11 September 2003

'zdq' in isaiah: 1st isaiah

None of the themes taken up zdq in the first part of Isaiah are entirely absent from Second Isaiah, but there is development. In First Isaiah there are several axes along which the terminology must be considered: human righteousness, the righteousness of Yahweh, and divine vindication of Israel.

It seems to me that for Isaiah, all of these concepts function within a covenant framework, presupposing the relationship between Yahweh and Israel in which Yahweh has promised to be Israel’s God, has given Israel Torah as a way of life, continually calls Israel to covenant faithfulness, and has promised that as Israel’s God, he will be faithful to his covenant, even if Israel must undergo judgment. The terminology of zdq, while it certainly carries strong forensic or judicial connotations in various contexts, does so only in this broader context of Yahweh’s gracious covenant and the way of life that Torah shapes.

The following textual considerations may be offered in support of this perspective. I’ll begin with the song of Judah in Isaiah 26, as window upon other texts. Here Israel can be said to be a “righteous nation” (goy-zadiq; 26:2), a nation that “keeps faith,” that is, remains faithful to the covenant, trusting Yahweh for safety (26:2-4). This trust is warranted by Yahweh’s own actions with regard to the “righteous” who are, in this instance, the poor and needy who have been trampled, presumably often in the courts of justice, and now are favored by Yahweh (26:5-7). Yahweh’s “just judgments” (mishpatim; 8:9) are desired by the downtrodden since through these judgments the people of the land will learn “righteousness” (zedeq), lest the scoundrel continue in ignorance of it, continue injustice, and ignore the majesty of Yahweh.

Here the implication is that “righteousness” is, first of all, a matter of vindication for those who have been denied justice and thus now are “righteous” in that they have a “right-standing” before Yahweh’s court of justice. Furthermore, this vindication is a manifestation of Yahweh’s own righteousness, not merely his just judgment, but the covenant faithfulness that is expressed in it (cf. the “zeal for your people” 26:11). This, then, is the model for human “righteousness,” faithfulness to the covenant and Torah expressed in human justice, particularly in the legal cause of the poor.

In all of this the covenantal and the forensic are not separated, but presuppose one another. Moreover, Yahweh’s vindication (of the poor and needy) of Israel against adversaries is not merely a legal declaration, but a declaration that is manifest in the fruits of Yahweh’s faithfulness to his covenant: a level path and smooth way for the righteous and, later in the chapter, well-being (shalom; 26:12), and new life pictured, interestingly, in terms of childbirth and resurrection from death (26:17-19).

These brief reflections, then, can serve as a perspective upon various other texts of First Isaiah.

Personal “righteousness” or a “righteousness” that dwells in Zion, often has the connotation of just judgment on the part of human rulers (1:21, 26; 3:10; 5:7; 5:23; 9:7; etc). It is contrasted against murder, inequity, oppression, false accusation, and injustice (e.g., 1:21) and set in parallel with (just) judgment, impartiality, the cause of the poor and lowly, and establishing peace (e.g., 3:9-10). When such “righteousness” is carried out, the one who carries it out can be said to be “righteous” (zadiq; 3:10) while those he vindicates (or ought to vindicate) can be said to be “those in the right” (zadiq[im]; 5:23; 29:21). Thus the context is heavily forensic.

But the wider context is clearly that of covenant faithfulness to Torah on the part of rulers in their judgments. This is clear not only from allusions to Torah, for example, in the demand for impartiality or refusing bribes, but also from how “righteousness” is set in parallel with faithfulness to Yahweh (e.g., 11:5; 16:15). Again, the presupposition is that, ultimately, Yahweh himself is the just judge who judges in righteousness and is faithful to his covenant with Israel. Human justice is to reflect that divine model, especially among his covenant people, Israel.

As we shall see, the theme of Yahweh’s own “righteousness” does not receive the same degree of attention in First Isaiah that it does in Second Isaiah. Additionally, where Yahweh’s “righteous verdict” is spoken of, the emphasis is less on the vindication of his people and more upon judgment against Israel (e.g., 5:16; 10:22; 28:17). Nonetheless, the figure of the coming Davidic king, the shoot from Jesse, is a way in which Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness is expressed, his fulfilling of his promises to Israel and to David.

Through this king, whom Yahweh will establish, “righteousness” will be restored in Zion. His throne will be one of justice and “righteousness” (z’daqah; 9:7), judging with “righteousness” (zedeq) with regard to the poor and lowly, so that he may be said to be girded with “righteousness” and faithfulness (11:4-5; 16:5). This is later connected with the outpouring of Yahweh’s Spirit so that justice and “righteousness” (z’daqah) will dwell in the law, and calm, confidence, and peace will pursue (32:1, 16-17).

While this anticipation of the Davidic Messiah presupposes Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from divine judgment, the language of Yahweh’s “vindication” of Israel is not specifically used in First Isaiah. The result of the rule of the king faithful to Yahweh and his Torah, however, is parallel to the final outcome of Yahweh’s vindication of Israel as that is portrayed in Second Isaiah (as we shall see below). And while in both cases the eschatological outcome is ultimately secured through the agency of Yahweh himself, in First Isaiah the role of the Davidic king is far more central to the administration of that final vision than it is in Second Isaiah.

Let us turn then to the developments expressed in Second Isaiah, directed towards Israel as she finds herself in the midst of exile and looks expectantly for Yahweh’s vindication.