Wibble Wednesday: Hanging Gardens (Isaiah 13)

Man, this week’s chapter is kinda rough sledding. But I’ll try to figure it out, because that’s the whole point of this exercise.

Short snarky summary: Bad apocalyptic shit is coming down from on high. Medes and Babylonians are involved, somehow.

Chapter 13 is the first of several prophecies which are identified with a geographic region. This one is the “Babylon” prophecy, which is somewhat topical seeing as how, in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was ascendant in world affairs to the extent that, generations after the historical figure of that name died (assuming, as all available texts suggest, that Isaiah prophecied roughly in the time of King Hezekiah), they would actually conquer Judah. Now, this is all a bit anachronistic here, because any significant interactions between Babylon and Judah were still decades, maybe even a century, past Isaiah, but assuming the Book of Isaiah was heavily massaged by future authors, Babylon is a sensible thing to have Isaiah be talking about.

The verses of this chapter are more than a little cryptic and weirdly lacking in referents. The first several verses describe the mustering of an army: raising standards on a hill and beckoning forth “purified guests”, “[God’s] stalwarts”, and “proudly exultant ones”. I basically have no idea who these entities are. Babylonians, called forth to raze a sinful Judah? The Persians, who eventually gobbled up a decadent and weak Babylon? Angels, taking who-knows-what part? The heroic language tends towards the third interpretation—why would Isaiah praise the gentiles in such terms?—but the text is rather focused on a clash of terrestrial nations, so it’s hard to know what to make of it. My translation glosses the notion that the “purified guests” is a reference to a metaphorical feast, after the ritual slaughter of a massacre (of Judahites? of Babylonians? of someone else?). That interpretation somewhat raises more questions than it answers, to my mind.

From verse 4 onwards the murk lifts, somewhat. God is assembling together “nations” who “come from a distant land”. So by this point we’re unambiguously talking about ordinary terrestrial war-hosts. The Persians/Achaemenids are a good fit for this description, because they are indeed a culturally and geographically dispersed group which came together for a purpose relevant to Babylon (specifically: conquering it). They’re described as “the weapons of [God’s] wrath”,b ut that’s the same kind of language used about the Assyrians in Chapter 10, and it’s an established principle that Isaiah regards the nations of the world as tools in the big game of Populous that God’s playing.

After these two stanzas of describing the prologue to war, there is an interpolation with a completely different tone which is either a metaphorical description of war or an apocalypse which crept randomly into a story of national conflict. The first stanza works OK for either war or total destruction: it describes how people will quail in terror at the coming of all this wrath. There’s a lot of language of illness used here: fear producing feverish shivering, spasms like those of pregnancy, and faces flushed with fear and anxiety. But all in all this is, although colorful, a straightforward enough description of how people might react to the coming of a strong and dangerous foe.

But from verse 9 onwards we veer out of the realm of the mundane and into a strangely apocalyptic vision. The earth will be laid waste, the sun and moon and stars blotted out. This is much more “End Times” than “Change of the Guard”, as it were, and it honestly feels like an interpolation from a completely different prophecy. Verse 11 backs away from this a bit, discussing less the celestial and universal issues as the wasting of the entire earth and cosmos, and returning to a much more comfortable theme, the affliction of the comfortable. The usual villains make a showing: the haughty, the tyrannical, the arrogant, the undifferentiated evil. It’s implied that nearly everyone belongs to one of these groups, for after God destroys them all, “people will be scarcer than fine gold”.
So, all in all, we’re given a strong vision of cataclysm, but, it must be said, a cataclysm which seesaws crazily between the ordinary and the supernatural. The next stanza starts with a vow to shake heaven, which sure seems supernatural, but the events described sound like a much more commonplace sort of destruction: men fleeing in terror, seeking fo safety, and when they don’t move fast enough they’re killed, their babies dismembered, their wives raped, and so forth. Commonplace atrocities of war, really (at least by Bronze/Iron Age standards).

These stanzas (verses 6 to 16) feel kind of like a different story really, because before we got into the widespread wrath and destruction, we had a notion of nations rising up to destroy one people (either the Judahites or the Babylonians, it’s still not clear). In verse 17 we return to a local political context, because God specifically promises to raise up the Medes, “who do not value silver or delight in gold”, and are thus pitiless and implacable. Some of that is definitely propaganda, but the Medes were a significant group in the Mesopotamian power struggles of the time. They were instrumental in toppling the Assyrians (so the people persecuted above might even be the Assyrians, really), formed an uneasy peace with Babylon, and were then along with Babylon swallowed by the Persian Empire. So the presence of the Medes here certainly suggests that the people being persecuted in this chapter might actually be Assyrians, notwithstanding the name of the prophecy. Certainly the Medes were never really in much of a position to do much to Israel or Judah (at any given time, either Assyria or Babylon was in between), and the occasional hostilities between Media and Babylon never flared into the apocalyptic fury described here, so Assyria’s really the only possible victim here, which seems wrong somehow, but it’s the only way the geography makes sense.

But then…. isn’t this the “Babylon prophecy”? Shouldn’t it say something about Babylon? It finally does, in its final stanza, and it only makes things more confusing right when I thought I knew when and where we were talking about here. See, apparently Babylon, “glory of kingdoms”, is to be conqueredby God, made a complete desolation. Oops. See, this means that the aggressors are the Persians, and I guess Media was part of the Achaemenid Empire before it overthrew Babylon? Sure. We;ll go with that. But this is all massively anachronistic: in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was a tribute city, under the firm control of Assyria; it wasn’t an Assyrian city and couldn’t serve as a metonym for Assyria itself, but from any reasonable point of view at the time had already fallen, between its time as a significant Sumerian city-state and before its rebirth at the center of a new Babylonian Empire. So this whole chapter feels like an unfortunate stew of anachronism and tonal clashes. Not sure what to make of it, as a whole.

Wibble Wednesday: Shoots and Leaves (Isaiah 11–12)

Back again. Last week I was leaving town Thursday, and all aflutter Wednesday night.

Short snarky summary: There’ll be a Messiah! He’s going to be totally awesome. Here are some cryptic clues which can later be plugged into Jesus’s story to make it fit.

I’m starting to get a feel for Isaiah. He basically has three interconnected themes: (1) people are insufficiently excellent to each other and thus totally unrighteous, maybe even bogus, and so (2) Israel and/or Judah will be afflicted by suffering delivered mostly by the Assyrians but maybe occasionally by other agents, and (3) the beatings will continue until morale is improved by the birth of a harbinger of good fortune named Emmanuel and/or Maher-shalal-hash-baz. This child or children may include any or all of a son of Isaiah and/or a leader of the people. Anyways, the kid(s) will bring about a new era of prosperity and freedom.

Strand (3) is basically Jewish messianism, and thus the forerunner of Christian messianism. One thing I can’t help but notice is the murkiness in this particular theme. The first two are strictly local in time and place: Israelites are bad, Assyrians come and subjugate them, all very neat and tidy and well-supported by the archaeological record. The third is, if connected to those at all, pretty well anchored in a specific series of events and isn’t really relevant past the reign of Hezekiah or at the very latest Cyrus (who notably released the nation of Israel from the Babylonian exile). If we assume Maher-whatsit is Isaiah’s son and that he’s in this somehow, we’re basically not getting much past the broken siege of Jerusalem. So what this is all to say is that the case that Isaiah is unambiguously speaking about a messiah for generations well past his own is actually a lot shakier than either Jewish or Christian conventional thought would have it be.

So, anyways, on to these chapters, which are mostly building on that third theme, which is why I’m so full of ruminations on it. On the tail of Chapter 10’s story of Judah’s ruin, we are given this hopeful sign that “a shoot will grow out of the stump of Jesse”. This is a pretty clear reference, because Jesse is the father of David, and thus the forbear of the entire monarchy of Judah. The “stump” bit is somewhat allusive to the notion that this illustrious figure will come after the royal line has been effectively destroyed, which is to say, after the conquest by Babylon and cessation of the Judahite monarchy. This is the best indication we’ve seen so far that the redemption Isaiah has hinted at is not the breaking of the siege of Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign, but that it will actually come after the fall of Judah. It’s not absolutely confirmatory: one could read Hezekiah as the shoot from the “stump” created by the degeneracy of his father Ahaz without too much of a stretch, but, sure, we can go with the conventional read that a post-Babylonian messiah will arise from the House of Jesse.

To my dismay, nobody takes the contrarian but fully justified view that the Messiah will be descended from one of David’s brothers. They’re the line of Jesse too! But Christan genealogy invariably traces Jesus back to David, in two ways which are perplexing: first, it’s through Joseph, which seems a bit dubious, and second, there are two distinct lineages which don’t agree. There’s a wealth of Christian scholarship on the latter discrepancy which is well beyond my pay grade, but one notable aspect of it jumps out at me: Matthew’s chronology follws the royal line as far as possible, going even into the known members of the Judahite governmnet-in-exile, while Luke’s pretty much immediately veers into non-royal progeny of David’s going by way of his son Nathan. Dunno quite what to make of that, except that “Jesse” seems to be universally regarded as a metonym for “David”, but may well not be referring to the royal line in particular.

So, anyways, this descendant of David: what makes him so special? Well, Isaiah lays out his extraordinary qualities of wisdom and piety, and foresight and insight. These aren’t necessarily put forward as supernatural, although there’s interpretive space to read “he shall sense the truth” as a spiritual power above and beyond mere mortal discernment. He will apparently wield power, although that’s not explicitly stated, because he’ll be in a position to issue just judgments and policies of equity. And here we see a return to the original theme of how true wickedness is inequity: much of the good attributed to this noble scion of Judah is specifically in the realm of equality under law, with the poor and rich treated equally, and the latter dealt harshly with when they abuse their power. So justice is a big theme here, and piety is put forth more as a means to an end.

From the sixth verse on, the text meanders into phrasing which could be read as metaphorical. There’s a lot of famous bits here, starting with “the wolf will lie down with the lamb”, and continuing in that vein with a lot of prophecies of harmony in nature and a cessation of predation or ferocity among beasts. If you want to hew to a minimally supernatural interpretation, this could be thought of as a metaphorical continuation of the previous theme: the people, represented by herds and beasts of burden, will be safe from and living in harmony with their traditional predators, the wealthy.

However you slice it, though, the rule of the messiah is put forward as one of tremendous peace, of widespread piety, and presumably of great plenty. Furthermore, as the text breaks into prose to inform us, God will also redeem the “other part” of his people from Assyria and elsewhere. The gloss in my text suggest this is the Hebrew diaspora, which seems absurd because it is a transparent reference to the Northern Kingdom of Israel: the ones who aren’t of the house of Judah and Jesse, and the ones who actually were conquered by Assyria. In that context, the first ten verses seem to be specific to the Southern Kingdom, which isn;t surprising since they’re the ones to whom Isaiah prophecied, and the ones for whom the line of Jesse is actually still relevant.

The notion that the eleventh verse is about Israel specifically is bolstered by what follows, which is a prophecy essentially of reunification (or unification, if like me you believe that the original unified Kingdom of Israel is a fiction), that “Ephraim” (which here and elsewhere has been taken as a term for Israel, probably because both Samaria and the first Northern king were Ephraimite) and Judah will cease to fight each other and will instead…conquer all their neighbors? This seems kind of at odds with the millennial prophecy of peace we just saw, but I guess Isaiah subscribes to the disappointing notion that justice and equity is only for the in-crowd.

The end of the chapter can be read as a prophecy of either drought or divine waterbending. In a callback to the miracle at the Sea of Reeds in Exodus, Isaiah prophecies that the water will be sent back from the Euphrates to allow Israel to come home over dry land. The water will specifically gaher into seven wadis; I have no idea if there are seven particularly notable accumulation points where a dried-up Euphrates might still have watering holes, or whether it’s just the cross-cultural mystical significance of the number seven being invoked gratuitously.

Chapter 12 is a very short one, consisting pretty much exclusively of a son of joy and gratitude to be sung after the messiah’s redemption. It’s mostly phrases which feel like they’d be in place in the psalms, and might be exactly identical to some of them: “God is my strength and my might”, for instance, feels very familiar, although I’m not sure if the phrasing in the original text is literally identical. My translation (and some others) includes a surprising phrasing naming God; the Hebrew text is יה יהוה, which my (JPS) translation has as “Yah the Lord” and many others give as “Jah Jehovah”, which is simply a transliteration of the phrase. Both words are moderately common references to God (the second word is the tetragrammaton, which is positively everywhere; the first is far less common, with only 46 examples sprinkled through the Bible according to the often illuminating Strong’s concordance). That God has multiple names is pretty well established (and is in fact used for authorship hypotheses when variant names are used in texts of differing styles), but I’m not sure what semantics to read into the juxtaposition of two names of God. It might be theologically deep or it might just be a pleasing euphony. Who knows?