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.

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

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