The Ideology of Second Isaiah: Exclusive or Inclusive?

The following is an excerpt from my thesis on Lamentations.  My current chapter is about intertextuality between Lamentations and Babylonian- and Persian-era texts.  The text that appears to have most in common with Lamentations is Isaiah 40-55.

Gottwald, self-consciously applying a Marxist rubric, considers DeuIsa (Isa 40-55) to reflect the concerns of the golah former elites of Judah, with relatively little concern for the she’erit (Judahites in the land) working classes.[1]  In his view, DeuIsa provides encouragement, reminding the golah community that they are the rightful elites of Judah, and justifying their claim to leadership with “the notion that the exile had ‘purified’ and uniquely qualified the deportees to lead a reconstituted Judahite polis.”[2]  By contrast, the she’erit are merely “a ‘faceless’ chorus welcoming the returnees.”[3]  Gottwald suggests that TrIsa’s (Isa 56-66) critique of the returning golah leadership reveals a naiveté in DeuIsa’s idealistic return:

…We may perhaps conjecture that the “innocence” of Isaiah 40-55 about the Judahites in Judah was the reflexive “blind spot” of an aristocratic ex-official who simply assumed that his confreres, having “learned their lesson” in exile, would be a noble and just body of leaders who would behave differently than had their forefathers who governed in Jerusalem.[4]

Lamentations, Gottwald argues, contains a she’erit critique of the returning golah leadership:

We read there of their disillusion with the Davidic dynasty and with the corrupt leadership of officials, priests and prophets….It is hardly likely that these folk would gladly receive back the descendants of that discredited leadership “sight unseen” merely because they asserted a claim and had Persian authorization to back them.[5]

Gottwald’s assessment of DeuIsa, though offering some creative observations, unfortunately glosses over several important aspects of these two texts, creating an unwarranted distance between the positions reflected by DeuIsa and Lamentations.  It is certainly true that there were competing claims to political and religious leadership during the return/restoration efforts.  However, a simplistic claim that Lamentations reflects she’erit suspicion of golah leadership and that DeuIsa exhibits concern only for pro-Persian, exile-purified elites does not do justice to the complex concerns of these two texts.  Chapter four  of my thesis has demonstrated that Lamentations, though written primarily from a she’erit perspective, exhibits concern for the golah and refugee communities as well.  Chapter two showed DeuIsa’s concern for the desolate state of the she’erit as more than simply a “faceless chorus” welcoming back their aristocracy.

The unnecessary wedge Gottwald drives between Lamentations and DeuIsa taints some of his conclusions regarding the rhetoric and imagery of the two texts.  He argues that “the imaginative figures of Jacob/Israel, Lady Zion and the Oppressed Servant of Isaiah 40-55 are supremely, even exclusively, those Judahites who were detained in Babylon.”[6]  Yet Lamentations uses Lady Zion to protest on behalf of she’erit concerns (as well as golah concerns), and the Oppressed Servant bears some resemblance to the geber figure of Lamentations 3.  Furthermore, Gottwald argues that DeuIsa’s replacement of a Davidic figure with Cyrus was a way justifying golah leadership of Judah:

The author of Isaiah 40-55 takes a step [sic] farther [than the DtrH] in discountenancing any Davidic rule, conferring instead a “Davidic” legitimacy on Persian overlordship and on supervision of Yahwism as the established religion of the empire by a cadre of purified exiles.  In one stroke, the Davidic covenant, with its close intermesh of politics and religion, is preserved in principle—but without David’s dynastic successors having a part to play.[7]

This assertion allows Gottwald to dismiss the “Davidic democratization” tendencies of DeuIsa, particularly surrounding 55:3-4.[8]  He also questions the “liberative platform” often seen in DeuIsa.[9]

Newsom addresses one of these difficulties in a response to Gottwald.[10]  She argues that the she’erit community is dialogically present in DeuIsa through the appropriation of the rhetoric of Lamentations:

I don’t agree…that there is in Second Isaiah either a naïve or a complacently “hard ball” assumption that the exiles will be welcomed back home.  Rather, the use of the Judahite [she’erit] speech of Lamentations is an oblique acknowledgement that there are some social and ideological problems attached to going home again.  What Second Isaiah does is to set out to find an imaginative framework within which these social and ideological problems can be finessed.  Strategically, for the exilic community to locate itself within the speech of the Judahite community provides the exilic community with a symbolic narrative within which they can imagine themselves being welcomed home….The use of Lamentations thus betrays a need (perhaps not consciously registered) for a common language, a common set of symbols with which the two communities can regard and make sense of one another.[11]

Newsom admits that this “common language” is certainly “populated with the intentions and interests of the exilic community.”[12]  But rather than shouting down or ignoring the she’erit community, in DeuIsa the golah community engages the other in dialogue through the use of Lamentations.

Gottwald dismisses an “inclusive” reading of DeuIsa and considers the invocation of the Davidic covenant in Isaiah 55:3-4 to be a golah co-opting of the Davidic role to bolster claims to nobility and hegemony in Judah.  But his reading does not do justice to Isaiah 55 on his own terms.  In verses 1-2 and 12-13, Isaiah 55’s utopia is a world without scarcity, labor or trade—one in which staples and luxury foods are available free to anyone, and the land easily yields its produce.  DeuIsa does not appear to be concerned with reestablishing golah control of the means of production, but rather with a restoration scenario in which means of production are not a concern at all.

DeuIsa does appear to “democratize” the Davidic covenant, inasmuch as it applies the principle of royal representation—the king as the mediator between god and people—to the current situation in which Judah lacks a king.  55:3 extends the Davidic covenant offer to anyone who “listens” and “inclines the ear” to the prophet’s message, particularly those who are poor and thirsty (55:1-2).  This universalizing vision considers YHWH to be the God of all nations and includes the conversion of Gentiles who will worship YHWH (42:6; 49:6; 55:5).


[1] Norman K. Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology in Isaiah 40-55: An Eagletonian Reading,” Semeia 59 (1992).

[2] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 52.

[3] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 51.

[4] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 52.

[5] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 53.

[6] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 53.

[7] Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 54.

[8] Jill Middlemas, The Templeless Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 110; Willey, Remember the Former Things, 26-27.

[9] “The exuberant universalist rhetoric has seemed to imply large humanizing goals” (Gottwald, “Social Class and Ideology,” 55).

[10] Carol Newsom, “Response to Norman Gottwald, ‘Social Class and Ideology in Isaiah 40-55: An Eagletonian Reading,’” Semeia 59 (1992): 73-78.

[11] Newsom, “Response to Norman Gottwald, ‘Social Class,’” 75-76.

[12] Newsom, “Response to Norman Gottwald, ‘Social Class,’” 76.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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