Isaiah 40:3-8: MT, LXX, Gospels

Continuing in my text criticism/analysis of Deutero-Isaiah, here’s Isaiah 40:3-8. Like before, I’m using the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text as the bases for my criticism and analysis. English translations are my own.

LXX:
3 A voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Ready the Lord’s road,
Make straight our God’s paths.
4 Every valley will be filled,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And everything crooked will be made straight,
And the rugged will be made into a plain.
5 And the Lord’s glory will be seen,
And all flesh will see God’s salvation,
Because the Lord has spoken.”

6 The voice of one speaking: “Shout!”
And I said, “What should I shout?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass.
7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

MT:
3 A voice calling out in the wilderness:
“Clear out YHWH’s road,
Smooth out highways in the desert for our God.
4 Every valley will be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And the crooked will be made into a level place,
And the rugged places will be made into a plain.
5 And YHWH’s glory will be uncovered,
And all flesh will see together
That YHWH’s mouth has spoken.

6 A voice saying, “Call out!”
And he says, “What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God will stand forever.”

Verse-by-Verse Analysis

Verse 3:
In the desert Because the LXX has the shorter reading of this verse, it is to be preferred over the MT’s reading. The MT’s “in the desert” is probably an addition to the text, to make it clear where YHWH’s highways are.

Verse 4:
Overall, this verse is promising that, when YHWH returns Judah to their land, he will make it suitable for agriculture. In filling in the valleys, leveling the hills, and removing the stones from the rugged places, he will remove the impediments to farming that plague the Judean countryside.

Will be brought low The LXX’s “will be brought low” (tapeinothesetai) means, literally, “will be humiliated.” It is strange to use the word in the sense of “level off” (which is the meaning it carries here, in parallel with “will be filled”); however, it corresponds exactly with the MT’s yishpalu, which carries the same force – it denotes being “brought low,” but it connotes being “humiliated.”

Will be made straight “Will be made,” in lines 3-4 of this verse, is a gloss. The LXX reads, literally:

And everything that is crooked will be into straightness,
And the rugged (fem. sg.) into a plain.

Likewise, the MT reads, literally:

And the crooked will be into a level place,
And the rugged places into a plain.

Verse 5:
See God’s salvation/See together 
The LXX’s reading is a harmonization with the content of 40:9-11, which describes how God will lead Judah back to their country, as a sort of second Exodus, which means that the MT’s text is more original.

Nevertheless, the LXX’s alteration, along with the scribal error in verses 7-8 (see below), changes the tone of the passage distinctly, making it more hopeful than the MT. In both the LXX and MT, YHWH’s glory is associated with radical changes to the landscape and with the fleeting nature of humanity; however, the MT goes further and describes YHWH’s breath as devastating, while the LXX goes in a completely different direction and relates how God’s glory will being salvation to the whole world. (It is, of course, not difficult to see why Luke — uniquely among the Gospel writers — includes the LXX version of this verse in his description of John the Baptist, whom he saw as Jesus’ forerunner.)

Because the Lord has spoken (LXX) It is possible to read the LXX’s “because the Lord has spoken” as “the Lord has said,” with verses 3b-5b as a quotation from YHWH (who would then be identified with the Wilderness Voice). This latter reading makes good sense in context, as v. 6a shows the “voice of one speaking” as issuing Isaiah’s call to prophesy. However, from a purely grammatical point of view, this reading is unnatural, so I have not followed it.

(N.B. Though I do not make an explicit connection in my translation that YHWH = the Wilderness Voice, I think a strong case for this identity may be made exegetically, based on verse 6a. Generally speaking, I think it is poor translational practice to make explicit what the text before you leaves implicit, so I have done exactly that.)

It is worth noting that, if the voice of 3a and 6a are the same person – namely, YHWH – then the Gospel writers have misinterpreted this passage. Each of them (Mk 1:2; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23) have the Wilderness Voice as John the Baptist (John’s Gospel actually has the Baptist explicitly identifying himself with the Wilderness Voice). What seems likely to me is that, because John the Baptist was a prophetic figure who stationed himself in the wilderness, and because he was, in the Christians’ estimation, Jesus’ precursor/predecessor, the Gospel writers used this passage as a proof text to validate John’s authority and, thus, to equate Jesus with YHWH.

Verse 6:
And I/he
said The LXX has “And I said” while the MT has “And he said.” In the case of the LXX, verse 6 is a dialogue, which may be expressed as follows:

Voice: Shout!
Narrator: What should I shout?
Voice: All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass. . . .

The MT, however, presents verse 6 in the mouth of only one speaker, as here:

Voice: Call out!
What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field. . . .

Line 2 in the MT is thus a rhetorical question in the Wilderness Voice’s proclamation, while the LXX presents it as a second speaker in a dialogue. The MT’s reading is so awkward that I can’t help but think it is corrupt, and I thus prefer the reading of the LXX, as do the NLT, ESV, NRSV, and NIV. The KJV follows the Hebrew text woodenly.

The NET translates this verse as follows, taking some explanatory liberties in the translation:

A voice says, “Cry out!”
Another asks, “What should I cry out?”
The first voice responds: “All people are like grass,
And all their promises are like the flowers in the field. . . .”

The NET’s notes remark that “[a]pparently a second ‘voice’ responds to the command of the first ‘voice.’ While this interpretation, i’ll admit, does more justice to the MT as it stands, it makes the most sense to follow the LXX’s wording.

All a man’s glory/All his faithfulness The MT’s “faithfulness” is more difficult than the LXX’s “glory,” so the MT is to be considered more original here. However, both readings do make sense in context, so neither should be deprecated; instead, we should see them as two separate traditions of the text.

The LXX contrasts human fame, which is fleeting and impermanent, with God’s declarations, which are fixed and eternal; the LXX’s version is thus a meditation on humanity’s ultimate insignificance. The MT, on the other hand, contrasts human fickleness and flakiness with God’s ultimate reliability.

Verses 7-8:
Compare the reading of the LXX here:

7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

with that of the MT:

7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But our God’s word will stand forever.

The most likely explanation for the difference between these two texts is scribal error. That is, at some point in the production and/or transmission of the LXX – whether in the transmission of the LXX’s Hebrew source, in the act of translation itself, or in the transmission of the Greek text of the LXX – a scribe/the translator unintentionally skipped from the first line of v. 7 to the last line of v. 8. (The proper term for this error is homeoteleuton.)

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3 responses to “Isaiah 40:3-8: MT, LXX, Gospels

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