Fribble Friday: Gang Aft Aglay (Isaiah 8)

Spring break. A surprisingly busy spring break, but I’m still going to make time to write about Biblical stuff, although I’m running a bit behind schedule.

Short snarky summary: Judah is doomed. Probably they shouldn’t have attracted the attention of the Assyrians. God’s still with them though, even in conquest. Isaiah’s son is all mixed up in this somehow.

This chapter is really opaque, and it reads even more explicitly as a short-term prophecy than the last one did. It could be spun into messianism by someone minded to do so, but I am increasingly of the opinion that the messianic read of Isaiah is taking an awful lot of passages out of what is not a particularly mysterious current-events context and inserting them into a not-entirely-justified large scale eschatological reading.

So in this chapter Isaiah is commanded to, essentially, commemorate the birth of his son, by writing his name (the long-winded and apparently meaningful ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’, which apparently translates to “Speedy looting and pillaging”, which is what the Assyrians are going to do), and by testifyiing to his birth and legitimacy in a formal setting. The birth of Isaiah’s son, like the “Emmanuel” of the last chapter, is meant to serve as a sort of timeline of coming events: before he learns to speak, Assyria will despoil the land of Samaria. This part is certainly true, timeline-wise; Israel is about to get hammered pretty hard by Judah’s Assyrian allies. God insisting his prophets use their own family life to demonstrate prophetic principals is not unique to Isaiah; just wait until we get to Hosea, who is commanded to marry a prostitute to tech Israel a lesson about faithlessness.

God then delivers a prophecy in verse, which feels vaguely messianic to a modern reader but is pretty explicitly referential to current events, to the extent of including a specific reference to the king of Assyria. The verse is essentially a lament for the people of Judah, who have spurned God’s aid (I guess God is really, really irked by Ahaz’s polite rebuff in the last chapter of a demonstration of his power). Judah is specifically excoriated for rejecting “the gently flowing waters of Siloam”, an intriguingly specific rand slightly anachronistic eference to a particular dramatic incident in Judeo-Assyrian relations. During Ahaz’s reign, Siloam was just a spring and pool near Jerusalem. But during the reign of his son Hezekiah, the pool was diverted into an artificial underground waterway. This bit is historically sound; the tunnel itself still exists, and dates back to Hezekiah or earlier, and was indeed an aqueduct which brought water into the city of Jerusalem. Sennacharib besieged Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah, and the siege was broken by a mysterious plague among the Assyrians, but it would’ve ended differently, and a whole lot sooner, if Jerusalem had no water sources (Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash wanders into discussing this incident too, drawing a connection between informational hygiene and pure water supplies and, uh, yeah, it’s not exactly an orthodox read of the siege of Jerusalem). But coming back to what Isaiah’s talking about here: the tunnel of Siloam was to be Judah’s pride and salvation back in the days of Hezekiah, lauded as a time of great faith and of adherence to the law. Spurning “Siloam” here really seems to be about turning their backs not specifically on artificial waterworks, but on the values which were considered to define that period. The weird thing is the ahistoricality of it all. The great faith in God and in civil engineering which marked Hezekiah’s reign isn’t something people in Ahaz’s day had turned their back on, because it hadn’t happened yet.

Continuing the theme of waterways, the grace of God as embodied by the Siloam is contrasted with “the mighty, massive waters of the Euphrates”, which metaphorically are the massive, destructive force of the Assyrian Empire, which will flood Judah and ruin it. The next verse suggests, however, that all is not lost—that God is with Judah, and because of that, uh, they’ll be utterly broken and doomed to failure. No, seriously, that’s the gist of the text, and I’m wondering if maybe I’m attributing the failure and ruination to the wrong people. The pronouns are a bit vague. Maybe because God is with Judah, all the other peoples of the world are doomed to failure? That doesn’t really work thematically; the Assyrian and Babylonian and suchlike empires don’t end up so much broken and foiled in their plans as eventually collapsing under their own weight. I don’t quite know what to make of this because I’m pretty sure I’m misreading it, but it doesn’t make sense in any reading I can think of: it doesn’t make sense to suggest the conquering empires will fail, because they don’t and won’t, in the short term; it doesn’t make sense to assert the ruination and failure of Judah as a consequence of God’s favor, because that’s completely nonsensical. I’d welcome a different read because mine doesn’t work at all.

The next verse of the prophecy continues this somewhat bewildering theme. It starts out sensibly enough, suggesting that faith in God is more important than faith to the judgments of man, and that one must keep firm in devotion despite how out of step it might be with the prevailing trends. But then the second half of the same prophecy is all about how God’s love will be “a trap and a snare for those who dwell in Jerusalem”. It is honestly not clear how Isaiah (and by proxy, God) feels about Judah or Israel. Maybe he’s talking about the post-Exile dwellers in Jerusalem? That’s the closest I can get to a coherent read on this verse declaration of faith in God, that the ruination predicted in the second half is for the occupiers, not the Jewish residents. But that feels like a very tenuous reading.

We then return to prose for the conclusion, which is that Isaiah and those who believe his words shall suffer in silence and wait patiently. Ephatically they will not, he says, take refuge in divination. When redemption comes, he says, we’ll know, and until then we need to wait patiently. Any who seek for solace in witchcraft (“ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and moan”, according to the text, in a delightful turn of phrase) will only end up disappointed and frustrated, seeing nothing but despair.

After this caution against trying to foresee the day of redemption, we have a final verse (8:23, which is relabeled as 9:1 in most translations of the Bible but not in my Tanakh) which meanders back into the murk of vague prophecy. There’s a precondition described for redemption of the land, involving “the former king” bringing “abasement to the land of Zebulon and Naphtali”. Who’s this former king? Well, Zebulon and Naphtali are part of Israel,so maybe it’s an Israelite king? One shortly prior to the Assyrian conquest? hat would be the puppet Hoshea, or his predecessor Pekah, I suppose? Both were arguably humiliating monarchs for Israel (the former for the nation being conquered on his watch; the latter for serving as a vassal to the conquerors).

Another note on this strange construction: why Naphtali and Zebulon in particular? The typical tribal metonym for Israel up until now has been Ephraim (the tribe of Jeroboam, and the tribal territory containing Samaria). What’s significant about Naphtali and Zebulon to lead them to be called out now? Well, their tribal territories formed the north central part of Israel. If we were prooftexting against Christianity (which is not a chronologically justifiable approach) we’d note with interest that the Naphtali/Zebulon zone contains several sites of interest, particularly Nazareth and the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Presumably from a New-Testament-inspired viewpoint that choice of tribes acquires additional rsonance, but I have no idea what it might have meant to Isaiah, or been meant to convey to a pre-Christian audience.

Anyways, the “prior” king will bring shame to Israel and its destruction, while the “later” will “bring honor to the Way of the Sea” through Galilee and trans-Jordan. I guess the presumption is that Naphtali will become powerful through its control of the sea and of the river? To a Christian reader, I imagine the “later king” is Jesus, and the glory he brings to Galilee is simply his origin there, but to a non-Christian view this reads much more as some sort of commentary on the practical, logistical role which control of waterways plays in the rise and fall of nations. And who is that “later king”? Well, if you don’t force it into a messianic read, there aren’t a lot of choices; Israel’s been dissolved as a nation, remenber.

More prpohecy next week! Maybe we’ll eventually cycle back to the social-welfare gospel, because I kinda liked that part and I am finding this prophetic stuff a bit opaque.

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

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