Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The Oracle Concerning Damascus and Israel - Isa 17:1-14
From the Philistines on the west, and the Moabites on the east, the prophecy relating to the neighbouring nations now turns, without any chronological order, to the people of Damascene Syria on the north. The curse pronounced on them, however, falls upon the kingdom of Israel also, because it has allied itself with heathen Damascus, in opposition to its own brother tribe to the south, as well as to the Davidic government; and by this unnatural alliance with a zâr, or stranger, had become a zâr itself. From the period of Hezekiah's reign, to which the massa Moab belongs, at least so far as its epilogue is concerned, we are here carried back to the reign of Ahaz, and indeed far beyond "the year that Ahaz died" (Isa 14:28), to the very border of the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz - namely, to the time when the league for the destruction of Judah had only just been concluded. At the time when Isaiah incorporated this oracle in his collection, the threats against the kingdoms of Damascus and Israel had long been fulfilled. Assyria had punished both of them. And Assyria itself had also been punished, as the fourth turn in the oracle indicates. Consequently the oracle stands here as a memorial of the truthfulness of the prophecy; and it answers a further purpose still, viz., to furnish a rich prophetic consolation for the church of all times, when persecuted by the world, and sighing under the oppression of the kingdom of the world.
The first turn: "Behold, Damascus must (be taken) away out of the number of the cities, and will be a heap of fallen ruins. The cities of Aroer are forsaken, they are given up to flocks, they lie there without any one scaring them away. And the fortress of Ephraim is abolished, and the kingdom of Damascus; and it happens to those that are left of Aram as to the glory of the sons of Israel, saith Jehovah of hosts." "Behold," etc.: hinnēh followed by a participle indicates here, as it does everywhere else, something very near at hand. Damascus is removed מעיר (= עיר מהיות, cf., Kg1 15:13), i.e., out of the sphere of existence as a city. It becomes מעי, a heap of ruins. The word is used intentionally instead of עי, to sound as much as possible like מעיר: a mutilated city, so to speak. It is just the same with Israel, which has made itself an appendage of Damascus. The "cities of Aroer" (gen. appos. Ges. 114, 3) represent the land to the east of the Jordan: there the judgment upon Israel (executed by Tiglath-pileser) first began. There were two Aroers: an old Amoritish city allotted to the tribe of Reuben, viz., "Aroer on the Arnon" (Deu 2:36; Deu 3:12, etc.); and an old Ammonitish one, allotted to the tribe of Gad, viz., "Aroer before Rabbah" (Rabbath, Ammon, Jos 13:25). The ruins of the former are Arair, on the lofty northern bank of the Mugib; but the situation of the latter has not yet been determined with certainty (see Comm. on Jos 13:25). The "cities of Aroer" are these two Aroers, and the rest of the cities similar to it on the east of the Jordan; just as "the Orions" in Isa 13:10 are Orion and other similar stars. We meet here again with a significant play upon the sound in the expression ‛ârē ‛Aro‛ēr (cities of Aroer): the name of Aroer was ominous, and what its name indicated would happen to the cities in its circuit. ערער means "to lay bare," to pull down (Jer 51:58); and ערער, ערירי signifies a stark-naked condition, a state of desolation and solitude. After Isa 17:1 has threatened Damascus in particular, and Isa 17:2 has done the same to Israel, Isa 17:3 comprehends them both. Ephraim loses the fortified cities which once served it as defences, and Damascus loses its rank as a kingdom. Those that are left of Aram, who do not fall in the war, become like the proud citizens of the kingdom of Israel, i.e., they are carried away into captivity. All this was fulfilled under Tiglath-pileser. The accentuation connects ארם שׁאר (the remnant of Aram) with the first half of the verse; but the meaning remains the same, as the subject to יהיוּ is in any case the Aramaeans.
Second turn: "And it comes to pass in that day, the glory of Jacob wastes away, and the fat of his flesh grows thin. And it will be as when a reaper grasps the stalks of wheat, and his arm mows off the ears; and it will be as with one who gathers together ears in the valley of Rephaim. Yet a gleaning remains from it, as at the olive-beating: two, three berries high up at the top; four, five in its, the fruit tree's, branches, saith Jehovah the God of Israel. At that day will man look up to his Creator, and his eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel. And he will not look to the altars, the work of his hands; and what his fingers have made he will not regard, neither the Astartes nor the sun-gods." This second turn does not speak of Damascus, but simply of Israel, and in fact of all Israel, the range of vision widening out from Israel in the more restricted sense, so as to embrace the whole. It will all disappear, with the exception of a small remnant; but the latter will return. Thus "a remnant will return," the law of Israel's history, which is here shown first of all in its threatening aspect, and then in its more promising one. The reputation and prosperity to which the two kingdoms were raised by Jeroboam II and Uzziah would pass away. Israel was ripe for judgment, like a field of corn for the harvest; and it would be as when a reaper grasps the stalks that have shot up, and cuts off the ears. קציר is not used elliptically for קציר אישׁ (Gesenius), nor is it a definition of time (Luzzatto), nor an accusative of the object (Knobel), but a noun formed like נביא, פליל, פריץ, and used in the sense of reaper (kōtzēr in other cases).
(Note: Instead of kâtzar (to cut off, or shorten), they now say kâratz in the whole of the land to the east of the Jordan, which gives the idea of sawing off - a much more suitable one where the Syrian sickle is used.)
The figure suggested here is more fully expanded in John 4 and Rev 14. Hardly a single one will escape the judgment: just as in the broad plain of Rephaim, which slopes off to the south-west of Jerusalem as far as Bethlehem, where it is covered with rich fields of wheat, the collectors of ears leave only one or two ears lying scattered here and there.
Nevertheless a gleaning of Israel ("in it," viz., in Jacob, Isa 17:4; Isa 10:22) will be left, just as when the branches of the olive tree, which have been already cleared with the hand, are still further shaken with a stick, there still remain a few olives upon the highest branch (two, three; cf., Kg2 9:32), or concealed under the foliage of the branches. "Its, the fruit tree's, branches:" this is an elegant expression, as, for example, in Pro 14:13; the carrying over of the ה to the second word is very natural in both passages (see Ges. 121, b). This small remnant will turn with stedfast gaze to the living God, as is becoming in man as such (hâ'âdâm), and not regard the idols as worthy of any look at all, at least of any reverential look. As hammânim are here images of the sun-god חמן בעל, which is well known from the Phoenician monuments,
(Note: See Levy, Phnizisches Wrterbuch (1864), p. 19; and Otto Strauss on Nahum, p. xxii. ss.)
'ashērim (for which we find, though more rarely, 'ashēroth) apparently signifies images of the moon-goddess. And the combination of "Baal, Asherah, and all the host of heaven" in Kg2 23:4, as well as the surname "queen of heaven" in Jer 7:18; Jer 44:18-19, appears to require this (Knobel). But the latest researches have proved that 'Ashērâh is rather the Semitic Aphrodite, and therefore the planet Venus, which was called the "little luck" (es-sa‛d el-as'gar)
(Note: See Krehl, Religion der vorislamischen Araber (1863), p. 11.)
by the Arabs, in distinction from Musteri (Jupiter),
(Note: This was the tutelar deity of Damascus; see Comm. on Job, Appendix.)
or "the great luck." And with this the name 'Asherah the "lucky" (i.e., the source of luck or prosperity) and the similar surname given to the Assyrian Istar agree;
(Note: "Ishtar," says Rawlinson in his Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, - a work which challenges criticism through its dazzling results - "Ishtar is the goddess who rejoices mankind, and her most common epithet is Amra, 'the fortunate' or 'the happy.' But otherwise her epithets are vague and general, insomuch that she is often scarcely distinguishable from Beltis (the wife of Bel-Nimrod)." Vid., vol. i. p. 175 (1862).)
for 'Asherah is the very same goddess as 'Ashtoreth, whose name is thoroughly Arian, and apparently signifies the star (Ved. stir = star; Zend. stare; Neo-Pers. sitâre, used chiefly for the morning star), although Rawlinson (without being able to suggest any more acceptable interpretation) speaks of this view as "not worthy of much attention."
(Note: The planet Venus, according to a Midrash relating to Gen 6:1-2, is 'Istehar transferred to the sky; and this is the same as Zuhare (see Geiger, Was hat Muhammed, etc. 1833, pp. 107-109).)
Thus Asherim is used to signify the bosquets (shrubberies) or trees dedicated to the Semitic Aphrodite (Deu 16:21; compare the verbs used to signify their removal, גדע, כרת, נתשׁ); but here it probably refers to her statues or images
(Note: The plural Ashtaroth, Hathors, which occurs upon Assyrian and Egyptian monuments, has a different meaning.)
(Kg2 21:7; compare the miphletzeth in Kg1 15:13, which is used to denote an obscene exhibition). For these images of the sun-god and of the goddess of the morning star, the remnant of Israel, that has been purified by the smelting furnace of judgment, has no longer any eye. Its looks are exclusively directed to the one true God of man. The promise, which here begins to dawn at the close of the second turn, is hidden again in the third, though only to break forth again in the fourth with double or triple intensity.
Third turn: "In that day will his fortified cities be like the ruins of the forest and of the mountain top, which they cleared before the sons of Israel: and there arises a waste place. For thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not thought of the Rock of thy stronghold, therefore thou plantedst charming plantations, and didst set them with strange vines. In the day that thou plantedst, thou didst make a fence; and with the morning dawn thou madest thy sowing to blossom: a harvest heap in the day of deep wounds and deadly sorrow of heart." The statement in Isa 17:3, "The fortress of Ephraim is abolished," is repeated in Isa 17:9 in a more descriptive manner. The fate of the strongly fortified cities of Ephraim would be the same as that of the old Canaanitish castles, which were still to be discerned in their antiquated remains, either in the depths of forests or high up on the mountains. The word ‛azubâh, which the early translators quite misunderstood, signifies, both here and in Isa 6:12, desolate places that have gone to ruin. They also misunderstood והאמיר הסהרשׁ. The Septuagint renders it, by a bold conjecture, οἱ Αμοῤῥηαῖοι καὶ οὶ Εὐαῖοι; but this is at once proved to be false by the inversion of the names of the two peoples, which was very properly thought to be necessary. האמיר undoubtedly signifies the top of a tree, which is quite unsuitable here. But as even this meaning points back to אמר, extollere, efferre (see at Psa 94:4), it may also mean the mountain-top. The name hâ'emori (the Amorites: those who dwell high up in the mountains) proves the possibility of this; and the prophet had this name in his mind, and was guided by it in his choice of a word. The subject of עזבוּ is self-evident. And the reason why only the ruins in forests and on mountains are mentioned is, that other places, which were situated on the different lines of traffic, merely changed their inhabitants when the land was taken by Israel. The reason why the fate of Ephraim's fortified castles was the same as that of the Amoritish castles, which were then lying in ruins, was that Ephraim, as stated in Isa 17:10, had turned away from its true rocky stronghold, namely from Jehovah. It was a consequence of this estrangement from God, that Ephraim planted נעמנים נטעי, plantations of the nature of pleasant things, or pleasant plantations (compare on Psa 78:49, and Ewald, 287, ab), i.e., cultivated all kinds of sensual accompaniments to its worship, in accordance with its heathen propensities; and sowed, or rather (as zemōrâh is the layer of a vine) "set," this garden-ground, to which the suffix ennu refers, with strange grapes, by forming an alliance with a zâr (a stranger), namely the king of Damascus. On the very day of the planting, Ephraim fenced it carefully (this is the meaning of the pilpel, sigsēg from שׂוּג = סוּג, not "to raise," as no such verb as שׂוּג = שׂגה, סגא, can be shown to exist), that is to say, he ensured the perpetuity of these sensuous modes of worship as a state religion, with all the shrewdness of a Jeroboam (see Amo 7:13). And the very next morning he had brought into blossom what he had sown: the foreign layer had shot up like a hot-house plant, i.e., the alliance had speedily grown into a hearty agreement, and had already produced one blossom at any rate, viz., the plan of a joint attack upon Judah. But this plantation, which was so flattering and promising for Israel, and which had succeeded so rapidly, and to all appearance so happily, was a harvest heap for the day of the judgment. Nearly all modern expositors have taken nēd as the third person (after the form mēth, Ges. 72, Anm. 1), and render it "the harvest flees;" but the third person of נוּד would be נד, like the participle in Gen 4:12; whereas the meaning cumulus (a heap), which it has elsewhere as a substantive, is quite appropriate, and the statement of the prophet resembles that of the apostle in Rom 2:5. The day of the judgment is called "the day of נחלה" (or, according to another reading, נחלה), not, however, as equivalent to nachal, a stream (Luzzatto, in giorno di fiumana), as in Psa 124:4 (the tone upon the last syllable proves this), nor in the sense of "in the day of possession," as Rosenmller and others suppose, since this necessarily gives to נד the former objectionable and (by the side of קציר) improbable verbal sense; but as the feminine of nachleh, written briefly for maccâh nachlâh (Jer 14:17), i.e., inasmuch as it inflicts grievous and mortal wounds. Ephraim's plantation is a harvest heap for that day (compare kâtzir, the harvest of punishment, in Hos 6:11 and Jer 51:33); and the hope set upon this plantation is changed into אנוּשׁ כּאב, a desperate and incurable heartfelt sorrow (Jer 30:15). The organic connection between Isa 17:12-14, which follow, and the oracle concerning Damascus and Israel, has also been either entirely misunderstood, or not thoroughly appreciated. The connection is the following: As the prophet sets before himself the manner in which the sin of Ephraim is punished by Asshur, as the latter sweeps over the Holy Land, the promise which already began to dawn in the second turn bursts completely through: the world-power is the instrument of punishment in the hands of Jehovah, but not for ever.
Fourth turn: "Woe to the raoring of many nations: like the roaring of seas they roar; and to the rumbling of nations, like the rumbling of mighty waters they rumble! Nations, like the rumbling of many waters they rumble; and He threatens it: then it flies far away, and is chased like chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a cloud of dust before the gale. At eventide, behold consternation; and before the morning dawn it is destroyed: this the portion of our plunderers, and the lot of our robbers." It is the destruction of Asshur that the prophet is predicting here (as in Isa 14:24-27; Isa 29:5-8, etc.), though not of Asshur as Asshur, but of Asshur as the imperial kingdom, which embraced a multitude of nations (Isa 22:6; Isa 8:9, Isa 8:10; Isa 14:26; Isa 29:7, Isa 29:8) all gathered together under the rule of one will, to make a common attack upon the church of God. The connection between this fourth turn and the third is precisely the same as between Isa 8:9, Isa 8:10, and Isa 8:6-8. The exclamation of woe (hoi) is an expression of pain, as in Isa 10:1; and this is followed by a proclamation of the judgment of wrath. The description of the rolling wave of nations is as pictorial as the well-known illi inter sese, etc., of the Cyclops in Virgil. "It spreads and stretches out, as if it would never cease to roll, and roar, and surge, and sweep onward in its course" (Drechsler). In the expression "it" (bo) in Isa 17:13, the many surging nations are kneaded together, as it were, into one mass. It costs God simply a threatening word; and this mass all flies apart (mimmerchâk like mērâchōk, Isa 23:7), and falls into dust, and whirls about in all directions, like the chaff of threshing-floors in high situations, or like dust whirled up by the storm. The judgment commences in the evening, and rages through the night; and before the morning dawns, the army of nations raised by the imperial power is all destroyed (compare Isa 29:7, Isa 29:8, and the fulfilment in Isa 37:36). The fact that the oracle concerning Damascus in its fourth stage takes so comprehensive and, so far as Israel is concerned, so promising a form, may be explained on the ground that Syria was the forerunner of Asshur in the attack upon Israel, and that the alliance between Israel and Syria became the occasion of the complications with Asshur. If the substance of the massâ Dammesek (the oracle concerning Damascus) had been restricted to the prophecy contained in the name Mahershalal, the element of promise so characteristic of the prophecies against the nations of the world would be entirely wanting. But the shout of triumph, "This is the portion," etc., supplied a terminal point, beyond which the massa could not go without the sacrifice of its unity. We are therefore warranted in regarding Isa 18:1-7 as an independent prophecy, notwithstanding its commencement, which apparently forms a continuation of the fourth strophe of Isa 17:1-14.