Wibble Wednesday: Milk and honey (Isaiah 7)

Back for more! Fell out of the swing; I need better self-discipline.

Short snarky summary: Judah is at war. Isaiah has a vision which is either one of short-term prosperity or is some sort of messianic wankery. Also, there are mistranslation follies to contextualize Christianity.

It looks like the theme of social justice is well-and-truly on the back burner now, to be replaced with murky but peculiarly specific predictions which seem to be about current events. The chronology is a bit whimsical: last chapter was a vision which came to the prophet on the death of Uzziah (a.k.a. Azariah); for this chapter we’ve jumped completely over the sixteen-year reign of Uzziah’s son Jotham, and into the reign of his grandson Ahaz. We aren’t told much in 2 Kings about Jotham, except that he was a good king, built up the temple, and that during his reign the kings of Aram and Israel were starting to show hostility to Judah. Both of these are significant to understanding Ahaz, whose reign is detailed in 2 Kings 16. Notably, Ahaz is emphatically not a good king, and does evil of the idolworshipping variety (including the likely slanderous accusation of sacrificing his own son to Moloch). Meanwhile, the tension with Israel and Aram explodes into outright war, and after fighting the alliance to a stalemate in his own territory, Ahaz appeals to the Assyrians for aid and ends up essentially as an Assyrian vassal state when they come to help out and then forget to leave.

So all in all, Ahaz is regarded as pretty blameworthy. Ignoring the idolworshipping bits, which are not something Isaiah goes berserk over, you still have the unwise political machinations: the bloodshed amongst brothers in the hostilities with Israel, and the subjugation of the state resulting from Ahaz’s appeal to Assyria. Isaiah, one might imagine, would prefer that Ahaz trust in God instead of man. And that is, to some extent, what this chapter is about.

See, in this chapter, Isaiah is commanded by God to meet Ahaz on the road and give him some advice. The advice is basically to be firm, and to not be at all afraid of Aram or of “Ephraim” (Israel is referred to frequently in this chapter as Ephraim. Ephraim is a tribe, but Israel as a whole is more than just the tribe of Ephraim, so I may be missing something here. Samaria is in Ephraim, and the original Israelite king Jeroboam was from Ephraim, so maybe that’s why it lends its name to the nation as a whole). Isaiah refers sneeringly to the Israelite king Pekah as “the son of Remaliah”; apparently simply referring to someone by their father’s name was disrespectful, and he promises that Israel’s power will be broken in sixty-five years (which it is: Assyria conquered Israel during the next king’s rule).

God (through Isaiah, presumably) commands Ahaz to ask for a sin of God’s power and compassion, but Ahaz demurs, out of what appears to be a surfeit of modesty. Instead of praising Ahaz’s unqualified faith, though, Isaiah takes the unwillingness to demand a sign as evidence of a lack of faith, and promises that in spite of Ahaz’s unwillingness God will send a sign anyways: that a young woman will bear a child named Emmanuel, and that before he reaches the age of reason the Judahites will experience plenty while Israel and Aram will be struck down.

This bit of prophecy, with “young woman” (העלמה) translated frequently as “virgin” is foundational to Chriisian messianism (and apparently to a lesser extent Jewish messianism). The odd thing for me is not so much the (potentially inaccurate) presumption that the young woman is a virgin, so much as attaching a much larger historical and theological implication to what seems, in context, to be a limited short-term prophecy about a reversal of fortune in this specific Judah-Israel-Aram conflict. In fact, the important events in this prophecy are all supposed to occur before this child (who is not attributed any remarkable behaviors or powers) reaches maturity! I’m honestly bewildered to discover that one of the primary texts of messianic belief is, on the face of it, not particularly messianic at all.

Anyways, Isaiah’s prophecy is opaque and occasionally ambivalent. The time to come, heralded by Emmanuel, will feature some evil portents, including the coming of insects and bees to plague Judah, and the replacement of prosperous vineyards with thorny wilderness, but there are also bits in the prophecy that seem positive for Judah, such as the prediction that all who are in Judah will have ample animals, enough milk to make curds, and will feast on honey.. And then there are the bits that are just plain wierd, such as the intimation that Assyrians will come and shave some nation’s (Judah’s? Isarel’s? Aram’s? the text is coy about it) head, beard, and pubes. This might be the only mention of pubic hair in the Bible, incidentally.

So in some ways we’re still in trippy wild vision territory here, but this all seems likeit’s meant to be relevant to the immediate conflict. Modern readings of this text (both Jewish and Christian) seem to consider it to be referential to a much wider conflict, however.

Wibble Wednesday: A Man of Vision (Isaiah 6)

A short one, this time. No excuse for missing a few weeks.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah is tripping balls and seeing some crazy shit. This is what we demand of our prophets, and he delivers.

Isaiah has started to become something I more-or-less get; he’s got a strong social-justice vibe, couched in the language of piety, but with the worship of God as a secondary consideration. Isaiah’s logic is much less “God commanded this, and thus it is good” and more “This is a good thing, and thus it must be what God wants”. It’s a nice change, as I’ve said many times. It’s also fundamentally unlike what gets quoted a lot of Isaiah, which is eschatology. Messianism, both the continuing Jewish tradition thereof and the Judaism-framed gospel of Christianity, draws a lot from Isaiah and very little from other sources (eschatology above and beyond the Messianic is heavily inspired by Ezekiel, the weirder bits of Daniel, and, on the Christian side, the Revelation). And that’s more what I expected when I started this project, with more specific on-the-nose prophecies and less “be excellent to each other”.

So after five chapters, when I was just starting to get comfy with the social commentary, the text radically changes gears. This is not, as far as I can tell, due to a change in authorship; while Isaiah is typically thought of as the work of three different authors, no scholarly tradition suggests that chapters 5 and 6 were written by different people. And yet, chapter 6 is much, much stranger, with a different versification, and a different point of view. We start with a bit of chronology: the text is anchored in time to the death year of Uzziah. Uzziah was also called Azariah, and most chronologies put his reign in the early 8th century BCE. Azariah was one of a sequence of kings of Judah who, according to the text of 2 Kings, were pretty acceptable to God, but Azariah himself apparently was afflicted with leprosy and his son Jotham served as regent. None of this gives much context to Isaiah 6, I’m afraid, since the death of Azariah was ultimately merely a formalization of the already extant power structure, with the prince regent succeeding him. And what is it that happens in the fateful year of Azariah’s death that Isaiah finds worth mentioning? Turns out to be a mostly inscrutable vision.

Isaiah’s vision is of God on his celestial throne, attended by seraphim. One of the more delightful aspects of this vision is that Isaiah describes the seraphim as having six wings: two to cover their faces, two to cover their legs, and two to fly. Is covering faces and legs a notable and useful property of wings? I find this description bewilderingly charming, somehow.

God at this point is a background figure; the foreground figure is a seraph, who recites a poem of praise immortalized in the Jewish liturgy as the קדשה. The sound of his voice is apparently thunderous enough to shake thetemple to its foundations and cause the very air to smoke. Isaiah is dismayed, as even the most pious person might be faced with such raw destructive power,and he declares his misfortune to be observing God when both he, and the people Israel, are unworthy of his presence. In what appears to be a response to this protestation of unworthiness, the seraph then picks up a burning coal and pokes Isaiah in the mouth with it (ouch!), assuring him that the fire of the coal will burn away his sin.

Thus far the chapter’s been pure trip-imagery, and it’s hard to derive any sort of instruction, lesson, or even wild-eyed eschatological prediction from it. The bit about burning away sins one could maybe spin some sort of instruction out of, but it’s a reach. But now finally God speaks, and the text starts to have the flavor of a prediction. God calls for volunteers, and Isaiah puts his hand up eagerly. God then charges him with the mission to speak to Israel, but in a way they can’t understand, so that they close their eyes to the truth and are not in a position to repent of their sins. The morality of this mission isn’t entirely clear to me, but that’s been a constant refrain of mine since the beginning of this project, that God seems to honestly take altogether too much pleasure in having a good excuse to cause destruction. Instructing Isaiah to mislead the people into continuation of their sins and ultimately their own ruination doesn’t seem like a very moral plan, and it doesn’t speak well of Isaiah that he doesn’t question it.

Isaiah’s only objection, in fact, is not to the deceptiveness of the plan but to the indeterminate timeframe. he asks how long Judah must remain deceived, and God promises that they will see their error only when the land has been completely despoiled and its people exiled. If we read this as an actual document of a prophet in the days of King Uzziah, then, woo, this is a good prophecy, as the people of Judah and Israel were in fact exiled; but that’s a lot less impressive if it was eithr authored (as it may have been) or extensively massaged (as it certainly was) by post-exilic authors.

Now, you might see this plan as somewhat analogous to letting someone’s self-destructive behavior hit “rock bottom” instead of enabling or supporting them, the better to get them into a position to accept help. But God isn’t just asking Isaiah to sit idly by his heroin-addicted nation until they’re ready to ask for his help; no, he’s essentially asking Isaiah to take away all the pamphlets from the methadone clinics and addiction-treatment programs which are already in Judah’s house. (I, uh, may be stretching this metaphor to its breaking point)

In any case, the sequence is prophetic but morally perplexing, and closes with a ray of hope. The people and the land will not be wholly decimated, God foreordains, and from a small part (a “tenth” in the text, but I’ll read that as poetic license) they may both recover, growing like a tree from a seed. This feels like it should be a lead-in to a messianic promie, but that isn’t delivered, yet. First we get more fragments of post-Uzziah history, whose appearance in this book of prophecy and verse will remain out-of-place.