Deutero-Isaiah Reworks Past Prophecies to Comfort Israel
Introduction: Borrowing and Allusion in Jewish Literature
One of the most prominent features of Jewish writing through the ages has been its emphasis on studying and borrowing from earlier Jewish writings. When religious Jews sit down to compose a prayer, a teaching, or a reflection, they strive to be mouthpieces for a longer tradition. By inviting that tradition into a new place or a new situation, the writer or sage elucidates teachings from the past and provides new teachings greater authority by associating them with the past.
The practice of alluding to earlier sources is found in classical Jewish writings as well as in modern Israeli literature by “secular” authors. The late poet Yehudah Amichai announces, toward the beginning his poem “I Am a Poor Prophet”:
The great prophets threw out half their prophecies
Like cigarettes smoked half-way by some nervous smoker.
I gather them up and make myself poor prophecies from them.
Amichai sees himself as poor or humble (עני) compared to the Hebrew writers who came before him: as a poet who recycles older words, he is a latecomer, for Jewish literature has always included reworkings or interpretations of older texts. Yet if Amichai seeks consolation as he attempts to reread what was reread many times before, he can at least recall that he is in good company: kabbalists and philosophers, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, Hillel and Shammai all stood where he stands, gathered in the field where he gathers.
Biblical Religion as a Text-Based Tradition
But it is not only postbiblical authors who have this relationship to texts from the Bible. Modern biblical scholarship shows that the biblical authors themselves also comment on, explain, revise, argue with, and allude to texts written by their predecessors. The presence of this tendency within the Bible itself shows that the religion of the ancient Israelites was, like the forms of Judaism that came after it, already a text-based religion, a set of beliefs and practices dependent not only on oral traditions but also on authoritative documents.
As priests and prophets, scribes and psalmists added to the traditions of ancient Israel, they read earlier texts, explained them in new ways, and applied their principles to new situations. It follows that the religion that generated the Bible resembles the religions generated by the Bible. Israelite thinkers looked back to existing texts and constructed new works in relation to the earlier ones.
This way of using older texts is especially common in the latter part of the book of Isaiah, beginning at chapter 40, which was written during and shortly after the Babylonian exile. We don’t know the name (or even the gender) of the author of this part of the book, so modern biblical scholars refer to the prophet as “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah.”
This prophet addressed exiled Jews in Babylonia, many of whom had never seen their homeland. Some of them doubted whether God still loved the Jewish people and whether the Jewish people had any future. Others wondered whether the God of Israel was really the creator of the world and thus powerful enough to defeat Babylon’s gods. The prophet attempted to comfort the exiles, to explain the reasons for their exilic plight, and to convince them that Babylonia’s empire would soon collapse and that they would be able to return to their ancient homeland.
Deutero-Isaiah Reworks Older Texts
Every single chapter of Deutero-Isaiah contains multiple borrowings from older biblical literature. The prophet reworks the language of the earlier texts in delightful ways, often using puns to echo the source.
In this essay, I share a few examples of these allusions from the haftarah read on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av (Isaiah 40). Many similar examples are found in the other “haftarot of consolation” that we read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, all of which are taken from Deutero-Isaiah. As we will see, the prophet utilizes the older texts in ways that help further the message of comfort and consolation to the exiles.
Echoing Jeremiah’s Words of Comfort (Isaiah 40:9–10)
The prophet whose writings Deutero-Isaiah draws on most often is Jeremiah, who lived about two generations earlier. Jeremiah predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the fall of the kingdom of Judah, and the exile of many Judeans to Babylonia.
One of these allusions appears in the opening passage of Deutero-Isaiah’s prophetic work (Isaiah 40:9–10), in which the prophet quotes God as calling on heavenly messengers to bring a message of comfort and renewal to Zion and the land of Judah. The messengers were to proclaim to these personified locations that their subjugation to the Babylonians was coming to an end:
עַל הַר־גָּבֹהַ עֲלִי־לָךְ
הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ
אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה
הִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה בְּחָזָק יָבוֹא
וּזְרֹעוֹ מֹשְׁלָה לוֹ
הִנֵּה שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ
Go up on a high mountain,
you who bring good tidings to Zion!
Raise your voice in strength,
you who bring good tidings to Jerusalem!
Go up, do not fear!
Say to the cities of Judah,
Behold your God!
Behold, the Lord God is coming as a strong one,
and His arm brings dominion for Him.
His reward is with Him,
and His recompense (peʿulato) before Him.
Over the course of these poetic lines, Deutero-Isaiah borrows vocabulary from Jeremiah 31:16, which reads:
מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי
כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ
וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב
Hold back your voice from crying,
and your eyes from tears.
For there is a reward for your service (peʿulatek)
— says God
—and they will return from the enemy’s land.
This brief allusion illustrates two characteristic examples of Deutero-Isaiah’s playfulness:
Split Allusion – Deutero-Isaiah often takes a phrase from the source and splits it into two parts. This creates a sense of expectation among listeners, many of whom probably knew the source text quite well. The listeners, having heard the beginning of the phrase from the source, anticipate the appearance of the rest of the phrase and enjoy it when it finally arrives, a few words or even sentences later. In this case, the phrase שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ, “a reward for your service,” from Jeremiah 31:16 is divided into two phrases in Isaiah 40:10: שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ / וּפְעֻלָּתוֹ לְפָנָיו, “His reward is with Him / and His recompense for service is before Him.”
Sound Play – Another playful way that Deutero-Isaiah alludes to words from the source is by hinting at them through similar-sounding words. In our case, Deutero-Isaiah alludes to the phrase מנעי קולך מבכי (minʿi qoleik mibbeki – “hold back your voice from crying”) with the words הרימי בכח קולך (harimi bakkoăḥ qoleik – “raise your voice in strength”). Only the word קולך, “your voice,” is taken verbatim from the source, but בכח (bakkoaḥ – “in strength”) in Isaiah recalls בכי (beki – “crying”) from Jeremiah because the words share the letters bet and kaph, giving the two phrases an overall similarity in sound.
Reiterating Jeremiah but Changing His Tone
Deutero-Isaiah assures the exiles in Babylonia that what Jeremiah said really will come true by reworking the message of the earlier prophecy and altering its tone: the new prophecy is more enthusiastic and more positive, and it doesn’t refer to tears at all. Through omission, this anonymous prophet is saying that the time for crying has past, and the redemption is at hand.
Recalling Jeremiah’s Confirmed Prediction (Isaiah 40:2; 61:7)
But Deutero-Isaiah does more than simply repeat Jeremiah’s positive prediction more enthusiastically. The later prophet also makes a separate effort to counter any doubts the people might have that Jeremiah’s half-century old prophecies of restoration will really come to fruition. To strengthen Jeremiah’s credibility, Deutero-Isaiah reminds the audience of other prophecies of Jeremiah’s that proved reliable: prophecies of exile and destruction. Just as Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom were accurate, so too will Jeremiah’s words of comfort prove accurate.
Deutero-Isaiah reminds us of Jeremiah’s negative predictions in Isaiah 40:2, where God says of Jerusalem:
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ
כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה
It’s true: Her term of service is complete!
It’s true: Her punishment has been accepted!
It’s true: She has received from God
a twofold penalty for all her sins!
Deutero-Isaiah also refers to a twofold punishment in 61:7:
תַּחַת בָּשְׁתְּכֶם מִשְׁנֶה
וּכְלִמָּה יָרֹנּוּ חֶלְקָם
לָכֵן בְּאַרְצָם מִשְׁנֶה יִירָשׁוּ
Because they were put to shame doubly
and inherited contempt as their portion,
therefore they will inherit doubly in their land.
In both these passages, the prophet recalls Jeremiah’s prediction that the nation Israel would receive “a twofold punishment” for its sins (Jeremiah 16:17–18):
כִּי עֵינַי עַל־כָּל־דַּרְכֵיהֶם
לֹא נִסְתְּרוּ מִלְּפָנָי
וְלֹא־נִצְפַּן עֲוֹנָם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי׃
וְשִׁלַּמְתִּי רִאשׁוֹנָה מִשְׁנֵה עֲוֹנָם
עַל חַלְּלָם אֶת־אַרְצִי
It’s true: I descry all their ways;
They are not hidden from Me.
Their transgression is not concealed from My eyes.
I shall fully repay double for their transgression
and their sin
Because they profaned my land.
Here again, we see the playful characteristics noted above:
Sound Play – Jeremiah uses the word עון to mean “transgression,” but Deutero-Isaiah uses it with another of this word’s meanings, “punishment.” This is an example of punning, a type of sound play that preserves the sound while introducing a new sense, which occurs frequently in Deutero-Isaiah’s allusions.
Split Allusion – The shared terms עֲוֹנָם וְחַטָּאתָם (“their transgression and their sin”) occur next to each other in Jeremiah, but they have been split apart in Isaiah 40:2, where חַטֹּאתֶיהָ (“her sins”) appears two lines after עֲוֹנָהּ (there, “punishment”).
A further reference to the twofold punishment of Jeremiah 16:18 occurs in Isaiah 65:6–7, demonstrating that this verse in Jeremiah was a favorite of our exilic prophet.
Proof that Jeremiah is Reliable
In both Isaiah 40:2 and 61:7, Deutero-Isaiah notes that Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom has come true; God’s justified wrath has run its course. This was a terrible thing, but it does show that God’s prophets are reliable. Jeremiah—and Deutero-Isaiah—can be trusted when they say that restoration will follow the destruction.
Recasting Isaiah of Jerusalem’s Doom as Hope
In the same way that Deutero-Isaiah reminds the audience of negative prophecies from Jeremiah for a positive reason, he recalls those of Isaiah of Jerusalem (also called “First Isaiah”), the eighth-century prophet responsible for material in the first part of the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 28:1–5, Isaiah of Jerusalem reproaches the inhabitants of Samaria, the capital of Ephraim (the northern Israelite kingdom):
הוֹי עֲטֶרֶת גֵּאוּת שִׁכֹּרֵי אֶפְרַיִם
וְצִיץ נֹבֵל צְבִי תִפְאַרְתּוֹ
אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשׁ גֵּיא
שְׁמָנִים הֲלוּמֵי יָיִן׃
Woe to you, haughty crown of Ephraim’s drunkards!
[Samaria’s] magnificent (tsĕbi)honor is a
flower that fades. Those above the fertile
valley are besotted with wine.
הִנֵּה חָזָק וְאַמִּץ לַאדֹנָי
כְּזֶרֶם בָּרָד שַׂעַר קָטֶב …
Behold the Lord has a strong and powerful one,
who like a stream of hail, a torrent of pestilence . . .
הִנִּיחַ לָאָרֶץ בְּיָד׃
will throw [the drunkard of Ephraim]
down to earth with his hand …
וְהָיְתָה צִיצַת נֹבֵל צְבִי
תִפְאַרְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עַל
רֹאשׁ גֵּיא שְׁמָנִים…
The magnificent honor of the city [Samaria] above
the fertile valley will
be a flower that fade . . .
בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת
לַעֲטֶרֶת צְבִי וְלִצְפִירַת
תִּפְאָרָה לִשְׁאָר עַמּוֹ׃
On that day, God of hosts will become
a magnificent crown and an honorable
diadem for those of His people who remain.
This complex poetry, written in very difficult Hebrew, serves as the basis of Deutero-Isaiah’s opening words, in Isaiah 40:1–10:
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי
דַּבְּרוּ עַל־לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ
כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְ-הוָה
Comfort, O comfort My people —
Your God is saying —
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her:
It’s true: her term of service (tsĕba’ah) is complete;
It’s true: her punishment has been fulfilled;
It’s true: she has received from YHWH’s hand
a twofold penalty for all her sins.
בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ-הוָה
A voice calls:
In the wilderness, prepare the way for God!
set up a highway for
our God in the desert!
כָּל גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכָל
הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ…
Every valley will be exalted,
and every mountain and hill will be lowered. . .
קוֹל אֹמֵר …
A voice proclaims: . . .
כָּל הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר וְכָל
חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה׃
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ כִּי
רוּחַ יְ-הוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ…
All flesh is grass,
and all its loyalty like the flower in the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the wind from God blows on it. . .
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ
וּדְבַר אֱלֹהֵינוּ יָקוּם
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God
stands forever. . .
הִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה בְּחָזָק
יָבוֹא וּזְרֹעוֹ מֹשְׁלָה לוֹ
Behold! the Lord God is coming as a strong one,
His might is triumphant.Again, we find the following features:
Split Allusion – In Isaiah of Jerusalem’s prophecy, הנה (“behold”) occurs immediately before חזק (“strong”), but in Deutero-Isaiah they are separated: “Behold a strong…” becomes, “Behold! the Lord God is coming as a strong one.”
Sound Play – the word צבאה (tsĕba’ah – “term of service”) in Isaiah 40:2 hints back at the similar-sounding word צבי (tsĕbi – “magnificence”) in Isaiah 28:1 and 28:5.
Reversing the Message
Words that in the earlier prophet rebuked and predicted doom reappear in 40:10 as figures of hope. In chapter 29, the “powerful one” whom the Lord sent to punish Israel is the Assyrian army, which Isaiah of Jerusalem accurately predicted would bring disaster to the northern kingdom. But in Deutero-Isaiah, the Lord Godself comes as the “powerful one” to redeem the people. Thus the exilic prophet reverses the negative message of the source text. Comfort replaces disaster.
At the same time, Deutero-Isaiah subtly reminds the audience that the disasters that overcame Israel were predicted by God’s prophets. These disasters do not indicate that God is not present, or that Babylonian or Assyrian gods are more powerful than God. Rather, it was God who brought the Assyrians and Babylonians to punish Israel. Now that the punishment is complete, it will be God, just as powerfully and reliably, who brings another nation to redeem the Judean exiles and bring them back to their own land.
New Life from Old Sources
In recasting Isaiah’s negative words in this hopeful way, Deutero-Isaiah at once increases respect for an older tradition—for after all, it turned out to be right—even as he moves that tradition forward with the renewal of hope. In this way, our exilic prophet serves as a metaphor for Judaism itself, which ever moves in new directions precisely by going back to its sources, holding on to them and reworking them, treating them as a tree of life.
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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”
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