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.

Wibble Wednesday: The scent of jasmine (Isaiah 17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wibble Wednesday: Darkest before Dawn (Isaiah 16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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