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.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: Milk and honey (Isaiah 7)

  1. gsanders says:

    I’m just left amused by the image of Isaiah going to Ahaz telling him to request a sign and Ahaz going, “Nah, man, I’m cool.” Perhaps thinking that he’s probably going to be classified as one of those bad Kings and so the less interaction with prophets, the better.

    • Jake says:

      There is honestly no winning when it comes to wanting sings from God. It seems like for every time God says, “You don’t want a sign? What, do you not believe in me, you filthy heretic?” there’s another where he says, “You need a sign in order to have faith in the all-powerful God who’s talking to you right now? What’s the matter with you?” Admittedly, some of those deserved it — by about the fourth or fifth time Gideon needed a pick-me-up (“OK, this time, have the sentry dream about damp barley bread on dry grass”), God had to be rolling his eyes — but all in all there does not seem to be any sort of clear indication as to whether needing a sign is good or bad.

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