Wibble Wednesday: Prose break (Isaiah 20)

Chapter 20 of Isaiah is pretty short. But Chapter 21 is pretty long, and I’d rather get one done for sure tonight than try and fail at a more ambitious write-up, particularly as I’ve been bad about keeping on schedule.

Short, snarky summary: It’s the Assyrians again! Those fuckers are everywhere. No matter where you go, they got there first.

The text breaks into prose to deliver a blend of history and prophecy. The historical element is the date of the prophecy, apparently, in the year when the army of Assyria, under the rule of Sargon (presumably Sargon II) conquers the city of Ashdod. Sargon was king in the 8th century BCE, so we have a definite timeframe here. What’s a bit hazier are the political ramifications, because Ashdod was a bit contentious, culturally. For most of the Bronze Age it was a crucial element of the Philistine pentopolis, but then it was apparently ruined, a few centuries prior to this conquest? So as of this date, it’s not altogether clear who Ashdod’s allied with. My educated guess would be that it’s a culturally Philistine city but a tribute town of Israel, so the conquest of it is a military crisis for Israel but not, in their way of thinking, an existential threat to “their” people. But it turns out that, except for the Asyria-flavored set dressing and timeframe, Ashdod is irrelevant to what follows, which is that God commands Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot. Such an act is usually a penance, but apparently God’s not forcing penance on Isaiah so much as asking him to present a metaphor in service of his prophecy (for an even worse example of God forcing his prophets to do something really unpleasant and uncomfortable for the purpose of underscoring a rhetorical point, see also: Hosea). Because just as Isaiah is naked and barefot for three years, so will those conquered by Assyria be driven from their lands naked and barefoot. In this particular case, those people are the Egyptians and Nubians.

Egypt and Nubia were pretty incredible reaches for Assyria, and if this were actually a prophecy (and not a write-up after the fact, which it probably was), it’d be a pretty good one. Assyria’s main base of operations was east of Israel, in modern-day Syria. Getting to Nubia involved taking and holding an awful lot of territory, because the political center of Assyria was way east and north of Africa. But that actually did happen, and it was the outermost edge of the Assyrians’ conquest. It was also, as far as the people of the Late Bronze Age Near East were concerned, the edge of the world, inasmuch as there didn’t seem to be a whole lot more to find to the southwest of Nubia. So this really is a terrifying indication of Assyria’s might and, in many ways, of their cruelty. The description is compassionate, focusing on the vulnerability and the frailty of the exiled captives, in a mode of lamentation usually reserved for Israelites. This follows in a somewhat logical way from Chapter 19, which was also about the Egyptians and framed them as a natural object of sympathy and a redeemable nation. So the text here, in its unexpected sympathy for a previously detested foe, feel vry much of a part with the “Egypt” pronouncement in Chapter 19.
Next chapter, though, we’re going back to more nebulous, and less sympathetc, prophecies of destruction.