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No. 63: Passover and Exodus in Isaiah

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 63
July, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

The consensus of modern critical scholarship is that the book assigned to Isaiah was in fact composed by several different hands. "Deutero-Isaiah" supposedly begins with Isaiah 40:1. There are many good reasons for rejecting this conclusion. Among these, the narrative pattern of chapters 36-39 is a neglected piece of evidence.

All commentators on Isaiah recognize that the chapters after Isaiah 40 hold out the promise of a new exodus (cf. 43:14-21; 44:27; 50:2; 51:9-11). Just as the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt under Moses, so He promised to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. If there is to be a new exodus, however, there must needs also be a new Passover. Isaiah’s Passover is found in chapters 36-39, which record a series of events during the reign of Hezekiah.

The section begins with a chronological note that the events took place in the "fourteenth year" of king Hezekiah (36:1). There are no additional chronological markers in the remainder of this prose section. Hezekiah’s sickness is dated very generally: "in those days" (38:1). The whole series of events, then, symbolically if not literally took place during the fourteenth year; at the very least, it is clear that Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent deliverance happened in the fourteenth year. Similarly, Passover occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month (Lev. 23:5). These events thus take place under the sign of Passover.

The events themselves parallel the Passover pattern in several ways. First, there was a threat to the people of Israel. At the time of the original Passover, Pharaoh had attacked and enslaved the seed; Moses came with the Lord’s demand that Pharaoh let Israel, the Lord’s firstborn, go. In Isaiah, the threat was Sennacherib’s siege of the city of Jerusalem.

It is significant that the military threat of Sennacherib’s siege is described as a contest between the gods of Assyria and the Lord. Rabshakeh warned the people of Jerusalem that they should not trust their gods to deliver them, since the gods of other nations had not delivered them. Hezekiah recognized his words as blasphemy and called on the Lord to vindicate His name (36:18-20; 37:1-7). The Lord humbled the gods of Assyria as He had humbled the gods of Egypt (36:21-29; cf. Ex. 12:12). Appropriately, this theme of humiliation of the gods of the nations continues into Isaiah’s exodus prophecies; Isaiah’s "idol polemics" are embedded in the exodus context of chapters 40-56 (cf. 40:18-20; 41:6-7; 44:12-20; 45:1-7; 46:6-7).

The specific judgment against the Assyrian army is reminiscent of the Passover judgment on Egypt. The "angel of death" went to the Assyrian camp by night and slaughtered 185,000 (37:36; Ex. 12:29-36). Sennacherib himself survived the slaughter, but returned home only to be assassinated. The sword of the Lord reached even into "Pharaoh’s" house.

A further dimension is added when we note that the slaughter of Sennacherib’s army was, in all likelihood, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-5. The "gloom" cast over the land of Zebulun and Naphtali (9:1) was the Assyrian devastation of the northern kingdom (cf. 8:1-7). The Lord promised, however, to dispel the gloom and break the yoke of Assyria (9:4) with a victory similar to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites (9:5; 10:24-26), a victory that also reflects the Passover theme of a night deliverance (Judg. 7:19-25). That the slaughter of the Assyrian army recorded in Isaiah 37 fulfilled the promise of Isaiah 9 is suggested by the repetition of the phrase "the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" in 9:7 and 37:32. Moreover, the prediction that the war materials would be burned (9:5), though not mentioned in Isaiah 37, fits well with the Lord’s unilateral assault on Assyria; Isaiah implied in 9:5 that the Lord Himself would be the Victor by saying that the spoils would be consecrated to Him by fire (37:26; cf. Josh. 6:24).

(One problem for this view is that Isaiah 36-37 describes Jerusalem‘s deliverance from Assyria, while Isaiah 9:1 speaks of a light dawning over portions of the northern kingdom. It is very likely, however, that following Sennacherib’s devastating defeat at Jerusalem and his subsequent assassination, Assyria’s hold on the northern kingdom was dramatically weakened. Further, it is clear that the time horizon of Isaiah 9:1-7 is not confined to Hezekiah’s reign, but points to the dawning of the true light in Galilee [Mat. 4:15-16].)

Isaiah 38 tells the story of Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery, a story that also fits the overall Passover context of the surrounding chapters. Sickness and recovery is a kind of death and resurrection, as Hezekiah’s psalm of thanksgiving makes clear (38:10-11). Isaiah 38 thus displays the positive side of Passover: The angel of death slaughtered the Assyrians, but passed over Hezekiah, the representative of the nation of Israel.

After his "resurrection," however, Hezekiah immediately fell into sin by showing off the treasures of his house to Babylonian emissaries. This is parallel to Israel’s sin with the golden calf right after their deliverance from Egypt. Because of Hezekiah’s sin, the Lord said that the Babylonians would return to do more than window shopping (39:1-8). Babylon would take the furniture of the temple into exile; this passage therefore sets the stage for the following chapters about the deliverance from Babylon.

These chapters, replete with Passover themes, form the background for the announcement of a new Exodus beginning in chapter 40. What is significant in respect to critical scholarship is that this pattern crosses the supposed chasm that divides Isaiah from "Deutero-Isaiah." A prophecy ending at chapter 39 would be like the book of Exodus ending at chapter 12. The unity of the narrative pattern, in short, underlines the unity of authorship, theme, and prophecy.