1“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.” (Isaiah 42:1-9. All citations are NIV unless otherwise indicated)
Is Muhammad the ‘Servant’?
Isaiah 42 is one of the ‘go-to’ passages to find Muhammad in the Bible, a task incumbent upon Muslims in light of Q 7:157, which says that the Jews and Christians find Muhammad ‘written with them in the Torah and the Gospel’ (maktūban ʿindahum fī l‑tawrāti wa‑l‑injīli) in their scriptures. Given that this was still possible for Jews and Christians in the seventh century, and given that we have manuscripts of the entire Old and New Testaments centuries before Muhammad (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls, Codex Sinaiticus, Vaticanus), Muslims need to find Muhammad in the present day scriptures. Indeed, according to the popular Muslim interpretation that Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 are about Muhammad (for my disagreement see here), Jews and Christians ‘know him [i.e. the Prophet] as they know their own sons.’ (Sahih International).
It is interesting that Muslims wish to find Muhammad in Isaiah 42, given that the Qur’an says he can be found in the Torah (Q 7:157). S.A.L.A.M. (n.d.) and Many Prophets One Message (2014), who both share the same article, accept that ‘Torah’ can refer to more than just the Pentateuch; indeed, they say, ‘in a broader sense, Torah actually includes all Jewish law and tradition.’ A broader usage beyond the Pentateuch can be found in John 10:34, where Jesus quotes Psalm 82 as being ‘in your Law’. So too John 15:25 cites the Psalms, and 1 Corinthians 14:21 cites Isaiah 28:11-12.
‘I will put my Spirit on him…’ (v.1)
v. 1 – ‘I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.’ Can a Muslim affirm this? A Muslim will typically claim that the ‘Spirit’ of the Qur’an is a reference to the angel Gabriel, but here in Isaiah 42 God says ‘I will put my Spirit on him‘. In the Old Testament the Spirit of God comes upon people to enable them to do particular things (e.g. giving supernatural strength in Judges 14:6 and 15:14; the ability to prophesy in 1 Samuel 10:6). This is different from an angel coming and delivering a message to somebody. However the Qur’an itself, at least on occasions, seems to have more of this Old Testament notion of the Spirit who strengthens individuals:
We gave Moses the Scripture and We sent messengers after him in succession. We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. [wa‑ayyadnāhu bi‑rūḥi l‑qudusi] … (Q 2:87. All Qur’an translations are Abdel Haleem)
Identical language is used in Q 2:253, and the same roots (but instead in the first person, ‘I strengthened you’) in Q 5:110. The nature of the Spirit clearly raised questions for Muhammad’s listeners (Q 17:85). But if the Qur’an does countenance a Holy Spirit similar to that of the Old Testament, as opposed to Gabriel, then a Muslim would be more able to claim Isaiah 42:1 as applying to Muhammad.
The character of the Prophet (vv. 2-4, 6-7)
Muslims and Christians often differ greatly over the character of Muhammad (and I intend here no offence to my Muslim readers). Muslims will interpret Muhammad’s words and deeds in a positive light, and Christians will often be less optimistic. Muslims and Christians also differ over what is valid source material; just the Qur’an, or all the material in the Sīrah and Ḥadīth (and if the latter, are we restricting ourselves to Bukhārī and Muslim?). What if there are both more and less positive descriptions of the Prophet?
Given the contentiousness and complexity of this point, I will simply grant for the sake of argument that Muslims can find sufficient evidence that Muhammad had the character described in Isaiah 42:1-7.
‘The Servant Songs’ (42:1-4; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12)
Duhm drew the attention of scholars to the “servant poems” of Deutero-Isaiah (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). His definition and use of the term became virtual dogma for critical scholars through most of the twentieth century. (Watts, J. D. W., 2005. Isaiah 34–66. Revised Edition, Vol. 25, p. 652. Logos software edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
As G. W. Grogan (1986, 254) says, ‘The term “Servant Songs,” coined by Duhm, is something of a misnomer, for there is no evidence they were ever sung, but the term has come to stay.’ Even so, if one agrees with most scholarship that these ‘songs’ or passages are related, the Muslim, who wishes to see the servant in Isaiah 42, will need to also explain:
- Why is Muhammad called ‘Israel’? (49:3)
- Is his mission first (though not excusively) to the Jews? (49:5)
- Was Muhammad beaten and had his beard pulled out? (50:6). Perhaps Muslims claim this did happen, please let me know in the comments.
- Most strikingly, is Muhammad killed for the sins of others, and resurrected? (52:13-53:12)
The Muslim may reply that, because the Bible is corrupted (against this, see the section ‘The Qur’an affirms the Bible’s reliability’ here), these other parts of ‘the Servant songs’ have been corrupted, and only ch. 42 is authentic (though this article highlights problems for even that chapter matching Muhammad). However, this level of ‘picking and choosing’ can prove anything, and is not very convincing to Jews and Christians who are supposed to find Muhammad in their scriptures (Q 7:157). Indeed, according to the popular Muslim interpretation that Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 are about Muhammad (for my disagreement see here), Jews and Christians ‘know him [i.e. the Prophet] as they know their own sons.’ (Sahih International).
the Book of Isaiah is perhaps the most reliable book (in terms of textual preservation) in the entire Old Testament. … the Book of Isaiah can be found in its entirety and is virtually identical to what we have of the Book of Isaiah today. So in summary, the Torah that we have today is unreliable as a whole, but the Book of Isaiah in particular is reliable.
Mention of Arabia
One of, perhaps the, major reason(s) why Muslims like to appeal to Isaiah 42 is not only because of the description in vv. 1-9, but because of the mention of Kedar and Sela in v. 11:
10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
11 Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices;
let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord
and proclaim his praise in the islands.
13 The Lord will march out like a champion,
like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry
and will triumph over his enemies.
Is this not, as our Muslim friends claim, a clear proof that the Servant of Isaiah 42 comes from Arabia?
The purpose of Isaiah 42:10-17
I should note that it is not immediately clear whether vv. 10-17 are actually about the Servant of the LORD. The Servant of the LORD passage (vv. 1-9) is integrated into a broader section of Isaiah that deals with the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile (chs. 40 onwards). How is it that the militarily weak Jewish population are able to return to their land, in the light of Babylonian and then Persian supremacy? Because the LORD God of Israel is in fact God over all the earth (e.g. Isaiah 40:15, 22-24); it is accordingly in this section that we have a lengthy polemic against the false ‘gods’ (starting in Isaiah 40:18). It is within this broader theme that we have the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ mentioned above, including Isaiah 42:1-4 (arguably up to v. 9). And so are vv. 10-17 rejoicing over the good news of the servant, or the broader context of the good news of the one God’s sovereignty over the whole earth, or both? It is not entirely clear. But let us assume that it is talking about the servant.
‘…the ends of the earth…’
Even if these verses are directly rejoicing over this Servant, I gently point out to my Muslim friends that they do not say that the Servant comes from Arabia. As mentioned above, the Servant figure in Isaiah is associated with Israel (Isaiah 49:3, 5). Furthermore, the point of vv. 10-13 is about how all the world should rejoice upon hearing the good news about God’s servant (Isaiah 42:1-9. Cf. Oswalt, 1998, 123) and God’s redeeming Israel from exile, because he is the only true God and sovereign over all (Isaiah 40-41).
As Delitzsch points out, vv. 10–11 move from the ends of the earth to the interior. People everywhere are called on to join in the paean of praise, whether they be on the farthest seas or on the highest mountains. (Oswalt, 123)
If we are to use the method of many of our Muslim friends that because Kedar and Sela are mentioned in v. 11 the Servant must be an Arab, are we to conclude that the Servant also lived at ‘the ends of the earth…the sea…the islands…the islands’ (vv. 10, 12)?
As well as this geographic point above, that the good news goes out to all times of places, some commentaries (Kidner, Knowles, Payne & Goldingay) also claim that Kedar and Sela (belonging to Edom) are historic enemies of Israel (for Kedar see only Psalm 120:5; for Edom, see Amos 1:11-12; Ezekiel 35:36; the entire book of Obadiah). Yet despite such historic hostility, the good news is to go even to them. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not; but it does raise the possibility that Kedar and Sela are not mentioned as places of prophetic revelation, but precisely because they have been opposed to God’s people. God will extend his grace even to his enemies (Romans 5:10).
Parallel geographic language in Isaiah
We cannot understand Isaiah 42:11 in isolation; we must notice how the book of Isaiah frequently uses place-names and directions for its purposes. In the previous chapter, in Isaiah 41:1-2, we have mention of ‘islands…nations…[God] has stirred up one from the east’. Who is this one from the east? Muhammad? No, Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). In Isaiah 41:5 we read: ‘The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble.’ In v. 25, ‘“I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes — one from the rising sun who calls on my name.’ And in Isaiah 43:5-6: ‘5…I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—’ And in Isaiah 45:6: ‘so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me.’ In Isaiah 49:1, at the introduction of the next of our ‘Servant Songs’, the LORD again proclaims ‘Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations:’ In Isaiah 59:19: ‘From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.’ And in Isaiah 66:19:
19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.
Note also the emphasis in ch. 60 on listing far flung geographic places (inc. Kedar in v. 7) to make a point, namely, that the world will come to God’s people:
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
7 All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
and I will adorn my glorious temple.
8 “Who are these that fly along like clouds,
like doves to their nests?
9 Surely the islands look to me;
in the lead are the ships of Tarshish,
bringing your children from afar,
with their silver and gold,
to the honor of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.
10 “Foreigners will rebuild your walls,
and their kings will serve you.
Though in anger I struck you,
in favor I will show you compassion.
11 Your gates will always stand open,
they will never be shut, day or night,
so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations—
their kings led in triumphal procession.
12 For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish;
it will be utterly ruined.
13 “The glory of Lebanon will come to you,
the juniper, the fir and the cypress together,
to adorn my sanctuary;
and I will glorify the place for my feet.
14 The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you;
all who despise you will bow down at your feet
and will call you the City of the Lord,
Zion of the Holy One of Israel. (Emphasis added)
What is the point of mentioning Kedar? Is it from here that the final prophet of all mankind will come? No! Kedar is just one nation mentioned amongst others (the esteemed ICC, Payne & Goldingay, 2006, 238, finds a parallel in Jeremiah 2:10), from all the nations of the world, who will come to the temple (v. 7), to Zion (cf. v. 14).
Where is Kedar?
The arguments above stand regardless of whether Muhammad and Mecca and Medinah can be associated with Kedar and Sela. We argued above that the Servant in Isaiah 42 is not said to come from Kedar or Sela; the good news goes out to these places, along with other places.
But let us now challenge the assumption that Muhammad can in fact be tied closely to Kedar and Sela. As Oswalt (1998, 124) writes, ‘Kedar was the second son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13) and so represents the Arabian desert dwellers (likewise Isa. 21:16–17; see also 60:7; Cant. 1:5; Jer. 49:28)’. Motyer (1999, 296) identifies ‘Kedar in the north (Syrian) Arabian desert’. According to Martin (1985), ‘Kedar (cf. 21:16–17) is an area in Northern Arabia’. According to the peerless Anchor Bible Dictionary (Knauf, 1992, 9): ‘KEDAR (PERSON) [Heb qēdār (קֵדָר)]. The second son of Ishmael (Gen 25:13; 1 Chr 1:29). The “sons of Ishmael” constituted a group of N Arabian tribes who flourished from the 8th through the 4th centuries B.C.’ Rainey & Notley (2014, 29): ‘The league of Arabian tribes in northern Arabia provided animals from their extensive herds and flocks. The principal federation was Kedar.’
Here is a map from the Logos Atlas, ‘The Geography of Isaiah, Overview’ (Kedar is just below Edom):
Medina and Mecca added; locations approximately added by comparing with Google Maps. Red circles added.
And an image from Rainey & Notley, 2014, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World, p. 29:
Many of these scholarly sources suggest that Kedar was in northern Arabia, which would explain why Kedar is relevant and known to the Biblical writers in Israel. However the article ‘Muhammad (PBUH) And Madinah In The Bible’ posted on S.A.L.A.M. and Many Prophets One Message cite a nineteenth-century Old Testament scholar, Charles Forster (1844), who identifies Kedar with the Hejaz, seemingly stretching it all the way down to Mecca and Medina. Is there a contrast between these sources? Does this still count as northern Arabia? (Perhaps). And what evidence and sources do we have to determine the area under Kedar?
Charles Forster and Isaiah 42
These articles refer to p. 130 of Forster’s work, where I cannot find the attributed quote; I find it instead on p. 242:
…the province of Hedjaz, on the coast of the Arabia [Gulf]. The presumption thus afforded by Isaiah, that the seats of Kedar should be sought in this last quarter, receives material confirmation from another place of the same prophet, his description, namely, of the land of Kedar; which every reader conversant with Arabian geography will recognize as a most accurate delineation of the district of Hedjaz, including its famous cities of Mekka and Medina.
On what basis will ‘every reader conversant with Arabian geography’ recognise this? Foster (p. 243) claims that the mixture of coast, desert and mountains as described in Isaiah 42 matches the Hejaz well, which indeed it does (as would any other desert area with mountains near the coast). However, does this mean that Isaiah 42 is talking of the southern Hejaz, as opposed to the northern Hejaz? Remember, all of the biblical sources we have so far cited understand Kedar to refer to northern Arabia.
Additionally, Forster appears not to consider that Isaiah 42 might be describing more than one location. Isaiah 42:10 begins that section with a command to sing ‘his praise from the ends of the earth’; it makes more sense to see a movement from the sea, to the islands, to the deserts, to the mountains (vv. 10-11). The point of the passage is to describe the spread of good news ‘to the ends of the earth’ (see above), not one singular geographical area.
It is quite possible that we have here a west-east movement; for the Israelites the ‘great sea‘ is on the west, the Mediterranean, and Kedar is to the east. We see such a contrast between Kittim (Cyprus), perhaps included in the ‘islands’ of Isaiah 42:10, in the west and Kedar to the east in Jeremiah 2:10: ‘Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this’. (Discovered via Payne & Goldingay, 2006, 237-238) Note in Jeremiah 49:28 how Kedar are paralleled with ‘the People of the East’. We perhaps find a north-west-south movement in Isaiah 49:12: ‘See, they will come from afar— some from the north, some from the west, some from the region of Aswan. [Heb. sīnīm]”
Charles Forster and classical authors
As well as arguing that the Hejaz fits the geographical description of Isaiah 42:10-11, Forster (1844, 243-248) does appeal to pagan writers to confirm his understanding. We begin with Forster’s discussion of Pliny (d. 79 CE, centuries after Isaiah):
The geographical position of the Cedareni or Cedrei, has been very definitely laid down by
Pliny. With his testimony, therefore, we will commence. Having first described, with great accuracy, the Stony Arabia, or the barren country, stretching from Mount Casius and the Pelusiac mouth of the Nile, round the eastern head of the Arabian Gulf, together with the chief tribes inhabiting this wilderness, Pliny adds, ” To these adjoin the Arab tribes of the Cauchlei, on the east, of the Cedrei, to the south: both which nations, again, border on the territory of the Nabataei.” *[Plin. N. H., lib. v. cap. 12] For the position of the Cedrei, in particular, this single passage seems decisive. The Nabathean territory, we know, extended, in a southern direction, considerably beyond the Gulf of Elana or Akaba. The Cedrei, consequently, who, at once, lay south of Arabia Petraea, and adjacent to Nabathea, must have inhabited the country enclosed between these boundary lines and the sea ; in other words, the province of Hedjaz.
Let us put aside the fact that Pliny (d. 79 CE) is writing centuries after the writing of Isaiah 42, and that the borders of the nomads of Kedar might shift (see below for the 5-4th centuries BC reach of Kedar). As Forster notes, Pliny takes us to the east of the Arabian gulf and says below this is the Cedrei (whom we shall agree for the sake of argument are those of Kedar). But how far below? The Cedrei are ‘south’ of the tribes mentioned, viz. ‘the Cattabanes, Esbonitae and Scenitae tribes of Arabs; [Arabia Felix’s] soil is barren except where it adjoins the frontier of Syria, and its only remarkable feature is the El Kas mountain.’ (Plin. N. H. 5. 12.). While Arabia Felix covers a large area (NB. different maps portray it differently), these specific tribes and locations are fairly northern. The Esbonitae are located in moden day Jordan according to Rohl’s (n.d.) interpretation of Josephu and Eusebius (see image here). As for the Scenitae, elsewhere Pliny describes the peoples who:
inhabit [Arabia] from the Mediterranean to the deserts of Palmyra, and we will now recount the remainder of them from that point onward. Bordering on the Nomads and the tribes that harry the territories of the Chaldaeans are,  as we have said, the Scenitae, themselves also a wandering people, but taking their name from their tents…Next are the Nabataeans inhabiting a town named Petra…’ (Plin. N. H. 6.32.143-144. Discovered by the editor’s helpful footnotes).
The Scenitae also appear to be somewhere in the north, relatively near Palmyra and Petra, and able to ‘harry the territories of the Chaldaeans’. The other locations described by Pliny (N.H. 5.12.) are ‘the frontier of Syria’ and ‘the El Kas mountain’, which used to mark the border between Egypt and Syria. And so for the Cedrei to be the south of these locations doesn’t come close to suggesting they are as far south as Mecca or Medina (though nor is this ruled out).
Forster makes much of the Cedrei bordering the Nabateans, who ‘we know, extended in a southern direction considerably beyond the Gulf of Elana or Akaba’, even though Pliny does not make much of this in his description here. Pliny does indeed stated that they ‘adjoin the Nabataei’, presumably on their east, but it does not state they follow them all the way down to the very south of Nabatean territory.
How far south did the Nabateans extend? F. E. Peters (1977, 263) speaks of the southern borders of the Nabateans ‘southeast from Petra into the northern Hijaz as far as their city of Hegra (Mada’in Salih) and their port of Leuke Kome’. Mada’in Salih’s ruins remain with us today and can easily be located, and Leuke Kome, contra Forster, is most commonly placed near the entrance to the Gulf of Aqabah. If Pliny says that the Cedrae are south of the other nations and border the Nabateans, we might perhaps think of them along the coast south of Leuke Kome down as far as Mada’in Salih, rather than south of Mada’in Salih. But even if south of Mada’in Salih, does this mean as far as 188 miles down to Medina/Yathrib? Perhaps. But let us acknowledge how debatable the point is.
While we have attempted, along with Forster, to understand Pliny’s testimony, it is interesting to note that the Anchor Bible Commentary clearly seems to have its doubts about Pliny’s accuracy here:
Pliny the Elder is the last author who referred to Kedar. According to HN 5. 11 (12), 65, the Cedrei live S of the Sinai peninsula, the Cauchbei (sic!) E of them, and both have the Nabateans for neighbors. This geography does not make sense. Pliny may quote a source from the 4th/3d centuries B.C. which he did not fully understand. His source may have tried to depict the emancipation of the new Nabatean tribe from its previous subordinate role within the tribe of Kedar.
Knauf, E. A. (1992). “Kedar (Person)”. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 4, pp. 9–10). New York: Doubleday.
As for Ptolemy, according to Forster (245-246) he ‘places the Darrae precisely in the relative position assigned…to the Cedrei; namely on the northern frontier of Hedjaz, and in juxtaposition with the Nabataei.’ Regrettably Forster does not provide a citation reference, as is often his custom. Furthermore Knauf (1992, 9) does state that ‘Pliny the Elder is the last author who referred to Kedar’; perhaps he too, like myself, is unaware of where Ptolemy states this, or he disputes that the Darrae are in fact Kedar.
But even if we were to accept this quotation, it strengthens our understanding that the Cedrei/Darrae are not south of Mada’in Salih, but run alongside it on the western coast. Note that Forster speaks of ‘the northern frontier of Hedjaz’ (emphasis added); we do not dispute that the northern Hijaz might have belonged to Kedar, but what of Medinah and Mecca? The same point applies to Forster’s (247) appeal to Arrian’s Kanraite in Hijaz’s mountains, ‘seated, apparently, along the mountain chain south of Leuce Kome, or Haura, the emporium of the Nabatheans.’ (Forster’s words). Even assuming that the Kanraite are corrected to Kadraite, we are again triangulating into a northern location, if we follow majority opinion on the location of Leuce Kome. One alternative, al-Wajh is still as close to the Gulf of Aqaba as to Medina.
After this we move into a discussion of Arab tradition, modern place names, and a connection between Kedar and ‘the great Arab tribe of Harb’ (253). This section seems to be more speculative, and accordingly I shall stick to the classical authors. Earlier on (p. 246) he had also made reference to modern place names, of ‘the towns of El-Khedheyre and Nabt’ near Yembo where ‘the line of demarcation is significantly preserved to the present day’; if any Muslims know where these places are, please do let me know.
Conclusion: Where is Kedar?
I do not claim to be an expert historian on ancient Arabia, nor a geographer, and I am very happy for any of the information above to be refuted, corrected, or confirmed. However there does seem to be a disconnect between the nineteenth century work of the clergyman Charles Forster (often speculative and poorly referenced by modern standards, and strongly criticised by Ian Morris), and modern academia. At the very least, I invite advocates of Charle’s Forster to defend his work, and explain why they choose to follow his work rather than mainstream academia.
Where is Sela?
To begin with,
It is not clear whether selaʿ [in Isaiah 42:11] is intended to be used as a proper noun referring to the Edomite city later identified with Petra (paralleling Kedar here), or as a common noun, “the rocks” (paralleling “mountains” here). Given the apparent chiasm of the verse, the former seems more probable.
Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (p. 124). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Let us assume that Selaʿ is a specific location. Where is it? Most scholars who have in mind a specific location think of Selaʿ near Petra (Oswalt, Motyer, Martin, Kidner, Smith). Petra is in Jordan, far from Medina:
And in the Anchor Bible Dictionary:
SELA (PLACE) [Heb selaʿ (סֶלַע)]. The word occurs about 65 times in the MT, though not usually as a proper name. In six passages it does appear as a place name—2 Kgs 14:7; 2 Chr 25:12; Isa 16:1; 42:11; Jer 49:16; Obad 3; and Judg 1:36. The name means “rock.”
Fanwar, W. M. (1992). Sela (Place). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, pp. 1073–1074). New York: Doubleday.
The ABD has three different entries for Sela: 1) ‘An Edomite fortress city conquered by Amaziah King of Judah and renamed Joktheel (2 Kgs 14:7)’, typically identified as Petra, but potentially also a site near modern day Buseira (ancient Bozrah) (thus Rainey & Notley, 2014, 216) (2) ‘An unidentified place on the Amorite border during the time of the judges (Judg 1:36). Apparently it was situated within Judah. This site is mentioned alongside the ascent of Akrabim (lit. “scorpions”)’ (3) An unidentified site within Moab (Isa. 16:1).
Image courtesy of Google Maps, accessed 25/03/2021.
None of these sites, or biblical references, have anything to do with Yathrib/Medina. 2 Kings 14:7 and 2 Chronicles 25:12 mention Sela in connection with Edomites in the Valley of Salt, i.e. just south of the Dead Sea. The verse before and after Isaiah 16:1 are about Moab. Jeremiah 49:16 is part of a judgement passage against Edom (cf. v. 7 and following), and the entire book of Obadiah is about the judgement of Edom. As mentioned by the ABD above, Judges 1:36 mentions Sela as part of the borders of the Amorites. There is simply no evidence that an Old Testament audience hearing Isaiah 42:11 would think of anywhere other than a Sela in or around Israel, as opposed to Sela in Medina; we have no evidence they ever heard of the latter.
Is Sela in Medina?
Our article on Many Prophets One Message and S.A.L.A.M. seems to concede that there was a ‘Sela in the city of Petra’, but provides a number of Muslim sources to indicate that there was also a mount Sela’ in Medina, and argues that Isaiah 42:11 refers to this. The non-Muslim will be suspicious whether such post-Qur’anic information might have been created on the basis of passages like Isaiah 42:11. But even if not, perhaps Sela’ mountain in Medina had some connection with ‘rock’ parallel to the cognate Hebrew, and hence it might be a natural name for a rocky mountain to be called.
There is nothing in Isaiah 42:11, indeed in the Bible more generally, that would lead us to conclude that Sela’ in Medina, rather than a more familiar location in Moab or Edom, is in view. The article on Many Prophets One Message and S.A.L.A.M claims that Kedar a different area to Sela in Jordan (ancient Edom), and so it cannot be this Sela in view in Isaiah 42:11; it must be the Sela in Medina.
However we have challenged above Forster’s notion of the territory of Kedar. In terms of their geographic and military reach, ‘[t]o the south of Edom [where Sela is located] was the territory of Midian, and to the east was Kedar, whose king [Geshem] gained control of the entire area across to Gaza and Egypt during the Persian period.’ (Rainey & Notley, 2014, 41). Kedar took control of Edom. Rainey & Notley (40) define the ‘Persian period’ as 5th-4th centuries BC, when Geshem ruled. It is approximately this Persian period to which Isaiah ch. 40 onwards applies, as Cyrus decree that the Jews could return in 539 BC and seperate waves returned in the fifth century BCE.
How do we know that Kedar gained control of such territories? Rainey & Notley (40) note the mention of ‘Geshem the Arab’ opposing the reconstruction work in Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2:19. How do we know he was from Kedar? The inscription ‘Qaynu bar Geshem, king of Qedar’ (Rainey & Notley, 2014, 285, 291; the text of this inscription from Shuaib, 2014, 258, citing Rabinowitz, 1956, 2) at Tell el-Mashkhūta fits the historical time period, and confirms that Nehemiah 2:19 is speaking of Kedarite opposition to events in Jerusalem. As Shuaib (60) notes, ‘scholars are generally agreed that this Geshem, father of Qaynu, is to be identified with Nehemiah’s adversary Geshem’. For Kedarite pre-eminence amongst the northern Arabs as early as c. 700 BC cf. Rabinowitz, 1956, 8; Rainey & Notley, 249-250; some of the same evidence is noted by Many Prophets One Message and S.A.L.A.M.
Even putting aside the argumentation above, Isaiah 42:11 does not say that Sela is in Kedar, though this is plausible; we have argued that in vv. 10-12, and frequently in Isaiah, different locations are placed together to refer to a wide geographic area.
Archaeological evidence for Kedar extending to Al-ʾUla/Dedan?
Some of the best evidence I have found for a southern extension of Kedar has not been noticed by Many Prophets One Message and S.A.L.A.M. An inscription in Dadan, near Mada’in Saleh, reads: ‘…, ʿNīrān b. Ḥāiru inscribed his name in the days of Gashm b. Shahr and ʿAbd the governor of Dadan, in the reig[n of]…’ (JSLih 349, cited via Rohmer & Charloux, 2015, 299). This might suggest Kedarite rule as far south as this inscription.
But as Rohemer and Charloux note, while many scholars have identified this Gashm with ‘Geshem, father of Qaynū king of Qedar’, other scholars have argued that gshm was fairly common and that this may not be the same individual.
I would also note that the inscription simply says ‘in the days of Gashm’, unlike ʿAbd who is identified as the governor of Dadan. This inscription may simply be giving a date by referring to a well-known ruler of his time, the most pre-eminent of all the Arabs, even if he did not actually rule over his local area. For example, in 1 Kings 15:1, 9, 25, etc., the dates of the kings of Judah and Israel were given with reference to the length of reign of the other. These were two seperate (often hostile) nations, but the dates of one were explained in reference to the other. Admittedly, one might say that Israel and Judah are exceptionally interlinked in their history.
However, Cross (1986, 391) does lay out evidence for Shahr being associated with royalty; on a fourth century coin, and on a stele in Taymāʾ dating ‘to the end of the fifth century B.C. or slightly later.’ While Cross (391-392) thinks this is later than the Shahr of the Dadan inscription, Cross considers him his grandson. This strengthens the possibility that Gashm b. Shahr was a ruler in the Dadan inscription. The point remains that neither Gashm can be clearly linked with the ‘Geshem, father of Qaynū king of Qedar’, though footnote 6 of Cross (1986, 391) does provide a possible linguistic connection between Shahr and the father of Abiyateʾ king of Kedar (it is possible that both mention the same divine sun-god). This is beyond my linguistic competency, though I would note the possibility that different royal lines might reference the same divinity. Generally speaking Cross (footnote 7, 392) speaks of how ‘[o]ne of the unresolved problems in the history of this period in northwest Arabia is the relation between Qedar and Liḥyān’.
I should note that according to D. F. Graf (1992. 123) ‘[t]he matter seems now fairly certain’ for a connection between the Gashm mentioned in Dadan and the Gashm of the Tell el-Mashkhūta inscription. He then appeals to Cross’ article (indeed, this is where I discovered it), but seems somewhat to assume the conclusion that ‘[s]ince Shahru is a dynastic name both of the royal house at Dedan and that of Qedar…’ – but this is the very point under dispute! Graf does not carry over some of the uncertainties admitted by Cross (1986, 391, 392, 394). Graf’s (1992, 123) conclusion will, however, be of interest to the reader; ‘Since Shahru is a dynastic name both of the royal house at Dedan and that of Qedar, the ruling governors in the Ḥijāz may have been Qedarites.’ Graf suggests plausibly that ‘they may have been installed as governors in the region because of their loyalty to the Achaemenid ruler.’
I will leave it to the reader to determine if these inscriptions in Dadan and Taymāʾ demonstrate the southern reach of Kedar, and whether there is good contextual reason in Isaiah 42:11 to travel beyond the immediate Kedarite presence (including Sela in Jordan) down to Dadan, and then another 185 miles from Dadan to find Sela in Medina.
Another potential piece of evidence for Kedar’s southern border comes from Isaiah 21:
13 A prophecy against Arabia:
You caravans of Dedanites,
who camp in the thickets of Arabia,
14 bring water for the thirsty;
you who live in Tema,
bring food for the fugitives.
15 They flee from the sword,
from the drawn sword,
from the bent bow
and from the heat of battle.
16 This is what the Lord says to me: “Within one year, as a servant bound by contract would count it, all the splendor of Kedar will come to an end. 17 The survivors of the archers, the warriors of Kedar, will be few.” The Lord, the God of Israel, has spoken. (NIV)
13 The oracle concerning Arabia. In the thickets in Arabia you will lodge, O caravans of Dedanites. 14 To the thirsty bring water; meet the fugitive with bread, O inhabitants of the land of Tema. (ESV)
13 The pronouncement about Arabia: In the thickets of Arabia you must spend the night, You caravans of Dedanites. 14 Bring water for the thirsty, You inhabitants of the land of Tema; Meet the fugitive with bread. (NASB)
Without going into detail, there is a difference amongst Bible translators and commentators over whether to take this passage here such that the Dedanites in parallel with Tema are providing sustenance for those fleeing, or whether the Dedanites themselves are being pursued and in need of help. I will not enter into such a discussion (for a helpful discussion see Oswalt, 1986, 401). If the latter, however, then we might see Kedar (v. 16) as referring essentially to the same people as the Dedanites of v. 13. While Kedar and Dedan (for which cf. D. F. Graf, 1992) both had northern operations, Dedan itself ‘has been identified with the ruins of Khuraybah just N of the modern village of al-ʿUla in the Ḥijāz’ (Graf, 1992, 121, Google Maps link added). And so we might see Kedarite dominion as extending as far south as al-ʿUla, 175 miles from Medina. However, if we adopt the other approach to the passage, then Kedar are fleeing towards Dedan and Tema, which might suggest their natural territories are further north and/or west.
Kedar = Arab?
Many Prophets One Message and S.A.L.A.M rightly note and provide evidence for the identification that can be made between ‘Kedar’ and ‘Arab’/’Arabia’. This has also been proposed by commentators commenting on Isaiah 21:13, e.g. Grogran, 2008, 603, though ‘the narrower [usage of Kedar] is not impossible.’
What I have done in this article is to seek to determine, if we are to understand Kedar in the narrower sense, what geographic territory this would contain. But even if Isaiah 42:11 in referring to ‘Kedar’ is simply intending to refer to ‘Arabia’, which parts of Arabia would naturally come to the mind of the Old Testament audience? I would argue that the regions closer to Israel would be most predominant, the historic heartland of Kedar. Especially as they knew of a Sela (or Selas) nearby; we have no evidence they knew of a Sela in Medina.
‘The LORD will march out like a champion…’
Finally, our Muslim friends focus in on v. 13 where we are told:
The LORD will march out like a champion,
like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry
and will triumph over his enemies.
Surely this refers to Muhammad’s military conquests? It would seem not. We have already discussed above (‘The purpose of Isaiah 42:10-17’) that the broader context of ch. 40 onwards is the good news of the LORD’s sovereignty over the nations. There are other verses that describe the LORD’s strength, such as Isaiah 40:10: ‘See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.‘, and ‘He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.‘ (Isaiah 40:23). This is done in part through the LORD raising up Cyrus:
“Who has stirred up one from the east,
calling him in righteousness to his service?
He hands nations over to him
and subdues kings before him.
He turns them to dust with his sword,
to windblown chaff with his bow. (Isaiah 41:2)
“I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes—
one from the rising sun who calls on my name.
He treads on rulers as if they were mortar,
as if he were a potter treading the clay. (Isaiah 41:25)
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron. (Isaiah 45:1-2)
Even potentially moving away from the LORDs defeat of nations at the hands of Cyrus, and for one explanation of this shift cf. Oswalt (1998, 451ff.), the military motif occurs later on in the book of Isaiah:
[The LORD] put on righteousness as his breastplate,
and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
18 According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes;
he will repay the islands their due.
19 From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. (Isaiah 59:17-19)
1 Who is this coming from Edom,
from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson?
Who is this, robed in splendor,
striding forward in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, proclaiming victory,
mighty to save.”
2 Why are your garments red,
like those of one treading the winepress?
3 “I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
4 It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
5 I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
6 I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.” (Isaiah 63:1-6)
15 See, the Lord is coming with fire,
and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For with fire and with his sword
the Lord will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the Lord. (Isaiah 66:15-16)
In light of the above, there is no need to see Isaiah 42:13 as an allusion to any of Muhammad’s battles. It fits into the broader Isaianic theme of God’s rule over the nations, expressed, for example, in Israel’s return from exile, and God’s use of Cyrus for his own purposes.
In light of all the above, Muhammad is not the ‘Servant’ of Isaiah 42:
- Did God ‘put his Spirit’ on Muhammad? Possibly, if the Spirit in the Qur’an is the Holy Spirit, God’s spirit that empowers people and gives them the gift of prophecy, and more. Most Muslims however think the ‘Holy Spirit’ in the Qur’an is Gabriel.
- Muhammad is not called ‘Israel’ (49:3)
- His mission was not first and pre-eminently to the Jews (49:5)
- Was Muhammad beaten and had his beard pulled out? (50:6). Perhaps Muslims claim this did happen, please let me know in the comments.
- Muhammad was not killed for the sins of others, and resurrected (52:13-53:12)
- It is not clear that the passage containing Kedar and Sela (vv. 10-17) is commenting on the first ‘Servant song’; it may simply be part of the broader theme starting in ch. 40, about God’s sovereignty over the nations and Israel’s return from exile.
- Reference to Kedar and Sela (v. 11) are mentioned alongside ‘the ends of the earth’, ‘the sea’ and ‘islands’ as the remote places to which God’s good news will go (vv. 11-13). Similar usage is found in Isaiah 60:1-14 (with Kedar mentioned in v. 7), multiple other parts of Isaiah, and Jeremiah 2:10.
- It is not clear that Kedar included Medina, though it is possible.
- Even if Kedar is used simply as a catch-all term for all the Arabs, I have argued that the lands closest to Israel would be the most prominent in the mind of the Old Testament audience.
- None of the Biblical references seem to refer to Sela’ in Medina, if such a mountain indeed existed prior to Islam. There is no evidence that an Old Testament audience had ever heard of Sela’ in Medina.
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