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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 23’

By the time Isaiah’s ‘oracles against the nations’ have meandered their way to Tyre’s denunciation in the book’s twenty-third chapter, the reader has learned to anticipate a sudden turn from woe to weal in each chapter’s concluding lines.

Throughout the chapter, the glories produced by Tyre’s ceaseless commercial journeying have been defiled. The sea itself has turned against Tyre and Sidon, her sister city. Tyre herself will be ‘forgotten for seventy years, the lifetime of one king’ (v. 15). Her ambitious energies have been compared to those of a street-walking prostitute. In the prophet’s rhetoric at least, Tyre has like so many others of Israel’s neighbors been brought low.

Yet one hopes for better things upon arriving at the expected hinge language in verse 17: והיה מקץ שׁבעים שׁנה / ‘At the end of seventy years…’ This, after all, is where horizons nearly always grow brighter.

But if we expect an oracle of blessing at the end of this chapter, we are left scratching our heads over its details.

At the end of seventy years, the LORD will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade, and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth. Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD.

Isaiah 23:17–18 (NRSV)

Oddly, we find no splendid, redeemed Tyre in white linen, blessed by YHWH and blessing the earth. At least not exactly.

Instead, her activity is still presented as that of a woman who ‘prostitute(s) herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.’ Tyre has not gone still. Her incessant wanderings have not grown obsolete during those seventy years forgotten.

Only the purpose has changed, and this dramatically. The judgement oracle against Tyre had described her thus:

Who has planned this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth?

Isaiah 23:8 (NRSV)

It seems that none of her commercial prowess has been lost. In the restoration oracle—if that is what it is—her relentless buying and selling are still styled as prostitution. However, its beneficiaries have been supplanted by new and nobler ones.

Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD.

Isaiah 23:18 (NRSV)

If the well-established pattern in Isaiah’s oracles against the nations is our interpretive North Star, then it is possible that the pattern has been sustained even here. The description of Tyre after her seventy years is then likely to be a depiction of blessing and even of service to YHWH. Perhaps, then, Tyre’s ‘prostitution’ is now a wry rather than a barbed description of her commercial activism. The form of it remains unchanged but its purpose is transformed.

No longer hoarded for her own glory, the ‘profits’ of Tyre’s ‘prostitution’ now feed and clothe the Lord’s own.

If such a reading captures the chapter’s deeply ironic burden, then we might look backward to the nations’ beating of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We might also glance forward to the parade of the nations’ cultural product into Zion the beautified and the beautifying. We might discover in those disparately populated metaphors a template for this chapter’s odd transformation of a pagan city’s commercial ‘prostitution’ into bread, wine, and wool for the daughters and sons of Zion’s wide and welcoming embrace.

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