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The Literary Function of the Remnant Motif in Isaiah’s Royal Narratives

As mentioned in previous posts, my recent work has been on the remnant motif in the book of Isaiah. As I understand the motif, it functions on a literary level in two distinct ways: 1) As an indication of blessing for Judah (cf. 4:3; 10:20-21; 11:11, 16; 28:5; 46:3-4); and 2) As an indication of the severity of judgment for the nations (14:22, 30; 15:9; 16:14; 17:3; 24:6) and Judah (1:9; 6:13; 10:22). One particular relationship that I found especially intriguing was the use of the motif in the two so-called Royal Narrative units (7:1-25; 36:1-37:38). Here, the literary function of the remnant betrays the prophetic perspective of the monarchy, contrasting the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah as negative and positive examples of kingship.

The parallels between the two sections themselves can hardly be missed. Both narratives, set in the context of the threat of invasion by foreign armies, occur geographically in the same place – “the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field” (7:3; 36:2). This location is referenced only in these two narratives and in the parallel account of chapter 36 in 2 Kings 18, indicating more than mere coincidence. Furthermore, the progression of events establishes an obvious parallel as the report of the mounting threat provokes great anxiety in both kings, followed by signs of reassurance, and the command of Yahweh mediated through the prophet Isaiah not to fear. That the two literary units were intended to parallel one another is clear, yet, the dissimilarities form an equally significant relationship.

While both narratives follow the same order of events, moving from crisis to promise, promise to sign, sign to response, the characters in each narrative are presented antithetically. In chapter 7, Yahweh sends the prophet Isaiah in response to the military threat to speak words of comfort to King Ahaz near the Washer’s field, yet in the contrasting narrative (36-37), the king of Assyria sends his emissary, the Rabshakeh, to speak words of threat at the Washer’s field. Furthermore, whereas Ahaz exhibited his unbelief in rejecting the request for a sign (7:12), the Hezekiah narrative makes no such statement. Together, the narratives present two models of leadership in Judah: one that rejects the covenant promises of Yahweh and one that exhibits trust in the God of Israel. It is in the context of this contrast that the literary function of the remnant motif emerges.

Isaiah 7:3, 21

The remnant motif makes a two-fold appearance in chapter seven, both following the report of the coalition of Syria and the Northern kingdom of Israel—an event that causes both the king and the nation of Judah to tremble like trees in the wind (v. 2). In response, the prophet Isaiah is instructed to assure the king that Yahweh will indeed deliver the people by diffusing the league by the use of a superior military power. Almost in passing, Isaiah is commanded to take along his son שְׁאָר יָשׁוּב (“a remnant will return”) (v. 3). This constitutes the first reference to Isaiah’s family in the book, who, as becomes clear later, prove to be significant in the prophet’s own ministry as signs for Israel (8:18).

It is immediately apparent by the identification of his name that Isaiah’s son holds significance to his overall use of the remnant motif. Yet, though all agree that the name שְׁאָר יָשׁוּב is significant, its specific meaning has posed some difficulty for interpreters. Does the mention of a remnant reinforce the message of comfort to the king that a remnant will indeed return despite the threat to national security? Does the name imply the weight of a coming judgment, namely that only a remnant will return after a devastating defeat? Or, does the name pertain not to Israel itself but to the enemy armies that their forces will be greatly diminished if they continue their advance? It must be admitted that the immediate context of the passage provides no explicit answer to these questions. To complicate matters further, two parallel expressions are found in 10:20-23, displaying, in my view, both a positive and negative literary use of the remnant motif.

Yet, when set in the wider literary context, as well as in contrast to the Hezekiah narrative, the function of the name becomes clear. It must be remembered that at this point in chapter seven, Isaiah’s son was a young boy, and this, at least on a literary level, may indicate that his name did not originate in response to the Syro-Ephramite threat. Furthermore, the prediction of a remnant during the time of peace prior to this event would have no functional positive connotation, unless destruction was already expected. Thus on a literary plain, the mention of the remnant at the beginning of the narrative may anticipate Ahaz’s rejection of Yahweh’s assurance, casting a negative light over the entire chapter. Thus, the enigmatic meaning of Isaiah’s son’s name is resolved by the wider context of chapter seven.

The second mention of the remnant in Isaiah 7, occurring in the context of the sign of Immanuel (vv. 10-25), furthers this interpretation of the chapter. Verses 18-25, comprised of four בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא (“on that Day”) statements, describe Yahweh’s purpose to summon Assyria to overtake the land, thus fulfilling the judgment portended by Isaiah’s son at the beginning of the chapter. While the first two statements are generally recognized as oracles of judgment, the latter two have proved problematic for scholars, with some arguing for a continuation of judgment and others for a shift to a positive note of prosperity.

The crux of the debate falls on the interpretation of verses 21-22 as the question becomes, is the mention of curds and honey an allusion to the glorious land promised to the exodus generation (Exod 3:8; 13:5; Num 13:27)? Or, does it betray an expectation of a deserted land that reflects the national poverty of Judah? In the larger context of judgment, the latter seems to be the preferred option. When all four oracles are taken together, the picture delineates a land that is so desolated from war that the livestock have endless plains to graze with no urban populations to hinder them. What was once thriving farmland is now only fit for grazing. Though the imagery of curds and honey can itself function, as with the remnant motif, both in positive and negative contexts, here it presents itself negatively. All four בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא statements thus come together to magnify the coming judgment, furthering the message proclaimed in verses 1-9. Isaiah prophesies a desolate land to demonstrate the folly of distrusting Yahweh.

An objection may be raised at this point against a negative interpretation of the chapter that Isaiah’s mission is to prophesy the failure of the Syro-Ephramite league, thus offering protection and security for Ahaz. According to this reading, the remnant would accompany the message of hope as the prophet strengthens and encourages the king. Yet, in addition to the points above, the mention of the remnant in this specific context could hardly afford substantial comfort. For, the means of disbanding the Syro-Ephramite league is the Assyrian army foretold in the second unit (v. 17ff), who, though providing relief from the imminent threat, would bring unimaginable destruction upon the land, beyond any assault that the coalition could deal. It is akin, to borrow a metaphor, to escaping a lion only to encounter a bear. The contextual data thus lends weight to the remnant used in a negative context as an indication of judgment. The faithless response of Ahaz further supports this negative interpretation, standing as the antithesis of the positive portrayal of Hezekiah.

Isaiah 37:4, 31-32

Nearly thirty years after the collapse of the Syro-Ephramite coalition, Judah faced the threat of annihilation yet again, but now at the hands of their former deliverer, Assyria. In 701 B.C.E., Sennacherib marched against Jerusalem, an event recorded by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 36-37).

Sennacherib, through the mediation of his official, the Rabshakeh, calls for the surrender of the city in the hearing of the people (36:2-20). Composed of both threat and promise, the Rabshakeh launches a compelling ploy of psychological warfare to make surrender appear the preferable option. Reminding the city of Assyria’s military success, coupled with the lack of viable alliance options for the city’s defense, the Rabshakeh warns against trusting Hezekiah, whose removal of cultic sites could hardly gain the favor of the nation deity. What the Rabshakeh offers, in essence, is a new Solomonic reign of safety and prosperity under the lordship of the king of Assyria (cf. 1 Kgs 4:25). On a natural level, capitulation to Sennacherib was indeed logical, yet Hezekiah’s devotion to Yahweh precluded such a response.

The first occurrence of the remnant motif in this passage is found in Hezekiah’s appeal to Isaiah the prophet to intercede on the city’s behalf (37:2-4). In the final clause of his request, Hezekiah says, “lift up your prayer for the remnant [הַשְּׁאֵרִית] that is left” (37:4f-g). The function of the remnant motif here, though clearly referencing the current population in Jerusalem, is not immediately discernible, either serving as a positive expectation of hope (ie. “Yahweh has left a remnant to this point, he will certainly deliver us now”) or a desperate cry of despair (ie. “The destruction Assyria has dealt is so severe that only a remnant is left”).

A clarifying text does indeed occur in the prophet’s extended response to Hezekiah’s second appeal (37:21-35). Yahweh, exposing the folly of Sennacherib’s boasting, reasserts his sovereignty over even the king’s military conquests. For, before Sennacherib had planned his offensive strategy, Yahweh had already determined the path of his victory (v. 26). And as the one who establishes success in battle, Yahweh states his purpose to turn away the threat against Jerusalem, leading Sennacherib away with a hook in his nose and a bit in his mouth (29). Following his address to the king of Assyria, Yahweh provides a sign to Hezekiah in verse 30, though it lacks the miraculous luster one may expect. For the following two years, the city would live off the produce of the land, followed by a year of agricultural normality. Though this sign may appear ordinary, it is upon this guarantee that Yahweh pledges a “surviving remnant of the house of Judah [פְּלֵיטַת בֵּית־יְהוּדָה הַנִּשְׁאָרָה] shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward” (v. 31).

Here in the context of Yahweh’s promise to prosper the city, the pairing of פְּלֵיטַת and שׁאר forms a more developed picture of the remnant motif as an indication of blessing. It is interesting to note that in verse 31 it is the remnant itself that is bearing fruit, and not simply eating the fruit that had previously grown (v. 30f). Thus what Hezekiah is told is that Yahweh, who will sustain the inhabitants of Jerusalem with the produce of the land, will further plant the remnant as a tree that bears fruit in season. The combination of roots established in the earth and the bountiful production of vine classify the remnant as secure and healthy. Unlike the vineyard that yielded wild grapes in chapter five, the remnant shall once again be fruitful.

As seen in these narrative texts, Isaiah employs the remnant motif as a literary indicator of the monarchial climate in Judah. When used of a faithless king such as Ahaz, the motif can indicate the severity of judgment that will be brought upon the people. Yet, standing in juxtaposition, the remnant can also display Yahweh’s purpose to preserve and prosper his people led by faithful Hezekiah.



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