Wibble Wednesday: Dangerous Visions (Isaiah 22)

Already missed a week! My self-discipline during summer is not great.

Short snarky summary: Come back with your shield or on it! Israel’s being punished for vague sins, and, oh, maybe we’re talking about the Assyrians again. Also, political infighting.

This chapter is associated with the “Valley of Vision”. I was kind of hoping there was some sort of gloss on just where this was, because these prophecies are so much more interpretable when I can get a vague idea of local politics, but my usual digging came up fruitless. The Hebrew (גֵּיא חִזָּיוֹן, Gei Khizayon) is no more and no less than the literal phrase “valley of vision”, the former term being the common geographical term and the latter a vanishingly rare word but one which gives no real pointers to a specific place. In English the phrase is associate with a book of Puritan devotions; in Hebrew it’s the name of an obscure work by twentieth-century Dutch rabbi Abraham Waxman. Illuminating stuff, but not useful. Maybe the text itself sheds some light on what’s going on.

As in the case of so many of these pronouncements, the text is largely a vivid depiction of a community in crisis. A contrast is drawn to the city’s usual bustle and gaiety, now silenced as all the citizens watch, warily, from their rooftops. It’s made clear later in the stanza that this like every previous calamity, is the aftermath of war, but that the great shame is not defeat but surrender and cowardice. There’s specific mention of “those slain not by the sword nor the dead of battle”, which is to say, those taken and executed, rather than dying honorably. Officers are fled, footsoldiers captive, and presumably many more executed. But we still don’t know where this is, or who the antagonist is! Nonetheless, the stage is set, the battle is ended, and the citizenry living in fear of the next move of the conqueror.

But now we flash back to the day of the battle, and we get a better feel for the foe and the setting. We’re told that “Kir” raged in the eponymous valley of this prophecy, and “Shoa on the hill”. Tis is how my translation has it but this is not actually a common interpretation of these phrases! Both “קִ֖ר (Kir)” and “שׁ֥וֹעַ (Shoa)” have multiple meanings (side note: the modern Hebrew term for the Holocaust, שואה, is a near-homonym for the latter but is not, I don’t think, etymologically connected). Pretty much every translation except the JPS translates what they have as “Kir raging” as “tearing down the walls” (“קִ֖ר” means “walls”, which is why it’s also the name, or a partial name, of several places). Most translations turn “Shoa on the hill” into “crying to the hills”. Confusingly, this word does mean “crying”, but it also describes an etymologically related name for a Syrian tribal group (mentioned once in the Bible, in a list of foreign adversaries in Ezekiel 23:23). So this verse, which looked like it gave a strong sense of who’s doing the routig, might not, depending on how you read the text (and even with the most generous reading, it doesn’t help much; “Kir” could be one of a dozen or so places, and “Shoa” is a metonym for easterners vaguely and could easily be Assyrians or Babylonians).

But moving forward we get a better sense of who’s here in Verse 6, where the mounted men invading are identified as Elamites. Kir gets mentioned again, although that’s of dubious value. But how about Elam? The Elamites weren’t a civilization that had a lot of contact with Israel; they were way out east and south, past Babylon in what would eventually become the cradle of the Persian civilization. What the hell they’re doing in this story I can’t tell: they’re in the wrong place to be directly involved in an assault on Israel or Judah. And this is a war against Judah; the next several verses refer to Judah’s gateway and screen, which are apparently the valley of Elah and the fortress Azekah which sits at its mouth. This is off to the southwest of Jerusalem, but it is an approach to Jerusalem, which is possibly why it is the so-called “gate of Judah”. And indeed, Jerusalem itself is mentioned soon enough: as the army surges through the valley, the defenders think of “the arms in the Forest House” and of the “breaches in the City of David”. The former is a part of the complex of the Temple and Palace (1 Kings Chapter 7 goes into details of its construction), and of course the “City of David” is Jerusalem itself. So what we’re seeing is an onslaught on Jerusalem. And, hey, maybe the “Valley of Vision” is Elah? Makes as much sense as anything.

The next prose section, I am reasonably convinced, tells us exactly when this happened and who’s involved. There’s a lot of wittering about draining the Lower Pool, fortifying the town, and setting up a cistern in the town for the pool’s waters, i.e., preparing for a siege and bringing water into the city. This conforms pretty much exactly with the events of (and I’m sure you’re shocked to hear that this is a reference to this particular event, which Isaiah has already mentioned roughly a zillion skillion times) Hezekiah’s preparation for Sennacharib’s attack. 2 Kings 20:20 discusses the waterworks vaguely, and 2 Chrnicles 32, which goes into details about Sennecharib’s siege, talks specifically about diverting the water of Gihon into the city as part of the siege preparations. So that’s a pretty unambiguous referent here: this attack is by the Assyrians (not the Elamites), and it’s the siege of Jerusalem.

the prose section following this indicates that God is wroth with Judah on this occasion. There are two aspects of this section that strike me as odd. First, what God is wroth about is the merriment and carousing of the optimistic defenders, instead of weeping and repenting. That’s not consistent at all with what was depicted at the beginning of the chapter, with the anxious citizens watching in terror, and it is consistent with th optimism identified with Isaiah back in 2 Kings Chapter 19, when Isaiah told Hezekiah to keep the faith, keep strong, and trust in deliverance. And that leads to the second strange aspect of this prophecy of wrath, in that destruction is not dealt out to the Jerusalemites on this occasion. The siege is broken with widespread mysterious death (possibly disease) in the Assyrian camp.

We then end up spending several verses on utterly unmemorable political jockeying, with Isaiah delivering a condemnation of Hezekiah’s steward Shebna. Shebna gets mentioned a few times earlier as part of a war emissary to Sennacharib (2 Kings 18), but it’s not clear what has Isaiah so wound up about him (Eliakim, who is later referred to as more worth than Shebna, was part of the same delegation). The sin imputed to Shebna might be pride, in describing his arrogance in building himself a stately tomb (a side note of historical irony: thanks to this verse, a funerary inscription believed to be Shebna’s has achieved archaeological immortality, so Shebna’s grand tomb got a hell of a lot grander thanks to Isaiah going on about it). But either ay, God is about to shake thing up, by replacing Shebna in his high seat of government power with Eliakim, who will be a credit to the nation and an honor to his house. There’s some odd, ambiguous reference to a “peg in a firm place”: verse 23 suggests Eliakim will become sch a peg, but verse 25 talks about tearing such a peg down. The gloss in my text suggests this latter verse should be a lot earlier, back at the end of Isaiah’s condemnation of Shebna, which makes sense: God tears down the old peg and establishes a new one.

That said, this ending is so much inside baseball, obscured by millennia of indifference. The details of what Shebna did, or why it’s a big deal, are lost to time. Exegetical stories range from “he was a traitor conspiring with Assyria” to “he was proud and arrogant and usurped the just authority of the king”, but “exegesis” is just what Biblical scholars say because “fanfic” doesn’t sound authoritative, so, y’know, we don’t really have any good reason to believe anything except that Shebna was of a different political persuasion that Isaiah; court intrigue, rather than some great failing, would probably be sufficient to explain both Shebna’s downfall (which never appears in the narrative texts of Kings and Chronicles, so even that might be wishful thinking on Isaiah’s part) and Isaiah’s own glee in recounting it.


Wibble Wednesday: Prophecy quickies (Isaiah 21)

Semester is over, so I have no excuse for not doing these. Hopefully soon I can start being more consistent.

Short snarky summary: A few mini-prophecies about unclear nations promise the usual death and destruction.

Much of the Book of Isaiah so far has been pronouncements about various major nations or cultural centers in the Near East at the time: the Moab pronouncement, the Damascus pronouncement, the Babylon pronouncement, and so forth. We’re starting to run out of good major nations to refer to, so Isaiah’s rounding out this structure wth a few much shorter ones about geographical features. The first, the “From the Desert” pronouncement, describes an attacking army coming through the Negev desert. The identity of this despoiler isn’t entirely clear: they come “from the desert, the terrible land”, and later exhortations to come and spoil the land refer to “Elam” and “Media”. Both of these nations were way off to the northeast of Israel, past Assyria and Babylon and well within what would eventually become the Persian Empire. They interacted with other peoples who interacted with Judah (most notably, Assyria) but it’s hard to imagine them having much direct interaction with Judah prior to the fall of Babylon, which was much later than the events which seem to be generally described in Isaiah. And they almost certainly would’ve taken a northerly route rather than going through the Negev, I’d think.

Anyways, whoever this invader is, they’re described in the usual colorful language. The various manuscript texts differ in some crucial details: one source describes their attack in the terms, “The betrayer is betraying, the ravager ravaging”, while an emended source has the considerably different “The betrayer is betrayed, the ravager ravaged”. The latter interpretation is pretty consistent with what actually happened on a regular basis for a few centuries, which was one bloodthirsty and unpopular nation getting bumped off by a slightly more civilized one (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians). The next stanza personalizes the terror which the attacker brings: “I” (presumably Isaiah, although he may be adopting a more generically Judahite role) am in the throes of all these physical signs of terror, left senseless and trembling. There are some rather effective contrasts between this new terror and one’s previous luxurious life: “Set the table” becomes “Set a watch” and so forth. It has pretty good rhythms in translation, and I assume it had a pretty good structure in its original form as well. The perspective then shifts to that of the aforementioned watchman, and his viewpoint is less terrorstricken and more factual, describing lines of cavalry, with horsemen and riders on camels and asses. I wouldn’t think the latter two would be very effective as cavalry, but, hey, this is a bronze-age civilization, they probably did horseback fighting somewhat differently than we think of cavaliers or dragoons doing, and in a way that worked with the plodding pace of donkeys or camels.

The watchman then reports that Babylon has fallen, with all her gods. Leaving aside how the watchman would know that particular fact just from watching the army advance, this basically narrows the conquerors down to one of the historical conquerors of Babylon (unless you take a far-future eschatological view): the Hittites, Assyrians, or Persians. The first two almost definitely preceded Hezekiah’s rule (and thus Isaiah’s life) by centuries; the last was a few centuries later. So I guess these attackers kind of have to be the Persians, if we want to rate this as prophecy and not history.

That’s pretty much the entirety of the Desert pronouncement: a single vision of a foe advancing through the desert, creating panic and dismay. There’s one apparent non sequiter at the end, where there is a seemingly disconnected apostrophe to “the product of my threshing floor”, which my text helpfully glosses by indicating “Connection of Hebrew uncertain”. Make of that what you will.

The next section is brief, and reads vaguely as if it’s supposed to be a joke. It’s titled the “Dumah” prononcement. Dumah was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (hooray for concordances!) as the sixth-born son of Ishmael, and as a town in the hill country of Judah. So it’s probably the name of an Arab clan, and the town where they dwelt? Anyways, this single stanza envisions a watchman responding to a call from Seir (a mountain; one that might not even be too far from Dumah!) asking what happened overnight. The watchman’s reply is basically “The night happened. Ask again some other time.” It’s strange and minimalistic and seems to be meant to be humorous but might be doing so in a way which is a bit too obscure for me, and which seems to tonally clash with everything else here.

Next up is the “In the Steppe” pronouncement, which returns to a nice theme We’ve heard a lot about war, and less about mercy of late. This pronouncement is one of mercy and hospitality. It exhorts those who live in the steppes, the “caravans of the Dedanites” to show mercy to the war refugees who come to them. Now, one interesting aspect of this besides the very decent call for people to treat strangers with kindness is exactly where and when it’s talking about. There’s Dedan itself, of course, a nation or people whose identity is a bit obscure: there are sprinkled references to at least two different individuals by that name in the chronology, as well as a city in Arabia, quite far to the south of Judah. They’re also called those who live in “the land of Tema”, which almost certainly refers to a settlement (there’s still a “تيماء” there today) in the same part of Arabia as Dedan. So these are people fleeing south from Judah, I assume. And are we certain it’s from the Persians? I’m not, although that’s my best guess.

the next few chapters contine geographically localized pronouncements, but before that we get a seemingly arbitrary block of prose predicting the imminent fall of Kedar and the loss of its warriors. What the hell is Kedar and why is it mentioned here? Well, Kedar’s another son of Ishmael, like Dumah, so presumably these people are Arabs. And as to thir geopolitical significance, I’m not really sure. It seems likely that they might’ve also been south of Judah, and so part of this whole Negev/Arabian local prophecy here, but it’s not clear why this is important or what to take from it.