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.


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.

Wibble Wednesday: The furthest shore (Isaiah 18)

Oh, man, my semester got busy fast and this fell by the wayside. Well, on break for a little while now, and I have no excuse not to get back into this.

Short snarky summary: All the gentiles are going to get it from God. Even the far-away ones.

So previously there was a tale of liberation of Aram from a conquering foe who we can only assume was the Assyrians. This chapter, contextually, appears to be the triumphant actions of the Arameans. Or maybe not; it depends how closely you assume this text hews to the notion of being a pronouncement about Damascus. Anyways, the important issue is that whoever is taking the actions in this chapter, they appear to be a Semitic culture somewhere in “greater Israel”, i.e. soe combination of Judah, Northern Israel, and/or Aram. Several stanzas are devoted to indicating that word is being sent to far-off and obscure places. Messengers are dispatched “beyond the rivers of Nubia” to “a nation of gibber and chatter, whose land is cut off by streams, which sends envoys by sea”. Most of the geography we’ve been treated to so far is local, inasmuch as every site described so far is in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, western Syria, or eastern Egypt. The Biblical history at this point is frankly very provincial; only the Persian Empire really disperses the Hebrews definitively. So when they talk about somewhere past Nubia (i.e. southern Egypt), that’s basically off the edge of the map as far as they’re concerned. The particular waterways and seacoast described render the whole description a bit murky—are we talking about the coast of Sudan, maybe?—but that may just bea part of the lyrical aspects talking about their foreign tongues and remoteness tobe taken as symbolic of a place way off across rivers and seas. It’s not even obvious they’re talking particularly about Africa; Nubia itself might be a stand-in for “far-off places”.

Anyways, what message is Israel sending to these far-off lands? Basically, it’s that God is coming and that none of the faithless will be spared. I might file this one under “quasi-eschatological”, in that it implies a more global scope to God’s great purge of the unclean. The symbols of a flag being raised and a shofar sounding seem symbolic: those were common ways of communicating one’s presence and power, and happened a lot even when there wasn’t divine wrath being administered. But the prophesied followup is definitely wrathful, with the enemy nations likened to grape arbors due to have their branches lopped off and their twigs pruned, and then left to norish birds and beasts. It’s pretty potent imagery, and presented poetically.

In the final verse, which presumably chronologically follows this defeat, there is a repetition of description from the beginning of the chapter: still discussing faraway lands, where they speak foreign languages, and so forth. But now Israel isn’t sending messengers, but the travel is going the other way, as all these selfsame lands send tribute back to Zion. The repetition of the invocation of faraway lands together with the reversal of the transit, strikes me as pretty catchy. So many of these chapters seem thrown together a bit pell-mell, and it’s kind of nice to find one where there’s an overarching structure.

And that, apparently, is all Isaiah has to say about Damascus. Didn’t have much to do with Damascus by the end, I’m afraid, but next week (or month, or year, or something) Isaiah’s going to start in on a whole new target.

Wibble Wednesday: The scent of jasmine (Isaiah 17)

Things is busy now, and I should be doing other stuff, but this is worthwhile, I reckon.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah is either wrong, or exaggerating, or predicting a future which hasn’t come yet. Once again we teeter between the elegiac and the triumphalist in discussing ruined cities.

Every chapter or pair of chapters for some time seems to be focused on a specific ancient center of civilization. We’ve seen Babylon and Moab, and this chapter is now the first half of the “Damascus” pronouncement. Like the two previous pronouncements, this one is a prophecy of doom. Just like in the two previous cases, it probably behooves us to have some idea what it’s talking about.

Anyone who reads the news, of course, knows where Damascus is. It’s in Syria. The ancient city of Damascus was in pretty much the same place. The earliest settlement there might indeed be very old, but the place clearly starts showing up on geopolitical maps as somewhere to watch out for in the mid-to-late Bronze Age. In particular it is the capital city of the nation of Aram (which is sometimes called Aram-Damascus; that’s how central Damascus was to that kingdom). The Arameans were off to the northeast of Israel, which put them far enough from Judah that there wasn’t much interaction between the two states. On the other hand, Aram was one of Norther Israel’s more significant neighbors and the Biblical account suggests pretty much constant tension and occasional war. There’s a lot of cultural common ground though: Aramaic would become a major language of Judaism in exile, and the Arameans themselves were a Semitic people like the Hebrews. Eventually, Damascus fell to the same guys who overran everyone in the Near East, namely, the damn Assyrians. Those guys are everywhere, particularly in Isaiah’s pronouncements, so we’re following a common theme here. Incidentally, 2 Kings 16 credits Judah with an assist on that conquest: in a rare moment of alliance, Israel and Aram ganged up on Judah, while Judah pled with Assyria for assistance. That achieved their goals short-term, but left Judah immediately threatened by Assyria, which became a crisis in Hezekiah’s reign.

A notable footnote with regard to Isaiah’s prophecy: Damascus wasn’t actually razed. Assyria kept it as a vassal city, and it then passed from hand to hand as one after another empire swept through the Near East. Many centuries later it would become one of the jewels of the Islamic world. But the big takeaway is that, subjects and captives though the Aramites may have been, they appear to have been in continuous residence of this same city for a very long time. It’s entirely possible the modern Syrians are descended, at least in part, from the Arameans.

I provide all this dreary history mostly to put it all in stark contrast to the first prediction of Isaiah’s most recent declaration: “Damascus shall cease to be a city; it shall become a heap of ruins.” Most of Isaiah’s descriptions track pretty well onto specific aspects o the Assyrian conquest. This one really doesn’t. For a start, the Assyrian conquest of Aram was too early: that happened way back during the reign of Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, and we already saw the fallout from that back in Isaiah 7. For another thing, Damascus remained. it emphatically wasn’t ruined then, nor was it depopulated and destroyed in any of the following years.

For a messianic read, of course, this isn’t a problem, but up until now I’ve been able to get a pretty solid argument going that Isaiah’s really about local events in time and place and that messianism is a stretch. So I’m kind of loathe to use that cop-out, although better Bible scholars than me don’t have a problem with it.

So, anyways, after we’re told that Damascus (and its outlying areas) will be depopulated and laid waste, we move to another unusual verse, which equates temporal power from “Ephraim” and that of Damascus. That’s an odd juxtaposition, because Ephraim, as we’ve seen before, is a tribe of Israel typically used as a metonym for the whole northern kingdom. But Israel and Aram aren’t the same place! Or are they? Certainly at some point in this timeframe they were allies, since they ganged up on Judah. Maybe Aram was much closer to Israel than we thought; after all, I’ve operated under the impression that Judah and Northern Israel were never really unified, and that the closest they got was a cultural kinship and occasional alliance. Isn’t Aram kind of in the same boat, as a Semite people with some historical claims of kinship to the House of Jacob? For all we know all three of these kingdoms were regarded as part of the same sprawling “peoples”. Certainly that explains the next stanza, where Isaiah predicts that “the mass of Jacob shall dwindle”, which makes plenty of sense if that mass also includes Aram. The decimation of Jacob (whether Aram or Israel or both) is put in some colorfully violent agricultural terms, which would’ve made a lot of sense ot people around this time. So the victim of this despoliation is compared to wheat that has been reaped, or an olive tree that’s been beaten, in each case with only a few tiny productive bits remaining.

The next stanza turns to afairly predictable theme of Isaiah’s. Destruction can go a couple of ways. It can be deserved, in which case triumphal mockery continues, or piteous, in which case the next theme is one of charity, or it can be chastisement, in which case the next theme is repentance. Aram is basically “Even Norther Israel”, so it gets to be a Hebrew nation for whom the scourging of fate is meant to be corrective. And thus the end result of all this death and destruction is that the people turn with renewed vigor to god, sashing their idols and whatnot. But atonement is apparently not yet complete, because immediately following the verses describing contrition, Isaiah promises that the land will remain a desolation, because the people are still not truly returned to God.

The next verse though, focuses on the conquerers. In context, that pretty much has to be the Assyrians, if we want this to make any sense as a contemporary prophec and not a messianic promise. Certainly the description of “Nations raging like mighty waters” sounds a lot like the Assyrians, because no other player in local nation-building rated that kind of description at that ppoint But interestingly, he then turns to how these peope, too will be driven and humbled before God. We’ve sort of seen that theme before, back in Chapter 14, where God promises to crush Assyria after they had served their purpose. Those promises at least, in a contemporary-to-Isaiah consideration of the prophecies, is authentically a statement of things to come.

Next up: how will Aram handle liberty from the Assyrians?

Wibble Wednesday: Darkest before Dawn (Isaiah 16)

Class is back in session, and I have been slammed. Hopefully I can get back into a rhythm here, though.

Short snarky summary: Now that Moab’s been fucked over comprehensively, we’re allowed to feel sorry for them.

So, last chapter was a great deal of lamentation over a (possibly future, possibly past) wholesale destruction of Judah’s not very friendly neighbor Moab. It wasn’t very clear in that chapter why Moab was being mourned, but in this chapter a compassionate tone returns: Isaiah bids the people of Judah welcome and shelter the fugitives of war. It’s a refreshing return to a theme which had been for some time eclipsed by Messianism and various forms of triumphalism: the central message of social justice we saw in the early chapters of Isaiah. Moab as a nation may have been an enemy of Judah, but Moabites individually, shellshocked, lost, and wandering along the rivers into Judahite territory, deserve not contempt but comfort.

This asylum is, however, linked closely to another verse which suggests the time being spoken of hasn’t yet come, becauuse the justification for providing such a safe harbor careens firmly back into Messianism, putting forward the utopian view of a nation untroubled by violence, and ruled in goodmess “in the tent of David”. The reference to David is ambiguous because it could be a reference specifically to the Judahite royal line, or to the Messiah alluded to in Isaiah 11 as growing “from the stuump of Jesse” Or to both, if we bu into the notion that these two descendants of David are the same. It could even be a reference to Hezekiah, who brokered truces after successfully weathering Assrian assault.

The reference to David in the specific context of discussing Moab is interesting, however, since it’s established geneology in the book of Ruth that David is in fact of Moabite ancestry. A fair amount of scholarship, however, places the authorship of the Book of Ruth later than Isaiah, so this may be a reference unsupported by the actual chronology of events, depending on whether the notion that David was of Moabite stock was kicking around even before the Book of Ruth. In any case, the Messianic ruler of Judah is put foorth as a good reason why Judah should and will open its arms to the friendless and the stranger, which makes sense thematically, although it’s a side of the messianic promise we haven’t seen: not only conquest and peace, but also charity.

The next verse (16:6) is quoted in my edition, although no speaker is given. God, I suppose, because the words are a judgment on Moab’s iniquities of pride, for which the nation is deserving of destruction But then, from this one verse of triumph, the mood bounces right back to the elegiac, mourning for the destruction of Moab’s vineyards, and its grapevines, and its winepresses… damn, the mourner here seems to perceive the tragedy mostly through a very specific Moabite agricultural product! Maybe they don’t give a damn about the nation or people of Moab at all, but were just very fond of Moabite wines. It’s on account of all this wine-making paraphernalia that the speaker apparently mourns for Moab and Kir-heres. Nobody knows, incedentally, what this second place is. It might or might not be the same as the Kir-hareseth mourned for several verses earlier as a source of raisin-cakes (seriously, Isaiah, I’m pretty sure there are interesting aspects of Moab that aren’t made of grapes), or even the Kir mentioned back at the beginning of Chapter 15. “Kir” literally means “walled locale” (i.e. fortress or walled city), so it’s possible that Moab contained lots of fortifications with close variants on the same name starting with “kir”.

So this chapter is pretty short, closing out the so-called “Moab pronouncement”, but after the final elegy for destroyed Moab, the text returns to prose just long enough to finally give us a notion of when all this happened or will happen: god has decreed for the great diminution of Moab to happen in three years. Given that these words are supposedly) spoken by Isaiah, whose lifetime we can definitively link to the events of Assyria’s rise and aggression, my read on this is that it refers to Moab being overrun by the Assyrian empire, since the chronology works right and that definitively did squash Moab as an independent nation for some time. There’s very little good archaeological evidence for the extent, in time or place, of Moabite hegemony, which means our estimates of just when the nation finally collapsed are a big uncertain smear running from the Assyrian conquest through to the ascent of the Persian Empire. That’s a pretty long and active length of history where we can neiter confirm nor deny Moab independence. Could they have been definitivel crushed and exiled by the Assyrians? Entirely possible, and definitely consistent with the lament and proposed timeline in this pronouncement.

Thibble Thursday: Towns that we’d never been to (Isaiah 15)

Still getting back into things after a while out of town. And the semester’s starting again soon. Woo.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah’s most recent wodge of prophecy is a lamentation for some ruined place. It’s not clear why it’s been despoiled or why we should care.

We finally ended the so-called “Babylon Pronouncement”, and we move on to a new one, the “Moab Pronouncement”. Now, just like we did with Babylon, it might not hurt to get some sort of handle on just where and who Moab was, and why they were significant.

Moab was a kingdom east of the Dead Sea, which put it directly east of Judah but inconveniently on the other side of a body of water, crossable, no doubt, but logistically more complicated than overland maneuvers. Moab did share a land boundary with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, though, and could plausibly have invaded Judah through the complicity of their northern frenemy. Significantly, way back in the mythological days of the Exodus, the Israelites invaded Canaan from the east (which, yes, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense geographically) and were approaching Canaan by way of Moab.

Overall, Moabite-Hebrew relations tended to be bumpy, ranging from a war footing to cautious alliance. There’s archaeological evidence of war, and Biblical narratives occasionally mention hostilities (including rebellion in the time of King Ahab, suggesting that Moab had been a vassal state of Israel previously), but they also prominently mention alliance on a personal level at least, in the book of Ruth, which tells the story of a Moabite ancestress of King David.

This personal connection might be important, or it might not. The Deuteronomists had this weird thing about the Davidic dynasty which made pretty much everything which related to King David and his descent unusually elevated in their eyes, but Isaiah comes from a seemingly different tradition, and maybe both traditions preceded the incorporation of the Book of Ruth and its Moabite lineage into the canon anyways.

Moab fell to Assyria pretty soon after the empire rose, and dwindled away under the imperial vassalage of several successive Near East empires (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian), so by the time Isaiah was written, Moab was already emphatically past its glory days and along the road to dissolution. So predicting the ruin of Moab wasn’t a real profound or prescient prophecy, but let’s take it apart anyways.

The text has a certain lyrical quality to it. Now, almost all of Isaiah is somewhat versified, but this chapter hits us over the head with a purely poetic repetition: “Ah, in the night Ar was sacked, Moab was ruined” is repeated verbatim, with “Ar” replaced by “Kir” on the second go-round. Ignoring the self-conscious stylized lamentation, the question is: when and where did this sack happen? Well, nobody really has a clue where either Ar or Kir is or was, but from context we can infer they’re in Moab (Kir is sometimes identified, on the basis of what seems to be no evidence but wishful thinking, with the long-established settlement of Al-Karak in Jordan). Kir gets an offhand mention back in 2 Kings 16 as the site to which the Assyrians deported Aramites after sacking Damascus, which suggests it was by that time already an Assyrian conquest. So Isaiah’s text here might very well be a lamentation for a past event rater than a prophecy after all! It wold certainly explain the use of the past tense.

A vivid description of the mourning among the populace follows. It has symbols common throughout Biblical literature: weeping, wailing, shorn beards and heads, dressing in sackcloth (no ashes, though). Meanwhile, we are assailed with the names of all the places where there is mourning: Dibon, Nebo, Medeba, Heshbon, Elealeh, and Jahaz. Taking these in order, we actually start with what was definitely a site of some importance in Moab. Dibon (or Dhibon) is a real place in Jordan and is the site of the Masha Stele, one of the most significant pieces of Near East archaeology ever and one that links the site closely both to a Moab kingdom and to Israelite subjugation; its presence in a list of significant Moabite sites, then or now, is utterly unsurprising. Nebo is most likely Mount Nebo, and has been previously mentioned in the Bible most significantly as the site of Moses’s death; it also gets mentioned in the Masha Stele as the site of a Moabite victory (and presumably a reclamation of territory) from Israel. Medaba is also an ancient city still around in western Jordan today, so it too is plausibly Moabite by geography (if not by archaeology, AFAIK). Heshbon is no longer occupied but its ruins are in the suburbs of Medaba; Elialah is probably Al’al, a bit further northeast, and finally, Jahaz is also mentioned in the Masha Stele as a liberated city but nobody knows where it is nowadays; a 1984 paper of Dearman provides reasonable evidence that it is the same site as the ruins at Khirbat al-Mudayna, also in the present-day outskirts of Madaba. So these are a cluster of cities which geography and archaeology put in a tight cluster in Transjordan, around the northern tip of the Dead Sea. The interesting part is that Biblical evidence (wth the support of the Masha Stele) suggest that these were at least occasionally also Israelite territory. Joshua 13 explicitly lays out the boundaries of the Tribe of Reuben’s territory as including Dibon, Jehaz, and Heshbon, and having Medaba on its boundary (although since Dhiban is south of Madaba and Heshbon north, Madaba would basically have to be in the territory of Reuben). So interestingly enough either the Bible massively overstates the territorial boundaries of Israel (which is plausible) or Moab had a much more tenuous existence than it seemed. My read here is that Moab definitely had an independent existence between the events described on the Masha Stele (in the reign of King Omri of Israel) and the conquest of Kir by the Assyrians (during or prior to the reign of King Pekah). Notably all of this was history as far as Isaiah or any of his future editors were concerned, and these cities were neither Reubenite nor Moabite any more.

But was the Reubenite history of the cities relevant to this lamentation? Certainly this whole chapter is more mournful than triumphant over Moab’s destruction, reflecting the ambivalent relationship between Judah and Moab (rendered all the more ambivalent by the fact that Northern Israel was frequently antagonistic to both). Probably some of the “Moabites” here are ethnically and culturally Israelites, if the border cities had the tangled history which both the Biblical and archaeological records show. That’s reason enough, perhaps, for Isaiah to declare that “My heart cries out for Moab”.

The rest of the chapter describes the aftermath of conquest. Again, I’m assuming we’re looking specifically at an Assyrian conquest ere, because no other one makes sense and the scale of the destruction described looks kinda like the sort of thing the Assyrians did. There are fugitives, and we get a sense of their route from another list of names: Zoar, Eglath-shelshiyah, Luhith, Horonaim, and the Wadi of Willows. Zoar is probably in the south, based on mentions of it elsewhere; none of the other locations can be even remotely located, although the Wadi of the Willows is tentatively identified by some as Wadi al-Hasa, also located in southwestern Jordan. So an educated guess would be that all the unknown cities are somewhere on a southern route from Madaba, close to the eastern shore of the Dead Sea all the way down to its tip.

So this lamentation, somewhat cliched though it is, gives us a pretty good feel for geography. What it doesn’t give a good view of is the political situation. Everything I’ve said about why, when, or by whom Moab was conquered, or why Isaiah laments for them, is pretty conjectural.

Fortunately, there’s another chapter of explanation coming up, which sheds some light on what in the conquest of Moab deserves mourning. And in that chapter, we’ll see the surprising return of a theme Isaiah hasn’t mentioned for a while.

Wibble Wednesday: A little bit louder and a little bit worse (Isaiah 14)

Has it really been a month? Argh. Travel, then keyboard trouble, and more travel soon enough. And Isaiah’s kind of rough sledding to say anything interesting about, which I’ll get into below.

Short snarky summary: Babylon’s doomed, and that’s good news for Israel! We already said that last chapter, but it apparently bears repeating.

Every week it gets harder to come up with any really new commentary on Isaiah. The fact is, we’ve wandered into a groove of “God’s angry at Israel, God will send oppressors, the oppressors will become prideful and will be smote for their pride, Israel will rise again,” and we just go round and round in it without much progress. There’s sometimes a dash of messianic spice, and the oppressor bounces from Assyria to Babylon, but, y’know, there’s only so many variations on this particular scheme. At the end of Chapter 13, there was a prediction that Babylon would be overthrown and ruined by God’s will. Most of this chapter is bringing out specifics of that ruin and of Israel’s redemption.

We start with the redemption aspect, in which it is predicted that the House of Jacob (a politic choice of phrase, encompassing as it does both Judah and North Israel) will rise up again, reclaiming the land of Israel, and being joined by strangers to swell their ranks as well. This passage is a little bit alarming on that front, though: the prediction of strangers coming to the ways of Israel and bringing them to their own homelands sounds almost evangelical, but their’s a dark twist of these strangers, these converts to the community, being kept by Israel as “slaves and handmaids”. I kinda liked Isaiah more when he was talking about being nice to the friendless stranger.

The triumphaism doesn’t end there, because the next several verses, which cover fairly familiar thematic ground, are put forward as a “song of scorn” over defeated Babylon. These verses are, as I said, pretty stale stuff conceptually, but bring in a few interesting metaphors and concepts. One image brought front and center is of the king of Babylon going down to Sheol (the realm of the dead; distinct realms of punishment and ease aren’t really a thing in this particular tradition yet) and commiserate with all the other once-great now-vanquished mighty ones. In their sympathy they address Babylon as “Shining One, son of Dawn”, which my gloss identifies as a lost mythical character, but one could easily enough map it (as either a forbear or a a later myth-merge) into the much, much later Christian notion of Lucifer the Morning-star.

Another interesting allusion occurs in the next stanza, where the King of Babylon’s pride is identified as an ambition to climb to the sky, to build a throne above even the seat of God. Well, placed particularly in the context of Babylon, and of overwhelming ambition struck down by God, there’s what appears to be a blindingly obvious reference to the Tower of Babel; I don’t know if it has any significance beyond the obvious thematic and geographic correspondence, though.

The rest of the song of triumph over Babylon is the usual triumphalism; blotting out their name from the world,completely obliterating the nation, and burying its king in obscurity and dishonor. For the record, I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen exactly that way: Babylon was conquered by Cyrus, but (a) it didn’t actually go away; the Babylonian people remained a politically and culturally significant force in the Achaemenid Empire long after they were swallowed up, and (b) King Nabonidus apparently survived the conquest, althouhh his son and co-regent Belshazzar did not; it’s not clear that either of them were dishonored in death (it didn’t really seem like the Persians’ style, frankly).

Near the end of this prophecy (called the “Babylon Pronouncement”, remember) the focus seems to run off the rails, because next comes a stanza where the extermination to be brought forth by God is described as a course of action “To break Assyria in My Land”. Wait, what? Assyria? Assyria and Babylon are geographically heavily overlapping empires, but completely distinct in time, culture, and ethnicity. Assyria was itself fallen before Babylon became really significant to politics as touching directly on Israel. It’s worth mentioning again, of course, that Babylon is utterly anachronistic as a concern for Isaiah at all; during Isaiah’s lifetime, the city of Babylon and the surrounding ethnically Chaldean communities were vassals of the aggressive Assyrian Empire which would shortly thereafter demolish Northern Israel and fail to conquer Judah. So for Isaiah to be talking about Asssyrians isn’t all that weird, but bringing them up in the middle of a screed about the punisshment due the Babylonians just point up how weird the original target of that screed was. Babylon was at a nadir of influence and importance at that particular point in history! The Assyrians didn’t use it as a base of operations or their own capital or anything; they basically knocked over a few buildings every time the natives got restless, which was all the time. So it’s hard to read the Babylonians and Assyrians in this chapter as one and the same group, unless you go with an incredibly anachronistic view of associating both groups with “whatever the hell was to the east of Israel”, which would include not only the Assyrians and the Babylonians but also the kingdoms of Hatti and Mittani, and the Persian Empire. So I don’t know if this Assyria/Babylon confusion is the result of inconsistent, post-Isaiah modification of just who the black-hatted imperial villain is here, or whether both sections were written at the same time with two distinct antagonists in mind, or what. Fortunately, the final stanza makes it clear we’re well and truly out of talking about the eastern, Mesopotamian foes, with a pronouncement on the death of King Ahaz.

First, a bit of a backgrounder on Ahaz. He was a Judahite king, the father of the Hezekiah whose reign Isaiah generally approved of and which saw the coming of that failed Assyrian siege. Ahaz, by way of contrast, made nice with the Assyrians, which Isaiah emphatically did not approve of. Ahaz himself dealt with a different foe, the Kingdom of Israel with an Aramite assist. Way back in Isaiah 7 we got a close-up on how Isaiah felt about all this: he disapproved of Ahaz’s irresolution and fear, he disapproved of being asked to prophecy instead of rusting to God, and he really disapproved of the alliance with the Assyrians against these foes (surprisingly, he didn’t seem to care at all about the civil-war aspect of a Judah-Israel clash). So there was little love lost between Isaiah and Ahaz, and furthermore, from Isaiah’s point of view, Ahaz’s death was the beginning of a new golden age, with Hezekiah hewing to and rediscovering the Law, and rebuffing the Assyrians to boot. Surprisingly in light of Hezekiah’s actual signiicance, the foe this stanza tells to beware is… Philistia? Hey, hopefully you remember those guys; they were the constant antagonists back in the days of Saul and David. The thing is, they’re not by any stretch of the imagination associated with either Babylon or Assyria, or with any actual foe of either Ahaz’s or Hezekiah’s, as far as I can tell. They’re off to the southwest, far from Aram, far from Babylon, and far from Assyria (they’re close to Israel, but Israel and Judah are at the center of the narrative here, so that kind of goes without saying). The Philistines were still around in Hezekiah’s day and they even get a mention as a people Hezekiah defeated (2 Kings 18:8), but what the hell are they doing here? They weren’t really much of a local power any more, which is why Hezekiah rolled over them so easily, as Aram had a few generations earlier. Why this particular Judahite triumphalism over what seems to have been a fairly minor victory, and one with no lasting effects? This actually lends some credence to the “contemporary Isaiah” theory (i.e. that one of the authors of the Book of Isaiah was actually either Isaiah or someone else around the same time), since nobody from the much later times when Babylon was significant would’ve been likely to have cared enough to put in a prophecy of a largely insignificant act of Hezeiah’s.

Anyways, next chapter we get entirely out of talking about Babylon. We move on to a different hated set of foreigners.