Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 51:9-11 is a remarkable expression of fear in the midst of God’s promises of deliverance to his people. The prophet speaks through the voice of a faithful but fearful remnant who wonder if God will deliver them in the same way he delivered their forefathers from Egypt. God’s response and Isaiah’s conclusion exceeds Israel’s hope. By framing the events of the exodus within a reference to a Chaoskampf, a mythological creation narrative that features a battle against chaotic forces, Isaiah imbues the exodus event with cosmological significance.
The passage falls within the second main section of the book of Isaiah where the prophet speaks God’s words of comfort to Zion from chapters 40-66.1 This second section further breaks up into two parts: Isa 40-48, and Isa 49-55.2 From Isa 40-48 the prophet confronts unbelief in Judah. This section focuses on the transformation of God’s people, the faithful servant of the Lord, and the prophet’s proclamation of comfort through preaching, teaching, and witnessing.3 Also core to Isa 40-48 is the theme of new exodus.4 Judah will be sent into exile so long as it continues in sin; even still, God will not forget His people in Babylon. The end of exile will be a new exodus into an eschatological age (43:18-21). Isaiah clarifies that the first exodus did not bring full blessing it could have because of constant disobedience. The new exodus will be a greater one and will fulfill the first exodus’ expectations.
In chapters 49-55 Isaiah shows that Israel’s future is contingent on the ministry of the servant of the Lord, the suffering servant.5 This servant is described in a variety of ways and identified just as variously.6 However, what is clear is that God’s servant will lead His people out of exile into a new age and a new covenant. Isa 49-55 can further be broken down into the following sections: the call and mission of the servant (49:1-13); words of comfort for Zion (49:14-26); Israel’s deliverance through the servant (50); encouragement to the godly (51-52:12); a longer description of the suffering servant (52:13-53:12); the renewal of the covenant (54-55).7
At the center of this section is God’s encouragement to fearful Zion (51-52:12). This section can further be broken into two subunits.8 First, God calls Zion to hear His voice as He pronounces the coming of salvation (51:1-8). Second, God responds to Zion’s fear with assurance that their oppressors will now face judgement as they are delivered (51:9-52:12). Chapter 51 particularly focuses on a call-and-response dialogue involving God, the people, and the prophet. In verses 9-11, The prophet writes in mocking portrayal of skeptical Zion similar to Isa 49:14-15. These three verses simultaneously express the peoples’ fear and raise the stakes of God’s plan for the new exodus. What awaits Zion is not merely another deliverance from an oppressive nation. God is now going to deliver His people from all the chaotic forces of opposition facing His people since the earliest days of creation.
Grammatical (Literary) Approach
Isaiah 51:9-11 presents a number of complex grammatical questions. Who is speaking is not immediately obvious. Its thematic and grammatical commonalities with extra-biblical material is curious. Verse 11’s near-identical repetition of Isa 35:10 raises further questions. Rahab is not clearly identified. Each of these questions are not without an answer.
The strophe begin with a change of voice. Who is speaking in 51:9-11 is a point of debate. Some attribute these words to Isaiah.9 Others disagree.10 When read in its context within the chapter and in light of insight from extra-biblical referential material, these three verses are best understood as the prophet speaking in the voice of the faithful remnant left after God’s coming judgement of Judah. God calls Zion to listen to his words of assurance and remember his faithfulness to their ancestors Abraham and Sarah. The Lord announces his coming salvation: “a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples” (51:4b-5a). He repeatedly asserts that his salvation and righteousness are eternal, outlasting even the heavens and earth—their oppressors will be eaten up like a moth to a garment or a worm to wool (51:6,8).
God’s declaration of coming deliverance stands in stark contrast to Zion’s current circumstances, however. As his call goes out Zion is still desolate—a “wasteland,” a “wilderness” and a “desert” (51:3). God promises to make Zion like Eden, and yet where they find themselves looks and feels more like Egypt. The apparent incongruity between God’s declaration of deliverance and the reality of their present oppression drive them to fear.
Whereas God spoke to Zion in verses 1-8, now the prophet responds in the vicarious voice of Zion. God identifies the speaker as collective Zion in 51:12a.11 Their call takes the form of a communal accusatory lament.12 This strophe is reminiscent of Isa 49:14, where the prophet immediately identifies the speaker: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’”Just as in Isa 49:15, God’s response is a word of comfort to the people, not the prophet.13
This short passage shows strong resemblance to an Ugaritic text in which Anat boasts of her victory over Yam, Tannin, and various other gods and beasts associated with chaos.14 This mythic battle takes place at the beginning of creation and is categorized as a Chaoskampf. Thematically the correlation is obvious. Anat, the Ugaritic goddess of love and war, sings of striking the sea (yam, personified as the god of the sea), restraining the dragon (tannin), and crushing the heads of the twisting serpent.15 However, correlation goes beyond theme. Hutton lists at least four ways Isa 51:9-11 and KTU 1.3 III 38-46 parallel. First, both feature similar syntactic arrangement.16 Second, the agent in each poem is feminine. It is worth noting that Isa 51:9-11 attributes cutting Rahab and drying the sea specifically to the arm of the Lord; if it were attributed the action to the Lord generally, the agent would have been masculine.17 Third, “the object in each text is conceptualized as the Sea, and corresponding proper nouns are used to convey that conceptualization.”18 Finally, he notes the cognate relationship between the Ugaritic and Hebrew words for “to smite.”19
Whether this section of the Baal Cycle myth was the marked text for Isaiah 51:9-11 and other similar Biblical passages20 or they both draw from another common poetic tradition, both follow the rhetorical phrasing: “Did I not…? / I did indeed…!”21 The prophet adds a poetic twist by framing the allusion in the form of a communal lament. That the people call for God’s arm to awake is an accusation that God has not been active in the present in the way that he was in the past.22
It is in this sense that verse 11 makes the most sense. The prophet writes the same promise expressed in Isa 35:10.23 Yet the people see a disparity between that past promise and their current circumstances. Isaiah might be restating it in the voice of the fearful people as if they were to say, “What happened to this promise? Can we really expect you to accomplish this in our lifetime?”24 God responds with an emphatic encouragement in vv. 16-20.25
The final question to address regards Rahab. This creature is mentioned by name seven times in the Bible.26 It is frequently described as a dragon-like serpent (tannin) or more general snake (nahas) and often equated with Leviathan (lotan).27 Though Leviathan finds immediate cognate names for deities in other ANE languages, Rahab is linguistically unique to Hebrew.28 Rahab as a primordial beast is always associated with the sea and portrayed as an enemy of God. Twice, Rahab is used as a name for the nation Egypt: in Ps 87:4 Rahab is directly substituted for Egypt, and in Isa 30:7 the prophet names Egypt “Rahab who sits still.”29 Isaiah 51:9-11 is unique in that it describes Rahab in both senses. It first describes Rahab in the mythological Leviathan sense, but then places it in a context of discussing the exodus from Egypt. By conjoining both uses of Rahab into the same strophe, Isaiah uses each sense to interpret the other. A historical approach can help articulate the prophet’s dual meaning.
Tracking how this brief passage is historically situated is complex. Isaiah writes his prophesy following 701 BC, warning his contemporary audience about the coming judgement of Judah. Isaiah 51:9-11 is written in the voice of a future audience: those who will be exiled in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. That future communal lament refers back to the events of creation and the exodus from Egypt. Isaiah uses these references to speak comfort to the future exiled faithful. God will not only rescue His people from exile in the same way He rescued Israel from Egypt. God is going to finally defeat the great forces of chaos and oppression in the cosmos. Thus, Isaiah speaks to both his own contemporary audience and the future exiled faithful about a new exodus and a new creation.
The historical setting of the exodus is well understood within the Hebrew Bible. Moses follows the call of God to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt. Egypt’s own religious system both worshiped and feared snakes; moreover, Egypt’s king wore a crown featuring the Uraeus cobra, representative of his authority over Lower Egypt.30 Ezekiel echoes the pharaoh’s association with serpents in Ezek. 29:3 when he refers to him as tannin. Before the onset of the ten plagues in Exodus, Aaron’s staff transforms into a serpent (both nahas and tannin are used) and consumes the snakes the pharaoh’s priests conjure. The serpent contest is paradigmatic of the rest of the Exodus events, as the full might of Egypt is consumed by the sea after Israel passes through.31
The exodus account naturally lends itself to a comparison with creation events. The book of Exodus shows many parallels with the book of Genesis.32 Most relevant for this study is the way the ten plagues portray a type of de-creation and the crossing of the Red Sea portrays a type of re-creation.33 God undid various aspects of his creative ordering listed in Genesis 1 with each of the plagues, which undermined Egyptian beliefs about the stability of the universe.34 Moses separating the waters for Israel to pass through on dry land symbolically and linguistically pairs with God’s creative work of separating waters and bringing forth dry land.35
Thematically connecting the exodus events with the Chaoskampf of a creator god against a primordial sea serpent is obvious. Egypt, symbolically named Rahab, is crushed as the Lord creates the world anew with his covenant people. Considering Yahweh’s primordial battle with Rahab as its own historical event is an interpretive stretch Scripture does not support. Isaiah uses a mythological reference when recalling the Chaoskampf rather than a historical reference. The Rahab story (or Leviathan story, or general primordial sea serpent story) was not understood as real in orthodox Hebrew belief, but was still culturally relevant to Hebrew culture.36 Still, the mythological reference effectively points back to the historical events of creation as they were properly understood in Genesis 1-3.
The passage also looks forward to future historical events: the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promise to bring everlasting joy and gladness and to put sorrow and sighing to flight. While Isaiah’s immediate audience would have understood this in terms of return from exile, a redemptive-historical approach expands its meaning to the work of Christ. Again, Isaiah 51:9-11 falls within the center of Isaiah’s larger discourse on the eschatological work of God’s suffering servant. As the exodus can be understood in terms of the Chaoskampf, Moses can be understood in terms of the suffering servant. Moreover, as the Chaoskampf elevates the events of the exodus to cosmological proportions, Christ elevates the mission of Moses and the suffering servant.
Isa 51:9-11 finds its fullest fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The prophet asks on behalf of the oppressed remnant if God can and will make good on his promises. Their circumstances suffocate their hope that they will see deliverance come. God responds with an emphatic reassurance: not only will Zion be freed from the nations that oppress her, she will be made like the paradise lost at the curse. As redemptive history progressed, exiles who returned from Babylon worshiped God for his deliverance through Cyrus. Yet, they recognized that the restoration they experienced was only partial. It would not be until the events of the New Testament unfolded that Zion would truly see the inauguration of her restoration.
Christ is the ultimate “highway-maker” who dries the sea to make a way for the redeemed to cross into the promised land. His atoning death freed us from the bondage of sin and clears the road to eternal life. He is the one who truly defeats Rahab—not only Egypt or Babylon or any other oppressive nation, but also “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan” (Rev 20:2). Isa 26-27 also anticipates the day when the Lord will defeat Leviathan and bring about a new age which the curse does not stain. Just as Isa 51:11 hearkens back to God’s promise in 35:10, 51:9 hearkens back to Isa 27:1-5. The scope is not only temporal and national, it is cosmological and eschatological.
God’s faithful remnant still find themselves sojourning on enemy land. Isaiah’s vicarious lament resonates with Christians who long to see Christ’s return and the consummation of the new heavens and new earth. It can be all too easy to let circumstances suffocate hope. This passage brings at least four points of application to modern audiences. As a pastor, it is my duty to preach these words.
First, Christians can rest in the knowledge that God loves to comfort His people. In the constant pursuit of sanctification—particularly in a culture that so thoroughly ties performance with worth—believers might be tempted to think of God as a stern boss. One might expect God to respond to fear with an angry rebuke, or even expulsion from the promise. The truth could not be more opposite. God rushes to respond, “I, I am he who comforts you” like a gentle father running to his children (51:12).
Second, Christians can find rich encouragement by considering God’s faithfulness in the past. God invites Zion to remember “the rock from which you were hewn” (51:1). God did not abandon Abraham and Sarah. God did not leave Israel in Egypt. He did not forget Judah in exile. He did not leave his Son in the grave. In the midst of suffering, Christians do well to meditate on God’s faithfulness in the stories of the Bible, the history of the church, and the testimony of their own lives.
Third, Christians can reasonably expect God to act on their behalf in present dire circumstances. Zion’s hope isn’t only in the eventual restoration of Israel. God promises them that the cup of wrath they had drunk from has been passed to their oppressors. The Lord promises that “he who is bowed down…shall not die and go down to the pit” (51:14). This echoes forward to John 11. Martha knew her brother would rise again at the last day; Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life” and then brought Lazarus back to life. God’s promises are not limited to eschatological fulfillment. Christ has come. We now live in the last day.
Fourth, Christians can look forward to the day when God’s promises will come to full completion. Though God is totally free to bring temporal deliverance in the present, our ultimate hope is not in this life. Isaiah looked forward to when Zion would be turned from a wilderness into Eden, like Sarah awaiting the birth of Isaac (Isa 51:3).37 Believers today join with John’s prayer as he looks upon the New Jerusalem, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
1 Willem A. VanGemeren, “Isaiah,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: the Gospel Promised, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), pp. 247-276, 252.
2 VanGemeren, 261.
3 VanGemeren, 262-64.
4 VanGemeren, 265.
5 VanGemeren, 266-68.
6 VanGemeren, 266-67. The servant seems to refer to different specific people (Cyrus, Moses, Isaiah, God himself, the whole faithful community of Israel’s remnant, etc) but is best understood in terms of a “mission” rather than one person.
7 R. C. Sproul, The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1119.
8 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 340.
9 John L McKenzie, The Anchor Bible: Second Isaiah (New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985), 126. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 313. Young interprets vv. 9-11 as enthusiastic encouragement from the prophet.
10 Oswalt, 339. Oswalt suggests the passage is meant to be read as the collective voice of the faithful remnant Zion.
11 Jeremy Hutton, “Isaiah 51:9-11 and the Rhetorical Appropriation and Subversion of Hostile Theologies,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2 (2007): pp. 271-303, https://doi.org/ 10.2307/27638435, 298. Hutton notes, “The shift [in voice] is grammatical in person and gender, with the pronoun and corresponding copulative and participle moving from the second person feminine singular in v. 9…to the first person masculine singular in v. 12…”
12 Hutton, 298.
13 Hutton, 299.
14 Translation of KTU 1.3 III 38-46 from Hutton, 284-285.
15 Translation of KTU 1.3 III 38-46 from Hutton, 284-285.
16 Hutton, 286-287.
17 Hutton, 287.
18 Hutton, 288.
19 Hutton, 288. This correlation relies on 4QIsac rather than MT, which uses the word “to hew, cut.” Hutton and others suggest this was a later redaction that was changed to enforce the chiastic structure of vv. 1-11, since the same word is used in 51:1, “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” David A. Diewert, “Job 7:12: Yam, Tannin and the Surveillance of Job,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 2 (1987): pp. 203-215, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260632, 209. Oswalt, 340.
20 Ps 74:13-15; 78; 89:10-11
21 Hutton, 290.
22 Oswalt, 340.
23 The two verses are identical except for the addition of one character in the verb (we- to nasu “to flee”). McKenzie 127.
24 Oswalt, 340.
25 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 1st Trade Paperback, vol. 19A (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2008), 333. Blenkinsopp adds that the verse “is not out of place thematically in its present location, since it advances the highway motif of the previous verse and marks a transition to the more prominent theme of Jerusalem/Zion in the chapters immediately following.”
26 Job 9:13; 26:12; Ps 40:4 (as a plural, perhaps referring to servants of Rahab or the various chthonic beasts associated with Rahab; see Matthew McAffee, “Rephaim, Whisperers, and the Dead in Isaiah 26:13–19: A Ugaritic Parallel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 1 (2016): pp. 77-94, https://doi.org/ 10.15699/jbl.1351.2016.3022.); 87:4; 89:10; Isa 30:7; 51:9
27 K. Spronk, “Rahab,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Toorn Karel van der, Bob Becking, and Horst Pieter Willem van der, Revised Second (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 684-686, 685.
28 C. Ühlinger, “Leviathan,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Toorn Karel van der, Bob Becking, and Horst Pieter Willem van der, Revised Second (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 511-515.
29 Spronk, 685. He translates it more directly as “You are Rahab? Inaction!”
30 John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 89.
31 Currid, 85.
32 Currid, 113-15.
33 Currid, 115-17. 34 Currid, 119.
35 Currid, 115. He summarizes “The scriptural writer understood and described the exodus as a second creation. It was a new conquest of chaos, another prevailing over the waters of the deep, and a redemptive creation of the people of Israel.”
36 Oswalt, 340-41. He describes this in terms of “Mythical imagery, not mythical thinking.” Oswalt goes too far when claiming “Evil is not some primordial monster of the great deep, but that which in time and space threatens to frustrate the redemptive plan of God.” He reduces it to merely a culturally relevant reference, like a Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia reference in a sermon today. The larger context of the passage reiterates that God is operating on cosmic scales. He is truly combatting evil forces that are greater than mere nations; he is undoing the curse and restoring Zion to something “like Eden” (51:2).
37 It may be a stretch beyond the proper use of the myth, but a common theme in every Chaoskampf is that the creator god’s creative work is not complete until the serpent is slain. Isaiah 27:1 looks forward to God finally slaying Leviathan (again, synonymous with Rahab, the dragon, or the devil) before the curse is undone. It is as if Isaiah is saying, “Creation isn’t complete until the dragon is slain. God is still in the process of creation, He hasn’t defeated Rahab yet. But He’s about to.”
Hutton moves this direction. He writes, “In short, it seems most probable that the deity’s subjugation of the forces of chaos and the corresponding creation were extended typologically to the present. Simply on the basis of the apparent tenses of the preserved texts participating in the Chaoskampf motif, we may voice support for the classical understanding of Israel as having moved away from a cosmological model, in which the creative act had been performed only once, toward a model in which Yahweh’s saving acts were continually performed for the benefit of the community.” Hutton, 292.
Currid, John D. Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Diewert, David A. “Job 7:12: YAM, TANNIN and the Surveillance of Job.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106 (1987): 203–15. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx? direct=true&db=oah&AN=OTA0000036477&site=ehost-live.
Friesen, Courtney J P. “Extirpating the Dragon: Divine Combat and the Minus of LXX Isaiah 51:9b.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 334–51. https://search-ebscohost- com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAiB8W160506001670&site=ehost-live.
Heider, G.C. “‘Dragons.’” Chapter. In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Toorn Karel van der, Bob Becking, and Horst Pieter Willem van der, Revised Seconded., 834–36. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
Hutton, Jeremy, and Jeremy M Hutton. “Isaiah 51:9-11 and the Rhetorical Appropriation and Subversion of Hostile Theologies.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2 (Sum 2007): 271–303. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001592097&site=ehost-live.
McAffee, Matthew. 2016. “Raphaim, Whisperers, and the Dead in Isaiah 26:13-19: A Ugaritic Parallel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (1): 77–94. doi:10.15699/ jbl.1351.2016.3022.
McKenzie, John L. The Anchor Bible: Second Isaiah. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985.
Ortlund, D. “The Old Testament Background and Eschatological Significance of Jesus Walking on the Sea (Mark 6:45-52).” Neotestamentica 46, no. 2 (2012): 319–37. https:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=rvh&AN=NTA0000074151&site=ehost-live.
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Spronk, K. “Rahab.” Chapter. In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Toorn Karel van der, Bob Becking, and Horst Pieter Willem van der, Revised Seconded., 684– 86. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
Sproul, R.C. Comments in The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015.
Ühlinger, C. “Leviathan.” Chapter. In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Toorn Karel van der, Bob Becking, and Horst Pieter Willem van der, Revised Seconded., 511–15. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
VanGemeren, Willem A. “Isaiah.” Chapter. In A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: the Gospel Promised, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt, 247–76. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.