One of the reasons that the book of Isaiah is difficult to understand, aside from its massive size, is that it becomes more abstract as it progresses. The character named Isaiah son of Amoz is mentioned in 1:1, 2:1, speaks in the first-person in chapters 6 and 8, and appears sporadically in chapters 7-39, but he disappears altogether for the remaining twenty-seven chapters. Other named characters appear in the first half of the book, such as kings Ahaz, Sennacherib, and Hezekiah, and Isaiah’s two sons, Shearjashub and Mahershalalhashbaz, along with the unnamed female prophet with whom Isaiah produces at least the second of these two sons. There are also concrete places in and around Jerusalem where some events depicted in Isaiah 1-39 take place.
Beginning in Isaiah 40, however, these handles by which we may take hold of the text fade away and we are lost in pure poetry. The only named character mentioned by name is King Cyrus of Persia (45:1). Jerusalem and Zion appear in the text, but they are not settings for discernible narrative events. The most significant character in the second half of the book is the unnamed “servant of YHWH.”
Historical approaches can identify layers of composition in the book of Isaiah, assigning portions to various time periods:
Eighth century – most of 6-39
Sixth century – 13-14, 34-35, 40-55
Fifth century – 1-5, 24-27, 56-66
This may explain why the parts of Isaiah look the way they do, but not why the whole book looks the way it does. The older historical notion of three somewhat independent parts – 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66 – with each subsequent part added on the end like an additional boxcar on a train is too crude. The book of Isaiah developed in stages, but each stage reshaped the whole, adding to the beginning, middle, and end. Nobody knows whether the large complex in Isaiah 40-55 was written independently and later attached to an existing Isaiah tradition, or written deliberately as an extension to that tradition. I lean toward the latter as an explanation for its internal anonymity, but this is not a definitive argument.
The final form of the scroll of Isaiah presents itself as “the vision” of the eighth century prophet named Isaiah, but he is disembodied in the second half of the book, a feature which allows us to view the servant as an extension of Isaiah the literary character. One of the most important features of all the prophetic literature is the ways in which the lives of the prophetic characters become entangled with their proclamations. The Isaiah character of the first half of the book may be the most limited example in this regard. The symbolic naming of his children in 7-8 and his imitation of a prisoner of war in 20:1-6 are the clearest examples. The suffering of his literary extension, the Servant, in 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12, amplifies this theme. The suffering of the prophetic characters, which becomes more clear in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is the primary means by which the Persian/Restoration era prophetic scrolls can subvert the easy equations of divine retribution that emerge from an isolated reading of some of the judgment oracles embedded within them.
I will spend several posts unpacking that last sentence over the next few weeks.