Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Temple Themes in Isaiah 2 (pt 1)

Isaiah 2 (part 1)
Having set the stage with the condemnation of apostate Judah, and Yahweh’s rejection of the temple in chapter 1, Isaiah proceeds to describe Yahweh’s promised reconciliation with Judah, and restoration of Yahweh’s presence to his temple (2:2-4, 4:2-6).  I’ll discuss these sections later.  First, however, we need to examine the ways in which the temple apostasy manifests itself in Isaiah 2.   
In addition to his concern for social injustice and wickedness in Judah, Isaiah emphasizes three temple-related activities which contribute to Yahweh’s rejection of the temple (cf. 8:16-22; 2 Ki. 16:3-4, 10-16; 2 Ch. 28:2-4, 23-25).  First is the veneration of idols in the temple (2:8), in explicit violation of the Mosaic Law (Ex 20:4, Dt 4:14).  (This theme is amplified in 44:6-20.)  Isaiah prophesies that these idols--whether of Yahweh or of foreign gods is not clear--will eventually be cast away as impotent as against the coming disasters (2:18, 20).  Isaiah emphasizes the difference between Yahweh’s ideal and dismal Judean reality with the refrain, “Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day” (2:11b, 17b), meaning the idols that had been worshiped in the temple will ultimately be cast down and rejected (2:20), and Yahweh alone will be exalted and worshipped.
Isaiah also makes reference to cultic practices and practitioners whose activities profane the temple.  Isaiah condemns Judah for consulting “soothsayers” (‘anan), who practiced prognostication (2:6; Ezek 13:9), rather than heeding authentic prophets like Isaiah.  Such practices are expressly forbidden by Yahweh (Dt 18:10, 14; Lev 19:26; 2 Kgs 21:6, describing Manasseh, son of Hezekiah).  Assuming this practice is an allusion to the types of things that went on the days of Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, in the decades following the death of Isaiah, it is likely that these soothsayers were operating within the temple (2 Kgs 21, esp 21:6).  
Finally, there is the problem of worship in sacred groves, perhaps associated with the groves of the Canaanite goddess Asherah (2 Kgs 23:4).  
Those who forsake [the worship of] Yahweh shall perish
For they shall be ashamed of the oaks they desired
And you shall blush for the gardens you have chosen (1:28-29)
Here the point seems to be that Judah has forsaken the licit worship of Yahweh in the temple, choosing instead to worship sacred oaks in sacred gardens, in violation of the proscription in Dt 16:21: “You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God.”  Do the oak and grove the people desired refer to garden precincts created within the temple, or alternate worship at gardens in high places?  In either event, it alludes to the widespread Near Eastern practice of worshipping in sacred groves and gardens in temple precincts.  
Thus, according to Isaiah, Yahweh’s rejection of the temple is based not only on Judean social injustice as described in detail throughout his book, but because of illicit practices and rituals within the temple.  Isaiah’s call for the purification of temple cult should be seen in the context of the apostate temple practices of Isaiah’s contemporary king Ahaz {732-715 BCE} (2 Ki. 16:3-4, 10-16; 2 Ch. 28:2-4, 23-25), and the important temple reforms undertaken by Ahaz’s son--and Isaiah’s disciple--Hezekiah {715-687 BCE} (2 Chr 29-30; 2 Kgs 18).  
It is interesting to note that Ahaz’s full name (as identifiable by Assyrian inscriptions, ANET 282) is Yeho-‘ahaz, meaning “Yahweh has grasped [his hand as a token of the covenant of kingship].”  Isaiah 2:6b condemns Judah because they “clasp hands with the children of foreigners” (KJV garbles “clasp hands” as “please themselves”).  This is probably an allusion to Ahaz becoming a vassal--by the ritual clasping the hand--of Tiglathpileser of Assyria (2 Kgs 16:7-9), and adopting in the process some Assyrian/Aramean temple practices (2 Kgs 16:10-11).  Thus Ahaz, whose hand Yahweh had grasped in royal covenant, refused to trust in Yahweh’s covenant (Isa 7:10-12), choosing instead “grasp the hand” of the king of Assyria.  

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful stuff. As an Arabic linguist, I often read the Hebrew OT and find things that sound similar. I have often wondered if the Ahaz was related to the Arabic root "to take" and indeed, it is. This play on words makes the chapter come alive in a very real way.