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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 4’

One of the dominant motifs for Israel’s judgement in the book called Isaiah is the felling of the mighty tree that is Jacob/Israel. In fact, this notion occurs in the prophet’s Generative Encounter at Isaiah 6.13. There, restoration is hinted at—arguably—by the final clause, where ‘the holy seed’ and ‘its stump’ appear to refer to a remnant of the people that is eventually to be restored.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:13 (NRSV, quotation marks removed)

The stirring oracle of regeneration that appears in the book’s fourth chapter does something quite similar.

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 NRSV)

In a manner that anticipates several restoration motifs in this book, the ‘fruit of the land’ and quite possibly ‘the branch of the Lord … and the fruit of the land’ stand over against ‘the survivors of Israel’. The images are not, by appearances, coequal.

There exists a different interpretation of the syntax and the vocabulary that removes this ambiguity, reflected as early as the Septuagint and as recently as the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible:

Τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐπιλάμψει ὁ θεὸς ἐν βουλῇ μετὰ δόξης ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τοῦ ὑψῶσαι καὶ δοξάσαι τὸ καταλειφθὲν τοῦ Ισραηλ…

Isaiah 4:2 (LXX)

But on that day God will gloriously shine on the earth with counsel, to uplift and glorify what remains of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (NETS = New English Translation of the Septuagint)

In that day, The radiance of the LORD Will lend beauty and glory, And the splendor of the land [Will give] dignity and majesty, To the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:1 (JPS)

It would probably be inaccurate to render this interpretive tradition as anti-messianic. Rather, it represents a non-messianic reading of a text that jostles uneasily with the Masoretic tradition. Targum Jonathan is an early voice that reads the text messianically in a way that reflects the path taken by most translation of Isaiah into modern languages, including English.

In that time the Messiah of the Lord will be for joy and for glory, and those who perform the Law for pride and for praise to the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (The Aramaic Bible)

For our purposes, it is important to note that the Masoretic presentation of 4.2 envisages a dual presence in the land inhabited by restored Israel, one that perhaps foreshadows the presence of the intensely personified servant over against a restored remnant population in the fourth servant song at 52.13-53.12. In each case, the people are there, alongside another presence that remains enigmatic that is at points a collective and at others a singular entity, yet always profoundly conjoined to the people.

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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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The cryptic oracle that constitutes this shortest chapter in the book called Isaiah serves up one of the Isaianic tradition’s most beguiling combinations.

The prophet and the proclaimers of his message love to fuse the notion of survivors/remnant, on the one hand, to that of beauty/glory on the other. In fact, the book of Isaiah would not be what it is if this odd alchemy did not lie at its heart.

It’s worthwhile to quote in full three of the chapter’s six verses while highlighting the words most closely related to this observation.

In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

Isaiah 4:2–4 (ESV)

Suffice it to say that the horticulturally resonant branch and fruit cling enigmatically to the survivors of Israel and he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem. The fact that both branch and fruit are beautiful, glorious, pride, and honor with respect to the surviving remnant engenders messianic interpretation of this declaration, since it seems to hint at two entities in what we might call Jerusalem-after-the-storm rather than just one. Incidentally, the Hebrew behind the static and twice-stated ’shall be’ (2x) is in my judgment better rendered ‘shall become’. This rendering honors both the Hebrew syntax (יהיה ל…) and the core contextual idea of movement from a sorry state to its opposite.

The verses excerpted here place this beautification and glorification in a future moment when the eventual remainder of Judah’s people shall have passed through and survived some purifying calamity. The sequence is already apparent in the verses quoted just above. The nature of this fruitful disaster becomes even clearer in the verses that follow.

…once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 

YHWH’s flame then becomes a divine shield over Zion in the chapter’s remaining verses, a transformation narrated in prose that is deeply resonant of YHWH’s earlier redemptive engagement with Israel.

Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

Isaiah 4:5–6 (ESV)

What are we to make of these glorious survivors, painted with an allusive brush in this early chapter of a massive book that has merely begun by the time we encounter the impressionistic canvas from which they stare out at us?

For a start, it bears underscoring that nothing portrayed in this cameo rubs roughly against the book’s longer and greater trajectory. Rather, the story of purification through a disaster designed and delivered by Jerusalem’s impassioned Divine Protector is part and parcel of the Isaianic package. Everything we discover here is constant with that greater story. If the tale is told briefly here, it will be developed, promised, declared, and pressed home time after time before this scroll can be rolled up and put away.

So, too, the notion that those who submit to the storm and survive its lashing will emerge as beautiful, honored, and holy. These splendid qualities, which cling naturally in the text to YHWH himself and to all that he restores, are here promised to those who endure the storm in the most intimate dialect that this book knows how to speak: that of re-naming.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem…

Isaiah 4:3 (ESV)

The language of ‘prophetic promises’ is spoken too often and too glibly in connection with the company of the biblical prophets.

Yet without it we would stand baffled before a text like Isaiah’s fourth chapter, unable to speak.

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