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ClassicsOnline Home » OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 15: The Faith Makers IV: Isaiah
The Spoken Word Set 15 Isaiah
The Spoken Word and the Old Testament recordings
Those familiar with the first nine sets of The Spoken Word, presenting the New Testament writings, will be familiar also with the approach adopted. The scriptural books have been ordered in the general order of their composition according to the best of current knowledge. Although with respect to the New Testament there are areas of disagreement among scholars, there is a broad general consensus about the order of these writings.
In presenting the Old Testament scriptures, The Spoken Word adopts the same broad approach. Here, however, there is much less agreement among scholars as to the order of these books and there is a cavernous lack of clear information with which to work. Furthermore, many of the books are composed of elements originating centuries apart.
So why make the attempt to re-order the Old Testament scriptures at all? I am confident that the The Spoken Word approach answers that question simply through the experience that emerges from engagement with it. To witness the way in which these scriptural writings unfold over a period of centuries, from the late seventh century BC to the first century BC, is to experience the impact of these writings in a wholly new and illuminating way. The Old Testament comes to life in a manner hitherto unimaginable. The traditional canonical order will always stand as the touchstone, and over the years new scholarship will affect our judgement regarding the order of composition, but what happens when we see the writings unfold though time is that we get a new sense of the story of our faith, a sense that speaks powerfully to a living faith in our own time.
The first writing that was, centuries later, to form part of the Hebrew canon, came from the prophet Jeremiah as recorded by his scribe, Baruch. Jeremiah’s prophecies date from the last two decades of the seventh century BC and the first two decades of the sixth century. His contemporaries in Jerusalem were Nahum and Habakkuk, and his sixth century contemporary, living in Babylon, was Ezekiel. It is clear that, for these prophets, no other faith-related documents existed, nor had the ‘history’ of the Hebrew people, from the patriarchs to the kings, been developed except in a rudimentary form.
The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Obadiah and Isaiah all lived and made their prophetic statements during the years of exile in Babylon in the sixth century, although they projected their words back into the past for cultural reasons. We do not know in what order they appeared on the exilic scene so the order adopted in The Spoken Word is somewhat arbitrary. The probability is that they lived contemporaneously over the last years of the Babylonian empire and, in the case of Isaiah especially, on into the Persian empire, right through to the return to Palestine. The approach adopted here for Isaiah is that one individual lay behind all three ‘periods’ of Isaiah’s writing, his style and content changing in response to the radical transformation taking place all around him over a period of around 20 years.
These prophet writings have been arranged in The Spoken Word as The Faith Makers, as it is in these books that, over a period of a century, we witness the emergence and maturation of the distinctive Hebrew faith. The recordings of these prophetic books cover sets 12 to 15 of The Spoken Word. The text of these prophets, with introductions and companion notes, will shortly be published as The Faith Makers, the first of a series called The Testament Companion. (See www.genesis.net.nz for updated information on these publications)
Simultaneously with the emergence of the prophetic writings, there developed in the years of exile a schematic story of the Hebrew people from the patriarchs to the fall of Jerusalem. It is unlikely that theses stories were written down even by the end of the exile, but the general structure and content had been shaped by the time of the return to Palestine. This process of developing the story of the Hebrew people continued after the return, with the concept of the written law developing over the subsequent two centuries. All these elements were woven together in the story contained in the books from Genesis through eventually to the Maccabees. The Spoken Word sets from 16 onwards (not recorded at the time of these notes) encompass these books under the title, The Myth Makers. These recordings, too, will be supplemented by a companion book of the same title in the series, The Testament Companion.
The final group of writings as recorded in The Spoken Word are the wisdom books. The oldest stratum of the wisdom literature is, like the prophets, embedded in the Babylonian exile and is, in fact, an adaptation of Babylonian wisdom literature. The latest of these writings came into being not long before the time of Jesus. The Spoken Word gathers these together under the generic title, The Insight Makers and these too will have an accompanying book of text and comment.
In making the recordings of The Spoken Word, I have endeavoured to treat the texts not as ‘sacred scripture’ to be solemnly intoned, but as vigorous outpourings of the human spirit in engagement with God, faith and the state of the people among whom the writers lived. The prophets wrote passionately and their writings are spoken in these recordings as I imagine they may have been uttered originally (allowing, of course, for differences in both language and culture). As a storyteller myself, I endeavour to tell the many and wonderful stories in the scriptures as if they were fresh from the first tellers‘ minds. This too, as with the New Testament recordings, is central to the objective behind The Spoken Word experience.
The book of Isaiah
There is no question that Isaiah is the most popular and widely read of the prophetic books both in the liturgy and in personal pursuit. With Jeremiah and Ezekiel, this book is the third mountain peak of the prophetic scriptures.
For the last century or more, it has been the conventional thinking, accepted almost with the status of undisputed fact, that the book of Isaiah comprises the writings of three separate individuals, widely spaced in time and circumstance.
The “first” Isaiah, whose writings cover chapters 1 to 39, was presumed to have lived in the late eighth century in Jerusalem, the figure described in the second book of Kings from chapter 18. His ministry followed the fall of the Samaria and encompassed a challenge by the king of Assyria who temporarily threatened Jerusalem. Isaiah challenged the corruption of the nation and predicted its downfall resulting from the corruption. His principal challenge was to the practice of worshipping multiple gods.
The “second” Isaiah, whose writings are found in chapters 40 to 55, clearly lived during the concluding era of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon and looked towards the return of the people to Palestine, a return proclaimed as the “new exodus” paralleling the escape from Egypt. His vision and language are of a different order from that of the “first” Isaiah. Here we have a transcendent God, creator of heaven and earth, so dominant over all the other gods as to reduce them to nothingness. This God will support the people as they return to Palestine.
The “third” Isaiah appears to be located in Jerusalem after the return, and once again there is a significant difference in concept and language that distinguishes his writings from that of the “second” Isaiah. This “third” Isaiah is confronting disillusionment and corruption, as well as religious developments to which he objects. His vision contains some of the most inspirational passages of scripture.
For the general reader, there is nothing wrong in sticking to be established convention that there are three “Isaiahs” and The Spoken Word recordings can be listened to out of this frame of reference. However, the power and impact of the words of this book can be enhanced significantly by abandoning the 3-person hypothesis and perceiving that these are the words of a single individual writing under the impact of disparate situations.
The primary challenge to the surface appearance of Isaiah “1” is that we know from archaeological evidence that Jerusalem did not exist as a city, but only as a small village, at the time of the eighth century so that the historical events described in Kings and Isaiah are most likely fictional. The most probable scenario is that Isaiah lived during the late exile, contemporaneous with “Amos”, “Hosea” and “Micah” and wrote in the same vein, projecting his words back a century and a half as the only way, in the cultural circumstances of this period in the exile, in which his words would be heeded. It was the writings of these”ancient” prophets, together with those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which were crucial in building a new faith among the exilic community.
The principal challenge all the prophets of this era faced was to move the people from their traditional polytheism, in which Yahweh was only one of the many gods they worshipped by way of various cults, to the worship of Yahweh alone and to recognise that this worship involved an ethical relationship with the community and especially by the community’s rulers. This is why the challenge to idolatry occupies such a dominant position in Isaiah 1. The theme established by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is reiterated: that judgement falls on people who do not listen, a judgement that fell upon Jerusalem when it was destroyed.
But then the political situation changed swiftly and dramatically when, in 539 BC, the Persians conquered Babylon and became the Hebrews’ new overlords. The Babylonians ruled by fear and terror, a policy that was to ensure their empire was short-lived. In contrast, the Persians ruled by good governance, tolerance and respect for local culture and leadership. This opened up the way for the exiles to return to Palestine.
We do not know precisely when the return took place, but it was most likely sometime around 530 BC. What is plain, though we don’t know the details, is that the decision to return was not easily arrived at and took many years to occur. It is probable indeed that the governors of Babylon fiercely resisted the loss of a substantial part of their labour force, while many in the Hebrew community were unwilling to return for a variety of reasons.
It is in this context that we read the words of Isaiah 2. The prophet had no need now to project himself as an ancient. The situation demanded a contemporary word, addressed unambiguously to the challenge, which was to encourage the people to return by giving them a mighty vision of God who would be their protector. Although it is impossible to be sure, I project that the later chapters of this section would have been spoken as encouragement during the long and dangerous journey back to Palestine, a journey full of trepidation as to what they would find on arrival.
This then brings us to Isaiah “three”, clearly coming from the period after the exiles’ arrival. The experience of the return was intensely disillusioning. Jerusalem was in ruins, unfortified, its inhabitants unwelcoming, still rooted in the old Hebrew religion and intensely opposed to the new faith of the exiles. Isaiah attempted to counter the disillusionment with inspirational vision. At the same time, there were developments in the re-established community that deeply troubled the prophet. In the first place, the new leadership, political and commercial, sought to return to the old unethical and exploitative ways of the past. At the same time, a new wave of religious development, deriving undoubtably from Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple in Ezekiel chapters 40 to 48, received in 573 BC, was endeavouring to supplant the prophetic faith with a cultic and ritualistic one, building a new temple, instituting new festivals and a sacrificial cult. Isaiah passionately opposed these religious developments. The book ends, then, with a fresh word of judgement on the city.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulder above other contemporary translations.
David Guthrie, 2010
Any gift that I may have that is expressed in these readings is just that – a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N. Thompson and to Dr Raymond Foster whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife, Barbara, and daughter, Ruth, have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but both gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time, recording, editing and making ready for broadcast and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and wellbeing on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the New and Old Testaments and then break up the recording into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz
David Guthrie, 2010
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