Isaiah ben Amoz: Political Prophet (Isaiah 1-39)

Isaiah's greatness lies not only in his ethical teachings, but in his central involvement--and prophetic intervention--in the political events of his day.

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It is generally agreed among scholars that only verses 1-39 of the book of Isaiah (commonly referred to as "First Isaiah" or "I Isaiah") were written by the prophet whose name appears upon the whole book; the reasons that scholars have concluded this are complex, but the main one is the historical divergence between verses 1-39, which deal with the Assyrian threat, and verses 40 and following, which are connected with the Babylonian exile, occurring significantly later in Israelite history. In this article, Michael Fishbane illuminates, from the text, the details of the political life of one of the most central prophets in Jewish religious thought and practice. This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Greatness of Isaiah ben Amoz

Isaiah son of Amoz towers among the giants of classical biblical prophecy -- repeatedly challenging the nation and its leaders with the ethical and religious will of God, and providing instructions and visions of moral renewal and universal peace. In such ways, he both dramatizes the engagement of a prophet with the social and political events of his times and expresses an impassioned concern for a life governed by covenantal values.

For Isaiah, deceit and dissembling, like moral blindness and greed, corrupt the religious spirit and are anathema to God. The ancient covenant is thus no abstract teaching, but a concrete challenge for rectitude and justice in daily life. Intensely alive in the troubled times of Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E., Isaiah's words and deeds have became a model for a life of prophetic witness to divine demands.

Isaiah's Immersion in Political Turmoil

Isaiah's prophetic career was enmeshed in the political and cultural turmoil of the times. According to the superscription to the book, this career spanned the last half century of the eighth century B.C.E. ‑including all or part of the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah (769 -733), Jotham (758‑743, regent), Ahaz (743‑733 B.C.E., regent; 733‑727 B.C.E.), and Hezekiah (727‑698 B.C.E.). According to the date provided in Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah experienced an awesome vision of the Lord in the year that King Uzziah died (733 B.C.E.). If this experience was his commission to divine service, then his prophetic career began with the death of the monarch. Alternatively, the vision marks a renewal or redirection of his prophetic career begun sometime earlier (and not otherwise indicated).

Aram and Israel Ally Against Judah.

We first find Isaiah involved in historical events during the reign of Ahaz, shortly after 735 B.C.E. At that time, according to the Book of Kings, "King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel (the northern Israelite nation) advanced on Jerusalem (the capital of Judah, the southern Israelite nation) for battle. They besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome [him]" (2 Kings 16:5). The account of this alliance against Judah and Jerusalem is expanded upon in Isaiah 7:1‑16. Here we learn that the two kings conspire to dethrone Ahaz and replace him with someone called "son of Tabeel" (7:6).

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Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.