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Beit Midrash שבת ומועדים בין המצרים

The Vision of Isaiah

The corruption that had infected Uzziyah’s government would lead to a terrible crisis. Officers took advantage of their power, and judges rendered unfair judgment - “They judge not the fatherless, neither does the cause of the widow come unto them.”
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The sages instituted that the first chapter of Isaiah be read in the synagogue as Haftorah for the Sabbath preceding the Ninth of Av. This reading opens with the verse "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah," and it is known as Chazon Yeshayahu ("the Vision of Isaiah"). In what follows we shall address this chapter and the prophecy of destruction it contains.

One who examines Isaiah’s prophecies will discover easily enough that his book is well organized from a chronological perspective. The first time-related description in the book appears in the verse that opens chapter six: "In the year that king Uzziah..." According to the Targum this is a reference to the year in which Uzziah was afflicted with leprosy. The verses imply and the sages confirm that this is Isaiah’s inaugural prophecy. In the words of Rashi, "This verse is the beginning of the book and the beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy."

The following description brings us to the era of Ahaz (7:1): "And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah." (We will not address at this time the question of why there are no prophecies from the period of Yotham.)

The next chronological signpost appears in verse twenty-eight of chapter fourteen: "In the year that King Ahaz died was this burden." (Chapters thirteen to twenty-three constitute an independent body, all of the prophecies of which are known as "burdens," and all, except for one, are prophecies about the nations.)

Chapter thirty-six opens with the following date: "Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took them." (We will not go into the question of why Sennacherib, who came to power in the twenty-third year of Hezekiah, was already at war with him in the fourteenth year.)

This and the following chapters, until the end of chapter thirty-nine, correspond to chapters eighteen to twenty of 2 Kings, and, to a degree, chapters twenty-nine to thirty-two of 2 Chronicles. These chapters address the rule of Hezekiah.

Chapters forty to sixty-six contain no chronological reference whatsoever, but they bear numerous indications to the period of the reign of Menashe, the grandson of Isaiah who killed him on the false claim that Isaiah did not believe in the divine status of the Torah (see Yevamot 49b).

Now we can sum up and propose the following: chapters one through six deal with the period of Uzziah; chapters seven through twelve deal with the period of Ahaz; chapters thirteen through twenty-three contain the "burdens"; twenty-four to thirty-nine pertain to the period of Hezkiah; and chapters forty through sixty-six relate to the reign of Menashe.

Let us now return to our Haftorah reading. The plight of the Kingdom of Judah appears bleak (1:7-9): "Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah."

However, a look at the period of Uzziah’s reign in the book of Chronicles reveals an altogether different picture (2 Chronicles 26:9-16): "Moreover Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the corner gate, and at the valley gate, and at the Turning, and fortified them. And be built towers in the wilderness, and hewed out many cisterns, for he had much cattle; in the Lowland also, and in the table-land; and he had husbandmen and vinedressers in the mountains and in the fruitful fields; for he loved husbandry. Moreover Uzziah had an army of fighting men, that went out to war by bands, according to the number of their reckoning made by Jeiel the scribe and Maaseiah the officer, under the hand of Hananiah, one of the king's captains. The whole number of the heads of fathers' houses, even the mighty men of valour, was two thousand and six hundred. And under their hand was a trained army, three hundred thousand and seven thousand and five hundred, that made war with mighty power, to help the king against the enemy. And Uzziah prepared for them, even for all the host, shields, and spears, and helmets, and coats of mail, and bows, and stones for slinging. And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by skilful men, to be on the towers and upon the corners, wherewith to shoot arrows and great stones. And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong."

How can we resolve this apparent contradiction? Rashi explains that "there is no ‘early’ or ‘late’ in the Prophets." Therefore, even though this prophecy opens the Book of Isaiah, it actually took place later, in the days of Hezkiah, when the Assyrians conquered the entire Kingdom of Judah with the exception of Jerusalem.

We might, however, offer a different explanation: Although the state of affairs in the days of Uzziya was excellent - Uzziya’s might was renowned world over and his soldiers were armed with the best equipment of the day - Isaiah warned the people. The corruption that had infected the upper ranks of Uzziyah’s government would lead to a terrible crisis. Officers took unjust advantage of their power, and judges rendered unfair judgment - "They judge not the fatherless, neither does the cause of the widow come unto them" (Isaiah 1:23). The leaders, of whom it is written, "Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one love bribes, and follow after rewards," interpret their successes as divine approval of their conduct, yet they would soon bring about the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Let us pray that we draw the right conclusions for our generation, so that we soon merit seeing the fulfillment of the prophecy, "And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city."
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Biblical texts in the above article were taken from or based upon the Jewish Publication Society 1917 edition as it appears on the Mechon Mamre website.
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