Isaiah (1)


The book of Isaiah is divided into three parts according to its editorial stages, which represent different theological ideas. This post deals with the first Isaiah.
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The Tripartite Division and the Problem of the Authorship (1)

Have you ever heard of the terms, such as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah) and Third Isaiah (or Trito-Isaiah)? These are quite common terms for Hebrew Bible scholars but, I guess, not for most lay Christians. If you have a good sense of intuition, you would know that these words have something to do with the author of the book of Isaiah. If you have a little better sense of intuition, then you may even notice that these words suggest that the historical Isaiah is not the only one who is responsible for the composition of the book of Isaiah.

Yes! The book of Isaiah is not a document that the historical Isaiah wrote from cover to cover according exactly to the dictation of God. What then is the evidence? Let’s take a look at some examples.

The book of Isaiah can be divided into three major sections: 1 Isaiah (1-12, 13-23, 28-33, 36-39), 2 Isaiah(34-35, 40-55), 3 Isaiah(24-27, 56-66). Scholars in the past used to consider 1 Isaiah to be chs. 1-39, but these days, for some scholars, 24-27 and 34-35 are regarded as 3 and 2 Isaiah, respectively. 

Main contents of 1 Isaiah are the sins of Israel and God’s judgment. Its geographical backdrop is Jerusalem, and the nation that, as we are told, God uses to punish Judah is the Neo-Assyrian Empire (7:17-25). The contents fit very well with Isaiah’s historical circumstances, the mid 8th century BCE, in which Assyria formidably controlled the Near East and even devastated the northern kingdom of Israel.

Here, in order to understand the claim that the historical Isaiah is not the one who is responsible for the composition of the final form of the book of Isaiah, one thing we must pay attention to is that 1 Isaiah didn’t need to worry about “the Babylonian destruction of Judah.” If God had told Isaiah to warn about the fall of Judah, he should have prophesied more fervently about the Babylonian destruction of the Jerusalem temple since Babylon, not Assyria, destroyed Judah in 587 BCE. 

But Isaiah had lived in the prime time of the Assyrian Empire, not Babylon. Isaiah didn’t worry about the Babylonian Empire, which, in fact, was subjugated by the Assyrian Empire in the time of Isaiah. So the “judgment” that 1 Isaiah talks about was not the “fall” of Judah, but rather, it was just an “infliction” imposed by Assyria. Though the infliction might have been cruel enough for Judahites, it still was not the “fall” of Judah. 

Some enthusiastic Bible readers would say that Is 39 actually foretold that some descendants of Hezekiah would be deported to Babylon. But this prophecy was supposed to criticize Hezekiah’s thoughtless behavior–he showed all his treasure, storehouse, and his entire armory to the envoys who brought Hezekiah a gift from Babylon. 

So this prophecy of deportation was not about the complete destruction of Judah. Hezekiah and Isaiah himself do not seem to be aware of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and accordingly not so serious about this prophecy of deportation given to Hezekiah.

Then what is the problem? There is nothing strange about the contents of Isaiah if you read 1 Isaiah only. There is no reason that Isaiah of the 8th century BCE should know anything about the Babylonian destruction of Judah that happened in the 6th century BCE. But problems, especially concerning the authorship of the book, emerge when you read the whole book altogether.

To be continued…(See Isaiah (2))

3 thoughts on “Isaiah (1)”

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