Thibble Thursday: Towns that we’d never been to (Isaiah 15)

Still getting back into things after a while out of town. And the semester’s starting again soon. Woo.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah’s most recent wodge of prophecy is a lamentation for some ruined place. It’s not clear why it’s been despoiled or why we should care.

We finally ended the so-called “Babylon Pronouncement”, and we move on to a new one, the “Moab Pronouncement”. Now, just like we did with Babylon, it might not hurt to get some sort of handle on just where and who Moab was, and why they were significant.

Moab was a kingdom east of the Dead Sea, which put it directly east of Judah but inconveniently on the other side of a body of water, crossable, no doubt, but logistically more complicated than overland maneuvers. Moab did share a land boundary with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, though, and could plausibly have invaded Judah through the complicity of their northern frenemy. Significantly, way back in the mythological days of the Exodus, the Israelites invaded Canaan from the east (which, yes, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense geographically) and were approaching Canaan by way of Moab.

Overall, Moabite-Hebrew relations tended to be bumpy, ranging from a war footing to cautious alliance. There’s archaeological evidence of war, and Biblical narratives occasionally mention hostilities (including rebellion in the time of King Ahab, suggesting that Moab had been a vassal state of Israel previously), but they also prominently mention alliance on a personal level at least, in the book of Ruth, which tells the story of a Moabite ancestress of King David.

This personal connection might be important, or it might not. The Deuteronomists had this weird thing about the Davidic dynasty which made pretty much everything which related to King David and his descent unusually elevated in their eyes, but Isaiah comes from a seemingly different tradition, and maybe both traditions preceded the incorporation of the Book of Ruth and its Moabite lineage into the canon anyways.

Moab fell to Assyria pretty soon after the empire rose, and dwindled away under the imperial vassalage of several successive Near East empires (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian), so by the time Isaiah was written, Moab was already emphatically past its glory days and along the road to dissolution. So predicting the ruin of Moab wasn’t a real profound or prescient prophecy, but let’s take it apart anyways.

The text has a certain lyrical quality to it. Now, almost all of Isaiah is somewhat versified, but this chapter hits us over the head with a purely poetic repetition: “Ah, in the night Ar was sacked, Moab was ruined” is repeated verbatim, with “Ar” replaced by “Kir” on the second go-round. Ignoring the self-conscious stylized lamentation, the question is: when and where did this sack happen? Well, nobody really has a clue where either Ar or Kir is or was, but from context we can infer they’re in Moab (Kir is sometimes identified, on the basis of what seems to be no evidence but wishful thinking, with the long-established settlement of Al-Karak in Jordan). Kir gets an offhand mention back in 2 Kings 16 as the site to which the Assyrians deported Aramites after sacking Damascus, which suggests it was by that time already an Assyrian conquest. So Isaiah’s text here might very well be a lamentation for a past event rater than a prophecy after all! It wold certainly explain the use of the past tense.

A vivid description of the mourning among the populace follows. It has symbols common throughout Biblical literature: weeping, wailing, shorn beards and heads, dressing in sackcloth (no ashes, though). Meanwhile, we are assailed with the names of all the places where there is mourning: Dibon, Nebo, Medeba, Heshbon, Elealeh, and Jahaz. Taking these in order, we actually start with what was definitely a site of some importance in Moab. Dibon (or Dhibon) is a real place in Jordan and is the site of the Masha Stele, one of the most significant pieces of Near East archaeology ever and one that links the site closely both to a Moab kingdom and to Israelite subjugation; its presence in a list of significant Moabite sites, then or now, is utterly unsurprising. Nebo is most likely Mount Nebo, and has been previously mentioned in the Bible most significantly as the site of Moses’s death; it also gets mentioned in the Masha Stele as the site of a Moabite victory (and presumably a reclamation of territory) from Israel. Medaba is also an ancient city still around in western Jordan today, so it too is plausibly Moabite by geography (if not by archaeology, AFAIK). Heshbon is no longer occupied but its ruins are in the suburbs of Medaba; Elialah is probably Al’al, a bit further northeast, and finally, Jahaz is also mentioned in the Masha Stele as a liberated city but nobody knows where it is nowadays; a 1984 paper of Dearman provides reasonable evidence that it is the same site as the ruins at Khirbat al-Mudayna, also in the present-day outskirts of Madaba. So these are a cluster of cities which geography and archaeology put in a tight cluster in Transjordan, around the northern tip of the Dead Sea. The interesting part is that Biblical evidence (wth the support of the Masha Stele) suggest that these were at least occasionally also Israelite territory. Joshua 13 explicitly lays out the boundaries of the Tribe of Reuben’s territory as including Dibon, Jehaz, and Heshbon, and having Medaba on its boundary (although since Dhiban is south of Madaba and Heshbon north, Madaba would basically have to be in the territory of Reuben). So interestingly enough either the Bible massively overstates the territorial boundaries of Israel (which is plausible) or Moab had a much more tenuous existence than it seemed. My read here is that Moab definitely had an independent existence between the events described on the Masha Stele (in the reign of King Omri of Israel) and the conquest of Kir by the Assyrians (during or prior to the reign of King Pekah). Notably all of this was history as far as Isaiah or any of his future editors were concerned, and these cities were neither Reubenite nor Moabite any more.

But was the Reubenite history of the cities relevant to this lamentation? Certainly this whole chapter is more mournful than triumphant over Moab’s destruction, reflecting the ambivalent relationship between Judah and Moab (rendered all the more ambivalent by the fact that Northern Israel was frequently antagonistic to both). Probably some of the “Moabites” here are ethnically and culturally Israelites, if the border cities had the tangled history which both the Biblical and archaeological records show. That’s reason enough, perhaps, for Isaiah to declare that “My heart cries out for Moab”.

The rest of the chapter describes the aftermath of conquest. Again, I’m assuming we’re looking specifically at an Assyrian conquest ere, because no other one makes sense and the scale of the destruction described looks kinda like the sort of thing the Assyrians did. There are fugitives, and we get a sense of their route from another list of names: Zoar, Eglath-shelshiyah, Luhith, Horonaim, and the Wadi of Willows. Zoar is probably in the south, based on mentions of it elsewhere; none of the other locations can be even remotely located, although the Wadi of the Willows is tentatively identified by some as Wadi al-Hasa, also located in southwestern Jordan. So an educated guess would be that all the unknown cities are somewhere on a southern route from Madaba, close to the eastern shore of the Dead Sea all the way down to its tip.

So this lamentation, somewhat cliched though it is, gives us a pretty good feel for geography. What it doesn’t give a good view of is the political situation. Everything I’ve said about why, when, or by whom Moab was conquered, or why Isaiah laments for them, is pretty conjectural.

Fortunately, there’s another chapter of explanation coming up, which sheds some light on what in the conquest of Moab deserves mourning. And in that chapter, we’ll see the surprising return of a theme Isaiah hasn’t mentioned for a while.