This blog continues my commentary on Isaiah using the Complete Jewish Bible
8 For Yerushalayim is ruined,
and Y’hudah has fallen;
because their words and deeds defy the Lord
in open provocation of his glory.
9 Their complacency witnesses against them!
They parade their sin, like Sodom;
they don’t even try to hide it —
all the worse for them! —
they bring evil on themselves.
10 Say that it will go well with the righteous,
that they will enjoy the fruit of their actions;
11 but woe to the wicked, it will go badly with him;
for what he has done will be done to him.
12 My people — children oppress them,
and women are ruling over them.
My people! Your guides lead you astray
and obliterate the paths you should follow.
13 The Lord rises to accuse,
he stands to hold the people to account;
14 The Lord presents the indictment
against the leaders and officers of his people:
“It is you who devour the vineyard;
in your houses is plunder taken from the poor.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding down the faces of the poor?”
says the Lord God of armies.
16 Moreover the Lord says:
“Because Tziyon’s women are so proud,
walking with their heads in the air
and throwing seductive glances,
moving with mincing steps
and jingling their anklets —
17 The Lord will strike the crown of the heads
of Tziyon’s women with sores,
and will expose their private parts.”
18 On that day The Lord will take away their finery — their anklets, medallions and crescents, 19 their pendants, bracelets and veils; 20 their headbands, armlets, sashes, perfume bottles, amulets, 21 rings and nose-jewels; 22 their fine dresses, wraps, shawls, handbags, 23 gauze scarves, linen underclothes, turbans and capes. 24 Then, there will be
instead of perfume, a stench;
instead of a belt, a rope;
instead of well-set hair, a shaved scalp;
instead of a rich robe, a sackcloth skirt;
and a slave-brand instead of beauty.
25 Your men will fall by the sword
and your warriors in battle.
26 Her gates will lament and mourn;
Deserted, she will sit on the ground.
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this guy. Not only is the Lord’s denunciation specific and bitter, there is also evident in the language a kind of savage pleasure. The complacency of the people, the absence of shame, the loss of any critical morality are precisely targeted by the Lord. Children are used to symbolise childish rulers, women to symbolise weak rulers. The people are sunk in a kind of brutal triviality where ornament means more than human lives. The luxuries of the houses of the rich are said to be plundered from the poor not because they have literally stolen the goods of the poor but because they have become rich on the backs of the poor.
This indictment is perfectly relevant to the mindless cruelty of the rich of any society at any time.
The substance of God’s accusation is verbalised in the words, crushing and grinding the faces of the poor. These are forceful expressions of oppression, the latter picturing the poor being ground like corn between millstones to get as much as possible out of them. As far as I know this occurs only here in the bible and must be Isaiah’s invention. It definess the excessive cruelty of the rich, such as is today evident in the demeaning and crooked medical UK pantomime by which disabled citizens are declared fit to work.
The prophet then turns on the rich women, who are pictured in all their cool clothing and beauty aids. The Lord bluntly tells them that they are going to end up as sex slaves to conquerors who will strip them of all dignity. The word used for “private parts” in Hebrew is even more blunt: “clefts” would be a more accurate translation. The long list of accoutrements is a flourish by the prophet – nobody should think that the Lord doesn’t notice what these women are wearing! The summing up with the repeated use of “instead of” contains rhymes in Hebrew, maq (stink) rhymes with saq (sacking) and kiy (branding) with sophiy (beauty). The Lord’s anger is eloquent.
The final lines are a lament for the men fallen in battle and the city itself left desolate like an abandoned woman.
I guess women may feel uncomfortable with what may be perceived as the sexism of this denunciation. These women however are the trophy wives and daughters of the rich people who oppressed the poor. No, women were not treated as equal to men in Isaiah’s society, but rich women benefited from the rapaciousness of their male partners, as they still do in many societies today. The more telling illustration of Isaiah’s sexism is his accusation that the people who are ruled badly are ruled by “women.” We should note that the bible comes from a patriarchal society.
More importantly however we should note that the Lord is so outraged by economic injustice that he can’t conceal his contempt for the rich. Any preacher today would almost certainly be disciplined by the church for using this kind of language about idle rich of our society, yet here it is, from the mouth of the Lord.