Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 3’

In chapter three of the book called Isaiah, YHWH threatens to dismantle Jerusalem and Judah. But first he claims he will empty them. Indeed, the oracle’s first verses evacuate the city of all that makes a city.

As these verses drive their point home, they do so in a context where fulness is an honored and even axiomatic value:

For now the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and staff— all support of bread, and all support of water—warrior and soldier, judge and prophet, diviner and elder, captain of fifty and dignitary, counselor and skillful magician and expert enchanter.

Isaiah 3:1–3 (NRSV)

The passage presses hard for the full value of the alliteration it finds possible to organize around the root משען. The insertion of vocalized renditions of the four instances where this root is deployed in rapid-fire sequence may establish the point:

For now the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support (מַשְׁעֶן, mash’en) and staff (מַשְׁעֵנָה, mashenah)— all support of bread (מַשְׁעַן־לֶחֶם, mash’an lechem), and all support of water (מַשְׁעַן־מָיִם, mash’an mayim)—…

Isaiah 3:1 (NRSV, Hebrew text and transliteration added)

The performative pronouncement uses three variations on a lexical theme. The third of them is repeated, thus packing a single verse with four nearly but not quite identical references to ‘support’ and ‘staff’.

The cumulative picture is a collapse of the structures and provision that undergird civilized life in Jerusalem and Judah. The prophet is remembered here as the purveyor of verbal fireworks. His effect must have come close to violence.

The passage will pivot from this intense metaphorization towards the naming of categories of Zion’s eminences in verses 2 and 3. But before the reader gets there, he or she has already felt the city falling into a sinkhole that has opened up beneath her streets, swallowing up those eminent and capable pillars upon which she has rested.

If the Massoretic reading tradition reflects genuinely ancient interpretation, then we encounter in this verse rhetorical artistry of a compact and pungent kind that brings to bear strenuous denunciation upon a city which the prophet believes has outrun its own capacity for presumption.

Isaiah has constructed reality out of vowels. People must have remembered the moment they first heard it.


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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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It is foolishness to find our moment too easily in Scripture, as though the great matters that weighed upon prophets’ hearts melt away to reveal only the towering mountain that is us. It is another kind of folly to ignore patterns of divine and human conduct that might instruct us, nudge us from our ignorance onto a slight rise from which one can see more clearly.

In an era different from our own, an exasperated YHWH released his people to their own devices. One effect was that capable people withdrew from the pains of leadership. Only children stepped up.

For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable.

For a man will take hold of his brother in the house of his father, saying: ‘You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule’; in that day he will speak out, saying: ‘I will not be a healer; in my house there is neither bread nor cloak; you shall not make me leader of the people.

For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.

Isaiah 3:1-8 ESV

If we are too often led by children in the grown-up bodies of women and men—and we are—then we ought to ask about causes. Where are the adults? Where are the discerning, the skilled? Where are the clear-eyed, the truth-stewarding, the level heads who know whispered conspiracy from fact and how to call a spade a spade? Where are those with the cojones properly to despise a fool in the good old way because fools spit on things that have taken generations to nourish?

They are on their couches.

Leadership is hard and largely uncompensated. One leads for others, largely at the cost of oneself. This is simply how things are. There’s no crying in leadership.

When a community or a nation is no longer inspired by large ambitions, those who should lead do not. We abdicate.

Children take over. We elect them, we anoint them, we hand precious things over to them.

We ought perhaps to ask whether YHWH’s hand—now, as then—has turned against us, allowed us our ease, subjected us to infants and imbeciles.

Then we ought to repair the great breach that has opened up, or at least summon the courage to make a beginning.

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