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THE MAGICAL BACKGROUND OF ISAIAH

ANDREW

F.

KEY

SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE

6 9-13

T HE

subjec t of heate d scholarl y debat e for

many years. The over-all harshness of the passage, together with the assertion that those who hear it will not (or cannot?) do anything to

call off th e comin g destruction , ha s led man y scholar s t o assum e tha t we should not take its pronouncement literally. R. H. Pfeiffer, for example, explains the seeming lack of any chance for repentance (which would

presumabl y

intuition at the beginning of Isaiah's career" that the people actually would not repent, or 2) "it is merely the summing up of his hopeless mission, written in old age." 1 The first of these alternatives is advanced

call off th e destruction ) t o b e becaus e of 1) a "brillian t

prophetic commission given to Isaiah immediately after his

call in

6 1-8

ha s

been

th e

by Henshaw 2 and Leslie 3 ; the second is pursued by Kuhl 4 and Blank. 5 Our purpose is not to make any definitive statements about the presence or absence of a remnant theory in this passage. 6 The outcome

1 R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 423. 2 T. Henshaw, The Latter Prophets, p. 112. 3 E. A. Leslie, Isaiah, pp. 24-25. This is also implied by J. P. Hyatt, Prophetic Religion, p. 34: "Wha t he is attempting to say through verses 9-13 is tha t he is willing to go and preach to his people even if they do not pay any attention to him, and if the only result of his work is that the land will nevertheless be destroyed." 4 C. Kuhl, The Prophets of Israel, tr. by R. Ehrlich and J. Smith, p. 79.

H. Blank, Prophetic Faith in Isaiah. Cf. particularly p. 4, where he states:

"There, amazingly, God seemed to say to him: 'Clothe with fat this people's heart, plug their ears, veil their eyes, lest with their eyes they see, hear with their ears, with hearts comprehend, and turn back and be healed.' This is what the passage seems to

say, as though God were loosing at his people's heels an inexorable fate, and they were petrified and wholly helpless. But the true sense behind the word is this: what Isaiah had to say was past belief, incredible; the people would simply be unable to hear it. Taken literally as God's word the verse is bad theology. But, taken as a prophet's anguished comment on his failure, it is good psychology." 6 A great deal of the discussion of this problem has been centered around the last three words of vs. 13 (nrnxD tiip jnr) which are not in the LXX . I. Engnell, The Call of Isaiah, argues quite forcefully tha t the clause should be retained. Even if we do so, however, the passage is still sufficiently vague to allow disagreement with Engnell (and F. Delitzsch, J. Lindblom, E. Rissane, T. Cheyne, etc.). Does it mean that a tenth (the holy seed) will be left after the destruction as a remnant? Or, does it mean that even this tenth will be destroyed — as when one destroys a stump after felling a tree? If one accepts the latter interpretation, he may ("may" because these passages are also

198

s S.

KEY :

MAGICAL BACKGROUND

O F ISAIAH

6

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199

of this debate affects only slightly the central problem: that of the form in which Isaiah is to deliver his oracle. Boldly stated, the problem is as follows: if the outcome of the prophecy is predetermined (whether that outcome be ultimate doom or doom followed by a remnant), if there is nothing that the people can do to change God's judgment (whatever that judgmen t ma y be) , if, indeed, th e prophe t is t o utte r his proclamation in such a way that the people will not understand, then why bother with the prophecy in the first place? The answer one gives to this question strikes directly at his understanding of the prophetic task. It is pre- cisely this problem which leads Heschel to suggest that the passage has nothing to do with Judah.

He is told to be a prophet in order to thwart and to defeat the essential purpose of being a prophet. He is told to face the people while standing on his

It is generally assumed that the mission of a prophet is to open the people's hearts, to enhance their understanding, and to bring about rather than to prevent their

. I venture to advance a hypothesis: that this perplexing

prophecy can be understood only if it be applied to the Northern Kingdom. 1

turning to God

We shall venture an alternate hypothesis, one which allows the retention of Judah as the object of the oracle and at the same time permits its literal rendition. It has long been known that prophetic activity and the working of magic 8 are closely related functions in most primitive religions. 9 Both activities display an abnormal ability {mana) on the part of the practi- tioner; both deal with the future and with events which are supposed to happen in the future. Indeed, to the ancient, knowledge of the future and its control are really but two sides of the same coin. The control of future events (i. e., the working of magic) in the OT is accomplished through two means: the performance of magical acts 10 and through the speaking of words which are themselves laden with magical power. The prophetic literature in particular is replete with

difficult) find a parallel in Amos 5 3 and 6 9-10. Engnell himself (p. 19) recognized this difficulty: "We have to admit that clear fact: the first half of the verse [13] is nega- tive, and remains negative." 7 A. Heschel, The Prophets, pp. 89-90. 8 For our purpose we shall assume with Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough*, 1, pp. 224 ff., that the distinguishing element in the magical act is the attempt on the part of the practitioner to coerce the course of future events. For an excellent review of the contributions of anthropologists to our understanding of the phenomenon since the time of Frazer, cf. M. and R. Wax, "Th e Notion of Magic," Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), pp. 495 ff. 9 For the rôle of magic in the duties of the shaman cf. M. Eliade, Shamanism:

Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, passim. Eliade's work also contains a fine bibliography on the subject. 10 If we follow the definition of Frazer, these are for the most part of the "homeo- pathic" variety.

200 JOURNA L O F BIBLICA L LITERATUR E

examples of the former variety. 11 Ahijah the Shilonite tears his garment into twelve pieces and gives ten of them to Jeroboam to insure that he (Jeroboam) will rule over the northern tribes in the division of the

makes for himself horns of iron and magically

enacts the destruction of the Syrians. 13 Isaiah walks naked and barefoot

a portent against Egypt destruction of Jerusalem

by breaking a pot in the valley of the son of Hinnom, 15 buries a linen loincloth by the Euphrates and "spoils the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem" just as the loincloth is spoiled, 16 and lays the foundation of the throne of Nebuchadrezzar at Tahpanhes to insure that Egypt will fall to Babylon. 17 The same prophet wears an oxyoke

around his neck to insure the submission of "all these lands" to Nebuchadrezzar, and when Hananiah smashes the yoke in an interest­ ing bit of countermagic, the prophet in turn counters Hananiah's magic by forging a yoke of iron. 18 Ezekiel performs various acts all meant to insure the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her population : he

builds and "lays siege" to a toy city, 19 eats bread and drinks water in

small rations as will the wall, 21 etc. That not all

binding sticks together to insure that the return from captivity will include both Israel and Judah. 2 2 The magical quality of such per­ formances is well known and need not be discussed further here. Performing magical acts is not, however, the only way to bring about future events; the very act of speaking words can accomplish the same ends. The effective power of the word is seen most commonly in the OT in the oath, the blessing, and the curse. 23 An oath, once spoken, can be

exiles, 20 prepares for exile and digs through the such acts are destructive is shown by Ezekiel's

kingdom. 12 Zedekiah

through the streets of Jerusalem as " a sign and and Ethiopia." 1 4 Jeremiah magically decrees the

1 1

Cf.

H.

W.

Robinson,

"Propheti c

Symbolism,"

in

Old

Testament

Essays,

an d

G. Fohrer, Die

symbolischen Handlungen

der

Propheten.

1 2

I Kings

χ 3 I Kings

J 4 Isa 20.

*s Jer 19.

text s

in Egyp t

11 29

22

il.

ff.

This act should

which

probably

Α.

be compared to the writing

Mesopotamia,

for

cf.

Oppenheim, Ancient

of

p .

the execration

235.

13

l

ff.

Cf.

th e

16 Jer

Israel, pp.

131 f.

Ancient

43

8

ff.

l * Jer *« Jer

27-28.

 

*9 Ezek

4

l ff.

2 0 Ezek

4

9

ff.

2 1 Ezek

12

l ff.

2 2 Ezek

37

15 ff.

 

a Blasphemy, the Spell, and

detailed

2 3

Fo r

more

commentary

on

th e

passage

in

J .

presentation

of

th e subject

cf.

S.

H .

the Oath, " HUCA,

23,

1 (1950-51),

Lindblom,

Prophecy

in

Blank,

pp. 73-95

"Th e

and

Curse,

C.

H.

KEY :

MAGICAL BACKGROUND OF ISAIAH 6

9-13

201

broken only on danger of calling immediate destruction to the offending

party.

issued to him who would break the oath is always implied and never expressly stated. The common formula is "God do so to me and more also if I do (or do not do) such and such"; to name the specific punish- ment would be unthinkable, for to speak the words would be to invite their immediate accomplishment. The power of the word of blessing

is best illustrated in the well-known story of Jacob, who takes the

Once the blessing has been spoken

it cannot be rescinded, even though it has been given in error. The power of the word in the curse is amply documented in the OT. Let us cite here simply one example. 25 As David fled from Jerusalem in the face of Absalom's army, he was cursed by Shimei the son of Gera (who evidently saw him as responsible for the purge of the house of Saul). Later, after Absalom's defeat, the king forgave Shimei. However, once the curse had been spoken, it could never really be removed until the curser himself was killed. Hence, on his deathbed David commanded Solomon to "bring his (Shimei's) gray head down with blood to Sheol." What is true for the oath, the blessing, and the curse is also true for the prophetic word. To speak the prophetic word of destruction is "to take a positive hand in the destructive event — to release, in the very proclamation of doom, the power to produce the debacle. 26 The OT commonly attributes creative or destructive power to God's word.

blessing meant for his brother, Esau. 24

The power of the spoken word is also seen in that the threat

In the first chapter of Genesis God does not act; he speaks, "Let there

be light, etc." and

heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth." 27

In Isaiah it is said that the earth shall be destroyed, "for the Lord has spoken this word," 28 and God's word "shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper the thing for which I sent it." 29 Indeed, in many passages the usage implies that the speaking of the word and the resultant event are synonymous: "And all

and you shall know

the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword

the psalmist says, "By the word of the Lord the

(and the works there cited, particularly those of J. Hempel and S. Gevirtz). The opinions of Blank and Brichto will be examined below (n. 37). 2 4 Gen 27. 2 * Cf. II Sam 16 5-14; 19 16-24; I Kings 2 8-9, 36-46. Another most instructive case is cited by H. W. Robinson, op. cit., p. 5: i. e., the example of an Arab's cursing of those about to kill him. One of the attackers threw his young son to the ground so that the curse would go over his head without harming him.

26 B. D. Napier in IntDB, 2 ? Ps 33 6.

28 Isa 24 3.

2 » Isa 55

il.

3,

p.

912.

202 JOURNA L O F BIBLICAL LITERATUR E

that I the Lord have spoken";* 0 "And I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that / , the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it."* 1 The powerful words which the prophet speaks come from God and are just as effective as if God had spoken them himself. While Ezekiel is prophesying his word of doom, he states that, "it came to pass, while I was prophesying, that Pelatiah the son of Benaiah died." 32 The very speaking of the words signals the beginning of the destruction, so much so that Ezekiel recoils in horror and exclaims, "Ah Lord God! wilt thou make a full end of the remnant of Israel?" And in the valley of dry bones he states that the bones begin to come together while he prophesies** In the light of the above and similar passages we would suggest that the prophet views his task at least in part as a magical task. We have accepted the basic definition of magic laid down by Frazer, of which an essential element is the attitude of coercion. This does not mean, how- ever, that the prophet sees himself in any way as being in competition with God. Perhaps because of the influence of Frazer entirely too much stress has been laid upon this aspect of magic. 34 The shaman, for ex- ample, uses magic primarily to control those elements of his environment which are directly related to his physical well-being. This would include such things as the animals which he hunts, the rain and sun on which his crops depend, the fish which he catches, and the humans which he fights. He also utilizes magic to rid himself of evil spirits which bring disease, bad luck, and a general loss of power. In short, magic most commonly is concerned with the control of what we would term the "natural order." 35 The source of magical power may come from virtually any portion of the natural-supernatural continuum, usually from what we would call vaguely "the spirit world." In no case, however, does the magician actually direct the power back against its source. He is simply calling the power into play in the natural order. In short, he is doing what the source of power (in our case Yahweh) could himself do. 36 The prophet brings rain, causes plagues, wins or loses wars, and, in general, forces the course of nature and of history. He acts, in a sense, the rôle of the "partner" of Yahweh, i. e., he accomplishes Yahweh's

30

3 2 Eze k

Eze k

17

11 13.

21.

si Eze k 37 14.

33 Ezek 37 7. 34 One cannot escape the feeling, for example, that this is why J. Lindblom finally rejects the term as being inapplicable to the prophets {op. cit., p. 172).

3s It must, of course, be added that the primitive usually makes no hard and fast distinction between the orders of the natural and the supernatural.

3 6 The question of the coercion of the source of power (Yahweh) in actuality arises only when the magician attempts to use his power in some manner which is contrary

In the OT this is seen quite graphically in the case

of the "false prophet." While he has no power, he attempts to draw upon the power of

Yahweh in order to accomplish that which is against Yahweh's wishes.

to the wishes of the giver of mana.

KEY :

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purposes by the use of magical means. By this we mean that he performs rites and speaks words which are efficacious in and of themselves in the carrying out of the divine will. 37 With this in mind let us return to our previous question: why Isaiah should be commanded to deliver an oracle which cannot be changed by any action on the part of the people. If our reasoning holds true, the only explanation which will account for all the data is that the oracle itself is the means through which God's plan is to be carried out. Stated positively (and boldly), the deliverance of the oracle causes the events to happen; stated negatively, were the oracle not delivered, the destruc­

tion would not ensue. The words (be they entirely of doom or be a remnant included) are to be delivered in such a manner that the people cannot repent, for then God would have to change the course of events which he has planned; indeed, they are to be delivered in such a manner that the people cannot even understand them! One wonders, of course, how literally we should take this last assertion. Does this mean that the prophetic utterance is pure gibberish — perhaps the babbling of the ecstatic state? It is obvious that not all (or even most) prophetic messages are of this variety, for most of our preserved prophetic oracles are of remarkable lucidity. Perhaps, however, some were not. We do have the assertion in ch. 28 that "by men of strange lips and with an alien

the word of the Lord will

tongue the Lord will speak to this people

be to them ψ 1 ? ip *\pb ip 12Ò IX 12^> uc, here a little, there a little; tha t they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken" (28 10,13). This passage seems to say that God (or the prophet) speaks to the people in completely unintelligible terms, like one simply repeating letters of the alphabet over and over in meaningless fashion. 38 There is a parallel in the prophetic literature to the idea that the people will not pay any attention to the words of the prophet. Ezekiel is also com-

37 The real conflict between Brichto and Blank (see above n. 23) centers around what we have termed the "source of magical power." Blank argues (p. 95) that "the power of the curse originally derived from the effective power at the words which expressed it." And, (p. 77) "Neither God nor any other agent is addressed or involved

in the curse formula; this is the significance of the passive form of the verb (in«). "

. is no indica-

tion of anything automatic, self-fulfilling in the curse, for it is the Deity who wields the power of the spell" (p. 215). Ancient Israel is, in fact, "unrelenting" in its cam- paign against magic (p. 212). He admits that there are "traces of magical thought in the Bible" but asserts that this is far from "the assumption that the operation of curses is magical and independent of the Deity" (p. 210). I would assert (with Blank) that the prophets viewed their actions and words as having power, i. e., innate, efficacious power; but would also affirm (with Brichto) that the power is derived from Yahweh. In short, the form of the act (or message) has its roots in magic; the power behind the act (or word) is from Yahweh. This is seen negatively in the concept of the "false prophet" (cf. η. 36).

Brichto on the other hand maintains throughout his work that there "

a» Cf.

R.

Β. Y.

Scott, IntB,

5, p. 316.

204 JOURNAL OF BIBLICAL LITERATUR E

manded to deliver his message to a people foreordained to be unre- pentant. He is told that "the house of Israel will not listen to you; for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart." 39 All this does not mean that prophetic thought gave up the idea that repentance could lead to forgiveness. The prophet is simply saying that the time for repentance is past, the day of judgment has now come, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The prophet becomes the divinely appointed executioner. 40 This is more than an "intuition" that Isaiah's prophetic activity will bear no fruit; this passage is also more than the bitter disillusionment of an old man looking back on his career. Such interpretations rob the message of its dynamic quality through needless efforts to soften its implications. The speaking of the prophetic words is not a call for repentance, but a signal for the beginning of God's action.

39 Ezek

40 Cf.,

3 7. for example, Amos 4 6ff.

God has given the people ample chance for

re-

pentance in the past, but because they did not take advantage of these chances "therefore thus I will do to you," etc. (4 12).

^

s

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