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Posts Tagged ‘disgrace’

The reader of Isaiah grows accustomed to the formula ‘in that day’ as a reference to better times after judgement’s calamity. Yet it would be a mistake to presume that the expression (ביום ההוא) always invokes weal rather than woe.

The imagery is unmistakably and uncomfortably feminine. The bulk of this judgement oracle directs its savagery to Judah’s population without direct reference to gender and even leans in the direction of the men who would have been more publicly responsible for the body politic (but see 3.12). However, that ends when the text turns to direct its considerable wrath to the ‘daughters of Zion’ (בנות ציון) at 3.18.

From that point forward, the allure of feminine finery is dismantled by means of a step-by-step degradation of its artifacts. The plight of Zion’s daughters involves the loss of their men in battle (3.25), yet the focus remains on the women themselves. This focus carries over even to the feminine singular of 3.26, which presumably represents not so much the daughters of Zion but rather the city itself as Daughter (of) Zion. Still, the judgement on women is not lost on the reader as this subtle shift occurs.

The aforementioned oracular expression in that day (again, ביום ההוא) occurs once again in 4.1. It does so not from its customary location at the very outset of an oracle, but rather from halfway through the verse.

Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, ‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes; just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace.’

Isaiah 4:1 (NRSV)

It is likely the recurrence of this formula that explains the post-biblical versification of what is for us chapter 4, verse 1 as a component of a new and fourth chapter rather than the conclusion of the third chapter’s address of Zion’s daughters. There is much to be said for this kind of reading.

However, the strikingly different tone at 4.2 persuades me that it is best to read 4.1 together with the denunciation of Jerusalem’s women that begins at 3:16. Indeed, I take 4.1 as the culminating and conclusive declaration of those women’s sorry condition. The verse repays close inspection, though in the coin of sadness rather than mirth.

Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, ‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes; just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace.’

Isaiah 4:1 (NRSV)

It is difficult to imagine within the context of a traditional society a more complete diagnosis of its complete breakdown. The men are no longer prominent, as the tradition assumes they should be. This is hinted at already in the picture of oppressive rule by children and women in verse 12. In 4.1, it is patently the consequence of a subsequent tragedy, the loss of Jerusalem’s ‘warriors’ in battle (3.25).

A feature of the lamented rule of women still lingers in 4.1, for these desperate women are still able to make their own economic way amid calamity.

We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes.

Yet the unattainable relief for which these women clamor goes beyond food and clothing.

Just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace.

Even as one smarts under the rhetorical heat of this denunciation of women and in a much less substantial way their children, it is wise to recall that the passage is just one feature of a systematic deconstruction of Judahite society in the face of a crisis of which the only bright spot the text can bring itself to notice is the eventual emergence of a fruitful remnant.

In the midst of the entire passage lies this explanatory declaration, which even in its framing role cannot loosen its grip on metaphor:

For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen…

Isaiah 3:8 (NRSV)

Zion, the once faithful city—as the book’s first chapter would have us recall her—has been completely and utterly dis-graced.

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