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Kings and Prophets 2: The Assyrian Crisis

1 Introduction

2 Israel (Northern Kingdom) in Crisis

3 Judah (Southern Kingdom) in Crisis

Study Guide


Ahaz, Amaziah, Amos, Call narrative, Day of Yhwh, Gomer, Hezekiah, Hosea, Immanuel, Isaiah of Jerusalem (First Isaiah), Jonah, Micah, Nineveh, Sennacherib, Shalmaneser V, Tiglath-Pileser III, Zion, Zion theology

Tiglath-Pileser III

Tiglath-Pileser III

Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria, known as Pul in the Bible, effectively expanded the Assyrian empire into Syria and Canaan.

Source: Drawing by Karla VanHuysen based on a relief from the central palace at Nimrud (London: British Museum).

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Israelite prophecy tends to coagulate around periods of political insecurity and crisis. The eighth century BCE was just that for the Israelites and Judeans, largely because of the expansion of the neo-Assyrian empire. The Assyrians dominated international politics for most of the 700s and on into the 600s. By the mid-600s, Assyria began to lose its dominating influence in the west, allowing for the expansion of Judah northward into formerly Israelite territory. The destruction of Nineveh by the Babylonians in 612 marks the end of the neo-Assyrian empire, and the battle of Carchemish in 605 definitively established Babylonia as the new major power in Mesopotamia.

The earliest prophetic books of the Book of the Twelve originated in the Assyrian period, with Amos, Hosea, and Micah all falling within the 700s. Although these books do not extensively deal with Assyria per se, they address the moral and spiritual condition of Israel and Judah in the middle of the eighth century, whose history is increasingly being conditioned by the growth of the empire. The rise of the Assyrian empire created foreign policy problems for Israel and Judah. These in turn had domestic ramifications. Prophecy was one response to the need for political and moral guidance in this period of crisis.

1.1 Second Kings 14–20: A Summary

The Deuteronomistic writer bounces back and forth between Judah and Israel in 2 Kings 14 and 15. We are told that Amaziah (Judah) took Edomite territory to the south of Judah. Then he came into conflict with Jehoash/Joash (Israel), resulting in the defeat of Judah and Israel’s plundering of Jerusalem. These chapters do not provide a complete political history of the kingdoms; the writer only gives us enough information to justify his theological evaluation of the king’s faithfulness or lack of it to Yhwh and the Deuteronomic political program.

Second Kings devotes only seven verses to Jeroboam II (Israel), even though he ruled for forty-one years and was very effective from the perspective of the security of the kingdom. He reextended the border of Israel to the dimensions that it had under

TABLE 10.1 Kings of the Assyrian Period



Jehoash/Joash, 801–786 Amaziah, 800–783  
Jeroboam II, 786–746 Azariah/Uzziah, 783–742  
Zechariah, 746–745 Jotham, 750–742  
Shallum, 745    
Menahem, 745–738 Ahaz, 735–715 Tiglath-Pileser III (Pul), 745–727
Pekahiah, 738–737    
Pekah, 737–732    
Hoshea, 732–724 Hezekiah, 715–687 Shalmaneser V, 726–722
    Sargon II, 721–705
Manasseh, 687–642
Sennacherib, 704–681

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Solomon—from Syria to Egypt. The writer notes that this had been foretold by the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, the same famous Jonah who was swallowed by a fish.

Jeroboam II extended Israel’s commercial interests into Syria, and Uzziah refurbished the Red Sea port of Elath for Judah’s use. Jeroboam’s royal administration and the aristocracy of Israel that supported it benefited greatly from this increased economic activity. But the majority of the population, the small landholders and farmers, found themselves increasingly in debt to the upper class. An oppressive economic disparity developed and many fell into poverty and landlessness.

This dire situation called forth the condemnation of prophets both in Israel and Judah. The first prophets whose speeches came to be recorded in books arose at this time; they have come to be called the classical prophets. Amos was the first. He was a prophet from a small village in Judah who went north to Bethel, the sanctuary city of Jeroboam II, and exposed the social destructiveness of royal policy. “They sell the righteous for silver, and the paupers for a pair of sandals,” he said (Amos 2:6). Hosea (another prophet and not to be confused with Hoshea, the last king of Israel) was himself an Israelite who compared Israelite social practice to the norms of the Mosaic covenant and found it wanting: “Yhwh has a case against the land’s inhabitants: truth, loyalty, and divine knowledge are lacking in the land” (Hosea 4:1). Micah and Isaiah brought the same critique to bear against the powerful in Judah. We learn more about these prophets and their messages later.

In Chapter 15, the Deuteronomic writer gives Azariah (Judah), also called Uzziah, a lukewarm rating, saying he did “what was right in Yhwh’s eyes,” but on the downside he tolerated high places, which is to say, he had not enforced the cultic centrality of Jerusalem. After the death of Jeroboam II, Israel becomes increasingly unstable. Zechariah, the last ruler of the Jehu dynasty, was assassinated after six months in office by rival Shallum, who was himself assassinated after one month by Menahem. Menahem paid Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (called Pul in 2 Kings 15:19) a large weight of silver to back him.

Menahem’s son and heir Pekahiah reigned only two years and was assassinated by his captain Pekah. Pekah joined forces with Rezin, king of Syria/Aram and sought control of Judah, an effort described in both 2 Kings 16 and Isaiah 7. When Ahaz (Judah) saw what he was up against, he sought a defensive alliance with Tiglath-Pileser against Pekah and Rezin and paid him tribute from the temple treasury. Tiglath-Pileser then marched against Rezin, killed him, and captured Damascus, the capital of Syria. He also moved into Israel and captured a number of towns in the northern sector of Israel and took many Israelites captive. Assyrian court records confirm this incursion and indicate Tiglath-Pileser had a hand in overthrowing Pekah and installing his successor, Hoshea.

The DH writer spends nineteen verses describing various changes that Ahaz made to the Jerusalem temple–palace compound. This included a new altar that Ahaz commissioned based on the design of an altar that he saw in Damascus when he went there to pledge his continuing allegiance to Tiglath-Pileser. Although this altar displaced the traditional bronze altar of the temple, the writer does not condemn Ahaz specifically for it. But he does render negative judgment because he sacrificed on high places and “made his son pass through fire.” This latter practice is open to various interpretations, most famously as child sacrifice to the Molech deity, but others interpret it as a ritual of dedication or consecration to a deity (see Weinfeld, 1972).

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Later, Shalmaneser V reinforced Assyrian control and made Hoshea his vassal. When Hoshea sought Egyptian support against Assyria, Shalmaneser laid siege to Samaria, the capital of Israel. After holding out for three years and after Assyrian leadership shifted from Shalmaneser to Sargon II, Samaria fell in 721. Thus, the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist. The majority of the Israelite leadership elite was deported to other Assyrian-held territories. Gal (1998) provides evidence from the author’s archaeological survey of northern Palestine in support of the biblical description of Israel’s demise. Into their place, the Assyrians moved other conquered peoples. The result was a mixture of ethnicities and religious perspectives. In the analysis of the Deuteronomistic historian, this mixed population lacked corporate commitment to Yhwh and his covenant. And so these Samaritans, as they came to be called, would forever be suspect to those in the south, who considered themselves more orthodox and obedient. Thus, the old rivalry between north and south continued, now with additional rationalization.

The perspective of the Deuteronomistic historian comes out clearly in Chapter 17. Here he provides a comprehensive theological explanation for the demise of Israel. It was because they served other gods, worshipped idols, and ignored the commandments of Yhwh. Even Judah, while spared destruction, was not immune to his judgment. The Deuteronomistic writer seems to be sending out a warning: Do not depart from the way of covenant, or you, too, will be destroyed!

Hezekiah (see Figure 10.1) ruled Judah well according to the Deuteronomistic historian. Judged on the basis of his piety and religious reforms, he was one of the best kings of Judah. When Hezekiah fell ill, he prayed to Yhwh for healing, thus demonstrating his dependency on Yhwh. The Judean prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem mediated a sign from Yhwh that he would recover and, furthermore, that Jerusalem would be delivered from the threat of the Assyrians. Isaiah seems to have had ready access to Judah’s kings and courtiers and consistently assured them of Yhwh’s protection, backing it up with prophetic signs. His message reinforced court belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem, because Yhwh dwelled on Mount Zion, and the eternity of the Davidic control because of Yhwh’s dynastic promise.

Hezekiah Seal

FIGURE 10.1 Hezekiah Seal

This clay bulla bears the impression of a royal seal. It includes the image of a winged beetle, a symbol of royalty, and the Hebrew inscription “(belonging) to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz king (of) Judah” with the word Judah at the top. The bottom words would be read first and the top word last. The reference is undoubtedly to the biblical king Hezekiah. Note that the transliterations run right to left to match the Hebrew order.

Drawing by Barry Bandstra based on the photo in Cross (1999). The clay bulla belongs to the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection.

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Siloam Tunnel

FIGURE 10.2 Siloam Tunnel Inscription

This early Hebrew inscription once marked the spot of the completion of the tunnel that Hezekiah had built in 701 BCE in anticipation of an Assyrian invasion. It linked the Gihon spring with the city of David (see 2 Kings 20:20).

Photo by Barry Bandstra (Istanbul: Istanbul Archaeological Museum), April 1998.

On into Hezekiah’s reign, the Assyrian empire kept pressure on Judah. Sennacherib attacked Jerusalem in 701 BCE; see Shea (1999) for a discussion of the chronology of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. The account of this invasion in Chapters 18–20 is closely paralleled by Isaiah 36–39, treated below. The outcome of this confrontation differed from that of the siege of Samaria. The Assyrian army departed after a disaster, attributed to the work of the angel of Yhwh, which decimated the army and prompted the Assyrians to leave Canaan. According to the story, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died. The biblical text hints that problems back in Assyria may have cooperated in forcing Sennacherib and his army to return home. Shortly after his return to Nineveh, Sennacherib was assassinated by two of his sons. Documents from Assyria provide independent witness to these events. The Assyrian account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah (see Figure 10.2) claims victory and boasts he shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” (For the Assyrian royal annals, see ANET, 274–301.)

But according to the writer, the real reason why Jerusalem was saved was the piety of Hezekiah. When surrounded by Sennacherib’s army, Hezekiah did not react in desperation as Ahaz did under similar circumstances, looking for outside military help. Hezekiah immediately brought the matter to his God. Hezekiah took the Assyrian letter demanding surrender into the Jerusalem temple, laid it out before Yhwh, and prayed for guidance. Isaiah delivered an oracle of salvation from Yhwh in response to Hezekiah’s plea for help. The Deuteronomistic historian projects Hezekiah as the model of appropriate action in time of national crisis.

Hezekiah was followed by Manasseh (687–642), who, in the judgment of the Deuteronomistic historian, was as bad a king as Hezekiah was good. During his reign, Judah was a vassal of Assyria, but the peace fostered by the empire also led to economic growth, again especially among the upper class. Manasseh is spared no condemnation for rebuilding the Baal shrines that his father Hezekiah had eliminated.

He rebuilt the high places Hezekiah his father had destroyed. He set up altars to Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. (2 Kings 21:3)

Building cult installations for the deities of Assyria and other nations was a demonstration of his entry into the world community and his acceptance of Assyrian culture and dominance. But of course, the Deuteronomistic historian saw this as a

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Assyrian Period Prophets Timeline

FIGURE 10.3 Time Line: Assyrian Period Prophets

departure from the covenant with Yhwh. This breach of covenant was so serious that the ultimate blame for the destruction of Jerusalem was laid at his feet. Although the Deuteronomistic writer does not try, it would be difficult to explain how such a wicked king could reign longer than any other king if there is in fact a correlation between righteousness and blessing.

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to reading portions of the Latter Prophets that were inspired by and have application to the Assyrian period (see Figure 10.3).

1.2 Reading Guide

The following passages manifest key components of history and prophecy in the Assyrian period.


• 2 Kings 17: the Assyrian invasion of Israel and its final destruction

• Hosea 1:1–9: Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and its prophetic symbolism

• Amos 7:10–17: Amos versus Amaziah in Bethel

• Isaiah 7:1–17: the Immanuel prophecy

• Micah 3:1–12: Micah and the Jerusalem royal establishment


Jeroboam II presided over Israel at a time of relative security and economic prosperity. This resulted in greater disparity between the wealthy aristocracy and the poor. Amos was a Judean prophet who went to Bethel of Israel at this time in order to expose the exploitation of the poor and the distortions of religious practice that flourished in this climate.

Shortly after the death of Jeroboam, the emperor Tiglath-Pileser III gained control of the Assyrian empire and extended it toward the Mediterranean coast. This applied pressure on Aram and Israel. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel formed an anti-Assyrian coalition of forces, but this was ultimately unsuccessful. Hoshea, who ends up being the last king of Israel, assassinated Pekah and made peace with Tiglath. Damascus, the capital of Aram, fell to Tiglath in 732 and he executed Rezin. Hosea the prophet speaks to the political and economic situation of turmoil in Israel that resulted from the Assyrian threat.

The third prophet treated in this section is Jonah. The historical record indicates that Jonah was an Israelite prophet who supported Jeroboam's efforts to

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expand the borders of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). For this reason we are treating the book of Jonah in this section, and because the book has Jonah traveling to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. However, scholars tend to suggest that the book itself was written by someone other than the eighth century Jonah, and that it was written sometime during the Persian period, perhaps as late as 400, based on its theme of Israelite exclusivism.

2.1 Amos

Taken in chronological rather than canonical order, Amos is the earliest of all Hebrew prophetic figures who have books named after them (not counting Samuel). Amos was an older contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He prophesied sometime during the decade 760–750 BCE.

The book of Amos appears at first reading to be a collection of sayings with very little organization. But a close reading looking for connections reveals that there are identifiable groupings of material. The first group of similar material is the oracles against the nations (1:3–2:16), discrete units targeting the nations of Syria-Palestine one at a time. Chapters 3–6 are a collection of various Amos sayings. Chapters 3–5 all begin with the same phrase “Hear this word . . . .” This phrase may have provided the principle of organization for this subcollection. Chapters 7–9 are largely vision reports and so have a certain commonality.

The first words of the book were clearly written by an editor because they refer to Amos in the third person:

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds from Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel during the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam son of Joash, king of Israel—two years before the earthquake. He said, “Yhwh roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the shepherd’s pastures dry up and the height of Carmel shrivels.” (1:1–2)

The very first words are in effect the title of the book: “The words of Amos.” The editor dates the prophet by reference to the kings ruling in Judah and Israel at the time. This places Amos in the middle of the eighth century BCE. This kind of introduction, with its reference to the kings of the Israelite kingdoms, is typical of a number of prophetic books including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. This introduction goes further than most by making the date even more precise, specifying that the words of Amos date two years before the earthquake. The reference to the earthquake has been correlated with geological data obtained through fieldwork. The archaeological excavation of Hazor in the Galilee region evidenced in stratum VI a particularly violent quake datable to the time of Jeroboam II (see Yadin, 1964).

From this introduction, we learn a few things about Amos. He was from a little town in Judea called Tekoa, and he was a shepherd. This has been interpreted by some authorities to mean that he was poor, but this was not necessarily so. It may instead indicate he was a landholder. In addition, from 7:14 we learn that he was an agricultural worker, “a dresser of sycamore trees,” and he strongly denied he was a professional prophet. Although not belonging to the prophetic guild, he was called to be a prophet directly by God.

Verse 2 contains the theme statement of the book. These, the first words of Amos in the book, describe an angry Yhwh. In roaring like a lion, he laid waste the green pastures of Carmel. Note the geographical indicators for they tell us a

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lot about Amos’s theological and political perspective. Yhwh roars from Jerusalem, the seat of Davidic ideology, and condemns the heartland of the northern kingdom.

This raises an important issue concerning the perspective of Amos. It would appear, on first reading, that Amos was an advocate of Zion ideology. But this might depend on the attribution of these words. If they are Amos’s, then perhaps yes. If they are an editor’s words, shaping the book from a Judean and Davidic slant, then perhaps no. The one other passage in the book of Amos that reflects a strong Davidic bias is the last paragraph, 9:11–15. Here is a sample, with Yhwh speaking:

“On that day I will restore David’s fallen house. I will repair its gaping walls and restore its ruins. I will rebuild it as it was a long time ago.” (9:11)

Clearly looking to the rebirth of the Davidic dynasty, these words are usually attributed to an editor later than Amos’s day.

Turning to an examination of the book in terms of its major structural units, the first is 1:3–2:16. This section is a series of moral condemnations aimed at territories in Syria-Palestine in the following order: Syria (Damascus), Philistia (Gaza), Phoenicia (Tyre), Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, and finally Israel (see Figure 10.4).

In the following excerpt, notice how Amos jumps from one end of Syria-Palestine to the other, until finally he hits his favorite target—Israel. A sample, the oracle against Syria, gives us the flavor of the prophet’s language:

Thus says Yhwh, “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke it (the punishment) on account of their threshing Gilead with iron threshing sledges. I will send fire on the house of Hazael and it will devour the fortresses of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven and the scepter-bearer from Beth-eden. The people of Aram will go to Kir in exile,” says Yhwh. (1:3–5)

Speaking for God in the first person, Amos condemned Syria for dealing cruelly with the Israelites who lived in Gilead—that is, to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The king and his royal city would be destroyed because of their cruelty, and the population would be exiled to Kir, a place far to the east, near Elam.

The oracles continue with all of Israel’s neighbors coming under God’s condemnation one by one. The condemnation of Judah must have been especially sweet to the Israelites who were Amos’s primary audience. They no doubt welcomed his words and urged him on. Israel’s enemies deserved what they got! It was a surprise, then, when Amos continued after Judah and exposed God’s anger with Israel “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6).

Amos is to be appreciated especially for his sensitivity to matters of social welfare in Israel. He spared no words in condemning the royalty and aristocracy of Israel, who abused the privilege of wealth and even used their authority to get richer at the expense of the poor.

The next major unit, Chapters 3–6, is another collection of oracles but without the focus and structure of the first collection. The words from Chapter 4 continue Amos’s accusatory tone and strong condemnation of the Israelite ruling elite, in this case the wives of the aristocracy:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria—you who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring us something to

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Amos's Oracles Map

FIGURE 10.4 Amos’s Oracles against the Nations

drink!” Yhwh has sworn by his holiness: the time is definitely coming when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. You will leave through breaches in the wall, each of you going straight out, and you will be tossed into Harmon. (4:1–3)

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These words of Amos are direct and announce that punishment is inevitable and close. There is no hint that it can be avoided—the culprits will not be able to dodge the coming doom. Amos does not seem to allow for repentance.

The socioeconomic background for these words is an Israelite elite enjoying an indulgent lifestyle at the expense of disenfranchised peasants. Amos’s announcement of punishment is so direct and certain that Coote (1981) argues that Amos must have uttered these words around 745 BCE when Tiglath-Pileser III came to power and directly threatened Israel. This would account for the vividness and accuracy of the language describing Assyrian policies of capture and deportation.

With the threat of Assyrian domination looming, the Israelites held out the expectation that Yhwh would make a powerful appearance. As the divine warrior who fights for his people, he will destroy the enemy. The day of Yhwh is the day of his victory. Amos subverts this expectation and warns Israel to be wary of Yhwh because, if Yhwh shows up, this time Israel will be the object of his wrath, not Assyria:

Beware, you awaiting the day of Yhwh? Why would you have the day of Yhwh? It is dark and not light. (5:18)

This expectation of the coming day of Yhwh is found elsewhere is biblical prophecy. Increasingly, it takes on the character of a cataclysmic day of judgment against foreign nations or against Israel and Judah. But it is also sometimes projected as a time of Israel’s or Judah’s vindication over against their detractors.

In addition to disabusing Israel of their day of Yhwh delusion, Amos castigated the overfed rich people of Galilee (“you cows of Bashan” [4:1]) who callously oppressed the poor. He was also critical of Israel’s centers of religious worship, especially Bethel and Gilgal (4:4–5; 5:4–7). He conveyed the divine displeasure with the ritual activities performed at these sites:

I hate and despise your festivals; I do not take pleasure from your pious meetings. Although you offer me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them. The peace offering of your choice animals I will not eye. Away from me with the noise of your songs! The melody of your harps I will not hear. Let justice roll down like water, righteousness like an eternally flowing stream. (5:21–24)

Amos’s call for social caring—“Let justice roll down like water!”—is one of his most famous statements. Amos took the religious concepts of justice and righteousness, which had primary application to the way God deals with his people, and applied them to human social interaction.

In Amos’s analysis, Israel was just going through the motions of worshipping God and observing proper rituals, thinking that this was the sum total of their obligation to God. In reality, God valued personal responsibility and community caring above formal worship. Amos here disparaged formal religion when its performers used it to make themselves right with God, in the absence of personal and corporate morality. His words should not be absolutized as a total prophetic condemnation of all formal worship. This is typical of Amos’s unconditional language, but Amos probably did not mean it to be applied always and everywhere.

The last major section is Chapters 7–9 built around five visions and a prophecy of restoration (see Table 10.2). The first four visions are similarly structured. Each begins with the sentence “This is what my lord Yhwh showed me.” In each vision, Amos saw something that indicated that God was going to destroy Israel. In the

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TABLE 10.2 Visions of Amos

Vision 1


Vision 2 7:4–6 Fire
Vision 3 7:7–9 Plumb line
Narrative 7:10–17 Amos versus Amaziah
Vision 4 8:1–3 Summer fruit
Vision 5 9:1–4 Yhwh by the altar
Salvation oracle
David’s tent

first (7:1–3), he saw locusts devouring the produce of the land. In the second (7:4–6), he saw a fire consume the land. In both of these visions, after Amos cried out with concern for Israel, God changed his mind and withdrew the punishment.

In the third vision (7:7–9), Amos saw Yhwh with a plumb line (others translate the underlying Hebrew word as pickaxe) in his hand. This vision differs from the prior two. It is not an image of destruction. Rather, Amos sees God holding a measuring device against which Israel was measured:

Yhwh said, “I am putting a plumb line in the middle of my people Israel. I will never again overlook them. The high places of Isaac will be made barren, and the holy places of Israel will be leveled. I will come against Jeroboam with a sword.” (7:8b–9)

A plumb line is a construction worker’s tool consisting of a weight attached to a string. The weighted string provides a true vertical (or plumb) standard by which other objects, such as masonry walls or door posts, can be built straight. Judged against true vertical, Israel was tilted and out of plumb. Religion was not doing it any good. Consequently, Israel’s worship centers would be destroyed, especially the “high places,” which had Canaanite Baalistic associations. And Jeroboam II, king of Israel, would be removed.

This, the third vision, is not followed directly by the fourth. Instead, a narrative was inserted recording a confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, a Bethel priest loyal to Jeroboam II. Amaziah was provoked by the preaching of Amos. In Bethel, the main Israelite worship center sponsored by the king, Amos proclaimed that Jeroboam would die and Israel would go into exile (7:11). Amaziah, in so many words, told Amos to go back to Judah from whence he had come.

The narrative of this encounter interrupts the flow of the vision accounts, but the arrangement does have a certain editorial logic. The vision accounts as a collection condemn Israel for sinning, but the third vision account specifically targets Israelite sanctuaries. This leads into the Amos–Amaziah confrontation, which then becomes evidence of the perversity of Israelite sanctuaries, condemned in the third vision, and evidence of Israel’s hardness of heart. Whereas after the first two visions God had relented of his planned punishment, there is no relenting after the third and fourth visions. This confrontation account demonstrates that there was no repentant spirit in Israel that could warrant a removal of God’s planned destruction.

The fourth vision account, 8:1–3, was built around a visual–verbal pun. Amos saw a basket of summer fruit (Hebrew qayits). Yhwh said in explanation,

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the end [Hebrew qets] of my people has arrived.” What follows, almost until the end of the book, is a series of disaster descriptions: famine, mourning, violence, exile, death, and despair.

The fifth vision account, 9:1–4, is structured differently from the preceding four visions. Instead of Yhwh showing Amos an object and constructing a lesson around it, here Amos sees Yhwh standing by the altar. He issues an order to “smash the pillar capitals.” Either the temple was to collapse on the people and kill them, or the capitals symbolize the heads and leaders of Israel who will not escape punishment.

The last oracle, 9:11–15, contains expectation of the rebirth of the Davidic dynasty and a delightful depiction of the glorious future awaiting the land and its people. The ground will be so productive that harvesters will not be able to keep pace, and the people will enjoy peace and prosperity. This last unit is so radically different from the preceding words of Amos, concerning not Israel but the rebirth of the Judean Davidic dynasty, that it is usually attributed to someone other than Amos. The effect of beginning the book with Yhwh roaring from Zion and ending by anticipating a savior from the resurrected house of David frames the book as an apology for the primacy of David, Jerusalem, and Zion over Jeroboam and Bethel.

Why was it attached to the book as the final unit? Perhaps because otherwise the ending would be too depressing. Amos turned out to be correct in foreseeing the demise of the northern kingdom: “Israel will be exiled from its land” (7:17). In the view of the compiler of Amos in its canonical form, judgment could never be the last word—it had to be followed by salvation, and salvation would come from Judah. The book grew in stages and was probably finalized in the postexilic period. At that time, the editor did not see fit to allow the book to end on a note of despair. The final form of the book asserts that divine judgment is followed by Yhwh’s salvation, and that is the way of Yhwh.

2.2 Hosea

Hosea was placed first in the Book of the Twelve, but we cannot be sure why: perhaps because it is the longest book of the twelve, perhaps because someone at one time mistakenly thought Hosea was the earliest prophet of the twelve. The evidence of the book itself, however, indicates that Hosea prophesied a little later than Amos. Like Amos, he prophesied in the northern kingdom. Unlike Amos, he was a native of the north. In fact, Hosea was the only non-Judean literary prophet besides Jeremiah.

Hosea’s northern origin probably put him in touch with the northern prophetic tradition represented by Elijah and the Elohist traditions of the Pentateuch and aligns him with the traditions of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. This may account for Hosea’s frequent allusions to the Decalogue and the Sinai covenant traditions.

Historical indicators in the text, including the editorial framework of the first verse, suggest that Hosea prophesied potentially from as early as the 780s down to the destruction of Samaria in 722 BCE. Jeroboam II was the king of Israel at the beginning of Hosea’s prophetic activity, and after he died, the northern kingdom was in disarray until its destruction by Assyria.

The book was compiled after the lifetime of Hosea the prophet. It has a discernible structure that falls into two basic parts. The first unit, Chapters 1–3, is built around Hosea’s ordeal of marrying a prostitute. This marriage functions as a living parable

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TABLE 10.3 Structure of Hosea



Chapters 1–3 1:2–9 1:10–2:1
  2:2–13 2:14–23

3:1–4 3:5
Chapters 4–14 4:1–11:7 11:8–11

of husband Yhwh’s relationship to his wife Israel. The second unit, Chapters 4–11, begins with the phrase “Hear the word of Yhwh” and consists largely of uncontextualized statements. It has no obvious thematic unity but consists of oracles of disaster and salvation. This alternation of disaster and salvation, even discernible to some extent in the first unit, provides a structuring principle to the book (see Table 10.3).

The first chapter contains a third-person narrative describing Hosea’s marriage to Gomer:

The beginning of Yhwh’s speaking through Hosea: Yhwh said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a promiscuous woman and have children of promiscuity, because the land is promiscuous with regard to Yhwh.” He went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. She conceived and bore him a son.

   Yhwh said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, because in yet a little while I will avenge the blood of Jezreel on the house of Jehu, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. In that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” She conceived again and bore a daughter, and he said to him, “Call her name Lo-ruhamah, because I will no longer show mercy to the house of Israel. I will not forgive them. [But to the house of Judah I will show mercy, and I will save them, by Yhwh Elohim, but I will not save them by bow, sword, warfare, horses or charioteers.]” She weaned Loruhamah, conceived and bore a son. He said, “Call his name Lo-ammi, because you are not my people, and I am ‘Not I am’ to you.” (1:2–9)

Gomer had three children. The text clearly indicates that the first child was fathered by Hosea himself, but the second and third might have been children of her “promiscuity.” In any case, the children serve as prophetic signs having to do with the northern kingdom of Israel.

The first child was named Jezreel (which in Hebrew sounds very close to Israel: Yizreel and Yisrael, respectively). “The blood of Jezreel” refers to Jehu’s bloody coup d’├ętat and slaughter of the house of Ahab. For these acts, the monarchy would be punished.

The second child’s name, Lo-ruhamah, means “without mercy.” The Hebrew word rechem (literally “womb”) to which it is related recalls descriptions of Yhwh as the merciful God of the covenant (see Exodus 33:19), the one who loves Israel with parental (a mother’s?) love.

The third child’s name, Lo-ammi, means “not my people.” This name is also related to covenant notions. The essence of God’s covenant with Israel was this: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The (anti-)covenant context is reinforced with the words “I am ‘Not I am’ to you.” The Hebrew original of the phrase

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Not I am” is Lo-ehyeh and undoubtedly puns on the covenant name of God, Yhwh, whose name was revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) as “I am who I am,” ehyeh asher ehyeh in Hebrew.

An interpretive issue regarding this passage concerns whether it was meant to be taken literally or taken as a figurative account, much like a parable. If the former, that also raises a moral issue regarding whether or not Gomer was a known prostitute at the time of her marriage to Hosea. The command “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” as the NRSV renders it, sounds like he was told to marry a known prostitute. If she was, then Yhwh was asking a rather difficult thing of Hosea that led to considerable personal pain.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that the wording was affected by Hosea’s experience and theology. The account was of course written after the fact of the marriage. At the time he may not have known she was a prostitute, but in retrospect it was obvious by her marital unfaithfulness that she was. God in his providence must have known ahead of time her propensities; therefore, he had told Hosea to marry a prostitute.

Yet a third interpretive possibility is that Gomer was not unfaithful to the marriage bond as such but that she was associated with Canaanite Baalistic bridal rites of initiation (see Wolff, 1974). In this reading, the children were considered, metaphorically speaking, to be children of “whoredom” because conception was credited to Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility, and not Yhwh.

Hosea was the first prophet to use his family life, and in particular his children, to make a theopolitical point. Prophesying shortly after Hosea, Isaiah would do the same (see Isaiah 7–8). Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was a mirror of Yhwh’s experience with Israel. Marriage was equated with the covenant that God had made with Israel in the wilderness.

Whereas Chapter 1 is a third-person account of Hosea’s marriage, Chapter 3 is an autobiographical description of that marriage. In his own words, Hosea describes “purchasing” a prostitute. Some interpreters suggest this account temporally follows the story of Chapter 1, with Hosea buying back his wife after an intervening period of unfaithfulness. Other interpreters view it as the same story of Chapter 1, just retold in the first person.

Yhwh said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is a prostitute, just as Yhwh loves the people of Israel—even though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine. And I said to her, “You must stay mine in the future; you must not play the prostitute. You must not have intercourse with a man, including me with you.” For the Israelites shall remain many days without a king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek Yhwh their God, and David their king. They shall come in fear to Yhwh and to his goodness in the days to come. (3:1–5)

Again, the relationship of man and woman is a mirror of Yhwh’s relationship to Israel. The specified purchase price consisted of silver and grain, the usual offerings to a deity. After paying the price, Hosea’s expectation was that the former prostitute, now his wife, would be pure.

Originally applying to the Israel (read northern kingdom) of Hosea’s day, the description of the relationship was reapplied by a later writer in verses 4–5 to

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Judah. Brought to Judah after the fall of the north, the experience of Hosea became a lesson also to the southern kingdom.

Abstinence from sexual intercourse was appropriated as a symbol of Judah’s isolation, without king or sacred paraphernalia in Babylonian exile. Mention of the return included the expectation of the return to power of the Davidic line. Although the people were wayward, days of blessing would return. Perhaps this prophetic material was shaped by Deuteronomic circles as was so much other classical prophecy. Especially in this case, it would be natural for Deuteronomic theology to have an influence given the similar northern origin of Hosea and Deuteronomy.

As suggested above, Chapters 1 and 3 originally may have been third-person and first-person renderings, respectively, of the same experience of marital betrayal and alienation. It seems, however, that the editor took Chapter 3 and revised it to read like an historical continuation of Chapter 1; note the use of “again” in 3:1. Perhaps his intention in framing the scandalous affair as repetition was to affirm the patience of Yhwh, who puts up with his people time after time, even as they, like Hosea’s wife, go running after other lovers. It affirms the sad recurring historical experience of Israel: Generation after generation forgot their legitimate husband, Yhwh, and sought the company of Baal and Asherah. Shaped finally as a prophetic word for Judah by the Deuteronomic historian, the message is obvious: Do not perpetuate this tragic pattern!

2.3 Jonah

The book of Jonah is quite unlike any other prophetic book—in fact, quite unlike any other book in the Hebrew Bible. For one thing, it is exclusively a tale about a prophet rather than a collection of utterances by him. No one really knows for sure when it was written or where. And then, of course, there is this business of a fish swallowing the prophet, who survives and is vomited onto the shore. This is so wild, could it really have happened?

To address this and other issues, we need to wrestle with the nature of the book. In particular, what is its genre, or literary type? Scholars have made many suggestions. Some authorities tend to argue for the historicity of the record, finding reasons to affirm that a fish could swallow a person live. Many others have read it as fiction, regarding it as didactic narrative, or a novella, a short story, or even a satire of Jewish piety.

The main character in the book is Jonah. He is attested as a real figure by 2 Kings 14:25, which tells us that he was from Gath-hepher in the region of Galilee in the north and that he was a prophet during the reign of the Israelite king Jeroboam II in the mid-700s BCE. This would have made Jonah a contemporary of Amos, probably accounting for the juxtaposition of the two books in the Twelve. And this is the reason why we place the book of Jonah in this chapter on the Assyrian crisis, even though most scholars put the date of the book’s composition in the postexilic period.

This is the story line. Yahweh directed Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Jonah went by boat in the opposite direction, so Yahweh sent a storm to stop him. The sailors determined that Jonah was the cause of the storm. After considerable moral anguish, they threw Jonah overboard, and the seas calmed.

Jonah was swallowed by a large fish. From the innards of the fish, he addressed God with a hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance. The fish deposited Jonah on the

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Map of Jonah's Travels

FIGURE 10.5 Map of Jonah’s Travels

Mediterranean coast. From there he proceeded to Nineveh, where he declared its doom (see Figure 10.5). The people repented and God withdrew the destruction that he had devised for the city. Then Jonah became very angry. He resented God’s mercy and left the city to pout and see if the city would really be spared.

There in the desert, God created a bush for Jonah, who was overjoyed to have the shade. God removed it the next day, and Jonah was absolutely distraught that it had died. Hidden somewhere in this was a lesson about grace and mercy. Jonah should have been happy that all Nineveh’s inhabitants had not been destroyed; instead he was disappointed.

The book of Jonah has been interpreted in a variety of different ways. The following are some of the interpretive angles that have been proposed:


• It is a satire with snide commentary on prophetic calling, using Jonah as a caricature to portray the reluctance of professional prophets to follow the leading of God.

• It is a criticism of Israelite prophets, exposing their insincerity at preaching repentance without really wanting to see it and being disappointed (and taking it as personal failure) when destructive judgment is not meted out by God.

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• It is an implicit criticism of the Jewish community, which was generally unwilling to respond to prophetic calls to repentance, in contrast with the willingness of Nineveh, including king, people, and even cattle, who responded immediately in faith.

• It is a criticism of an exclusionary Jewish belief in divine election, the belief that God was only concerned about his chosen people and no one else.

• It asserts God’s freedom to change his mind against prophets and theologians who would limit that freedom.

• It explores the dilemma of true and false prophecy, showing that the words of true prophets (Jonah in this case) do not always come true.

• It is an allegory of Israel in exile, both Jonah and Judah looking to God for the destruction of an evil empire.


The point of the story is difficult to determine (if, in fact, there is only one intended point), especially in light of the indeterminate way the book ends—with a rhetorical question:

God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” He replied, “It is right for me to be angry, to death.” Yhwh said, “You cared about the bush over which you did not labor or cause to grow, which between a night and a night came up and died. Should I not care about the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals?” (4:9–11)

In light of the prophetic preoccupation with cursing foreign nations, God’s concern for those notoriously nasty Assyrians is especially remarkable. Perhaps among other things, the book of Jonah is at least saying that God has the freedom to show mercy to the foreign nations if he wants to. The people of God have no right to be self-righteous or to hold on to the love of God selfishly.

Drawing on the remarkable “God is slow to anger and abounding in love” tradition of the Torah (see Numbers 14:18), Jonah angrily threw back into the face of God the divine reputation for showing compassion:

Is this not what I said while I was still back home? That is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in love, and ready to relent from punishing. (4:2)

Jonah’s sarcasm exposed his own pettiness and self-absorption in contrast to God’s unbounded love and concern for all people. This lesson seems to have been needed by the Jewish community of the postexilic period when it was natural to be resentful of its neighbors and become self-absorbed. The self-criticism implicit in the book of Jonah makes its inclusion in the canon especially remarkable.


Tiglath-Pileser III led the Assyrian army into the regions of Aram and Canaan. This incursion resulted in significant domestic disruption within both Judah and Israel. It is against the background of Assyrian imperialism that the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem attempts to provide counsel and support to the royal house of David in Judah. Beginning in 742 Isaiah was a witness for at least forty years to the pressures that

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Time Line of First Isaiah

FIGURE 10.6 Time Line: Isaiah of Jerusalem

Assyrian brought to bear on Judah. These pressures called for Judah's kings to be shrewd and strong, and Isaiah brought a divine perspective to the table as they faced difficult decisions.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, but he hailed from rural Moresheth southwest of Jerusalem. This may help explain his more critical judgment of the urbanized capital of Judah, with its economic elitism and its military might. Isaiah, in contrast, appears to have belonged to the wealthy class; clearly he had ready access to the royal court and had the ear of the king. Each prophet in his own way attempts to help Judah weather the storm of Assyria's expansion to the west.

3.1 Isaiah of Jerusalem (First Isaiah)

Isaiah of Jerusalem was one of Israel’s earliest classical prophets. He was in Jerusalem during the critical years of the Assyrian crisis, bolstering Judah’s fragile and fearful leaders with words from Yhwh (see Figure 10.6). His most famous pronouncement is the Immanuel oracle that assured God’s continued endorsement of the house of David.

The book of Isaiah is a collection of Isaiah’s many sayings and provides a fine illustration of the growth of prophetic traditions. The entire book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah ben-Amoz (not to be confused with the prophet Amos) by the editorial superscription in 1:1. But, in fact, the book contains prophetic material spanning more than 200 years. A nucleus of material is attributable to Isaiah of Jerusalem, a citizen of Jerusalem in the 700s BCE. The remainder comes from a series of anonymous disciples and prophets (see 8:16, which mentions his followers) who saw themselves, or were seen by editors, as coming out of an Isaiah mold.

The book of Isaiah is widely recognized to consist of three subcollections (see Table 10.4). Chapters 1–39 make up First Isaiah. The core of this collection consists of prophecies from the namesake of the book who lived in the middle to late 700s. In

TABLE 10.4 The Three Books of Isaiah





1–39 First Isaiah Isaiah of Jerusalem Assyrian 742–701
40–55 Second Isaiah Isaiah of the exile Babylonian exile 546–538
Third Isaiah
Isaiah of the restoration
Restoration of Judah

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this period, Israel and Judah were threatened by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40–55 constitute Second Isaiah, also called Deutero-Isaiah. This collection consists largely of salvation oracles applying to the situation of exile in Babylonia and dating to the mid-500s. Chapters 56–66 make up Third Isaiah, which is also called Trito-Isaiah and applies to the late 500s in Judah where the Jewish community was struggling to rebuild and reorganize itself.

It would be an oversimplification to claim that there is a linear historical progression in the book of Isaiah from the preexilic period (Chapters 1–39) to the exilic period (Chapters 40–55) to the postexilic period (Chapters 56–66). Later writers continued to rework earlier material and add to it, so even the first subcollection, which is largely attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem, contains postexilic material. Conversely, mostly postexilic Third Isaiah took up earlier prophetic sayings from the preexilic first-temple period and incorporated them into his collection. We will examine First Isaiah here becauseIsaiah of Jerusalem is the Isaiah that is situated, at least originally, within the Assyrian period.

The first major section of the book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, contains a core of material attributable to Isaiah of Jerusalem. Chapters 1–11 are a series of prophetic judgment statements delivered by Isaiah primarily to Judah and autobiographical accounts by Isaiah. Chapters 13–23 are a set of oracles against foreign nations. Chapters 24–27 are the so-called Isaiah Apocalypse, a collection of sketches on apocalyptic themes such as universal judgment, the eschatological banquet, and heavenly signs. Chapters 28–32 are a set of prophetic oracles datable to 715–701 BCE concerning Judah and foreign policy. Chapters 34–35 appear to be postexilic additions that have affinities with Chapters 40–66 and may have at one time served to bridge First and Second Isaiah. Chapters 36–39 are an historical appendix, paralleled in 2 Kings 18:13–20:19, dealing with Hezekiah and the Assyrian crisis. We will spend the most time on Isaiah 1–11 and 28–33, which are rather securely connected with the prophet himself. These chapters apply to events surrounding the Assyrian crisis of the middle to late 700s.

We do not know a lot of detail about the book’s namesake, Isaiah son of Amoz. We only know for sure that he began speaking as a prophet in Jerusalem in the latter half of the eighth century. He appears to have been from Judah and generally had a high opinion of the Davidic tradition though he can be critical of its Davidic kings. Gauging by the social circles in which he moved, he could very well have belonged to the Jerusalem aristocracy.

Isaiah has a lot in common with the other, mostly earlier, prophets of the 700s: Amos, Hosea, and Micah. It even seems likely that he was influenced to a degree by them. In material dating to his early years in the public arena, Isaiah’s critique of official religion over the demands of social justice (1:12–17) sounds a great deal like Amos. The next section, Chapters 2–4, contains material also like his predecessor’s, condemning the aristocracy and the extravagant lifestyle of its female retainers, because it demonstrated disdain for the needs of the disadvantaged. Isaiah differs from Amos, of course, in targeting the ruling class of Jerusalem rather than that of Israel and Samaria.

Isaiah may also have been familiar with Hosea, judging by his description of a faithless people as a harlot. Isaiah berates Jerusalem, describing it as a prostitute (1:21–26), and later uses images from the fertility cult to denounce Jerusalem, perhaps dependent on Hosea 10:1. Again, Isaiah takes metaphors earlier applied to the north and reapplies them to Judah.

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Isaiah opposed the priestly and prophetic spokespersons who stood in the service of the royal court and its policies. He frequently equated them with the “smooth talkers” of the foreign nations—their diviners, soothsayers, and necromancers. He seems to have viewed himself differently, more as a teacher (5:24; 30:9) than as a prophet.

Unlike Amos and Hosea, Isaiah did not draw significantly from the resources of the Mosaic tradition of the Exodus or the traditions of the Sinai covenant to give shape to his prophetic analysis. Isaiah’s conceptual toolkit was the set of images and assurances that were dependent on the dynasty of David, which administered Yhwh’s rule on earth and on Zion as the fortress of Yhwh (see the Zion poems in 2:2–4 and 4:2–6). The name Zion originally applied to the Jebusite fortress that David captured and made his capital (see 2 Samuel 5). Later it came to refer to the temple area and even to the entire city of Jerusalem. Zion, or Mount Zion, was considered the royal residence of Yhwh the Great King.

The prophecies of First Isaiah are set within the turbulent times of the second half of the eighth century BCE when Assyria was a serious threat to the independence of both Israel and Judah (see Table 10.5). By the end of the century, only Judah had survived, and then only barely. Here are four notable passages.

3.1.1 Commission (6)

The experience of initiation into the prophetic task can be referred to as the commission, or “call,” of the prophet. In a call narrative, the prophet describes his experience of being drawn into divine service, sometimes even against his will. The specifics of each prophet’s experience are unique, but there are some common features. Most record the sense of having stood in the presence of God and of having been utterly

TABLE 10.5 Life and Times of Isaiah of Jerusalem


Rezin became king of Damascus/Syria (750–732)
745 Tiglath-Pileser III became king of Assyria (745–727)
743–738 Tiglath-Pileser III campaigned in Syria-Palestine (he is called Pul in 2 Kings 15:19)
742 Isaiah’s temple call vision inaugurated his prophecy (Isaiah 6)
742 Ahaz became king of Jerusalem/Judah (742–727)
738 Menahem, king of Samaria/Israel, paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III
735 Pekah assassinated Pekahiah, king of Samaria/Israel; became king (737–732)
734–732 Syrian–Israelite attack on Judah; Isaiah’s war memoirs (Isaiah 7–8)
732 Hoshea assassinated Pekah of Samaria/Israel; became king (732–724)
732 Tiglath-Pileser III conquered Damascus/Syria
726 Shalmaneser V became king of Assyria (726–722); Hoshea became his vassal
725 Hoshea turned to Egypt for help
724 Shalmaneser V besieged Samaria/Israel
721 Sargon II became king of Assyria (721–705); conquered Samaria/Israel
715–701 Oracles during Hezekiah’s reign (Isaiah 28–32)
704 Sennacherib became king of Assyria (704–681)
Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem/Judah but was unsuccessful (Isaiah 36–39)

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frightened by the encounter. Isaiah’s description of the call has a lot in common with Micaiah’s experience of the Divine Council in First Kings 22. The prophet Ezekiel also relates an experience of standing in the divine presence (Ezekiel 1). All have similarities to Moses’ call experience at the burning bush (Exodus 3). In each of these experiences, the individual is commissioned to go and deliver a message for Yhwh.

The notion of the prophet as a messenger for God is reflected in the widely used formula that introduces prophetic oracles, “Thus says Yhwh.” Most prophets felt unqualified to voice the divine message, but God somehow enabled them to speak. Out of his call experience, described in Chapter 6, Isaiah became the messenger of the divine King.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw Yhwh sitting on a throne, high and exalted. The hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs attended him. Each had six wings: two to cover the face, two to cover the feet, and two to fly. Each called to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is Yhwh of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” The hinges on the thresholds shook from the voices of those heralds, and the house filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me! I am doomed, because I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips. Yet, how is it my eyes have seen the King, Yhwh of hosts?” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, “Because this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is wiped out.” Then I heard the voice of Yhwh saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am, send me!” (6:1–8)

Isaiah’s vision took place in the temple, either in reality or in Isaiah’s imagination. If Isaiah had really been there, this might suggest he had access and was a priest. If only imagined, we might not draw the same conclusion. The vision took place the year that Uzziah died, making it 742 BCE. If this call vision marks the beginning of Isaiah’s formal prophetic work, then it began in that year.

In Isaiah’s call experience, Yhwh is envisioned as the great king attended by his Divine Council. Called seraphs here, a word meaning “fiery ones,” each member of the council had six wings. While foreign to our experience, the figures are on the analogy of the winged protector figures common in Mesopotamia (see Figure 10.7).

With two wings, these Isaiah seraphs flew. With two they covered their feet. These two are an enigma until we realize that feet can be a euphemism (here as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) for genitals. They were guarding their nakedness in the presence of God. With two they covered their faces. Apparently, as with humans, angels cannot look upon God and live. What is remarkable in this passage is that, while the seraphs cannot look upon God, the prophet Isaiah does, and yet he lives.

But in the direct presence of God, Isaiah felt his total inadequacy. He cried out in fear because he recognized his impurity. To avert disaster, a seraph took holy fire and burned away the uncleanness of his mouth. The object of cleansing is the vital instrument of the prophet’s messenger function. Now qualified to serve, Isaiah volunteered to represent God to the people.

Isaiah refers to God as “Yhwh of hosts” here in this passage and frequently elsewhere. This divine title almost surely originated at Shiloh in the northern kingdom and is first attested during the Philistine wars. Although Isaiah is clearly a Judean prophet, the use of this phrase links him with Amos, who also uses it, and with

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Winged Protector

FIGURE 10.7 Winged Protector

A winged figure, often called a sphinx, reflects the ancient Middle Eastern understanding of a heavenly world that included divine messengers, demons, and protectors. This carved ivory winged figure comes from 800s BCE Samaria in Israel.

Source: Graphic by Barry Bandstra based on an ivory plaque from Samaria of a winged protector, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (IDAM 33.2572). See Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), 166–168, no. 82.

the prophetic holy war doctrine of the northern traditions. In like manner, the title “Holy One of Israel,” not used in this passage but frequently elsewhere in Isaiah, was used outside Isaiah only by the earlier northern prophet Hosea (11:9). Not too much should be inferred from this though it does appear that Isaiah was influenced by northern prophets.

3.1.2 Immanuel (7)

In the final arrangement of material, the autobiographical account of Isaiah’s call, dated to 742 BCE, is followed by a third-person biographical narrative describing his counsel to Ahaz eight years later in 734. At that time, Ahaz faced a serious international problem. Judah had just been invaded by the Syrians and Israelites (in the text also called Ephraim). Ahaz was in a quandary over what to do. Should he give in and join the coalition that the Syrians and Israelites were attempting to put together, or should he seek outside assistance against the Syrian–Israelite league?

Isaiah felt divinely compelled to give Ahaz advice. Meeting him in Jerusalem, Isaiah said, “Don’t let your heart be afraid” (7:4). But Ahaz was not inclined to take the advice of the prophet. Apparently, Ahaz was more interested in the pressing political dilemma of his situation and his defensive options than in Isaiah’s pious dynastic promises.

In an attempt to encourage Ahaz further, Isaiah offered to give him a sign or indicator of Yhwh’s continued support of the Davidic dynasty. Ahaz was cavalier about this, too. He did not see the need for a sign, thereby—in the view of the writer—showing a deep disregard of the divine tradition that undergirded and legitimized his position. Now, the sign should not be understood as a magical act

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of some sort but more as an inspired interpretation of a natural happening. Isaiah’s sign was this:

Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son, and will name him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. (7:14–15)

What follows is at least one plausible way to understand this text. Isaiah, obviously being close to the royal court, knew Ahaz’s wife, the queen (here referred to as “the young woman”), and knew that she was pregnant. Perhaps the text is suggesting Isaiah knew this even before Ahaz knew it himself. Isaiah is saying the queen would give birth to a son who would be concrete evidence of Yhwh’s support of the Davidic line, evidence that the Davidic covenant was still intact and that he was “with” them. The name Immanuel literally means “El/God is with us.”

Concern for a crown prince was certainly a high priority of Judean kings, or for that matter, of any king. A son would be proof that the line would continue. A son would be evidence of Yhwh’s direct intervention as was perceived to be the case with so many births in the biblical text. We need only remember Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Samuel to recall the role of divine intervention in conceiving a child. In the context of the present crisis, the impending birth should have been interpreted by Ahaz and all Judeans as a sign of God’s favor. If we continue this line of interpretation, history reveals that the son born to Ahaz was Hezekiah, and Immanuel was his throne name.

The reconstructed scenario that interprets Hezekiah as Immanuel is not the only possible reading. In addition to the figure born to the young woman, two other children are mentioned in Isaiah’s memoirs, and both are clearly sons of Isaiah: Shear-jashub in 7:3 and Maher-shalal-hash-baz in 8:1. Based on this, some interpreters have suggested that Immanuel was also Isaiah’s son and not the son of Ahaz—perhaps the Maher-shalal-hash-baz referred to in 8:1 (see Wolf, 1972) or even a third son (see Gottwald, 1958). But then the logical questions to ask are why the birth of a son to Isaiah should matter to Ahaz and why should it function as an obvious sign of Yhwh’s protection of Jerusalem.

Isaiah went on. Before this child would reach the age of puberty (“knowing how to refuse the evil and choose the good”), the threat posed by Syria and Israel would be gone. “Curds and honey” may be an allusion to the “milk and honey” of the Promised Land, a positive allusion to security in the land derived from the conquest tradition, but others claim that this is scavenger food indicating a coming time of desolation. Indeed, as events worked out, Damascus of Syria was destroyed in 732 and Samaria of Israel in 721, just about the time Hezekiah, born around 734, was reaching puberty. Note, however, that the chronology of the life of Hezekiah is difficult to pin down due to contradictions within 2 Kings 18. We follow verse 13, which places the beginning of his reign at 715, making him 21 years old when he ascended the throne, against verse 2, which puts his age at 25 years old.

The sign was intended to provide concrete evidence of God’s continued care so that Ahaz would trust Yhwh rather than act rashly in a political way to counter the Syrian–Israelite threat. Contrary to Isaiah’s advice to sit tight and trust Yhwh, however, Ahaz decided to take things into his own hands. He invited Tiglath-Pileser III and the Assyrians to help fend off the Syrian–Israelite league. They gladly accepted, and although Assyrian aid dissipated the immediate threat, Judah was forced to become an Assyrian client state and remained such for about a century.

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You may have noticed that the autobiographical Chapter 6 is separated from biographical Chapter 7 by some eight years. And Chapter 7 is followed by another autobiographical piece, this one foretelling the coming of the Assyrians. We might want to ask why the material is arranged this way. More specifically, why is the biographical piece about Immanuel injected here? The answer has to do with the call narrative. Isaiah’s burden of prophecy, as indicated by Yhwh in that account, would be to speak to a people who would hear but not listen, who would not repent to avert disaster:

“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend. . . .’ Then I said, ‘How long, O Yhwh?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, . . . until Yhwh sends everyone far away.’” (6:9, 11–12)

Ahaz’s reaction to the counsel of Isaiah and his rejection of the Immanuel sign in Chapter 7 demonstrates just the kind of callousness that Isaiah was told to expect in that inaugural vision. The result was divine judgment, which came as Chapter 8 foresaw, when the forces of Assyria swept over Judah.

From these chapters, we see that Isaiah the prophet was heavily involved in Judean politics—close to the king, yet not a “yes-man.” What else can we say about the involvement of Isaiah in Judean political life? Isaiah may have been a member of the loyal opposition party that opposed Ahaz’s policy of accommodation to the Assyrian empire. He also appears to have been more of a parochial Judean traditionalist than Ahaz, preferring isolationism to involvement in international affairs.

3.1.3 Dynastic Promise (8–11)

Isaiah and his party were at odds with royal policy during the reign of Ahaz. Although opposed to specific royal policies, Isaiah was still a staunch supporter in principle of the Davidic dynasty. The poems of Chapters 9–11 express the hope that Isaiah attached to the Davidic heir. By their proximity to the Immanuel prophecy of Chapter 7, they appear to express the profound expectation that the prophet and the people had for a rebirth of national pride and status. Interpreted this way, they probably referred to Hezekiah as well. Isaiah 9:2–7 could be interpreted as a coronation hymn in celebration of the crown prince Hezekiah’s accession to the throne (see Sweeney, 1996):

“For a child has been born to us, a son given to us. Authority rests on his shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority will continue to grow, and there will be everlasting peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and sustain it with justice and with righteousness from now and into the future forever. The zeal of Yhwh of hosts will do it.” (9:6–7)

With these words—made especially well known by Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah —Isaiah reflected the anticipation that the people felt at the royal birth. Isaiah saw the ongoing tradition of Davidic kingship as the institution through which Yhwh would mediate peace and salvation to the people. Such high ideals no doubt fed popular expectations of prosperity and equity—ideals that Judah’s actual kings rarely met. The people’s disappointments in turn fed anticipation of yet a better Davidic king who would meet the ideal, an expectation which developed into the grand ideal of the coming Messiah.

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Map of the Assyrian Empire

FIGURE 10.8 Map of the Assyrian Empire

The idealized reign of the Davidic messianic king is laid out in the magnificent language of 11:1–9. The spirit of Yhwh will bestow the virtues of wisdom and discernment on the branch that will emerge from the tree trunk of Jesse—a reference to David’s father. This king to come will be an advocate for the poor and meek. Even the natural creation will benefit from his kingdom of righteousness and shalom: Wolf and lamb, lion and calf, will reside amicably together. Strong was Judah’s desire for peace and security.

3.1.4 Sennacherib’s Invasion (36–39)

Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz in 715 BCE and inherited an independent but insecure Judah, one still threatened by Assyria (see Figure 10.8). Shortly after taking the throne, he instituted a policy of expansion. He sought to take Edomite territory to the south and Philistine territory to the west. He also looked to join an anti-Assyrian coalition that included Egypt. Isaiah sought to dissuade him, saying this could lead only to disaster (22:1–8, 12–14; 30:8–17).

Nonetheless, Hezekiah instituted a policy of revolt against Assyria. This fired the wrath of Sennacherib of Assyria, who invaded Judah in 701. He captured Judah’s main fortified towns, including Lachish from which he organized his attack on

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Sennacherib Attacks Lachish

FIGURE 10.9 Sennacherib Attacks Lachish

This scene from the palace of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, depicts Sennacherib’s attack on Lachish, a Judean town he captured in 701 BCE.

Source: Assyrian Relief of the Siege of Lachish. Werner Forman/Corbis. Courtesy of Corbis.

Jerusalem (see Figure 10.9). The text includes a rather detailed account of Sennacherib’s envoy Rabshakeh, who went to Jerusalem to press the case for surrender. He spoke directly to the citizens of Jerusalem in Hebrew, but Hezekiah’s staff urged him to switch to Aramaic, which only they could understand, so as not to undermine the morale of the city—which Rabshakeh refused to do. This provides an interesting situation in which opposing sides were trying each to win the hearts and minds of the populace.

The text tells us that the angel of Yhwh killed 185,000 troops that were besieging Jerusalem, demolishing the Assyrian war machine. The crisis, recounted in Chapters 36–37 as well as in 2 Kings 18–19, was thus resolved, and Sennacherib returned home to Nineveh, only to be assassinated there by his sons. This was taken as proof of the policy that Isaiah promoted and in general reaffirmed the power of Yhwh to protect Jerusalem and the Davidic empire.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Isaiah 36–39 and 2 Kings 18–20.”

Isaiah continued to provide counsel and support to Hezekiah. Later, Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah during a serious illness (Chapter 38). Hezekiah was given added years of life as a reward for his piety. These last chapters of First Isaiah, along with 7–11, demonstrate the close connection between Isaiah and the Davidic line. Isaiah tried by various means to provide assurances, usually by means of signs, that Yhwh was protecting Jerusalem and keeping the promise of the Davidic dynastic covenant.

Chapter 39, the last chapter of First Isaiah, contains Isaiah’s rebuke of Hezekiah for allowing envoys of the Babylonian king Merodach-Baladan to see the Jerusalem

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TABLE 10.6 Structure of Micah



1–2 1:2–2:11 2:12–13
3–5 3:1–12 4:1–5:15

royal treasury. In a bit of foreshadowing, Isaiah used this indiscretion to suggest a precipitating cause of the coming Babylonian exile:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of Yhwh of hosts: ‘Days are coming when everything in your house and everything your ancestors have accumulated up until today will be carried to Babylon. Nothing will remain,’ says Yhwh.” (39:5–6)

After Isaiah says this, Hezekiah responds rather callously by saying that this was fine with him, as long as there would be peace and security throughout his own lifetime. This is all a fitting, and no doubt editorially intentional, transition to Second Isaiah, which is set in the time of that very exile.

3.2 Micah

Micah was a southerner, a Judean, as was Amos. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem and came from a rural background, specifically from a town called Moresheth, which lay to the west of Jerusalem. Micah may have been a Moresheth city councilman who served as an advocate for his people, presenting their concerns to the rich and famous in Jerusalem (see Wolff, 1981). Micah is cited in Jeremiah 26 as an antiestablishment prophet who nonetheless was respected by the king.

The book of Micah consists of three units (see Table 10.6). Each of the three main sections opens with the call: “Hear!” Each has the same basic structure, alternating disaster and salvation, such as we saw in the book of Hosea. There is scholarly agreement that most of Chapters 1–3 come from Micah, with the latter chapters coming from elsewhere.

Micah prophesied in the latter half of the 700s during the rising threat of the Assyrian empire. Except for one oracle that includes the northern kingdom within its purview (1:2–7), the bulk of the message was directed at Judah. The oracle that predicts the demise of Samaria places the earliest words of Micah before 721. The explicit allusion to the Babylonian exile, as well as the repatriation hinted at in 4:9–10, indicates that the book went through the hands of editors as late as the postexilic period.

Micah’s social criticism consists of a critique of the economic aristocrats, whose greed for homes and property had no bounds. Micah opposed the ritualistic righteousness of the pious (as did the other eighth-century prophets, especially Amos but also Hosea and Isaiah):

With what should I come before Yhwh, and bow before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings, year old calves? Would Yhwh be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my sin, the produce of my own body for my very own sin? He has told you, O Mortal, what is good, what Yhwh requires of you: Do justice! Love kindness! Walk humbly with your God. (6:6–8)

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This passage appears to borrow from temple liturgies through which the worshipper sought entry into the presence of God; for a similar liturgy, see Psalm 24. The prophet Micah modified this genre and applied it to one’s personal relationship with God.

The earnestness with which Micah pursued a critique of the opportunistic and heartless upper class suggests that he may have been one of the farmers who was threatened by the influential aristocracy (see 3:2–3). He probably belonged to that class called “the people of the land,” conservative landowners who were distrustful of royal and religious bureaucrats who sought to control their lives.

The preaching of Micah might have contributed to the Deuteronomic reform movement in Judah (see Blenkinsopp, 1983). This movement advocated land reform but at the same time was supportive of the Davidic monarchy as long as kings remained true to Mosaic ideals. This seems to be the intent of Deuteronomy 17:14–20, which is the Deuteronomic law regulating the monarchy lest it acquire too much power or wealth.

Micah wrestled with the nature of prophecy and condemned prophets who worked for wages. Perhaps he was standing in critique of cult or royal prophets who were eager to please their earthly masters (see 3:5–6). In contrast to these “official” prophets, he claims to be “filled with power, the spirit of YHHWH, justice, and strength” (3:8). He is much like Amos before him who claimed he was not a prophet but a shepherd who was called to his task directly by Yhwh (Amos 7:15).

The prophets who Micah criticized were the ones who produced and promoted the official Zion theology that legitimated the royal house. Based on their belief in the divine election of the nation, the Davidic dynasty, and the city of Jerusalem, they promoted a theology that was highly supportive of the governing establishment. Micah pointed out that this type of theology was prone to deceive the rulers by feeding their need for support and reassurance and by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear.

In 3:11–12, he criticizes the self-assured security of those who claimed Zion and Jerusalem were impregnable. He even predicts that Jerusalem will become “a mound of ruins” and the temple mount will turn back into a forested hilltop. This very text is quoted in Jeremiah 26: 18 in the context of the temple sermon. As reflected in this Jeremiah text, Micah had found himself in conflict with the royal administration because he predicted the downfall of Jerusalem. But Hezekiah did not execute him for undermining support for the king’s policy. It was argued that if Hezekiah did not execute Micah for treason, then Jehoiakim should not execute Jeremiah.

The book of Micah does not reject Davidic ideology completely. Certain passages do affirm a good future for Jerusalem and the royal house, including this one:

You, Bethlehem of the Ephrathites, small among the tribes of Judah—you will produce for me a ruler in Israel, one whose origin is venerable, from ancient times. (5:2)

Bethlehem was venerated because it was the birthplace of the founder of the ruling family. These words, along with most of the rest of Chapters 4–7, are usually attributed to another writer later than Micah. These chapters put the book more in sympathy with later, perhaps postexilic, Jerusalemite hopes by projecting a positive image of the Davidic dynasty.

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1. Zion. What is the primary geographical reference of this term? What does Zion and the name Mount Zion come to signify? What theopolitical ideology is associated with this term?

2. Day of Yhwh. What does this notion signify? How does Amos change the sense of this notion in its application to Israel?

3. Immanuel. What does this name mean? How does it function as a sign to Ahaz during the Syrian–Israelite crisis?


1. Assyrian crisis. In what ways did Assyrian domination affect Israel differently from Judah? What were the different results on Israel and Judah? How does the Deuteronomistic historian explain these differing results?

2. Immanuel prophecy. Evaluate the counsel that Isaiah gave to Ahaz during the Syrian–Israelite crisis. Was it politically prudent? Was it realistic? Would you have given Isaiah’s sign credibility if you had been king? Think about the role of religious faith in political decision making today. Should our leaders today retain the counsel of important church or synagogue leaders and make decisions based on their moral or biblical advice?


How to Read the Prophets, by Jean-Pierre Prevost (1997), is a useful guide. Isaiah and the Deliverance of Jerusalem: A Study of the Interpretation of Prophecy in the Old Testament, by Ronald E. Clements (1980), is an interesting case study in the symbiosis of prophecy and history. Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation, by Miguel De La Torre (2008), reads the book of Jonah as a case study of reconciliation between oppressors and the oppressed. Famous peace activist Daniel Berrigan wrote The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power (2008) as a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings and as a mirror of contemporary nation-states.