The Interpretation of Isaiah 56:1-9: Comfort or Criticism?

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Isaiah 56:1-8 is described as a promise of salvation,1 an exhortation contain- ing a prophetic Torah,2 or a prophetic oracle that introduces a new cultic norm.3 Its origin is to be found in the cultic context of the temple, in which the admission of foreigners and eunuchs was discussed in view of the regulations from the Torah, esp. Deut 23:3-9.4 On the other hand, the following passage, Isa 56:9-57:13, is classified as a "prophetic announcement of impending judgment," a "prophetic liturgy with threats," or "a chain of accusations."5 These two interpretations have led to the almost universally accepted view that Isa 56: 1 -8 and 56:9-57: 1 3 are not (or hardly) related to each other and that their present juxtaposition is attributable only to a redactor/writer.6

More recent studies have demonstrated, however, that both Isa 56:1-8 and 56:9-57:13 are closely related to Deutero-Isaiah and especially to ch. 55.7 The theme of the "Servant of YHWH," for example, which has such a crucial position in Deutero-Isaiah, is continued in Trito-Isaiah as the "servants of YHWH" (56:6; 63:17; 65:8-9, 13-15; 66:14).8 Similarly, the concept of the "mountain of YHWH" is elaborated in Trito-Isaiah (56:7; 57:13; 65:11, 25; 66:20), but in this case the theme is adapted from Proto-Isaiah ch. 11; it does not occur in Deutero-Isaiah.9 However, because of the strong emphasis on the proclamation of "salvation," which seems to be in contrast to the following unit (Isa 56:9-57:13), Isa 56:1-8 is still considered to be more or less independent from the next pericope.10

This supposition of a gap between the two pericopes is strengthened by the contents of the first verse of the second pericope, Isa 56:9.11 The verse is considered to be a negative saying, forming the introduction to the following oracle on the leaders of Israel as a kind of sarcastic prelude. Yet the delimitation of sense units in the textual tradition of the book of Isaiah suggests a different interpretation of this verse. If in the ancient manuscripts a pause was read at the end of Trito-Isaiah's first pericope, it is read after v. 9 instead of before, thus reading v. 9 together with the preceding verses and not with the following verses.12 What do such readings suggest regarding the interpretation of the text and what is the implication of it for our exegesis? If the position of the break between the first pericope and the second in TritoIsaiah moves back, this may have consequences for its interpretation. Is the supposed gap between the first and the second pericope so deep indeed, as is usually assumed? Or is mere much more continuity between the two passages that was formerly overlooked? And if there is indeed some continuity between the two passages, is Isa 56:1-8(9) in that case a promise of salvation, or is it a polemical and critical text in line with the following passage? These questions will be the main topic of this article. First, I will briefly discuss the delimitation of the pericope in the light of the ancient witnesses. Subsequently I will explore the main message of this first pericope in Trito-Isaiah, which then will be studied from the perspective of its literary context. This will be followed by a discussion of some moments of the Wirkungsgeschichte of the text, reflecting already some aspects of my proposed interpretation of the text. Finally I will formulate some conclusions.

I. ISAIAH 56:9: INTRODUCTION OR CONCLUSION?

Isaiah 56:8-9 reads as follows:

8a Word of the Lord YHWH,

8b gathering the outcast of Israel:

8c "I will gather to him still more13 beyond those already gathered.

9a All beasts of the field come to eat,

9b all beasts of the forest."

In every recent translation of the Hebrew Bible the first pericope of TritoIsaiah is considered to be 56:l-8.14 The following verse, Isa 56:9, is considered to be like an anacrusis to 56:10-13, introducing the animals coming to devour in the land, where the watchers neglect their task. …