Isaiah 50-53

In 1979, a biblical scholar named John Eaton published a work entitled Festal Drama in Deutero-Isaiah. Eaton, following the work of Ivan Engnell and others, saw in the “Servant Songs” and other themes of chapters 40-55, 60-62 of Isaiah allusions to the themes of the Ancient Israelite New Year Festival (which I’ve so often mentioned on this blog). He argued that these passages formed a “prophetic re-modelling” of the pre-exilic temple rituals performed during the festival.  Essentially, these chapters apply the themes of the festival, which were repeated annually, to actual historical events.

In order for us to recognize these “festal” themes in the book of Isaiah, it is necessary to be familiar with the motifs that are associated with the hypothetical New Year festival. While I can’t go into them fully here, I will share a brief outline. The basic idea behind the festival is that it is a time for the celebration of the divine kingship of Yahweh, and includes a dramatic representation of Yahweh’s victory over the Chaotic Sea and/or Dragon, his ascension to his Temple and enthronement there, his judgment of the nations, and inauguration of his reign of peace as king over the whole earth. According to Eaton’s theory, the festival also included parallel rituals involving the Davidic king, which included his (mock) battle against evil nations (sometimes depicted as chaotic waters or terrible beasts), his suffering and (near) death at the hands of these enemies, his redemption/resurrection by God’s aid, his victory over all enemies, triumphal procession and enthronement.  These descriptions are based on scholars’ interpretations of the Psalms, with comparisons to what we know of the New Year/Enthronement festivals of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll provide here some of the further proposed details of the festival, as proposed by Eaton:

  • Pilgrimage/Procession — Israelite worshipers travel from the outlying regions (the wilderness) to Jerusalem and its temple to participate in the festival; they “ascend” up the holy way, the processional road that leads to the temple; they anticipate a time of rain and fertility after months of dry weather; this pilgrimage is ideally for all nations, who are now subordinate to Yahweh (Psalms: 84; 122 (cf. 29; 18:32; 47:10; 65:3; 76:11-13; 87; 96:8-9))
  • Cleansing/Atonement — As the pilgrims anticipated a close encounter with God at the festival, there was a need for purification and forgiveness of sins. Eaton argues that there likely took place rituals akin to the post-exilic Day of Atonement, and that these purifying rituals were likely led or even performed by the Davidic king.  (Psalms: 15; 24; 51; 65 (cf. Pss. 85:2-4; 102; 103; 130; Lev. 16))
  • Ritual Battle — A dramatic representation or retelling of the battle of Yahweh against the forces of Chaos (the Sea, Dragon, Leviathan, Rahab, etc.) was enacted; the rebellious gods and nations are subdued; Yahweh is triumphant and his victory is acclaimed by all. (Psalms: 29; 46; 48; 68; 74; 76; 82; 89; 93; 95; 96; 97 (cf. Pss. 2; 110))
  • Victorious Procession/Ascension — Yahweh’s victory is celebrated by a glorious procession where He and his followers (his hosts) approach the temple grounds from the East (from Mt. of Olives/Kidron?) and ascend up the mount via the holy way to the temple grounds; there is much music and dancing; the procession is preceded by messengers who bring the good news; the procession is imagined as an ascent to heaven. (Psalms: 24, 68, 47 (cf. Pss. 18; 29; 65; 114; Ex. 15; Josh. 2-6; Isa. 35; 57; 62; Ezek. 8; 10; 11; 43; 2 Sam. 15-20; Zech. 14))
  • Enthronement of Yahweh — After his ascension, Yahweh is enthroned in radiant glory above the heavenly ocean in his Temple on Mt. Zion; His glory and holiness shine out; His kingship is acclaimed with shouts, clapping, trumpets, strings, psalms of praise, and cries of “Yahweh has become King!” (Psalms: 9; 29; 93; 96-99)
  • Yahweh’s Speech — Reminiscent of the events of the Sinai narrative, Yahweh speaks to his people from Mount Zion through a prophetic minister as their Covenant-Lord; He reveals words of promise and commandment, as well as warnings against disobedience, to his people as part of the renewal of their covenant with Him. (Psalms: 50, 81, 85, 95)
  • Judgment — Yahweh’s throne is a judgment-seat, from which he arraigns, judges, and sentences rebellious gods, kings/nations, and sinners. At the festival, a judgment scene was imagined: The judgment-seat is placed, an assembly gathers, complaints of the oppressed are heard, accusations are made, and the guilty are punished. (Psalms: 9; 75; 76; 82; 96-99 (cf. Pss. 8; 10; 13; 50; 58; 94; 149))
  • Creation/Re-Creation — Yahweh’s primeval deeds were relived during the festival: (as depicted in Ps. 74) the conquering and cleaving of the water-monsters, the provision of sweet-water sources, the division of day and night, creation of the sources of light, of the land, ordering of seasons; Yahweh’s words put Creation in order, his voice regulates the elements; he numbers the stars, commands the storm, and brings rain. Yahweh’s festal advent brings renewal, restoration, and rebirth. Both worshippers and the king sing a “new song” in response to this renewal of Yahweh’s salvation. (Psalms: 29; 65; 74; 93; 96; 98; 104; 147 (cf. Pss. 33; 85; 126-28; 149))
  • Renewal/Repair of the City and Temple — The city of Zion and its Temple are also made new; in some sense, there is a “building up” of the walls and city and a restoration of the bars and gates as part of the rituals of atonement and festal concept of renewal; Yahweh restores/rebuilds Zion and the Temple; there was likely a rite which involved a survey of the city’s new impregnable state by a procession of worshippers around the city walls. (Psalms: 48; 51; 102; 147)
  • Zion as Mother, Wife, and Queen — Zion, Yahweh’s holy city and mountain, was loved by both festal worshippers and Yahweh; Zion was mother to the people of Israel, wife to Yahweh, and Queen; She is the “Perfection of beauty” and the “Joy of the whole earth”; Yahweh’s coming during the festival as King to his dazzling bride may be an echo of the “sacred marriage” aspect of some other ANE New Year festivals (e.g., in Sumeria). (Psalms: 46; 48; 65; 84; 87; 122; 132; 147; 149 (cf. Ps. 2; 9; 50; 110; Isa. 62:4–5))

The above motifs are described by Eaton as part of the celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. He also argues, as I mentioned, that there were parallel (if not identical) rites that celebrated the enthronement of the Davidic monarch. As they are thought to be quite similar, I will only share here some of the details Eaton includes for the dramatized battle against evil that Eaton envisions for the king, especially because it applies so well to these chapters of Isaiah. Keep in mind that Eaton interprets the king to be the “servant” of the Lord and the “messiah” (anointed one), and that Isaiah is drawing on these royal ideals when describing his messianic “suffering servant.”

Drama of Davidic Kingship – Seen as an extension of the kingship of Yahweh, the office of the divinely-appointed Davidic king was also celebrated at the festival in similarly dramatic fashion, but likely in a distinct series of rites; the royal drama conceivably included the following:

1. The king faces (symbolically) rebellious princes, prepares for war, and warns them of Yahweh’s judgment (Pss. 75; 2; 20).

2. The king pleads for Yahweh to save him from the death-powers (144).

3. His enemies apparently have their hour of triumph; the king is bereft of his symbols of office and pleads for Yahweh’s help, stressing Yahweh’s fidelity to his promises (89) and righteous rule (101).

4. The king sinks deeper into the realm of the Underworld, depicting the horrors of death that envelop him; he describes the mockery of the man of Yahweh’s favor (22A).

5. He is rescued from this fate by Yahweh, who comes riding on a cherub to save him from Death (18), and is rehabilitated to be able to return to lead a festal celebration of Yahweh’s salvific power (22B); he testifies of the power of the Shepherd who proved stronger than the powers of the valley of death/Sheol (23; cf. 49:15). He had been brought to the lowest state, as a worm, no longer a man (22), but was now exalted to be head of the nations (18).

6. The king is able to conquer all his enemies by invoking the name of Yahweh (118).

(Psalms: 2; 21; 72; 101; 110; 132; 18; 20; 22; 23; 51; 75; 89; 91; 118; 121; 144 (cf. Pss. 9; 10; 40; 49; 71))1

With this, we can have some idea of what the people of Judah had come to believe and expect that their God and his Messiah would do for them.  Of course Eaton is working with the assumption that this festal theology is pre-exilic, so that these themes would have been repeated annually at the festival and thus be well-known to the people. Furthermore, the thought is that the people understood these rituals to represent what happened in the past (the Creation, Exodus, etc.) and also what he would yet do for his people. Yahweh shows his power to save in the past, present, and future.

Isaiah 50

So how do we apply all of this to these chapters of Isaiah? Keep the above in mind as you read and see what similar themes appear.  I haven’t gone into all the details proposed for the festival, and there is imagery in the text that was probably never part of it, so there will be things that we can’t place in that context.  While I won’t be able to analyze everything,  I will try to point out a few items of interest.

There is a lot of interplay in these chapters between the Lord and Zion and also the servant figure.  Zion, as mentioned above, is a personification of the city of Jerusalem as a woman, wife of Yahweh and mother of the people, Israel.  She is, more specifically, the mother of the king/messiah (who we can speculatively identify with the servant), who represents the people as a whole.

The discussion of the mother’s divorcement in the first verses of this chapter is continuing from previous chapters. There was a feeling in Israel that the Lord had “forsaken” and “forgotten” Zion (Isa. 49:14). In effect, it appeared that the Lord had “divorced” his wife, Zion (Isa. 50:1).  While this idea can be historically applied to the Exile and other trials Israel had to endure, the ancient festival perspective was likely based on the idea that during the months of drought, Yahweh must have abandoned his people. As Yahweh was the bringer of rain and fertility, during the summer it is possible that he was thought of as being distant, being asleep, or having somehow neglected or forsaken his people (some argue that He was thought to be dead and in the Underworld). We can see this motif in many of the psalms and in Isaiah, where the Lord is called upon to “Awake!” or when speaking of his “return” from somewhere (see, e.g.,  Isa. 51:9; Pss. 7:6; 35:23; 44:23; 59:5; 90:13; 68:1; etc.).

Here in Isa. 50, the Lord explains that he has not forgotten his people, but it has only appeared so because of their transgressions.  He has always had power to save them if they would only turn to him.  Compare verses 2 and 3, and better yet, Isa. 51:9–10, with Psalm 74:11–17:

11 Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom. 12 For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. 13 Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. 14 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. 15 Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers. 16 The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun. 17 Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter.

Note here the themes of the New Year festival, as described above: the primeval battle of Yahweh against the sea, dragons, and leviathan; the power over the waters; the creation of the heavens and earth and the setting of the orders and seasons. The great salvific wonders that God worked for Israel in the past are remembered. God has stayed his hand for a while and the people anxiously await the return of the divine intervention.

Verses 4-9 present a change of speaker, moving from the Lord speaking to the Servant. This section is one of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” that are interpreted by Christians to refer to Christ.  As Margaret Barker mentions in her Isaiah commentary for Eerdmans,2 unlike earlier Servant Songs, this one does not mention the Servant directly, but he is assumed to be the speaker.  Barker also notes that the suffering described here in verse 6 has been compared to the suffering of the king in the New Year festival, as outlined above. She makes specific mention of the Mesopotamian akitu festival rites in which the king was “dragged by the ears and struck on the face in front of the God Bel before being reinvested with his regalia…” She also points out that this motif is to be found in the Day of Atonement ritual of the scapegoat, where the goat for Azazel, as it was being sent forth into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the people, would be spitted upon and have its hair pulled as it passed through the crowd of worshipers (mishnah Yoma 6:4; Barnabas 7).

Isaiah 50:6 I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

Isaiah 51

Isaiah 51:3 recalls the festival motif of the coming of the Lord to bring rain and fertility to the dry lands. The festival took place in the Fall, the time of the harvest, when the rains came after months of drought. The expectation was that the desert areas would soon turn green and abundant fertility would be restored. Thus we see the promise here that “he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD”.  We can also see the eschatological expectation that when Jesus Christ returns, he will convert the world back to its paradisaical state.  See the themes of Re-Creation and Renewal above. See also v. 16 on this theme.

Verse 4-5 can be compared to the festal themes of Yahweh’s Speech and Judgment.

Verses 9-10 (see also v. 15), as I explained above, are reminiscent of the Ritual Battle of the festival in which Yahweh conquers the Waters of Chaos and its monsters.  This myth, although essentially describing events that took place before the Creation of the world (think: War in Heaven), was often historicized as the parting of the waters and victory over Egypt at the Exodus. That is likely why we get the line at the end of verse 10: “that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over”.

Verse 11 remembers the theme of the Pilgrimage in which the dispersed children of Israel return to Zion to worship and be blessed by the Lord (at the festival).

Isaiah 52

At the beginning of this chapter we again get the image of Zion, now being called to awaken and put on her beautiful garments. She has been freed from captivity and is now permitted to make preparations for the joyful celebration of the Lord’s coming. Again, this imagery personifies the city of Zion as the Bride of Yahweh, and she prepares herself for the festal celebrations, which likely included the idea of her marriage (covenant relationship) to the Lord. Verse 2 has some interesting images, and I couldn’t say exactly what is meant here, but the picture of one rising from the dust and then being asked to sit down also reminds me of the rituals of kingship. Some scholars have noted that this type of language is often used in connection with the elevation of a person to kingship — the idea that the person is abased to the level of dust (as if dead) and then exalted to a high throne.3 I’m speculating wildly here, but perhaps this is the idea that is being referred to in verse 2.  There is a certain parallel between the figure of Zion and that of the Servant, and so we see in verse 13: “Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.”

The famous verse 7 in which the messenger that brings good tidings to Zion is praised for his beautiful feet can be understood in light of the festival as well.  The Victorious Procession of Yahweh that comes from the Ritual Battle and up to the city from the East would have been preceded by messengers who proclaimed the arrival of their triumphant Redeemer. It is possible that the messenger was the king/messiah himself, coming to proclaim the good news of the salvific acts of God on behalf of Zion. Why his feet are beautiful, I’m not quite sure, but the people most certainly saw beauty in the message he brings in haste to the city.  The watchmen on the towering walls of the city, upon seeing the messenger, cry out to the people of the city, announcing the arrival of their King (v. 8). This is a time of great jubilation for the redeemed city (v. 9). The Lord has redeemed Zion from the powers of the wicked nations and has shown all the world that the God of Israel remembers and saves his people (v. 10). The cry of “Yahweh has become King” or “Yahweh reigneth” rings through the city (see Psalms 93; 97; 99).

Isaiah 53

According to Barker, Isa. 52:13 to 53:12 is the last of the four “Servant Songs” in this section of Isaiah.  This song, she notes, became the greatest prophecy for Christians of the death and exaltation of Jesus.4 It was also seen as a messianic prophecy in early Judaism, as the Targum of Isaiah reads “my Servant the Messiah” in 52:13. In the RSV, we read that the Servant “shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” Again, this idea is reminiscent of kingship language, and Barker reminds us that this is also similar to the description of the Lord in Isa. 6:1 and also of the Son of Man in the Gospel of John.5

In 52:14, we get the idea that the Servant surprises the kings of the nations because of his “marred” appearance (the NJB has “he was so inhumanly disfigured that he no longer looked like a man”). However, as Barker points out, the great Isaiah Scroll found at Qumran has a very slightly different Hebrew word in place of “marred” — mshty in place of msht – which provides a possible translation of “I have anointed him”. Barker takes the passage to mean that the Servant was anointed, and that this anointing caused a transformation of his appearance into something beyond normal humanity. She compares this imagery to the story of Enoch in 2 Enoch 22-24, where Enoch ascends to heaven and, standing before the heavenly throne, is anointed and transformed into a brilliant angelic being. While the “marred” description would seem to fit well with the idea of the “suffering servant”, the anointing of the Servant at this point fits the context of the Servant’s ascension/exaltation more perfectly.  The kings of the earth would truly be astonished at the glorious, shining appearance of the Servant after his anointing.  The “sprinkling” of the nations is a high priestly act, when the blood of the atonement was sprinkled upon the worshipers at the Day of Atonement rites, imparting to them purity and new life.6

The last part of 52:15 should be connected to the beginning of chapter 53.  Barker points out that the “arm” of verse 1 should likely be read as “seed” or “son”, as the words are very similar in Hebrew.  Thus, she argues, the revelation that was hidden from the kings (52:15), which astonished them so much, was a revelation of the seed/son of the Lord. Barker explains that the revelation of the Chosen One is a recurring theme in 1 Enoch. ((Ibid.)) Compare this to the revelation of the newly crowned king as the son of God in Psalm 2:7, an event which caused the kings of the nations to tremble with fear.

Starting in verse 3 we again see the “suffering” Servant motif, reminiscent of the suffering that the Davidic king symbolically was put through at the hands of the evil forces of the world.  The Messiah was expected to suffer on behalf of the nation — he bore the grief, diseases, and sins on behalf of the whole.  This suffering, which is so vividly depicted in many of the psalms (see, e.g., Pss. 18; 22; 40; 89; 118), served to heal (v. 5), justify (v. 11), and intercede (v. 12) for the people of Israel.

N.B. — In verse 5, the word translated in the KJV as “wounded” can also be rendered “pierced” and “bruised” is better translated as “crushed”.

Barker goes into a lot of interesting detail in her analysis of this chapter, but the main thrust of her conclusions is that the Servant being described here was likely originally “the royal high priest on the Day of Atonement, symbolically offering his own blood to cleanse and heal the land, bringing judgment on his enemies and rescuing his own people (cf. Deut. 32:43).7 The royal high priest (which in the First Temple was likely the king himself), offered himself up as a sacrifice — he allowed himself to be killed on behalf of the people, but was later resurrected, bringing new life to all the Creation. Of course the king/high priest didn’t actually die, but an animal was killed in his place, as a substitute.  This would have taken place during the rites of the New Year Festival.

An interesting aspect of Barker’s explanation is the idea that the Servant, the royal high priest, served to intercept and absorb the wrath of God that is released when the people break the covenant.  She cites as an example the story of Aaron “making atonement” to stave off the plague in Numbers 16.  The breaking of the covenant released the wrath of the Lord in the form of a plague.  Aaron stood between the dead and the living, made atonement, and the plague was stayed.  When the Servant is “made an offering for sin” (v. 10), Barker explains that he will be recognized as the royal son (the seed) in whom God is pleased, and his days will be prolonged.8

To understand all of this talk of the Servant in a narrative context, Barker recommends looking at 1 Enoch 46-50, which can be accessed here. Note that when you read this translation of the text, when “the righteous” is mentioned, as in 47:1, this would be better translated as “Righteous One” — it is the blood of the Righteous One that ascends to heaven. See also the relevant discussion by my PhD supervisor, Jim Davila, here.

  1. Adapted from Eaton, J. H. Festal Drama in Deutero-Isaiah. London: SPCK, 1979.
  2. In Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 553, accessed online here
  3. See, e.g., Brüeggemann, Walter, “From Dust to Kingship.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 84, no. 1 (1972): 1-18
  4. Barker, Eerdmans Commentary, 534
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 535, emphasis in original.
  8. Ibid.

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