Isaiah uses a parallel of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in order to illustrate his eschatological expectations. By examining the motivated allusions to and differences between the original exodus story and Isaiah’s description of the future exodus, one may understand his theological messages about the end of time. Isaiah demonstrates that the exodus from Babylonia will be a completely new event, based in tradition, which will surpass the previous exodus in wonder and the breadth of salvation. Just as the exodus from Egypt prompted the Jews to embrace God as their only deity, Isaiah foresees that this radically new exile will elicit the whole world to recognize God as the singular God. From these parallels, it is evident that Isaiah believes the new exodus will give rise to his predictions for the end of time.
Isaiah employs the structure of the narrative about the exodus from Egypt to gain credibility in expressing his theological and eschatological beliefs. His allusions to the original exodus story provide a framework of tradition to legitimize Isaiah’s predictions about redemption from Babylonia. Isaiah convinces the Israelites that God will redeem them by constructing his predictions within the familiar context of the most awesome redemption story in Israelite history. Isaiah 44:27 reads, “I, who said to the deep, ‘Be dry; I will dry up your floods,’ am the same who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd.’” Isaiah alludes to the splitting of the sea from the original exodus story. He transports the story’s conception of God as a powerful savior into his current reality. By doing so, Isaiah forms a persuasive argument with historical evidence from tradition—if God redeemed us from Egypt then, the same God will redeem us from Babylonia now. Isaiah continues to allude to the original exodus when describing the events of the redemption from Babylonia. Isaiah 52:12 clearly references Exodus 14:19-20. In each case, God accompanies the exiting Israelite people both in front and behind them. Bernard Anderson points to another similarity between Isaiah’s predictions and the exodus story, as he writes about Isaiah 42:10, “The new exodus will be accompanied by a victory song, like Moses’ and Miriam’s song after the deliverance at the sea” (184). With frequent allusions and similarities to the exodus from Egypt, Isaiah constructs his predictions in a convincing manner. He taps into the Israelite collective memory to legitimize his predictions as rooted in plausible and familiar tradition. With this credibility, Isaiah may proceed to convey his eschatological expectations more successfully.
While Isaiah’s predictions are based in the framework of the exodus tradition, the ways in which he deliberately contrasts his predictions with the original story are indicative of his overarching objectives. The motivated differences between Isaiah’s description of the exodus from Babylonia and the exodus from Egypt reveal the prophet’s goal to differentiate the future redemption not as a repetition of history, but as an exceedingly awesome event. As is recognized by Benjamin Sommer in his commentary on Isaiah 52:12, “The earlier exodus from Egypt is contrasted with the imminent exodus from Babylonia. The former took place in haste and confusion, but the new exodus will be more stately” (890). Isaiah’s use of the words lo be’chepazon (52:12) directly contradict the exact vocabulary describing the hurried manner of the exodus from Egypt in Exodus 12:11. Isaiah continues to orient his predictions in reference to the original exodus tale, now with the motivation to exhibit the future exodus’s superiority. Isaiah wants to prove that the hardships of the exodus from Egypt will not be required in the forthcoming exodus. Just as the Israelites will not worry about leaving too quickly, Isaiah assures the people that the journey from Babylonia to Zion will not be as grueling as the previous exodus. Describing the exodus from Egypt in Deuteronomy 8:15-16, God accounts that the Jews struggled through “a parched land with no water in it … in order to test [them] by hardships.” Isaiah emphasizes that the new exodus will allow an easier journey to Zion as a testament to the surpassing degree of God’s miraculous deeds. The travel to Zion from Babylonia will be much more comfortable, as God “will turn the deserts into ponds, the arid land into springs of water” (Isaiah 41:18). Isaiah stresses the differences between the new exodus’s journey through the desert and the previous struggle from Egypt to underline the incomparable feat that God will perform in this new redemption. In the future exodus, God will actually transform the natural landscape to redeem the Jewish people. Isaiah stresses that the new exodus will surpass the original exodus in a more miraculous feat of salvation by highlighting specific contrasts between the two stories.
Isaiah’s illustration of a future exodus from Babylonia is rooted in the narrative tradition of the exodus from Egypt, but his variations from this story and his specific vocabulary emphasize his claim for the newness of this exodus. Norman Snaith writes, “The new exodus will be a radically new event. It will surpass the old exodus not only in wonder but also in soteriological meaning.” Isaiah depicts the return to Zion as a new event in order to define this occurrence as the starting point of a new era—the end of time. With this motivation, the theme of newness is frequently evident throughout Isaiah’s prophecies. In Isaiah 43:16, the people are reminded of their salvation from Egypt: “Thus said the Lord, who made a road through the sea and a path through mighty waters.” Isaiah bases his predictions within the context of this history. Then he quickly declares that the future event will in fact be novel, as said explicitly in 43:18-19, “Do not recall what happened of old, or ponder what happened of yore! I am about to do something new.” Isaiah aims to prove that the Babylonian exodus, though paralleled to the original exodus, is unprecedented in its breadth. The word chadash appears again when Isaiah describes the Israelite’s victory song in 42:10. This victory song clearly references a similarity to the original exodus story, but Isaiah pointedly identifies the Babylonian exodus as an independent, new event with this word choice. Isaiah also informs the Israelites that they will participate in a totally new journey to Zion, as 42:16 reads, “I will lead the blind by a road they did not know, and I will make them walk by paths they never knew.” By establishing that God will lead them in a new way, Isaiah verifies that the return to Zion will be a groundbreaking event, unlike any occurrence in history. He needs to prove the newness of this exodus in order to justify his predictions about its unprecedented effects. Isaiah argues that this newness will be amazing enough to launch the world into its eschatological stage.
Isaiah’s description of this new, awesome event allows him to present his predictions for the ideal eschatological future. Isaiah’s prophecies include information about the worldly effects of the exodus from Babylonia. The prophet shows that the Jewish return to Zion will cause all nations to recognize God as the single, all-powerful deity due to the magnitude of the awesome event. Isaiah 2:2 illustrates the end of time as a period when all peoples of the world recognize the Israelite’s God. Isaiah displays how the exodus from Babylonia will transform this prediction into a reality. He expresses that the news of this miraculous feat will reach all nations, telling the Israelites to “bring out the word to the ends of the earth! Say: ‘The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob!’” (Isaiah 48:20) As the word spreads about this divine intervention, Isaiah ensures that the entire world will attribute this event to God’s unique power. He claims that Israelite’s return to Zion will convince those of other religions that the deities they worship are inferior to the Israelite God, as Isaiah 52:10 says, “The Lord will bare His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and the very ends of the earth shall see the victory of our God.” The word “victory” implies that the God of Israel will defeat all competing deities through the impressive redemption of His people. Isaiah continues to root his eschatological expectations in the structure of the original exodus story, as Bernard Anderson comments, “[God’s] ‘glory’ (kavod), seen only by Israel in the old exodus (Exodus 16:6-7), will ultimately be seen by all flesh (Isaiah 40:5), for all nations will behold the miracles of the new exodus” (184). Again, Isaiah employs the structure of the exodus from Egypt to communicate his theological goals. Just as the first exodus revealed God to the Jews, the new exodus will reveal God to the entire world.
Another important aspect of Isaiah’s predictions for the new exodus is the theological implication of the redemption as the start of the end of time. Isaiah believes that the momentum of this incomparable event will not only instigate the eschatological future, but will also reshape the conception of God in this final era. Isaiah commands, “Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3). Benjamin Sommer’s commentary about this verse reads, “The Presence of God left the land of Israel along with the exiles; now it will return with them” (861). Isaiah’s belief that the exodus from Babylonia is a new, unparalleled feat of salvation is indicative that God returns to Zion with the Israelites in a new form. With this exodus, the Israelite God becomes the God of all nations. This theological transformation inaugurates the foreseen eschatological period. Isaiah’s theological claim is solidified with the book’s first clear statement of monotheism in Isaiah 44:6: “Thus said the Lord, the King of Israel, Their Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts: I am the first and the last, and there is no god but Me.” Isaiah elevates his eschatological expectations by insisting that God, after redeeming Israel from Babylonia, proves to be the only existing god. This monotheistic perspective defines the prophet’s predictions of the end of time, as established by the new exodus from Babylonia.
Isaiah secures legitimacy by rooting his predictions in the structure of the original exodus story. The pointed divergences from this traditional narrative in Isaiah’s description of the exodus from Babylonia prove the new exodus’s superiority in the extent of salvation. Isaiah emphasizes his claim that the return to Zion will be an unprecedented and new event, which will lead the world into the end of time. The foreseen eschatological future will involve all nations recognizing God as the only true deity, grounding the conception of God in a monotheistic standpoint. Isaiah’s notion of the ideal theological future is contingent upon the radically awesome redemption of the Israelites from Babylonia, paralleled to and surpassing the previous exodus from Egypt.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Introduction to Biblical Literature: Judges, Samuel and Isaiah with Professor Benjamin Sommer at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Anderson, Bernhard W., and Walter J. Harrelson. “Chapter XII: Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah.” Israel’s Prophetic Heritage: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962. 177-95. Print.
Snaith, Norman Henry. Isaiah 40-66: A Study of the Teaching of the Second Isaiah and Its Consequences. Leiden: Brill, 1967. Print.
Sommer, Benjamin. “Isaiah.” The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 780-916. Print.