Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 21
"The burden of the wilderness of the sea." (v 1). The first twelve verses of this chapter make up a prophecy against Babylon falling into two sections: vv 1-5 and 6-11. Babylon is called the "wilderness of the sea" because she was conquered by Persia and Media, which are to her northeast across the "wilderness", and in order to reach her they had to go towards the YAM, "the sea", i.e. westwards (RaDaK on v 1). Despite the fact that Isaiah has already prophesied the fall of Babylon (Is. 13:1ff), he returns to this again and again because of the great evil she perpetrated against Israel (RaDaK ibid.).
The prophecy against Babylon is "harsh" because this "traitor" and "plunderer" will herself be betrayed and plundered (v 2).
"Therefore are my loins filled with anguish." - "This prophet is compassionate and mourns over the retribution of the nations" (v 3 and Rashi ad loc.).
In verses 4-5 the prophet depicts in brief stabbing images the scene that would take place on the night that Belshazzar would make his feast, thinking he had defeated the Persians, only to see the "writing on the wall" and be killed that very night, as told in Daniel ch 5.
"For thus has the Lord said to me: Go, set a watchman; let him tell what he sees" (v 6). The simple meaning of this and the following verses is that the prophet is relating how the Babylonians would set a watcher on the ramparts of the city out of fear of the invading Persians and Medians, and that he would cry out that they were coming. However, the Midrashic explanation is that God was already telling Isaiah that he would appoint a "watchman" - i.e. a seer or a prophet - who would complain about the length of the bitter exile under Babylon . This was the prophet Habakuk, who traced a circle in the ground and declared that he would not step out of it until he received an answer from God as to why the wicked prosper (Ta'anis 23a, see KNOW YOUR BIBLE commentary on Habakuk 1 & 2). Habakuk was eventually granted a vision of the destruction of Babylon under Belshazzar, and Isaiah alludes to Habakuk's vision, in which the "watcher" riders on a camel and a donkey: these symbolize Persia and Media. The "lion" who cries in verse 8 is the prophet Habakuk. The gematria of ARYEH = 216 = HABAKUK (Rashi ad loc.). The watchman declares that Babylon has fallen. He repeats it twice - because " Babylon has fallen and is destined to fall again" (Targum). Perhaps we are witnessing the destined future fall of Babylon in our times as Iraq tears itself to pieces. Babylon is trodden underfoot like corn on the threshing floor (v 10).
"The burden of Dooma." (v 11). This opens a new short prophecy of two verses (vv 11-12). Rashi (on v 11) identifies Dooma with Edom , while Metzudas David and RaDaK (ad loc.) both state that the people of Dooma are descendants of Ishmael (cf. Gen. 25:14), saying that the destroyer of their land will come from Se'ir.
The literal meaning of the words of the prophecy indicate that the fearful people of Dooma, who are under attack, appoint a watchman and anxiously ask him if enemies are coming in the night (v 11). In verse 12 the watchman replies that even after the morning arrives, another fear-filled night will follow and that the people will continue asking anxiously (RaDaK on vv 11-12). [All this is reminiscent of present day high terror alerts.] However Rashi explains the Midrashic interpretation of the verses: The prophet is crying out to God over the burden of the rule of Se'ir ( Edom ), asking the Guard (=Shomer Yisrael, the Guardian of Israel, Psalms 121:4) what will be of this long "night". God answers that He has the power to shine the light of morning to Israel while causing the darkness of night to fall upon the wicked Esau at the end of days, and God tells the people of Israel: If you seek to quicken the end, return and repent (Rashi on vv 11-12; cf. RaDaK ad loc. and Yerushalmi Taanis 3b).
"The burden of Arav (= Arabia )" (v 13). The simple meaning of the prophesy is that the people of Arav would be forced to lodge as fugitives in the forest, desperately in need of water and bread from anyone who would have pity on them. Midrash Eichah darshens that the exile of the Dedanim would take place because of their lack of compassion, for while God provided their ancestor Ishmael with water in the desert, the DEDANIM refused to give water to the thirsty Israelites when they went into exile despite the fact that they were their cousins (BNEY DODIM; see Rashi on vv 13-14). Thus KEDAR (v 16) was one of the sons of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13) and therefore a cousin of Jacob, who was the son of Ishmael's brother Isaac.
"The burden of the Valley of Vision ." (v 1). The " Valley of Vision " is Jerusalem - the "valley" about which the majority of the prophecies prophesy (Rashi ad loc.). Verses 1-14 of this chapter prophesy the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.
"What ails you now that you have all gone up to the roofs?" (v 1). One interpretation is that when the enemy would come against Jerusalem , all the people would climb onto the roofs to see what was happening and to mobilize for war. The Midrash tells that before the destruction of the Temple the priests went up onto the roof and handed back the keys to heaven (see Rashi ad loc. and Taanis 29a). The prophet foretells that the fate of those who would starve in the siege would be worse than that of those who would be killed in battle (v 2). "All your rulers have fled together." (v 3): this alludes to the night-time flight of King Tzedekiah and his ministers, which led to his capture (Rashi ad loc.).
"Therefore I said, Look away from me: I will weep bitterly." (v 4): God Himself mourns secretly over the plight of His people.
"And He bared the covering of Judah , and you looked on that day to the armor of the house of the forest" (v 8). The "covering of Judah " was the Temple , which the people thought would protect them. But God allowed it to be destroyed - because instead of repenting, the people looked to the armor that was stored in the Temple treasury ("the house of the forest", cf. I Kings 10:16-17), putting their faith in arms and armaments, as depicted in the coming verses, which describe how the people defiantly fortified the city in preparation for a siege.
Vv 12-14: God called for mourning and repentance - but instead, the people ate, drank and celebrated, "for tomorrow we die". It was because they showed no qualms of conscience over the imminent destruction of the Temple that God refused to grant them atonement except through their death. Our sages learned from verse 14 that if a person publicly desecrates the Name of HaShem he cannot secure complete atonement through repentance alone but only with his death (Yoma 86a).
The closing section of our present chapter in verses 15-25 is a separate prophecy in itself against "this steward Shevna who is over the house". As discussed in KNOW YOUR BIBLE Isaiah ch 8, Shevna was the leader of a "fifth column" in Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah. He is specifically mentioned in Isaiah's narrative about the siege of Sennacherib as having been one of the Hezekiah's envoys sent to the ramparts of Jerusalem to speak with Sennacherib's spokesman Ravshakeh (Isaiah 36:3). There the text calls Shevna the "scribe" while El-yakim son of Hilkiah is described as being "over the house" (meaning either the king's chamberlain or perhaps the chief Temple officer). However in our present chapter, it is Shevna who is said to be "over the house" (v 15). RaDaK (on v 20 of our present chapter) conjectures that Shevna was initially the king's chamberlain but that he was demoted to the position of scribe while El-yakim was appointed "over the house" as prophesied in vv 20-24 of our present chapter.
At the height of the siege of Jerusalem , Shevna, as Hezekiah's "scribe", put on an outward display of loyalty but was secretly bent on treachery. The Hebrew word for "steward" in verse 15 - SOCHEN - has the connotation of one who is given over to a life of pleasure (Rashi ad loc. cf. I Kings 1:2). From v 16 we can infer that Shevna had prepared a magnificent mausoleum for himself with the kings of Judah (Rashi ad loc.). Apparently he intended to break out of Jerusalem and go over to the side of Sennacherib, expecting that he would be appointed king in place of Hezekiah. The Talmud relates that Shevna shot an arrow to the Assyrian camp with a message that he and his party were in favor of capitulation while Hezekiah was defiant. However, after Shevna left Jerusalem the angel Gabriel closed the city gates, preventing any of his followers from leaving, and when Shevna came alone to Sennacherib's camp the king had him tied to horses tails and dragged over thorns (Sanhedrin 26a-b).l
In Rabbi Nachman's teaching in Likutey Moharan II:1, Shevna is seen as the archetype of the false leader while El-yakim ben Hilkiah is the archetype of the true Tzaddik.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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