Tag Archives: old testament

Morton Smith, “II Isaiah and the Persians”

I recently read Morton Smith’s article “II Isaiah and the Persians,” which is quite enlightening for the study of Deutero-Isaiah. Smith argues that Deutero-Isaiah (specifically, Isaiah 40-48) is strongly influenced by Persian thought and, especially, Cyrus’ propaganda against Babylon.

Go check it out. You can find it in Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963), 415-421, and Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed., The Cult of Yahweh, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 73-83.

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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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Cyrus vs. Babylon in Herodotus, Isaiah, and Jeremiah

Cyrus’ sack of Babylon in 539 BCE was a truly impressive feat. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, with an unprecedented military engagement known as the Battle of Opis. The famed walls of Babylon were indeed impenetrable, with the only way into the city through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls. Metal gates at the river’s in-flow and out-flow prevented underwater intruders, if one could hold one’s breath to reach them. Cyrus (or his generals) devised a plan to use the Euphrates as the mode of entry to the city, ordering large camps of troops at each point and instructed them to wait for the signal. Awaiting an evening of a national feast among Babylonians (generally thought to refer to the feast of Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel V), Cyrus’ troops diverted the Euphrates river upstream, causing the Euphrates to drop to about ‘mid thigh level on a man’ or to dry up altogether. The soldiers marched under the walls through the lowered water. The Persian Army conquered the outlying areas of the city’s interior while a majority of Babylonians at the city center were oblivious to the breach. The account was elaborated upon by Herodotus [1.191], and is also mentioned by passages in the Hebrew Bible [Isa 44:9-45:4; Jer 50-51].

For your reading pleasure, here are links to the three ancient works the Wikipedia article cites, with excerpts to whet your appetite.

Herodotus:

. . . and when he came to the lake, Cyrus dealt with it and with the river just as had the Babylonian queen: drawing off the river by a canal into the lake, which was a marsh, he made the stream sink until its former channel could be forded. . . . because of the great size of the city (those who dwell there say) those in the outer parts of it were overcome, but the inhabitants of the middle part knew nothing of it; all this time they were dancing and celebrating a holiday which happened to fall then, until they learned the truth only too well.

Isaiah:

I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth; who frustrates the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; . . . who says to the deep, “Be dry— I will dry up your rivers”; who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.”

Jeremiah:

Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
do not conceal it, say:
Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.

For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.

I especially enjoy the reference in Isaiah, because it comes at the end of a very funny satire on idolatry, when compared with Yahweh worship. I also think it’s very cool that an event recorded in a Greek historian was of such significance for Israel that it made its way into two of the prophets.

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Epic in the Song of Deborah

I’ve been thinking all day long about the Song of Deborah (from, primarily, Judges 5). It is one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry we have, dating back, in all likelihood, to the 1200s BCE, and I’d argue that it’s an episode from a longer epic, which we no longer have. I see three reasons in support of it originally being from a longer epic: first, the song itself mentions that it is to be sung in encampments at watering holes; second, it is highly repetitious at climactic or vivid moments; third, it has a quite abrupt ending.

First, though, here’s the text from the NRSV:

Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:

“When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly— bless the Lord!

“Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.

“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways. The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel. When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless the Lord.

“Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

“Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.

“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam. Then down marched the remnant of the noble; the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty. From Ephraim they set out into the valley, following you, Benjamin, with your kin; from Machir marched down the commanders, and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal’s staff; the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed out at his heels. Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the piping for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings. Zebulun is a people that scorned death; Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.

“The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!

“Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

“Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they did not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

And the land had rest forty years.

(For a helpful commentary on this text, with an amended and reconstructed text of the song, see Thomas F. McDaniel’s The Song of Deborah: Poetry in Dialect.)

This text shows two features that make it undoubtedly very old. First, Yahweh is still a storm god who lives on Mount Sinai (“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.”). Second, Israel’s main occupation is still donkey caravaneering (“you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way”).

What strikes me most about this text, though, is that it’s meant to be sung in encampments, likely while on the caravan trail:

Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Given that this passage is meant to be sung for entertainment and to communicate an important historical victory, I think it’s plausible that this song is a scene from a longer epic, the rest of which we no longer have.

As further evidence that this song is part of an epic, a poem meant to be sung for entertainment, note the repetition it shows in its phrasing (beyond the normal parallelism in Hebrew poetry):

Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds. . . .

[Jael] put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. . . .

Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

This repetition is a means of adding emphasis when singing the poem at the watering holes and of making the scenes more vivid and memorable (cf. the similar use of repetition in the Iliad), and is well suited for recounting Israel’s historic exploits at a wadi on the caravan trail.

My final observation in support of an original epic setting for this song is the abrupt ending:

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

The last tag is, pretty obviously, the moral of the song within the framework of Judges 4-5. The episode of Sisera’s mother and her slaves, though, begs to be drawn to a close. We’d expect a scene where she discovers the death of her slaves and mourns her terrible misfortune, which would give the Israelite storyteller and audience even more opportunity to gloat over the death of Sisera. As it stands, though, the song is jarringly disjointed between the last episode and the moralizing tag, which argues strongly in favor of the Song of Deborah being one section of a longer epic.

Thus, in conclusion, I think that the Song of Deborah is a single episode, drawn from a longer epic. I see three factors in support of this conclusion. First, the song says quite clearly that it is to be sung around watering holes on the caravan trail, likely for entertainment, as an epic would be. Second, the language is full of parallelism and is highly repetitious and vivid at climactic points, like in other epics. Finally, the ending of this song is abrupt and disjointed, which supports the conclusion that the song comes from a longer work.

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