In this post, I’ll be talking about a few points in Otto Kaiser’s commentary on Isaiah 1-12.
1. On pages 25-26, Kaiser talks about Isaiah 2, in which the nations of the earth come to Zion to learn God’s ways and God’s Torah. Kaiser interprets the “Torah” here, “not merely [as] the legal ordinances given in the five books of Moses, but, in the same way as the ‘word of Yahweh’, also the words of God that at various times are uttered by priests and prophets” (page 27). The nations are coming to Zion to hear from God—through God’s mediators. Isaiah 2 says that these events will occur in the latter days—be-acharit. According to Kaiser, this is not an apocalyptic concept about the end of human history, but it does refer to the “consummation of history.” My impression is that the difference between apocalypticism and Isaiah 2 is that apocalypticism envisions the present creation being destroyed so that God can make a new heavens and a new earth, whereas Isaiah 2 presents God intervening in the present order and working events towards his own glory and the good of Israel and the nations.
But the term be-acharit intrigues me because I grew up in a denomination that emphasized prophecies about the “last days”—which were basically interpreted to be the Twentieth Century (and, now, the Twenty-First Century). When Genesis 49 talked about events of the latter days, that was taken to refer to Israel (which the Armstrongs saw as the United States, Britain, countries in Europe, and the Jewish people) in the days soon before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This was an important piece of evidence for “British Israelism”—the notion that the United States and Great Britain were tribes of Israel—for Genesis 49 presents Joseph as powerful, which fit the United States and Britain in the “latter days”. But, when I looked at commentaries, I saw a different interpretation: that the prominence of Joseph concerned the power of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before its fall in 722 B.C.E. In this scenario, be-acharit was interpreted to mean “days to come”, not “in the latter days”. “Days to come” does not have to mean the time before the end, or the consummation of history. As I look at the use of the term in the Hebrew Bible, I see it used in reference to such events as the restoration of Israel from exile, or the restoration of other nations (Elam). I suppose that the prophets saw those sorts of events as eschatological—though the restoration itself, which we see in Ezra-Nehemiah—did not occur with a lot of fanfare.
On page 30, Kaiser states that Christians cannot accept Isaiah 2 as it is presented. Whereas Isaiah 2 highlights the cult in Zion, Christians believe that God can be worshiped anywhere (John 4:19-24). But Kaiser affirms that we can get an important point from this passage: “It testifies that if man is seized by the reality of God, he realizes that he is called not to violence and suffering, but to a peaceful and just life with other men, in which alone human life can be fulfilled.” My impression from reading the New Testament is that some of the “eschatological” (if you will) parts of the prophets are held to be fulfilled in the church age (John 6:45; 7:38; maybe I Thessalonians 4:9), whereas other aspects are for the future. Is this faithful to the original meaning of the prophets? I don’t think so. The prophets depict situations regarding Israel and the nations—so why does the New Testament come along and spiritualize those things? But I do believe that an encounter with God should lead to at least some transformation in a person’s life: from violence and strife to love. Does this work in my life? I think I’m better with a relationship with God than without one. But I wish I had more love and peace.
2. On pages 65-66, Kaiser presents a vivid picture of social injustice in ancient Judah. According to Kaiser, the foreign policy of King Uzziah of Judah brought money into the land—in the form of tribute and trade. An upperclass developed, and it bought up one farmer after another. The farmers could not “find a new living as traders”, and so they were “totally dependent upon large capitalists.” Ownership was in the hands of a few people—in contrast with the vision in Leviticus 25, in which all Israelites had land. Meanwhile, the nobility was drinking alcohol in the morning–putting themselves in a state in which they were “incapable of any serious work (cf. Eccles. 10.16; Acts 2:13-15” (page 67).
3. On page 127, Kaiser offers insight into the mindset of ancient times regarding the harvest: “For the people of that time, the harvest possessed a much more pointed significance than at the present day, where the food supply, at least in time of peace and in Europe, has become almost independent of the seasons. Then, as for many people today in other parts of the world, it signifies the end of a long period of hunger.” This, as well as other passages in Kaiser’s book, made me think about faith. In Isaiah 7, Isaiah doesn’t want Ahaz to make alliances but rather to trust God’s election of the Davidic dynasty for the safety of his nation—an election that the king celebrated or commemorated. People in search of guidance consulted the dead because they felt that the dead shared in the gods’ knowledge; God, however, wanted the Israelites to consult him. People performed rituals regarding the death and resurrection of a god because their lives depended on the harvest; certain Yahwists, however, boldly proclaimed that the Israelites should trust and obey God for the harvest.
I admit that I have an arm-chair approach to religion and theology: I see all these views out there, and I don’t know what’s right. But I’m not too worried about where my next meal is coming from. Back then, people were told that their security depended on having the right religion. Come to think of it, even people today are told that—which is why people try to live good lives to avoid pain and to prosper. I don’t know if my prosperity depends on me having the right religion. But I try to trust that there is a God who is loving. I hope that he blesses me in my circumstances, but I also try to take comfort in the idea that he loves me, whatever my circumstances may be.
4. On page 152, Kaiser states: “Whether the enemy attains his goal of conquering the capital, or whether he meets his end here, depends upon whether the people of Jerusalem at last honestly repent (cf. 31.6) and recognize that their help is from God and not from the cavalry of Egypt (cf. 30.16; 31.1-3).” That was how I read First Isaiah when I did my weekly quiet time through Isaiah in 1999-2000: Will Judah trust in God’s protection of Judah and Jerusalem—and recognize that her security comes through a relationship with God—or will she trust in idols and alliances with foreign nations? Fortunately, Hezekiah made the right decision, and Jerusalem was saved!
But this summary of First Isaiah runs into bumps. For example, if Israel’s paradise was to come if she repented, then why didn’t it come? If God’s judgment of Israel was to precede Israel becoming a paradise, as God rebuilt Israel on a holy remnant, as we see in parts of First Isaiah, then wouldn’t it have been better had Israel continued in sin rather than doing the right thing?
Conditionality can be a way to absolve Isaiah from being a false prophet: if his predictions don’t come true, then one can say this was because of Israel’s behavior, on which God’s activity is contingent. But Kaiser states that Isaiah was sure that his predictions would come to pass—so sure that he named his son “a remnant shall return.” Isaiah did not fear that people would look at his son and remember Isaiah making a false prophecy. He was certain that a remnant would return, and so he named his son accordingly. What room is there for conditionality, here?
Did a remnant return? Some of Isaiah’s prophecies in Isaiah 7-8 came to pass. The Syro-Phoenician alliance did collapse, and so Ahaz was not overthrown by it. And, indeed, Assyria did wreak devastation on Judah. I do not know if the people of Judah were reduced to nomads eating butter and honey—as Isaiah predicted in Isaiah 7. But that may have happened. Was there a remnant? Yes, in the sense that Judahites (including Jerusalem) survived Assyria’s onslaught. Isaiah 7:4, 31-32 mentions a remnant, and this was when Hezekiah was hoping that Jerusalem would survive Assyria’s invasion. Isaiah’s prediction of a remnant came true. But did that result in paradise? No. However, Kaiser’s point about interpolations is that Isaiah’s predictions were not believed to be limited to the time of Isaiah, for they applied to Israel since that time. And, if the text was not clear on this, an interpolator added something to make it clear.
5. Kaiser believes that Isaiah 1-12 is divinely inspired, on some level. He even thinks that the Christian church fulfills some of the prophecies in the book. But he also holds that Isaiah was limited in his insights. As we saw yesterday, Kaiser dates the parts of Isaiah 1-12 about a widespread Diaspora to Israel’s Hellenistic Period, for such a Diaspora did not exist in Isaiah’s day. Conservatives could respond that Isaiah—under divine inspiration—was able to see the future. Fair enough. But wouldn’t Isaiah also want to communicate with the audience of his own cultural context? Would mentioning something that was not on any of their radars be good communication?