Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 3-18.

[Copyright © 1987 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Grace Colleges and elsewhere]

 

ISAIAH 40-55 AS

ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC

 

EUGENE H. MERRILL

 

Isaiah 40-55 is essentially a polemic against the theology and

worldview of the Assyro- Babylonian culture of the Jewish exile fore-

seen by and already at least partially contemporary to Isaiah of

Jerusalem. This is seen in the prophet's pervasive use of polemical

rhetorical devices borrowed largely from cuneiform language and

literature itself. These devices include rhetorical questions and self-

predications in participial form. The peculiar effectiveness of the

prophet's polemic lies in his defense of his own God and religious

tradition by using ancient Near Eastern genres to demolish the claims

of the gods of Israel's Babylonian captors.

 

*   *   *

 

   INTRODUCTION

 

THOUGH there can be no doubt that the most important, over-

riding theme of Isaiah 40-55 is that of salvation,1 a major adjunct

to that theme is the prophet's assault upon the religio-cultural struc-

ture of the Babylonian society from which the Jewish exiles were to

be delivered. It was necessary for them to see both the bankruptcy of

pagan life and institutions--especially as manifest in the gods and

cult--and, by contrast, the incomparability of their God and his

historical and eschatological purposes for them.

Isaiah's unremitting rhetorical attack is called "polemic." Wester-

mann sees polemic as an aggressive element of the prophet's preach-

ing conscripted in service of the message of salvation.2 It is a shifting

of the contest from the battlefield to the law court for the purpose of

demonstrating forensically that Yahweh is the Lord of history, the

one who is able to link the past with the present and the future.

 

1 This point was made years ago by E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 3

(NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 17.

2 C. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster,

1969) 15.



4                      GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

THE DEFINITION AND EARLY USE OF POLEMIC

 

Polemic is "a controversial discussion or argument: an aggressive

attack on or the refutation of the opinions or principles of another."

It is also "the art or practice of disputation or controversy.”3 The

only nonbiblical examples of such a literary type surviving from the

ancient Near East are a dozen or so Sumerian and Akkadian disputa-

tions of a fabulous nature.4 To date no others of a more judicial or

formally forensic nature have been attested. The OT, then, is excep-

tional, and within the OT the disputation sections of Isaiah 40-55 are

the more fully developed. One may say, then, that the use of polemic

in Isaiah 40-55 originated in Israelite soil, or, at least, not in

Mesopotamia.

There are, however, instructive insights to be gained by con-

sidering briefly the salient features of the classical rhetoricians. This is

not to suggest, of course, that Isaiah was influenced by them, because

he long antedated any of them.5 But the psychological structures that,

produced the different traditions obviously had much in common.6

Classical Greek rhetoric was defined by Aristotle as the counter-

part of dialectic.7 It is a subject, he said, that can be treated syste-

matically. He saw the essence of the art of rhetoric to be the

argumentative modes of persuasion. Any appeals to the emotion

"warp the judgment." This suggests that rhetoric, in the classical

sense, is another way of describing what is here meant by polemic, or

perhaps polemic is a major form of rhetoric, a point to be made

shortly.

Kennedy,8 describing classical rhetoric synthetically, finds the

following elements: (1) invention--the subject and the arguments to

be used in proof or refutation, these arguments consisting of: (a) direct

evidence (witnesses, contracts, oaths), (b) evidence from history,9 and

 

3 P. B. Gove, ed., Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Springfield: 1971)

1753. The etymon is Gr. poleme<w, "make war, fight"; cf. W. P. Arndt and P. W.

Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University

of Chicago, 1979) 685.

4 S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1963) 217-

23; W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960) 150-51.

5 According to Greek tradition the art of rhetoric was invented by either Tisias or

Corax in Syracuse between 475 and 450 B.C. See George Kennedy, The Art of Per-

suasion in Greece (Princeton University, 1963) 26.

6 For this "structuralist" understanding of the relationship of form to common

human psychology, see R. Knierim, "Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered,"

Int 27 (1963) 439-46.

7 Aristotle, "Rhetoric," I, 1, in R. M. Hutchins, ed., Aristotle: II, vol. 9 of Great

Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) 587.

8 Kennedy, Persuasion, 10-12. :

9 The appeals to history are interesting in light of the frequent use of history as

evidence in Isaiah 40-55; cf. 40:21; 41:8-9; 42:5-9; 43:8-13; 44:6-11; etc.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC            5

 

(c) emotion, gestures, etc.; (2) arrangement, consisting of prooemium

(introduction), narration (historical background), proof, and epilogue;

(3) style; (4) memory; and (5) delivery. Formally or stylistically,

rhetoric consisted of trope and scheme.10 The former, having to do

with detailed figures of speech, usually includes metaphor, simile,

personification, irony, hyperbole, and metonymy. Scheme, which

refers to structure, suggests the use of allegory, parallelism, antithesis,

congeries, apostrophe, enthymeme, and the rhetorical question. One

can see that these can and do overlap in places.

Aristotle, whose discussion of rhetoric was the point of departure

thenceforth, identified three functional aspects of rhetoric: political,

forensic, and epideictic.11 Forensic, which has to do with the court

room, was, to him, the most important of the three. He maintained

that such a form must have (1) accusation and defense, (2) a rehearsal

of the past, and (3) an appeal to justice and injustice. Central in the

argument of forensic is the enthymeme, a loose type of syllogism,

which may take two forms: (1) demonstrative, that which is created

by the juxtaposition of compatible propositions; and (2) refutative,

that which is formed by the conjunction of incompatible propositions.

The latter, he says, is better because the proof is clearer to the

audience.12

Aristotle also held that there were two general modes of per-

suasion--example and enthymeme. His kinds of enthymeme have just

been described. Examples could consist of historical parallels or

invented parallels, such as illustrations or fables.13 The appeal to the

past was a favorite device of Isaiah, as will become apparent.

The refutation element of forensic, which Aristotle viewed as

being so important, could be advanced by counter-syllogism or by

the bringing of an objection. There are four main kinds of these:

(1) directly attacking the opponent's own statement; (2) putting for-

ward another statement like it; (3) putting forward a statement con-

trary to it; and (4) quoting previous decision.14 It is striking that

Isaiah employed some or perhaps all of these refutation techniques.15

Classical rhetoric continued to find expression in the Hellenistic

world and in Rome. Most important for this study, it was taken over

and adapted by Jewish scholars in their apologetic against polytheism

 

10 T. O. Sloan, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. Philip W. Goetz (Chicago:

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1982) 15.700.

11 Aristotle, "Rhetoric," I, 3 (p. 587).

12 Ibid., II, 22 and 23 (p. 559).

13 Ibid., II, 20 (p. 589). Perhaps the fables of Sumerian disputation constitute just

such examples.

            14 Ibid., II, 25 (p. 589).

15 Numbers 2 and 3 were particularly favored by the prophet who often used the

very language of his opponents against them.



6                      GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

and other deviations from post-exilic Judaism. The principal genre

used was diatribel6 (similar to polemic). This genre found frequent

express.ion in the Haggadah where Marmorstein has suggested that it

occurs in four types: (1) dialogues between two parties (e.g., God and

Israel); (2) dialogues between God and individuals; (3) personification;

and (4) response to a real or imagined objection by an opponent,

usually introduced by "if a man say to you . . ." or "anyone who

says. . . .”17

L. Wallach, in his study of a dispute between R. Gamaliel II and

a pagan philosopher found in Mekilta, Massaket Bahodesh, points

out that it represents an old sediment of the older Jewish polemic

against idolatry. He shows that "its argumentation is the same as the

one used since the days of the prophets and its topoi are the same as

those employed by Hellenistic Judaism in its defense of monotheism

against the aggressions of polytheism.”18 Hellenistic Judaism, of

course, drew heavily upon classical rhetorical models.

 

POLEMIC IN ISAIAH 40-55

 

In order for one's polemic to be effective one must understand

the nature of his antagonist. Specifically, Isaiah needed to be inti-

mately acquainted with both the Welt and the Weltanschauung of the

sixth century Mesopotamian civilization.19 It is my purpose here to

demonstrate that by the revelation of God, Isaiah possessed such

knowledge and to indicate the special ramifications of that fact for

the prophet's legitimate use of polemic.

At the outset, however, it must be stressed that caution should be

used in establishing connections between biblical and nonbiblical

phenomena whether literary or otherwise. For example, much of

what is characteristic of Isaiah may find its prototypes in earlier

Hebrew literature or may not require a Babylonian setting to explain

its use. The very object of concern, the disputation or polemic,

illustrates this well. Peterson reminds us that, "it is surely a vain

enterprise to propose that Deutero-Isaiah was directly influenced by

 

16 From diatribh<, "occasion for dwelling on a subject" (Aristotle, "Rhetoric," III,

17 [p. 672]).

17 A. Marmorstein, "The Background of the Haggadah," HUCA 6 (1929) 185-204.

18 L. Wallach, "A Palestinian Polemic Against Idolatry," HUCA 19 (1946) 391. For

another study that recognizes both the biblical and classical roots of rabbinic polemic

see H. A. Fischel, "Story and History: Observations on Greco-Roman Rhetoric and

Pharisaism," in AOS Middle West Branch Semi-Centennial Volume, ed. Denis Sinor

(Oriental Series 3; Bloomington: Indiana University, 1969) 59-88.

19 It is impossible here to enter into the question of the unity of Isaiah and/or the

predictive character of chaps. 40-55. For the standard arguments pro and con, cf. E. J.

Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958) 215-

25; O. T. Allis, The Unity of Isaiah (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950)

139-50.


MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC     7

 

Babylonian texts in those cases where he uses characteristically Baby-

lonian terminology which was already common in pre-exilic Israelite

literary and cultic traditions.”20 Any cosmopolitan Palestinian man of

letters would surely have been familiar with Akkadian literary works

and their Sumerian prototypes.21

At the same time, there are refinements and evidences of precision

in the observations and descriptions of Isaiah 40-55 that require a

familiarity, however gained, which transcends general knowledge of

the Neo-Babylonian cultural and religious milieu. Koenig correctly

chides those who fail to see this provenience when he says that the

tendency to minimize or ignore the possibility of a Babylonian

influence is frequently observed, and this marks a regression of his-

torical reflection with regard to the way in which authors of the

preceding generation state the problem. He refers to the extremes to

which Kittel went in making these direct connections but says that the

general historical probability appears to be that indicated by Kittel.

The exilic community, while never losing its sense of identity

with and longing for the Palestinian homeland, nevertheless certainly

came more and more to adapt to its new surroundings. There was

bound to be an effect on language23 and in such areas as technology,

arts, and crafts that were indigenous to Mesopotamia.24 Many years

ago, Cassuto supported the then recent views of Kittel, Sellin, and

Gressmann that "Deutero-Isaiah" was often influenced by Babylonian

literary style generally and, more particularly, by the diction of the

hymns and prayers. He concluded by suggesting that "even if all the

particulars of these studies are not to be accepted, the fact of the

resemblance must be regarded as completely proven in its general

outline25

 

20 Stephen L. Peterson, "Babylonian Literary Influence in Deutero-Isaiah" (Ph. D.

diss., Vanderbilt University, 1975) 2.

21 Kramer, The Sumerians, 292.

22 J. Koenig, "Tradition iaviste et influence babylonienne a l'aurore du judaisme,"

RHR 173 (1968) 140, n. 2.

23 Y. Kaufmann, The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah, vol. 3 in History of

the Religion of Israel (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1970) 14.

24 Cf. David Weisberg, Guild Structure and Political Allegiance in Early Achae-

menid Mesopotamia (New Haven: Yale University, 1967) 49. Weisberg speaks of the

detailed descriptions of craftsmen and craft techniques in Isaiah 40-55, facts which he

says "lead us to support the conclusion that Isaiah chapters 40-55 were written by a

man who lived in Babylon in the time of Nabonidus." Of course, the same could be

said of one who lived in Jerusalem in 700 B.C. and saw these things by revelation or

knew of them through cross-cultural contacts.

25 U. Cassuto, "On the Formal and Stylistic Relationship Between Deutero-Isaiah

and Other Biblical Writers," in Biblical and Oriental Studies, Vol. I (Jerusalem:

Magnes, 1973) 165. See also D. W. Thomas, "The Sixth Century B.C.: A Creative

Epoch in the History of Israel," JSS 6 (1961) 37; and A. Schoors, I Am God Your

Saviour (Leiden: Brill, 1973) 219.



8                      GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

From a more negative standpoint, it is necessary to understand

that the prophet viewed this exposure, on the whole, as a deleterious

experience for the Jews, one that must be interpreted within the

framework of the all-encompassing sovereignty of Yahweh. His city

would be captured, its temple leveled, and its citizens carried off to a

distant and hostile land. The pragmatist would certainly construe this

not only as a defeat for Judah but for Judah's God. Apparently,

Marduk was supreme after all, as one could see from the might and

extent of the Babylonian hegemony. The message of Isaiah must

confront these political and historical realities with the hope of salva-

tion and restoration. And that hope must rest on a recognition of the

superiority of Yahweh and, conversely, the impotence and even

nonexistence of the gods of Babylon. Isaiah's polemic is the vehicle

through which this issue could be clarified and then laid to rest.

The message then is all relative to one event. All that the prophet

sees and describes--nations, beasts, plants, mountains, hills, depths,

and even heaven and earth--is tied into the experiences of the exiles.

The whole universe is under the control of Yahweh who will deliver

and renew his people.26 This is expressed in protests against the alien

religion of their milieu and in apologetical statements about the

oneness and absoluteness of Yahweh. This is not the first statement of

OT monotheism,27 but in the context of Isaiah it represents a claim

for Yahweh in opposition to the Babylonian deities. Without that

claim, the exiles might be prone to accept those deities along with

Yahweh or instead of him.28

One can well imagine how attractive the pomp and pageantry of

the Babylonian cult must have been to the defeated and theologically

troubled Jews. As Muilenburg puts it so well, "The great processions

like those on New Year's Day, the display of the idols, the drama of

the cult, the ancient myths, the impressive rituals, and the elaborate

pantheon may easily have tempted not a few to abandon the ways of

their fathers and to seek the help of such powerful gods as Marduk.”29

The urgency of the prophet's appeal would indicate that the Jews'

interest is more than academic. There was obviously a trend already

under way to forsake their heritage and become assimilated to the

new religious culture.30

 

26 P. A. H. de Boer, Second Isaiah's Message (OTS 11; Leiden: Brill, 1956) 100.

27 See T. C. Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford: Basil

Blackwell, 1958) 178-79.

28 P. R. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought in the Sixth

Century (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968) 42.

29 James Muilenburg, "The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66," IDB, 5.397.

30 J. M. Wilkie, "Nabonidus and the Later Jewish Exiles," JTS 2 (1951) 42. Wilkie

suggests that this is evidence of persecution but there is nothing in Isaiah 40-55 to bear

this out.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC     9

 

The religious crisis that the prophet faced had to be addressed in

a way that would be totally convincing. As Mihelic says, "In order to

overcome the attraction of the Babylonian ritual and the natural

tendency of a conquered people slavishly to ape their victors, our

poet-prophet had to present the concept of Yahweh in categories

which would dwarf the gods of the nations from every possible angle

of vision.”31 As we have seen, from the standpoint of classical

Aristotelian forensic rhetoric, the strategy of comparing and con-

trasting opposing propositions is effective and persuasive. And this is

all the more true when the protagonist uses forms and formulations

drawn from the very inventory of his opponent!

Gressmann was one of the first scholars to recognize that this is

precisely what Isaiah did.32 He understood that such borrowing poses

a problem to modern readers who are accustomed to regard the

prophet as a highly original and imaginative thinker not likely to

have imitated others. But Gressmann understood correctly that the

prophet is employing the method of contrast. Isaiah wishes to show

that Yahweh is infinitely superior to the Babylonian gods and proceeds

to do so by using the terminology of their mythological literature to

deny the very gods celebrated in that literature.

As Whybray has noted, Isaiah is particularly dependent upon the

language and literature of the Babylonian hymns, prayers, and royal

inscriptions.33 This is because these genres are filled with devices such

as self-praise, self-predication, and rhetorical questions, all of which

are admirably suited to the forensic, disputational style that Isaiah

apparently found to be most effective in asserting the claims of

Yahweh in opposition to those of the Babylonian deities. These

devices appear throughout his composition, but are particularly

frequent in the disputation and hymnic sections, precisely where one

would expect them to be (see below).

 

  CHARACTERISTICS OF POLEMIC IN ISAIAH 40-55

 

As just indicated, polemic underlies all that Isaiah 40-55 has to

say about salvation and restoration. In the broader sense, that polemic

assumes the structure of the trial or disputation speeches, but more

particularly it is expressed (whether in disputation sections or else-

where) by the techniques of rhetorical question and self-predication.

 

31 Joseph L. Mihelic, "The Conquest of God in Deutero-Isaiah," BR 11 (1966) 35.

32 H. Gressmann, Der Messias (FRLANT 26; Gottingen: Vanderhoeck und Rup-

recht, 1929) 61.

33 R. N. Whybray, The Heavenly Counsellor in Is. 40, 13-14 (SOTS, Monograph

Series 1; Cambridge, 1971) 2. Those who have made such comparisons restrict

themselves almost entirely to these genres.



10                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

These appear and reappear over and over, but here we can only

define them and give some examples.34

 

Rhetorical Questions

Whybray suggests there are a minimum of 72 examples of rhe-

torical questions in the 333 verses in Isaiah 40-55, 33 of which

employ the personal pronoun ym.35 And of these Yahweh refers to

himself in 40:26; 41:2, 4; 42:24; 45:21.36 When followed by a noun and

the relative rwx or in expressions such as "who is God but. .  . ,"

there is the clear implication of uniqueness.

The most striking example, perhaps, is 45:21:

 

Speak up, compare testimony--Let them even take counsel together!

Who announced this aforetime, Foretold it of old?

Was it not I the Lord? Then there is no god beside me,

No God exists beside Me who foretells truly and grants success.37

 

With this, compare a hymn of Istar:38

Who is equal to me, me?

Who is comparable to me, me?

 

Far more common is the application of rhetorical questions to the

gods by the poets themselves. And, of course, this is true of Isaiah as

well, where the question is not so much "who is like me?" as it is

"who is like you (or him)?"

In the famous interrogation of 40:12-26 the rhetorical ym is used

no fewer than six times in order to establish the incomparability of

Yahweh as omniscient and omnipotent creator. By skillful comparison

 

34 All the examples that follow are of rhetorical questions with a divine subject or

self-predication. That is, they have the "I-form" in common. These are by no means the

only polemical devices the prophet uses (second and third person uses also are employed

effectively), but they are the most direct and perhaps most devastating in their forensic

appeal.

35 The rhetorical with ym is frequently used by the worshipers of Yahweh elsewhere

in the OT (Exod 15:11; Deut 3:24; 4:7; Mic 7:18; Psa 35:10; 71:19; 77:14; 89:9; 113:5;

Job 26:22) but in only one other place by Yahweh of himself (Jer 49:19 = 50:44).

M. Smith, JAOS 83 (1963) 419, attributes "Second Isaiah's" use of the interrogative to

Persian influences, especially the Gathas, Yasna 44, where a series of questions is asked

of Ahura Mazda about creation.

36 Whybray, Counsellor, p. 22; cf. Exod 15:11; Deut 3:24; 4:7, 8; 5:26; 1 Sam 26:15;

2 Sam 22:32; Jer 49:19; Isa 42:19; Psa 35:10.

37 The translation here and throughout (unless otherwise noted) is that of The

Prophets: Nevi’im (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978).

38 G. A. Reisner, Sumerisch-babylonisch Hymnen (MOS 10; Berlin, 1896) n. 56,

obv. 1-3; cf. CT 15,7-9, obv. 1-2, trans. now in ANET2, 576.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC    11

 

of the work of Yahweh to that of the foreign gods, whose idols, in

fact, must be themselves created by their worshipers, the prophet lays

to rest the pompous claims to incomparability made by these gods

throughout the hymnic literature. The following Akkadian hymns to

Samas, Ninlil, and a personal god must suffice for purposes of

comparison:

 

Mighty, glorious son, light of the lands,

Creator of all the totality of heaven and earth are you, Samas39

O lady of mankind, creator of

All things, who guides

The whole of creation.40

My god, holy one, creator of all peoples are you.41

 

These passages are not couched in the rhetorical question form,

though examples can certainly be adduced,42 but they are sufficient to

show that the incomparability of Yahweh in creation is expressed in

this form in Isaiah as a response to claims made by or on behalf of

various Mesopotamian deities.

 

Self-predication

This rhetorical device, common in the Sumerian and Akkadian

literature, especially in the hymns of self-praise and royal inscrip-

tions, consists, according to Dion, of nominal phrases in the parti-

cipial predicate, where the subject is sometimes the divine name and

sometimes the divine "I"; or else of brief propositions in which the

imperfect translates a permanent truth alternating or not alternating

with the participles.43

In the earliest period of cuneiform literature the formula was

used with the gods only, mixed at times with narration in the third

 

39 P. A. Schollmeyer, Sumerisch-babylonische Hymnen und Gebete an Samas

(Paderbom, 1912) n. 18, obv. 8-9.

40 S. Langdon, Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms (Paris: Libraire Paul Guethner,

1909) n. 23, obv. 7-10 (Hymn to Ninlil).

41 Lambert, JNES 33 (1974) 277, I, 55 (dingir.sil.dib.ba to a personal god). The

prayer, however, is based on a well-known prayer to Sin (p. 270).

42 See, e.g., IV R, 9 (Hymn to Sin), translated by A. Falkenstein in A. Falkenstein

and W. von Soden, Sumerische und Akkadische. Hymnen und Gebete (Zurich/ Stutt-

gart; Artemis-Verlag, 1953) n. 44, obv. 24-25; J. Bollenrucher, Gebete und Hymnen an

Nergal, LSS I/VI (Leipzig, 1904) n. 6; G. Perry, Hymnen und Gebete an Sin, LSS

2/IV (Leipzig, 1907) n. 3,11. 54-56.

43 H.-M. Dion, "Le genre litteraire sumerien de l' 'hymne a soi-meme' et quelques

passages du Deutero-Isaie," RB 74 (1967) 218.



12                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

person.44 In the Old Babylonian period it was appropriated by kings

with the "I am" followed by participial predications.45 This continued

to be the practice in Akkadian texts down to the Neo-Babylonian

period.46 Gressmann observed that "Second Isaiah" took this basic

and abbreviated form and greatly expanded it into hymnic com-

positions making it a major part of his literary production.47 And,

Gressmann said, only "Second Isaiah," of all the biblical writers, uses

the formula.48

Dion lists four passages which he finds to be especially character-

istic of this genre: 44:24b-25, 26; 45:6b- 7; 48: 12b-13; 50:2b-3. Others,

more imbedded in their contexts, are 43:10bb-13; 44:6b-7; 45:12,

18b, 19, 21b; 46:9b-l0. Finally, two others, much more brief, and one

of dubious authenticity, are 41:4b; 42:8; and 51:13aa, 15, 16ba. He

also suggests, with hesitation, the possibility of this element outside of

"Second Isaiah," namely, in Deut 32:29; 66:1a; Jer 32:27; Hosea 13:4;

Joel 3:17; Psa 46:10; 50:10-12 (= 108:8-10).49

Stephen Peterson, along with other scholars, has noted that the

"I am" form with full predications is found primarily in the trial

speeches and the Cyrus oracle.50 In one of these trial speeches, 43:22-

28, Yahweh contends with Israel while in the others (43:8-15; 44:6-8;

44:21-22; 45:20-25) the dispute is with the foreign nations and/or

their gods. It is unusual to find the hymn of self-praise in a trial

speech form but, as Peterson points out, "this prophet has intention-

ally adapted a Babylonian hymn to function as the verdict in the trial

speech. The appropriateness of this adaptation is apparent from the

perspective that the trial speeches in question are between Yahweh

and foreign nations and gods.”51

This is not to say that every "I am" form is a self-predication in

the Babylonian form. Westermann shows that "Second Isaiah" com-

bines two different types of the form, which have two different

 

44 For an important study of the "I am" formula, see W. Zimmerli, "Ich bin

Jahwe," Gottes Offenbarung (Mtinchen: Kaiser, 1963) 11-40.

45 Sumerian royal inscriptions, such as votive or dedicatory texts, contained royal

names with many titles and epithets, but the predication took the form of finite

transitive verbs. See W. W. Hallo, "The Royal Inscriptions of Ur: A Typology,"

HUCA 33 (1962) 15-22.

46 See Eduard Norden, Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte

religioser Rede (1913; reprint, Stuttgart: Teubner, 1956) 92.

47 H. Gressmann, "Die literarische Analyse Deuterojesajas," ZAW 34 (1914) 285-

95. The passages he identified as hymnic self-predication are 41:44ff.; 42:8ff.; 43:11ff.;

44:5ff.; 45:3ff., l8ff.; 46:9ff.; 48:11ff., 17ff.; 49:26; 50:2; and 51:5.

48 Ibid., 290.

49 Dion, "Le genre litteraire sumerien," 217.

50 Peterson, "Babylonian Literary Influence," 124.

51 Ibid., 124-25.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC  13

 

origins.52 One always is connected to a word of salvation which in

Isaiah 40-55, usually occurs in the oracles of salvation genre (41:10,

13, 14b; 43:3) or in other words of salvation (41:17b; 43:25; 46:4;

48:17; 49:23; 51:12). This type finds its roots in Israel itself as can be

seen in Gen 15:1, 7; 26:24; 28:13; 46:3; 17:1ff; 35:11ff.; Exod 3:6ff;

etc.53 The other type is the true self-predication or self-glorification

and as such is a type of praise. As Westermann suggests, "Deutero-

Isaiah" was the first in Israel to show God glorifying himself in this

way. "He took over this non-Israelite, and obviously Babylonian,

form with the deliberate polemical purpose of contrasting Israel's

God as the one God with the foreign gods who vaunted their power

and might against each other.”54

In these respective types of the "I am" formula the self-

predications serve different functions. The indigenous Israelite style

serves in the salvation oracle as the basis for the announcement of

salvation. Hymmc expansions of the formula m this type express

Yahweh's saving relationship to Israel. In the trial and disputation

speeches, however, the self-predication distinguishes Yahweh from

other gods in polemic fashion. Often it makes the assertion that there

is no other God but Yahweh (43:11,12-13; 45:18, 21; 46:9).55 Usually

the native form is much more brief, but that which is adapted from

the Babylonian style is greatly expanded with relative clauses and

participial phrases as predicates, a formula characteristic of Isaiah

40-55.

The assumption is, then, that the expanded form of self-

predication characteristic of Isaiah is an adaptation of the Sumerian-

Akkadian style with which the prophet would have been familiar.

This seems almost certain given the virtual absence of this hymn type

in other Hebrew literature and its prevalence throughout cuneiform

hymnic and other genres of literature.56

 

52 Westermann, Isaiah, 26.

53 See P .-E. Dion. "The Patriarchal Traditions and the Literary Form of the

'Oracle of Salvation'" CBQ 29 (1967) 198-206. Cf. also C. Westermann, Basic Forms

of Prophetic Speech, trans. H. C. White (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967) 125. He

points out that self-predication occurs already at Mari so that self-predication as a

prophetic device goes back to an early, if non-Israelite, setting.

54 Westermann, Isaiah, 26. A good example of a self-predication of Marduk, which

Meier says, "appeared to have carried no little weight in the wisdom schools of

Sargonic times" (my translation from the German), has been published by G. Meier,

"Ein Kommentar zu einer Selbstpradikation des Marduk aus Assur," ZA 47 (1942)

241-46.

55 R. F. Melugin, "The Structure of Deutero-Isaiah" (Ph.D. diss., New Haven:

Yale University, 1968) 41.

56 Westermann, Isaiah, 156. Not all scholars accept this, of course. M. L. Phillips,

"Divine Self-Predication in Deutero-Isaiah," BR 16 (1971) 35, argues that the source of



14                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Dion, in a study previously cited, picked up on ideas developed

by Norden and Gressmann, and attempted to show that the use of

self-predication in the typical Isaianic form must be traced back

ultimately to the Sumerian "hymns to oneself.”57 He lists eleven

examples of these and concludes after studying them that all the

pieces he had examined take the form of hymns in the first person,

the divine "I" being repeated in them with almost wearisome per-

sistence.58 He then outlines the following characteristic structure:

proclamation of names and epithets; the position of the god in the

pantheon, especially his relationship with the great gods; his beneficial

and destructive powers over men and the universe, including enemy

lands; and usually a reference to the number and importance of the

sanctuaries over which he rules.

Two examples each from Isaiah and the Sumerian sources will

suffice for now. The first is the short form found in the oracle of

salvation in Isa 43:1-7.

But now thus said the Lord

Who created you, O Jacob,

Who formed you, O Israel:

Fear not, for I will redeem you;

I have singled you out by name,

You are mine.

 

When you pass through water,

I will be with you;

Through streams

They shall not overwhelm you.

When you walk through fire,

You shall not be scorched;

Through flame,

It shall not burn you.

 

For I the Lord am your God,

The Holy One of Israel, your Savior,

I give Egypt as a ransom for you,

Ethiopia and Saba in exchange for you.

 

Because you are precious to me,

And honored, and I love you,

I give men in exchange for you

And peoples in your stead.

 

the expanded self-predication, which he admits is unique to "Second Isaiah," must be

sought not in Babylonian inspiration but in the covenant tradition of Israel.

57 Dion, "Le genre litteraire sumerien," (1967).

58 Ibid., 223; the examples he gives are on p. 222, n. 36.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC    15

 

Fear not, for I am with you:

I will bring your folk from the East,

Will gather you out of the West;

     I will say to the North, "Give back!"

And to the South, "Do not withhold!"

Bring My sons from afar,

And my daughters from the end of the earth-

     All who are linked to My name,

Whom I have created,

Formed, and made for My glory.

 

Most scholars see this oracle of salvation as a piece made up of

two shorter ones (1-4, 5-7) but combined by the prophet into one

unit. It may be analyzed as follows:

Introduction la

Assurance of salvation 1ba, 5aa

Nominal substantiation lbd, 5ab

Verbal substantiation 1bbga

Outcome 2-4, 5b-7

 

The self-predications appear in the introduction in the participial

forms jrxb and jrcy and in v 3 where Yahweh describes himself as

jyhlx and jfywvm lxywy wvdq. These brief ascriptions are, of course,

not unique to Isaiah and can hardly be said to be dependent on

Babylonian analogues.59

In the disputation texts, however, there appears the expanded

self-predication, an example of which is 44:24-28:

 

Thus said the Lord, your Redeemer,

Who formed you in the womb:

It is I, the Lord, who made everything,

Who alone stretched out the heavens

And unaided spread out the earth;

     Who annul the omens of diviners,

And make fools of the augurs:

Who turn sages back

And make nonsense of their knowledge;

     But confirm the word of My servant

And fulfill the prediction of my messengers.

It is I who say of Jerusalem, "It shall be inhabited,"

And of the towns of Judah, "They shall be rebuilt";

 

59 Note, for example, the frequent uses of participial xrb outside Isaiah as cited by

Paul Humbert, "Emploi et portee du verbe bara (creer) dans l'Ancien Testament," TZ 3

(1947) 401-22.



16                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

(I,) who said to the deep, "Be dry;

I will dry up your floods,"

 

Am the same who says of Cyrus, "He is my Shepherd;

He shall fulfill all my purposes!

He shall say of Jerusalem, 'She shall be rebuilt,'

And to the Temple: 'You shall be founded again.'"

 

Though this pericope forms the introduction to what is commonly

called the "Cyrus Oracle," it is by itself cast in the form of a hymnic

self-predication.60 But its intent is clearly that of disputation as

Schoors has demonstrated.61 In other words, it is an excellent example

of the use of expanded self-predication as the basis for establishing

the credentials of the accuser, in this case Yahweh.

Gressmann recognized only the hymnic quality of the section and

pointed out the fact that it consists almost entirely of a series of

participles following the divine name in the messenger formula, "Thus

said the LORD.”62 It is in its entirety, he said, a Selbspradikation.

Within this relatively brief poem of about 20 lines there are at least

eleven participial ascriptions to Yahweh involving nine different

verbs.63 These demonstrate the awesome power and wisdom of God

as creator (24), predictor (25-26), and redeemer (27-28).

Turning now to the cuneiform literature, there is a Sumerian

hymn of self-praise, a genre far more common in Sumerian than

Akkadian.64 The following is the translation of an Inanna Hymn65 by

W. H. P. Romer:66

 

8 Mein Vater hat mir den Himmel gegeben,

hat mir die Erde gegeben,

9 ich--die Himmelsherrin bin ich,

10 misst sich einer, ein Gott mit mir?

 

60 Westermann, Isaiah, 154-55, refers to the passage as a descriptive hymn of praise

in the first person of self-glorification.

61Schoors, Saviour, 267-73. He bases his argument on the presence of the

messenger formula (24a) and the similarity of the passage to the disputation of

45:9-13.

62 H. Gressmann, "Die literarische Analyse Deuterojesajas," 289-90.

63 The following verbs appear: rmx (44:26, 27, 28); lxg (24); rcy (24); hFn (24); hWf

(24); fqr (24); drp (25); Mvq (26); bvw (25). Five of these occur in v 24 alone!

64 So E. Reiner, "A Sumero-Akkadian Hymn of Nana," JNES 33 (1974) 221. She

cites as Akkadian examples an Old Babylonian self-praise of Istar (VAS 10, 213 =

SAHG, 381, n. 3), "Marduk's address to the Demons" (Lambert, AfO 17 [1957-58]

310ff.; 19 [1959-60] 114-19), and the Gula Hymn of Bullutsa-rabi, discussed below.

65 VAS 10, n. 199, III 8-31; published by H. Zimmern, Sumerischen Kultlieder aus

altbabylonischer Zeit (Leipzig, 1913).

66 W. H. P. Romer, "Eine sumerische Hymne mit Selbstlob Inannas," Or, n.s. 38

(1969) 97-114.



MERRILL: ISAIAH 40-55 AS ANTI-BABYLONIAN POLEMIC    17

 

11 Mullil hat mir den Himmel gegeben

<hat mir> die Erde <gegeben>

12 ich--<die Himmelsherrin bin ich>.

13 Die Herrenschaft hat er mir gegeben,

14 die Herrinnenschaft hat er mir gegeben

15 den Kampf hat er mir gegeben, die [Schla]cht?

<hat er> mir <gegeben>,

16 die Flut hat er mir gegeben, den [wi]r belwind (?)

<hat er> mir <gegeben>,

17 Den Himmel hat er als Kappe auf mein

Haupt gesetzt,

18 die Erde als Sandale an meinen Fuss gebunden,

19 den reinen Gottermantel an meinen Leib gebunden,

20 das reine Szepter in meine Hand gelegt.

 

Though the style of these lines is not participial, it is certainly

self-predicative. One might well assume that the traditional self-

introduction ("I am") with a following string of names and epithets

made up the lacunae. And probably these took the form of appos-

itional nominatives or participles.67 The "I am" does survive in lines 9

and 12.

An Akkadian example is the Gula hymn of Bullutsa-rabi, a

composition that probably dates from the Persian period.68 In the

first 187 of a total of 200 lines the goddess Gula speaks. In the

opening section the deity introduces herself with participles, nominal

clauses, and several statives. The passage reads as follows:

1  The goddess, the most powerful of all deities that reside in shrines--

2  I am an aristocrat, I am a lady, I am resplendent, I am exalted,

3  My location is lofty, I am feminine, I have dignity,

4  I excel among the goddesses.

5  In heaven my star is great, my name in the underworld,

6  Mention of me is sweet--men discourse on

7  Sound health and the healing touch,

8  My great name is Nintinugga.

 

The remainder of the hymn consists of alternating sections in which

the goddess praises herself and then her spouse. Bullutsa-rabi is

 

67 This is the form taken by other Sumerian hymns of this type. See Falkenstein,

SAHG, n. 24 ("A Sulgi Hymn") in which 11.1-19 are the "I am" section, following

which are statements with finite verbs; and so throughout the Sulgi hymns (Castellino,

Two Sulgi Hymns [BC] Studi Semitici 42 [Roma: Universita di Roma, 1972] B, 11-12,

82, 119-21; C, 1-6). For the structure of this form, see von Soden, "Hymne," RLA 4

(1972-1975) 539-40.

68 W. G. Lambert, "The Gula Hymn of Bullutsa-rabi," Or 36 (1967) 105-32.

Lambert suggests a date for its original composition between 1400 and 700 B.C.

(p. 109).



18                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

an individual on whose behalf prayer is made in the last section

(II. 188-200) to the two deities. As we indicated above, the Akkadian

exemplars of the self-praise are limited to only three or four, though,

of course, the hymns and prayers in the second and third person are

very common.

 

                                                CONCLUSION

The preceding, on which little comment has been made, are

sufficient to show that the self-predication formula is attested in both

Sumerian and Akkadian hymnic literature as well as in Isaiah. And

since it is lacking elsewhere in Hebrew literature (with the exceptions

already noted) one must allow the possibility at least that Isaiah

appropriated and adapted this particular literary vehicle as a heuristic

and polemical device with which to exalt and praise Yahweh in

opposition to the gods of Babylon. It seems that one must agree with

Dion's assessment when he says that the concrete example of this

borrowing by the prophet may help us to appreciate better the

marvelous power of assimilation by which the Word of the living God

always utilizes to its own ends the ancient religious heritage of

humanity. Indeed, the prophet of Yahweh does not hesitate to benefit

from authentic resources of the pagan milieu in which he finds himself.

A master himself of ancient eloquence, he seizes well the majesty and

power of persuasion of discourse by which gods and kings generally

reveal their splendor in the Orient. He adopts therefore this method,

up to that time unused in Israel, and uses it in the service of the good

news concerning the Creator and Savior.69 Without doubt, the most

effective polemic is that in which the protagonist (mis)uses the argu-

ments of his adversary and does so by a sarcastic, mocking use of the

very language of his opponent. Much more of this could, without

question, be communicated by the special nuances that are possible to

oral discourse. But no one of the exilic community could fail to be

impressed by the subtleties as well as the overt expression of the

prophet as he attempted to demonstrate to them the incomparability

of their God.

 

69 Dion, "Le genre litteraire sumerien," 233-34.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Grace Theological Seminary

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

www.grace.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu