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Archaeological Evidence for the Prophet Isaiah?

Archaeological Evidence for the Prophet Isaiah?

This bulla (seal impression) reads “[belonging] to Isaiah nvy.” Is it the signature of the Prophet Isaiah? Photo: Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar.
In the latest issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review), archaeologist Eilat Mazar announces what may be a find of great significance. A bulla (clay seal) has been discovered that may be the seal impression of the prophet Isaiah. In an excavation conducted in the Ophel (the area southeast of the Temple Mount staircase, see photo below), Mazar discovered 34 bullae, among other objects. Included in these finds was the bulla of King Hezekiah which I have written about previously (click here). As most readers of the Bible are aware, the Prophet Isaiah was a close personal advisor to King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-20; 2 Chron. 32; Isaiah 36-39) and played a pivotal role in Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.

As one can tell from the photo on the right, the bulla has been partially damaged. The upper end is mostly missing and the left side of the bulla is also damaged. Enough of it can be seen, however, to note that it consists of three tiers. The top tier reveals the remnants of a grazing doe. According to Mazar a grazing doe is “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah.” This motif is known on another bulla from the same area. The second tier reads “leyesha‘yah[u],” which translated means, “belonging to Isaiah.” The letter represented as a “u” in the brackets is missing due to the damage on the left side. It represents the Hebrew letter vav (ו) and is a certain reconstruction. Therefore, there is no doubt that the name on this seal impression reads “Isaiah.” The bottom line is where the main problem of interpretation comes in. It reads“nvy” (Hebrew: נבי–pronounced nahvee). It is possible that the damaged portion of the seal (recall that Hebrew is read from right to left) also once contained the Hebrew letter aleph (Hebrew: א). If this is the case, then the Hebrew word would mean “prophet.” In which case, the bulla would read, “belonging to Isaiah the prophet.”

Isaiah the Prophet or Isaiah the son of Nvy?

Isaiah bulla drawing on the left with the real image on the right. In the top tier you can see the legs of a grazing doe. The middle tier has the name “Isaiah,” while the bottom tier reads “nvy”. The letters in blue are the conjectural missing letters.

The other possible interpretation is that the letters “nvy” are a personal name and would refer to Isaiah’s father. In that case the inscription would read “belonging to Isaiah the son of Nvy.” This would mean the Isaiah mentioned on the bulla wold be a different Isaiah, since we know that the father of the biblical prophet was named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1). The inscription does not have the words “son of,” but Mazar points out that other seals, due to space considerations, do not always include the word for “son.” One argument in favor of this word not being a proper name is that Mazar states there is plenty of room on the bulla to have written the Hebrew word for “son.” Therefore it can’t be argued that it was left off due to space considerations. However, for this word to mean “prophet,” not only should it have the Hebrew letter aleph at the end, but one would expect the Hebrew word for “the” (Hebrew: ה, just one letter pronounced like our “h”) before “prophet.” There is plenty of room on the bottom line to have included this Hebrew letter. Mazar points out, however, that the Hebrew letter meaning “the” could have appeared on the middle line which is damaged on the left side. Although one would normally expect the word “the” to be connected to the word prophet in Hebrew, Mazar points out that other bullae often divide words in strange ways. For example, the bulla of Hezekiah’s father, king Ahaz, divides Ahaz’s name by putting the “z” on the next line. It is also true, however, that the Hebrew letter for “the” is not always found on inscriptions.

The Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah Laying Side by Side

The area circled in the picture is the Ophel.
Artist’s conception of the area of the Ophel with the City of David below.

Another interesting feature of the Isaiah bulla is that it was found less than 10 feet from the bulla of Hezekiah! It is interesting that two men who are associated so closely in the Bible, would have bullae laying this close to each other. Their close association in life, makes this placement of the bullae logical. If this bulla is from the prophet Isaiah, then it is understandable that something with his signature would be in the same area as that of King Hezekiah. We would expect that those of Hezekiah’s court would have documents or items kept in a royal storage area. So while this doesn’t prove that the bulla definitely belongs to the prophet Isaiah, it is a piece of circumstantial evidence worth considering. Mazar writes, “Finding a seal impression of the prophet Isaiah next to that of King Hezekiah should not be unexpected. It would not be the first time that seal impressions of two Biblical personas, mentioned in the same verse in the Bible, were found in an archaeological context.” I’ll conclude with another quote from Mazar regarding the mystery of this bulla. She writes, “Could it therefore be possible that here, in an archaeological assemblage found within a royal context dated to the time of King Hezekiah, right next to the king’s seal impression, another seal impression was found that reads “Yesha‘yahu Navy’ ” and belonged to the prophet Isaiah? Is it alternatively possible for this seal NOT to belong to the prophet Isaiah, but instead to one of the king’s officials named Isaiah with the surname Nvy?” Perhaps further study of this artifact, or future discoveries will reveal the answer to Mazar’s questions. For now, it is a tantalizing discovery that might have come from the prophet Isaiah himself.

(The quotes and information for this article, along with the pictures of the Isaiah bulla are taken from Eilat Mazar’s article entitled, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?,” in the March/April, May/June 2018 issue of BAR [vol. 44:2]). If you have a subscription to BAR you can read Mazar’s article here. You can also sign up for “Bible History Daily” on the BAR website and read a companion article by Megan Sauter entitled, “Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem.”

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah has a number of significant references to the Spirit. Here are 3 examples:

This passage from Isaiah 11:1-5 is one of several significant passages concerning the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.
This passage from Isaiah 11:1-5 is one of several significant passages concerning the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:1-2, NKJV).

Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:1).

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor, etc. (Isa. 61:1-3, NKJV).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK. In this post I am looking at chapter 4 which explores the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.

This post continues a series based on the book A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. In our last post I looked at “The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books” (click here to read this post). You may be wondering what happened to looking at the Holy Spirit in the Books of Wisdom. There is actually very little said about the Spirit in the Wisdom Books and my reading of that chapter (chapter 3 in the book), although interesting, did not, in my opinion, reveal any significant information that would contribute to our search for a better understanding of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the same is true of chapter 5 which deals with the Holy Spirit in Jeremiah. As it turns out, Jeremiah never specifically references the Spirit of God. Therefore my next post will also omit looking at the Holy Spirit in Jeremiah. The good news is that the subject of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah, our current topic, proves to be a rich study.

Four Perspectives on the Holy Spirit in Isaiah

Wonsuk Ma (the author of this chapter) divides the treatment of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah into two main (Old Testament) traditions: “charismatic and non-charismatic Spirit traditions–of which there are two examples of each in Isaiah. The two charismatic Spirit traditions relate to leadership and prophetic Spirit traditions” (p. 35). We have noticed these traditions in my previous posts on “The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch,” (click here) and “The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books” (see above link). “The two non-charismatic Spirit traditions in Isaiah are related to the creation and wisdom Spirit traditions” (p. 35).

The Leadership Spirit Tradition

Isaiah pictures the coming Davidic King as Spirit-empowered to serve through weakness. Painting by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), 'King David Playing the Harp' (1611).
Isaiah pictures the coming Davidic King as Spirit-empowered yet serving in weakness. Painting by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), ‘King David Playing the Harp’ (1611).

In the Book of Judges, we noticed how the Spirit confirmed God’s choice of a leader and also empowered that individual (Gideon, Samson, etc.) to accomplish acts of deliverance on behalf of God’s people. This always involved military intervention or, in the case of Samson, his physical intervention and defeat of the enemy. Two passages in Isaiah show continuity as well as discontinuity with this tradition. For example, the future Davidic king spoken of in Isaiah 11:1-5 is still designated as leader by virtue of the Spirit being upon him (continuity), but in place of an expression of military might, Isaiah identifies him as one who will render justice for and protect the weak (discontinuity, Isa. 11:4). Although there is language about slaying the wicked, the instrument spoken of is not a sword or spear but “the rod of His mouth,” and “the breath of his lips.” Ma states, “The king was expected to admister justice and righteousness by protecting the powerless in society and judging the wicked, resulting in not only the flourishing of God’s people, but also the restoration of God’s entire Creation into harmony and order (Isa. 11:6-9). This is a radically different picture from that recorded in the books of Judges and 1 and 2 Kings” (p. 37–emphasis mine). In Isaiah 42:1-4, Ma points out that while this passage once again connects leadership with the Spirit, the authority of the leader in this case is one which “is more related to ‘depowering’ than ’empowering’….There is a very strange reference to weakness, suggesting that empowerment is to minister in weakness to the weak (Isa. 42:2, 4)” (p. 38). Ma notes that while these passages continue older themes about the Spirit, they also introduce new features.

The Prophetic Spirit Tradition

Ma notes 3 major functions of the Spirit within this tradition (all of which we have seen in the previous posts): 1. The Spirit is the causal agent in prophetic behavior; 2) the Spirit is the source of the prophetic word; and 3) the Spirit is the source of prophetic empowerment (pp. 38-39). Ma begins by looking at the famous passage in Isaiah 61:1-3 and he notes two contrasts with the above prophetic Spirit tradition found in this passage. “First, there is no hint of the ‘prophetic frenzy’ that characterized the Spirit’s presence. Second, while the passage itself is a received message (or an oracle), the Spirit’s presence is more linked with the task at hand than as the source of this message” (pp. 39-40). One link with the previous pictures of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah is that the anointed one spoken of here brings God’s liberating power to the poor and suffering.

Creation Spirit Tradition

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah is said to bring fertility to the land.
The Holy Spirit in Isaiah is said to bring fertility to the land.

The last two traditions regarding the Holy Spirit in Isaiah are connected with what Ma refers to as the non-charismatic tradition. Regarding the significance of the Creation theme in Isaiah Ma writes, “The vision of God’s complete rule is a major concern of Isaianic traditions. The rule of God or lordship is universal in scope as it goes beyond Israel, God’s people, and encompasses all of Creation” (p. 41). This outlook is also eschatalogical. Ma selects two texts to illustrate this focus. Isaiah 32:15-18 speaks of the pouring out of the Spirit and the fertility that is brought to the land, along with a restoration of righteousness and justice. In Isaiah 44:3-5 the pouring out of the Spirit brings fertility to the people and to the land. Ma notes that “The imagery of water is repeatedly used to describe the coming of the Spirit in abundance here, as also in Isaiah 32” (p. 42).

The Wisdom Spirit Tradition

The connection of the Spirit with wisdom is already evident in the Joseph story when he appears before Pharaoh (Gen. 41:37-39). Isaiah 30:1-2 demonstrates the disconnect between God’s Spirit and a hard-hearted nation that seeks counsel from the world (Egypt). Although there is no direct use of the word ruach, Ma also connects Isaiah 40:13-14 with the wisdom Spirit tradition, a passage which speaks of the Lord’s wisdom in Creation.

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah: Summary and Conclusion

Just as we noted a progression in the understanding and work of the Spirit when moving from the Pentateuch to the Historical Books, similarly we can see how Isaiah utilizes the same traditions but also pushes them to new horizons. The connection of the Spirit with a Davidic leader who will rule in power, yet also through weakness, clearly anticipates the ministry of Jesus. The renewal that the Spirit brings to all of Creation in the time to come paves the way for the same recurring theme in the New Testament. The description of the function and work of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah is certainly an important development in the Scripture’s declaration of the nature of the third person of the Trinity. Ma does an excellent job in illuminating continuity with past traditions of the Spirit, while demonstrating the new features developed in Isaiah.