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Officially, Isaiah is the written account of one prophet’s revelation. Judging from historical references culled from other parts of the Bible (II Kings, Hezekiah, and others), we know that ten of the twelve original tribes of Israel, living north of Jerusalem, were conquered by the Assyrians in roughly 720 BCE. This left two remaining tribes--Judah and Israel--to wonder about their fate in the face of great political threat.
It is generally recognized that there are two distinct parts of Isaiahs, chps. 1-39 and 34-60, written at different times. First Isaiah concerns Judah’s ethical and political corruption. The message is that only true belief in the One God can save them from further upheaval. Second Isaiah, though, tells of a messiah that will come to protect the people of Israel. This is the message of radical hope that would later be interpreted to foretell the coming of Christ.
Those first chapters form a polemic that roundly condemns the then-contemporary political landscape as being irreverent and debased. While the famous phrase “nation shall not turn against nation, and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares” (2:4) is normally associated with peace and non-violence, the passage was written against a backdrop of suffering, fear, and conflict. The tribes of Judah and Israel have lost sight of God and only regaining that sight, that reverence, can ensure their safety in the face of the oncoming Assyrian threat.
Interestingly, Isaiah’s vehement theism is--according to some sources--the first instance of monotheism in the Old Testament, as opposed to ‘monolotry’. The latter is the worshipping of one god exclusively, while recognizing other gods as legitimately existing (politically, at least). The Hebrew God was first regarded on the same metaphysical level as other gods like Baal, for example. Hashem, Adonai, or Shaddai was recognized as one among a pantheon. Then at some point Adonai was raised to a higher metaphysical level than gods like Baal, though those other gods still were thought to exist. Finally, the claim that only one God exists and all others are fictions--that it’s false to believe in them--gets expressed explicitly in Isaiah. This is the form of belief whose presence runs like an essential thread through Western religion and philosophy.
Written by David Backer, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University