Guests: Mathilde Frey and Jody Washburn
Relevant Bible Verses: Isaiah 36-39
Leading Question: What happens when a pagan king uses the name of the Lord in vain?
This week’s lesson focuses Isaiah 36-39, an historical interlude between two largely prophetic sections. As noted in lesson #1, one could describe the two prophetic sections as “Israel under the Assyrians” (Isaiah 1-35) and “Israel under the Babylonians” (Isaiah 40-66).
But the historical interlude includes a cluster of remarkable experiences in the life of God’s people that we should address. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, was at Lachish, some 30 miles SW of Jerusalem, where the archaeologists have unearthed a pit that held some 1500 casualties. He has sent his representative, the Rabshakah, to Jerusalem to argue with Hezekiah that he and his people should surrender to the Assyrians. The northern kingdom of Israel has already succumbed to the Assyrians who have threatened all people everywhere with death or forced relocation.
By the time the story is over, however, the hand of the Lord has inflicted a massive attack on Sennacherib’s army. According to Scripture, the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, and Sennacherib was forced to return home without conquering Jerusalem. But as the story opens, Hezekiah was in deep trouble. Everything around had fallen apart; he and his people were isolated.
The Rabshakeh was a skilled tactician, and he knew enough about the Judean situation that he could claim that Yahweh, the God of the Judeans had sent him to take the city.
Question: What happens when a pagan king takes the name of the Lord in vain?
Comment: One helpful insight that sheds light on the Old Testament accounts is the way the biblical writers have used a circumlocution to refer to Yahweh, Israel’s God. “Yahweh” is a personal name for Israel’s God. “Elohim” is the generic term for God that can actually be written as God, god, or gods. Anyone’s “god” could be described by the label “Elohim.” But Yahweh was specific to Israel’s God.
After Israel went into captivity, they finally realized that they had been taken captive because of their disobedience to Yahweh’s law. So to make sure that they did not break the laws the “built a fence about the law.” One way they did this was to add regulations. When Jesus’ disciples went through a grain field and plucked some kernels on Sabbath, for example, they broke no less that four of 39 additional laws: harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food.
The way they built a fence around the third command (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”) was simply to stop using the name Yahweh at all! That habit is so deeply ingrained that the vast majority of modern translations continue to use a circumlocution. In some Hebrew text, the scribes left the consonants of YHWH without vowel points, indicating to the reader that they were to use an alternate name. In “pointed” texts they used the consonants of Yahweh with the vowels of “Adonai,” usually translated as lord, but could be used with any authority figure.
Modern translations, however, indicate this circumlocution by using all upper case letters when the text has YHWH. Thus in the Rabshakeh’s speech all those references to “LORD” in all capitals indicate that he was using the name of Israel’s God.
Question: Does the Old Testament God punish pagans for misusing his name?
Another intriguing feature of the biblical accounts of Sennacherib’s attack is the nuanced description of Hezekiah’s faith: stronger in 2 Chronicles 32, weaker in 2 Kings 18-19 and in Isaiah 37. The Chronicler has Isaiah and Hezekiah praying together over the Rabshakeh’s letter (2 Chron. 32.20), whereas both Kings and Isaiah have Hezekiah appealing to Isaiah to pray to “Yahweh, your God” (2 Kings 19:4; Isaiah 37:4).
Kings and Isaiah also reflect this more negative stance toward Hezekiah in their comments about him after the incident with the Babylonian visitors when Hezekiah showed them all the royal treasures. Hezekiah’s response to the prophetic judgment in Isaiah 39:8 is flippant; in 2 Kings 20:39 even more so.
*“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days’” (Isa. 39:8).
*“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’” (2 Kings 20:19).
Question: On what basis are inspired writers enabled to give differing perspectives?
To the modern mind, the extra-ordinary number of dead (185,000) is a stumbling block, and even to argue for an angelic agent can be a problem.
But there are really two issues here: 1) the high number; 2) the angelic intervention. The first issue is not one that we will address at length here. It is worth noting, however, that the mass grave in Lachish yielded 1500 fatalities, a more reasonable number. For further reading on the problem of the large numbers in the Old Testament, see “Numbers, Genealogies, Dates: Amram’s Brothers Were Really Prolific,” in Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991; 2nd edition, Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2016).
The second issue is the involvement of the supernatural. And here a quotation from C. S. Lewis is to the point: “When the Old Testament says that Sennacherib’s invasion was stopped by angels (2 Kings 19:35), and Herodotus says it was stopped by a lot of mice who came and ate up all the bowstrings of his army, an open-minded man will be on the side of the angels. Unless you start by begging the question, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the existence of angels or in the action ascribed to them. But mice just don’t do these things.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 27-28.
Question: Is it simply the spirit of our age that leads to the denial of the supernatural? What can believers do to counteract that impulse?