Too often, when you or I want to go deeper in our understanding of the Bible, we ignore the backgrounds of the passage we are seeking to understand. Call it ignorance, call it lack of the proper training, or call it plain laziness—we all are prone to cut loose the anchor that could so effectively keep us from drifting away from the true meaning of a passage.
By ‘background’ I mean three separate but overlapping categories of knowledge that stand behind every biblical passage. The historical background ties a passage to a particular time in history, a history that it assumes and may allude to quite frequently. The cultural background ties the text to a particular people with their own customs and worldview, which is likely to be very different from our own. The literary background expresses the biblical message in a characteristic way with which we may have little or no familiarity.
These three backgrounds have a significant effect on how we must interpret the text. Becoming aware of their existence and influence on our understanding takes us a great deal further toward our goal of understanding a biblical passage as its original readers would have understood it. Once we have regained what we believe to be an approximation of their understanding, we are ready to take the next step: working out the meaning the passage has for us in modern times.
Isaiah 11:10-16 provides us with a good test case for how the background can improve our understanding of a passage. In particular, analyzing the backgrounds can help us determine which of two competing understandings is the correct one for verse 11:
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.
Some understand this verse as a prediction of the return from Babylonian exile, which took place shortly after 539 BCE, when Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. Others accept a rival interpretation, that the phrase “a second time” points to a gathering of Jewish exiles from the nations at a time subsequent to the return from Babylonian exile. The “second time,” they argue, was over 2,500 years later, beginning with the Zionist movement of the early 20th century and culminating in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel and the immigration to Israel of Jews from many nations of the world.
Is Isaiah 11:10-16 a prediction of the return from Babylonian exile, or is it a prediction of the populating of modern Israel through immigration from at least five continents? The backgrounds of the passage all favor the Babylonian exile interpretation.
Scholars agree that at least the first half of the Scroll of Isaiah was written during what they call “The Assyrian Crisis,” a period from about 740 to 701, during which the invading Assyrian army was seizing one nation after another in a grand, southwesterly sweep toward Egypt, the only other major superpower of the time. All of the smaller nations fell to Assyria in sequence: Syria, the northern nation of Israel, Ammon, Moab, Philistia, and all of Judah except Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 15:19 – 19:37; Isaiah chapters 1 – 37).
Kings of Assyria
during “The Assyrian Crisis”
Sennacherib, 705-688 BCE
The place-names of verses 11 and 13-15, are all consistent with the place-names of the history contemporary to the hearers in Isaiah’s oral and written ministry as a prophet of the LORD. Corresponding modern place-names (including Iraq, Ethiopia, Jordan, and Lebanon) are absent, and ancient place-names of verse 14 (Philistia, Edom, Moab, and the Ammonites) would be irrelevant in a prophecy of modern times, because not one of these four nations still exists.
The only hints of cultural background are in verses 14 and 15. The united armies of Ephraim (i.e., the northern nation of Israel) and Judah “swoop down on the slopes of Philistia,” a clear reference to the ancient battle tactic of a human wave charge, no longer as effective as shelling, air strike, or clone bombing. Also, the prophet envisions the drying up of bodies of water to remove barriers to the return of exiles (“so that men can cross over in sandals”). This also favors a prophecy of the return from Babylonian exile; a river even as large as the Euphrates would pose no barrier to a modern immigration, and footwear of at least a greater variety than just sandals would be likely today.
Isaiah’s oracle using poetical imagery to connect what will happen geo-politically with the underlying cause: the blessing of the LORD on the exiles. Twice he speaks of “the hand of the LORD,” as it reaches out to gather the exiles (v. 11) and sweeps over the Euphrates to dry it up (v. 15). The leader of the return bears the title “Root of Jesse,” a title echoing earlier references to David (see Isa. 9:7; 11:1). If this prophecy refers to the return from Babylonian exile, perhaps Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:8, 11) or Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:2; Hag. 1:1; Zech. 4:6-7) is the fulfillment. If this prophecy refers to a modern return, neither Jesus nor any other descendant of David has physically appeared to gather in the exiles.
The context confirms
The three backgrounds prompt us to make a decisive choice in favor of the return from Babylonian exile, a choice that verse 16 confirms:
There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up out of Egypt.
The main source of the returning exiles is Assyria, the destination of the exiles for both the fall of the northern nation of Israel in 721 BCE and the destruction of all the walled cities of Judah in 701. Assyria (Iraq) is not the primary source for Jews immigrating to Israel today. In addition, the prophet compares this return – verse 11’s explicit ‘second time’ – with the exodus out of Egypt, verse 11’s implicit ‘first time.’
What we have in Isaiah 11:10-16 is a prediction of an event that took place about 150 years in the future for those who originally heard and/or read this prophecy. It certainly does not predict a return from exile fulfilled in our day.
Where can I learn about the background of a passage?
If you want to learn more about the background of a biblical passage you are studying, the information you need is available in any good commentary on your target text or any good Bible dictionary (e.g., the one-volume New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996], or the four-volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988]). Also, special Bible background dictionaries are now available (e.g., The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament and the Old Testament, 2 vols. [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014]).
Want to go deeper?
Learning the 12 periods of Old Testament history would help you immensely to construct a mental framework on which to hang any book of the Old Testament. Check out my video entitled, “Learn the 12 Periods of Old Testament History by Singing.”
You might want to look at my other DeeperStudy videos.
For a short summary of the Assyrian kings of the close of the 8th century BCE in: