Q&A: Straightening the Crooked Paths in Isaiah 40:3
From the About page comes this question:
Mark 1:2 and Isaiah 40:3 — is the idea that crooked paths need to be straightened, or that obstacles need to be removed?
Isaiah 40:3 is a variation on classic Hebrew parallel poetry. We have two parallel phrases, each with four words. For example, from the NRSV, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD// make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we have:
A. In the wilderness [bamidbar] prepare [panu] the way [derech] of the Lord [Adonai]
B. Make straight [yashru] in the desert [ba’arava] a highway [m’silah] for our God [leiloheinu]
We might bicker over the lexical translation choices (“highway” seems particularly out of place), but the point is that we have two ways each of referring to four things: God, the desert, the road, and making the road. The first three are pretty easy to translate, but then things get complicated.
The first way of making a road here in Hebrew is panu, more literally “to clear” or “to turn aside.” Translators usually correctly render this verb with an English word that has to do with making roads.
Unfortunately, though (and, come to think of it, ironically), the English choice of “make straight” for the second Hebrew verb here (yashru) leads readers astray. The central point wasn’t so much “straight” as “make.” Like panu derech (“make a way”), yashru m’silah means to prepare a path. So a better translation might juxtapose “clear the way” and “make a path,” or, preferably, some more poetic equivalent.
By focusing readers’ attention on “straight,” the English translation misses both the poetry and the point.
Mark 1:3 seems to be quoting Isaiah 40:3 in its proper context. The emphasis in Mark isn’t on how the path is made, but rather on the existence of the path in the desert.
I think the confusion comes about because Isaiah 40:4 does use “straight” as the opposite of “crooked,” as part of a series of four opposites: valley / raised; mountain and hill / lowered; crooked / straight; and rough / smooth. (Again, one might prefer more refined translations.) Here the point is precisely the opposites, but unlike in Isaiah 40:3, these are not imperatives; they are forecasts. While Isaiah 40:3 commands, “make a way…,” verse 40:4 notes that “the valley will be raised….”
Opposites like these are common images of redemption. (For example, we see the same sort of thing at the start of Isaiah 35.)
While Mark only quotes Isaiah 40:3, Luke (3:4-5) quotes Isaiah 40:3-4. And Luke, too, seems to get the context right, because there the next line there is, “…and everyone will see God’s salvation.”
I think it’s part of the incredible beauty of (Deutero-)Isaiah’s poetry that the imagery shifts so seamlessly from making the path to the signs of redemption.
It’s the repetition of words in different contexts — and, in particular, using the root y.sh.r first for “make [a road]” and then as the opposite of “crooked” — that makes this possible. A good English translation should do the same thing.
[Update: Read more about Isaiah 40:3 as quoted in the NT here.]