Wibble Wednesday: Prose break (Isaiah 20)

Chapter 20 of Isaiah is pretty short. But Chapter 21 is pretty long, and I’d rather get one done for sure tonight than try and fail at a more ambitious write-up, particularly as I’ve been bad about keeping on schedule.

Short, snarky summary: It’s the Assyrians again! Those fuckers are everywhere. No matter where you go, they got there first.

The text breaks into prose to deliver a blend of history and prophecy. The historical element is the date of the prophecy, apparently, in the year when the army of Assyria, under the rule of Sargon (presumably Sargon II) conquers the city of Ashdod. Sargon was king in the 8th century BCE, so we have a definite timeframe here. What’s a bit hazier are the political ramifications, because Ashdod was a bit contentious, culturally. For most of the Bronze Age it was a crucial element of the Philistine pentopolis, but then it was apparently ruined, a few centuries prior to this conquest? So as of this date, it’s not altogether clear who Ashdod’s allied with. My educated guess would be that it’s a culturally Philistine city but a tribute town of Israel, so the conquest of it is a military crisis for Israel but not, in their way of thinking, an existential threat to “their” people. But it turns out that, except for the Asyria-flavored set dressing and timeframe, Ashdod is irrelevant to what follows, which is that God commands Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot. Such an act is usually a penance, but apparently God’s not forcing penance on Isaiah so much as asking him to present a metaphor in service of his prophecy (for an even worse example of God forcing his prophets to do something really unpleasant and uncomfortable for the purpose of underscoring a rhetorical point, see also: Hosea). Because just as Isaiah is naked and barefot for three years, so will those conquered by Assyria be driven from their lands naked and barefoot. In this particular case, those people are the Egyptians and Nubians.

Egypt and Nubia were pretty incredible reaches for Assyria, and if this were actually a prophecy (and not a write-up after the fact, which it probably was), it’d be a pretty good one. Assyria’s main base of operations was east of Israel, in modern-day Syria. Getting to Nubia involved taking and holding an awful lot of territory, because the political center of Assyria was way east and north of Africa. But that actually did happen, and it was the outermost edge of the Assyrians’ conquest. It was also, as far as the people of the Late Bronze Age Near East were concerned, the edge of the world, inasmuch as there didn’t seem to be a whole lot more to find to the southwest of Nubia. So this really is a terrifying indication of Assyria’s might and, in many ways, of their cruelty. The description is compassionate, focusing on the vulnerability and the frailty of the exiled captives, in a mode of lamentation usually reserved for Israelites. This follows in a somewhat logical way from Chapter 19, which was also about the Egyptians and framed them as a natural object of sympathy and a redeemable nation. So the text here, in its unexpected sympathy for a previously detested foe, feel vry much of a part with the “Egypt” pronouncement in Chapter 19.
Next chapter, though, we’re going back to more nebulous, and less sympathetc, prophecies of destruction.


Wibble Wednesday: Pour ten more drops (Isaiah 19)

Yow, it took a while to get back into the swing of a new semester. Sorry I work late on Wednesdays now, so it’s hard to get the energy to write at the end of it.

Short snarky summary: Egypt sucks. Egypt has always sucked, but we spent several books ignoring Egypt, so now we’re going to talk about how they are still unredeemed, but not unredeemable.

So each section of Isaiah for a while have been a pronouncement associated with some place: we saw Babylon, and Moab, and Damascus, and now it’s Egypt’s turn in the hot seat. But the basic impression of these nations has a lot to do with how they’re presented. Moab is basically a Semitic nation like Israel and Judah, so they get talked about in terms of being wayward kin. Babylon and Damascus are contemporary enemies and erstwhile allies, so there’s a more ambivalent attitude there. Egypt, on the other hand, has no current relationship I can divine with Israel, but in their mythohistory—which was probably mythohistory even then—they were the bad guys, the enslavers from whose bondage God freed us with a mighty hand, &c. That animus still burns pretty hot, so you’d be justified and correct in assuming Isaiah’s nation-by-nation prophecy of future judgment does not hold anything remotely nice for Egypt.

And, yup, it’s verse on verse of loving depiction of just how comprehensively Egypt is going to be fucked. God promises to incite civil war, to confound its gods and magicians, and put them under the rule of tyrants. The focus on social breakdown’s a bit unusual: most of the prophesies have started out specifically with external or natural disasters, like war or invasion or famine. But here, up front, there’s a suggestion that the Egyptians themselves will fail, and that their society will crumble from the inside out. That feels like a stronger indictment than the usual externally-caused collapse attributed to these nations, but maybe I’m just reading a higher condemnation of Egypt because I expect one.

Of course, after the first stanza, we move to the affliction of Egypt with natural disaster. And while on the last go-round God came up with ten different ways to do this, here there’s just the big one: drought. Egypt was very dependent on Nile-powered irrigation, so the prediction that “Water shall fail from the seas, rivers dry up and be parched” is a pretty damn serious problem. Isaiah expands on this understated depiction of the drought itself with an exacting report of just how doomed Egypt will be without water: the agricultural products of reeds, rushes, papyrus, and flax are all called out as specifically industries which will cease to exist, and fishing is also called out as another professoion which will vanish (as is dam-building, but it didn’t occur t me that would be likely a steady line of work anyways). It’s all depicted very poetically, with nice parallelism between pole and net fishermen, and flax-carders and weavers. There’s a lot of duality brought forth in this passage which work, rhythmically.

After discussing this physical calamity we bounce right back to social ills, with a long disquisition on the fabled wise men of Egypt. I suppose that was a thing, then as now, the accumulated wisdom of an ancient culture, and Isaiah wants to specifically ridicule those who are the keepers of its knowledge, so there’s discussion of howwise Pharaoh’s advisors are, and how they come from a long and distinguished lineage, but that in that day they will be “led astray by…a spirit of distortion”. Incidentally, it seems that much as God likes screwing with people, he seems to save mind-fucks for Egyptians alone. It was back in Exodus that, specifically to maximize Egypt’s pain, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And now, he doesn’t trust this society to self-destruct on its own and so he crawls into the Egyptians’ heads specifically to make their thinking worse. I didn’t like it in Exodus, and I don’t much care for it now. It’s kind of cheating to punish people for their foolishness after you’ve brainwashed them into foolishness. There’s some great imagery, though, with Egypt’s hopeless meanderings compared to “a vomiting drunkard”. Vivid!

We break into prose for the climactic end to Egypt’s troubles, starting with, as was placed more prominently in other nations’ prophecies, a prediction of external strife and conquest. Specifically, they’re going to be conquered by Judah. There’s some oblique reference to the scope of the conquest which is heavily glossed in my text: there will be what are literally referred to as “five cities” (my gloss suggests “several” for “five”) which will be in vassalage to Judah, swearing fealty and adopting its language, and one of these cities is called “הרס”. That word with that spelling means “destruction” or “overthrow”, but many manuscripts have “חרס” instead, which means “sun”. So half the translations out there identify one of these Judahite conquests as “the City of Destruction” and the other half identify it as “the City of the Sun” or “Heliopolis” (the latter is a comfortingly appropriate but anachronistic reference to a real place in Egypt; that conspicuously Greek name dates from the Ptolemaic dynasty, and before then it was called Annu, meaning “the pillars”).

Anyways, in this time of vassalage to Judah the Egyptians will cry out to God against their oppressors. Dramatic irony! This is of course an explicit echo of both the circumstances and even the language of the Exodus, with Egypt involved in a plea to the Almighty against slavery. But the tables are turned and now it is the Israelites who are the oppressors. But just as bondage was redeeming for the Israelites (or so the theory goes), so will it expiate the Egyptians, who will be granted a Moses of their own, a hero and a savior to deliver them from bondage.

The weird part of this is that this noble hero of a finer age is going to war with, and defeat the Egyptians’ oppressors, who are… the Israelites! So this time of great reckoning Isaiah predicts, which elsewhere in the narrative has had Israel rise in glory, here involves their defeat.And then, after that defeat, Egypt, Assyria, and Israel are supposed to be united in their service towards God. This has a bizarre non-parallelism with the Exodus that’s kind of disquieting: after the Exodus, the Egyptians were fairly explicitly cast in the role of eternal villain. And yet Judah, practicing the very same persecution towards Egypt that Egypt once practiced towards Judah, remains castin a position of goodness even after Egypt has repented of their ways but remained enslaved. The chronology is pretty clear: Judah enslaves Egypt, Egypt repents, hero arises, hero saves Egypt. Judah doesn’t voluntarily release a newly reformed Egypt from its servitude. So how the hell are Judah the good guys?

One interesting approach to this, but one which, like this whole chapter, inverts the roles established in the last several pronouncements, is that Judah aren’t the good guys, and that from their conquest of Egypt onwards they’re not part of God’s Own Army. I derive this tenous argument from the fact that the nation Egypt teams up with are not Assyria and Judah, but Assyria and Israel (I checked the Hebrew, an it’s not a colorful translation difference). And remember that those are different nations at this point. So maybe Israel, the wayward cultists of Samaria, are the good guys here, and the Kingdom of David, Judah, are the bad guys? Again, that’s out of step with pretty much everything we’ve seen since the kingdom split, but it does allow the characterization in this chapter to be vaguely consistent.

Wibble Wednesday: The furthest shore (Isaiah 18)

Oh, man, my semester got busy fast and this fell by the wayside. Well, on break for a little while now, and I have no excuse not to get back into this.

Short snarky summary: All the gentiles are going to get it from God. Even the far-away ones.

So previously there was a tale of liberation of Aram from a conquering foe who we can only assume was the Assyrians. This chapter, contextually, appears to be the triumphant actions of the Arameans. Or maybe not; it depends how closely you assume this text hews to the notion of being a pronouncement about Damascus. Anyways, the important issue is that whoever is taking the actions in this chapter, they appear to be a Semitic culture somewhere in “greater Israel”, i.e. soe combination of Judah, Northern Israel, and/or Aram. Several stanzas are devoted to indicating that word is being sent to far-off and obscure places. Messengers are dispatched “beyond the rivers of Nubia” to “a nation of gibber and chatter, whose land is cut off by streams, which sends envoys by sea”. Most of the geography we’ve been treated to so far is local, inasmuch as every site described so far is in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, western Syria, or eastern Egypt. The Biblical history at this point is frankly very provincial; only the Persian Empire really disperses the Hebrews definitively. So when they talk about somewhere past Nubia (i.e. southern Egypt), that’s basically off the edge of the map as far as they’re concerned. The particular waterways and seacoast described render the whole description a bit murky—are we talking about the coast of Sudan, maybe?—but that may just bea part of the lyrical aspects talking about their foreign tongues and remoteness tobe taken as symbolic of a place way off across rivers and seas. It’s not even obvious they’re talking particularly about Africa; Nubia itself might be a stand-in for “far-off places”.

Anyways, what message is Israel sending to these far-off lands? Basically, it’s that God is coming and that none of the faithless will be spared. I might file this one under “quasi-eschatological”, in that it implies a more global scope to God’s great purge of the unclean. The symbols of a flag being raised and a shofar sounding seem symbolic: those were common ways of communicating one’s presence and power, and happened a lot even when there wasn’t divine wrath being administered. But the prophesied followup is definitely wrathful, with the enemy nations likened to grape arbors due to have their branches lopped off and their twigs pruned, and then left to norish birds and beasts. It’s pretty potent imagery, and presented poetically.

In the final verse, which presumably chronologically follows this defeat, there is a repetition of description from the beginning of the chapter: still discussing faraway lands, where they speak foreign languages, and so forth. But now Israel isn’t sending messengers, but the travel is going the other way, as all these selfsame lands send tribute back to Zion. The repetition of the invocation of faraway lands together with the reversal of the transit, strikes me as pretty catchy. So many of these chapters seem thrown together a bit pell-mell, and it’s kind of nice to find one where there’s an overarching structure.

And that, apparently, is all Isaiah has to say about Damascus. Didn’t have much to do with Damascus by the end, I’m afraid, but next week (or month, or year, or something) Isaiah’s going to start in on a whole new target.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14a: Chicken Lo Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Chicken Lo Mein

Beige-on-beige. Try to spot the chicken!

What exactly is this dish? Sliced chicken stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Canotnese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. this form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while there is protein in the lo mein, it’s really in a pretty lopsided balance with the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with little relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect. chicken, the blandests of the proteins, does very little indeed to lift the combination out of the doldrums.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

IFComp 2017: 10pm by “litrouke”

The Twenty-third Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is on, and anyone can play, participate, and judge. There are nearly 80 games this year, and there is no way I’m getting through all of them, but I’ll do my best. This is the first game according to my randomized ballot.

Blurb: 10pm, and dinner is still sitting in the oven.
The TV is droning. The front door is closed.
You look at the clock.
You look at the door.
You wait.

Content warning: Profanity, allusions to sex and violence, unhealthy parenting.
Estimated playtime: half an hour
Format: Web (Twine 1.4.2)

Well, I played through twice, to see what different kind of endings come out. The structure and interface of the game reflects the protagonist’s atypical state: you’re a boy who doesn’t speak, and all of your interactions through the game are by selecting the broad meaning of your hand signs. You’re living with a man (probably your father?) who doesn’t use apostrophes, and things are kind of stressful but depending on the choices during the game they might by either getting by or really fraught. On my first playthrough things were pretty good, and even on the second playthrough the basic premise that these people like and care about each other came through. It’s more or less a vignette, and to some extent you can decide for yourself what the shades of meaning within specific signs you choose to use are.

Apropos of the sign system, one thing which disappointed me is that there seemed to be a more or less ignored complexity in the system: I’d often get two or three signs in different colors to form a sentence with color constraints out of, and the design of the interface suggested that a mix-and-match wold work, but the response suggested that in almost all cases only the first sign determined how what I said was interpreted, and in that case just having one big block to drag and drop seems like it would make a lot more sense and not pretend to a complexit where there wasn’t one.

All in all, though, from a narrative standpoint it basically works and doesn’t outstay its welcome. At times it seems a mite sentimental (on some narrative paths) but never tips over the edge. The narrative leaves a lot of the premise beyond the basic history a bit nebulous: what Ty does, how they live on days other than this one, and what happened to make Bird so troubled. But this is largely a broadstroke work, and curious as I am about the backstory, I get why it’s not really immediately germane to the work and would most likely dilute its emotional force.

Wibble Wednesday: The scent of jasmine (Isaiah 17)

Things is busy now, and I should be doing other stuff, but this is worthwhile, I reckon.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah is either wrong, or exaggerating, or predicting a future which hasn’t come yet. Once again we teeter between the elegiac and the triumphalist in discussing ruined cities.

Every chapter or pair of chapters for some time seems to be focused on a specific ancient center of civilization. We’ve seen Babylon and Moab, and this chapter is now the first half of the “Damascus” pronouncement. Like the two previous pronouncements, this one is a prophecy of doom. Just like in the two previous cases, it probably behooves us to have some idea what it’s talking about.

Anyone who reads the news, of course, knows where Damascus is. It’s in Syria. The ancient city of Damascus was in pretty much the same place. The earliest settlement there might indeed be very old, but the place clearly starts showing up on geopolitical maps as somewhere to watch out for in the mid-to-late Bronze Age. In particular it is the capital city of the nation of Aram (which is sometimes called Aram-Damascus; that’s how central Damascus was to that kingdom). The Arameans were off to the northeast of Israel, which put them far enough from Judah that there wasn’t much interaction between the two states. On the other hand, Aram was one of Norther Israel’s more significant neighbors and the Biblical account suggests pretty much constant tension and occasional war. There’s a lot of cultural common ground though: Aramaic would become a major language of Judaism in exile, and the Arameans themselves were a Semitic people like the Hebrews. Eventually, Damascus fell to the same guys who overran everyone in the Near East, namely, the damn Assyrians. Those guys are everywhere, particularly in Isaiah’s pronouncements, so we’re following a common theme here. Incidentally, 2 Kings 16 credits Judah with an assist on that conquest: in a rare moment of alliance, Israel and Aram ganged up on Judah, while Judah pled with Assyria for assistance. That achieved their goals short-term, but left Judah immediately threatened by Assyria, which became a crisis in Hezekiah’s reign.

A notable footnote with regard to Isaiah’s prophecy: Damascus wasn’t actually razed. Assyria kept it as a vassal city, and it then passed from hand to hand as one after another empire swept through the Near East. Many centuries later it would become one of the jewels of the Islamic world. But the big takeaway is that, subjects and captives though the Aramites may have been, they appear to have been in continuous residence of this same city for a very long time. It’s entirely possible the modern Syrians are descended, at least in part, from the Arameans.

I provide all this dreary history mostly to put it all in stark contrast to the first prediction of Isaiah’s most recent declaration: “Damascus shall cease to be a city; it shall become a heap of ruins.” Most of Isaiah’s descriptions track pretty well onto specific aspects o the Assyrian conquest. This one really doesn’t. For a start, the Assyrian conquest of Aram was too early: that happened way back during the reign of Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, and we already saw the fallout from that back in Isaiah 7. For another thing, Damascus remained. it emphatically wasn’t ruined then, nor was it depopulated and destroyed in any of the following years.

For a messianic read, of course, this isn’t a problem, but up until now I’ve been able to get a pretty solid argument going that Isaiah’s really about local events in time and place and that messianism is a stretch. So I’m kind of loathe to use that cop-out, although better Bible scholars than me don’t have a problem with it.

So, anyways, after we’re told that Damascus (and its outlying areas) will be depopulated and laid waste, we move to another unusual verse, which equates temporal power from “Ephraim” and that of Damascus. That’s an odd juxtaposition, because Ephraim, as we’ve seen before, is a tribe of Israel typically used as a metonym for the whole northern kingdom. But Israel and Aram aren’t the same place! Or are they? Certainly at some point in this timeframe they were allies, since they ganged up on Judah. Maybe Aram was much closer to Israel than we thought; after all, I’ve operated under the impression that Judah and Northern Israel were never really unified, and that the closest they got was a cultural kinship and occasional alliance. Isn’t Aram kind of in the same boat, as a Semite people with some historical claims of kinship to the House of Jacob? For all we know all three of these kingdoms were regarded as part of the same sprawling “peoples”. Certainly that explains the next stanza, where Isaiah predicts that “the mass of Jacob shall dwindle”, which makes plenty of sense if that mass also includes Aram. The decimation of Jacob (whether Aram or Israel or both) is put in some colorfully violent agricultural terms, which would’ve made a lot of sense ot people around this time. So the victim of this despoliation is compared to wheat that has been reaped, or an olive tree that’s been beaten, in each case with only a few tiny productive bits remaining.

The next stanza turns to afairly predictable theme of Isaiah’s. Destruction can go a couple of ways. It can be deserved, in which case triumphal mockery continues, or piteous, in which case the next theme is one of charity, or it can be chastisement, in which case the next theme is repentance. Aram is basically “Even Norther Israel”, so it gets to be a Hebrew nation for whom the scourging of fate is meant to be corrective. And thus the end result of all this death and destruction is that the people turn with renewed vigor to god, sashing their idols and whatnot. But atonement is apparently not yet complete, because immediately following the verses describing contrition, Isaiah promises that the land will remain a desolation, because the people are still not truly returned to God.

The next verse though, focuses on the conquerers. In context, that pretty much has to be the Assyrians, if we want this to make any sense as a contemporary prophec and not a messianic promise. Certainly the description of “Nations raging like mighty waters” sounds a lot like the Assyrians, because no other player in local nation-building rated that kind of description at that ppoint But interestingly, he then turns to how these peope, too will be driven and humbled before God. We’ve sort of seen that theme before, back in Chapter 14, where God promises to crush Assyria after they had served their purpose. Those promises at least, in a contemporary-to-Isaiah consideration of the prophecies, is authentically a statement of things to come.

Next up: how will Aram handle liberty from the Assyrians?

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L13: Beef with Snow Peas

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Oy, fallen way behind again. I still remember them all pretty well though.

Beef with Snow Peas

Yup, that’s beef, alright. With snow peas. And carrots. Nobody said there would be carrots!

What exactly is this dish? Slices of stir-fried beef with snow peas, just like it says on the tin, but in addition to snow peas, there are also carrots. There was also a single water chestnut, which I can only assume was a mistake. All the vegetables are fairly lightly cooked, to keep some snap and crunch. Of course there’s sauce too, and it’s exactly the brown sauce you expect. Oh well, they can’t all be imaginative.

How authentically Chinese is it? I’ve done my “veggies in brown sauce” spiel many times by now, and the capsule version is that protein and veggies stirfried in a simple soy-and-ginger sauce is something it’s reasonable to believe Chinese people probably would eat because it’s kind of the obvious way to combine a bunch of standard ingredients. That having been said: while snow peas are absolutely a traditional part of Chinese cuisine (both the pods and the young leaves, the latter of which is not really popular in America), it seems to usually favor a simpler presentation as a side dish rather than accenting a meat dish. I’m sure this combination has been eaten in China, because you don’t get 1.3 billion people without some of them trying out every viable permutation of your cuisine, but I’m not sure it would be regarded there as a particularly distinguished variation on the plain mix-and-match stirfry.

Is it any good? It works for me. Beef is a bit tough (at least in a stirfry) and the textural meatiness of it contrasted well with the crisp crunch on the vegetables. The brown sauce was, eh, a brown sauce. Within any specific class of dishes there’s straight-up not a lot of variation. But this was a reasonably good representative of the family.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce was pretty thin. Rice that I shoved into the entree side of the container picked up some oily, beefy flavor, but it mostly wanted soy sauce to give it flavor in the end.