The Old Greek (OG) translators are often times (mis)understood to be mechanical in their approach to translating the Hebrew Text (HT), often pictured as giving a plain, or even rigid, word for word rendering of their Hebrew source. Of course this description is closer to the mark when describing Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes or even Numbers etc. But not all translators went about their task in this way. Some of them wove deliberate interpretation or exegesis into their translations (of course all translations are interpretations to a degree so that we should think about translations on a continuum from less to more interpretation). The Isaiah (image: Codex Marchalianus) translator is an example of a more interpretive translator, and I was struck by what appears to be a beautiful example of his technique in 9:9.
The Hebrew and Greek texts with my renderings underneath are as follows:
Bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stone; sycamores have been cut down, but we will replace them with cedars.
Bricks have fallen, but come! Let us hew out stones and let us cut down sycamores and cedars, and let us build for ourselves a tower!
The differences indicated in italics show where the OG has added significant words not represented in the HT. Moving past the debate over whether there is a different HT than the Masoretic Text (MT; OG Isaiah represents a text close to MT), the OG amplified the reading for a reason. In the Isaiah context, the people of Ephraim and Samaria speak out of the arrogance and pride in their hearts. The HT puts this attitude on display with a “we will rebuild it better” attitude, while the OG amplifies the indictment by invoking, presumably, Genesis 11:3–4.
When I read OG Isaiah 9:9, my mind went to OG Genesis 11:3–4:
καὶ εἶπεν ἄνθρωπος τῷ πλησίον Δεῦτε πλινθεύσωμεν πλίνθους καὶ ὀπτήσωμεν αὐτὰς πυρί. καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς ἡ πλίνθος εἰς λίθον, καὶ ἄσφαλτος ἦν αὐτοῖς ὁ πηλός. 4 καὶ εἶπαν Δεῦτε οἰκοδομήσωμεν ἑαυτοῖς πόλιν καὶ πύργον,…
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire.” And the mud brick was turned into stone for them, and clay was their asphalt. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower,…”
The words in italics here are reminiscent and probably the source of the extra words in OG Isaiah 9:9. To what purpose would OG Isaiah allude to Genesis 11:3–4? This text stands perhaps as the epitome of human pride and arrogance as this people sought to build a city and a tower which stretched to the heavens. OG Isaiah wants to paint the people and leadership of Israel in such a light. This allusion to the darkest scene of human arrogance captures our imagination all the more when we remember that the pride and arrogance in this section is contrasted with the meek and humble leadership of the future Davidic king in the earlier section of 9:1–6.
The allusion on this level works quite nicely for OG Isaiah. What moved the OG translator at 9:9 to allude to Genesis 11:3–4? The theme of pride is a sufficient answer. Could it also have been the Hebrew word “bricks” (לְבֵנִים) which triggered the memory of the translator? After all, that word appears scarcely in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 11:3, the Exodus narrative [Exod 1:14, 5:7ff, 16, 18], and 2 Sam 12:31 [in a context of tyranny]) before Isaiah. Perhaps it was this word combined with the theme of pride in both settings that triggered him to make the allusion to the Babel story.
We may not know exactly what triggered OG Isaiah to allude to Genesis 11. But we will probably read the text of Isaiah 9:7ff afresh, knowing that the earliest exegesis of it subtly, yet provocatively, compared the people and leadership of Israel with the Babel community of Genesis 11. All the arrogant and prideful governments, Babel and Iron Age Israel included, will be made low. The OG’s exegesis of Isaiah 9:9 still bears fruit as we read Scripture today because now every consuming and self-serving government comes under the same judgement as Babel in Genesis 11. And this dark scene causes us to long for God’s kingdom with his king (Isa 9:1–7) to be established on earth.