Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 29 15-24

We are studying Isaiah 29:15-24 for Sunday, May 9. The text is a prophetic poem that seems to speak to – but perhaps also beyond – the dire situation of the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah, specifically from the first part of the book (chapters 1-39, “first Isaiah”), and specifically from a section addressing the perils of the siege of Jerusalem, and its marvelous deliverance (chapters 28-39).

[from an earlier post:] The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah lay out the prophet’s announcements to Judah in the time of kings “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah” (Isaiah 1:1), that is, from the last half of the 8th century BCE. In a variety of complex literary forms, they warn of impending judgment on Judah, because of the leaders’ and the people’s greed, wickedness, and idolatry (e.g., look at Isaiah 2:5-22, or Isaiah 5). But also offer beautiful visions of a completely different future (e.g., look at Isaiah 2:1-4, or Isaiah 11). There are stories, like the famous narrative of Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry (see Isaiah 6), or the one of King Hezekiah asking for the shadow to go backwards on the wall to prove that he is going to be healed from a fatal illness (see Isaiah 38:1-8). There are judgment oracles on many other nations (Isaiah 13-27). And there is the chilling finale, the story of the prophecy about the Babylonian exile, and King Hezekiah’s purely self-interested complacency in reaction to it (Isaiah 39).

[back to the present:] The historical context is the Assyrian campaign against Judah and Jerusalem. Judah had joined a rebellion against Assyrian imperial control in 705 BCE. The revolt was instigated by Egypt, and involved other regional powers. The Assyrians crushed the rebellion. An Assyrian artifact from the time, the stele of Sennacherib, attests to the destruction wreaked on the unfortified villages of Judah and the fortified city of Lachish in the course of the campaign (a nice summary of which is here). Things looked terrible for the city of Jerusalem – and then, abruptly, the Assyrians withdraw, sparing Jerusalem. The Biblical account of the siege of Jerusalem (701 BCE) and of God’s deliverance of the city is given in Isaiah 36-37, 2 Kings 18:13-19:37, and 2 Chronicles 32:1-23. We might not expect the Assyrians to confirm this account precisely, in all its details. (Here’s one comparison of different contemporaneous accounts.)

Different commentators divide the text differently. On balance, the Jewish Study Bible’s approach makes the most sense to me. It reads chapter 29 as containing three distinct poems, in vv1-8, vv9-14, and vv15-24. “Each suggests that Jerusalem deserves punishment, but each ultimately predicts salvation.”[1] That reading makes our text the conclusion of the second poem and then the third poem in its entirety.

Accepting that the poems are distinct, they nevertheless seem interconnected. The reference to the dead in the depths of Sheol echoes in v15’s reference to hiding plans “too deep for YHWH;” the dream-nightmare that vanishes in vv7-8 resonates with the “spirit of deep sleep” in v10; the involuntary blindness in v10, in turn, seems reflected in the lifting of blindness in v18. The interconnections seems to tell a rounded story of deliverance: the final, true deliverance of the city is not [only] from the enemies without, “the nations,” but from corruption within.

Isaiah 29 does not appear in the lectionary, making it another one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary.
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CLOSER READING: If we read the whole chapter, we’ll get a sense that the speaker keeps shifting reference points and perspective. First, we think “Ariel,” a name for Jerusalem, which may mean “lion of God” or “altar of God,” and which as we know is beloved by God.

But wait, God is laying siege to Ariel (v3) and “you” [it’s inhabitants, we suppose] will be speaking like the dead (v4) – who are thought to whisper or chirp from an underground location.

But wait, now God is going to put the besieging “nations” to rout. It will be like they slept, and dreamed of gorging themselves, only to wake up having accomplished nothing (v8).

But wait, now the sleepers turn out to be the prophets and seers (10), of Jerusalem we suppose, who don’t “get it,” who can’t “see” this vision of things (11) that’s being presented.

Because “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me (literally, make me heavy) with their lips, and make distant their hearts, and their worship (literally, fear) of me is a commandment of men learned by rote” (v13) –

I am simply always brought to a full stop by this verse.

It is beautiful. But cautionary.

[Also, it might put gospel readers in mind of Jesus’s contrast of the commandments of God with the traditions of men (Mark 7:1-13, or Matthew 15:1-9). Since Jesus quotes this verse, in its Septuagint form.]

The consequence of the situation in v13, spelled out in v14, is twofold: (1) marvel or wonder, which in context may be more like “bafflement” (JPS) or a “strike” (Alter) of marvel, something that defies understanding; so that (2) “perish will the wisdom of the wise and the understanding (discernment) of the understanding (discerning) ones will be hidden.”

And look how that “perished” wisdom of the wise refers back to the voices of the dead in v4, and the hiddenness of the discerning understanding of the discerning understanders points forward to v15!

Woe (literally) to the ones who try to hide plans too deep for YHWH. [That will never work!] The “hidden” verb repeats the verb from v14. Who think no one, including YHWH, sees or knows what they’re doing. [By this we know they are actually not at all wise or understanding!] This may be a specific reference to national policymakers of the time, royal advisors. We ourselves might think of classified material, “national security reasons,” dirty tricks, and deepfakes.

You have things backwards, according to v16. Who do you think is really in control of things here?

V17 is another reversal: Lebanon (a forest) will be a fruitful field, and vice versa. We might imagine what specific changes that points to. Whatever it is specifically, this dramatic reversal presages other reversals.

Verses 18-20 could lure us into thinking they are about the residents of Jerusalem, awaiting deliverance from the besiegers. That’s if we think it’s the Assyrians who are “the tyrant,” “the scoffer,” the ones who are “on watch to do evil.” It would fit.

But wait! V21 turns the tables back on the readers. Those tyrants and scoffers and vigilant evildoers are the ones who spread prejudicial rumors (is how I read “make a sinner with a word”), ensnare the ones who advocate for justice “in the gate,” and who “turn aside the just/righteous with emptiness.” In other words, the everyday enemy, the internal enemy, the enemy that is “us.”

The “emptiness” in v21 is the same word used for the formless void in Genesis 1:2.

In this context I can’t help thinking of b*******, whether the official kind or the kind one falls into on Facebook: piles of words upon words that mean literally nothing concrete, that work to obfuscate and befog and misdirect and befuddle and exhaust, whether ignorantly or purposely. “Flooding the zone” that endlessly diverts the efforts of those who are trying to do what’s right.

Some things, apparently, have not changed in almost 3000 years.

When we get to “the work of God’s hands” in v23, we might be reminded of how God can make something out of the nothingness of the formless void. Since it’s happened before. [Even though this probably doesn’t work, since Genesis 1 is a later text than Isaiah 29. But it’s hard for me not to read it this way, nevertheless.]

Verses 22-24 are a vision of a restored “house of Jacob” that behaves differently, that hallows the name of God and fears God, and that learns discernment and instruction.

Although – it’s striking, because unusual, that verse 22 identifies YHWH as the one who redeems Abraham. Rashi says “from Ur.” Others render “Abraham” as “your ancestors.”

Could it be significant that Abraham is literally the father of many nations, and could that have any connection with the nations that are besetting Jerusalem in v7, or with Jacob’s pale face (pale with fear of those nations?), or with the prophetic reversal of the hallowing of God’s name by Jacob’s children, (some of whom, by this time, had been deported to Assyria, we might recall), the work of God’s hands, “in your midst”?

“In your midst” would be a bad thing if enemy nations had broken through the wall in a siege. But if the nations were coming to a festival (see v1), like Sukkot (see Zechariah 14:16 for more anachronism), to worship the God of Israel, that would be a different story. Yet another reversal.
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[1] Benjamin D. Sommer, “Isaiah” introduction and notes, The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler eds, Oxford University Press, 2004. 839.
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Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Image: Valentin Bousch, The Prophet Isaiah, 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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