The relationships between humans and trees can take so many forms. We may savour the sweetness of their fruits or bask in the shade of their boughs. A tree or its wood may provide us with shelter—but it might also be a source of mortal danger.
A bizarre story in the Babylonian Talmud told how the prophet Isaiah found protection inside a tree—the same tree that subsequently became the scene of his gruesome murder.
Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai in the second century C.E. claimed to have discovered an ancient genealogical record from Jerusalem which attested that Isaiah had been executed by the nefarious Judean monarch Manasseh. The prophet was charged with grave religious infractions, including contradicting statements made by Moses in the Torah. Resigned to the realization that it would be futile to try to persuade the king of his innocence, Isaiah offered no defense at his trial. But when the time came for his execution, he uttered a magical divine name that caused him to be swallowed up inside a cedar tree. However, Manasseh was able to discover his whereabouts and called in his men to saw through the wood.
The Talmud notes that the actual moment of Isaiah’s death occurred when the saw reached his mouth. In fact this was perceived as an appropriate fate for a man who had spent much of his career castigating his people for their sins and maligning them as “a people of unclean lips.”
This talmudic story is typically laconic and academic, focusing largely on comparisons between the respective texts in the Torah and in Isaiah’s prophecies. Though it seems to assume that Manasseh’s accusations were disingenuous, it does not concern itself with their motives—after all, the Bible had already labelled the king as “evil in the sight of the Lord,” so no further explanation was needed for his misdeeds. There is even a hint of grudging sympathy for his silencing a man who had been so persistent in badmouthing his fellow Judeans.
The traditional Jewish commentators were understandably troubled by this detail of the plot: Isn’t criticizing the people for their religious and moral shortcomings an essential part of a prophet’s job description? Rashi suggested that Isaiah incurred some guilt because he exceeded his mandate when he uttered that comment about the people’s “unclean lips,” since he did so on his own personal initiative and not as part of his divinely commanded prophetic message.
Indeed, according to the midrash Pesiḳta Rabbati, the Almighty himself reprimanded Isaiah saying, “You might be permitted to call yourself ‘a man of unclean lips,’ since you are entitled to speak about yourself—but are you authorized to say such things about my children regarding whom you said ‘I was standing among a people of unclean lips’?” In that midrash, however, Isaiah was not killed; rather, an angel punished him by silencing his lips with a burning coal. This sufficed to teach the prophet his lesson, and he now began to speak more respectfully about his people.
In the version of the story that is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Manasseh was simply persecuting Isaiah without any trial or interrogation, and Isaiah’s escape into the cedar tree was accomplished without recourse to magical divine names. His enemies were able to discover his hiding place by virtue of the fact that his ritual fringes were left dangling outside the tree. When Manasseh ordered his men to commence sawing the tree, blood began to flow from it in keeping with the Bible’s statement that “Manasseh shed innocent blood very much till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another [the literal idiom has it: from mouth to mouth].” For the purposes of the talmudic exposition, all that innocent blood belonged to Isaiah, the righteous divine spokesman who was persecuted by the evil king.
Actually, these talmudic passages are not the earliest sources to preserve the legend of Isaiah’s death. A very similar tale survives in Ethiopic and Latin texts of a work that predates the Talmud. The work, known as “the Ascension [or: Martyrdom] of Isaiah,” was known to early Christian writers and it offers us a much more elaborate version of the circumstances surrounding the prophet’s death.
According to the Ascension of Isaiah, Isaiah had already foretold to Manasseh’s righteous father King Hezekiah that Beliar (as Satan was often designated in the literature of the time) would take up residence in Manasseh’s heart and induce him to saw Isaiah in two. The agent for this crime was a Samaritan prophet named Belkira, who (in a manner similar to the talmudic tale) accused Isaiah of defaming Israel and predicting the devastation of Jerusalem and Judea—including the humiliating captivity of the king himself--and boasting of sublime mystical visions of the heavenly realms that implied his superiority over Moses. With the help of Belkira and his henchman, Isaiah’s body was subjected to a wood-saw. Even though he was experiencing a prophetic vision during the ordeal, Isaiah was fully conscious of what was being done to him, yet he “did not cry out or weep, but his mouth spoke with the holy spirit until he was sawed in two.”
The dating of the Ascension of Isaiah is subject to a scholarly dispute. Some have argued that is must be contemporary with the Dead Sea Scrolls, since it shares many of their attitudes, doctrines and narratives, such as its depiction of the world as a battleground for God and Satan and its conviction that people are preordained to belong to either the “children of light” or the “children of darkness.” The Ascension of Isaiah also relates that Isaiah and his fellow prophets were compelled to seek refuge in “a mountain in a desert place” to escape harm at the hands of the corrupt leadership in the cities. This echoes the story of the “Teacher of Righteousness,” the purported founder of the Dead Sea sect, who fled to the desert in the face of persecution by the “Wicked Priest” and the Jerusalem leadership. The dying Isaiah urges his followers to flee northward to Tyre and Sidon, even as some of the Dead Sea Scrolls speak about a migration of their harassed community to Damascus.
Nevertheless, other facts are harder to explain according to this theory. For example, the introduction of a Samaritan villain does not seem to reflect the main concerns of the Essenes or Dead Sea sect; and no copies of the Ascension of Isaiah have actually been unearthed at Qumran. Most scholars tend to date the book somewhat later, to the first centuries C.E.
A crucial element that is missing from the Ascension of Isaiah is any mention of the tree that encased the prophet. Some scholars have tried to argue that this detail may be inferred from the mention of the “wood-saw,” but most recognize that you do not need a tree, or even wood, to use a wood-saw.
Now fast-forward to the early tenth century and the “History of the Prophets and Kings” by the great Iranian Muslim scholar Al-Tabari. Al-Tabari (who lived not far from the main centres of Babylonian talmudic scholarship) wrote about how Isaiah became a victim of the political anarchy that beset Judea in the last years of the first Temple. After Isaiah concluded an inspiring and disquieting speech that God had instructed him to deliver, the incensed people rose up to attack him, but he was able to escape. A certain tree split open allowing him to get inside. However, Satan grasped the fringe of his garment, thereby disclosing the prophet’s hiding-place to his assailants who promptly set about sawing the tree and its inhabitant in two. Unlike the Jewish traditions that placed the blame on Manasseh, Belkira or other wicked individuals, al-Tabari attached collective guilt to the Judeans as a group, a feature that may indicate that he received his tradition via a Christian source.
There are as many questions as there are lessons to be derived from the differing accounts of Isaiah’s unpleasant demise.
At the very least, the tree-huggers among us should be alerted that they should be very suspicious if a tree tries to hug them back.