Propagandist or inventor of monotheism?
Written on Tuesday 14 January 2003 for University of Cambridge, BA Theology Part IIA
© Ben Green 2003
Persian propagandist or visionary inventor of monotheism? Assess the career of Deutero-Isaiah.
Studying Deutero-Isaiah is inherently difficult because to make sense of a writing it is necessary to separate out the different threads of the writer's thoughts. However with a text like Deutero-Isaiah, where the writer has woven together a complex thread of ideas, so that, as many commentators have said, a quotation showing one aspect of Deutero-Isaiah's thought shows many others too.
What is Deutero-Isaiah? And who was he? Deutero-Isaiah (the text) has traditionally been the name given to Isaiah 40-55, as Isaiah was usually split up into three sections, 1-39, 40-55, 56-66. This view is simplistic, so that recent scholars have tended to include 60-62 in Deutero-Isaiah, as I will do in this essay. Snaith's study of Deutero-Isaiah contains a comprehensive chapter1 on the reasons for this inclusion, so I will not waste time by repeating what he has already said. Eaton also takes 60-62 as part of Deutero-Isaiah. As for the man, we know next to nothing about the writer of Deutero-Isaiah. It has long been accepted that he was an exilic writer, writing 40-55 between the release of Jehoiachin but before Cyrus conquered Babylon, and 60-62 once the restoration programme in Jerusalem was well under way. Williamson quotes SR Driver, who wrote of Deutero-Isaiah,
In the present prophecy, there is no prediction of exile: the exile is not announced as something still future; it is presupposed, and only the release from it is predicted. By analogy, therefore [with Jeremiah and Ezekiel], the author will have lived in the situation which he thus presupposes, and to which he continually alludes.2
So Deutero-Isaiah lived among the Exiles in Babylon, and probably knew the writings of Ezekiel, as that was written in Exile by that community. His primary focus was the people in exile and their return to Jerusalem, because of God's power over all things - people, history and especially idols.
The question assumes that Deutero-Isaiah was either a Persian propagandist or a visionary inventor of monotheism. Extremely rarely (if ever) are things polarised like this in biblical studies, so I will assess the evidence for both sides of the question and find out that Deutero-Isaiah was much closer to being a visionary inventor of monotheism that a Persian propagandist.
Was Deutero-Isaiah's focus on the return of the exito their homeland part of Persian propaganda? After all, it was the Persians who freed them and sent them back home. There is only one chapter which is explicitly about Cyrus, so I will begin there. It begins, "Thus says the LORD to the his anointed, to Cyrus.."3 The term 'anointed' or 'anointed one' was reserved for kings and certain prophets, but was never used of foreigners. Before Deutero-Isaiah, when foreigners were used by God it was to punish Israel - for example Nebuchadnezzar. Whenever God saved them, he did it himself or through the agency of an Israelite - for example Moses or David. The visionary idea here is that God would anoint a foreigner and then use him to save Israel from their punishment. Or is it?
Certainly God anoints a foreigner (45.1), but what exactly does Cyrus do himself? I have looked through the passage and the only time it says "he will..." is in v.13, "he shall build my city and set my exiles free". Everything else in the passage - especially defeating enemies, also creating a way through the mountains - is done by God for Cyrus, "for the sake of [his] servant Jacob, and Israel [his] chosen".4 God is empowering Cyrus not for the gain of the Persian Empire, but for his people, and that all may see what a powerful God he is. In fact, most of chapter 45 is not about Cyrus at all, but about God.5 God is saving Israel, not Cyrus - Cyrus is a mere puppet in God's plan and was chosen not because God needed his strength to defeat the Babylonians, but for the same reason God chose Israel: he chose them because he did! There was nothing noble about Cyrus or the Persians which makes them stand out so that God chooses them, as there was nothing noble about the Israelites (or Hebrews, back then), which made God choose them as his people. This is why there is very little emphasis on Cyrus in Deutero-Isaiah; his name is only mentioned once, at the beginning of the passage. As I said, Deutero-Isaiah is far more interested in God than anyone else!
If God has chosen Cyrus arbitrarily, will he use this opportunity to 'convert' Cyrus, to show him that he is God, as hinted at in 45.3? Up to this point, God's saving power was limited to the Israelites. If God is using this demonstration of his power to show the Persians who he is so that they might worship him, then Deutero-Isaiah is visionary for it contains universalism, which was hitherto unseen in Israelite thought.6
Universalism must develop alongside monotheism, for without monotheism you cannot have universalism. So before I talk about universalism I must establish that Deutero-Isaiah is indeed monotheistic. It won't take long!
Isaiah 40-55 contains some of the clearest monotheistic language in the Old Testament, along with Genesis 1 and various other passages (see 45.5-7 7). There are many unequivocal statements in Deutero-Isaiah of God's uniqueness and power, especially in comparison to idols, who do nothing. In chapter 46, God ridicules the idols of Babylon because they had to be carried away to a safe place when Cyrus was threatening to conquer Babylon - God carries Israel and saves her (46.4), he prophesies the future and it comes true (46.10-11). So Deutero-Isaiah is monotheist; I can now talk about universalism, then I will move on to look at other aspects of God in Deutero-Isaiah to decide whether or not he was a visionary.
Universalism, in Christian Theology, is the doctrine that all people can be saved, that salvation is not limited. As I said before, it develops alongside monotheism, but not at the same time. Monotheism comes first and one of the logical conclusions which comes out of that is universalism. So has Deutero-Isaiah progressed to universalism, as he has progressed to monotheism?
Some of the passages usually quoted in support of the thesis that he has progressed to universalism are the following: 42.6-7 8, 45.22-23 9, 49.6b 10. These three passages, taken together in the light of Christian Theology, certainly do seem to show strong support that Deutero-Isaiah is a universalistic book. However, closer inspection shows otherwise. I will go through the themes raised in each verse and show that they are not universalistic at all, but highly nationalistic.
The phrase "a light to the nations" can be highly misleading, and sometimes translated, "a light to the Gentiles". It is not this, and it does not mean this. The NRSV has translated it so that this confusion is harder to make. The "light" is not the light in the Christian sense of a light which people see and therefore believe, it is a light in the sense that people realise that they are wrong FULL STOP. This "light to the nations" is not an evangelising light, it is a light to show the Gentiles how wrong they are worshipping idols and that only the God of the Israelites exists and has power.11 The Gentiles will then and be subject to Israel, not because Israel is great of its own accord, but because their God is so powerful.12
In chapter 42, it talks of opening blind eyes and rescuing prisoners from the dungeons and darkness. Again Christian Theology interprets this as eyes that are spiritually blind, and imprisoned in darkness because they do not know who God is. This is partly true, but in Deutero-Isaiah it does not have the universalistic overtones - the blind and ones in darkness are not the Gentiles but the Israelites; 42.18-20 describes the servant (Israel13) as "deaf" and "blind". So, the "light to the nations" to "open the eyes that are blind" (42.6d and 42.7a) is a light both to show the Gentiles of their futile idol-worship, and to show Israelites God's word and bring them home. The imprisonment is literal in one sense - the exiles are imprisoned in Babylon, unable to return home14 - but could also be taken to mean that the Israelites need to be brought out of their self-imposed cells where they don't believe the word of God, and have forgotten his saving power.
The last phrase is "to the ends of the earth", another phrase used in Christian missions, because that is where the non-Christians are. However, in light of the above evidence that the other 'universalistic' phrases are actually highly exclusive15, it makes no sense that this refers to Gentiles - rather "the ends of the earth" are where the Israelites are!16 The light to bring all Israelites home must go to the ends of the earth in order to bring back all the Israelites. As I said earlier, this 'mission' is highly exclusive because it is only to the Israelites. Deutero-Isaiah is not interested in other nations coming to worship God, only in them recognising God's power and reacting accordingly by worshipping Israel.
For me, the last nail in the coffin of Deutero-Isaiah's universalism is chapters 60-62. As Driver wrote that Deutero-Isaiah was written during the Exile by an exile (then it was assumed that Deutero-Isaiah was simply 40-55), so we can say that 60-62 was written after the Exile by one living then. These three chapters are glorifying God because he has rescued the Israelites and Jerusalem is being restored; salvation has come, Jerusalem and Israel are restored. The "sons" and "daughters" of Jerusalem are returning (60.4), and the wealth of the nations is coming (60.5-7). The reason I am using these chapters is mainly for 60.12 and the verses like it; if nations do not serve Israel they will be "utterly laid waste". This is not the language of a universalist.
So far, I have established (I hope) that Deutero-Isaiah was a monotheist but a nationalistic not universalistic one, and that he was not simply a Persian propagandist. Lastly I turn to whether or not he was visionary, if what he was saying was new and exciting.
Up until now I have assumed that before the Exilic prophets, the Israelites were not monotheists. They believed in one National God for Israel who was better than the rest, but not that he was the only God. However that assumption is called into question by Eaton and various points that he raises in connection with the Festival of God. Before I move on to discuss his book, I will raise a few points first. During the Exile, the people in exile were pre-occupied with showing that God was with them. Ezekiel wrote to show that although he was a priest in Exile, God was still with him, showing him visions.17 If God wasn't tied up with the land of Israel, why did they feel the need to keep saying that he wasn't? The land was an important part of the covenant relationship between God and his people - they could tell whether they were pleasing to God by the state of the land. If God was pleased, the land was fertile. If not, the land was arid. This intimate relationship between God, the land and the people was extremely important to pre-exilic Israelites, and is the reason for the concerns of the exiles.
Eaton argues however (using pre-exilic Psalms18) that the Festal tradition contains most of the ideas (and more) used by Deutero-Isaiah. I will pick out the points he makes which are of most relevance to this essay. I will not use all the evidence which Eaton uses, but try and summarise his main ideas.
First I will look at the way God controls the elements (pp.17-18). Psalm 93 talks of God's mastery of the waters. Psalm 74.12-17 begins by talking of how God conquered the seas and the "dragons in the waters", and the Leviathan, and goes on to say how God created the day and night, summer and winter, and how he "fixed all the bounds of the earth". Psalm 147 talks of God as in control of everything, how he sets everything in place, "He covers the heavens with clouds". This acknowledgement of God as in control, especially of the seasons and the weather, was vital for the Festival. They praised God for his magnificence and kindness in providing for them.
The next point is slightly more controversial. Eaton claims that in the Festival, the work of God was praised as universal, for all peoples, and that it called all nations to come and praise God. He cites many Psalms in support of this, where they call "all the earth" or "everything that has breath" to praise the LORD. If his assumption that Psalm 47 is one of the earliest Psalms is correct, then it would indeed seem to support the idea that early Israel was monotheistic, and partly universalistic as well. It sets God up as king over "all the earth". I am not sure if it really says that the "nations" worship God, or if they are simply included in his kingdom however.19
Later on in his book, Eaton says that kingship was vitally important for the festival because God asserted his kingship over the nation(s) and set up a king (David/Solomon etc) to rule, but only as his servant. So in the Festival (p.116) the king was subjected to "a symbolic humiliation". This leads Eaton to suggest that the servant songs in Deutero-Isaiah are referring not to the Exiles in Babylon (see 13 above) but to a renewed Davidic king, after the line was broken during the Exile; in this way God would reassert his authority over Israel after the Exile, by reinstalling a Davidic king. The argument would be that the Davidic line had suffered because of the people's sins unnecessarily (Isaiah 52.13 - 53.12), and for no particular reason. Now, after the Exile, God has revealed his servant to the world and the world will be "startled"20, and show deference to him by shutting their mouths and not talking. It is possible that this is referring to Jehoiachin, who was released from prison in 561, and then the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in 538. However, I find Snaith's argument more satisfying, that the servant is all of the exiles, who are suffering needlessly for the sins of everyone else,
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his stripes we are healed. - Isaiah 53.5.
Eaton matches each part of Deutero-Isaiah to various aspects of the Festival of God on pages 92-95 of his book, begging the question, Was Deutero-Isaiah really visionary, or had he simply copied a form of worship used in the annual Festival of God? This leads to the conclusion that maybe he was a priest or had something to do with 'running' the Festival, and so recreated it for the exiles who could not take part in it any longer. I find this conclusion interesting, for it is certainly big on saying how great God is, as the Festival itself was.
Looking at this topic is extremely interesting. As with all biblical studies, we can never truly know the influences on the writers of the Bible, but we can make some educated comments on the books themselves, and hope that they lead to meaningful conclusions. As testimony to this, I have presented two very different views of Deutero-Isaiah, and indeed of pre-exilic Israelite thought. On the one hand there is Snaith, who argues that Deutero-Isaiah was a nationalist and that he advanced pre-exilic thought into clear monotheism. On the other hand there is Eaton, who argues that monotheism, universalism and ideas of God as Creator were present in pre-exilic thought, and that Deutero-Isaiah is essentially a summary of the worship rites and songs of the Festival of God.
I am wary of going down the road, at least as far as Eaton does, of saying that the earliest Psalms show examples of monotheism and universalism. All the Psalms assert that God is the greatest God - some that he is the only God, but mostly that he is the master of nature and that his glory is worthy of praise. The problem is that I am not sure whether or not the mastery over nature is confined to Israel, or if the earliest Psalms as stated by Eaton really do mean that God controls the weather everywhere.
What I am sure of is that Deutero-Isaiah needs a lot of interpretation before it can become universalistic; what we see in the chapters being studied is an attempt to draw together existing strands of Israelite thought, be it from prophets such as Ezekiel or from the rites and songs of the Festival of God. In drawing these strands together and using them in the way that he does, applying them to the situation he and the other exiles found themselves in, he creates a visionary book. Whereas many of the Psalms are ambiguous (do they mean one God for Israel or One God?), Deutero-Isaiah is unequivocal in his monotheistic statements. As for the purpose for his writing the songs of praise (for that is what they are), I like the idea that he was in some way recreating the Festival for the exiles, so that they could worship God in a meaningful way, emphasising as he does that God was with them and that they would one day return to Jerusalem.
1 Snaith, Isaiah 40-66, Chapter One, pp.139-146.
2 SR Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the OT, Edinburgh 1913, p.237, quoted in Williamson, The Book Called Isaiah, p.3.
3 Isaiah 45.1a.
4 Isaiah 45.4a.
5 It lists his attributes - he is the one and only, he is the Creator, he controls nature, he moves events to save his people.
6 See later section on the Festal Traditions before the Exile.
7 Isaiah 45.5-7: "I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe: I the LORD do all these things."
8 Isaiah 42.6-7: "I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."
9 Isaiah 45.22-23: "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.'"
10 Isaiah 46.9: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
11 It is the "signal to the peoples" in 49.22.
12 Isaiah 45.14 talks of how nations will "come over in chains and bow down to you". Is the 'you' Israel or Cyrus? 49.22-23 shows us in crystal clear language that it is Israel - "With their faces they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust off your feet." The 'you' in this passage is 'Zion's Children'.
13 In Snaith's study of Deutero-Isaiah he includes an excellent chapter on why the servant in Deutero-Isaiah is Israel, especially the 597BC exiles and NOT the people in Jerusalem. See chapter four, especially p.175. Here he cites the evidence that the post-exilic reformers were keen to show that the exiles (at first only the 597 exiles, then later extended to include all the exiles) were the true people of God, the true Israel, to the point where they denied even the existence of Israelites back home during the Exile.
14 Snaith, Isaiah 40-66, p.158.
15 The light which brings Israelites back home deliberately doesn't bring back Gentiles with it!
16 See Isaiah 42.6, "I have given you as a covenant to the people" - although my NRSV footnotes tell me that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain, Snaith argues that 'people' can hardly be people generally, for in 49.8 the same word is used and there it refers to Israel (p.158-159).
17 His vision of the chariot with wheels so that it can move in any direction is the Ark of the Covenant - God's presence - and it shows that God has left Jerusalem, and is now in Babylon with Ezekiel and the other exiles.
18 Eaton, Festal Drama, p.8. The main Psalms he quotes as pre-exilic (or post-exilic but referring to pre-exilic ideas) are 47, 93, 96-99, 95, 81... the list goes on. For a full list, see pp.8-9 of his book. He regards 29, 47 and 68 as the oldest texts (p.18).
19 Psalms 29 and 68 do not seem to support his argument however - they specifically talk of God as the God of Israel, fighting for Israel against the other nations (68), and subduing the waters (29), referring to "his people" - quite clearly referring to Israel.
20 Snaith says that the Hebrew would be more accurately rendered "rise up", or "stand up", so that there is the double showing of deference of the kings by them rising to their feet and then not talking - Snaith, Isaiah 40-66, pp.161-120.
Ackroyd, Peter R. Exile and Restoration. London: SCM, 1968.
Eaton, John. Festal Drama in Deutero-Isaiah. London: SPCK, 1979.
Snaith, Norman. 'Isaiah 40-66, A Study of the Teaching of the Second Isaiah and its Consequences' in Studies on the Second Part of the Book of Isaiah: A Supplement to Vetus Testamentum, Volume XIV. Leidin: EJ Brill, 1967.
Williamson, HGM. The Book Called Isaiah. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise stated, are taken from the NRSV Annotated Study Bible (ed. Howard Clark Lee), Cambridge: CUP 1999.