Wibble Wednesday: All Politics is Local (Isaiah 10)

Missed two weeks. This chapter’s longish, so it’s hard to really get down to business on it.

Short snarky summary: Assyria is coming to getcha. They’ll get theirs in the end, but for now, the things they are doing are totally sanctioned by God. That’ll teach you to, uh, do all the bad stuff you do.

I’m not sure exactly how Biblical chapter and verse numbering came about, because there’s a pretty good reason to reckon that the first four verses of this chapter actually belong in Chapter 9. Remember that Chapter 9 was a harangue against the iniquities of Israel, with stanzas separated by the chorus “Yet His anger has not turned back, and His arm is outstretched still”. Well, the first four verses of this chapter are a continuation of that exact structure, ending with the aforementioned chorus, and focusing in the stanza on my favorite bit of Isaiah, the calling out of social injustice. The villains are drawn in the usual light: schemers who use “evil writs” and “iniquitous documents” to rob the poor, the widows, and the orphans. However, in this iteration of the social justice fight there’s an eschatological or at least apocalyptical bent: not only are these men evil, but all their ill-gotten gains cannot protect them in the day of reckoning, when they’ll be, as it were, first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

But that’s not really what this chapter is about. The rest of the chapter is a quite explicit discussion of local geopolitics, particularly as regards Assyria. This is, in some ways, the aspect of Isaiah which makes it hard to take seriously as messianic, far-future prophecy. Just as, say, the Revelation of St. John is obviously a veiled and metaphorical reference to the contemporaneous political environment (specifically: Rome and imperial excess), Isaiah frequently slips into a mode which is emphatically not a story of some far-off apocalypse, or even the universal story of injustice, but of the present and immediate issues of Assyrian conquest. And unlike the Revelation, Isaiah is not even remotely coy about its references. In this chapter, Assyria is mentioned by name as God’s weapon against an “ungodly nation”. The charitable read (for Isaiah’s Judahite audience) is that this nation is Israel, as mentioned in the last chapter; an uncharitable read would ascribe the vices of ungodly avarice, and the Assyrian response thereto, to Judah itself. The ambiguity drives a bit of the tension for the rest of the chapter, where Isaiah lays out a specific prophecy of how Assyria will end up interacting with Judah, eventually answering the question: will Assyria destroy Judah? (Spoiler alert: no.)

The motivation of Assyria is gone into a bit, and there’s a vivid image of the nation slipping, as it were, out of God’s control. This may not be the intent of the text, but it’s a read that the nation God empowered to fulfill his wrath has grown too great for safety and is running wild, so puffed up by their victories that they don’t bother to see which nations God has protected and which he hasn’t. This is a bit peculiar in its framing, though: the foe is depicted as stating confidently that Calno, Hamath, and Samaria will be as easy to conquer as Carchemish, Arpad, and Damascus. The weird part is the mix of nations here: four of those cities are Hittite; Damascus is Aramean, and Samaria, as we know is Israelite (Samaria is used elsewhere as a metonym for Israel, especially for Israel’s non-Jerusalemite religious tradition). I’m no sure what the comparison is supposed to be. From a grace-of-God perspective five of these cities are identical in being completely forsaken, and the sixth is one which was apparently the whole point of dispatching Assyria as a mad dog in the first place. God approves of Assyrian conquest of all these places, surely! But in the next verse the conqueror is attributed the prideful boat that, having subdued all these great places, he will next take on Samaria and Jerusalem. So, uh, in case you didn’t notice, Samaria appears twice here, and any way you try to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy (operaing under the assumption that Jerusalem is in the “good” box) you either end up putting Samaria into both categories, or a completely foreign city (Calno and Hamath, or Damascus) in with the worthy.

So the question of whether Assyria will conquer Jerusalem remains up in the air (along with, to some extent, the question as to whether Jerusalem deserves that fate). Verse 12 muddies that issue, since it asserts that God will punish Assyria after he has “carried out all his purpose on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem”, which sure sounds like a reckonging coming to Judah! But it isn’t—remember back in II Kings 19, when Sennacharib besieged Jerusalem and then his entire army was felled by the Angel of Death (a plague, or something?). That’s a certain scourge on Judah, perhaps, but pretty limited. Unmistakably the punishment for Assyria alluded to here are the events of II Kings 19 (which, in the chronology of the work, are presumably still in the future when this prophecy was written, although inasmuch as everything here was at least tweaked by later editors, the prophecy isn’t much of a feat of prognosication). We get a second view into the prideful mind of the Assyrian king: previously glorying in his military might, we next see a boastful claim that all of this is a result of personal virtue: that he, and he alone, has built an empire, destroying nations and pillaging their wealth. My translation even has italics on the word “I” in his soliloquy, which I assume corresponds to some grammatical or semantic element emphasis in the original. So, the message of this section is that the king of Assyria’s great sin is his pride, and his belief that his accomplishments are his own doing, rather than his service as a tool to God. Verse 15 pretty much explicily refutes this viewpoint, putting the notion fo the king as a tool forwards pretty explicitly, metaphorically asking if an ax, or a saw, or a staff would praise its own skill rather than that of the wielder.

The next stanza has a peculiarly ambiguous pronoun referent, talking about the destruction and reduction of some entity, which will suffer “a wasting away in its fatness”, and a burning “destroying frame and flesh… like a sick man who pines away”. The footnote gloss suggests that the subject of this phrase is Israel, but in context it makes a hell of a lot more sense for it to be in reference to Assyria. Consider: the last several verses were all about the improper pride of Assyria, with heavy allusion to its being brought down low. And, indeed, Assyria kind of falls to pieces gradually, starting with the failure of the siege at Jerusalem, not unlike the wasting-away imagery used here (which is kind of inappropriate for Israel, which is in the short term conquered and exiled).

This (apparently disfavored) interpretation also works harmoniously with the next section, wherein it is asserted that in that time (i.e. when Assyria, or possibly Israel, has succumbed to its wasting away), Israel will cease to rely on its abuser (Assyria) and will come to rely on God instead. This is actually a bit confusing, because Israel never relied on Assyria; Judah, under King Ahaz, brokered a peace with Assyria against their common foe of Israel (see 2 Kings 16 for the gory details). SO the idea of “Israel and the House of Jacob” relying on Assyria is kind of weird. Judah might work, because Judah did in fact rely on Assyria, only to a generation laer be attacked (albeit unsuccessfully) by them, but then we have a problem with the “in that day” suggestion that after escaping the bonds of their oppressor, only a small portion of the House of Jacob will remain. After all, Sennacharib’s siege on Jerusalem didn’t depopulate Judah! And Israel was already decimated and exiled by then. So I find the question of just who is oppressing who, and when hey are supposed to get their comeuppance, awfully vague in this section. We could use fewer pronouns here, I guess I’m saying.

But, anyways, God is carrying out a “decree of destruction upon all the land”, but then, we’re immediately reassured, that those who live in Zion (Judahites) need not fear Assyria, who will soon be used up and themselves the targets of God’s wrath, like previous oppressors of the Hebrews. Specifically, the king of Assyria will be ppunished just like the Egyptians (in Exodus, of course) or the Midianites at the Rock of Oreb (that’s a reference to the Judge Gideon, who killed the Midianite general Oreb at the rock named after him).

What follows is essentially a poetic retelling of the siege of Jerusalem. The preface is that on the day of victory Assyria’s yoke will fall from Judah’s neck “because of [Judah’s] fatness”, which I can’t quite interpret, because it’s not Judahite prosperity so much as divine fate that drives back the Assyrians. The following text includes a lot of geographical details of Assyria’s route into Judah: how at certain stations the Assyrian army scattered the people before them, crossed rivers, dropped off a depot, etc., but basically it describes an approach from the north, which is both the obvious way to get to Jerusalem and the easiest route for an Assyria which has just gobbled up Judah’s northern neighbor. So there’s a list of communities and notable places, arranged roughly north-to-south, terminating just outside of Jerusalem where the Assyrian king beckons the army onwards to pillage.

The nature of that pillaging (which will be pivotal for the next chapter) is presented in arboreal terms, with the destruction of Zion (and of the environs of Jerusalem) put in terms of the chopping down of trees, with forest thickets cut back, lofty trees felled, and the prized Lebanon cedars being dropped. This may be metaphorical for the general destruction and scouring of the land, or it could be talking about the literal vegetation around Jerusalem and its destruction by the oncoming army.

The next chapter, though, is totally going to take all those tree stumps and use them metaphorically.

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

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