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.

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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.

Wibble Wednesday: Hanging Gardens (Isaiah 13)

Man, this week’s chapter is kinda rough sledding. But I’ll try to figure it out, because that’s the whole point of this exercise.

Short snarky summary: Bad apocalyptic shit is coming down from on high. Medes and Babylonians are involved, somehow.

Chapter 13 is the first of several prophecies which are identified with a geographic region. This one is the “Babylon” prophecy, which is somewhat topical seeing as how, in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was ascendant in world affairs to the extent that, generations after the historical figure of that name died (assuming, as all available texts suggest, that Isaiah prophecied roughly in the time of King Hezekiah), they would actually conquer Judah. Now, this is all a bit anachronistic here, because any significant interactions between Babylon and Judah were still decades, maybe even a century, past Isaiah, but assuming the Book of Isaiah was heavily massaged by future authors, Babylon is a sensible thing to have Isaiah be talking about.

The verses of this chapter are more than a little cryptic and weirdly lacking in referents. The first several verses describe the mustering of an army: raising standards on a hill and beckoning forth “purified guests”, “[God’s] stalwarts”, and “proudly exultant ones”. I basically have no idea who these entities are. Babylonians, called forth to raze a sinful Judah? The Persians, who eventually gobbled up a decadent and weak Babylon? Angels, taking who-knows-what part? The heroic language tends towards the third interpretation—why would Isaiah praise the gentiles in such terms?—but the text is rather focused on a clash of terrestrial nations, so it’s hard to know what to make of it. My translation glosses the notion that the “purified guests” is a reference to a metaphorical feast, after the ritual slaughter of a massacre (of Judahites? of Babylonians? of someone else?). That interpretation somewhat raises more questions than it answers, to my mind.

From verse 4 onwards the murk lifts, somewhat. God is assembling together “nations” who “come from a distant land”. So by this point we’re unambiguously talking about ordinary terrestrial war-hosts. The Persians/Achaemenids are a good fit for this description, because they are indeed a culturally and geographically dispersed group which came together for a purpose relevant to Babylon (specifically: conquering it). They’re described as “the weapons of [God’s] wrath”,b ut that’s the same kind of language used about the Assyrians in Chapter 10, and it’s an established principle that Isaiah regards the nations of the world as tools in the big game of Populous that God’s playing.

After these two stanzas of describing the prologue to war, there is an interpolation with a completely different tone which is either a metaphorical description of war or an apocalypse which crept randomly into a story of national conflict. The first stanza works OK for either war or total destruction: it describes how people will quail in terror at the coming of all this wrath. There’s a lot of language of illness used here: fear producing feverish shivering, spasms like those of pregnancy, and faces flushed with fear and anxiety. But all in all this is, although colorful, a straightforward enough description of how people might react to the coming of a strong and dangerous foe.

But from verse 9 onwards we veer out of the realm of the mundane and into a strangely apocalyptic vision. The earth will be laid waste, the sun and moon and stars blotted out. This is much more “End Times” than “Change of the Guard”, as it were, and it honestly feels like an interpolation from a completely different prophecy. Verse 11 backs away from this a bit, discussing less the celestial and universal issues as the wasting of the entire earth and cosmos, and returning to a much more comfortable theme, the affliction of the comfortable. The usual villains make a showing: the haughty, the tyrannical, the arrogant, the undifferentiated evil. It’s implied that nearly everyone belongs to one of these groups, for after God destroys them all, “people will be scarcer than fine gold”.
So, all in all, we’re given a strong vision of cataclysm, but, it must be said, a cataclysm which seesaws crazily between the ordinary and the supernatural. The next stanza starts with a vow to shake heaven, which sure seems supernatural, but the events described sound like a much more commonplace sort of destruction: men fleeing in terror, seeking fo safety, and when they don’t move fast enough they’re killed, their babies dismembered, their wives raped, and so forth. Commonplace atrocities of war, really (at least by Bronze/Iron Age standards).

These stanzas (verses 6 to 16) feel kind of like a different story really, because before we got into the widespread wrath and destruction, we had a notion of nations rising up to destroy one people (either the Judahites or the Babylonians, it’s still not clear). In verse 17 we return to a local political context, because God specifically promises to raise up the Medes, “who do not value silver or delight in gold”, and are thus pitiless and implacable. Some of that is definitely propaganda, but the Medes were a significant group in the Mesopotamian power struggles of the time. They were instrumental in toppling the Assyrians (so the people persecuted above might even be the Assyrians, really), formed an uneasy peace with Babylon, and were then along with Babylon swallowed by the Persian Empire. So the presence of the Medes here certainly suggests that the people being persecuted in this chapter might actually be Assyrians, notwithstanding the name of the prophecy. Certainly the Medes were never really in much of a position to do much to Israel or Judah (at any given time, either Assyria or Babylon was in between), and the occasional hostilities between Media and Babylon never flared into the apocalyptic fury described here, so Assyria’s really the only possible victim here, which seems wrong somehow, but it’s the only way the geography makes sense.

But then…. isn’t this the “Babylon prophecy”? Shouldn’t it say something about Babylon? It finally does, in its final stanza, and it only makes things more confusing right when I thought I knew when and where we were talking about here. See, apparently Babylon, “glory of kingdoms”, is to be conqueredby God, made a complete desolation. Oops. See, this means that the aggressors are the Persians, and I guess Media was part of the Achaemenid Empire before it overthrew Babylon? Sure. We;ll go with that. But this is all massively anachronistic: in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was a tribute city, under the firm control of Assyria; it wasn’t an Assyrian city and couldn’t serve as a metonym for Assyria itself, but from any reasonable point of view at the time had already fallen, between its time as a significant Sumerian city-state and before its rebirth at the center of a new Babylonian Empire. So this whole chapter feels like an unfortunate stew of anachronism and tonal clashes. Not sure what to make of it, as a whole.

Wibble Wednesday: Shoots and Leaves (Isaiah 11–12)

Back again. Last week I was leaving town Thursday, and all aflutter Wednesday night.

Short snarky summary: There’ll be a Messiah! He’s going to be totally awesome. Here are some cryptic clues which can later be plugged into Jesus’s story to make it fit.

I’m starting to get a feel for Isaiah. He basically has three interconnected themes: (1) people are insufficiently excellent to each other and thus totally unrighteous, maybe even bogus, and so (2) Israel and/or Judah will be afflicted by suffering delivered mostly by the Assyrians but maybe occasionally by other agents, and (3) the beatings will continue until morale is improved by the birth of a harbinger of good fortune named Emmanuel and/or Maher-shalal-hash-baz. This child or children may include any or all of a son of Isaiah and/or a leader of the people. Anyways, the kid(s) will bring about a new era of prosperity and freedom.

Strand (3) is basically Jewish messianism, and thus the forerunner of Christian messianism. One thing I can’t help but notice is the murkiness in this particular theme. The first two are strictly local in time and place: Israelites are bad, Assyrians come and subjugate them, all very neat and tidy and well-supported by the archaeological record. The third is, if connected to those at all, pretty well anchored in a specific series of events and isn’t really relevant past the reign of Hezekiah or at the very latest Cyrus (who notably released the nation of Israel from the Babylonian exile). If we assume Maher-whatsit is Isaiah’s son and that he’s in this somehow, we’re basically not getting much past the broken siege of Jerusalem. So what this is all to say is that the case that Isaiah is unambiguously speaking about a messiah for generations well past his own is actually a lot shakier than either Jewish or Christian conventional thought would have it be.

So, anyways, on to these chapters, which are mostly building on that third theme, which is why I’m so full of ruminations on it. On the tail of Chapter 10’s story of Judah’s ruin, we are given this hopeful sign that “a shoot will grow out of the stump of Jesse”. This is a pretty clear reference, because Jesse is the father of David, and thus the forbear of the entire monarchy of Judah. The “stump” bit is somewhat allusive to the notion that this illustrious figure will come after the royal line has been effectively destroyed, which is to say, after the conquest by Babylon and cessation of the Judahite monarchy. This is the best indication we’ve seen so far that the redemption Isaiah has hinted at is not the breaking of the siege of Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign, but that it will actually come after the fall of Judah. It’s not absolutely confirmatory: one could read Hezekiah as the shoot from the “stump” created by the degeneracy of his father Ahaz without too much of a stretch, but, sure, we can go with the conventional read that a post-Babylonian messiah will arise from the House of Jesse.

To my dismay, nobody takes the contrarian but fully justified view that the Messiah will be descended from one of David’s brothers. They’re the line of Jesse too! But Christan genealogy invariably traces Jesus back to David, in two ways which are perplexing: first, it’s through Joseph, which seems a bit dubious, and second, there are two distinct lineages which don’t agree. There’s a wealth of Christian scholarship on the latter discrepancy which is well beyond my pay grade, but one notable aspect of it jumps out at me: Matthew’s chronology follws the royal line as far as possible, going even into the known members of the Judahite governmnet-in-exile, while Luke’s pretty much immediately veers into non-royal progeny of David’s going by way of his son Nathan. Dunno quite what to make of that, except that “Jesse” seems to be universally regarded as a metonym for “David”, but may well not be referring to the royal line in particular.

So, anyways, this descendant of David: what makes him so special? Well, Isaiah lays out his extraordinary qualities of wisdom and piety, and foresight and insight. These aren’t necessarily put forward as supernatural, although there’s interpretive space to read “he shall sense the truth” as a spiritual power above and beyond mere mortal discernment. He will apparently wield power, although that’s not explicitly stated, because he’ll be in a position to issue just judgments and policies of equity. And here we see a return to the original theme of how true wickedness is inequity: much of the good attributed to this noble scion of Judah is specifically in the realm of equality under law, with the poor and rich treated equally, and the latter dealt harshly with when they abuse their power. So justice is a big theme here, and piety is put forth more as a means to an end.

From the sixth verse on, the text meanders into phrasing which could be read as metaphorical. There’s a lot of famous bits here, starting with “the wolf will lie down with the lamb”, and continuing in that vein with a lot of prophecies of harmony in nature and a cessation of predation or ferocity among beasts. If you want to hew to a minimally supernatural interpretation, this could be thought of as a metaphorical continuation of the previous theme: the people, represented by herds and beasts of burden, will be safe from and living in harmony with their traditional predators, the wealthy.

However you slice it, though, the rule of the messiah is put forward as one of tremendous peace, of widespread piety, and presumably of great plenty. Furthermore, as the text breaks into prose to inform us, God will also redeem the “other part” of his people from Assyria and elsewhere. The gloss in my text suggest this is the Hebrew diaspora, which seems absurd because it is a transparent reference to the Northern Kingdom of Israel: the ones who aren’t of the house of Judah and Jesse, and the ones who actually were conquered by Assyria. In that context, the first ten verses seem to be specific to the Southern Kingdom, which isn;t surprising since they’re the ones to whom Isaiah prophecied, and the ones for whom the line of Jesse is actually still relevant.

The notion that the eleventh verse is about Israel specifically is bolstered by what follows, which is a prophecy essentially of reunification (or unification, if like me you believe that the original unified Kingdom of Israel is a fiction), that “Ephraim” (which here and elsewhere has been taken as a term for Israel, probably because both Samaria and the first Northern king were Ephraimite) and Judah will cease to fight each other and will instead…conquer all their neighbors? This seems kind of at odds with the millennial prophecy of peace we just saw, but I guess Isaiah subscribes to the disappointing notion that justice and equity is only for the in-crowd.

The end of the chapter can be read as a prophecy of either drought or divine waterbending. In a callback to the miracle at the Sea of Reeds in Exodus, Isaiah prophecies that the water will be sent back from the Euphrates to allow Israel to come home over dry land. The water will specifically gaher into seven wadis; I have no idea if there are seven particularly notable accumulation points where a dried-up Euphrates might still have watering holes, or whether it’s just the cross-cultural mystical significance of the number seven being invoked gratuitously.

Chapter 12 is a very short one, consisting pretty much exclusively of a son of joy and gratitude to be sung after the messiah’s redemption. It’s mostly phrases which feel like they’d be in place in the psalms, and might be exactly identical to some of them: “God is my strength and my might”, for instance, feels very familiar, although I’m not sure if the phrasing in the original text is literally identical. My translation (and some others) includes a surprising phrasing naming God; the Hebrew text is יה יהוה, which my (JPS) translation has as “Yah the Lord” and many others give as “Jah Jehovah”, which is simply a transliteration of the phrase. Both words are moderately common references to God (the second word is the tetragrammaton, which is positively everywhere; the first is far less common, with only 46 examples sprinkled through the Bible according to the often illuminating Strong’s concordance). That God has multiple names is pretty well established (and is in fact used for authorship hypotheses when variant names are used in texts of differing styles), but I’m not sure what semantics to read into the juxtaposition of two names of God. It might be theologically deep or it might just be a pleasing euphony. Who knows?

Wibble Wednesday: All Politics is Local (Isaiah 10)

Missed two weeks. This chapter’s longish, so it’s hard to really get down to business on it.

Short snarky summary: Assyria is coming to getcha. They’ll get theirs in the end, but for now, the things they are doing are totally sanctioned by God. That’ll teach you to, uh, do all the bad stuff you do.

I’m not sure exactly how Biblical chapter and verse numbering came about, because there’s a pretty good reason to reckon that the first four verses of this chapter actually belong in Chapter 9. Remember that Chapter 9 was a harangue against the iniquities of Israel, with stanzas separated by the chorus “Yet His anger has not turned back, and His arm is outstretched still”. Well, the first four verses of this chapter are a continuation of that exact structure, ending with the aforementioned chorus, and focusing in the stanza on my favorite bit of Isaiah, the calling out of social injustice. The villains are drawn in the usual light: schemers who use “evil writs” and “iniquitous documents” to rob the poor, the widows, and the orphans. However, in this iteration of the social justice fight there’s an eschatological or at least apocalyptical bent: not only are these men evil, but all their ill-gotten gains cannot protect them in the day of reckoning, when they’ll be, as it were, first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

But that’s not really what this chapter is about. The rest of the chapter is a quite explicit discussion of local geopolitics, particularly as regards Assyria. This is, in some ways, the aspect of Isaiah which makes it hard to take seriously as messianic, far-future prophecy. Just as, say, the Revelation of St. John is obviously a veiled and metaphorical reference to the contemporaneous political environment (specifically: Rome and imperial excess), Isaiah frequently slips into a mode which is emphatically not a story of some far-off apocalypse, or even the universal story of injustice, but of the present and immediate issues of Assyrian conquest. And unlike the Revelation, Isaiah is not even remotely coy about its references. In this chapter, Assyria is mentioned by name as God’s weapon against an “ungodly nation”. The charitable read (for Isaiah’s Judahite audience) is that this nation is Israel, as mentioned in the last chapter; an uncharitable read would ascribe the vices of ungodly avarice, and the Assyrian response thereto, to Judah itself. The ambiguity drives a bit of the tension for the rest of the chapter, where Isaiah lays out a specific prophecy of how Assyria will end up interacting with Judah, eventually answering the question: will Assyria destroy Judah? (Spoiler alert: no.)

The motivation of Assyria is gone into a bit, and there’s a vivid image of the nation slipping, as it were, out of God’s control. This may not be the intent of the text, but it’s a read that the nation God empowered to fulfill his wrath has grown too great for safety and is running wild, so puffed up by their victories that they don’t bother to see which nations God has protected and which he hasn’t. This is a bit peculiar in its framing, though: the foe is depicted as stating confidently that Calno, Hamath, and Samaria will be as easy to conquer as Carchemish, Arpad, and Damascus. The weird part is the mix of nations here: four of those cities are Hittite; Damascus is Aramean, and Samaria, as we know is Israelite (Samaria is used elsewhere as a metonym for Israel, especially for Israel’s non-Jerusalemite religious tradition). I’m no sure what the comparison is supposed to be. From a grace-of-God perspective five of these cities are identical in being completely forsaken, and the sixth is one which was apparently the whole point of dispatching Assyria as a mad dog in the first place. God approves of Assyrian conquest of all these places, surely! But in the next verse the conqueror is attributed the prideful boat that, having subdued all these great places, he will next take on Samaria and Jerusalem. So, uh, in case you didn’t notice, Samaria appears twice here, and any way you try to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy (operaing under the assumption that Jerusalem is in the “good” box) you either end up putting Samaria into both categories, or a completely foreign city (Calno and Hamath, or Damascus) in with the worthy.

So the question of whether Assyria will conquer Jerusalem remains up in the air (along with, to some extent, the question as to whether Jerusalem deserves that fate). Verse 12 muddies that issue, since it asserts that God will punish Assyria after he has “carried out all his purpose on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem”, which sure sounds like a reckonging coming to Judah! But it isn’t—remember back in II Kings 19, when Sennacharib besieged Jerusalem and then his entire army was felled by the Angel of Death (a plague, or something?). That’s a certain scourge on Judah, perhaps, but pretty limited. Unmistakably the punishment for Assyria alluded to here are the events of II Kings 19 (which, in the chronology of the work, are presumably still in the future when this prophecy was written, although inasmuch as everything here was at least tweaked by later editors, the prophecy isn’t much of a feat of prognosication). We get a second view into the prideful mind of the Assyrian king: previously glorying in his military might, we next see a boastful claim that all of this is a result of personal virtue: that he, and he alone, has built an empire, destroying nations and pillaging their wealth. My translation even has italics on the word “I” in his soliloquy, which I assume corresponds to some grammatical or semantic element emphasis in the original. So, the message of this section is that the king of Assyria’s great sin is his pride, and his belief that his accomplishments are his own doing, rather than his service as a tool to God. Verse 15 pretty much explicily refutes this viewpoint, putting the notion fo the king as a tool forwards pretty explicitly, metaphorically asking if an ax, or a saw, or a staff would praise its own skill rather than that of the wielder.

The next stanza has a peculiarly ambiguous pronoun referent, talking about the destruction and reduction of some entity, which will suffer “a wasting away in its fatness”, and a burning “destroying frame and flesh… like a sick man who pines away”. The footnote gloss suggests that the subject of this phrase is Israel, but in context it makes a hell of a lot more sense for it to be in reference to Assyria. Consider: the last several verses were all about the improper pride of Assyria, with heavy allusion to its being brought down low. And, indeed, Assyria kind of falls to pieces gradually, starting with the failure of the siege at Jerusalem, not unlike the wasting-away imagery used here (which is kind of inappropriate for Israel, which is in the short term conquered and exiled).

This (apparently disfavored) interpretation also works harmoniously with the next section, wherein it is asserted that in that time (i.e. when Assyria, or possibly Israel, has succumbed to its wasting away), Israel will cease to rely on its abuser (Assyria) and will come to rely on God instead. This is actually a bit confusing, because Israel never relied on Assyria; Judah, under King Ahaz, brokered a peace with Assyria against their common foe of Israel (see 2 Kings 16 for the gory details). SO the idea of “Israel and the House of Jacob” relying on Assyria is kind of weird. Judah might work, because Judah did in fact rely on Assyria, only to a generation laer be attacked (albeit unsuccessfully) by them, but then we have a problem with the “in that day” suggestion that after escaping the bonds of their oppressor, only a small portion of the House of Jacob will remain. After all, Sennacharib’s siege on Jerusalem didn’t depopulate Judah! And Israel was already decimated and exiled by then. So I find the question of just who is oppressing who, and when hey are supposed to get their comeuppance, awfully vague in this section. We could use fewer pronouns here, I guess I’m saying.

But, anyways, God is carrying out a “decree of destruction upon all the land”, but then, we’re immediately reassured, that those who live in Zion (Judahites) need not fear Assyria, who will soon be used up and themselves the targets of God’s wrath, like previous oppressors of the Hebrews. Specifically, the king of Assyria will be ppunished just like the Egyptians (in Exodus, of course) or the Midianites at the Rock of Oreb (that’s a reference to the Judge Gideon, who killed the Midianite general Oreb at the rock named after him).

What follows is essentially a poetic retelling of the siege of Jerusalem. The preface is that on the day of victory Assyria’s yoke will fall from Judah’s neck “because of [Judah’s] fatness”, which I can’t quite interpret, because it’s not Judahite prosperity so much as divine fate that drives back the Assyrians. The following text includes a lot of geographical details of Assyria’s route into Judah: how at certain stations the Assyrian army scattered the people before them, crossed rivers, dropped off a depot, etc., but basically it describes an approach from the north, which is both the obvious way to get to Jerusalem and the easiest route for an Assyria which has just gobbled up Judah’s northern neighbor. So there’s a list of communities and notable places, arranged roughly north-to-south, terminating just outside of Jerusalem where the Assyrian king beckons the army onwards to pillage.

The nature of that pillaging (which will be pivotal for the next chapter) is presented in arboreal terms, with the destruction of Zion (and of the environs of Jerusalem) put in terms of the chopping down of trees, with forest thickets cut back, lofty trees felled, and the prized Lebanon cedars being dropped. This may be metaphorical for the general destruction and scouring of the land, or it could be talking about the literal vegetation around Jerusalem and its destruction by the oncoming army.

The next chapter, though, is totally going to take all those tree stumps and use them metaphorically.

Thibble Thursday: New Day Dawning (Isaiah 9)

Summer’s here. No excuse to not do this every week.

Short snarky summary: A new day of great joy is too come! The most joyful part of it, of course, will be when evildoers get what’s coming to them.

This chapter as a whole has a lyrical, poetic structure. There’s a repeated motif (a chorus, if you will) in between verses on individual topics. Structurally, it is very much a poem, or possibly even a song. Contentwise, though, it’s hard to know what to make or it, because i seems to be a messianic song of redemption stapled messily to an awfully vindictive tale of wrath. Is the future good or bad for Israel and Judah? This chapter is, to say the least, ambiguous on that point, because neither the jubilee nor the wrath seems to be targeted at a specific subset of the Hebrew people, so it’s not as if the good, kind, just people are designated for redemption while the greedy and the cruel are the targets of the wrath. I can’t quite bridge this tonal shift, so maybe as we work through it I’ll see a better way of looking at it that will make it make sense.

The first several verses set forth a tale of joy and peace: light dawning where there was dark, joy where there was once misery, and the destruction of all instruments of oppression. The last of these is a pretty standard social-justice theme of Isaiah, and it goes into fairly explicit detail cataloging the ephemera of the oppressor: yokes and sticks to torment the people, boots to stamp on them with, and “garments donned in infamy”. OK, the picture of slavery might have broken down there wih that last bit.

Further on within this same theme, there will be more discussion of the bounties of joy and peace and plenty, but before we get to that, we take a short dodge into the explicitly messianic, Like, literally, as in a significant section of the text of Handel’s Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is taken from this verse. We’ve seen a lot of fate-imbued children in the last few chapters: Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Chapter 8, and Immanuel in Chapter 7. Both of these children’s births, however, have been more put forward as a sign of change than as the agent of change in their own right, whereas this child will have “authority settled on his shoulders”, giving him a more active role in bringing forth the golden age. A discussion of his name (or what he is called in this particular verse) calls attention to a difference between Jewish and Christian messianism, if I read it right: the Hebrew read is that his name is roughly “God is everlasting, the Prince of Peace”, which is pretty much in line with the sort of names attributed to pious characters throughout the Bible, whereas the Christian take is broadly that his name is “Everlasting God, the Prince of Peace”. That’s a significant difference in interpretation which plays out profoundly theologically, since mainstream Judaism has never attributed divinity to the messiah, whereas mainstream Christianity does. There might be a chicken-and-egg question as to whether the theology affected the interpretation or vice versa, but it’s a point of some interest here.

(Incidentally, on the subject of this parade of children, I’m not sure what standard commentary is on how many of these kids are the same, in either tradition. OK, I know that Christian theology typically equates the Immanuel of Chapter 7 with the messiah of Chapter 9 and elsewhere (and all of these figures with Jesus, of course), but I don’t know if Jewish interpretation also considers Immanuel the messiah, or how Maher-shalal-hash-baz fits into any of this.)

This block of text, with that messianic interjection, ends much as it began: that peace and justice will emanate from the throne of David. It’s heavily implied, if not stated outright, that the child “with authority on his shoulders” is in fact the heir of David (and standard messianism in both religions holds that the Messiah is from the line of David).

But next we move into a completely different prophecy, one which feels diametrically opposed to what we’ve just read. After the beautiful vision of a shining future of peace and prosperity, we get a harangue set in, as far as I can tell from my translation, the present tense and discussing God’s wrath and why Israel deserves it. Maybe the tense shift (now versus later) explains the dichotomy, although it’s a bit backwards from the rhetorically effective way to do this: present the crappy present first, and then the potential for the future. Either way, the sins credited to Israel are the ones we’ve seen before: greed and haughtiness, and lack of true justice. The framing is interestingly placed in the midst of the disaster: that Israel (presented through the metonym of Ephraim and Samaria, which we’ve seen before), having fallen prey to disaster, boastfully proclaims that they’ll rebuild but even better than before (specifically: stone instead of brick, cedar instead of sycamore), and that this prideful self-confidence is why God brought enemies to raze and loot the land.

At the end of this condemnation of self-confidence, we get the first of three repetitions of the chorus “Yet his anger has not turned back, and his arm is outstretched still”. I must admit I like this repetition and the structure it brings to this chapter, perhaps more than I should. It matches the themes of a present-tense wrath, and it has a lyrical quality which works.

The next stanza continues to itemize the tribulations God will bring forth. It starts with the phrase “For the people has not turned back to Him who has struck it,” which has an unsettling domestic-violence vibe, but I suppose that particular read in the God/israel relationship has always been there. The punishment to be exaced on Israel for this crime is to have their heads and tails cut off. But this is not a literal threat that Israelites will be decapitated, as the text hastens to mention! Raher, the people’s (corrupt) leaders are the heads, and the false prophets and counselor the tails. because these particular representatives of the people are so very wicked, apparently God will show them no mercy and strike them down. Already, Isaiah says, their wickedness has spread like fire, burning all it touches. There are specific victims of the unholy fire of Israel’s leaders’ wickedness given, but they all seem metaphorical: thorns, thistles, and forest all succumb to the spreading blaze. It would be cool if there were some context for reading these different types of vegetation as different aspects of the state and its people, but no dice.

The final stanza gets down to some specific natural disasters and large-scale human disasters. God’s fury apparently shakes the earth, which suggests some reference to an earthquake: there apparently was a major earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, which goes unmentioned in 2 Kings but appears prominently in the book of Amos. Also prophecied is civil strife, with every man raiding his kinsmen, with Ephraim against Manasseh and vice versa, and then both against Judah. It’s not clear what specific events in the histories of the two nations these prophecies refer to, but there’s a surfeit of choices: Israel had perpetual internal conflict, particularly over the succession oof kings who met violent ends at the hands of usurpers, and thy also occasionally opened hostilities against Judah, with whom relationships ranged from cold civility to outright war. So while I don’t have a single obvious reference for Isaiah’s prophecied war and discord, his prophecy certainly picks up on the general tenor of the times.

finally, this pronouncement of woe ends with the third (and thus rhythmically most powerful) repetition of the promise that God is not yet done with Israel’s punishment, the prophecy ends, as if Isaiah was saying, with his final repetition of the chorus: “Show’s over, folks. Go home.”

Next time: a final callback to the wrath of these stanzas, and more tedious local politics.