Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The "Root of Jesse" in Isaiah 11:10: Postexilic Judah, or Postexilic Davidic King?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The "Root of Jesse" in Isaiah 11:10: Postexilic Judah, or Postexilic Davidic King?

Article excerpt

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Many fascinating issues of interpretation surround Isaiah 11:10. It reads,


On that day, as for the root of Jesse who stands as a signal to the nations- him the nations will seek and his place of rest will be glorious.1

Perhaps the issue receiving the most attention is the proper understanding of the phrase "root of Jesse." Scholars have traditionally understood this expression to refer back to the descendant of Jesse spoken of in 11: 1.2 In this view, the "root of Jesse" refers to an individual human king from the line of David's father, and hence by virtue of its context to a future Davidic king.

This interpretation of Isa 11:10 may seem obvious, but this verse differs in some important ways from 11:1 (to which it refers). These differences have suggested to others that the king of 1 1 : 1 should not simply be equated with the root of 11:10. Isaiah 11:1 does not speak of a "roof of Jesse" (...), as does 11:10. Instead, it talks about a "branch from the stem of Jesse" (...) and a "shoot from his roots" (...). For some, this subtle difference is merely the result of carelessness on the part of the editor who is thought to have introduced v. 10. Thus, Hans Wildberger dismisses the difference saying, "the expander has no interest in a precise exposition, but rather an expansion . . . of Isaiah's expectations."3 For several recent scholars, however, such an explanation fails to satisfy.4 For them, die difference points to more than the multilayered quality of Isaiah 11: it indicates also die intention of the editor.5 These scholars reject a simple equation of the king in 1 1:1 with the root in 1 1:10. Instead, tiiey find signs of editorial development. In their view, long after exile had removed Israel's kingship, Isa 11:10 was added to reinterpret 11:1 as the postexilic community. Thus, 11:10 is an attempt to apply the old promise to a new day. The "root," for these scholars, is the community that survived the exile.

In this article I will examine the arguments for this recent shift in interpretation. I will argue that, despite the attractiveness of this newer position, the traditional understanding is more probable, so that the "root of Jesse" refers to a king rather than the postexilic community. After having reached this conclusion, it will be possible to explore briefly how the traditional understanding of this phrase in Isa 11:10 carries with it important implications for our understanding of the Davidic promise in Isaiah's final form, on the one hand, and our reconstructions of belief in this promise after the exile, on the other.

To begin with, it is important to view this recent interpretation of Isa 1 1:10 in the light of two broadly held scholarly positions. First, it is widely recognized, and is almost certain, mat Isa 11:10 is a late editorial comment on the chapter.6 This is clear not only because it begins with a phrase that elsewhere in Isaiah is a patently editorial device ("on that day," ...), but also because this verse joins the chapter's two otherwise unrelated oracles, one of a king in w. 1-9 and the other of a return of exiles in w. 11-16.7 (Note how v. 10 combines the "signal" [...] of v. 12 with the reference to the king in v. 1 .) We might also mention mat v. 10 goes beyond both oracles by introducing the new element of a positive role for the nations. The oracle about the king says nothing of the nations, and die oracle about die return paints them in a negative light: tiiey are the location from which God must gather the people (w. 11-12), and more negatively they are the enemies to be defeated (w. 14-16). By contrast, in 1 1:10 the nations "wül seek" the root of Jesse. Thus, Isa 11:10 looks very much like an editorial comment on, and join between, the two oracles. If this widely held view is correct, it would explain the rather odd imagery employed at this point in die text. As George B. Gray noted, "That a root should stand as a signal, or banner, is an extraordinary combination of figures. …

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