Isaiah 40-55 As Anti-Babylonian Polemic -- By: Eugene H. Merrill

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 08:1 (Spring 1987)
Article: Isaiah 40-55 As Anti-Babylonian Polemic
Author: Eugene H. Merrill

Isaiah 40-55 As Anti-Babylonian Polemic

Eugene H. Merrill

Isaiah 40–55 is essentially a polemic against the theology and worldview of the Assyro-Babylonian culture of the Jewish exile foreseen by and already at least partially contemporary to Isaiah of Jerusalem. This is seen in the prophets pervasive use of polemical rhetorical devices borrowed largely from cuneiform language and literature itself. These devices include rhetorical questions and self-predications in participial form. The peculiar effectiveness of the prophets polemic lies in his defense of his own God and religious tradition by using ancient Near Eastern genres to demolish the claims of the gods of Israels Babylonian captors.

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Though there can be no doubt that the most important, overriding theme of Isaiah 40–55 is that of salvation,1 a major adjunct to that theme is the prophet’s assault upon the religio-cultural structure of the Babylonian society from which the Jewish exiles were to be delivered. It was necessary for them to see both the bankruptcy of pagan life and institutions—especially as manifest in the gods and cult—and, by contrast, the incomparability of their God and his historical and eschatological purposes for them.

Isaiah’s unremitting rhetorical attack is called “polemic.” Westermann sees polemic as an aggressive element of the prophet’s preaching conscripted in service of the message of salvation.2 It is a shifting of the contest from the battlefield to the law court for the purpose of demonstrating forensically that Yahweh is the Lord of history, the one who is able to link the past with the present and the future.

The Definition and Early Use of Polemic

Polemic is “a controversial discussion or argument: an aggressive attack on or the refutation of the opinions or principles of another.” It is also “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.”3 The only nonbiblical examples of such a literary type surviving from the ancient Near East are a dozen or so Sumerian and Akkadian disputations of a fabulous nature.4 To date no others of a more judicial or formally forensic nature have been attested. The OT, then, is exceptional, and within the OT the disputation sections of Isaiah 40–55 are the more fully developed. One may say, then, that the use of...

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