Why Isaiah Is Out Of Order?

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Center for Tanakh Based Studies

By: William J Jackson

As we read from Isaiah, he has us hitting the ground running.  We are stirred in Chapters 1 through 5 with his very fiery messages of judgment, punishment, and restoration. Then we hit Chapter 6 and this juggernaut of a journey gives us an abrupt turn. All at once, Isaiah goes from delivering fierce prophecies, to being in the presence of the Lord. In this fascinating realm, his writings are filled with the mystical and the supernatural. Here Isaiah’s tongue is touched with a red-hot coal by a seraph (Isaiah 6:6-7), then God asks for a volunteer to deliver His message (Isaiah 6:8) and as we could have guessed, Isaiah volunteers for the job (Isaiah 6:9).  “But wait!”, if God is commissioning Isaiah to be a prophet here, what about all the prophecies Isaiah was giving before chapter 6? To find our answer, we will address the purpose behind Isaiah’s mixed up chronology.

Biblical Scene

In truth, Isaiah starts in chapter 6, not 1. So why not start in order? There is a good reason for this; it is called “in medias res”1 which means in Latin, “in or into the middle of a narrative or plot”. This is when you put a story’s end or middle at the story’s beginning. Sounds kind of like a weird idea, but in practice, it gives weight to the rest of the story by causing us to deduce how the story will fit what we saw at the beginning. This technique is very popular with many renown movies such as ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Kill Bill: Volume 2’… etc.  As an example, remember the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, at the beginning when the old man is going through the cemetery and stops at a grave marker. We are left asking ourselves, “Who is this old man?” “Why is he crying?” “Whose grave is he at?” and of course, “what is the real story behind the story?” At this point, Steven Spielberg has his hook into us, so we will gladly give him our full attention for the next 2 hours and 45 minutes. Isaiah is doing the same thing.

One would say this is progressive for an 8th century BCE prophet, but it is not. The Iliad and the Odyssey, written by Homer, were ancient Greek books also written with the “in medias res” approach. Like the Book of Isaiah, they were also written in the 8th Century BCE. Talking about classics, much later, Shakespeare’s plays, “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would incorporate this technique. As a side note, Isaiah is sometimes is referred to as the “Shakespeare of the prophets”2.

 

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah was not written in chronological order. Many scholars have been left baffled trying to put Jeremiah in its linear order. However, Jeremiah was not trying to create the same story interest Isaiah was, he was motivated by different goals.  Some say that Jeremiah is broken into pieces to address different audiences. These individual units were originally created to target people to whom Jeremiah ministered at different stages throughout his ministry 3. A good example of this is when I tell people about my wartime experiences. I was deployed in the US Army in 2003, I helped revitalize the Iraqi government, I was in combat and I was in a leadership position.  When I talk to people about my deployment, depending on their interest, I expound on any of those three areas, I would not cover my deployment in chronological order to elaborate on a certain topic. So, although Jeremiah’s technique is not common, it is one he used, and it does take things out of order.

Conclusion:

Isaiah was not written to confuse the reader; it was written under the premise that the message is more important than the messenger. So it starts off with the most important part, the message, and then Isaiah gives us his credential. As for the message, we can divide these first five chapters into four categories4; The problems in the nation (Isaiah 1:2-9), The problems in the religion (Isaiah 1:10-20, 2:6-21), The problems in society (Isaiah 1:21-31, 2:22-4:1), and Punishment from God (Isaiah 5:1-30) 4. The message of Isaiah is timeless. However, in that time, it applied to the Assyrian Captivity. As with many massages from the Tanakh (Old Testament), they are repeated and so is Isaiah. We would see Isaiah’s message repeated later towards the Babylonian Captivity, then later with the Maccabean Revolt, then the Jewish-Roman War (one then two) and so forth. Isaiah’s message is applied to all eras of time to include our own.

Reference:

 

  1. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

 

  1. Wilmington, Harold L. “Isaiah: Shakespeare of the Prophets.” Liberty University13 (1985): 60. Web. 5 Nov. 2016.

 

  1. Murphy, S. Jonathan. “Bibliotheca Sacra.” THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH (2009): 306-18. Web.

 

  1. Churchyard, Gordon. “Isaiah: New *Heavens and a New Earth.” Isaiah Chapters 1-6. Wycliffe Associates (UK), Sept. 2009. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

 

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