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- Drunkenness. Here and elsewhere in Isaiah, drunkenness seems to be a major question, something condemned severely by the prophet. Why is drunkenness of such importance to a prophet who lives in an era without the Word of Wisdom?
- Whose hand? Is the hand that casts down in this verse referring to God's hand or the mighty and stong one's hand?
- Crown and fading flower. The Hebrew word `trh (crown) can mean either a wreath of flowers or a crown in the more traditional gold or metallic sense. This double meaning suggests both the wreath that drunkards might wear ("boozers in ancient times loved to crown themselves with flowers that had been interwoven" according to Wildeberger; cf. Ezek 23:42) and a city on a hill as a crown (Wildeberger writes "it makes sense to compare a city to a crown upon a head when one considers how a city is positioned on the upper part of a hill, with its walls looking very much like a crown"). The idea of a crown as a wreath of flowers that drunkards wear highlights the temporariness of the exalted state—the drunkard will have a hangover and the flowering of a fading flower only lasts a little while (cf. Isa 40:6, 7; Ps 103:15; Job 14:2). Interestingly, the word for "flower" also occurs in reference to the crown that the high priest would wear (cf. Ex 39:30; Lev 8:9), likely in reference to the budding and flowering of Aaron's staff in Num 17:8 which indicated Aaron's house was to be the bearers of the priesthood. This allusion serves to magnify the mocking tone of the drunkards wearing crowns.
- Drunkards. The LXX has "hirelings" instead of "drunkards" (skr instead of shkr). The "hirelings" rendering might be taken as a reference to spiritual leaders (like the priest and the prophet in v. 7) that want to be paid for their work (as opposed to working for free like, for example, Elisha—see 2 Kgs 5:16, 20-27).
- Fat. The Hebrew word shmn can mean both "fat or rich" and "oil." Olive oil had many uses in the ancient world and was a symbol of propserity, a symbol is sometimes used (e.g. Isa 6:10; Deut 32:15; Jer 5:28) to indicate unresponsiveness of a people to God because of their prosperity (cf. Hel 12:2). Oil is also used to in annointing kings and in temple ceremonies. If Isaiah is indeed making reference to Ps 23 (see note below), then fat here may form an intentional contrast with the God's annointing in Ps 23:5. The religious significance of wine, oil and crown are employed here by Isaiah to describe what seems to be a people who have perverted the true meaning of religion (cf. Isa 1:11-15).
- Wine. According to Lev 19:9, priests were not supposed to drink wine. Also, in Num 6:3, Nazerites were forbidden to drink wine, and in Deut 28:53. See also Isa 3:14 for a reference to premature (cf. "hasty" in 28:4) "eating" of the vineyard. The theme being developed here seems to be that of workers in the vineyard who are prematurely (and illicitly) plucking the fruit of the wine for themselves rather than waiting for the command from the Lord of the vineyard to pluck the fruit in proper celebration—see Isa 5:11-12; Isa 16:10; Isa 22:13 (cf. verse 12 where the call is to mourning not celebration); Isa 24:7-11; Isa 25:6; Isa 36:17; Isa 55:1; Isa 56:12; Isa 62:8; Isa 65:8). Later in Isaiah, the wine theme is employed as a symbol of blood (cf. Isa 29:9; Isa 49:26; Isa 51:21).
- Relation to wisdom writings. The mention of valley, oil, and food motifs (table in cup) also occurs in Ps 23. If Isaiah is intentionally alluding to Psalm 23, then the contrast between the "still waters" in Ps 23:2 and the "tempest of hail" and "flood of might waters overflowing" here in verse 2 is particularly suggestive(note overflowing may also be making an allusion to the "runneth over" phrase in Ps 23:5; note also the temple allusion in Ps 23:6 in the phrase "I dwell in the house of the Lord for ever" which contrasts with the "flower" reference to the high priest's crown). Also suggestive is the similarity with the Book of Widsom that Adam Clarke notes: "Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments, And let no flower of the spring pass by us: Let us crown ourselves with rose-buds before they are withered" (Wisd. 2:7-8).
- "Mighty and strong one." Most scholars seem to consider the mighty and strong one referred to here as an Assyrian king who (historically and also possibly prophetically/eschatologically) destroys Israel. In D&C 19:1, the "mighty and strong ones" are described as those that that "the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down." In contrast, D&C 85:7 uses the phrase "mighty and strong" to describe a righteous agent of God who is "clothed with light" that comes to "set in order the house of God." It seems most likely that D&C 85:7 is making a play on the phrase "mighty and strong" which is used here to describe an agent that is not (necessarily) righteous but is used by God for the purpose of punishing Israel. The Hebrew word chzq (mighty) is used prominently, particularly in Deuteronomy and in Exodus, in describing Israel's exodus out of Egypt and—more often than not—in conjunction with the Hebrew word yd (hand) which occurs at the end of this verse in Isaiah (suggesting an intentional allusion).
- "Waters overflowing." The Hebrew word shtp (overflowing) is used again in vv. 15, 17-18 (as well as Isa 8:8 and Isa 30:28, and in a uniquely positive sense in Isa 66:21). In addition to the "overflowing" meaning, shtp also has the meaning of "cleansing or rinsing" particularly in regard to ritual purification (cf. Lev 6:28; Lev 15:11, 12). In creation, water is a primordial element that plays a unique role in the creation process (that is, water—in contrast to land and other parts of creation—is never referred to as one of God's creations; cf. Moses 2:9 exegesis). This cleansing aspect of water has important symbolic significance in baptism. So, although the storm of water here seems to be used in a context of wrath and judgment, it might also be read in a loving-chastening way (cf. Heb 12:5ff). This dual nature of the word shtp is highlighted in the book of Isaiah itself by its use in Isa 66:21 where peace is extended to Israel "like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream." In Ps 124:4, the term shtp is used in a similar context—related to creation—where Israel praises God for sparing them from their enemies who, like a flash-flood, would've drowned them had not YHWH, "who made heaven and earth" (Ps 124:8), spared them. See also Ps 69:2, Ps 69:15, and Ps 124:4 for use of the term shtp; see 1 Kgs 18:38 for discussion and links regarding God's power over water (compared to Baal's impotence).
- "Cast down to the earth." The direct object of this verb phrase is not specified. The NET explicitly inserts "that crown" so that the direct object is clear.
- Passive voice. Wildberger, who interprets verse 2 as the Lord himself intervening with his hand, notes as significant the change to an impersonal passive construction in verse 3: "Only for a fleeting moment does Yahweh appear as the active subject affecting history; then he disappears once again behind those who are commissioned to bring his judgment to completion on earth" (p. 10).
- Trodden under feet. Isaiah here seems to be building on Deut 32:35 where God seems to prophesy that he will take vengeance on Israel when their foot slips. The image Isaiah seems to have in mind is Israel stumbling and falling and being trampled on the ground with foot serving as the poetic link: Israel's stumbling foot leads to their being "trodden under feet" (either by foreign—Assyrian?—invading army and/or by the mighty and strong one mentioned in v. 2). The "trodden under feet" expression also furthers the wine theme (since wine is made by trampling grapes; cf. Isa 16:10; Isa 63:3, 6).
- Hasty fruit. The hurried nature of the drunkards of Ephraim is described in contrast to the righteous who "shall not make haste" (verse 16; see also Isa 52:12, 51:14, 59:7; Prov 19:2; D&C 58:56, 101:72, 133:15). Other passages in Isaiah suggest it is the Lord that hastens the work, not humans (cf. Isa 5:19, 60:22). We are instructed, rather, to "wait upon the Lord" (cf. Isa 8:17, 25:9, 26:8, 30:18, 33:2, 40:31, 42:4, 49:23, 51:5, 59:9, 60:9, 64:4; see also Ps 37:7 and Lam 3:26). If Isaiah was familiar with the words of Amos (see for example Amos 9:1 and Isa 6:4), then Isaiah may be building on the imagery in Amos 8:1-2 where the summer fruit is gather in before judgment is carried out (see also Jacob 5:77).
Undeniably, the first verse of this most curious chapter is written in an exalted and exulting style: the poetic ring, the celebratory meaning of the words chosen, the subtle allusions to the glories of the temple priesthood, etc., all mark the verse most clearly as an anthem of praise. Isaiah and irony: the words are, read quite simply, terrifically condemning. In other words, the verse his shockingly sarcastic: by taking up the style of celebration, Isaiah criticizes the "drunkards of Ephraim" in the harshest manner possible. But such an interpretation is already too hasty: irony is more complex than just that. Irony and sarcasm allow for a sort of ambiguity, a curious ambiguity that Isaiah often employs: the prophet is, it must be admitted, celebrating, even as he is--it cannot be denied--condemning. The paradoxical nature of the prophetic word that opens this most difficult chapter is all too fitting: is Isaiah commending or rebuking?
The ambiguity of Isaiah's irony is reflected more subtly in his word choice--words whose ambiguous character almost cannot come out in translation. Careful consideration of these words should open, not only the ambiguity of this verse, but the complex setting with which Isaiah opens this prophecy.
To begin with, the Hebrew word translated "flower" in the second line of this first verse is tsyts. It undoubtedly means "flower" or "blossom," but only to translate it so is to miss the careful word choice Isaiah is making. The word is almost exclusively a question of temple decor, and it is specifically the word used to denote the blooming flower/plate that sits on the forehead of the High Priest, upon which it is written qdwsh lyhwh, "holiness to the LORD" or "sanctified to YHWH." The word translated "fading" might have several meanings: "fading" or "wilting" is a good translation, but the Hebrew term (nbl) is also the word for "fool" or "folly." The High Priestly plate Ephraim wears is one of folly, the fool's plate (like fool's gold?). The word translated "glorious" also has another meaning. It (tp`rh) is the word used in Ex 39:28 and Ezek 44:18 for the turban ("mitre" or cap) of the High Priest. It is precisely on this turban that the priestly plate hung. The inscribed plate and the turban explain why the phrase "which are on the head" opens the last line of the verse. That same last line offers another possible ambiguity: the word (shmn) translated "fat" means more literally oil, specifically olive oil, and might have reference to the priestly anointing. What all of this suggests is that Isaiah is using his words very carefully to offer an ambiguous and powerfully ironic image: Ephraim is proffered in this verse as the High Priest, as wearing the turban, which is adorned by the golden flower inscribed with the name of the LORD. The golden plate is, however, wilting, is the wilting flower of folly, as it is worn by Ephraim. These ambiguities work throughout the first verses, but for the moment, the point is clear: the prophet makes the defiance of Ephraim a question of the priesthood, and ultimately a question of ironic ambiguity.
Of great interest in this condemnation, however, is the theme of drunkenness, especially since this theme runs throughout the first half of this chapter. The ambiguities described above collectively open onto the most significant ambiguity of all: the fruit of the vine as a sanctified part of ritual versus the fruit of the vine as the source of idiocy. That wine is supposed to be connected to the priesthood anciently is clear, but, as verse 7 makes quite explicit, here the priesthood, "the priest and the prophet," have misused the sacred wine: they "have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine," thereby erring "in vision" and "in judgment." All of this combines to present Ephraim as having a legitimate place in the priesthood, but at the same time as using that place to seize prosperity and power. As is the usual theme in Isaiah, the problem is a question of riches, prosperity, and pride.
This verse maintains the ambiguity and irony of the first. Though it announces "a mighty and strong one," the identification of the figure is left undetermined. While many scholars assume that the figure is meant to be Assyria, the enemy who would, within just a few years, conquer Ephraim, it must be pointed out that the verse leaves the point completely open: it might, in fact, be that Ephraim is "the mighty and strong one," and that verse 2 is another moment of ironic exultation in the tribes of the Northern Kingdom. The point here is not, however, to suggest that Ephraim is the figure in question, but that Isaiah explicitly leaves the figure open, explicitly avoids identifying the figure. In other words, Isaiah wants, for whatever poetic reasons, to keep the figure ambiguous, even multivalent (is it Assyria, Ephraim, Isaiah, even the Lord?). This broad ambiguity suggests that one must read Isaiah's description of the figure quite closely, rather than passing it off rather facilely as a reference to Israelite enemies who were obviously a threat.
Perhaps the common identification of "the mighty and strong one" with Assyria is due to the final phrase of the verse: the figure is to "cast down to the earth with the hand," and since Ephraim is declared in the following two verses to be the recipient of unfortunate affairs, there is the implication that verse 2 is the beginning of the negative prophecy. However, there are some major difficulties of translation to be worked out concerning the last phrase of this verse. The phrase: hnych l`rts byd. The verb (hnych) is a causative for the verbal root nwch, which means to rest or to settle (to rest in the sense of settling down, not necessarily in the sense of repose). In the causative, this verb is most often translated "to put" or "to place": God puts Adam in the Garden in Gen 2:15, God chooses Israel and places/settles them in a certain land in Isa 14:1. The KJV translation of "cast down" seems to have come from an attempt to fit this phrase with the theme of the following verses. The NRSV maintains the violence in its translation: "with his hand he will hurl them down to the earth." The NIV does as well, though in a more justified manner: "he will throw it forcefully to the ground." The translators of the NIV render byd ("by the hand") as "forcefully," reading the violence, that is, into the mention of the hand of "the mighty and strong one" rather than into the verb nwch. This is certainly a more justified reading--a more responsible translation--than the KJV or even than the NRSV, but it still is obviously interpretive: the Hebrew says quite simply that the figure "shall place [something?] on the earth by the hand." That "[something?]" marks the ambiguity of the final phrase, an ambiguity that matches the ambiguity mentioned above that characterizes "the mighty and strong one" him/herself: no recipient of the placement is made explicit, just as the identification of the figure remains undetermined. The fact of the matter is that the verse is so profoundly ambiguous that it cannot be decided what exactly is at work. Again, the student is turned over to a careful consideration of the figure as a whole.
Perhaps before this consideration, a further point of ambiguity might be explored. All of the ambiguities already at work in the above comments--as well as what carries over from the first verse--are doubled by the textual form of this verse. Though the verse begins in poetic form, it is interrupted by a prose statement at its conclusion, just before verse 3 returns to the poetic structure (the prose line is the same "shall cast down to the earth with the hand"). Francis Landy explains that Isaiah's writings as a whole are characterized by "the alternation of a poetic idiom that is traditional, sophisticated and compressed, with one that is strange, naive and diffuse. Isaiah combines poetry of extraordinary density and polysemy with exorbitant repetition and syntactic fragmentation. This results not only in extreme difficulties of interpretation but in a dialectic of structure and anti-structure" (p. 146). This fragmentation and and interruption of structure by anti-structure is at play in verse 2 here: the metaphors fail (perhaps because there is none on whom they are specifically cast: the storm and mighty waters make a great deal of noise, but without rushing upon anyone) as prose interrupts the flow of the poetic form. This dialectic of flow and interruption only doubles the ambiguities mentioned above: at the very moment of perfect obscurity (verse 2 is as obscure as Isaiah gets), there is a complete failure of poetry itself, and the removal to prose is even more pathetic than any poetic one. One is left in an almost absolute confusion. Again and again, one is sent back to the figure itself to do the work of interpretation.
Paving the way to the interpretation of the figure is a parallel between this text and two verses in Isa 6: verses 5 and 7. In verse 5 of that chapter, Isaiah is struck by the appearance of the celestial council, and he shout out an inarticulate word, the word that marks his language as without any absolute pole of reference. When he is, two verses later, visited by an angel, the angel speaks with a likewise inarticulate word, but one that is inarticulate precisely because it functions as a marker of the possibility of articulation, as a simple reference to an absolute pole of reference. The two words: Isaiah's is `wy, and the angel's is hnh. These two words (or very near to them) are at work in these first two verses of this chapter. Verse one begins with hwy, basically the same inarticulate word Isaiah utters when struck by the appearance of the Lord. Verse two opens with hnh, the very word the angel speaks when pointing the absolute pole of reference (there, the stone from the altar). There is, then, a hint here of something similar at work: the ambiguity of the first verse is perhaps marked by the completely inarticulate hwy, while the possibility of an absolute pole of reference in this second verse is marked by the hnh Isaiah speaks in turn. The hint, at least, is that while Ephraim dwells in the homely realms of the inarticulate earth, this "mighty and strong one" comes from the realm of absolute reference, from the realm of the angelic tongue (the tongue that will be a major question in this very chapter). This "mighty and strong one" is, so goes the implication, a heavenly figure, a prophetic/angelic figure, or even the Lord Himself. The possibility remains open, nonetheless, that the figure is Ephraim, in which case the irony would become extreme: Ephraim would itself be the doubly inarticulate word, spoken without any referential ability and then with perfect referential capacity. Whatever the identification of the figure, however, it must be read here as a question of absolute reference.
The two Hebrew words (chzq and `mts) translated "mighty" and "strong" are a curious pair. They show up together most often in the writings attributed to the Deuteronomist historian (in Deuteronomy and Joshua, specifically), by far most frequently in injunctions given to Joshua ("be strong and of good courage"). The two terms, paired together, seem to have reference, then, to invasion, to the necessity of staying true to one's work of accomplishing captivity. Here, the words are not offered as encouragement, but as unquestioned adjectives describing the conquering one. This idea of sacking or invading perhaps already begins to interpret the last phrase of the verse: to be placed in the land, one must first empty it of inhabitants.
The language of tempest, storm, and flood are likewise common images of invasion. But they are also common images of hearing the Lord's voice, of theophany. It may be, in the end, that the visitation of the Lord is meant to be an invasion, or, contrarily, that an invasion is meant to be a visitation of the Lord. At any rate, the two experiences are parallel in scripture, and both senses seem to be at work here. If the Assyrians are meant, then there is obviously some sense of an invasion, but since the "mighty and strong one" is left unidentified, there is the possibility that the invasion is the invasion of an angel or even the Lord, one who speaks as the voice of many waters. The parallel concepts of invasion and theophany together suggest a connection with the final phrase of the verse, the placement in the land (according to covenant). All of the ambiguities work together in the identification of this figure: it might be Ephraim, conquering the land and claiming it from the Canaanites, and yet it might be God, speaking through the Assyrian swords, as others are settled in the Northern Kingdom. The ambiguity, of course, parallels the difficulties of the first verse, where Ephraim is both celebrated and scorned. In the end, everything is left quite open.
The conventions of the English language somewhat obscure the poetic structure of this and the following verse. In Hebrew, the verse begins with "shall be trodden under feet" so that the verse reads--literally--thus: "Shall be trodden under feet the crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim." The effect is that in between this treading down and the odd simile drawn in verse 4, there appears most all the content of verse 1 in repetition (there are slight differences, which will be discussed below). The very structure of these two verses, then, serves to surround the earlier lament/exultation with threats of destruction. As Isaiah returns, then, to the earlier, exultant poetic word of the first verse, he is able entirely to circumscribe Ephraim with threats of destruction.
In other words, verses 3-4 seem to accomplish what verse 2 could not. Verse 2 could not quite come to a clear declaration of destruction, while these verses quite explicitly make such a declaration, in the beautiful poetic words that open verse 3 and close verse 4. On the other hand, one might read the threats of destruction in verses 3-4 as reinterpreted the rather passive conclusion of verse 2: the mighty and strong one is to cause them to rest in the height of their drunkenness, is to let them pass out on the ground, precisely so that there, immobile and unconscious, they might be trampled, etc. The threats of destruction are postponed, as it were, until the drunkenness comes to its height. This reading seems to be a better reading on the whole, but it does present the difficulty of understanding exactly what the role of the mighty and strong one is in the end.
Something of the impending destruction should be discussed. Perhaps of most interest is the fact that it is precisely the crown itself that is to be trodden under feet. It is the clothing of the priesthood that will be trampled. Again, the violence implicit in the language is somewhat displaced. Though there is a trampling going on, the trampling is a trampling of clothes, rather than a trampling of people (and the same will obtain in the following verse). What the significance of this displaced violence is will be discussed in the context of the doubled threat in verse 4.
- See Francis Landy's article "Tracing the Voice of the Other: Isaiah 28 and the Covenant with Death" in The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, edited by J. Cheryl Exum and David J. A. Clines (ISBN 156338079X), for an excellent discussion of a number of themes in this chapter.
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