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?

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

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