in the universal peace just described Isa 25.6–9.13 If Moab was intended to be the target of Isa 24–27, we’re left wondering why the anti-Moabite text found in Jer 48.43–44 is instead universalized in Isa 24.17–18.14

Put simply, the reference to Moab in Isa 25.10 is most likely a later interpolation, which means we have one fewer historical anchor points to determine the original date of the passage.

Resurrection

For some scholars, the references to Yahweh raising the dead in Isa 25.7–8 and 26.19,21 are clear evidence the text was written in the Hellenistic period. We don’t find the concept of individual, bodily resurrection in Judean eschatology prior to the Second Temple-era apocalypses, with Dan 12.2–3 regarded as the earliest explicit mention of it. If Isa 24–27 comes from a time period before this, then it would contain the earliest known reference to resurrection in the Hebrew Bible.

A preference for the former [metaphoric interpretation] would mean an exilic or early post-exilic date while the latter [literal interpretation] would indicate a much later origin.15

After all, Isa 26.19,21 speaks of ‘corpses’, ‘dwellers in the dust’, and ‘the blood [of the] slain’. This is rather comparable to Dan 12.2–3. The phrase ‘those long dead’ used in the NRSV translation of 26.19b is the Hebrew word rephaim, a term meant for ‘heroes of yore and of dead, divinized kings’. In this case, the resurrection of Isa 26 appears to include specific heroes of the past.16 However, the word rephaim had also been ‘democratized’, receiving a broader application to ‘all the living dead, including those of recent memory’.17 We see this more generic use of the word in Isa 14.9, and Isa 26.14,19 seems, to me, to be using rephaim in the same way, especially since the text in question is from a later time period.

Others push back. Resurrection motifs are found in Near Eastern literature long before the Hellenistic period (e.g. the aforementioned myth of Baʿal and Mot, about a thousand years before the Book of Daniel).18 We would err if we assumed all the earlier uses of such language in the Hebrew Bible should be interpreted according to the later ones.19 In most cases of texts in the Hebrew Bible describing a restoration to life, the language is forceful and individualized, yet still contextually metaphorical.20

Hos 6.1–2 and Ezek 37.1–14 use resurrection imagery for the revitalization of the Israelite and Judean nations, respectively, after crises. The resurrection coming from life-giving dew in Isa 26.19 has some parallels in pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic biblical texts.21 In two such texts — Hag 1.10 and Zech 8.12 — the dew coming down from heaven is given in parallel to produce coming up from the earth (e.g. ‘the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew’). This is also the case in Isa 26.19b.

Ezek 37.1–14 depicts the revitalization of the kingdom of Judah after the Babylonian exile as a valley of corpses having their bones, then their flesh, then their breath restored one after the other. The agricultural language of Isa 26.19b — heavenly dew raising a crop of human lives from the earth — is less favorable to a literal interpretation. In my opinion, if Ezek 37.1–14 is (as most interpreters agree) a metaphor and not referring to the actual raising of individuals back to bodily life on the earth, Isa 26.19 is even more of a figurative passage resisting literal interpretation.

The other times resurrection is found in the Hebrew Bible, whether meant literally or not, it always follows a period crisis. In Dan 12.1–3, the literal resurrection follows Antiochus Epiphanes’ attempts to destroy Torah-observance in Judah. In Ezek 37.1–14, the metaphoric resurrection comes after the Babylonian exile. In Hos 6.1–3, resurrection is a metaphor of Israel’s belief that God would restore the nation after a time of judgment. If we follow that pattern here, what might the crisis for Isa 24–27 have been?

Israel’s Idolatry

The reason given for exile in Isa 27.9 is idolatry, which incorporated ‘altars’, ʾašerim, and ‘incense altars’. The ʾašerim were cult objects, poles or trees, used in worship of the goddess Asherah.22 In different versions of Near Eastern mythology, Asherah (or Athirat) was the consort of the head of the pantheon: Anu, El, and Yahweh. Her identity as Yahweh’s wife is alluded to in 2 Kings 21.7 and Jer 7.18, with the biblical narrative placing their use ‘as early as the period of the Judges and as late as a few decades before the fall of the southern kingdom’.23

The only pre-exilic biblical references to Asherah or her cult objects are found in Micah, First Isaiah, and Jeremiah. All of the exilic and post-exilic references (e.g. Exo 34.13; Judges 3.7; First Kings 14.15) situate her worship as a thing of the past. No prophetic text identifies Asherah worship as an ongoing problem after the Babylonian exile, and asherim were no longer in use by the Hellenistic period;24 for this reason, the latest Isa 24–27 could be is the late Persian or early Hellenistic periods, which would make it roughly contemporary with the Book of Chronicles.25

Isa 26–27 contains several parallels to Hos 13–14.26 However, where Hos 14.8 simply condemns ‘idols’ generically, Isa 27.9 condemns ʾašerim specifically. This might help situate Isa 24–27 prior to the Babylonian exile, from a time when an author was familiar enough with ʾašerim to recognize them in Hosea’s earlier text.

Egypt and Assyria

So far it appears that the rest of First Isaiah (chapters 1–35, with some caveats) was written before chapters 24–27, so why were those four chapters inserted near the end of First Isaiah, rather than after it? In a sentiment shared by other scholars, Christopher Hays suggests the Moab interpolation in 25.10b gave First Isaiah’s redactor a connection to the oracles against the nations (13.1–19.17; 21; 23), which included a lengthy rebuke of Moab (15–16).27

Other than Moab, which was an interpolation, the only other proper nouns used in Isa 24–27 (other than Judah, Israel/Jacob, and Jerusalem/Zion) are Egypt, Euphrates, and Assyria, all three found in 27.12–13. At first glance, these verses seem to only describe the farthest reachest of Israel’s ancestral land: Assyria/the river Euphrates to the north, Egypt/the wadi of Egypt to the south (Gen 15.18; Deut 11.24; Josh 1.4). We find Egypt and Assyria mentioned in tandem in the same way — as the extent of Israel’s borders, from which exiles will return — in Isa 52.4 and Zech 10.10–11, the former an exilic text and the latter post-exilic. Except for these two texts, Assyria no longer served as a marker of Israel’s northern edges in the exilic or post-exilic periods.

By the time of Isa 7, the kingdoms of Syria and Israel had united. Ahaz, the king of Judah, worried about the threat they posed to his kingdom (7.1–4) Isaiah offers to the king a sign from Yahweh, a woman pregnant with a son; after the son is born, but before he is old enough to understand the difference between good and evil, Assyria will swoop in and conquer Syria and Israel (7.5–17).

Isaiah again reassures the Judean kingdom that they will survive the crisis, and that it will happen during the rule of Ahaz’s son (9.1–7). When his son, Hezekiah, became king in Judah, Assyria’s might worried hm as well. The redactor of the Book of Isaiah lifted a few chapters from 2 Kings to show how Judah weathered the Assyrian threat during Hezekiah’s time (Isa 36–39), giving the only clear echo of Isaiah’s prophecy (9.6–7; 37.32). Assyria’s conquest of Israel brought the kingdom to its end, with many of its people exiled throughout the Assyria’s empire,28 but Judah survived.

These chapters repeatedly borrow from First Isaiah, where we also find a prophecy of Israelite exiles returning from Egypt and Assyria (19.23–25).29 In Isa 24–27 the restorationist themes (e.g. 24.23; 26.1,20; 27.2,6) are accompanied by an explicit mention of ‘exile’ (27.6–8):

In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit. Has he struck them down as he struck down those who struck them? Or have they been killed as their killers were killed? By expulsion, by exile you struggled against them; with his fierce blast he removed them on the day of the east wind.

The author expects Israel to soon ‘take root’ and ‘blossom’; this is possible because Israel was not ‘struck down’ by Yahweh as severely ‘as he struck down those who struck’ Israel. The rhetorical questions strongly imply that the people responsible for the exile have themselves been punished by Yahweh.

Isa 27:7–11 begins with rhetorical questions which assume two groups have experienced severe punishment. The first of these two groups, however, survives their experience [...] They “come to terms” with YHWH's new order.

The second group exists outside that order and thus withers away to nothingness.30

Conclusion

The kingdom of Assyria collapsed at the end of the seventh century BC. In 612, its capital city Nineveh was taken by the Medes and Babylonians, and King Sinsarishkun was killed. His successor, Ashur-uballit II, escaped Nineveh, but was killed a few years later, in 609. After this, Babylon swept up the remaining Egyptian and Assyrian forces in 605, and Nebuchadnezzar became king over Babylon that year. In 597 he laid siege to Jerusalem, deported many of the people, plundered the temple, and installed Zedekiah as client-king. Ten years after that, Zedekiah rebelled and Nebuchadnezzar returned, killed some of the royal family and took the rest into exile, and destroyed the temple.

The fall of Jerusalem, and hope for its restoration, became the prevailing theme for prophets in the years after: Jeremiah and Ezekiel were contemporaries of this event, Second Isaiah anticipates the end of the Babylonian exile, and Haggai, Zechariah, and Third Isaiah look on the reconstruction of the temple.

In this light, the complete absence in Isa 24–27 of Babylon, the deportation of Jerusalem’s populace, or the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple is glaring. Only Egypt and Assyria are mentioned by name. At the same time, as mentioned above, the author strongly implies those responsible for the exile have already been destroyed by Yahweh. He holds out hope that Israel will soon be restored from its scattering, without the slightest allusion to Jerusalem’s temple needing to be rebuilt.

Hays came to a similar conclusion, that these chapters originated as a ‘festival scroll for the fall of Assyria’ from Judah’s king Josiah.

Originally, these chapters celebrated the crumbling of the Neo-Assyrian empire as an act of divine deliverance and exhorted the former Northern Kingdom to reunite itself with Judah at a moment when that was a plausible choice for the first time in centuries. The withdrawal of Neo-Assyrian forces from the Levant in the 620s would have left the door open for new political ideas, and it would have been quite natural for a Davidic monarch like Josiah to imagine reunifying the kingdoms.31

Identifying these chapters as commissioned by Josiah around 612–609 BC, Hays pins Isa 24–27 down to a scribe studied in the prophetic literature, lifting from their words to form his own. I don’t know if we can get quite that specific in the time frame, though I think it’s at least plausible. It seems likely to me that Isa 24–27 was written after Assyria’s collapse had begun and before Nebuchadnezzar showed himself as a major threat against Judah, between 612 and 597 BC. The author looked on the fall of Assyria as a sign that Israel was soon to be restored, but he had no idea how much of a problem Babylon would turn out to be.


Footnotes

1 William Doorly, Isaiah of Jerusalem, 97.

2 A.S. Herbert, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 1–39, 143.

3 Ibid., 144.

4 Though some prefer to strip all these proper nouns from the text as later interpolations, e.g. Hyun Chul Paul Kim, ‘City, Earth, and Empire in Isaiah 24–27’, Formation and Intertextuality in Isaiah 24–27 (ed. James Hibbard, Hyun Chul Paul Kim, 44.

5 Paul Kang-Kul Cho, Janling Fu, ‘Death and Feasting in the Isaiah Apocalypse (Isaiah 25:6–8)’, Formation, 129.

6 Christopher Hays, ‘The Date and Message of Isaiah 24–27 in Light of Hebrew Diachrony’, Formation, 8.

7 Ibid., 22.

8 James Hibbard, Intertextuality in Isaiah 24–27, 21–22.

9 Marvin Sweeney, Isaiah 1–39: With an Introduction to Prophetic Literature, 318.

10 Hays, ‘Date and Message’, 9.

11 Micaël Bürki, ‘City of Pride, City of Glory’, Formation, 55.

12 Ibid., 55–57.

13 Hibbard, Intertextuality, 110–111.

14 Marvin Sweeney, Reading Prophetic Books, 72–73.

15 Donald Polaski, Authoring an End: The Isaiah Apocalypse and Intertextuality, 55.

16 Stephen Cook, ‘Deliverance as Fertility and Resurrection: Echoes of Second Isaiah in Isaiah 26’, Formation, 170.

17 Ibid.

18 Hays, ‘Date and Message’, 8–9.

19 Donald Polaski, Authoring an End, 55.

20 Christopher Hays, The Origins of Isaiah 24–27, 77–81.

21 Hibbard, Intertextuality, 148.

22 John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 52–59; Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 111.

23 Smith, Early History, 108.

24 Day, Yahweh, 46.

25 Hibbard, Intertextuality, 36.

26 Day, Yahweh, 58–59. Isa 26.13–19 and 27.2–11 contain the same elements as Hos 13.4,13–15 and 14.5–9 in mostly the same order, i.e. the birthpangs, rescue from death, exile as the ‘east wind’, the life-giving dew, the vineyard, idolatry.

27 Hays, Origins, 286; cf. James Hibbard, Hyun Chul Paul Kim, ‘Introduction’, Formation, 1.

28 Marvin Sweeney, Reading Prophetic Books, 195; David Ussishkin, ‘Sennacherib’s Campaign to Judah: The Events at Lachish and Jerusalem’, Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire, 30.

29 Hibbard, Intertextuality, 193.

30 Polaski, Authoring an End, 319.

31 Hays, Origins, 1.