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Posts Tagged ‘textures’

In classical Isaiah criticism, the third section of the book begins with chapter 56. Labeled Trito-Isaiah—the ‘Third Isaiah’—the section is assigned to the period of Persian domination. Chapters 56-66 do in fact seem to have much to say to the circumstances and indeed the disappointment associated with the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the struggle to establish a Jewish Commonwealth in the land they had been forced to abandon two generations earlier.

The argument has much to say for itself, though recent decades have not been kind to overly neat dissection of books like this one. In any case, chapter 56 hurries on to one of the book’s most lyrical exclamatory passages, one that is warmly welcomed by modern and post-modern readers with our appetite for the widest possible embrace. Indeed, foreigners and eunuchs are there welcomed into robust inclusion in the liturgy and the identify of Israel on the basis of their attitude towards YHWH rather than their ancestry or their anatomy.

So strong is the magnetic pull of such an invitation that the reader hops over the chapter’s first two verses as though they had little or nothing to add up front. Yet have something they do.

Verses 1-2 embody the delicate sequence that one might call ethics before theophany.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Isaiah 56:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The sequence that exhorts believers to act now in a certain way because the deity will soon act in a corresponding manner is part and parcel of biblical ethics. The most familiar prayer to be found on Christian lips turns it into words addressed to God himself:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (NRSV)

Although the verse cited refers explicitly only to divine activity, the context of the prayer—with its reference to human need and the very this-worldly matter of forgiving others the offenses they have committed against us—alludes to the matter of human behavior in a world where God’s rule has not yet been completely established.

In this light, Isaiah 56.1-2 hardly make a unique contribution to the matter under discussion. But their voice does make itself heard, particularly in the book’s third section in which qualities like משפט (justice) and צדקה (NRSV, what is right) that are typically representative of divine action become exhortations toward appropriate human behavior.

This little oracle is not complex. It offers a straight-forward explanatory clause that clarifies why משפט and צדקה are commanded:

…for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

כי־קרובה ישועתי לבוא וצדקתי להגלות

NRSV’s rendering of צדקה as ‘what is right’ in the first line of 56.1 when it refers to human conduct and as ‘my deliverance’ in the second line when it is YHWH’s work parallel to his ‘salvation’ exemplifies the difficulty faced by the translators when appropriate human and divine activity are represented by the same word. Arguably, the NRSV translators might have been better served—and we with them—if they had allowed the continuity to remain clear in English. The ESV manages to accomplish this without undue rigidity:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.’

Isaiah 56:1 (ESV, emphasis added)

In any case, Israel is here exhorted to do work like YHWH’s work because he will soon be doing it undeniably on his own. The expansive embrace of the ensuing verses should no doubt be read in the spirit of this divine-human collaboration.

‘Do this now’, runs the prophetic summons to ethics in a critical moment, ‘because YHWH will soon be upon us, and it’s what he’ll be up to when he comes’.

Ethics before theophany.

Righteousness now as one can. A greater righteousness soon.

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The splendid redemption oracle that is the book’s fifty-second chapter begins with a series of imperatives to Zion/Jerusalem. Together form a comprehensive picture of her erstwhile degradation as well as of a glorious new identity. They restore agency to the downtrodden personified city. Zion becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon.

Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more.

Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter Zion!

Isaiah 52:1-2 (NRSV)

The exhortation’s rhetoric is worthy of careful attention.

First, it initiates with the double-cognate-imperative that is a signature of the book’s second half from the moment it announces itself in the very first words of Isaiah 40.1:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

נחמו נחמו עמי, יאמר אלהיכם

Isaiah 40.1 (NRSV)

Then the passage draws the reader’s intention to its intensely vocative address to the recipient of its imperatives:

O Zion … O Jerusalem, the holy city … O captive Jerusalem … O captive daughter Zion!

ציון … ירושלים עיר הקדש … שבי ירושלם … שביה בת ציון

Arguably, however, the most striking feature of summons is the manner in which it returns agency to the community of the exiles in the figure of the personified city. There is no mention of anyone doing anything for her. Rather, she is exhorted to rouse herself in a way that embodies a new reality, indeed a new identity. The imperatives, six of them if double imperatives are counted as one, flow as follows:

Awake, awake! עורי עורי

Put on your strength! לבשי עזך

Put on your beautiful garments! לבשי בגדי תפארתך

Shake yourself from the dust! התנערי מעפר

Rise up! קומי

Loose the bonds from your neck! התפתחי מוסרי צוארך

Zion is addressed as able, as capable, as possessing the resources utterly to change her lot.

Where she has lain sleeping, she is urged to wake up. Where she has been weak, she is summoned to strength. Where she has been disheveled and unkempt, she is is ordered to put on the garments of her glory. Where she has crouched in the dust, she is commanded to shake herself clean. Where she has crouched passively, the imperative is to rise up. Where she has been enchained, she herself—as though her captors were no more—now removes the iron restraints from about her own neck.

The Vision of Isaiah will eventually assign to Zion a series of new and empowering names. In the light of this astonishing oracle, they seem almost an afterthought. Zion is here summoned to become already what those new names will signify.

The city hitherto acted upon with barbaric cruelty becomes in the prophetic imagination the actor. Even YHWH stands aside, as it were, before the stunning protagonist of a new reality impregnated with strength, dignity, beauty, and freedom.

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The book called Isaiah describes and eventually presumes a trajectory of divine purpose that provides considerable context for important moments of the tale it tells. The reliability of its restoration promises to Israel/Jacob hinges upon the integrity of this divine intentionality as it is announced and executed in its various stages.

Simply put, if YHWH’s purpose has been reliable when its primary focus was dealing with Israel’s misconduct, then dispirited exiles can be called upon to trust its reliability when it forecasts a bright and imminent new dawn. In the light of long traditions of reading the book that receive it as an unrooted bundle of predictions, one uses the word ‘forecasts’ cautiously. Yet the book itself is less wary than this.

Although Isaiah 48.1-5 serves in great measure as the antechamber to that bright dawn, these verses bear inspection on their own terms.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came forth from the loins of Judah; who swear by the name of the LORD, and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.

For they call themselves after the holy city, and lean on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  

The former things I declared long ago, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.

 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,

 I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:1-5 (NRSV)

In a context of superficial—though perhaps deeply felt—identification with YHWH and ‘the holy city’, the prophet makes clear that Jacob’s conduct has not proceeded ‘in truth or right’. It is critical to understand that the oracle is part of a summons embrace YHWH’s new dawn, but as an introduction to that summons it casts a retrospective glance. This is precisely because the prophetic burden must establish that YHWH has always done what he has said he will do. There is a kind of theodicy at work here, no longer for the primary sake of establishing the rightness of YHWH’s judgement but rather in order to present a case for the fidelity between YHWH’s word and YHWH’s deed. The sequence of the two, one might say, has been entirely trustworthy.

The former things, italicized above and just here, must refer to YHWH’s warnings ‘through his prophets’ and to the eventual reality of the exiling storm that broke upon Judah. That calamity did not come without warning. Then suddenly these things became deed rather than word. פתאם (here, suddenly) occurs four times in Isaiah, each time with reference to large-scale disaster of which YHWH claims authorship. The point in our present instance seems to be that after long warning, the circumstances of Judah’s destruction crashed suddenly upon her walls.

At the end of the passage, the prophet has YHWH explain that this word-deed, warning-execution sequence served a specifically anti-idolatry motive. YHWH was describing his sovereignty over times and peoples so that it might not be attributed to other agents.

These are ‘the first things’ over which YHWH claims unalloyed sway. In a moment, the text will claim for him similar sovereignty over new and better things that lie just over the near horizon. That claim, the discourse asserts, will be every bit as reliable as its early compeers.

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Isaiah is relentless in his description of idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers as empty, void, and useless. If one expects pity or some softening of the rhetoric, one will not find it here. Idols, in the Isaianic vision of things, cannot be reformed. Even their makers and their worshippers dance very close to the existential cliff. Only a decisive turn away from the abyss will rescue them from what the prophet simultaneously scorns and dismisses as ‘the things they have chosen’.

A mouthful of such derision has poured onto the scroll by the time we come to YHWH’s redemptive posture at 44.21. The passage that begins there is too easy to frame up as an entirely new oracle. In my view, it must be seen as the counterpoise to the emptiness that is chronicled before it begins, in verses 1-20. YHWH, whose glory fills the whole earth by one reading Seraphim’s cry in the programmatic Generative Vision at 6.3, is now portrayed as a deity in constant, redemptive motion. When idols stand inert or lie helplessly tipped to the ground, YHWH acts and accomplishes.

Two details stand out in this rehearsal not only of YHWH’s attributes in the abstract, as later theologies would capture the presentation, but of his nature over against the idols. The first is the sudden deployment of creation imagery, anchored in the verbs יצר and ברא as well as the allusion to the iconic stretching out of the heavens and spreading out of the earth. The latter glance at creation ideology adds to the mix resonant verbs like נטה (to stretch out) and רקע (to pound out). The point is not so much a celebration of cosmic creation motifs as it is an argument from the greater to the comparative lesser: if YHWH can do that (creation of the cosmos), he can certainly do this (new creation of his moribund servant, Jacob/Israel).

The second is the surge of participles that increasingly structure the discourse as it finds its pace and moves towards its conclusion. Hebrew poetry displays an affinity for the possibilities of participle forms when the intent is to describe YHWH’s most tenacious qualities. The parade example of this practice may be Psalm 103, which does not acclaim a moment of divine mercies but rather the sustaining probability that they can be expected to appear again and again.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives (הסלח) all your iniquity, who heals (הרפא) all your diseases,

who redeems (הגואל) your life from the Pit, who crowns you (המעטרכי) with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies (המשביע) you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5 (NRSV)

The introduction of YHWH as the servant’s redeemer is structured, unsurprisingly, around qatal and yiqtol verb forms. These are complemented by imperatives directed to the servant as well as to the heavens, the depths of the earth, to mountains, forest, and trees. But soon enough the rhetoric migrates into the participle habit I have mentioned just above. It is instructive that the participles describe even those actions of YHWH that cannot be expected to recur, as though the divine majesty that was evident in them once and for all is now in present and in future deployed in the new creation that is the servant’s redemption.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer (גאלך), who formed you (ויצרך) in the womb: I am the LORD, who made (עשה) all things, who alone stretched out (נטה) the heavens, who by myself spread (רקע) out the earth; who frustrates (מפר) the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; who turns back (משיב) the wise, and makes their knowledge foolish; who confirms the word of his servant, and fulfills the prediction of his messengers; who says (האמר) of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins’; who says (האמר) to the deep, ‘Be dry— I will dry up your rivers; who says (האמר) of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’

Isaiah 44:24-28 (NRSV)

In its context, the breadth and constancy of this redemptive activity contrasts emphatically with the useless and inert emptiness of the idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers who are described just before this YHWH-descriptive rhetoric bursts onto the page.

Although without the artistry of the chapter’s textured discourse, the contrast can be captured in a simple antithesis: The idols do not. YHWH does.

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Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic takes a decisive turn in the book’s forty-fourth chapter, which open with a summons to ‘Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen’. The first eight verses outline the incomparability of YHWH vis-à-vis other powers, with the emphasis placed upon YHWH’s reliability if his servant Jacob/Israel will only trust him. The principal motivation for such confidence in YHWH rests upon his ability to know the future and to bring it to fruition in the life of those who dare to trust him.

At verse 9, however, the anti-idolatry and anti-idolater rhetoric becomes considerably more pointed. The opening salvo, directed against idol-makers, is clear enough:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

More easily lost in translation or by a too accelerated reading is the insistent negation that occurs in the ensuing diatribe, structured around the Hebrew negative particles אין ,לבלתי , בל and לא. This negation is consistent with the Isaianic demand that idols—to say nothing of their artisans—are nothing. One must read beneath the quite exquisite satire in order to capture the formal contribution that undergirds it. I will attempt to clarify the point by illustrate and annotation:

All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit (בל־יועילו); their witnesses neither see nor know (בל־יראו ובלּידעו). And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good (לבלתי הועיל)? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails (lit. ‘and there is no strength’), he drinks no water (ואין כח לא־שׁתה) and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’

They do not know, nor do they comprehend (לא ידעו ולא יבינו); for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment (ולא ישיב אל־לבו ולא דעת ולא־תבונה) to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say (ולא־יציל את נפשו ולא יאמר), ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’

Isaiah 44:9-20 (NRSV)

An incisive if low-profile irony may lie in the the question the idolator does not manage to ask, anchored as it is by the negative introducer הלא:

Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud? (הלא שקר בימיני)

Isaiah 44.20c

The artistry of the prophet, upon scrutiny, is part and parcel of the anti-idolatry component of the Vision of Isaiah. Here is strong, dismantling rhetoric, insisting that idols are inert, useless, the complete disappointment of the idolater’s pretension.

It will be complemented in the passage just following by an equally persistent cataloguing of YHWH’s disparate activities. Idols do nothing. YHWH never quite stops doing. Isaianic and indeed wider biblical monotheism is seldom rehearsed via the assertion that other gods and powers do not exist. Rather, its native dialect is YHWH’s incomparability. Here, YHWH is quite busy. The idols, nothwithstanding the earnest activism of their makers and devotees, just stand around doing nothing. Indeed, you’ve got to prop them up to stop them tipping over where the children play.

Before hope’s profile arises afresh in the following verses and in celebration of YHWH’s redemptively active nature, the prophet allows us to glimpse the terrible contagion of nothingness that flows from idol to idolater, justifying the profoundly ironic conclusion that stands paradoxically at the head of this passage:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

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The opening lines of the first of four ‘servant songs’ in the book of Isaiah establish with their bare descriptiveness a range of qualities about this figure that will be sustained and developed in the ensuing chapters. It is indeed an introduction in every respect, just as הן עבדי (‘Behold, my servant’ or [NRSV] Here is my servant…’]) would lead us to expect.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)

Notwithstanding the neatly aligned, almost prosaic, sentences that profile this newly introduced figure, the vocabulary is so rich that it renders the interpreter reluctant to offer the kind of abbreviation that follows. Nevertheless, there is value in doing so.

First, the servant’s relationship with YHWH is both substantive and deeply felt in a way that captures the formidable turn from justice to mercy and from enmity to collaboration that surges forth from chapter 40 onward. YHWH upholds and chooses the servant. Yet there is sentiment in the arrangement, for the servant is the one ‘in whom my should delights.’ The subsequent expression—‘I have put my spirit on him’—likely envelopes both the substance and the feeling that have been expressed just before it.

A rupture has been repaired, giving way to a remarkable functional intimacy between YHWH and his enigmatic servant.

Second, there is a preoccupation with the servant’s role vis-à-vis the world beyond Judah’s borders. We read that the servant ‘will bring forth justice to the nations’. Later, the servant will prove resilient until ‘he has established justice in the earth’. Indeed, a kind of reciprocity is hinted at, for on their side of things ‘the coastlands wait for his teaching’. The combination of these elements seems to suggest something other than a mere judgement upon the nations. In any case, that point could have been made more simply, and in combination the elements suggest that populations remote from Judah will welcome the servant’s justice when it arrives and perhaps even cooperate in seeing it established.

This is all the more so if the תורה for which the coastlands wait in 42.4 is understood principally as instruction rather than an imposed regimen, as seems likely to be the case. If this is the correct reading, then one discerns an allusion to the nations’ eager receptivity in the Vision of Visions at 2.3, taking into account that the learning of YHWH’s תורה back on that exalted mountain leads directly into some kind of imposed—even if welcomed!—rearrangement of relationships among the nations.

Third, the modus operandi of the servant is firmly established as a quiet and persistent one. Even if the servant is destined to achieve great and international things, the quiet and persistent gentleness of his manner will be sustained to the end. An excerpt establishes the point:

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Isaiah 42:2-3 (NRSV)

There is more to be said, even in this first of four servant songs, about the conduct and the anticipated accomplishment of YHWH’s servant. Yet these three observations will be sustained even in those moments when the more glorious aspects of the servant’s commission are commended. It begins to seem that his identity as YHWH’s עבד—his servant—is multivalent. Quite obviously, this figure is a servant in a way that faces YHWH himself, who here presents and upholds him. That is to say, he is an agent of YHWH’s purpose. Yet his manner also suggests a servant’s posture with regard to those entities whom he faces in the course of fulfilling his commission. ‘A dimly burning wick he will not clench’ stands here as an early declaration of this latter point.

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Isaiah’s enigmatically betitled ‘Oracle concerning the valley of vision’ appears to depict Jerusalem in panic as enemy forces advance upon it. Yet it is not a mindless and ineffective panic, at least not on pragmatic terms alone. The city is much occupied with sound preparation for the city’s admittedly long-shot defenses.

Still, the prophet perceives an existential cluelessness even as busy hands are at work.

On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.

Isaiah 28:8-11 (NRSV)

The burgers of a besieged city would be fools not to undertake these preparatory moves, notwithstanding the tactical sacrifice of those whose homes were demolished for the greater good of a city’s defensive walls.

Yet, from the prophet’s perspective, the citizens of Jerusalem did all this and were still fools.

On what grounds could such diligent patriots be faulted?

But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.

The feminine singular objects of the Hebrew verbs that generate ‘did’ (עשׂה) and ‘planned’ (יצר, somewhat demetaphorised by the NRSV away from its more standard rending as ‘shaped’ or ‘molded’) are not entirely transparent. Probably, the feminine represents an abstract object. Most likely, the referent of the object is the entire impending calamity that is about to dash itself upon the city.

Busy with defensive strategy and tactics, it seems, Jerusalem does not contemplate the possibility that YHWH is in this; worse, that their soon destruction is YHWH’s own work.

It is a terrible and unpopular rendering of events.

Yet the book suggests that, if it is accurate, then besieged Jerusalem’s busywork is not only in vain. It is fighting against its divine Sovereign’s awful handiwork.

Jerusalem, in Isaianic perspective, shall be redeemed by justice (1.27a).

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Readers of these reflections will have observed this author’s perception that the book of Isaiah is essentially hopeful regarding the fate of nations. Although one takes pains to observe the hard edge of chastisement that generally precedes the promise of inclusion of other peoples in YHWH’s redemptive plan for Israel, hope is there to be had. Sometimes subdued, at times mixed with subjection even if it be glad or much awaited subjection, at times bursting outlandishly from denunciation into blessing, nearly always there is a note of hopeful anticipation for erstwhile adversaries of Jacob.

But not so for Babylon, at least in the book’s fourteenth chapter.

The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.  

On a bare hill raise a signal, cry aloud to them; wave the hand for them to enter the gates of the nobles.

I myself have commanded my consecrated ones, have summoned my warriors, my proudly exulting ones, to execute my anger.  

Listen, a tumult on the mountains as of a great multitude! Listen, an uproar of kingdoms, of nations gathering together! The LORD of hosts is mustering an army for battle.

They come from a distant land, from the end of the heavens, the LORD and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole earth.  

Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 

Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.

See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.

For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

I will make mortals more rare than fine gold, and humans than the gold of Ophir.

Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger.

Like a hunted gazelle, or like sheep with no one to gather them, all will turn to their own people, and all will flee to their own lands.

Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.

Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished.

See, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold.

Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children.

And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.

It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; Arabs will not pitch their tents there, shepherds will not make their flocks lie down there.

But wild animals will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance.

Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand, and its days will not be prolonged.

Isaiah 13:1-22 (NRSV)

Although the oracle oscillates between Babylon and the whole inhabited world—or humanity, generally—it never strays far from the hooks that penetrate into the flesh of historical Babylon, Judah’s oppressor.

Perhaps the point is that there exists a final and determined opposition to YHWH’s counsel that is in the end respected and allowed to be what it is. It is not difficult to understand how this dark denunciation will be taken up in Christian apocalyptic to signal not the end of an historical empire at the point of Median (Persian) swords, but rather a final destruction of all human resistance to Redemption’s purpose.

The observation does not murder hope. But it kills frothy optimism.

There is, even in this oracle of misery, a purpose beyond battle, one that assumes the low profile of expectant imperatives—Listen! … See!. Someone, it seems, will benefit after the river of blood subsides.

But, oh, the humanity!

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A little oracle that dares to bring its low profile into the struggle of titans during Judah’s Syro-Ephraimite and Assyrian Crises deploys classic Isaianic irony and then a puzzle.

The LORD spoke to me again: Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.  

Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed; listen, all you far countries; gird yourselves and be dismayed; gird yourselves and be dismayed!

Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.

Isaiah 8:5-10 (NRSV)

The irony is a play on two kinds of waters. The Syrio-Ephraimite conspiracy has shaken the House of David to its core. One recalls reference to hearts shaking as do leaves before a wind. Mindless, purposeless, pitiful trembling.

Here the prophet probes at cause.

Trust in YHWH’s purposes for his Jerusalem has not been forthcoming. The operation of that purpose is represented here by a watery metaphor: the waters of Shiloah that flow gently. It appears that the spirit of Realpolitik has convinced Judah’s powers—such as they are—that gentleness is of no worth in such belligerent days.

One might wonder at precisely what kind of quietism Isaiah has in mind here. We know only a little about this, but we can certainly learn something by considering its opposite: the fearful search for a defending coalition among nations that do not name Zion-committed YHWH as their god.

In any case, Judah’s choice is defined as rejection or refusal (יען כי מאס) rather than by any gentler representation of choosing an alternative option. Even when speaking relatively quietly, the Isaianic tradition knows how to deploy its severer mercies.

The irony comes in when consequence is bolted onto cause. The refusal of quieter waters will now subject Judah to a raging flood.

(T)herefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River (את־מי הנהר העצומים והרבים), the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

Isaiah 8:7-8 (NRSV)

The discourse itself makes the contrast all the more severe, dedicating just a few words to Shiloah’s quiet waters while multiplying clause upon clause in a tumbling effort to portray Assyria’s capacity to overwhelm.

Then the puzzle.

The oracle ends with a peculiar expression, rendered by the NRSV as a cry of mingled desperation and hope: O Immanuel. The Hebrew meaning is less that completely clear. עמנו אל has no explicit particle that might render NRSV’s ‘O’. I think the NRSV has captured the meaning here, but this is not to say the translation it has provided is an obvious one.

Context helps a little, but not with determination.

Just a chapter prior to this oracle, a child is given the name that exactly anticipates the cry in 8.10. It will be important for the moment not to race too quickly to meaning when reading any one of these verses, whenever עמנו אל is in view.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (עמנו אל).

Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV)

Then, just two verses after the occurrence at 8.8 that is currently under scrutiny, the expression is used again.

Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us (כי עמנו אל).

Isaiah 8:10 (NRSV)

Here the frequently explanatory particle כי lends considerable assistance, virtually locking down the notion that NRSV provides with its translation by obliging an English reader to supply the verb is.

So what exactly is happening at the end of 8.8, serving as it does in the Massoretic tradition as the conclusion of the oracle quoted earlier.

Perhaps here, too, one must supply some version of the verb to be. Perhaps the oracle cries out affirmingly in its conclusion that ‘God is with us!’, lodging this formidable truth against the conspiratorial agonies of the moment.

Or perhaps it is not a declaration but rather a forlorn hope: ‘God be with us!’

In my view, each of these is grammatically and contextually possible and can be defended.

However, I prefer to read אמנו אל at 8.8 in a slightly different manner. It is an evocation of an earlier moment, indeed of the very public prophetic act of naming a child with this ambiguous but resonant expression.

Why this interpretive hedging of bets? It seems to me that the same powerfully suggestive ambiguity of the naming of the child at 7:14 carries over into the cry at the end of 8:8—in context, a necessarily allusive and evocative one—and bears all the same ambiguity.

Does it mean ‘God is with us!’? Perhaps it does, placing faith over against fear in a moment where the choice of one or the other is in the prophetic view determinative for the people’s future.

Or is it a humbler plea, ‘O God, be with us!’ Perhaps, underscoring the painful fact that results are not yet known?

NRSV’s ‘O, Emmanuel!’ preserves the ambiguity while opening its flanks to a new vulnerability, that of reading the cry as an invocation of a person named ‘Emmanuel’. I am not persuaded that in context it can be exactly that.

The oracle at 8:6-8 ends, in my reading, as in part a summons to pay attention while YHWH’s strangely invisible but substantially present hand moves among the conspiring players in this moment of critical and decisive Realpolitik. This book is, after all, חזון ישעיהו (the vision of Isaiah). True to form, it claims here that the prophet sees things that others do not yet contemplate, unless they join him in resolutely quiet consideration of unraveling events.

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In the Isaianic vision, YHWH’s inventory of weapons bulges in its closet.

This deity of what remains of little Jacob can anoint Cyrus the Persian emperor in order to restore YHWH’s people in a cross between chess played out on the stage of international affairs and puppetry guided by an expert master.

If this is so in blessing, it is also true in judgement. In this part of the Isaianic vision, mighty Assyria and Egypt are wielded—though for different purposes—as effortless as Cyrus will in future perform YHWH’s bidding ‘though he not know him’.

On that day the LORD will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.

On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.

Isaiah 7:18-20 (NRSV)

We have perhaps grown too accustomed to reading this sort of thing to feel the shocking confidence required of the Jerusalemite prophet who would say it or write it. The nerve of such a little man amidst his tiny people, speaking of these two éminences grises of the Great Game! Who does he think he is?

Both of the these twin oracles are placed firmly in the sphere of YHWH’s sovereignty over the nations. ‘On that day the Lord…’ locates the envisaged events out of reach both of the prophet’s calendar and his capacity. These nearly identical introductions cement the prophet’s role as YHWH’s spokesman but emphatically not as his military attaché.

Then one must reckon with the denigration of the two empires’ identity. In the first oracle, YHWH’s whistle for the Egyptian fly and the Assyrian bee clearly communicates a vertical power structure. YHWH commands, his empires-cum-insects respond.

In the second oracle, Assyria is a razor, an inert implement with no functionality of its own, entirely dependent on the hand that wields it.

In this Isaianic vision of international events, YHWH brings the difficult matter of Israel’s disciplining to an unpleasant head. Yet he gives nothing away to those supposed powers that he will use in order to accomplish this dark phase of his purpose.

A Judahite prophet has the nerve to say so.

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