Wibble Wednesday: The scent of jasmine (Isaiah 17)

Things is busy now, and I should be doing other stuff, but this is worthwhile, I reckon.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah is either wrong, or exaggerating, or predicting a future which hasn’t come yet. Once again we teeter between the elegiac and the triumphalist in discussing ruined cities.

Every chapter or pair of chapters for some time seems to be focused on a specific ancient center of civilization. We’ve seen Babylon and Moab, and this chapter is now the first half of the “Damascus” pronouncement. Like the two previous pronouncements, this one is a prophecy of doom. Just like in the two previous cases, it probably behooves us to have some idea what it’s talking about.

Anyone who reads the news, of course, knows where Damascus is. It’s in Syria. The ancient city of Damascus was in pretty much the same place. The earliest settlement there might indeed be very old, but the place clearly starts showing up on geopolitical maps as somewhere to watch out for in the mid-to-late Bronze Age. In particular it is the capital city of the nation of Aram (which is sometimes called Aram-Damascus; that’s how central Damascus was to that kingdom). The Arameans were off to the northeast of Israel, which put them far enough from Judah that there wasn’t much interaction between the two states. On the other hand, Aram was one of Norther Israel’s more significant neighbors and the Biblical account suggests pretty much constant tension and occasional war. There’s a lot of cultural common ground though: Aramaic would become a major language of Judaism in exile, and the Arameans themselves were a Semitic people like the Hebrews. Eventually, Damascus fell to the same guys who overran everyone in the Near East, namely, the damn Assyrians. Those guys are everywhere, particularly in Isaiah’s pronouncements, so we’re following a common theme here. Incidentally, 2 Kings 16 credits Judah with an assist on that conquest: in a rare moment of alliance, Israel and Aram ganged up on Judah, while Judah pled with Assyria for assistance. That achieved their goals short-term, but left Judah immediately threatened by Assyria, which became a crisis in Hezekiah’s reign.

A notable footnote with regard to Isaiah’s prophecy: Damascus wasn’t actually razed. Assyria kept it as a vassal city, and it then passed from hand to hand as one after another empire swept through the Near East. Many centuries later it would become one of the jewels of the Islamic world. But the big takeaway is that, subjects and captives though the Aramites may have been, they appear to have been in continuous residence of this same city for a very long time. It’s entirely possible the modern Syrians are descended, at least in part, from the Arameans.

I provide all this dreary history mostly to put it all in stark contrast to the first prediction of Isaiah’s most recent declaration: “Damascus shall cease to be a city; it shall become a heap of ruins.” Most of Isaiah’s descriptions track pretty well onto specific aspects o the Assyrian conquest. This one really doesn’t. For a start, the Assyrian conquest of Aram was too early: that happened way back during the reign of Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, and we already saw the fallout from that back in Isaiah 7. For another thing, Damascus remained. it emphatically wasn’t ruined then, nor was it depopulated and destroyed in any of the following years.

For a messianic read, of course, this isn’t a problem, but up until now I’ve been able to get a pretty solid argument going that Isaiah’s really about local events in time and place and that messianism is a stretch. So I’m kind of loathe to use that cop-out, although better Bible scholars than me don’t have a problem with it.

So, anyways, after we’re told that Damascus (and its outlying areas) will be depopulated and laid waste, we move to another unusual verse, which equates temporal power from “Ephraim” and that of Damascus. That’s an odd juxtaposition, because Ephraim, as we’ve seen before, is a tribe of Israel typically used as a metonym for the whole northern kingdom. But Israel and Aram aren’t the same place! Or are they? Certainly at some point in this timeframe they were allies, since they ganged up on Judah. Maybe Aram was much closer to Israel than we thought; after all, I’ve operated under the impression that Judah and Northern Israel were never really unified, and that the closest they got was a cultural kinship and occasional alliance. Isn’t Aram kind of in the same boat, as a Semite people with some historical claims of kinship to the House of Jacob? For all we know all three of these kingdoms were regarded as part of the same sprawling “peoples”. Certainly that explains the next stanza, where Isaiah predicts that “the mass of Jacob shall dwindle”, which makes plenty of sense if that mass also includes Aram. The decimation of Jacob (whether Aram or Israel or both) is put in some colorfully violent agricultural terms, which would’ve made a lot of sense ot people around this time. So the victim of this despoliation is compared to wheat that has been reaped, or an olive tree that’s been beaten, in each case with only a few tiny productive bits remaining.

The next stanza turns to afairly predictable theme of Isaiah’s. Destruction can go a couple of ways. It can be deserved, in which case triumphal mockery continues, or piteous, in which case the next theme is one of charity, or it can be chastisement, in which case the next theme is repentance. Aram is basically “Even Norther Israel”, so it gets to be a Hebrew nation for whom the scourging of fate is meant to be corrective. And thus the end result of all this death and destruction is that the people turn with renewed vigor to god, sashing their idols and whatnot. But atonement is apparently not yet complete, because immediately following the verses describing contrition, Isaiah promises that the land will remain a desolation, because the people are still not truly returned to God.

The next verse though, focuses on the conquerers. In context, that pretty much has to be the Assyrians, if we want this to make any sense as a contemporary prophec and not a messianic promise. Certainly the description of “Nations raging like mighty waters” sounds a lot like the Assyrians, because no other player in local nation-building rated that kind of description at that ppoint But interestingly, he then turns to how these peope, too will be driven and humbled before God. We’ve sort of seen that theme before, back in Chapter 14, where God promises to crush Assyria after they had served their purpose. Those promises at least, in a contemporary-to-Isaiah consideration of the prophecies, is authentically a statement of things to come.

Next up: how will Aram handle liberty from the Assyrians?


Tasting the Conspiracy, item L13: Beef with Snow Peas

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Oy, fallen way behind again. I still remember them all pretty well though.

Beef with Snow Peas

Yup, that’s beef, alright. With snow peas. And carrots. Nobody said there would be carrots!

What exactly is this dish? Slices of stir-fried beef with snow peas, just like it says on the tin, but in addition to snow peas, there are also carrots. There was also a single water chestnut, which I can only assume was a mistake. All the vegetables are fairly lightly cooked, to keep some snap and crunch. Of course there’s sauce too, and it’s exactly the brown sauce you expect. Oh well, they can’t all be imaginative.

How authentically Chinese is it? I’ve done my “veggies in brown sauce” spiel many times by now, and the capsule version is that protein and veggies stirfried in a simple soy-and-ginger sauce is something it’s reasonable to believe Chinese people probably would eat because it’s kind of the obvious way to combine a bunch of standard ingredients. That having been said: while snow peas are absolutely a traditional part of Chinese cuisine (both the pods and the young leaves, the latter of which is not really popular in America), it seems to usually favor a simpler presentation as a side dish rather than accenting a meat dish. I’m sure this combination has been eaten in China, because you don’t get 1.3 billion people without some of them trying out every viable permutation of your cuisine, but I’m not sure it would be regarded there as a particularly distinguished variation on the plain mix-and-match stirfry.

Is it any good? It works for me. Beef is a bit tough (at least in a stirfry) and the textural meatiness of it contrasted well with the crisp crunch on the vegetables. The brown sauce was, eh, a brown sauce. Within any specific class of dishes there’s straight-up not a lot of variation. But this was a reasonably good representative of the family.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce was pretty thin. Rice that I shoved into the entree side of the container picked up some oily, beefy flavor, but it mostly wanted soy sauce to give it flavor in the end.

Wibble Wednesday: Darkest before Dawn (Isaiah 16)

Class is back in session, and I have been slammed. Hopefully I can get back into a rhythm here, though.

Short snarky summary: Now that Moab’s been fucked over comprehensively, we’re allowed to feel sorry for them.

So, last chapter was a great deal of lamentation over a (possibly future, possibly past) wholesale destruction of Judah’s not very friendly neighbor Moab. It wasn’t very clear in that chapter why Moab was being mourned, but in this chapter a compassionate tone returns: Isaiah bids the people of Judah welcome and shelter the fugitives of war. It’s a refreshing return to a theme which had been for some time eclipsed by Messianism and various forms of triumphalism: the central message of social justice we saw in the early chapters of Isaiah. Moab as a nation may have been an enemy of Judah, but Moabites individually, shellshocked, lost, and wandering along the rivers into Judahite territory, deserve not contempt but comfort.

This asylum is, however, linked closely to another verse which suggests the time being spoken of hasn’t yet come, becauuse the justification for providing such a safe harbor careens firmly back into Messianism, putting forward the utopian view of a nation untroubled by violence, and ruled in goodmess “in the tent of David”. The reference to David is ambiguous because it could be a reference specifically to the Judahite royal line, or to the Messiah alluded to in Isaiah 11 as growing “from the stuump of Jesse” Or to both, if we bu into the notion that these two descendants of David are the same. It could even be a reference to Hezekiah, who brokered truces after successfully weathering Assrian assault.

The reference to David in the specific context of discussing Moab is interesting, however, since it’s established geneology in the book of Ruth that David is in fact of Moabite ancestry. A fair amount of scholarship, however, places the authorship of the Book of Ruth later than Isaiah, so this may be a reference unsupported by the actual chronology of events, depending on whether the notion that David was of Moabite stock was kicking around even before the Book of Ruth. In any case, the Messianic ruler of Judah is put foorth as a good reason why Judah should and will open its arms to the friendless and the stranger, which makes sense thematically, although it’s a side of the messianic promise we haven’t seen: not only conquest and peace, but also charity.

The next verse (16:6) is quoted in my edition, although no speaker is given. God, I suppose, because the words are a judgment on Moab’s iniquities of pride, for which the nation is deserving of destruction But then, from this one verse of triumph, the mood bounces right back to the elegiac, mourning for the destruction of Moab’s vineyards, and its grapevines, and its winepresses… damn, the mourner here seems to perceive the tragedy mostly through a very specific Moabite agricultural product! Maybe they don’t give a damn about the nation or people of Moab at all, but were just very fond of Moabite wines. It’s on account of all this wine-making paraphernalia that the speaker apparently mourns for Moab and Kir-heres. Nobody knows, incedentally, what this second place is. It might or might not be the same as the Kir-hareseth mourned for several verses earlier as a source of raisin-cakes (seriously, Isaiah, I’m pretty sure there are interesting aspects of Moab that aren’t made of grapes), or even the Kir mentioned back at the beginning of Chapter 15. “Kir” literally means “walled locale” (i.e. fortress or walled city), so it’s possible that Moab contained lots of fortifications with close variants on the same name starting with “kir”.

So this chapter is pretty short, closing out the so-called “Moab pronouncement”, but after the final elegy for destroyed Moab, the text returns to prose just long enough to finally give us a notion of when all this happened or will happen: god has decreed for the great diminution of Moab to happen in three years. Given that these words are supposedly) spoken by Isaiah, whose lifetime we can definitively link to the events of Assyria’s rise and aggression, my read on this is that it refers to Moab being overrun by the Assyrian empire, since the chronology works right and that definitively did squash Moab as an independent nation for some time. There’s very little good archaeological evidence for the extent, in time or place, of Moabite hegemony, which means our estimates of just when the nation finally collapsed are a big uncertain smear running from the Assyrian conquest through to the ascent of the Persian Empire. That’s a pretty long and active length of history where we can neiter confirm nor deny Moab independence. Could they have been definitivel crushed and exiled by the Assyrians? Entirely possible, and definitely consistent with the lament and proposed timeline in this pronouncement.