Haμsukkāν In Isaiah 40:20: Some Reflections -- By: Simon J. Sherwin

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 54:1 (NA 2003)
Article: Haμsukkāν In Isaiah 40:20: Some Reflections
Author: Simon J. Sherwin

Haμsukkāν In Isaiah 40:20:
Some Reflections1

Simon Sherwin


Hamsukkān in Isaiah 40:20 has been linked with Akkadian musukkannu, a type of wood. This article examines the geographical spread of the wood in antiquity in order to determine what implications the acceptance of this reading has for the dating of the text.

I. Introduction

The idol polemic of Isaiah 40:18–20 is notoriously difficult and has been discussed many times over the years. It is not the purpose of this brief article to reopen all the issues involved. Rather, the intention is to examine one particular proposal that has been made, that is, that הַמְסֻכָּן in Isaiah 40:20 should be understood as a type of wood, more specifically, that it corresponds to Akkadian musukkannu,2 and the implications of this proposal for the dating of the idol polemic itself.

The evidence that הַמְסֻכָּן denotes a type of wood is compelling. It has been frequently observed that Jerome, the Targum and Sa’adya understood it this way. Jerome, for example, wrote in his commentary on Isaiah, ‘in Hebraeo dicitur amsuchan; quod genus ligni est imputribile, quo vel maxime idola fiunt’.3 However, there is no indication from this that he understood which species of tree was

being referred to, since what he says about it is contained in the text itself.4 The Targum and Sa’adya translate it as ‘pine’ and ‘oak’ respectively.5 The connection between הַמְסֻכָּן and Akkadian musukkannu was drawn as early as 1894 by H. Zimmern,6 and has been followed sporadically since, but has by no means gained universal acceptance. In its favour is the Masoretic vocalisation, which corresponds exactly with the Akkadian variant spelling mesukkannu. This is incidentally an important witness to the antiquity and conservatism of the Masoretic vocalisation which was maintained despite the fact that (on the testimony of the ancient versions) the word itself was no longer understood. A third piece of evidence in its favour is the phrase found in our verse, עֶץ לֹא־...

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