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  • Isaiah 32 as Literature and Political Meditation
  • Mark W. Hamilton

Isaiah 32 opens with a gorgeous paean to a future ideal ruler (vv. 1-8), shifts to a lament for the despoiled nation (vv. 9-14), and ends by anticipating national and royal restoration (vv. 15-20). An analysis of the ways in which the constituent units individually and in combination use metaphor and argument to structure an audience's beliefs, emotions, and actions-in short, the text's rhetorical functioning-reveals a carefully wrought dialogue. This dialogue both sums up the rich reflection on kingship in the early Isaian tradition and sets the stage for the book's ultimate, though hard-won abandonment of human kingship in favor of YHWH's. Far from being a heterogeneous assemblage of oracles, the three pieces fit together to posit a dialectical relationship between a view of monarchy that imagines it as the answer to all problems and one that envisages disaster for the nation. This disaster is brought on in part by royal malfeasance or neglect, allowing the reader or hearer to imagine the reinvigoration of the monarchy and thus the nation. Because an ideal cannot be realized in history, the focus on the ideal human ruler opens up the possibility of shifting kingly images primarily to YHWH.

Scholars at least since Bernhard Duhm ordinarily identify three units in Isaiah 32: vv. 1-8, 9-14, and 15-20, with the first unit expressing hope for a revitalized monarchy and the rest of the chapter addressing concerns that such beatitude might not be realized.1 The relationship of the three units to one another and to their larger context is a subject of debate. [End Page 663]

Since the development of chs. 28-35 remains obscure, the rhetorical function and religio-political setting of the material in ch. 32 deserve greater attention. For example, Duhm believed that the entire chapter stemmed from Isaiah of Jerusalem, rejecting atomizing tendencies as the work of "Philister." Contemporary scholars are divided, with Willem Beuken understanding vv. 1-8 and 9-14 to be Josianic or earlier and 15-20 to be a bridge unit,2 Marvin A. Sweeney believing the entire chapter to be the intended conclusion of the Josianic redaction,3 and Matthijs J. de Jong arguing for a complex redactional history beginning as a response to Assyrian decline in the seventh century and extending centuries later, among other views.4 All such reconstructions depend on a series of interlocking hypotheses too difficult to sort out within the scope of this essay.

Instead, I wish to concentrate on Isaiah 32 as religio-political discourse within the Isaian tradition as it tries to solve a common Near Eastern intellectual problem, the morality of kingship.5 Other Isaian connections to the larger world, such as the [End Page 664] reflection on the Marduk cult in Second Isaiah6 or the argument with Neo-Assyrian propaganda in First Isaiah,7 are well known. It should therefore not be surprising, in principle, that the Isaian tradition would address problems felt throughout the region, though always on its own terms and in its own voice.

Moreover, the Isaian tradition's richly textured treatment of kingship features three approaches to the problem. In the first stage, eighth- and seventh-century B.C.E. texts portray human kings as YHWH's soon-to-be-defeated foes, whose boastful self-display8 or appeals to antiquity9 fail. Thus, the Isaian view of foreign kingship takes as its starting point the Judahite royal propaganda, while it both acknowledges and inverts the propaganda strategies of the monarchies it condemns.10 The second approach appears in the text at hand, as well as in 8:23-9:6 and [End Page 665] elsewhere, texts that envision an ideal human king. Though inherently unstable, the idea of such a figure paved the way for the third approach, in which no human (at least no Israelite) king is necessary for YHWH to reign in splendor. This second approach seems to predate the Babylonian exile because 32:1-8 implies not the total disruption of the hierarchy but the existence of kings and nobles...


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