Isaiah 40:20, Towards A Solution -- By: A. R. Millard
TynBul 14:1 (1964) p. 12
Isaiah 40:20, Towards A Solution
40:18. ‘To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? 19, The idol! a workman casts it, and a gold- smith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. 20, He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skilful craftsman to set up an image that will not move’ (RSV).
The purpose of this note is to re-state an old explanation of the first clause of verse 20, hamsukkān tᵉrûmâ ‘ēṣ 1ō' yirqab yibḥār. Traditional understanding of these words assumes a contrast between this verse and 18, 19; the idol of metal is assumed to be the gift of a rich man, while the pauper can afford only a wooden one.1 This, however, is not obvious as there is neither mention of a rich man as the one who commissions the precious idol nor is there any indication that more than one idol is in question, representing idols as a class. hamsukkān is a unique word. No root skn ‘to be poor’ is known from which it could be formed and re-pointing as hammiskēn ‘poor man’2 introduces a word otherwise only found in Ecclesiastes and borrowed from Akkadian muškēnu. The fact that none of the ancient translations understood any reference to poverty militates against such a rendering, for they recognize the word in Ecclesiastes. The Vulgate and Peshitta omit the phrase and the Septuagint paraphrases ὁμοιωμα κατεσκευασεν αὐτον, ‘he made it a likeness’ which is an even less likely interpretation.3
A different meaning is given by the Targum Jonathan, ‘ôrān bārê, ‘he cuts down a fir tree’. The idea that the name of a tree lies here was also known to Jerome, who stated that amsuchan was a kind of hard wood used for making images and stood here in apposition to ‘ēṣ lō’ yirqab
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