Yevamot 49

Entombed in a tree.

As now, in ancient times every so often long lost scrolls were unearthed that offered surprising revelations. Today, the Gemara quotes beraita which describes a scroll that was found in Jerusalem. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, the scroll ended with a real shocker:

And it was written in it: Manasseh killed Isaiah.

If you know your Bible well, these names are familiar. Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, who was one of the most righteous kings of the Kingdom of Judah (according to the biblical book of Kings). Unlike his father, however, King Manasseh was infamous for his wickedness. As 2 Kings 21:2 tells us, Manasseh “did what was displeasing to the Lord, following the abhorrent practices of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites.” According to today’s daf, another of the abhorrent things that Manasseh did, in addition to idolatry, was kill Isaiah the prophet. (The Hebrew Bible does not actually tell us how Isaiah died.)

Why would Manasseh want to kill Isaiah? Biblical prophets like Isaiah didn’t just predict the future, though that was scary enough. They also spoke truth to power, calling out injustice and oppression wherever they saw it — even at the highest levels. And they could work miracles to prove their point, making them fairly formidable opponents to the likes of evil kings. 

Manasseh the king was indeed very unjust, even sacrificing his own son to a foreign god. The Bible tells us that he “shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end.” (2 Kings 21:16

So what did Manasseh do about his Isaiah problem? Rava explains that Manasseh created a pretext to arrest Isaiah. His intention was to falsely judge him guilty, and so sentence Isaiah to death. Manasseh accused Isaiah of contradicting the truth of the Torah in three different instances — a charge that would presumably prove he was a false prophet. And according to Deuteronomy 18:20-22, false prophets should be put to death. Problem solved!

Let’s look at one example from Manasseh’ accusation. According to the Gemara, Manasseh tells Isaiah:

Moses your master said in the Torah: “And He said: You cannot see My face, for man cannot see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20) — and yet you said: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a high and lofty throne” (Isaiah 6:1).”

How, Manasseh challenges, could Isaiah see God if Moses himself said that God cannot be seen?!

As the Gemara will go on to explain, none of Isaiah’s prophecies actually contradict the Torah if they are understood correctly. In this case, for example:

“I saw the Lord” — as it is taught: All of the prophets observed their prophecies through an obscure looking glass. Moses our master observed his prophecies through a clear looking glass.

Not unlike the ancient Greek hero Perseus who used a mirror to gaze at the deadly visage of Medusa, Isaiah was able to see a reflection of God — and thereby avoid the death that comes from staring directly at God’s countenance.

On trial, Isaiah realizes of course that Manasseh is not interested in discovering the truth and is only interested in finding him guilty and killing him. With the deck stacked against him, Isaiah takes a desperate step:

He uttered a divine name and was swallowed within a cedar.

Entombment in a tree trunk might seem like the ultimate strategy for concealment but, alas, this miracle is observed, and Manasseh finds out.

They brought the cedar tree and sawed through it. When they reached to where his mouth was, Isaiah died.

Rather than just ignoring Isaiah, now reduced to hiding in a tree, Manasseh has him murdered. It is poetic that Isaiah’s death comes when the saw reaches his mouth — the true source of Isaiah’s power, and the organ that most threatened Manasseh.

Not willing to give the evil king autonomous power over the death of the righteous, the Gemara tells us that God permitted Isaiah’s death because he disrespected Israel. (In Isaiah 6:5 the prophet refers to them as a “people of unclean lips”). But the story on today’s daf reminds us that speaking up against injustice could be highly effective, destabilizing kingdoms and renewing the people’s relationship with God and each other. After all, Manasseh wouldn’t have gone to such measures to stop Isaiah if he didn’t know just how effective prophecy could be.

Read all of Yevamot 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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