Thibble Thursday: The End of All Songs (Isaiah 25)

A bit behind schedule here. I’ll have worse schedule disruptions soon though, I’m afraid, so I’m doing what I can do, while I can do it.

Short snarky summary: Oh, God, you are so great. You are so great in destroying everything. Everything probably deserved it.

The basic shape of this chapter is rather unlike what we’ve seen before. There’s some invocation of God in the form of a paean of praise, something that feels more suited to, say, Psalms than to Isaiah. The first verse basically feels like it could be in Psalms with no revision whatsoever, because it’s pure praise of God’s name. But from there we plunge headlong into a vaguely eschatological (as always, I reserve judgment on what sort of destruction is the Judgment Day and which is just Those Pesky Assyrians) slant on the praise, which is lauding God’s power in “turning… a walled city into a ruin” and so forth. Because of his power, the mighty need to honor and fear God. But then, in a pleasingly turned inversion, the text immediately shifts to the obvious question: if the mighty should honor God for his strength, what should the meek honor him for? For his mercy, of course, and so there’s a smooth segue int going directly from God’s great city-destroying might into the succor and aid he provides to the poor. The overarching metaphor is of shelter: prtection from rain and shade from heat, first presented literally and then as a metaphor, with the rage of cruel foes described as heat in the desert, and God’s mercy as like a shading cloud (regrettably, the literal protection from rain is not given a similar metaphorical treatment, which seems like a wasted opportunity).

Thus far this has been kind of vague about the timeframe, as always. There were lots of cities and walled towns and citadels being ruined all the time in the ancient Near East and the whole “God destroys the strongholds of the mighty” business could totally be about any of those. The refuge offered to the needy is likewise unmoored in time; the poor have found aid and mercy sporadically at many times in history. So, y’know, this isn’t yet explicitly a prophecy so much as an observation. I mention this all because from the sixth verse on it does get somewhat apocalyptic, escribing a rich banquet set out for all the people of the earth (which is peculiarly at odds with most Jewish and Christian eschatology, which maintains that only the deserving, for some definition thereof, are going to enjoy the end times). There’s discussion of destroying the shroud and covering of all the nations too, and that seems rather obscure unless it’s a reference to burial shrouds, in which case it segues nicely into the following claim, that he will “destroy death forever”. Oddly, it is at ths particularly messianic note that the editor of my edition decided to call attention to the fact that Isaiah doesn’t have to be read messianically, and in the footnotes suggests that this might be “an allusion to the mass killings committed by the Assyrians”. Heh. No matter how muuch Isaiah may look like he’s talking end-times, guess someone will slant that into being about the Assyrian Empire. The funny thing is that I am all about fitting Isaiah’s prophecies into an Assyrian-Conquest-shaped hole, and even to me this looks a bit far-fetched. I’m OK with the idea that the great banquet and an end to death are messianic, far-future, and more-or-less literally meant. Saying “destroy death” as a shorthand for “stop the Assyrians, who were the most recent dealers of copious death” does not seem all that well supported by the text.

Anyways, after a brief song of praise attributed to the people (which people? This will become surprisingly relevant soon) who are now in comfort and freedom, the text contradicts itself, suggesting that some of the people of the earth aren’t going to be eating and drinking and singing hymns of praise, but are rather going to be dealt swift and merciless death. The text calls out Moab specifically for the Godsmack, although some emended texts give “Assyria” (cripes, them again?) instead. Moab will be crushed utterly, and some colorful metaphors come to the fore here, with Moab lik straw after being threshed, and God reaching in among them (to kill them, presumably) like a swimmer reaches through water. It’s pretty evocative.

One part I’m not sure I get is why Moab specifically is in the hot seat here. Going back to Isaiah 15, the destruction of Moab was viewed as a tragedy; I conjectured that Moab, like Israel, was interpreted as a wayward fellow-tribe of Judah. with complicated kinship and ambivalent relations. So it’s a bit weird to see them getting all this hate and a sense that, somehow, they deserved to be razed.


Escaping the Conspiracy, item L14*/L11c: Pork Lo Mein

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

Because lo mein has variants which change the protein but nothing else, I took the opportunity to see how it’s done places other than Double Dragon. I started with China One, which isn’t even part of the Menu Conspiracy; in doing so I accidentally stumbled into the mistake of ordering a non-conspiracy variant, the roast pork lo mein.

Pork Lo Mein

Well, it looks a little more promising than the chicken lo mein. More color, anyways.

What exactly is this dish? Sliced roast pork stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai

Is it any good? I think China One maybe does a better, more flavorful noodle than Double Dragon, there’s a bit more vegetable, ad roast pork is one of the more flavorful and enjoyable proteins. that said, most of the criticisms of the chicken lo mein still apply: in the form of a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), noodles with a side of rice is just too aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while there is protein in the lo mein, it’s really in a pretty lopsided balance with the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with little relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

Wibble Wednesday: Pale Horse (Isaiah 24)

Short snarky summary: What, has the destruction of every individual nation not been enough for our insatiable appetite? Fine, we’ll blow up the whole world then.

I’ve made a lot of the fact that almost all the “prophetic” utterances in Isaiah thus far track pretty closely onto aspects of the Assyrian conquest, which was pretty topical when Isaiah was writing. In doing so I’m at odds with most Jewish and Christian scholarship which reads Isaiah as a messianic text for a distant future rather than a recounting of contemporary events. But in this chapter, there’s a pretty sharp shift in content, and it’s hard for me to maintain that interpretation.

Up until now, the destruction which has been wrought has mostly been contextualized as war, or national disaster. In this chapter, though, Isaiah’s thinking bigger: it starts with “The Lord will strip the earth bare” and continues in that vein. It’s not associated with any particular place, and it’s not put in a context of being an invasion or a drought or anything, it’s just divine wrath being poured out on everyone indiscriminately. That’s much more explicitly eschatological than the previous prophecies along the lines of “Damascus will be invaded.” The rationale given for this is the transgressions of those on the earth; presumably, that’s everyone on the earth, not just the wicked. They’re said t have broken “the ancient covenant”, which is presumably not the Torah, bt the considerably older Noachide law, which simply forbids murder and eating bloody flesh. Isaiah is not really forthcoming any further about these transgressions, though, o this is all supposition, and it’s not clear why or when humanity’s sins become great enough to destroy indiscriminately.

Several stanzas are devoted to extensive description of the qualities of the despair and destruction. Images include withered vines bearing no grapes, timbrels and lyres silenced as jo departs, houses clsoed against all conviviality, and cities abandoned and still.

A tonal shift in the 14th verse suggests a counteracting force to all this gloom and doom, with the righteous (“these” in my text; we aren’t told who this is, but contextually it has to be the righteous) exulting in praise of God, honoring him while the rest lament ther lack of faith. Notably, the righteous are “them” and the lamenting wicked are “we” and “I”, in an act of interesting humility where Isaiah places himself among the suffering, and among the imperfect. That’s an interesting and somewhat compassionate choice.

After this brief change of perspective, the text returns to its theme of punishment and despoliation, threatening the peoples of the earth with “terror, pit, and trap”, with each leading inexorably to the next: flee from the terror, fall in the pit; climb out of the pit, get caught in the trap. It’s not clear if these are metaphorical scourges or literal pits and traps, and if the latter, how they come to be everywhere and consuming everyone. But this starts a segue into what might be read as references to natural disasters, for this stanza concludes with the threat of “sluices opened on high”, which reads like a prediction of massive floods, and it continues to a discussion of earth “breaking” and “swaying like a drunkard”, which sounds like an earthquake.

Finally, we are told that divine punishment will be meted out not only on “the kings of the earth, on earth”, bt also on “the host of heaven, in heaven”. This seems like it wants some sort of backstory, because while many human kings, obviously, are wicked, we know nothing of the moral status of the host of heaven; hitherto they’ve appeared infrequently, and typically been presented as absolutely loyal instruments of God’s will, so their inclusion as targets of this wrath is authentically mystifying. We’re also told that “they shall be locked up in a prison”, which, frankly, strikes me after all this supernatural wrath as bathos. We’re destroying the earth, shaking it to the foundations, and the best God can come up with to do to the wicked it to put them in jail? John of Patmos could usually come up with some authentically bowel-liquefying notion of how the wicked will be tormented in the end of days. Isaiah? Not so much, or at least not here. But on the other side of this, Isaiah can’t be too hard on the wicked, because in this final stanza he wants to convey a sense of hope and redemption, when these captives are at last freed and God reigns over Jerusalem.

It’s haard for me to get excited about the idea of God reigning over a land which he himself converted into a desolate moonscape, but to each their own, I guess.

Wibble Wednesday: Money-changers (Isaiah 23)

Missed another week, but in fairness I was preparing for a trip at the time. Back now!

Short snarky summary: Tyre has its ups and downs, but they’re mostly going to be downs, and they deserve it for being traders. Centuries before serving as merchants and middlemen was an anti-Jewish slander, the Israelites were accusing other people of it. Luxury is bad for them, and thus it needs to be taken away and given to others whose attitude is better.

So this pronouncement is about Tyre. Tyre we know really, really well. It’s a port city on the coast of the Mediterranean in modern-day Lebanon, and it was the seat of Phoenician civilization. The Phoenicians were most notable as sea-traders, and spread both goods and ideas far and wide; alphebetic script is attributed to the Phoenicians, and while they may or may not have invented it, they were certainly responsible for shopping it out to the Semitic and Greek states. Hiram of Tyre helped Solomon build the temple, and for this act of contract-labor some rabbinic sources inexplicably credit Hiram with getting to enter heaven alive (among a very small crowd of other historical luminaries, most of whom unlike Hiram were actually devout Jews). Phoenicia was off to the north of Israel, and as such only became relevant to Judah at such times as they controlled Mediterranean coastline, which they didn’t always Israel itself presumably had closer interaction with Phoenicia, sharing a land border and an uncontested access to the Mediterranean. Anyways, Isaiah, in his declaration about Tyre, starts by referring to the “ships of Tarshish”; Tarshish is repeatedly referred to in this chapter, so it must have some special significance to Tyre. Unfortunately, we have no idea where Tarshish actually is. It’s most famously known as the intended destination of Jonah when he fled from God’s instructions; all that really tells us is that it’s on the sea. For it to interact with Tyre, the Mediterranean is the most likely. A reasonably conjecture and popular suggestion is that it’s the Turkish site better known as Tarsus, which is a little ways up the coast from Tyre and would plausibly be a close asociate of Phoenicia.

Anyway, the text enjoins the ships of Tarshish to mourn for destroyed Tyre “as they came from the land of Kittim”. That’s almost certainly Citium in Cyprus, and makes perfect sense as part of a route including Tyre and Tarsus, so that particular citation gives me a lot more confidence in this geography. The traders of the eastern Mediterranean, thus, are the first to come upon the destruction of Tyre. Anyways, the traders of Sidon (a city very close to, and surely allied with, Tyre) are exhorted to mourn the loss of their bounty coming from the sea, where ships once brought them wealth and glory. So Tyre’s destruction apparently goes hand-in-hand with the abandonment of Mediterranean trade, and the primay ports of the eastern Mediterranean suffer as the central nexus of their industry collapses.

One aspect of the shame of Sidon (and Tyre, presumably) is presented obliquely with the claim that the sea “has never labored, never given birth, never raised youths”. The first of those feels like it strikes at what was regarded sinful (then and later) about merchants: they don’t create. Most cultures respect crafts to some degree, who create new wealth for their community, but merchants are regarded as self-interested schemers who don’t make anything but simply profit off of the work of other people’s hands. That’s arguably an unfair characterization, particularly in an ancient world where trade was both vital and perilous, but it’s a common one, and by labeling the seafarers as lazy non-contributers, Isaiah is tapping into a pretty easy bit of invective here.

So, having given a somewhat barbed elegy for Tyre, Isaiah passes on to the question of who caused this to happen to what was once such a thriving community, one with wealth and leisure and luxury? Of course, Isaiah’s answer, dovetailing nicely with the previous stanza’s criticism, is that this is, like all that transpires, according to God’s design. His motive apparently is “to defile all glorious beauty, to shame all the honored of the world”, which doesn’t read as the actions of a loving and good God, but maybe my translation shades away in meaning from a negatively construed “sybaritic luxury” to the much more complimentary “glorious beauty”.

In two consecutive stanzas the point is hammered home that Tyre is no longer a productive harbor, and the traders of the world all need to go to Kittim instead, and that this too is according to God’s design.

And finally, in a very late stanza, we get a sense of who has destroyed fair Tyre (besides God, of course, who wills all things that happen)! In an enormous historical irony, it is exactly the nation which first founded and established the city of Tyre that returns to destroy it. And, of course, it’s the same fuckers who destroyed everything Isiaiah writes about being destroyed: it’s the Assyrians. This, incidentally, is not wholly correct, historically speaking. At the height of its empire, Assyria absolutely did besiege and blockade Tyre, but never razed it to the ground. But Isaiah can’t get everything right.

Of course, when we don’t know what the dest ruction of Tyre refers to, it bcomes even more difficult to interpret the following prophecy, in which Tyre is reborn seventy years after its destruction. This whle timeline basically refers to events which either didn’t happen or are poorly recorded, inasmuch as there’s very little reason to believe in either a complete ruination or a resurgence of Tyre’s prosperity in that timeframe. But in describing this renewal, Isaiah includes the ugliest language he can find, recounting what was apparently a popular song about a whore, forgotten in her absence, going about town making music to remind people of her and bring back the business. This is made a bit more explicit with complicated and apparently untranslatable wordplay, which describes a resurgence nt Tyre of two activities which can be ambiguously read as “pimping” and “harlotry” or as two words for maritime trade. So here in the final verses, Isaiah is hitting hard at the notion of sea-merchants as glorified prostitutes. And Tyre’s resurgent return to her prostitution is apparently supposed to be redemptive (which maybe segues into the tradition of temple prostitution? I don’t know much about the historical context of the practice and how Isaiah felt about it), inasmuch as their prosperity will not go to luxury and comfort, which were the sins of Tyre before their fall, but will be consecrated to God so that God’s faithful can be in luxury and comfort instead. That last phrase there is not my own snarky addition, incidentally. Isaiah doesn’t just say “consecrated to the Lord” and let us fill in the details of all the good works that will be done with Tyre’s ill-gotten but generous gains. No, it’s explicitly described as going to the faithful “that they may eat their fill and clothe themselves elegantly.” It’s only a sin when someone else does it, you see.