Paul Y. Hoskisson, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, in his paper “A Latter-Day Saint Reading of Isaiah: The Example of Isaiah 6.” In that paper, he listed six factors that “contribute to the difficulties modern readers encounter in understanding Isaiah:”
- Hebrew Poetry
He says that for the most part, Isaiah wrote in poetry, “and poetry is by nature obscure, if not cryptic, even to the native speaker of the poetic language.” However, he explained that when Isaiah’s poetic imagery is comprehended it contributes one’s “appreciation and understanding of the passage.”
- Hebrew literary style
As with any language’s literature, he writes, “Hebrew is endowed with its own esoteric peculiarities that could escape even Isaiah’s contemporary readers. These same peculiarities often baffle the modern reader also.” However, Isaiah’s ability “to coin new words (if indeed Isaiah was the first to employ seraphim) from the basal forms by using existing patterns is characteristic of Semitic literature,” showing him to be both highly educated and expert in the language.
- Cultural Distance
Like anyone from 2700 years ago, “Isaiah is removed culturally from our day.” People then ate, dressed and lived differently. Books were written from right to left. The world superpowers of his time were “Egypt and Assyria, and were deeply embroiled in petty squabbles with neighbors.” References to things like these from his time and culture leave modern reader lost.
- Time differential
In some ways, this aligns with culture, but puts in it in a “different dimension.” As an example of this he points to the difference between modern Japanese culture and ours and then explains “however removed in culture and literature from Japan, still may have contact with and access to living informants both here in the United States and on the isles of native Japanese culture in Asia. Though this does not alleviate all problems, it does eliminate many.” This cannot be so with Isaiah, who has been dead for 27 centuries along with all his contemporaries, “we must content ourselves with a few scraps of Hebrew literature” and a few other “contemporary documents. By learning” he says, “of the times involved we can approximate in our own minds the milieu in which Isaiah composed his beautiful verses.”
- Isaiah draws heavily on scripture and doctrine outside his time and place.
To understand his message we need a knowledge of doctrines taught over the ages. This means “it is necessary to be familiar with more than the times and culture of Isaiah” to understand and appreciate his “embedded allusions… In this respect, Latter-day Saints have a distinct advantage because of our extended scriptural database.”
- Prophetic vision
Isaiah was an “eloquent, well versed and culturally astute” prophet. We must “realize that he spoke from the higher ground of his prophetic insights and visions.” This, however, does not mean that we have to be prophets to understand his words. Many of his prophecies have been fulfilled, which we can all see, but with the Gift of the Holy Ghost, “the same prophetic insights and visions given to Isaiah are available to Latter-day Saints.”
Each of these six potential stumbling blocks to understanding Isaiah can become “stepping-stones” to comprehension can be turned into tools by anyone serious about discerning Isaiah message. All we have to do is learn a bit about Hebrew literary and poetic styles, come to know the times and history surrounding his visions, mix in our own use of scripture, knowledge of doctrine and modern prophetic insights and our study of Isaiah will not only glean “glean from his writings wisdom for our day.” Perhaps we will even come to love “one of the greatest prophets and poets who ever lived on this earth.”
By Paul Y. Hoskisson| a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, earned his MA and BA from BYU, and a PhD from Brandeis University, all in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. He knows German, Bibilican Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Spanish, and a few other research languages. He and his wife, Joaqina, have four children.
You can read his entire paper at “A Latter-Day Saint Reading of Isaiah: The Example of Isaiah 6” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 209–225.