The Gift of Prophecy

Literary Allusions

This section shows how some phrases and motifs used in prophetic oracles evoke the diction of ancient Near Eastern royal propaganda, vassal treaties, and Ugaritic texts. GOP 121.2

Royal Propaganda

Isaiah 1:7 announced the devastation of the land using language that closely resembles ancient Near Eastern royal annals: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence.” 5 Although such announcements of destruction occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, the sequence of lemmas—desolate, burn, fire, devour, it—is unique to this passage. Intriguingly, a similar phraseology appears in Assyrian royal inscriptions 6 from Tiglath Pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.) through Sargon II (721-705 B.C.). One particular example, found in the Annals of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), in which the king brags about the destruction of Kaprabi, deserves notice: “The city I laid waste, I destroyed, I burned with fire. I consumed it.” 7 We should note that the meaning and word sequence laid waste/destroyed, burned, consumed, it, closely resembles Isaiah 1:7. 8 GOP 121.3

In the same vein, Isaiah quotes the Assyrian king to convey the aims of his conquest: “Also I have removed the boundaries of the people, and have robbed their treasuries” (Isa. 10:13). Admittedly this phrase occurs in several other places in the Old Testament. However, it has been noted that in all other cases it alludes to Deuteronomy 19:14 (cf. Isa. 27:17), which forbids individuals from extending property by removing the landmarks of their neighbors. Only in Isaiah 10:13 does the phrase refer to the territorial extension of an empire. Thus it may be reasonable to surmise that Isaiah was familiar with expressions such as the following excerpt from an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.): “Sarrabani (and) Bît-Sa’alli I laid waste (lit., tore up) to their farthest borders. . . . Those lands I brought within the Assyrian borders.” 9 GOP 122.1

Another passage worthy of consideration uses the metaphors of flooding waters and overwhelming glory to depict the Assyrian king coming against Judah: “Now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up over them the waters of the River, strong and mighty—the king of Assyria and all his glory; he will go up over all his channels and go over all his banks. He will pass through Judah, he will overflow and pass over, he will reach up to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings will fill the breadth of Your land, O Immanuel” (Isa. 8:7, 8). The metaphor of water to portray the invading army and the motif of the glory of the foreign king may allude to similar concepts in Assyrian inscriptions. As for the image of waters, it shall suffice to note that Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) bragged: “I rained down upon them a devastating flood. I piled them in ditches (and) filled the extensive plain with the corpses of their warriors.” 10 Isaiah made the motif even more explicit by tying it to the River, a reference to the Euphrates, the most significant river of Assyria. As regards the concept of glory, several documents refer to the glory and majesty of the Assyrian monarch. Assurnasirpal (883-859 B.C.) referred to himself as “the king of glory.” And Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) claimed that he wrote on the cliff of a mountain “the glory of my might, the triumphs (lit., ways, issues) of my power.” 11 Thus, by referring to waters and glory to portray the overwhelming power of the Assyrian king, the prophet may have had in mind the language and imagery of Assyrian inscriptions. GOP 122.2

Isaiah described how the Assyrian king perceived himself using imagery of the monarch going to the west and ascending to the mountains to cut down the prized timber of Lebanon. Such depiction conveys more than the successful accomplishment of building projects. In effect, the motif of such an “heroic journey” 12 conveys the long reach of the king’s military power, which Isaiah thus quotes: “By the multitude of my chariots I have come up to the height of the mountains, to the limits of Lebanon; I will cut down its tall cedars and its choice cypress trees; I will enter its farthest height, to its fruitful forest” (Isa. 37:24). It is striking that a Neo-Assyrian inscription attributed to Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) closely parallels the speech reported above: “I climbed Mt. Amanus (and) cut down beams of cedar (and) juniper. I marched to Mt. Atalur, where the image of Anum-hirbe stands. (And) I erected my image with his image.” 13 GOP 122.3

In another occurrence of this motif, the prophet predicted of Yahweh what the Assyrian king claimed for himself. In Isaiah 41:19 the Lord promises: “I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree, the myrtle and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the cypress tree and the pine and the box tree together.” So whereas the Assyrian king could at most claim to have the power to reach the mountains of Lebanon and cut off their timber, the Lord’s claim surpassed by far that of the pagan monarch. The Lord, as Creator God, would make cedar and others trees grow in the desert so that the nations would understand that “the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it” (verse 20). GOP 123.1

Thus, although the motif of the heroic journey is part of the larger Mesopotamian tradition and occurs elsewhere in the prophetic corpus (Hab. 2:17), the well-formed evocation of this motif in Isaiah, which seems to be the earliest occurrence within the Old Testament, may indicate that Isaiah must have “learned of it through Neo-Assyrian channels.” 14 In addition, as we have noted, the same motif also emerges in Isaiah to underscore God’s unsurpassing might, which would accomplish exceedingly more than a pagan king ever could. GOP 123.2

Isaiah also announced that the nations would bring the scattered exiles “for an offering [minḥâ] to the Lord out of all nations, on horses and in chariots and in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem” (Isa. 66:20). This list of horses, chariots, litters, mules, and camels, which is referred to as an offering/tribute to the Lord, echoes some lists in which a monarch recounts the tribute received from foreign nations. Many of such lists come from the Assyrians, 15 as exemplified by an inscription that mentions the “horses, mules, Bactrian camels, cattle (and) sheep” brought to Tiglath-pileser III (745-727) “regularly on an annual basis in the land of Assyria.” 16 It also bears mentioning a stela celebrating the military accomplishments of Thuthmose III, which lists tribute brought from Canaan to the pharaoh: “Then that feeble enemy and his chieftains who were with him had all their children sent out to my majesty with gifts and bearing much tribute of gold and silver, all their horses which were with them, their magnificent chariots of gold and silver, and those which were undecorated, all their mail armor, their bows, their arrows, and all their weapons of combat.” 17 Thus coming back to Isaiah 66:20, we may suggest that the prophet may have phrased his text according to tribute lists in which the king celebrates the success of his military campaigns. By the use of such literary style, the message reaches the audience with undeniable rhetorical force. As human kings imposed tributes upon conquered enemies, so the Lord would defeat His enemies and force them to bring the scattered captives back to the land, as an offering/tribute to Him. GOP 123.3

Lion Motif

Also categorized as royal propaganda, the lion motif receives a separate section in this paper, given its detailed elaboration on the prophetic literature. Some prophetic texts show remarkable similarities with Assyrian and Egyptian documents (cf. Isa. 15:9; Jer. 2:15; 4:7; 50:17) in which the lion occurs as stereotypical imagery. Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian kings18 often portrayed themselves as lions and often boasted of engagement in the royal sport of lion hunting, as shown mainly in palace decoration19 and royal documents. 20 Nebmaatre, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, claimed to be “the mighty lion, beloved of Amun.” 21 Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.), king of Assyria, boasted: “I became enraged like a lion, my emotions were stirred up. I banged my hands together for the sake of exercising the kingship of my father’s house.” 22 And Ashurbanipal came to be regarded as a benefactor of humanity, given his ability to destroy lions. 23 GOP 124.1

Some prophets skillfully resorted to the lion motif in order to emphasize the rhetorical force of their message. In some cases this may reflect merely the stereotypical imagery of the lion, which was common to the ancient Near East. However, other occurrences of this motif seem to allude to particular descriptions of ancient Near Eastern kings as mighty lions. 24 GOP 124.2

Hosea, for example, exhibits intriguing familiarity with the royal lion motif as used by Neo- Assyrian kings. In his invective against Israel, the prophet portrays the Lord as a lion ready to tear up its prey: “For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of judah. I, even I, will tear them and go away; I will take them away, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense. Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me” (Hos. 5:14, 15). At first glance it appears that Hosea is merely using stereotypical language to depict God’s imminent judgment of Israel. However, the fact that God would use the Assyrians as instruments to execute His judgment (see Hos. 5:13; 7:11; 8:9; 9:13; 10:6; 11:5, 11; 12:1; 14:3) indicates that Hosea was most likely using an ironic allusion to the well-known fact that the Assyrians often portrayed their military accomplishments as a lion attacking its prey. Interestingly, the Assyrian kings related to the prophetic oracles of Hosea (Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II) depicted themselves as lions in their royal annals. 25 In a twist of irony, the prophet announces that the judgment would ultimately be carried out by God, the supreme lion, who “would use these Assyrian ‘lions’ to execute His judgment.” 26 GOP 124.3

A sustained use of the lion motif appears in Nahum as the prophet announces the demise of the Assyrian empire: GOP 125.1

Where is the dwelling of the lions, and the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion walked, the lioness and lion’s cub, and no one made them afraid? The lion tore in pieces enough for his cubs, killed for his lionesses, filled his caves with prey, and his dens with flesh. “Behold, I am against you,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions; I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more” (Nahum 2:11-13). GOP 125.2

In this pericope the prophet portrays the Lord as a lion hunter. Ironically, the Lord Himself, the ultimate lion hunter, would hunt the Assyrians and their kings who depicted themselves as royal lions. The historical context and the purpose of the book of Nahum suggest that the prophet may have made intentional allusion to Assyrian inscriptions. We should note that most likely Nahum was a contemporary of Ashurbanipal (668-627), 27 a king who often portrayed himself as a lion hunter. 28 In addition, the Lord called Nahum to announce the downfall of the Assyrian Empire. Thus, it comes as no surprise that, to convey his message in a more effective way, Nahum made rhetorical use of the Assyrian royal propaganda29 to announce the hunting of those who regarded themselves as the greatest hunters. GOP 125.3

In an oracle against Egypt (Eze. 32:1-15), Ezekiel condemns the pharaoh by saying, “You are like a young lion among the nations” (verse 2). Such language betrays familiarity with the Egyptian use of the lion imagery as propaganda to promote the power and majesty of the pharaoh. But Ezekiel uses lion imagery to portray the weakness and not the power of the pharaoh. Rather than a majestic lion ready to devour its prey, the Egyptian king appears as a repugnant crocodile soon to be captured and slain: “ ‘You are like a young lion among the nations, and you are like a monster in the seas, bursting forth in your rivers, troubling the waters with your feet, and fouling their rivers.’ Thus says the Lord God: ‘I will therefore spread My net over you with a company of many people, and they will draw you up in My net’ ” (verses 2, 3). Therefore, Judah’s hope that Egypt could support them against the Babylonians had no firm basis. In spite of his claim to be a lion, the pharaoh would be hunted down like a crocodile. GOP 125.4

Vassal Treaties

Some other connections between prophetic literature and ancient Near Eastern texts emerge in the parallels between Assyrian treaty curses and announcements of judgment in the prophets. Some studies have concluded that the prophets drew on the ancient treaty-curse genre to express judgment. 30 In particular the curses against Assyria announced by Nahum exhibit significant parallels with Neo-Assyrian treaty curses. These latter documents differ from other extrabiblical sources inasmuch as they contain maledictions that are extensive, specific, vivid, and distinctive. 31 Since Assyrian kings delivered their diplomatic messages not only to the king but also to the population (cf. 2 Kings 18:26-36), 32 one may presume that the prophet must have known such documents or traditions and intentionally drew from them to frame his invectives against the Assyrian enemy. In this regard, the following parallels between Nahum and the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon33 (VTE) deserve notice: 34 (1) curse of darkness (Nahum 1:8 and VTE 422-424); (2) destruction of seed and name (Nahum 1:14 and VTE 543, 544); (3) destruction of chariots (Nahum 2:13 and VTE 612-616); (4) punishment of prostitutes (Nahum 3:5-7 and VTE 617); (5) incurable wound and fatal disease (Nahum 3:19 and VTE 472-477); (6) overwhelming flood (Nahum 1:8 and VTE 442); (7) drying up of water sources (Nahum 1:4 and VTE 440, 441); (8) skin color changed (Nahum 2:10 and VTE 585-587); (9) silencing of one’s voice (Nahum 2:13 and VTE 437-439); (10) retaliation by the avenger (Nahum 1:3 and VTE 576, 577; 582-584). In addition, the curses of warriors acting like fearful women (Nahum 3:13) and a locust plague (verses 15-17), albeit absent from VTE, are attested in other documents dated to Neo-Assyrian times. 35 GOP 126.1

At this juncture the question emerges whether Nahum consciously alluded to extrabiblical sources or merely used stock language and imagery of the ancient Near East without regard to specific documents or traditions. Although this question resists absolute certainty, the combined effect of some lines of evidence favors the possibility that Nahum may have intentionally alluded to Assyrian treaty curses in order to achieve some sort of rhetorical effect. First, we should note the genre similarities inasmuch as the parallels between Nahum and the extrabiblical documents occur in the domain of treaty curses. 36 Second, although in isolation any of the noted motifs may have a number of parallels with other ancient Near Eastern documents, the number of parallels between Nahum and the VTE are much higher than with any other single document of the ancient Near East, which can hardly be mere coincidence. Third, considering that Nahum announced the demise of the Assyrian Empire, he may have intentionally used imagery and language borrowed from the Assyrians themselves to underscore the rhetorical force of his message, emphasizing that “the treaty curses that the Assyrians threatened to invoke on Judah would be the very judgments Yahweh would invoke on the Assyrians.” 37 GOP 127.1

Ugaritic Literature

A striking verbal parallel with an extrabiblical text occurs in Isaiah 27:1, a pericope portraying God’s eschatological judgment and ultimate victory over the forces of evil: “In that day the Lord with His severe sword, great and strong, will punish Leviathan [liwyātān] the fleeing [bāriaḥ] serpent, Leviathan [liwyātān] that twisted [ʿqltn] serpent; and He will slay the reptile that is in the sea.” Space restrictions do not allow a detailed discussion of this verse, but for the purpose of this study we shall note its verbal parallels to an Ugaritic text in which Mot mentions an earlier victory of Baal over Litan (=Leviathan). 38 The Ugaritic passage reads as follows: “When you killed Litan (Itn), the Fleeing (brḥ) Serpent, Annihilated the Twisty (ʿqltn) Serpent, The Potentate with Seven Heads . . .” 39 GOP 127.2

Both texts share so specific a vocabulary that the Isaianic passage has been presumed to be a “virtual quotation” from the Ugaritic text. Literary borrowing, however, should be ruled out given the time gap between the Ugaritic text (c. 1400-1200 B.C.) and the Isaianic passage (c. 850 B.C.). But the evident similarities require some explanation, which will be more fully developed in the last section of this study. For now, it may be suggested that the prophet may have been familiar with the shared imagery or notion that the serpent (or Leviathan, for that matter), would eventually be destroyed. So while the Ugaritic text expressed this idea in mythical or polytheistic terms, Isaiah elaborated the same motif within the framework of true monotheistic religion. GOP 127.3

A final example comes from Hosea, where it appears that the prophet utilizes imagery and expressions found in Ugaritic literature to press home his warning against the apostasy of God’s people as they, among other sins, turned to Baal worship (see Hos. 2:8; 13:1). In this connection we note that Hosea refers to the death and resurrection of Israel in ways that resemble what is known of Baal in the Ugaritic texts. Let us examine a couple of passages. “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight” (Hos. 6:2). 40 Subsequently, Hosea reported God saying: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction!” (Hos. 13:14). And the next verse portrays the drying up of the springs and fountains of water (verse 15). GOP 128.1

It is striking that the imagery of death, resurrection, and drought evokes the depiction of Baal in the Ugaritic texts: Baal died—which resulted in drought—and resurrected every year in the spring. Such imagery appears to be reflected in the way Hosea describes the fate of Israel. Such parallels may indicate that the prophet may have used such language as a polemic against Baal worship. Because the people turned to Baal, they would share the presumed fate of Baal. That is, their turning to the fertility cult of Baal resulted in death instead of life; in drought instead of fertility. However, in spite of their sins God had a message of hope. Upon repentance, God was capable of accomplishing for His people what Baal could never do: He would raise them up from death and give them new life. GOP 128.2