Wibble Wednesday: All is Lost (Isaiah 3–4)

I’d kind of hoped this week’s chapter might have some sort of gentle, reassuring message. heaven knows we need it, and in the first two chapters of Isaiah I was authentically buoyed by what read as a radical call for social justice. Alas, chapter 3 gets us into some mildly trippy eschatology and visions of fairly dispiriting leadership. It actually feels kind of disturbingly appropriate right now.

Short snarky summary: Judah will lose both its natural resources and its leadership, and it will suffer degradation, and it’s all its own fault for wallowing in luxury. Eventually things will turn around.

So this chapter starts out with a weird, ugly flipside to the utopian “Imagine no possessions” worldview put forth before. The first two chapters presented a basically hopeful view ofthe ultimate nullification of personal wealth. That struck me as a rather different view than one usually has of a golden age: most utopians would envision making the pie bigger, rather than making people not want or need pie and then taking it away (I may be stretching this metaphor).

But by chapter 3, while we’re still on a “the mighty will be brought low” kick, it’s explicitly not an equalizing process, but a degradation. It starts out much as the previous chapters have, suggesting that Jerusalem’s stored wealth and its men of pomp and power will be swept away. But then it moves into what does happen in such scenarios: with neither competent leadership or basic necessities of life, the civic order falls apart. Honor and age, Isaiah seems to say, may not be great proxies for respectability, but if you take away those norms then the body politic turns on itself. I feel like the “each oppressing his fellow” prophecy maybe ties into how people of power invariably put the least powerful and the second least powerful groups in society at each other’s throats, but that may be because I’m reaching for a modern progressive message that’s not really there.

A paradox of chaos is laid out in the next section (stanza?) of the chapter. Suppose there are still people around who have their act togethor, who seem like they might be able to turn the ship of state around. You ask them to lead, and what do they say? “No way, I’m not going to take charge of this clusterfuck just so you can blame me!” After this tragicomic bit of theatre, Isaiah returns to the theme of why this fate befalls Judah: for injustice, for lack of generosity to the unfortunate, for the “sin of Sodom” (which, it bears repeating, is inhospitality, not gay sex). Judah’ present evils are linked to their inexperienced leaders, in a peculiar echo of the prophecy earlier in the chapter (that Judah is ruled by children is presented both prophetically and as a present criticism).

Isaiah saves a special scorn, among the high and mighty who ill-treat the poor, for rich women in particular He calls out what I assume are meant to be immodesties and luxuries: heads held high, stately walks, and luxuries of jewelry, dress, and cosmetics. Isaiah even breaks the versified presentation to enumerate in prose the individual items of clothing which God will strip off of the arrogant daughters of Zion.

The final three verses have a rather ambiguous referent. There’s talk of stripping “her” beauty and finery, to be replaced with commonplace garb and appearance. This is rather of a piece with the previous verses about the vanity of Hebrew women, but the two verses that follow provide a more symbolic interpretation both of this verse and possibly of its predecessors: there’s discussion of the death of “her men”, lamentation at “her gate”, and the emptying of “her walls”. This seems less like it’s about real women, and more like it’s metaphorically about Zion itself. Maybe the earlier verses were too? It’s hard to stitch those two differing interpretations into a cohesive whole.

Chapter 4 is a short one, and proceeds in a radically different direction, of the sort that eschatological timeline creators love. For this plot twist is clearly meant to occur during the degradation of Judah and Israel, and it consists of wha eems like prophecy at the sme time very specific and murky, with seven women casting themselves upon a man and swearing kinship (I assume that’s what “let us be called by your name” signifies)if he lifts their disgrace. This theme feels distinctly messianic: the man in question is presented sketchily at best, and his fitness to save the land simultaneously unstated and taken for granted. And, indeed, the rest of the chapter details (without any explanation of how such a fate might come to pass) that the land of Zion will be immediately bathed in glory, and splendor, and holiness, now that Jerusalems evils of pride and injustice have been purged.

I have no idea about those seven women though. I bet Christian theology figures out a way to associate them all with the life of Jesus. A Christian (or at least Christianity-aware) reading of Isaiah seems like it would regularly drift into “which element of the gospels is prooftexting this” whenever a particularly specific bit of messianic prophecy shows up.