Literary Devices in the Book of Isaiah

Book of Isaiah Scroll
View interactive version of the scroll here

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. It was written circa 8th-7th century BCE and is the work of Isaiah ben Amoz. The book is a prophetic vision mixed with historical discussion about the destiny of the Jews, Jerusalem, and Judea prior, during, and after the Babylonian exile. Many of the book’s passages such 9:5 formed the foundation of messianism and eschatology in several Judeo-Christian movements.

Outside of the Masoretic version of the Hebrew bible, there are several versions of the book of Isaiah. One of the more interesting ones is the Great Isaiah Scroll (pictured above). This document is one of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 near the ruins of Qumran, Masada, Wadi Murabba’at, Nahal Hever, and Nahal Tze’elim in the Judean desert in Israel. The scroll contains some minor variations from the Masoretic version, but Its 54 columns contain all of the 66 chapters of the version found in the Hebrew Bible. The Great Isaiah Scroll is dated to circa 125 BCE.

For many years, I’ve been reading Isaiah contextually, but have just recently started parsing it for structure. Here are a few interesting stylistic and literary devices that I found. 

Note on language proficiency
Isaiah is a mix of poetry and prose. In general, translated poetry tends to loses more of its meaning than prose. If you don’t read Hebrew, you may miss some nuances such as rhyming, letter geometry, word play, and diction. To help capture these nuances, I’ve included several recordings of the Hebrew passages in the rhyming section. To those of you who would like to pronounce the Hebrew text there is an alphabet and vocalization chart at the end of the post.

Epigraphs (a reference to another composition to help the reader understand the work).

Isaiah 11:15 (reference to splitting the sea Exodus 14:21)
And G-d will utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with His scorching wind will He shake His hand over the River, and will smite it into seven streams, and cause men to march over dry-shod.

וְהֶחֱרִים יְהוָה, אֵת לְשׁוֹן יָם-מִצְרַיִם, וְהֵנִיף יָדוֹ עַל-הַנָּהָר, בַּעְיָם רוּחוֹ; וְהִכָּהוּ לְשִׁבְעָה נְחָלִים, וְהִדְרִיךְ בַּנְּעָלִים

Isaiah 38:8 (cross reference to 2 Kings 20:8–11)
Behold, I will cause the shadow of the dial, which is gone down on the sun-dial of Ahaz, to return backward ten degrees.’ So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.

הִנְנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶת-צֵל הַמַּעֲלוֹת אֲשֶׁר יָרְדָה בְמַעֲלוֹת אָחָז בַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ, אֲחֹרַנִּית–עֶשֶׂר מַעֲלוֹת; וַתָּשָׁב הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ עֶשֶׂר מַעֲלוֹת, בַּמַּעֲלוֹת אֲשֶׁר יָרָדָה

Isaiah 45:7 (reference to Genesis 1-3)
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am G-d, that doeth all these things.

יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ, עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע; אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה כָל-אֵלֶּה

Allegory (A metaphor in which a character, place, or event is used to deliver a broader message)

Isaiah 40:8
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth [people/life]; but the word of our G-d shall stand for ever.

יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם

Isaiah 40:11
Even as a shepherd [G-d] that feedeth his flock, that gathereth the lambs in his arm, and carrieth them in his bosom, and gently leadeth those that give suck.

כְּרֹעֶה, עֶדְרוֹ יִרְעֶה, בִּזְרֹעוֹ יְקַבֵּץ טְלָאִים, וּבְחֵיקוֹ יִשָּׂא; עָלוֹת, יְנַהֵל

Similes (A figure of speech that directly compares two things)

Isaiah 55:10
For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, except it water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵרֵד הַגֶּשֶׁם וְהַשֶּׁלֶג מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְשָׁמָּה לֹא יָשׁוּב–כִּי אִם-הִרְוָה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהוֹלִידָהּ וְהִצְמִיחָהּ; וְנָתַן זֶרַע לַזֹּרֵעַ, וְלֶחֶם לָאֹכֵל

Aphorisms (A concise, terse, laconic, memorable expression of a general truth or principle)

Isaiah 40:21
Know ye not? hear ye not? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood the foundations of the earth?

הֲלוֹא תֵדְעוּ הֲלוֹא תִשְׁמָעוּ, הֲלוֹא הֻגַּד מֵרֹאשׁ לָכֶם; הֲלוֹא, הֲבִינוֹתֶם, מוֹסְדוֹת, הָאָרֶץ

Isaiah 49:15
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget, yet will not I forget thee.

הֲתִשְׁכַּח אִשָּׁה עוּלָהּ, מֵרַחֵם בֶּן-בִּטְנָהּ; גַּם-אֵלֶּה תִשְׁכַּחְנָה, וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ

Isaiah 49:24
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of the victorious be delivered?

הֲיֻקַּח מִגִּבּוֹר, מַלְקוֹחַ; וְאִם-שְׁבִי צַדִּיק, יִמָּלֵט

Allusions (A figure of speech, in which an object or circumstance is referred to indirectly)

Isaiah 44:28 [the term “My shepherd” is alluding to Moses] That saith of Cyrus: ‘He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure’; even saying of Jerusalem: ‘She shall be built’; and to the temple: ‘My foundation shall be laid.

הָאֹמֵר לְכוֹרֶשׁ רֹעִי, וְכָל-חֶפְצִי יַשְׁלִם; וְלֵאמֹר לִירוּשָׁלִַם תִּבָּנֶה, וְהֵיכָל תִּוָּסֵד

Isaiah 45:3 [alluding to Nebuchadnezzar’s stolen treasures from the the temple of Salomon]
And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I am G-d  who call thee by thy name, even the G-d of Israel.

וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ אוֹצְרוֹת חֹשֶׁךְ, וּמַטְמֻנֵי מִסְתָּרִים:  לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה הַקּוֹרֵא בְשִׁמְךָ–אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Wordplay, Parables, and Puns (A didactic prose or verse that illustrates instructive principles)

Isaiah 5:7
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah the plant of His delight; and He looked for justice, but behold violence; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

כִּי כֶרֶם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִישׁ יְהוּדָה, נְטַע שַׁעֲשׁוּעָיו; וַיְקַו לְמִשְׁפָּט וְהִנֵּה מִשְׂפָּח, לִצְדָקָה וְהִנֵּה צְעָקָה

The Song of the Vineyard describes how G-d had done everything to make his vineyard “the nation of Israel … the people of Judah,” 5:7a) fruitful. He expected luscious, plump, juicy grapes at the time of harvest, but instead, the vineyard  “brought forth wild grapes.” (5:2). So G-d pronounces judgment on his people (5:3–6). In this context, verse 5:7 uses the following wordplay: “And he looked for justice (משׁפט), but behold violence (משׂפח); for righteousness (צדקה) but heard a cry (צעקה)”. In addition to the wordplay, these words in Hebrew also sound similar.

Isaiah 2:3
And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of G-d, to the house of G-d of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.

וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְהוָה אֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו:  כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם

There are many passage that use double entendres. For example the passage: “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.” can have multiple meanings and it depends on how we interpret the terms “Zion”, “Jerusalem”, the “law”, and the “word of G-d”. 

If the reference to “Jerusalem”, “Zion” (City of David), “mountain of G-d” (Temple mount), and to the “house of G-d” (Solomon’s Temple), are just parallel forms, then the meaning of the whole passage is that the future word of G-d will once again emanate from this location. 

On the other hand, if we read “Jerusalem”, “Zion”, “mountain of G-d”, and “house of the G-d” as distinctive locations with an ascending levels of holiness (which they had historically), then each one of these places has a unique messianic purpose, and in the future, the righteous will go through a sequence of: (1) pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (2) visit to the temple, (3) attendance of service, (4) and spread the law and the inspired word of G-d throughout the world.

Encryption

Isaiah 7:4
Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set up a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeel.

נַעֲלֶה בִיהוּדָה וּנְקִיצֶנָּה, וְנַבְקִעֶנָּה אֵלֵינוּ; וְנַמְלִיךְ מֶלֶךְ בְּתוֹכָהּ, אֵת בֶּן-טָבְאַל

This passage describes the scheming of Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, king of Israel (the united monarchy had split by that time to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel), who conspired against King Ahaz of Judah and plotted to replace him with the “son of Tabeel”. 

Tabeel is an known biblical figure. But Tabeel, (spelled T-B-L without vowels) could be an encrypted name. Decrypting it using the “ALABM” cypher yields R-M-L- Remala (for Remaliah), a possible reference to Pekah’s father.

 

Row-2

א

ב

ג

ד

ה

ו

ז

ח

ט

י

כ

Row-1

ל

מ

נ

ס

ע

פ

צ

ק

ר

ש

ת

Row-1

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

Row-2

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

V

W

X

Y

Z

The ALABM (אלבם) cypher employs a substitution system in which the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet is split into two halves and lined up in two overlapping rows. In this way, the first letter of the first top row, Aleph (א), is substituted with the first letter of the second row, Lamed (ל), the second letter of the first row, Beth (ב), is substituted for the second letter of the second row, Mem (מ), and so on. The name of the “ALABM” cypher is derived from the first four letters of this arrangement; AlephLamed & BethMem.

The equivalent English would be the first letter of the first top row A, substitutes for the first letter of the second row N, the second letter of the first top row B, substitutes for the second letter of the second half row O, and so on

Encoding the message: “DEATH IS NOT THE WORST OF EVILS” with the English version of ALABM would yield the code: ”DEAGH IF ABG GHE JBEFG BF EIILF”.

Palindromes
(A sequence of characters which read the same backward as forward)

Isaiah 11:10
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious.

וְהָיָה, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, שֹׁרֶשׁ יִשַׁי אֲשֶׁר עֹמֵד לְנֵס עַמִּים, אֵלָיו גּוֹיִם יִדְרֹשׁוּ; וְהָיְתָה מְנֻחָתוֹ, כָּבוֹד

Isaiah 40:4
(a perfect palindrome if we substitute: ”וְהָרְכָסִים” which is a Hapax legomenon with “וְרוְשׁים”)
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain;

כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר,[וְרוְשׁים] וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה

Isaiah 40-4 Every valley shall be lifted up

Interestingly, the great Isaiah scroll has alternate spelling for several words in verse 40:4 (see grayed out section). The word “גֶּיא” (valley) for example, is spelled without the Alef as “גֶּי” and the word “וְהָרְכָסִים” (rough places or mountain tops) is spelled with an extra Vav between the letters Resh and Kaf “וְהָרְוְכָסִים” (the word is located in the dotted rectangle in image above).

Word Variation (using verb conjugation)

Isaiah 33:1  
Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! When thou hast ceased to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou art weary with dealing treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee.

הוֹי שׁוֹדֵד, וְאַתָּה לֹא שָׁדוּד, וּבוֹגֵד, וְלֹא-בָגְדוּ בוֹ; כַּהֲתִמְךָ שׁוֹדֵד תּוּשַּׁד, כַּנְּלֹתְךָ לִבְגֹּד יִבְגְּדוּ-בָךְ

Homographs (Words that use the same root but have different meanings)

Isaiah 29:9
Stupefy yourselves, and be stupid! Blind yourselves, and be blind! ye that are drunken, but not with wine, that stagger, but not with strong drink.

הִתְמַהְמְהוּ וּתְמָהוּ, הִשְׁתַּעַשְׁעוּ וָשֹׁעוּ; שָׁכְרוּ וְלֹא-יַיִן, נָעוּ וְלֹא שֵׁכָר

Metaphors and Analogies (Figure of speech that for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another)

Isaiah 24:20
The earth reeleth to and fro like a drunken man, and swayeth to and fro as a lodge; and the transgression thereof is heavy upon it, and it shall fall, and not rise again.

נוֹעַ תָּנוּעַ אֶרֶץ כַּשִּׁכּוֹר, וְהִתְנוֹדְדָה כַּמְּלוּנָה; וְכָבַד עָלֶיהָ פִּשְׁעָהּ, וְנָפְלָה וְלֹא-תֹסִיף קוּם

Isaiah 29:18
And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of a book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.

וְשָׁמְעוּ בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא הַחֵרְשִׁים, דִּבְרֵי-סֵפֶר; וּמֵאֹפֶל וּמֵחֹשֶׁךְ, עֵינֵי עִוְרִים תִּרְאֶינָה

Isaiah 41:18
I will open rivers on the high hills, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

אֶפְתַּח עַל-שְׁפָיִים נְהָרוֹת, וּבְתוֹךְ בְּקָעוֹת מַעְיָנוֹת; אָשִׂים מִדְבָּר לַאֲגַם-מַיִם, וְאֶרֶץ צִיָּה לְמוֹצָאֵי מָיִם

Isaiah 54:16 
Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the fire of coals, and bringeth forth a weapon for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.

הן אָנֹכִי, בָּרָאתִי חָרָשׁ–נֹפֵחַ בְּאֵשׁ פֶּחָם, וּמוֹצִיא כְלִי לְמַעֲשֵׂהוּ; וְאָנֹכִי בָּרָאתִי מַשְׁחִית, לְחַבֵּל

Juxtapositions (Placing two elements side by side in order to compare and or contrast them)
Isaiah 42:18
Hear, ye deaf, and look, ye blind, that ye may see.

הַחֵרְשִׁים, שְׁמָעוּ; וְהַעִוְרִים, הַבִּיטוּ לִרְאוֹת

Isaiah 42:20
Seeing many things, thou observest not; opening the ears, he heareth not.

ראית רַבּוֹת, וְלֹא תִשְׁמֹר; פָּקוֹחַ אָזְנַיִם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמָע

Isaiah 52:3
For thus saith G-d: Ye were sold for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money.

כִּי-כֹה אָמַר יְהוָה, חִנָּם נִמְכַּרְתֶּם; וְלֹא בְכֶסֶף, תִּגָּאֵלוּ

Parallelism (Balance within one or more sentences using similar phrases or concepts)
Isaiah 1:2
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for G-d hath spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up…

שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמַיִם וְהַאֲזִינִי אֶרֶץ, כִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר:  בָּנִים גִּדַּלְתִּי וְרוֹמַמְתִּי

Isaiah 1:3
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.

יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ, וַחֲמוֹר אֵבוּס בְּעָלָיו; יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן

Isaiah 28:23
Give ye ear, and hear my voice; attend, and hear my speech.

הַאֲזִינוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ, קוֹלִי; הַקְשִׁיבוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ, אִמְרָתִי

Isaiah 9:1
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

הָעָם הַהֹלְכִים בַּחֹשֶׁךְ, רָאוּ אוֹר גָּדוֹל:  יֹשְׁבֵי בְּאֶרֶץ צַלְמָוֶת, אוֹר נָגַהּ עֲלֵיהֶם

Rhyming (Repetition of similar sounds in the final stressed syllables)

Isaiah 17:12
Ah, the uproar of many peoples, that roar like the roaring of the seas; and the rushing of nations, that rush like the rushing of mighty waters!

הוֹי, הֲמוֹן עַמִּים רַבִּים, כַּהֲמוֹת יַמִּים, יֶהֱמָיוּן; וּשְׁאוֹן לְאֻמִּים, כִּשְׁאוֹן מַיִם כַּבִּירִים יִשָּׁאוּן

Isaiah 24:3
The earth shall be utterly emptied, and clean despoiled; for G-d hath spoken this word.

הִבּוֹק תִּבּוֹק הָאָרֶץ, וְהִבּוֹז תִּבֹּז:  כִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֶּר אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה

Isaiah 24:4
The earth fainteth and fadeth away, the world faileth and fadeth away, the lofty people of the earth do fail.

אָבְלָה נָבְלָה הָאָרֶץ, אֻמְלְלָה נָבְלָה תֵּבֵל; אֻמְלָלוּ, מְרוֹם עַם-הָאָרֶץ

Isaiah 24:17
Terror, and the pit, and the trap…

פַּחַד וָפַחַת, וָפָח

Isaiah 24:19
The earth is broken, broken down, the earth is crumbled in pieces, the earth trembleth and tottereth;

רֹעָה הִתְרֹעֲעָה, הָאָרֶץ; פּוֹר הִתְפּוֹרְרָה אֶרֶץ, מוֹט הִתְמוֹטְטָה אָרֶץ

Isaiah 27:7
Hath He smitten him as He smote those that smote him? Or is he slain according to the slaughter of them that were slain by Him?

הַכְּמַכַּת מַכֵּהוּ, הִכָּהוּ:  אִם-כְּהֶרֶג הֲרֻגָיו, הֹרָג

Isaiah 28:10
For it is precept by precept, precept by precept, line by line, line by line; here a little, there a little.

כִּי צַו לָצָו צַו לָצָו, קַו לָקָו קַו לָקָו-זְעֵיר שָׁם, זְעֵיר שָׁם

Symmetry and Mirroring (Sentences of similar parts and meaning that face each other)
A number of passages retain their meaning even if read in different directions. From right to left, left to right, or from the center outwards to either right and left.  In other passages the meaning on left and the right side of the sentences balances.

Isaiah 11:2
And the spirit of G-d shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of G-d.

וְנָחָה עָלָיו, רוּחַ יְהוָה רוּחַ חָכְמָה וּבִינָה, רוּחַ עֵצָה וּגְבוּרָה, רוּחַ דַּעַת, וְיִרְאַת יְהוָה

Isaiah 22:22 (chapter and paragraph numbers are mirrored)
And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; and he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

וְנָתַתִּי מַפְתֵּחַ בֵּית-דָּוִד, עַל-שִׁכְמוֹ; וּפָתַח וְאֵין סֹגֵר, וְסָגַר וְאֵין פֹּתֵחַ

Isaiah 27:5
Or else let him take hold of My strength, that he may make peace with Me; yea, let him make peace with Me.

אוֹ יַחֲזֵק בְּמָעוּזִּי, יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם לִי; שָׁלוֹם, יַעֲשֶׂה-לִּי

Isaiah 29:2 
…Ariel, and there shall be mourning and moaning; and she shall be unto me as a hearth of G-d.

לַאֲרִיאֵל; וְהָיְתָה תַאֲנִיָּה וַאֲנִיָּה, וְהָיְתָה לִּי כַּאֲרִיאֵל

Isaiah 5:20
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that change darkness into light, and light into darkness; that change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter!

הוֹי הָאֹמְרִים לָרַע טוֹב, וְלַטּוֹב רָע שָׂמִים חֹשֶׁךְ לְאוֹר וְאוֹר לְחֹשֶׁךְ,שָׂמִים מַר לְמָתוֹק וּמָתוֹק לְמָר

Isaiah 10:11
Shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?’

הֲלֹא, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְשֹׁמְרוֹן–וְלֶאֱלִילֶיהָ: כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה לִירוּשָׁלִַם, וְלַעֲצַבֶּיהָ

Isaiah 13:15
Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is caught shall fall by the sword.

כָּל-הַנִּמְצָא, יִדָּקֵר; וְכָל-הַנִּסְפֶּה, יִפּוֹל בֶּחָרֶב

Not bad for a 2800 year old document.

References:

1. The Book of Isaiah
2. Chapter-by-Chapter Recordings of the Hebrew Bible
3. The Aleppo Codex
4. The Dead Sea Scroll Collection
5. Hebrew verb conjugation application 

Hebrew Alphabet Chart

Hebrew verb conjugation table
Source: Language Learning Beta

© Copyright 2019 Yaacov Apelbaum, All Rights Reserved.

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