YHWH Will Restore Israel’s Borders: Isaiah 27 Responds to Psalm 80
Isaiah 27 features four prophecies that describe what will happen בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, “on that day,” a reference to a future judgment day. The first promise, only one verse long, speaks about how YHWH will slay the sea-monster Leviathan “on that day” (v. 1). Next, YHWH promises that the earth will become a vineyard of delight, into which Israel will plant firm roots and grow fruit (vv. 2–6).
The third prophecy, vv. 7–12, ends with an opaque promise. It speaks of YHWH beating something or someone out from rivers, but the direct object, indicating what will be beaten, is missing:
ישׁעיה כז:יב וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יַחְבֹּט יְ־הוָה מִשִּׁבֹּלֶת הַנָּהָר עַד־נַחַל מִצְרָיִם וְאַתֶּם תְּלֻקְּטוּ לְאַחַד אֶחָד בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Isa 27:12 And on that day, YHWH will beat out from the channel of the River to the Brook of Egypt; and you shall be collected one by one, O children of Israel.
The significance of “from the River,” i.e., the Euphrates in Syria, “to the Brook of Egypt,” i.e., Wadi el-Arish in the Sinai, is also unclear. What is the relationship between these two rivers and why will YHWH be beating someone or something from them? Moreover, how does the first part of the verse, which deals with the beating, connect to the second part, which deals with the collecting of the Israelites?
Returning Exiles to Their Homeland
The most common interpretation among traditional commentators is to read the next “on that day” (v. 13) as a continuation of the prophecy in the previous verse (v. 12):
ישעיה כז:יג וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִתָּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר וְהַנִּדָּחִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַי־הוָה בְּהַר הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
Isa 27:13 And on that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship YHWH on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.
The meaning of this verse is clear: YHWH will gather the exiles from Assyria and Egypt and bring them home. Reading verse 12 in light of this verse, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) writes:
משבולת הנהר – הם האובדים בארץ אשור. ועד נחל מצרים – הם הנדחים בארץ מצרים. ואתם תלוקטו – מן הגליות.
“From the channel of the River”—referring to those lost in the land of Assyria. “Until the Brook of Egypt”—referring to those scattered throughout the land of Egypt. “And you will be gathered”—from the exiles.
According to this, YHWH will “beat” the lost Israelites out of their exile and return them to their homeland.
R. Eleazer of Beaugency, the 12th century peshat commentator, reads the verse somewhat similarly, though for him the ones being beaten are the gentiles holding the Israelites in captivity:
יחבט – הגוים שמשבלת הנהר – נהר פרת, עד נחל מצרים – להשיר ולהוציא טחן ישראל כזה שחובט ענפי הזיתים להוציא ולהשיר הפרי.
“He will beat out” the gentiles who are “from the channel of the River” the Euphrates River, “until the Brook of Egypt” to loosen and remove the crushed Israelites, just as one beats the branches of an olive tree to allow the fruit to drop.
ודימה הגוים לענפים וישראל לפרי הזית שכן הן ישראל מעורבין בין האומות בגלותם כפרי הזית בין הענפים.
And he analogizes gentiles to branches and Israelites to olives since the Israelites are mixed in with the nations in their exile like olives among the branches.
While this is an attractive approach, it goes against how “on this day” works in this chapter. Up until now, each of these has been its own, self-contained prophecy, and thus v. 13, like v. 1, is best read as a unit comprised of a single verse. Moreover, v. 13 as a continuation of v. 12 does not accord with the way the MT separates the two verses with a setumah (minor paragraph) division. The Great Isaiah scroll, 1QIsaa, also has a space between vv. 12 and 13. In short, it seems unlikely that the two verses are meant to express one prophecy.
Denoting Israel’s Borders
Other scholars suggest that verse 12 is a promise to establish Israel in its expansive borders, as they appear, for instance, in YHWH’s promise to Abraham in the Covenant between the Parts:
בראשׁית טו:יח ...לְזַרְעֲךָ נָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת מִנְּהַר מִצְרַיִם עַד הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר פְּרָת.
Gen 15:18 …To your offspring I assign this land, from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
In this vein, after explaining the traditional reading about Israelites in exile (with which he agrees), Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) mentions two German scholars, Ernst Rosenmüller (1768–1835) and Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842), who read the text as referring to Israel’s borders:
ורוזנמילר וגיזניוס פירשו שהכוונה שירחיב ה' את גבול ארץ ישראל מנהר מצרים עד נהר פרת, כמו שהיתה הארץ אשר נתן ה' לאברהם (בראשית ט"ו:י"ח), וכמו שהיתה ארץ ישראל בימי דוד ושלמה.
Rosenmüller and Gesenius explained that the meaning is that God will expand the borders of the land of Israel from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River, as the land was when God gave it to Abraham (Gen 15:18) and as it was in the time of David and Solomon.
Shadal himself argues that this reading does not work with the ending of the verse:
וזה לא יתיישב על לשון ואתם תלקטו שמשמעו שיבואו מארצות אחרות לארץ ישראל ואיננו מסכים לפסוק שאחריו, גם אין לשון יחבוט מתפרש לפי דרך זה.
But this does not fit with the language of “and you shall be collected,” which implies that they will be gathered from other lands to the land of Israel. It also doesn’t fit the context of the following verse. Furthermore, the language of “beating” is not explicable according to this approach.
Shadal continues by explaining how Rosenmüller and Gesenius each attempt to explain the verse to deal with these problems, and why he still thinks these answers are insufficient:
וגיזניוס מפרש משל החביטה כאלו יחבוט ה' אילנות ארץ ישראל ויפלו מהם אנשים שימלאו את הארץ יושבים, ולפי זה אין תלוקטו עולה יפה, גם לא הפסוק שאחריו.
Now Gesenius explains the analogy of beating to mean that God beats the trees in the land of Israel, and from them, people tumble down and fill up the land with inhabitants. But in this reading, the image of being collected does not fit well, neither does the verse afterwards.
ורוזנמילר מפרש כי ה' יביא מהומה גדולה בארץ ישראל ויפריד ישראל משאר הגוים היושבים עליה כמו שהחובט מפריד הפרי מן האילן, וגם זה רחוק מאד.
Rosenmüller explains [the analogy] that God will bring a great tumult upon the land of Israel, and will separate the Israelites from the other nations who live upon it, just as a person separates fruit from a tree. This too is a very unlikely suggestion.
While Shadal’s objections to reading the toponyms as borders are easy to understand, support for reading this verse as a promise to establish the expansive borders of Israel comes from the LXX translation of the verse.
Fencing off the Land: The Septuagint Rendering
The Septuagint renders the verse differently than the Hebrew:
And in that day the Lord will fence [off/in] from the channel of the River to Rhinocorura (=El Arish); but [as for] you, gather the people of Israel one by one.
The Greek text uses the verb συμφράζει (sumfradzei), “fence off/in” in place of the verb ח.ב.ט, “beat out.” It seems impossible for this to be a direct translation of the Hebrew verb and thus scholars have suggested that the Greek had a different Vorlage (Hebrew base text), יחבש, from the root ח.ב.ש, which means “to bind, wrap, twist, fetter.” A confusion of shin and tet is unusual but not unheard of.
A more promising explanation for the Septuagint's translation is that the term יחבט should be understood in light of the rabbinic usage, and reflects the underlying notion of “binding and enclosing.” This verse would then be similar to the phrase in Isaiah 30:26, בְּיוֹם חֲבֹשׁ יְ־הֹוָה אֶת שֶׁבֶר עַמּוֹ “on the day YHWH binds up his people’s wounds.”
The verse, or at least the LXX’s understanding of it, was likely influenced by an inner-biblical exegesis of a passage in Psalms.
Breaching the Walls of Israel in Psalm 80
Psalm 80 describes Israel as a vine plucked from Egypt and planted in a vineyard, i.e., in the land of Israel:
תהלים פ:ט גֶּפֶן מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּסִּיעַ תְּגָרֵשׁ גּוֹיִם וַתִּטָּעֶהָ. פ:י פִּנִּיתָ לְפָנֶיהָ וַתַּשְׁרֵשׁ שָׁרָשֶׁיהָ וַתְּמַלֵּא אָרֶץ. פ:יא כָּסּוּ הָרִים צִלָּהּ וַעֲנָפֶיהָ אַרְזֵי אֵל. פ:יב תְּשַׁלַּח קְצִירֶהָ עַד יָם וְאֶל נָהָר יוֹנְקוֹתֶיהָ.
Ps 80:9 You plucked up a vine from Egypt; you expelled nations and planted it. 80:10 You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. 80:11 The mountains were covered by its shade, mighty cedars by its boughs. 80:12 Its branches reached the sea, its shoots, the river.
The text continues with how this ideal situation deteriorates:
תהלים פ:יג לָמָּה פָּרַצְתָּ גְדֵרֶיהָ וְאָרוּהָ כָּל עֹבְרֵי דָרֶךְ. פ:יד יְכַרְסְמֶנָּה חֲזִיר מִיָּעַר וְזִיז שָׂדַי יִרְעֶנָּה.
Ps 80:13 Why did You breach its wall, so that every passerby plucks its fruit, 80:14 wild boars gnaw at it, and creatures of the field feed on it?
According to this metaphor, God breaks through the walls enclosing the vine, which represents Israel. As a result, those who pass by the vine are free to pick its fruit, and wild animals can gnaw at it. The Psalmist therefore turns to God in hopes that God will restore the vine to its original condition:
תהלים פ:טו אֱלֹהִים צְבָאוֹת שׁוּב נָא הַבֵּט מִשָּׁמַיִם וּרְאֵה וּפְקֹד גֶּפֶן זֹאת. פ:טז וְכַנָּה אֲשֶׁר נָטְעָה יְמִינֶךָ וְעַל בֵּן אִמַּצְתָּה לָּךְ. פ:יז שְׂרֻפָה בָאֵשׁ כְּסוּחָה מִגַּעֲרַת פָּנֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ.
Ps 80:15 O God of hosts, turn again, look down from heaven and see; take note of that vine, 80:16 the stock planted by your right hand, the stem you have taken as Your own. 80:17 For it is burned by fire and cut down, perishing before your angry blast.
Psalm 80:13 and LXX Isaiah 27:12 narrate opposite situations: whereas Psalm 80 refers to the deity tearing down the metaphoric wall with which God enclosed the vineyard—i.e., the people of Israel whom God brought out of Egypt, LXX Isaiah 27:12 states that the day will come when the deity will erect a structure enclosing the entirety of the land of Israel. These texts are connected in other ways as well.
A Vine from River to Sea
The Psalm makes reference to Israel’s boundaries, by means of the vines’ roots and shade:
פ:יב תְּשַׁלַּח קְצִירֶהָ עַד־יָם וְאֶל־נָהָר יוֹנְקוֹתֶיהָ.
80:12 Its branches reached the Sea, its shoots, the River.
The Sea here is the Mediterranean and the River likely means the Euphrates. To be sure, the pair “sea//river” is amply attested in Ugaritic sources and the Hebrew Bible in contexts having no bearing on the boundaries of Israel. Nevertheless, what matters in this context is that the author of Isaiah 27 could reasonably have understood Psalm 80:12 as a reference to Israel expanding to its promised borders. Indeed, the idea of Israel taking root and/or blossoming and spreading outward is shared by both passages (Isa 27:6, Ps 80:9–10).
Restoration or No Restoration?
The phrase in the MT (Ps 80:16–17) וּפְקֹד גֶּפֶן זֹאת וְכַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָטְעָה, “take note of that vine, the stock planted by your right hand” is rendered in the LXX (79:15–16) as “and have regard for this vine, and restore that which your right hand planted.” This may reflect a different Vorlage וכנן instead of וכנה, or it could reflect its translators’ interpretation of the rare form, “כנה”—generally understood as a noun denoting a plant or garden—as a verb, bearing the meaning “support.”
The resulting reading, wherein the deity is asked to restore Israel to its previous state, including the provision of a wall/fence surrounding the land stretching from the “river” to the “sea,” is mirrored by LXX Isaiah 27:12, which promises that God will again provide Israel with a protective wall enclosing this same swath of land and, furthermore, that the lost members of the nation will be restored to their patrimony.
The Destroyed Vineyard of Isaiah 5
Another text that exerts influence here is from earlier in Isaiah, in which the vineyard metaphor is used to depict Israel’s decline from its state of grace.
ישעיה ה:א ...כֶּרֶם הָיָה לִידִידִי בְּקֶרֶן בֶּן שָׁמֶן. ה:ב וַיְעַזְּקֵהוּ וַיְסַקְּלֵהוּ וַיִּטָּעֵהוּ שֹׂרֵק וַיִּבֶן מִגְדָּל בְּתוֹכוֹ וְגַם יֶקֶב חָצֵב בּוֹ וַיְקַו לַעֲשׂוֹת עֲנָבִים וַיַּעַשׂ בְּאֻשִׁים.
Isa 5:1 … My beloved had a vineyard on a fruitful hill. 5:2 He broke the ground, cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower inside it, he even hewed a wine press in it; For he hoped it would yield grapes. Instead, it yielded wild grapes.
YHWH then turns to Jerusalem and asks why the grapevine refused to grow good grapes and what should be done with such a recalcitrant vine. YHWH then answers this rhetorical question:
ישעיה ה:ה וְעַתָּה אוֹדִיעָה נָּא אֶתְכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה לְכַרְמִי הָסֵר מְשׂוּכָּתוֹ וְהָיָה לְבָעֵר פָּרֹץ גְּדֵרוֹ וְהָיָה לְמִרְמָס. ה:ו וַאֲשִׁיתֵהוּ בָתָה לֹא יִזָּמֵר וְלֹא יֵעָדֵר וְעָלָה שָׁמִיר וָשָׁיִת וְעַל הֶעָבִים אֲצַוֶּה מֵהַמְטִיר עָלָיו מָטָר.
Isa 5:5 Now I am going to tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge, that it may be ravaged; I will break down its wall, that it may be trampled. 5:6 And I will make it a desolation; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thistles. And I will command the clouds to drop no rain on it.
The imagery here is meant to explain the suffering Judah undergoes as a punishment for their unjust behavior. Isaiah 27 inverts this image by relating the reversal of this state of affairs with the promise that the earth will become a vineyard of delight (vv. 2–6, MT). At the same time, it follows up this positive image with a description of desolate cities that reprises the state of abandonment and suffering incurred by Israel before its restoration by God (vv. 7–11 MT).
Psalm 80 shares several fundamental features with both of these Isaiah passages. Employing the vine/vineyard imagery, alternating verses of this psalm depict Israel’s age of glory and promise, as well as a lament over the people’s abandonment, beseeching God to take note of Israel’s downtrodden state.
Clearly, then, these three compositions share a similar set of themes in which Israel is compared to a vineyard that flourishes or is destroyed or both, depending on the particular text’s usage of the metaphor. The affinity to Psalm 80 is more pronounced in the LXX text of Isaiah 27, however.
Burning in LXX Isaiah 27 and Psalm 80
Like in Isaiah 5:5 quoted above, Psalm 80 references the destruction of the vine:
תהלים פ:יז שְׂרֻפָה בָאֵשׁ כְּסוּחָה מִגַּעֲרַת פָּנֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ.
Ps 80:17 For it is burned by fire and cut down, they perish before your angry blast. 
The LXX of this verse reads more or less the same (Ps 79:16): “Burnt with fire and dug up it was; they will perish at the rebuke of your face.” In Isaiah 27 however, the fire theme plays out somewhat differently in the MT and the LXX: In the Masoretic text, the verse has four clauses, and YHWH is the speaker throughout:
ישעיה כז:ד חֵמָה אֵין לִי
מִי יִתְּנֵנִי שָׁמִיר שַׁיִת בַּמִּלְחָמָה
Isa 27:4 There is no anger in Me:
If one offers Me thorns and thistles,
I will march to battle against him,
and set all of them on fire.
The verse is difficult to parse, but the ending seems to refer to YHWH burning all of Israel’s enemies.
The LXX text is much longer, and just as difficult to parse. The main thing to note, for our purposes, is that YHWH is the speaker only in the first few clauses. In the middle of the verse, the speaker becomes the vine, i.e., Israel, and it is being burned up:
There is not a city that has not taken hold of it;
who will set me to watch stubble in a field?
Because of this enmity I have set it aside.
Therefore because of this the Lord God has done all things,
whatever he has ordained.
I have been burned up.
The vine being burnt as a punishment from YHWH is precisely the state of affairs set forth at Psalm 80, making the parallel between the texts in the Septuagint that much tighter.
LXX Isaiah 27:12 Reverses the Imagery in Psalm 80
Given the patent similarities in both content and imagery existing between Isaiah 27 and Psalm 80, it would have been quite natural for an ancient author, redactor, or translator to understand one passage in light of the other. This explains why the translators responsible for LXX Isa 27:12, or the scribes responsible for its Vorlage, construed the reference to the territory between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean mentioned in Isaiah 27 as serving the same literary function as that performed by the geographic markers appearing in Psalm 80.
Whether LXX’s rendering of ḥbṭ as ḥbš reflects a different Hebrew Vorlage or an exegetical effort to interpret a difficult phrase, the vine imagery in Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 casts its shadows on the scribes responsible for Isaiah 27 in the LXX or its Vorlage, leaving us with a different image of Israel’s future. Whereas the MT speaks about beating the Israelites out of their homes in the diaspora, ostensibly gathering them to their former homeland, the LXX speaks of fencing in Israel’s breached borders and restoring YHWH’s destroyed vineyard (Isa 5 and Ps 80), making it thrive again.
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Dr. David Rothstein is a Senior Lecturer in Ariel University’s Israel Heritage Department. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. from UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. He is the author of the commentary to 1 and 2 Chronicles in The Jewish Study Bible as well as a number of articles, such as, “Deuteronomy in the Ancient Versions: Textual and Legal Considerations.”
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