Round about Chapter 17, Isaiah predicts that the city of Damascus and the nation of Syria will cease to exist. You may be familiar with Syria and Damascus; they’re in the news a lot lately. Because they still exist something like 2500 years after this prediction was made. Of course, since the passage making the prediction doesn’t bother with trivia like when or how any of this destruction will happen, plenty of people like to argue that it just hasn’t happened yet. But honestly “someday City X and Nation Y will cease to exist… eventually” is so trivial a prediction that any rational person would ignore any claim that it’s prophetic at all. It’s a statement that could be made about literally any city and any nation ever founded, and it will eventually come true.
In the midst of Chapter 21 we get the prediction that one day Egypt and Assyria will join Israel in the worship of Yahweh. By a strict reading, not only has this not come true, but it’s impossible for it to come true. You see, Assyria stopped existing a couple thousand years ago. Of course, you could pull the popular apologetics trick of claiming that this just means the people who live on the lands Assyria once occupied rather than the actual nation of Assyria. And you could even really make a stretch and claim it actually has come true… but only if you make the assumption that Allah and Yahweh are, in fact, the same god and Islam is Biblically valid. Somehow, I suspect most Jews and Christians would not be willing to make that assumption. But in any case, Isaiah 21:24 further claims that the three nations will worship together and be “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” and I don’t know anyone with a fucked-up enough world view to think that portion of the oracle has come true!
This is made all the more entertaining by the fact that the book later includes two chapters demanding that Israel not make alliances with Egypt, and detailing all the catastrophes that will befall them if they do.
Then there’s this little gem….
“Isa 21:11 The oracle concerning Dumah. One is calling to me from Seir, ‘Watchman, what time of the night? Watchman, what time of the night?’ 12 The watchman says: ‘Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again.’”
The very next verse starts introducing an oracle regarding Arabia, so that lovely little piece of gobbledygook up there is the whole of the “oracle concerning Dumah.” You know how you can shake a Magic 8-Ball, and get “ask again later” as a possible answer because it’s just a child’s toy with no real clairvoyant ability? Yeah, that.
A few more oracles, some chapters dedicated to verbally fellating God, more warnings and condemnations of everyone from the women of Jerusalem to the whole of the world… and finally we get to something resembling history/storytelling in Chapter 36. Here, king Sennacherib of Assyria invades Judah, and this section seems to be written in a historical style similar to that of Kings and Chronicles. In fact, it’s a retelling of a story from Second Kings, which is a good thing if you want to have any clue what the context is supposed to be; Isaiah just jumps in right in the middle.
Interestingly enough, this story is quite literally the exact one where, in my own blog entry on Second Kings, I declared “aw, fuck it!’ and started breezing through to the end out of sheer boredom. It says a little something about what it’s like to read Isaiah that I’m now willing to write about the same story.
Anyway, Isaiah starts with the armies of Assyria attacking and capturing a bunch of cities from Judah, then starting to lay siege to Jerusalem. It leaves out the bits from Second Kings about how the king of Judah had been suckling at the Assyrian teat, had recently bribed them to attack and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and had tried (and apparently failed) to bribe the Assyrians into forestalling the attack on Judah that is the subject of this story. I think, based on trying to piece things together in the various books, that the Assyrians were attacking Judah to prevent them from allying themselves with Egypt against Assyria.
Anyway, the commander of the Assyrian army (called the Rabshekah, which seems to be a title or military rank), shows up at Jerusalem to demand that Hezekiah surrender and to taunt them for the inevitability of their defeat. He makes a point of saying that their god can’t help them, since Assyria had conquered so many other kingdoms and their gods hadn’t saved them. He also mocks them for trying to rely on an alliance with Egypt for protection. Rabshekah also tries, unsuccessfully, to incite the people of Jerusalem to abandon their king and accept Assyrian rule.
After the Rabshekah left to rejoin the Assyrian king, Hezekiah sent his servants to ask Isaiah for help. Isaiah’s response was:
“Isa 37:6 Isaiah said to them ‘Say to your master, “Thus says Yahweh: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the kind of Assyria have reviled me. 8 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.”’”
That just seems like odd and pointless phrasing. Why not just “I’ll cause him to hear a rumor…?” Why does a spirit need to be put in him that would make him hear a rumor. People don’t hear rumors because of spirits, they hear rumors because other people speak them. Ah, whatever.
Meanwhile, the king of Assyria is besieging the town of Libnah, when he hears that the king of Cush is coming to attack him. And this is where things get a little confusing. Not sure if it’s just that the author of Isaiah is a shitty storyteller, or what. But it apparently, after hearing this rumor, the king of Assyria sends Hezekiah a letter with words to the effect of “I’m still coming to kick your ass.” Is this meant to suggest that God’s spirit/rumor gambit failed to turn him back? ‘Cause that would mean God lied and/or failed to do something he said he’d do. The book never actually explains this, or comes right out and says what is really happening either way. And since the Assyrian king eventually does leave (for other reasons, as we’re about to discuss), I suppose it’s technically true that he 1) heard a rumor and 2) returned to his own land, even though they are unrelated events and not linked as the little mini-prophecy implied.
Hezekiah goes on another prayer binge after getting this latest letter, and Isaiah delivers God’s response. It’s weird, in that he’s speaking to Hezekiah even though portions of the response are clearly directed at the king of Assyria as if he were present. But the long and rambling response includes a promise to defend Jerusalem, which is accomplished by sending an angel to kill a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers in the middle of the night. This, finally, convinces the king of Assyria to go home to lick his wounds, where he is eventually assassinated by a couple of his own sons.
And that will be my stopping point for today. When next we come back, we can get into Hezekiah getting sick, recovering, and being kind of a dick about his own kids as we continue our wondrous exploration of Isaiah.