This chapter focuses on the kingdom of Judah, and it covers the period before and after the fall of northern Israel. Unlike Israel, Judah continued to exist as an independent entity. However, for much of this period Judah functioned as a vassal state of Assyria, limiting its power. The texts that cover this important period are 2 Kings 15–20, 2 Chronicles 29–32, Isaiah 1–39, and Micah, all of which interpret Judah’s continued survival as nothing short of miraculous deliverance by Yahweh. In addition to the biblical texts, there is a sizable collection of Assyrian documents that describe contacts with Israel. These include records of tribute paid by the Judeans and the Sennacherib reliefs from Nineveh that detail the siege of Lachish.
The Judean king who reigned during much of this critical period was Hezekiah. Both 2 Kings and Chronicles give detailed accounts of his kingship, providing us with more information about Hezekiah than we have for most other kings. The reason for this is that Hezekiah’s ideologies meshed well with those of the Deuteronomistic Historians. Hezekiah was a nationalist who attempted to remove the yoke of Assyrian dominance, extending his power into parts of the former northern kingdom. As part of this patriotic revival came religious reforms that stressed the worship of Yahweh exclusively and the observance of Moses’s teaching. While Hezekiah’s political maneuvers resulted in harsh reprisals from the Assyrians, he was still celebrated as a champion of traditional Israelite law and worship.
Isaiah is the longest of the prophetic books and one of the longest books in the entire Bible. However, modern scholars suggest that the text had many additions and redactions throughout its history, indicating that much of the book of Isaiah could not date back to the time of the prophet. Upon a close analysis of the text, it appears that the book of Isaiah can be divided into three parts and that only the first thirty-nine chapters of the text (First Isaiah) actually date to the period of Isaiah in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE. The second part, chapters 40–55, dates to the sixth century, and the last addition, 56–66, occurred as much as a century later.
Based on some of the internal references within First Isaiah, it is also possible to identify a “school of Isaiah.” The text describes the recording of the prophet’s words so that the truth can be confirmed by later events as they unfold. These documents were entrusted to the prophet’s disciples, who preserved them after Isaiah’s death. Moreover, these disciples, who shared the prophet’s point of view, were probably responsible for the later additions to the text.
The book of First Isaiah is an anthology that shows no specific principle to its arrangement or order. Even when the text references historical events, the chronology is usually presented out of order, making any assessment of Isaiah’s arrangement nearly impossible. However, since it is an anthology, some of the material overlaps both with other internal materials and with materials found in other parts of the Bible. The text also shows signs of heavy editing in some places as well as additions that are of a later date. Like other prophetic works, the text contains oracles against Israel and foreign powers as well as both autobiographical and biographical materials.
The text gives us some information about the life of Isaiah, including that his career spanned from the latter part of the eighth century into the seventh century BCE. Isaiah was married and had several children, all of whom had symbolic names. The frequent interaction between Isaiah and the kings Ahaz and Hezekiah suggests that Isaiah may have earned his living as a court prophet. The text also suggests that Isaiah may have been a prominent figure in Judah during this period who often spoke freely and both criticized and supported the political and religious leaders of the age.
First Isaiah presents several important themes, and Isaiah’s prophecies predict imminent danger for Judah. In a vision in chapter 6, Isaiah describes himself as present at a meeting of the divine council. He volunteers to act as God’s spokesperson and to deliver a message that will be rejected by the people. Like other prophets, Isaiah is charged with the duty of informing the people of God’s harsh judgment against them.
Balanced with such ominous proclamations are some positives, such as the eternal divine guarantee for both the Davidic dynasty and the city of Jerusalem. However, such guarantees did not release Israel from its obligations to its covenant with God. In particular, Isaiah (like Amos and Hosea) stressed the need for social justice, pointing out that this was more important than religious ritual. Failure to promote social justice represented a breach in the Sinai covenant and would result in divine judgment. To Isaiah, the instrument of God’s judgment was the Assyrian army, which would bring devastation to Judah.
Invasions of Judah
The second half of the eighth century saw two different invasions of Judea. The first invasion occurred in 734 BCE during the Syro-Ephraimite War, when Jerusalem was besieged by a coalition of forces from Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel. A series of passages in Isaiah 7–8 deal with this crisis while setting the tone for ominous events that were to come. In sum, Isaiah tells the king not to fear the invasion by Aram and Israel since God will take care of everything; the sign of divine protection is an as yet unborn child named Immanuel (“God is with us”). Unconvinced by this advice, the king seeks to preserve his throne by taking proactive measures, asking help from the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser. The price for this aid was Judah’s obedience to the Assyrian king, who made Ahaz his vassal. Since Ahaz did not trust in God, Isaiah returns to the king with a second interpretation of the original sign. Since Ahaz rejected divine help, God would be with them to deliver them into the hands of Assyria.
In 701 BCE the invasion predicted by Isaiah came to pass. Fortunately there are several sources for this event; however, no single document gives a full and objective account. As a result, all available sources need to be analyzed together to give an accurate picture. From Assyria we have two sources, including the Taylor Prism, which describes Sennacherib’s campaign through the Levant and his assault on Judah resulting in massive tribute from Hezekiah. A second record comes from the Lachish reliefs that were installed on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace. These depict the lengthy siege and ultimate destruction of this Judean stronghold.
In addition to the Assyrian material, three separate biblical texts discuss these events. The most elaborate is 2 Kings 18–20, which preserves two different sources. The first, or A-source, relates a basic “annalistic” account of the events that mentions the invasion and Hezekiah’s subsequent request for a truce. The second, or B-source, appears to be a composite featuring communications between Hezekiah and Sennacherib. This second source has a prophetic feel to it since Isaiah is a central figure. This source demonstrates Hezekiah’s trust in Yahweh, which resulted in the survival of Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 32 also preserves an account of the events of 701 BCE. While Chronicles largely replicates 2 Kings, it also includes more specific details about Hezekiah’s preparations for the siege, including the redirection of the Gihon Spring to provide water for the city. Lastly, Isaiah’s text refers to the Assyrian invasion of Israel. In this text the grim aftermath is demonstrated by Isaiah’s statement describing how all cities outside of Jerusalem were burned. While Isaiah does not include the payment of tribute that ultimately saved Jerusalem, he does paint the portrait of Hezekiah as a pious king whose decisions to trust in God ultimately saved Judah.
Beyond the textual evidence, archaeology has uncovered a great deal of data related to these events. Many sites in Israel show signs of destruction in this period. This is especially true of Lachish, the fortified ruins of which show remarkable similarities to those found in the Sennacherib reliefs from Nineveh. Furthermore, the expansion of Jerusalem, its fortifications, and the redirection of its water source all indicate that the city was preparing for a great siege.
Taking all of these sources together, it is clear that there was a swift and powerful invasion of Judah at the end of the eighth century BCE. Sennacherib conquered forty-six cities, including the heavily fortified city of Lachish, and Hezekiah was forced to surrender since his capital, Jerusalem, was now an island surrounded by Assyrian forces. Hezekiah paid massive tribute to Sennacherib, and the Assyrian armies retreated. Although this is the historical picture painted by our sources, the Deuteronomistic Historians had a different interpretation. Jerusalem was saved by nothing short of divine intervention since God had promised the survival of both the Davidic dynasty and Jerusalem itself.
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, and the short book that bears his name consists of seven chapters featuring alternating oracles of judgment against Israel and oracles of restoration. Like other prophetic works, Micah has a long editorial history, and there were apparently additions in later centuries. The book tells us little about Micah himself, although it is clear that he was a Judean and was fairly hostile toward the capital and its rulers. Micah contains such genres as theophany, lament, and hymnic prayer, as well as the lawsuit theme already seen in Hosea and Isaiah. Also, like other prophets already discussed, Micah stresses the importance of social justice over ritualism and sacrifice.
Implications for Our Study
This chapter illustrates the turbulent period in Judah at the end of the eighth century BCE. The kingdom was invaded by foreign powers twice, and Jerusalem remained standing despite the odds. At the same time, these events devastated the kingdom of Judah, sending it into a dark age in its history. Although the historical and archaeological data from the period paint a rather bleak picture, the Deuteronomistic historians and the prophets of the eighth century offer a more hopeful reading. It was Yahweh who controlled all of these events. He sent the invasions as punishment for Israelite transgressions, and he also removed the threats so that both his earthly home and his divinely appointed dynasty would be preserved.