The Book of Isaiah
- J. Blake CoueyJ. Blake CoueyGustavus Adolphus College
The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century bce Judahite prophet. As depicted in chapters 1–39, Isaiah declared that Yhwh intended to punish Judah for social and cultic infractions; at the same time, he expressed support for the Davidic monarchy and proclaimed that Jerusalem would not be conquered by the Assyrians. Chapters 40–55 are addressed to a later audience following the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 bce. These texts offer reassurance that Jerusalem will be restored and its exiled citizens will return. The final chapters, 56–66, reflect growing disillusionment and conflict in Judah under Persian rule, and the book ends by describing Yhwh’s eschatological destruction of the wicked and vindication of a righteous remnant. The book grew and developed over a period of four to five centuries. Despite its sometimes conflicting perspectives, it is broadly unified by its focus on the fate of Jerusalem, and later editors worked to impose some coherence upon its varied content, as seen by the repeated thematic echoes in Isaiah 1 and 65–66.
Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book.
The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.