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The Book of Isaiah and the Unintended History of Israel, Part 2

August 20, 2013

(Part 1)

The Book of Isaiah has a a noticeable structural problem, one that led the Bible critics to conclude that it is actually a composite work spanning centuries of Jewish History. I believe that Hazal were well aware of the problem, but I also believe that their full understanding of why the book is that way and what it means is not well known at all.

The first 35 chapters of the book seem to mostly be about the forthcoming demise of the first Jewish commonwealth interspersed with what we would term messianic, optimistic prophesies, most notably Isaiah 2:1-4, 9:5-6 (“For a child is born unto us”), chapters 16, 25, and 26, and chapters 11 and 12, which were fittingly chosen as the reading for Israeli Independence Day. Then, chapters 36-39 are nearly verbatim taken from the Book of Kings II and describe Isaiah’s interaction with the righteous King Hezekiah. If one were to read through these chapters as one book, one would see that Isaiah feared and warned that the retribution visited upon the northern Kingdom of Israel would also come upon Judah, but he also believed that a messiah would arise, one who would set things right, and that he may have even felt that Hezekiah was to be the messiah, but eventually Isaiah conceded that Hezekiah had not heralded the begining of the utopian era. Rather, he had been found lacking, and he and his descendants and his kingdom would eventually be led off to Babylon in captivity. Because Chapters 40 and on do not mention Isaiah himself by name, and because they describe the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest and the subsequent return to Zion, many concluded that those chapters were the works of two, or maybe even more, authors, authors not related to the Isaiah of Kings.

Hazal apparently felt that indeed, Hezekiah was the first man in history to perhaps have been able to fit the role of the messiah. I say first because all of the preceding kings lived before there was any need for the Messiah, as the Temple still stood and the tribes of Israel still lived in their ancestral lands. It was only during Hezekiah’s lifetime that the Northern Kingdom was destroyed and its inhabitants were exiled that there was a need for a redeemer.

Sanhedrin 94a, Soncino translation:

“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.”  R. Tanhum said: Bar Kappara expounded in Sepphoris, Why is every mem in the middle of a word open, whilst this is closed? (i.e., a mem sofit)  — The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah as the Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog,  whereupon the Attribute of Justice  said before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! If Thou didst not make David the Messiah, who uttered so many hymns and psalms before Thee, wilt Thou appoint Hezekiah as such, who did not hymn Thee in spite of all these miracles which Thou wroughtest for him?’ Therefore it [sc. the mem] was closed.  Straightway the earth exclaimed: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Let me utter song before Thee instead of this righteous man [Hezekiah], and make him the Messiah.’ So it broke into song before Him, as it is written, From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous.  Then the Prince of the Universe  said to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! It [the earth] hath fulfilled Thy desire [for songs of praise] on behalf of this righteous man.’  But a heavenly Voice cried out, ‘It is my secret, it is my secret.’  To which the prophet rejoined, ‘Woe is me, woe is me:  how long [must we wait]?’ The heavenly Voice [again] cried out, ‘The treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously: which Raba — others say, R. Isaac — interpreted: until there come spoilers, and spoilers of the spoilers.

That is, Hezekiah, the only king to live up to the standard set by his forebear David and the one to finally undo the critical and enshrined sins that commenced during Solomon’s reign (II Kings 18:1-7), was supposed to have been the messiah foretold by Isaiah, but his failure to properly praise G-d for the deliverance from the Assyrian hordes ruined his candidacy. Perhaps this lesson was well taken by the Jews the following few centuries, when they did mark their deliverance from destruction with days of praise and thanksgiving, and even established those days for eternity. Because of this failure, Isaiah then told Hezekiah about the impending Babylonian exile, but concluded his book with his greatest and most expansive description of the comforting of Zionism, which itself was to have taken place when the Jews were given the opportunity to return to Israel and charged with the rebuilding of the Temple by King Cyrus of Persia.

This is just one of many examples of history not going as planned, and like in our days, due to the Jewish people’s failure to recognize and appreciate the divine forces at work.

(Part 3)

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