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.

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.