Wibble Wednesday: The furthest shore (Isaiah 18)

Oh, man, my semester got busy fast and this fell by the wayside. Well, on break for a little while now, and I have no excuse not to get back into this.

Short snarky summary: All the gentiles are going to get it from God. Even the far-away ones.

So previously there was a tale of liberation of Aram from a conquering foe who we can only assume was the Assyrians. This chapter, contextually, appears to be the triumphant actions of the Arameans. Or maybe not; it depends how closely you assume this text hews to the notion of being a pronouncement about Damascus. Anyways, the important issue is that whoever is taking the actions in this chapter, they appear to be a Semitic culture somewhere in “greater Israel”, i.e. soe combination of Judah, Northern Israel, and/or Aram. Several stanzas are devoted to indicating that word is being sent to far-off and obscure places. Messengers are dispatched “beyond the rivers of Nubia” to “a nation of gibber and chatter, whose land is cut off by streams, which sends envoys by sea”. Most of the geography we’ve been treated to so far is local, inasmuch as every site described so far is in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, western Syria, or eastern Egypt. The Biblical history at this point is frankly very provincial; only the Persian Empire really disperses the Hebrews definitively. So when they talk about somewhere past Nubia (i.e. southern Egypt), that’s basically off the edge of the map as far as they’re concerned. The particular waterways and seacoast described render the whole description a bit murky—are we talking about the coast of Sudan, maybe?—but that may just bea part of the lyrical aspects talking about their foreign tongues and remoteness tobe taken as symbolic of a place way off across rivers and seas. It’s not even obvious they’re talking particularly about Africa; Nubia itself might be a stand-in for “far-off places”.

Anyways, what message is Israel sending to these far-off lands? Basically, it’s that God is coming and that none of the faithless will be spared. I might file this one under “quasi-eschatological”, in that it implies a more global scope to God’s great purge of the unclean. The symbols of a flag being raised and a shofar sounding seem symbolic: those were common ways of communicating one’s presence and power, and happened a lot even when there wasn’t divine wrath being administered. But the prophesied followup is definitely wrathful, with the enemy nations likened to grape arbors due to have their branches lopped off and their twigs pruned, and then left to norish birds and beasts. It’s pretty potent imagery, and presented poetically.

In the final verse, which presumably chronologically follows this defeat, there is a repetition of description from the beginning of the chapter: still discussing faraway lands, where they speak foreign languages, and so forth. But now Israel isn’t sending messengers, but the travel is going the other way, as all these selfsame lands send tribute back to Zion. The repetition of the invocation of faraway lands together with the reversal of the transit, strikes me as pretty catchy. So many of these chapters seem thrown together a bit pell-mell, and it’s kind of nice to find one where there’s an overarching structure.

And that, apparently, is all Isaiah has to say about Damascus. Didn’t have much to do with Damascus by the end, I’m afraid, but next week (or month, or year, or something) Isaiah’s going to start in on a whole new target.