Wibble Wednesday: Pour ten more drops (Isaiah 19)

Yow, it took a while to get back into the swing of a new semester. Sorry I work late on Wednesdays now, so it’s hard to get the energy to write at the end of it.

Short snarky summary: Egypt sucks. Egypt has always sucked, but we spent several books ignoring Egypt, so now we’re going to talk about how they are still unredeemed, but not unredeemable.

So each section of Isaiah for a while have been a pronouncement associated with some place: we saw Babylon, and Moab, and Damascus, and now it’s Egypt’s turn in the hot seat. But the basic impression of these nations has a lot to do with how they’re presented. Moab is basically a Semitic nation like Israel and Judah, so they get talked about in terms of being wayward kin. Babylon and Damascus are contemporary enemies and erstwhile allies, so there’s a more ambivalent attitude there. Egypt, on the other hand, has no current relationship I can divine with Israel, but in their mythohistory—which was probably mythohistory even then—they were the bad guys, the enslavers from whose bondage God freed us with a mighty hand, &c. That animus still burns pretty hot, so you’d be justified and correct in assuming Isaiah’s nation-by-nation prophecy of future judgment does not hold anything remotely nice for Egypt.

And, yup, it’s verse on verse of loving depiction of just how comprehensively Egypt is going to be fucked. God promises to incite civil war, to confound its gods and magicians, and put them under the rule of tyrants. The focus on social breakdown’s a bit unusual: most of the prophesies have started out specifically with external or natural disasters, like war or invasion or famine. But here, up front, there’s a suggestion that the Egyptians themselves will fail, and that their society will crumble from the inside out. That feels like a stronger indictment than the usual externally-caused collapse attributed to these nations, but maybe I’m just reading a higher condemnation of Egypt because I expect one.

Of course, after the first stanza, we move to the affliction of Egypt with natural disaster. And while on the last go-round God came up with ten different ways to do this, here there’s just the big one: drought. Egypt was very dependent on Nile-powered irrigation, so the prediction that “Water shall fail from the seas, rivers dry up and be parched” is a pretty damn serious problem. Isaiah expands on this understated depiction of the drought itself with an exacting report of just how doomed Egypt will be without water: the agricultural products of reeds, rushes, papyrus, and flax are all called out as specifically industries which will cease to exist, and fishing is also called out as another professoion which will vanish (as is dam-building, but it didn’t occur t me that would be likely a steady line of work anyways). It’s all depicted very poetically, with nice parallelism between pole and net fishermen, and flax-carders and weavers. There’s a lot of duality brought forth in this passage which work, rhythmically.

After discussing this physical calamity we bounce right back to social ills, with a long disquisition on the fabled wise men of Egypt. I suppose that was a thing, then as now, the accumulated wisdom of an ancient culture, and Isaiah wants to specifically ridicule those who are the keepers of its knowledge, so there’s discussion of howwise Pharaoh’s advisors are, and how they come from a long and distinguished lineage, but that in that day they will be “led astray by…a spirit of distortion”. Incidentally, it seems that much as God likes screwing with people, he seems to save mind-fucks for Egyptians alone. It was back in Exodus that, specifically to maximize Egypt’s pain, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And now, he doesn’t trust this society to self-destruct on its own and so he crawls into the Egyptians’ heads specifically to make their thinking worse. I didn’t like it in Exodus, and I don’t much care for it now. It’s kind of cheating to punish people for their foolishness after you’ve brainwashed them into foolishness. There’s some great imagery, though, with Egypt’s hopeless meanderings compared to “a vomiting drunkard”. Vivid!

We break into prose for the climactic end to Egypt’s troubles, starting with, as was placed more prominently in other nations’ prophecies, a prediction of external strife and conquest. Specifically, they’re going to be conquered by Judah. There’s some oblique reference to the scope of the conquest which is heavily glossed in my text: there will be what are literally referred to as “five cities” (my gloss suggests “several” for “five”) which will be in vassalage to Judah, swearing fealty and adopting its language, and one of these cities is called “הרס”. That word with that spelling means “destruction” or “overthrow”, but many manuscripts have “חרס” instead, which means “sun”. So half the translations out there identify one of these Judahite conquests as “the City of Destruction” and the other half identify it as “the City of the Sun” or “Heliopolis” (the latter is a comfortingly appropriate but anachronistic reference to a real place in Egypt; that conspicuously Greek name dates from the Ptolemaic dynasty, and before then it was called Annu, meaning “the pillars”).

Anyways, in this time of vassalage to Judah the Egyptians will cry out to God against their oppressors. Dramatic irony! This is of course an explicit echo of both the circumstances and even the language of the Exodus, with Egypt involved in a plea to the Almighty against slavery. But the tables are turned and now it is the Israelites who are the oppressors. But just as bondage was redeeming for the Israelites (or so the theory goes), so will it expiate the Egyptians, who will be granted a Moses of their own, a hero and a savior to deliver them from bondage.

The weird part of this is that this noble hero of a finer age is going to war with, and defeat the Egyptians’ oppressors, who are… the Israelites! So this time of great reckoning Isaiah predicts, which elsewhere in the narrative has had Israel rise in glory, here involves their defeat.And then, after that defeat, Egypt, Assyria, and Israel are supposed to be united in their service towards God. This has a bizarre non-parallelism with the Exodus that’s kind of disquieting: after the Exodus, the Egyptians were fairly explicitly cast in the role of eternal villain. And yet Judah, practicing the very same persecution towards Egypt that Egypt once practiced towards Judah, remains castin a position of goodness even after Egypt has repented of their ways but remained enslaved. The chronology is pretty clear: Judah enslaves Egypt, Egypt repents, hero arises, hero saves Egypt. Judah doesn’t voluntarily release a newly reformed Egypt from its servitude. So how the hell are Judah the good guys?

One interesting approach to this, but one which, like this whole chapter, inverts the roles established in the last several pronouncements, is that Judah aren’t the good guys, and that from their conquest of Egypt onwards they’re not part of God’s Own Army. I derive this tenous argument from the fact that the nation Egypt teams up with are not Assyria and Judah, but Assyria and Israel (I checked the Hebrew, an it’s not a colorful translation difference). And remember that those are different nations at this point. So maybe Israel, the wayward cultists of Samaria, are the good guys here, and the Kingdom of David, Judah, are the bad guys? Again, that’s out of step with pretty much everything we’ve seen since the kingdom split, but it does allow the characterization in this chapter to be vaguely consistent.

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

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