Wibble Wednesday: Here be dragons (Isaiah 27)

Back from travels, and here to stay. OTOH, the semester starts up soon, and then I’ll be slammed again, but I’ll try to continue my routine.

Short snarky summary: How do we differentiate between eschatological battles of primal elements and the usual scuffles with the Assyrians? How about including a huge-ass sea monster? That’ll do the trick.

So Chapter 28 starts out with a distinctly supernatural turn. Admittedly, all of Isaiah is pretty suffused with supernatural elements, but there’s an awful lot of it that’s vague enough that you could squint at, say, “God’s wrath will destroy Israel’s enemies and bring Israel prosperity,” and read it as “Israel will destroy its enemies and prosper, and we attribute that to God”. So in the end it’s all much less mythological than it might seem, but in this chapter we meet an authentically extraordinary foe: the serpent Leviathan, whom God will “in that day” (typically read eschatologically) smite and slay.

Weird beasts actually abound in the Bible. At least some of them are presented in utterly mundane contexts: Deuteronomy 14:5, in listing kosher animals, identifies at least 3 which don’t seem to correspond to any known Near East species, but that may be a vocabulary issue rather than one of exotification (e.g. the “תאו” is variously translated as “wild goat” or “wild ox” or “bubal”, which wouldn’t make it rare or supernatural, but the word itself is a complete stumper and these translations are guesses). But then there are the Biblical beasts which are unmistakably monstrous or at least extraordinary: the בהמות (Behemoth), the ראם which is apparently some sort of mighty hoofed beast, and the לִויתן (Leviathan) There are other kind of dubious beasts in between, like my favorite, the  תחש, whose leather was prized for the Tabernacle and for fine sandals. Interpretations of what this beast might be have included ermine (R. Nehemiah), porpoise (NAS bible and Strong’s Concordance), badger (KJV bible), goats (ESV bible), dolphins (ISV bible), and seals (JPS Tanakh); other views hold that it’s not an animal at all, but a description for leather that is either durable (NIV bible) or exceptionally fine (CEV bible). But the Talmudic consensus is that the תחש is a magical beast no longer visible to humanity, possibly with a horn (following R. Hoshaya) and multicolored (according to Rashi). So depending on who you follow, this could be anything from a goat to an invisible multicolored unicorn..

That digression on mythical animals in the Bible was fun, but it was at best incidental to the text in question here. The point, however, is that there’s no real controversy that the Leviathan is, or was meant to be, a mythic beast. Huge serpents have mythic significance in a lot of cultures, and disproportionately serve as forces of destruction: both the Egyptian Apep and the Norse Jormungandr are key players in the great, epic wars between good and evil which fundamentally reshape or destroy the universe. So the idea that Leviathan might have a role to play in the end times is one which seems to accord with a fairly common mythological mode (and one which the Hebrews could plausibly have adapted fro an Egyptian model hey’d encountered). But for all that, this chapter tells us little about who or what Leviathan is, other than associating it with a twisty and elusive serpent and indicating that it somehow deserves God’s wrath. The other Biblical references (mostly in Job) focus on its bigness. If there’s a mythology of Leviathan’s origins and malice, they don’t show up in this text. This means we can’t attach any real-world consequences to Leviathan’s death, save that it’s a fundamentally epochal event. And maybe that sense of enormity is all we’re meant to take from it, because the rest of the chapter (there are 13 verses, and Leviathan’s only in one of them) describe goings-on among the people Israel.

And one of the reasons I spent a lot of paragraphs teasing out this one offhand mention in the first verse is that the other verses are, thematically, awfully familiar and I feel like I’ve said everything there is to say about this kind of triumphal prophecy. There’s a paean to God, which makes use of an extended metaphor of his favor as a “Vineyard of Delight”, kept fresh by God’s tender care of the vines and his ruthless purging on the weeds. This metaphor is carried forwards in a proto-nationalistic vein, with the people Israel themselves taking root and blossoming. There’s then an abrupt shift to suggestign that Israel itself (in spite of representing the vines, not the weeds) will be scourged. The agentof this scourging in opaque: it’s simply about the House of Jacob getting beaten to purge away its sin. That last bit suggests God’s approval, if perhaps not his direct agency. Peculiarly, the purgative includes the destruction specifically of temples, razing altar stones, sacred posts, and incense altars. It’s possible these particular sacred sites (especially the sacred posts and incense offerings) are actually cultic sites to other gods and thus offensive in the site of the Israelite God, but that’s a surprisingly Deuteronomical bent to what has otherwise not gone that way (quick recap of this discrepancy: the Deuteronomists were highly invested in a strong centralized priesthood and temple system, and spent a lot of invective on worship of other gods and even of Yahwist cults outside of the Levite priesthood; Isaiah has hitherto not really fought that fight and, to the extent that the Israelites are guilty of crimes against God’s majesty in his mind, it’s for outright lack of faith, not for faith misdirected).

So, as the above discussion suggests, we segue (rather abruptly to my mind) from one of Isaiah’s tediously repeated tropes (joy and ease in the time to come) to another (the harrowing and destruction of Israel). They’re a weird fit particularly in that order. Interpreting the textual ordering as suggesting a chronology, we have God’s defeat of Leviathan ushering in an era of delight under the wings of God’s grace, and then, after that, Israel is laid waste by God’s wrath. It doesn’t read very well in this order and it works better the other way around (which has been the usual flow in previous chapters). And just to be confusing, it seesaws right on back, because right after Israel is beaten out like grain being threshed and scattered, then the sounding of a horn (a happening which could be either commonplace or mythical depending on interpretation and setting) brings the exiles back home to once again serve God in Jerusalem. So the text bounces from apocalyptic supernatural battle to ease and comfort in the aftermath, immediately to ruination and exile, and then right back to triumph. And none of the connections seem motivated. It’s a peculiar and uneven text and frankly the ill-described sea monster might be the least of its woes.


Wibble Wednesday: Good Things Happen to Good People (Isaiah 26)

Hard getting back into the saddle again. And soon enough I’ll have to go back to work. And this one’s a long’un.

Short snarky summary:more paeans of praise, noww with 60% more nationalistic fervor!

Isaiah comes out as a bit of a slog in the end. Not because on the level of individual chapters it’s badly written — it’s not — but because it’s so damn <I>repetitive</I>. After we saw a nice wide variety of themes in the first 15 or so chapters, we’re just cycling through variations on the theme after a while. So, for instance, chapter 26 reads a lot like chapter 25, down to feeling vaguely like a misplaced section of Psalms. This chapter even begins with an invocation making it clear that it is a song of triumph, an one to be sung in Judah, so it’s a very Judahite-specific victory anthem (in that it’s perhaps unlike the considerably less nationalistic works in Psalms). He describes the qualities of Judah as including “a mighty city” (presumably Jerusalem; no other city in Judah has similar universality), defended by God, who lets “a righteous nation enter”. So, yeah, we’re hammering real hard on blurring the lines of faith, righteousness, and national character here, collapsing all of these into the identity of Judah generically.

After this first stanza, the praise dials back to more generally god-oriented, and it’s more circmspect about who both the righteous and the wicked who will be destroyed actually are (so, for once, maybe I don’t have much to say about Assyrians specifically here). And twin to the defense of the righteous in the last verse, we absolutely have the scourging of the wicked as a theme: set aganst the mighty city of Jerusalem where the righteous are shielded, we in this verse see how God has “humbled the secure city,… leveled it with the dust”. In this echo of the last stanza’s mighty city there might be a veiled threat: God is protecting your city now, but he could do to it just as he’s done to others.

Actually, in addition to the veiled threat against Jerusalem, this stanza also includes a theme I find more appealing than the sual triumphalism. The evil city is not merely brought low, but specifically is trampled underfoot “By the feet of the needy/By the soles of the poor./The path is level for the righteous man.” I’m more a fan of social justice than of the harrowing of the faithless, and this framing suggests that social justice is <I>somewhere</I> in this act of ruination. It’s a bit opaque, but at leat suggests that the wickedness being purged is not simply ungodliness but lack of care for the needy, and that bringing the high low is ultimately a step towards equity. I like that read, anyways. It’s not the only way to read it, I suppose, but it dovetails well with the fact that social justice has been an active concern in earlier chapters.

But we descend back into tediousness with the next stanza, alas. It’s framed mostly as a bog standard focus on God’s might in an <A HREF=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fINh4SsOyBw”>”Oh, Lord, you are so big”</A> vein, but some incidental details bring it a bit out of the doldrums. God’s judgment is specifically put forward as the only way to guide humans to righteousness: when the wicked are punished, we take it as an object lesson, and when they’re spared, they learnnothing and continue to do evil. It’s a pretty severe philosophy, and whether it’s harsh or outright cruel depends on how you define “righteousness”: when Isaiah’s in social-justice mode I’m somewhat on board with the salutary effects of some humbling, but if it’s all about beating up on people who don’t love God enough I’m a lot less happy about that.

And the next few stanzas certainly bring faith and nationality back to the forefront, with a lot of discussion of God’s proprietary relationship with his people. They love God and God loves them, and everyone who isn’t them is gonna get it. Worst of all, of course are those who themselves presumed to overmaster Judah themselves (and, OK, we can have one reference to the Assyrians in this commentary. But just one). Those nations “are dead, they can never live… You have dealt with them and wiped them out”. This is juxtaposed with a mention of how God has “added to the nation” which is pretty ahistorical; the overthrow of Judah’s oppressors has almost never actually resulted in their lands being annexed into Judahite hands. Notwithstanding, this stanza is long and vivid in its description of both Judah and its rivals, identifying both of them (cunningly enough) with a pregnant woman entering labor.

The rivals naturally are associated specifically with the travails and pains, and the anguished whispering that comes with the pain of childbirth. That’s a pretty simple metaphor, and one that doesn’t make much of the pregnancy aspect of their suffering (any other pain could serve just as well). But in describing Judah’s “pregnancy”, Isaiah delves into greater subtleties which might be the most interesting part of this chapter. Like the other nations, Israel suffers in travail, but the fruits of their labor (as it were) are delved into a bit more deeply, and their outcome is described as being like having “given birth to wind” in that they have no temporal victory. Nonetheless, the victory of Judah is presented as having some transcendent fruit, since even though their dead “have not come to life”, God will eventually “make the land of the shades come to life”. And just like that, our pregnancy metaphor goes careening into messianism, seeing as we kind of have to read the wholesale resurrection of the dead as basically messianic. The messianic aspect isn’t developed much further or embodied in a particular savior the way some other messianic threads have been (it is entirely possible that the consideration of the raising of the dead and the coming of the messiah as one and the same thing is a post-Isaiah innovation, and my inability to extricate them is a matter of my cultural conditioning; in such a case, this chapter might have nothing to do with the messiah whatsoever).

Anyways, the final stanza seems like it’s continuing, to some extent, the thread of a great reckoning and massive upheaval. The people are advised to “lock your doors… until the indignation passes”, while God comes to scourge the evil. All that was concealed will be rvealed, adn particularly murder, but you can escape if you just hide indoors. There are shades of the Pesach mythos in this, but presumably just as in that case, hiding indoors only works if you’re righteous yourself. It diesn’t say so specifically here, and the “lock your doors” bit reads a bit uncomfortably to me, reducing this tremendous day of wrath to something mundane you can avoid if you just don’t go out on the streets that day. If it’s a metaphor, it doesn’t work, and if it’s meant to be taken literally, it’s awfully unimpressive.

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.

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.

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.