Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 3-18.
[Copyright © 1987 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
ISAIAH 40-55 AS
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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 (
1753. The etymon is Gr. poleme<w, "make war, fight"; cf. W. P. Arndt and P. W.
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament,
2nd ed. (
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
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
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
and adapted by Jewish scholars in their apologetic against polytheism
10 T. O. Sloan, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. Philip
W. Goetz (
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
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
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
(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)
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
20 Stephen L. Peterson, "Babylonian Literary Influence in Deutero-Isaiah" (Ph. D.
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
24 Cf. David Weisberg, Guild Structure and Political Allegiance in Early Achae-
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
said of one who lived in
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 (
Magnes, 1973) 165. See also D. W. Thomas, "The Sixth Century B.C.: A Creative
in the History of
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
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
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 (
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
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
recht, 1929) 61.
33 R. N. Whybray, The Heavenly Counsellor in Is. 40, 13-14 (SOTS, Monograph
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
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
35 The rhetorical with ym is frequently used by the worshipers of Yahweh elsewhere
in the OT (Exod ; Deut ; 4:7; Mic ; 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 ; 4:7, 8; ; 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: Neviim (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
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.
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 (
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 (
gart; Artemis-Verlag, 1953) n. 44, obv. 24-25; J. Bollenrucher, Gebete und Hymnen an
Nergal, LSS I/VI (
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
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 ; 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-
Yahweh contends with
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
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
HUCA 33 (1962) 15-22.
46 See Eduard Norden, Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte
religioser Rede (1913; reprint,
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;
49:23; 51:12). This type finds its roots in
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-
was the first in
way. "He took over this non-Israelite, and obviously Babylonian,
form with the deliberate polemical purpose of
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
saving relationship to
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
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)
55 R. F. Melugin,
"The Structure of Deutero-Isaiah" (Ph.D. diss.,
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;
They shall not overwhelm you.
When you walk through fire,
You shall not be scorched;
It shall not burn you.
For I the Lord am your God,
The Holy One of
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
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:
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
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
And of the towns of
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
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
And to the
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
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 (
66 W. H. P. Romer, "Eine sumerische Hymne mit Selbstlob Inannas," Or, n.s. 38
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org