Victor Ludlow on Isaiah’s Historical Background Discover with Darryl: Isaiah—Prophet, Seer, and Poet


Darryl: Hi, this is Darryl Alder with, and we’re here again with Victor Ludlow, Today we’re going to pursue a little bit of the front end of his book, Isaiah—Prophet, Seer, and Poet, where he kind of gives us some historical background, he draws maps, he kind of does some settings to give us an overall structure to hang Isaiah on. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Historical Background: Who Was Isaiah?

Let’s start out with that very first question you attempted to answer, who’s Isaiah?

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Isaiah recording his prophecies

Victor: The prophet, one among many. One who was particularly insightful and profound in his prophecies, both in their message and their style. In the Hebrew Old Testament, he is to Hebrew like Shakespeare is to English, Göthe is to Germany. He is a genius.

Darryl: And obviously then schooled in the ways of the Jews.

Victor:  Very much so.

Historical Background: Kings of Israel and Judah

Darryl: Did he play any role in the court of Ahaz, Hezekiah or Manasseh?

Victor: That would depend entirely upon the king. He would love to be their advisor, but some of them didn’t want him there, some of them were like earlier prophets, particularly in Israel that didn’t even want to have the prophet come into their court. Others would invite him and listen to him.

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Map of the Middle East in Isaiah’s Time

Darryl: So, Ahaz probably didn’t serve particularly long, but in the historical setting, if we look at the map of the Middle East at that time, there were players that were threatening Judah.

But wait, let’s go back. There was a Golden Age in Israel where Saul was trying to get the land and create what would be the 12 tribes legacy, and then David refined it, as did Solomon. Tell us what happened after that and how much later Isaiah is.

Victor: This is covering about two centuries.

Darryl: So almost as long as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been around.  That gives us a perspective of how long of a period it was.

Victor: Or not much longer than the United States has been a nation, another perspective.

Darryl: Both of those are helpful.

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Ancient Biblical Timeline showing Prophets and Kings

Victor: So, any rate, Solomon dies around 930 BC and that’s when they split into the kingdoms.

Darryl: What’s going on there between his sons? What causes the split?

Victor: It’s not as much between his sons as between one son and one of Solomon’s officers. Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s officers that becomes the king of the northern kingdom. And Rehoboam was one of Solomon’s sons that he wanted to be the king of all of Israel, but because Rehoboam was so adamant about being strong and increase his father’s building programs and all, the northern tribes didn’t want anymore to do with that.

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Division of the Thirteen Tribes of Israel

Darryl: And probably fairly so, if you look at the map, Jerusalem isn’t necessarily at the center of those 12 tribes, but Judah ends up with the city and the temple and that means some things. But what helped me in this, is the capital in Israel is Samaria and you think about Samaritans being looked down on at the time of Jesus, but Samaritans were just those people who lived in Sumeria with the other 10 tribes up there. So, it appears though many of the tribes are represented in what becomes Judah. What prompted that? How did we get a drifting spell?

Victor: First of all, we have all of Simeon, all of Judah, a good part of Benjamin and a lot of Levites.

Darryl: Because Levites have to be everywhere and they’re at the temple too, so we need a lot of them here.

Victor: Right, so we have roughly 10 tribes in the north and 3 tribes in the south of the 13 tribes of Israel, but later in the century after Solomon, we have the great prophets, Elijah and Elisha where northern Israel is rapidly going into very apostate wicked conditions, and they are even persecuting the righteous, the priests, and the Levites and others. And so, some of these people of the northern tribe start migrating south because of this persecution. So, during the 800’s BC into the 700’s BC, they’re moving southward.

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Assyria was the superpower of the time moving ever southward toward Jerusalem

Then as the political situation intensifies with Assyria coming into the northern kingdom of Israel and putting pressure on the people there, and the prophets, a number of them are warning Israel that her continued wickedness is going to warrant her judgment and scattering.

Darryl: So, Victor, this gets very confusing because when you use the word “Israel” there, it’s important we think of that as the northern tribes. So, the southern tribes we’ll call Judah and the northern tribes we’ll call Israel, not to be confused with the Golden Age when both were united.

Victor: Right.

Darryl: So, we’re moving here into something that’s different not the Golden Age you named. You called it the Silver Age. So, what’s happening here?

Historical Background: The Silver Age

Victor: Well what happens in the 700’s BC, to the far northeast in the Middle East, Assyria and Babylon have been at conflict and have had some major wars. And so, they were involved enough with each other that they’re not really trying to expand their empires into Israelite, Judean territory. Egypt to the southwest, the other end of the Middle East, is somewhat weak at this time.

So there is somewhat of a period where they can kind of do their own thing in Israel and in Judah. They also have to have two kings: Jeroboam, the 2nd in the north and Uzziah in the south that live long, were powerful, dynamic expansionist kings with a strong hand. So, they were able to consolidate their own reign, their own kingdoms, and the little competition between the two of them, sometimes more competition, but they were kind of free to do their own thing more or less. But there’s still this Assyrian threat that rules over Babylon and becomes imperialistic and wanting to move around the fertile crescent towards Egypt, Israel, and then Judah stands in her way.

Darryl: So, in the setting for Isaiah, Ahaz is king at the start. Is that right?

Victor: Well, in his youth, Uzziah is still the king. And so, Isaiah, in fact, the benchmark of his calling as a Prophet was, as he tells us in chapter 6, in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord. So, that was a benchmark event in the whole region. He had been a king for like a half a century and all of a sudden, there’s a new king.

Darryl: And was he a decent king? Did he behave?

Victor: Yes and no.

Darryl: It looks like we see a pretty good king and then a bad son who is king. And then somehow that bad king has a good son. Tell us about the kings, there’s three or four in Isaiah’s life and what they do.

Victor: Well, I don’t want to get into politics, particularly considering the current political scene because there would be some who would argue that our given Presidents were very good and others that think they were lousy.

Darryl: I want to ask this, maybe righteousness, someone who used the temple the way it was intended, someone who used the temple the way it wasn’t intended.

Historical Background: Idol Worship

Victor: Well, first of all, in the north, the kings there as a whole were all developing up their own pagan idolatrous temples.

Darryl: And every country did that.

Victor: That’s right.

Darryl: And when you say that, I always thought for some reason it was bowing down to some golden structure, but there was some kind of fornication and just awful things, sacrificing kids. This had to be pretty dreadful.

Victor: Some of it was Ba’al worship, their Asherah or high groves and all were religious prostitution, and all was taking place there, and at least in the south, there was the temple there, but it was more or less supported by different kings, sometimes by the same king at different times in their lives. And so very few of them were righteous, some were more wicked. And particularly Chronicles tends to present a rather critical view of some of the more wicked kings.

Darryl: Well, I’ve found that Hezekiah’s grandson did something with the temple after Isaiah was gone. I think his name was Josiah.  Tell us about this part of the Silver Age now. What’s going on?

Victor: Well, again we had the two strong Kings: Jeroboam, the 2nd in the north, Uzziah in the south, and a somewhat political stable situation in their area. And then a couple of king’s later, you have Hezekiah, who really emphasized celebrating Passover and the religious festivals and the temple worship and things like that.

Historical Background: Political Alliances

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Israel’s political neighborhood at the time of Isaiah

But what happens is, their kingdom in the north becomes a little more aggressive, that is Israel. And they’re seeking to get all of the nations in the area, Jordan, and Syria and others because they can see that Assyria is growing stronger and is coming towards them. And the only way they can stop it is to have a united front through this fertile crescent area between the deserts of Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea. So, they need all these countries to come together.

Darryl: So, we’re not just talking about the 12 tribes, we’re talking about Moab and Edom and even Philistia.

Victor: Well, they’re not as much in the picture by now.

Darryl: And Egypt?

Victor: Well, Egypt could be an ally if they don’t become too strong themselves and decide, well, since our armies here, we might as well stay here and rule. So, that’s a double-edged sword there, getting Egypt to involved. But Egypt does get involved, later Ahaz, particularly during that period of time. And so, this will play into some of the dynamics of the political situation in the days of Isaiah and the beginning of the scattering of the tribes of Israel. But it starts with the Assyrian encroachment.

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Map by Robert Simmon showing the Fertile Crescent with modern Middle-eastern countries that Assyria was after in green

Darryl: So, there are two countries here, Assyria and Syria. Can you describe in today’s world map what we’re talking about?

Victor: Assyria would be Iraq and Syria would-be modern-day Syria. So, Syria is a much smaller country. Assyria, by this time, had controlled the whole Mesopotamian area. And that was one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia on the east and Egypt on the west and Israel found herself in between.

Darryl: As we start looking at the Silver Age for religion, Hezekiah fosters temple worship and many appropriate things, eventually things fall apart there. But prior to Hezekiah, Ahaz was threatened by both the northern tribes and Syria. What were those two countries trying to do?

Victor: Syria to the northeast, where modern Syria is, and Israel, the northern tribes, were trying to force Judah to join this alliance of all the nations along the region.

Darryl: And Isaiah was saying don’t do it?

Victor: Don’t do it.  It’s trusting in the arm of flesh and so forth. And so, these two kingdoms were both wanting to invade Judah and force her to join the coalition by deposing the king and putting somebody on the throne that would be more supportive.

Darryl: And they didn’t succeed?

Victor: They didn’t succeed.

Darryl: But nonetheless, Assyria swept through both those countries.

Victor: Well, one of the problems was that Judah, seeing these two neighboring countries that are right on their borders coming in, what they had hoped to do was, well, the choices are, to either look behind me and get Egypt and have them come up and help me, or can I leap over those two countries and form some kind of an alliance with Assyria and have Assyria attack them from the rear so they’ll move their forces from attacking me. Now, either of those is wrought with high political risk.

Darryl: And costs, stripping the temple of all of its gold and taxing the people. That had to be something pretty tough. It didn’t work, did it?

Victor: No, it didn’t work.

Darryl: That’s when we’re talking about leaning on the arm of flesh, that’s the king believing that a political alliance with tribute was going to yield peace.

Victor: A long-lasting alliance that would benefit without benefiting the aggressor.

Historical Background: Assyria the Conqueror

Victor Ludlow on Isaiah's Historical Background
Assyria’s city by city march south toward Jerusalem

Darryl: It didn’t seem to even benefit a king for a king. For his reign, it was always wrought with trouble. So, Assyria swept down, and there’s this craziness in Isaiah where Isaiah starts naming the cities that are going to fall, and Michmash and all these other cities. And so, if you have a map and you look at them, you can see how he’s predicting that southern march. Hezekiah was in a bad situation. Every city had been taken in Judah, hadn’t it? There was nothing left.

Victor: Not in Judah.

Darryl: Every northern city, all the way up to Nob.

Victor: Nob is like north of Jerusalem.

Darryl: It’s not very far north, it sounds like it’s a holler away because of what happened. Can you tell us that story a little bit? It’s one of my favorites. And Hezekiah was told he didn’t need to worry, but he was pretty worried.

Victor: Yeah, Isaiah tells him not an Assyrian soldier will come inside the city of Jerusalem, but Assyria was eating away around the northern and western flanks of Judah in particular. And sure enough, the Lord’s prophet and his promises were sustained. And it’s interesting to look at it from the different perspectives.

We, of course, have the account in Kings, Chronicles and in the historical chapters of Isaiah 36 to 39 that outline some of this. But we also have Greek sources taken from Egyptian sources about this.

Basically, the main Assyrian philosophy was gradual encroachment, to come close to an area to be a threatening power and say, if you’ll submit to our rule, pay tribute to us, we’ll let you stay where you’re at and live with your families. And as long as you had rulers that were willing to do that, they got along, of course, under Assyria’s terms. But if you should start to resist, then they would become more aggressive. They basically would put somebody new on the throne, and if that didn’t work, they would come in and control the country and make it a province and put their own rulers on the throne.

In these different stages, they had different ways of trying to weaken the leadership in this country, say use Israel as an example. So that around the 730’s they’d come close and are saying, come on, let’s be friends, in fact, we’ve got an excellent scholarship offer for some of your youth to come to Assyria and get training and would like to have some of your best craftsmen and artisans come and help us build a marvelous capital city, and then this will bring a lot of wealth back into your country. And that just wasn’t working.  Then they became more and more forceful. So, we find these northern inhabitants of Israel, some of them by invitation and with highly lucrative opportunities for vocational experience, moving to Assyria.

Darryl: In fact, it seems like Isaiah says, the leaders and the prophets and the craftsman’s will all be gone, and you’ll be led by children and women or something.

Victor: Yeah, you just won’t have the effective trained, educated, skilled leadership available. Well, eventually Assyria just has to come in and take over and this occurs around 722 and 721, where they come in and take over the country.

Historical Background:  Scattering of Israel

Darryl: So now both, Isaiah and Hezekiah are in place, right?

Victor: But they’re in the south. So, this is up in the northern kingdom when it is falling. And this begins what we call the lost 10 tribes, where Assyria takes some 30,000 families of the northern Kingdom of Israel and relocates them to the far northeast part of their empire. So, they move them from one end of their empire to the other, it’s like somebody conquering the United States and moving people from southern California to New England. And so, they move them from one end of their country, it’s not quite that far, it’s more like, say southern California to the no-man’s lands of North Dakota or something like that. But any rate, what we need to remember is that there were some Israelites that had preceded them. Now, they’re there, but they’re relocated on the edge of the empire and they don’t like living there. They can’t go back home, they don’t feel comfortable there. And so many of them flee northward and that’s the last we hear of the 10 tribes.

Darryl: Even prisoners.

Victor: The whole Assyrian Empire into Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Darryl: And I think the thing that’s heartbreaking for me here to think, is that Israel, since the day of Moses has known there’s one God, not multiple gods. And they’re kind of commissioned to bring that message to the world and instead they get lost to the world.

Victor: Because they accept both the religion and the political philosophies of the world.

Darryl: Is there are a lesson there for us?

Victor: Watch out what you want. But we lose sight of two other important groups of northern Israelites.

First of all, not everybody is cleansed off the land. In front of this invading Assyrian army, a lot of Israelites, tens and tens of thousands of them flee southward.  They become refugees in the south.

Hezekiah has to build new cities and new parts of cities to absorb all of these refugees from these northern tribes, which in the Book of Mormon context might explain how Lehi and Ishmael, the two Patriarchs of the Book of Mormon community, 100 years later, what are they doing living in the southern kingdom of Judah when their ancestors were living up in the north?

Well, two or three generations earlier, they must’ve migrated southwards. Now, they may have come as early as the 800’s with these righteous people on their own fling. Others, having heard the words of the prophets warning northern Israel, if you don’t repent, you’re going to be invaded from the north and conquered. And when they see this army coming from the north, what would you do? Are you going to stay around and face him?

No, you’re going to go visit some of your distant relatives down south. If somebody were invading Utah right now out of Canada and they were just sweeping through the countryside, I’m going to go visit my daughter down in Arizona.

A lot of them fled southward and they became absorbed within that kingdom. And so now you’ve got all these northern tribes represented among the citizenship and they call themselves Jews, even as Nephi does in the Book of Mormon, because that’s the nation, they were of that nation, just like you and I call ourselves Americans, but we’re not descendants of that Portuguese navigator. But we live in this country.

Darryl: That makes good sense. So, did they keep any of their tribal identities? Did they still know their heritage?

Victor: Some of them, yes. In fact, there are some Jewish families to this day that say, we’re a Benjamin, we’re Simian, we’re this or that.

Darryl: Well, and it was apparent that was the thing for Nephi’s family, they were happy to know what was on the brass plates.

Victor: Yeah and be able to be more specific.  But then there’s this last group, the ones that weren’t taken captive, weren’t killed in battle, then flee to the south. They were still living in the land. But the landscape was so decimated that the Assyrians imported Babylonians, Arabs, and others into the area to build up the population and its tax base. And those people are inter-married, and they’re known and still there as the Samaritans. So, this is where a lot of mixture and movement takes place among the house of Israel.

Darryl: So that kind of gives us a little bit of the political background and a little bit of the geographical background.

How to Read the Past Today

There’s some trickiness here with Isaiah. So, he’ll talk about Assyria. What could it represent today, and what could Babylon represent, and what could Egypt represent, and what could Philistia represent? Is it important to try and make them represent something? Are we trying too hard?

Victor: We risk the danger of pushing too hard? Assyria represents raw, brutal military might. And they were brutal. Skinning people alive was a fine art that they practiced. Babylon represents the decadent world, wealth and jewels and costumes and fabrics and commerce. That’s represented by Babylon. Now, Egypt is closer, that’s where their ancestors have lived. So, it has somewhat of a negative connotation of this imperialistic, ferocious, powerful nation that held their ancestors as slaves for a long time. And they’re still looming on the horizon, but they won’t have quite the dominance like they had in millennia earlier. And so, there’s an enticement towards Egypt, but it’s tempered because of the past experience.

Darryl: That makes sense.  So, that helps us a little bit.  So, when Isaiah’s writing, and you’ve already talked to us about parallelisms. Do you think when he’s talking about Assyria, he’s seeing the last days?

Victor: Not directly, but there will be analogies. There will be powers that will be brutal. And we’ve seen this with Isis and some of these forces in the battles in Iraq and Syria and parts of Lebanon in just the last few years. It seems to be ameliorating but there seems to be now some of it happening in Yemen and that sort of thing. So, the Assyrian style of intimidation and threat and brutality does seem to be still something there.

Darryl: And if you look, that’s probably replicated itself many multiple times as kingdoms and dynasties have been built clear since Isaiah’s day.

Victor: Right.

Darryl: So, if we look at Babylon, what are the messages there? I think about the twin towers coming down and how that affected us in the United States.

Victor: Well, so if you want Babylon, take a look at some of the great towers that have been built in the Persian Gulf nations. Far higher and more opulent than the Twin Towers ever was. The wealth out of some of these oil-rich countries, the per-capita income, the extravagant wealth that they have, it’s still in the region today.

Isaiah Foretells a Political Messiah in Cyrus

Darryl: So, your book, ‘Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet.’ He uses poetry, we talked about this last time, to help prophecy and to be a seer.  Simple prophesy that he made was of a Babylonian king named Cyrus. Tell us about that. I’m not sure it’s that simple. It’s about 150 years out. That’s a pretty good prophecy.

Victor: He has some prophecies about the king of Babylon. I want to talk about that a little bit in chapter 14, where Babylon represents the wicked world, and the king of that world is Satan. So, whether you see it manifest in the wickedness of major cities or drug cartels or the way society morally and financially may be corrupted. That’s the king of Babylon in the background, playing his cards.

Now Isaiah does talk about Cyrus coming forward and mentions him by name over a century before his coming, because Assyria, between the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah will have a change of leadership. Babylon will rise up and defeat Assyria. That takes place just as the Book of Mormon scene is opening up.

And so, the Babylonians will come into the southern kingdom of Judah and do with them what the Assyrians have done over 100 years in the northern kingdom of Israel. Again gradually, it’s exporting people, giving them great opportunity.

Daniel and his three friends, they were there as invited guests of the king of Babylon. And yet there were others that joined with them, like Ezekiel, the priest prophet and others. But ultimately there is the biggest wave of slaves to come after the southern kingdom is destroyed.

Isaiah also foresees a time when from the further east, Persia, as it was known anciently, Iran as that region is called today, a king who would come forth, who would allow the Jews to return back to their land, to rebuild the temple and reestablish their religious life, which we read about towards the end of the Old Testament period, and the writings of Ezra and Nehemiah and some of the minor prophets.

As we finish the Old Testament with Malachi around 400 BC, it’s under Persian rule. The Persians have come in. But before the Persians, there were the Babylonians, particularly as far as destroying the southern kingdom of Judah initially. And before them, were the Assyrians destroying the northern kingdom of Israel. And through all of this, Israel starts to be scattered, not only by those that are taken and flee to the north, those who have settled throughout the region of the Middle East. Others like Jeremiah, the prophet himself and others who flee to Egypt from the Babylonians, and from there on the scattering carries on through the continents and the centuries.

Darryl: Well, Victor, I feel like this background is important. I was happy to read it in both of your books before I started in.

Studying Isaiah

Darryl: Is there anything else you think we should consider as we get ready to dive into the Sunday school study of Isaiah chapter 1?

Victor: That’s a hard question. I think if we study Isaiah, first of all, we will better understand some of these challenges the ancient prophets and the house of Israel faced, and why and how they scattered. But we also read in them, prophecies of a gathering, and Jeremiah prophesies that this gathering will take place and will be a greater miracle than the original exodus out of Egypt.

Now, when you consider parting the Red Sea and water from rocks and plagues and all kinds of signs and miracles, that has been the identity of the Jews through the centuries with their God. He delivered us out of Egypt. But, ultimately, all of Israel, the scattered tribes, the Jews, other remnants of Israel will look to the hand of the Lord and the gathering of Israel. And it’s both a literal but also a spiritual gathering, and president Nelson seems to have somewhat of a vision.

Darryl: He does, doesn’t he?  It’s sort of an urgency. Maybe that happens when you’re in your 90’s and you know you don’t have a whole decade maybe to drive the point home.

Victor: But the thing is, this miracle is unfolding around us. The multiplication of temples, missionary work in countries behind the iron curtain where we wouldn’t have seen it coming…

Darryl: Neither of us could’ve dreamt that with our missionary service. Germany was just such a split country and the fact that we’re in Ukraine and all the way east is pretty amazing, even in Mongolia.

Victor: So, by reading Isaiah and how he foresaw the events of his time, and also superimposed upon them what he seems to have seen and foretold about the end of days, particularly in his last chapters, but maybe even kind of a dualistic version of what happens to Assyria, and what happens to Babylon and these nations evolved. They may have different names, countries in those regions, but similar kinds of phenomena to take place to humble the wicked and prepare the earth for the righteous. We can see that in the writings of Isaiah.

Darryl: Thank you. I really appreciate you taking time with us. I’m hoping that our readers and our audience appreciate this great sacrifice you’ve made. And your life of study of Isaiah, I just love that we can just sit and chat.

Victor: My pleasure.

Darryl: Thank you.  Have a good day.

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Dr. Victor L. Ludlow is a scholar of Isaiah and Judaism. He graduated with high honors from BYU and was a Danforth Fellow at Harvard and Brandeis Universities, where he received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology. He has authored numerous articles and the books: Unlocking the Old Testament; Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet; Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel; and Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. His most recent audio lecture is “Latter-day Insights: The Middle East.” Courses Taught: Writings of Isaiah, Judaism and the Gospel, Book of Mormon, Old Testament Areas of Expertise: Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology, with a special emphasis upon covenants. Areas of Research: Isaiah, Covenants, Judaism, History of the House of Israel, Agency, Gospel Principles Languages: German (fluent), Hebrew (reading), some Arabic, French, and Latin


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