Thibble Thursday: New Day Dawning (Isaiah 9)

Summer’s here. No excuse to not do this every week.

Short snarky summary: A new day of great joy is too come! The most joyful part of it, of course, will be when evildoers get what’s coming to them.

This chapter as a whole has a lyrical, poetic structure. There’s a repeated motif (a chorus, if you will) in between verses on individual topics. Structurally, it is very much a poem, or possibly even a song. Contentwise, though, it’s hard to know what to make or it, because i seems to be a messianic song of redemption stapled messily to an awfully vindictive tale of wrath. Is the future good or bad for Israel and Judah? This chapter is, to say the least, ambiguous on that point, because neither the jubilee nor the wrath seems to be targeted at a specific subset of the Hebrew people, so it’s not as if the good, kind, just people are designated for redemption while the greedy and the cruel are the targets of the wrath. I can’t quite bridge this tonal shift, so maybe as we work through it I’ll see a better way of looking at it that will make it make sense.

The first several verses set forth a tale of joy and peace: light dawning where there was dark, joy where there was once misery, and the destruction of all instruments of oppression. The last of these is a pretty standard social-justice theme of Isaiah, and it goes into fairly explicit detail cataloging the ephemera of the oppressor: yokes and sticks to torment the people, boots to stamp on them with, and “garments donned in infamy”. OK, the picture of slavery might have broken down there wih that last bit.

Further on within this same theme, there will be more discussion of the bounties of joy and peace and plenty, but before we get to that, we take a short dodge into the explicitly messianic, Like, literally, as in a significant section of the text of Handel’s Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is taken from this verse. We’ve seen a lot of fate-imbued children in the last few chapters: Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Chapter 8, and Immanuel in Chapter 7. Both of these children’s births, however, have been more put forward as a sign of change than as the agent of change in their own right, whereas this child will have “authority settled on his shoulders”, giving him a more active role in bringing forth the golden age. A discussion of his name (or what he is called in this particular verse) calls attention to a difference between Jewish and Christian messianism, if I read it right: the Hebrew read is that his name is roughly “God is everlasting, the Prince of Peace”, which is pretty much in line with the sort of names attributed to pious characters throughout the Bible, whereas the Christian take is broadly that his name is “Everlasting God, the Prince of Peace”. That’s a significant difference in interpretation which plays out profoundly theologically, since mainstream Judaism has never attributed divinity to the messiah, whereas mainstream Christianity does. There might be a chicken-and-egg question as to whether the theology affected the interpretation or vice versa, but it’s a point of some interest here.

(Incidentally, on the subject of this parade of children, I’m not sure what standard commentary is on how many of these kids are the same, in either tradition. OK, I know that Christian theology typically equates the Immanuel of Chapter 7 with the messiah of Chapter 9 and elsewhere (and all of these figures with Jesus, of course), but I don’t know if Jewish interpretation also considers Immanuel the messiah, or how Maher-shalal-hash-baz fits into any of this.)

This block of text, with that messianic interjection, ends much as it began: that peace and justice will emanate from the throne of David. It’s heavily implied, if not stated outright, that the child “with authority on his shoulders” is in fact the heir of David (and standard messianism in both religions holds that the Messiah is from the line of David).

But next we move into a completely different prophecy, one which feels diametrically opposed to what we’ve just read. After the beautiful vision of a shining future of peace and prosperity, we get a harangue set in, as far as I can tell from my translation, the present tense and discussing God’s wrath and why Israel deserves it. Maybe the tense shift (now versus later) explains the dichotomy, although it’s a bit backwards from the rhetorically effective way to do this: present the crappy present first, and then the potential for the future. Either way, the sins credited to Israel are the ones we’ve seen before: greed and haughtiness, and lack of true justice. The framing is interestingly placed in the midst of the disaster: that Israel (presented through the metonym of Ephraim and Samaria, which we’ve seen before), having fallen prey to disaster, boastfully proclaims that they’ll rebuild but even better than before (specifically: stone instead of brick, cedar instead of sycamore), and that this prideful self-confidence is why God brought enemies to raze and loot the land.

At the end of this condemnation of self-confidence, we get the first of three repetitions of the chorus “Yet his anger has not turned back, and his arm is outstretched still”. I must admit I like this repetition and the structure it brings to this chapter, perhaps more than I should. It matches the themes of a present-tense wrath, and it has a lyrical quality which works.

The next stanza continues to itemize the tribulations God will bring forth. It starts with the phrase “For the people has not turned back to Him who has struck it,” which has an unsettling domestic-violence vibe, but I suppose that particular read in the God/israel relationship has always been there. The punishment to be exaced on Israel for this crime is to have their heads and tails cut off. But this is not a literal threat that Israelites will be decapitated, as the text hastens to mention! Raher, the people’s (corrupt) leaders are the heads, and the false prophets and counselor the tails. because these particular representatives of the people are so very wicked, apparently God will show them no mercy and strike them down. Already, Isaiah says, their wickedness has spread like fire, burning all it touches. There are specific victims of the unholy fire of Israel’s leaders’ wickedness given, but they all seem metaphorical: thorns, thistles, and forest all succumb to the spreading blaze. It would be cool if there were some context for reading these different types of vegetation as different aspects of the state and its people, but no dice.

The final stanza gets down to some specific natural disasters and large-scale human disasters. God’s fury apparently shakes the earth, which suggests some reference to an earthquake: there apparently was a major earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, which goes unmentioned in 2 Kings but appears prominently in the book of Amos. Also prophecied is civil strife, with every man raiding his kinsmen, with Ephraim against Manasseh and vice versa, and then both against Judah. It’s not clear what specific events in the histories of the two nations these prophecies refer to, but there’s a surfeit of choices: Israel had perpetual internal conflict, particularly over the succession oof kings who met violent ends at the hands of usurpers, and thy also occasionally opened hostilities against Judah, with whom relationships ranged from cold civility to outright war. So while I don’t have a single obvious reference for Isaiah’s prophecied war and discord, his prophecy certainly picks up on the general tenor of the times.

finally, this pronouncement of woe ends with the third (and thus rhythmically most powerful) repetition of the promise that God is not yet done with Israel’s punishment, the prophecy ends, as if Isaiah was saying, with his final repetition of the chorus: “Show’s over, folks. Go home.”

Next time: a final callback to the wrath of these stanzas, and more tedious local politics.

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

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