Posts Tagged ‘Zion’

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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In chapter 31 of the book called Isaiah, a sequence of oracles addresses the predicted downfall of Egypt and Assyria. The passage depicts Israel renouncing and indeed disposing of its ‘idols of silver and idols of gold’, which your hands have sinfully made for you.’ Further, besieged Jerusalem/Zion is the locale upon which the entire passage places its focus.

For thus the LORD said to me, As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey, and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it— is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the LORD of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.

Turn back to him whom you have deeply betrayed, O people of Israel. For on that day all of you shall throw away your idols of silver and idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.

“Then the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of mortals; and a sword, not of humans, shall devour him; he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall be put to forced labor.

His rock shall pass away in terror, and his officers desert the standard in panic,” says the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 31:4-9 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The passage’s three primary metaphors surge forth in rollicking fashion. I have italicized fragments of each in the preceding text.

First, YHWH’s determination to prevail in his ‘fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill’ is portrayed as a fearless lion, recently fed and fearless in the face of a band of shepherds that attempts to drive it off. Here, YHWH stands as a singular lion facing down a plural ‘band of shepherds’.

Second, the Lord’s protection of Jerusalem is lined to ‘birds hovering overhead’. Here, the plural nature of the flock lies on YHWH’s side of the metaphor while the city stands in the singular. Although YHWH-as-bird metaphors are not unknown in the Hebrew Bible, one struggles to imagine another biblical text that dares to portray him as a flock of birds.

Then finally, at the oracle’s conclusion, we are told that YHWH has a ‘fire’ in Zion and a ‘furnace’ in Jerusalem. Now YHWH is referenced via a presumably human image, a man tending a flaming furnace that stands in or conceivably is Jerusalem. The context suggests that the fire’s heat is destructive of panicked Assyrians who show themselves unequal to the task of conquering a city so fearsomely defended.

Rarely do metaphors flow with such energy and diversity in Isaiah’s portrayal of YHWH. Each makes its point with brevity, then cedes to the next. Together, they touch multiple chords in their portrayal of the divine source of Zion’s security.

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If verses 1-5 hint that YHWH’s subjugation of ’strong peoples’ and ‘ruthless nations’ might in fact be for their own benefit, the wide embrace at which it hints becomes all but indisputable in verses 6-10.

In the text that follows, I have added emphasis to each reference to all (Hebrew כל), together with the nouns that are implicated by this descriptor.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

 For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Isaiah 25:6-10 (NRSV, emphasis added)

In spite of this broad redemptive result, the text does not loose its grip on a tenacious particularity. We see this in at least three respects.

First, Mount Zion remains the scene. YHWH will destroy ‘on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…’ (7). The passage’s culminating declaration—if we see the immediately following and rather more sullen address against Moab as in some way separate—declares the YHWH’s hand will rest on this mountain’ (10).

Second, Jacob/Israel remains at the center of causality. The universal banquet that is here described is it seems contingent upon YHWH’s removal of ‘the disgrace of his people … from all the earth’. There is no reason to imagine that ‘his people’ bears a meaning different than its conventional one. Yet when he remove’s Jacob’s disgrace the wide world is the beneficiary. In parallel with surrounding clauses that are more explicit about the nations’ blessed fate, ‘from all the earth’ very likely refers to those people as well as to Jacob itself.

Finally, the refrain that is anticipated ‘on that day’ must describe Jacob/Israel’s experience retrospectively rather than the latter jubilant inclusion of ‘all peoples’:

It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:9 (NRSV)

As often and in so many ways across the long book called Isaiah, here Jacob’s restoration represents in some way the restoration of all the nations. Or perhaps, of all save one. Moab’s dire subjection follows in 10b-12. NRSV’s editorial separation of that darkness from the earlier light of this oracle is performed without support from the Masoretic Text. It may be that Isaiah’s Vision is viscerally resistant to utopias that avert their glance from a kind of final, dire, depressing resistance that can in the end be put down only by reluctant force.

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The polyvalent perspective of the book called Isaiah with respect to the nations raises its head again in the broad horizon celebrated by the hymn that is the book’s twenty-fifth chapter.

The first five verses appear to present a kind of conversion narrative in connection with ‘strong peoples’ and ‘cities of ruthless nations’ who seem to have been moved to their turning by YHWH’s care for the poor.

O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.

Isaiah 25:1-5 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The text does not leave in doubt the reality of the subjugation of ‘strong peoples’ and ‘ruthless nations’.

Indeed, they find themselves on ‘the mountain of the Lord’ (verse 6, just following) precisely because their city and palace have been leveled. Verse 5’s verbs conclude the first section of this oracle with divine activities that leave no doubt about the matter. YHWH subdued the short-lived heat of the peoples (תכניע) and stilled the song of the ruthless (יענה, rendered by NRSV somewhat lyrically by the passive ‘was stilled’ for the Masoretic Text’s 3ms active deployment of a verb often rendered more prosaically as to humiliate).

Clearly, these peoples are considered to be nations that YHWH has subjugated as the outworking of his ancient purpose (25.1).

Yet is not at all apparent that this outcome is one that the peoples themselves lament. Indeed, verse 3 could be read as the vocabulary of mere conquest, forced upon unwilling victims. But in context, particularly the context provided by the oracle from verse 6 forward, there seems to be yet again an element of willing participation in the deportment of the conquered.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

Isaiah 25:3 NRSV)

Verses 6-10 will fill in the picture, if indeed those verses are to be read as a unity with verses 1-5, as appears to me to be the case. Its scattering of ‘all’ across the range of its protagonists insinuates a banquet where all—past historical enemies included—lift their cups together and tuck into the feast with the careless abandon of friends.

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Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (2.1-5) is shared by the book of Micah in its fourth chapter. It is much disputed whether one borrowed from the other or whether both drew their visionary waters from a common well. In the book called Isaiah, this short glimpse of a prophetically imagined future becomes the deeply driven pillar of the entire adventure. It is Isaiah’s very Vision of Visions.

Both editions, that of Micah and that of Isaiah, speak identically of the nations’ animated conversation as they flow on their riverine course all the way up to recently elevated Zion. A feature of the exchange appears to bear out the wider impression that in Isaiah salvation is from the Jews and for the nations.

I refer to the combination of the verb ירה (to teach) with the preposition מן (conventionally, from) mediating the verb’s relationship with its direct object דרכיו (his ways). Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, outside of Micah’s and Isaiah’s shared vision, does this construction appear.

In my view, the preposition is best understood as partitive מן, an established manner of communicating ‘part of’, ‘some of’, or ‘a portion of’. If we apply what we know of the expression to its appearance in Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (and of course Micah’s version of the same), verse two comes to read as follows:

Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us some of his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Isaiah 2:3 (NRSV, adapted for partitive מן)

There is nothing in the ebullient eagerness of the nations that suggests a limited appetite for YHWH’s instruction. Rather, the limit seems to apply to their expectation.

In the turned-on-its-head world that the prophet glimpses, aliens stream to lowly Zion now elevated above the vastness of the world’s topography, hungering and thirsting after righteousness as a later prophet might have described them. Yet even they cannot imagine that the God of Jacob might slake their entire thirst, might lay out the full banquet for such unwashed late arrivals.

So, in a reading of the text that appears to me entirely defensible, they hedge their bets.

…that he may teach us some of his ways…

‘Perhaps we’ll be allowed some tasty crumbs’, one almost imagines them to hope.

Little do they know.

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Isaiah 60 must figure in anyone’s list of the most powerfully lyrical of this long book’s offerings. This chapter’s vision of Zion’s restoration is breathtakingly beautiful.

Along the way, it gathers up the components of the book’s multi-faceted view of ‘the nations’ and their destiny and presents a composite—a hopeful reader might dare say coherent—picture that is not reductive and therefore demands patient rather than dismissive reading or radical reconstruction.

In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to enumerate the pertinent allusions to those nations and to abbreviate the nature of the light that each casts on what I am persuaded is indeed a coherent if complex presentation.

First, restored Zion is brightly lit. By contrast, the nations live in darkness but are drawn (והלכו, shall come).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Second, the nations exercise important agency in transporting Zion’s sons and daughters back to their maternal city. The nations’ wealth accompanies them to Zion. Their animals (camels, young camels, flocks, rams) perform oddly anthropomorphic deeds: they ‘proclaim the praise of the Lord’ and ‘minister to you’. In spite of their alien provenance in nations near and far, those animals are also rendered acceptable on YHWH’s altar in a way that appears to connect with YHWH’s glorification of his ‘house’.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.

Isaiah 60:4-7 (NRSV)

The long section from verse 8 to verse 16 presents the most mixed picture of the lot. A posture of willing anticipation is likely signaled in the expression ‘the coastlands shall wait for me… to bring…’. Non-Jews are described in their complementary roles of transportation, construction, and urban enrichment. As counterpoise to the aforementioned anticipation, there appears to occur a less than comprehensive embrace of new realities on the part of the nations. For example, ‘kings shall be led in procession’, an image of military conquest by almost any light. Further, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’. And then, the ‘descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, all who despised you shall bow at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’.

This last, complex image clearly denotes subjugation. Does it also suggest conversion from one perspective to another that is wholly new and perhaps not the product of sudden persuasion alone? I suspect that it does.

Finally, a maternal-filial metaphor merits particular scrutiny: ‘You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings’. At the risk of pressing the metaphor too rudely, it appears in the light of other quite positive maternal imagery in this book that the nursing mother that is ‘nations’ and ‘kings’ executes her maternal labors with the tenderness and even fulfillment that are so often native to the experience.

The passage in full reads as follows:

Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest.

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:8-16 (NRSV)

How is one to assimilate the breadth of expression with regard to nations and kings that is gathered into this single chapter?

An interpretation that is consonant with the wider picture in the Vision of Isaiah of the peoples’ destiny and at the same time accomplishes an attentive reading of chapter sixty would seem to produce the follow conclusion: Zion’s restoration will turn the tables on the historic power relationships that have exalted some nations over Israel/Jacob. Some nations will welcome this revolution. Some will reject it. The preponderance of expression addresses the former group and suggests they will undertake their new role vis-à-vis Zion with some combination of anticipation, fulfillment, and tenderness. This vision is consonant with the Vision of Visions in Isaiah 2.1-5, though its imagery represents an alternative expression of that succinct description of the prophet’s imagined future.

Isaiah 60 is therefore a hopeful declaration for all peoples except those (few?) who will resolutely resist the divine purpose it propounds.

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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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