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Isaiah 23:1-18 | Werner Bible Commentary

Isaiah 23:1-18

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23:1. Masoretic Text: A pronouncement [regarding] Tyre. Howl, ships of Tarshish, for it [Tyre] has been devastated, [left] without a house and [a place] to enter. From the land of Kittim it has been revealed to them.

Septuagint: The vision [regarding] Tyre. Howl, ships of Carthage, for she [Tyre] has been destroyed, and no longer do they come from the land of the Kitaeans. She has been led away captive.

The Targum of Isaiah mentions the “cup of cursing” that would be given to Tyre to drink.

Commentary

The Hebrew word massá’ is commonly understood to mean a “pronouncement,” “oracle,” “utterance,” or “burden.” Whereas the Vulgate renders the term as onus (“load” or “burden”), the Septuagint reads “vision,” indicating this to have been the means by which the prophet received the “pronouncement” or message about Tyre, the major Phoenician seaport. (See Tyre for pictures of and additional information about the city.)

Assyrian monarch Esar-haddon, in his annals, boasted about having conquered Tyre and dealt severely with the Tyrian king Ba’lu when he attempted to be free of the Assyrian yoke. Many years later Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre. In his Against Apion (I, 21), the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that this siege lasted 13 years. Although the judgment against Tyre related to the future, it was so certain of fulfillment that it was expressed as if it had already befallen the city.

The designation “ships of Tarshish” appears to have applied to large vessels equipped to make the long voyage to Tarshish, commonly linked to a location on the Iberian Peninsula. This, however, is by no means certain. The Septuagint refers to “ships of Carthage,” a city on the Gulf of Tunis in North Africa. News about the devastation of Tyre occasioned the howling, wailing, or lamenting, for the ruin of the city would lead to serious disruption of trade. According to the Septuagint, commercial traffic would cease to arrive from the land of the Kitaeans. This would be because Tyre, or the people of the city, had been taken captive.

Possibly the Hebrew text could be understood to mean that the devastation would include the destruction of the houses (with the word “house” possibly being a collective singular). Devastated Tyre would then no longer function as a harbor for ships to enter. The reference to Kittim (commonly identified as Cyprus) perhaps indicates that news about the ruin of Tyre would be “revealed,” or initially made known, from there to other nations.

In his Antiquities (I, vi, 1), Josephus, after referring to Cethimus (Kittim, a “son” of Javan, mentioned in Genesis 10:4) as possessing the “island Cethima,” continued, “it is now called Cyprus: and from that it is that all islands, and the greatest part of the sea-coasts, are named Cethim by the Hebrews.”

23:2. Masoretic Text: Be silent, inhabitants of the coastland. Traders of Sidon passing over the sea — they filled you.

Septuagint: To whom have those dwelling on the island become likened — [these] traders of Phoenicia crossing the sea

The Hebrew word for “coastland” can also mean “island.”

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah reads “his messengers,” not “they filled you.” A transposition of the last two letters of the Hebrew expression accounts for the difference. According to the scroll, the messengers of Sidon are the ones passing over the sea.

Commentary

The inhabitants of the coastland, probably meaning the Phoenician coast, would be so shocked that they would be stunned to silence. If the expression “they filled you” is original, this could mean that the seafaring merchants from Sidon, the second most prominent city of Phoenicia, filled Tyre with profits. (See Sidon for pictures of and comments about city.)

In the Septuagint, the “island,” based on the context, refers to Tyre. The question that starts in this verse is completed in the next verse.

23:3. Masoretic Text: And on many waters, the seed of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile, [constituted] her revenue. You were the trader of the nations.

Septuagint: in much water, seed [offspring] of traders? Like a harvest being brought in [are] the traders of the nations.

Commentary

“Shihor” is commonly thought to designate the easternmost branch of the Nile in the Delta region. With grain from Egypt, seafaring merchants of Tyre engaged in profitable trade with other nations. Egypt depended on the Nile floods for bountiful harvests and for this reason the produce is called the “seed of Shihor” and the “harvest of the Nile.”

The Septuagint rendering appears to call the Phoenician merchants the offspring of traders or men in a line of seafaring merchants. A harvested crop is initially brought to one location. So it may be that the Septuagint rendering compares the “traders of the nations,” the Phoenician merchants who engaged in extensive trade with other peoples, as arriving at a seaport and bringing their products just as persons would bring the produce from a harvested field to a specific place for storage and future sale.
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23:4. Masoretic Text: Be ashamed, Sidon, for the sea has spoken, the stronghold of the sea, saying, “I have not been in labor and not given birth. And I have not brought up young men nor reared virgins.

Septuagint: “Be ashamed, Sidon,” said the sea, but the might of the sea said, “I have not been in labor nor given birth nor have I brought up young men nor reared virgins.”

Commentary

The “sea” appears to be personified and is represented as telling Sidon to be ashamed on account of the disaster that had befallen Tyre. This calamity seriously interfered with Sidon’s commercial activity, resulting in great loss.

The “stronghold of the sea” or the “might of the sea” may be understood as designating Tyre. During the period of siege, many defenders of Tyre would have been slain and others in the city would have died from famine and pestilence. A large number of survivors would have been led away as captives. Therefore, in view of the significant loss of population, Tyre (the “stronghold of the sea”) could then lament as a city without children and so as never having experienced labor pains, given birth, or reared boys and girls.

23:5. Masoretic Text: When the report [comes] to Egypt, they will writhe [in pain] over the report [about] Tyre.

Septuagint: But when it comes to be heard in Egypt, pain concerning Tyre will seize them.

The Targum of Isaiah speaks of the men of Tyre as trembling upon hearing about the smiting to which the Egyptians had been subjected.

Commentary

Egypt’s prosperity was closely linked to Tyre, for Tyrian ships would transport Egypt’s grain to distant markets. Therefore, news about the fall of Tyre would be unsettling, filling the hearers with pain, grief, or great anxiety.

23:6. Masoretic Text: Pass over to Tarshish. Howl, inhabitants of the coastland.

Septuagint: Go away to Carthage. Howl, inhabitants on this island.

The Hebrew word for “coastland” can also mean “island.” In the Septuagint, the words “this island” appear to apply more specifically to Tyre.

Commentary

Surviving inhabitants of the Phoenician coastland, which included the people of Tyre, are directed to find another home, distant Tarshish or, according to the Septuagint, Carthage. (See verse 1 regarding Tarshish and Carthage.) The devastation enemy invaders caused would occasion the howling, wailing, or lamenting.

23:7. Masoretic Text: To you, is this [the] jubilant [city] whose antiquity [is] from days of old, whose feet carried her far to sojourn?

Septuagint: Was not she [the city of Tyre] your arrogance from the beginning before she was handed over?

In the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, the conjunction “and” precedes the phrase about the feet.

The Targum of Isaiah represents Tyre as a city to which people brought “gifts” or tribute from a distant land and refers to the sojourning of the inhabitants as their coming to reside in exile.

Commentary

The description of Tyre as “jubilant” could refer to its having been a place of joyous hustle and bustle, revelry, or wantonness. It was an ancient city. Translators have variously rendered the Hebrew words for the expressions “from days of old” and “whose antiquity.” “Is this your wanton city, whose origin is from old?” (NAB) “Is this your bustling city of ancient foundation?” (REB) “Is this your proud city founded far back in the past?” (NJB) “Was such your merry city in former times, of yore?” (Tanakh)

The reference to the “feet” carrying her “far to sojourn” probably is to be understood to mean the colonizing activity of Tyre. A number of translations make this significance explicit (“the founder of colonies in distant parts” [REB]; “whose steps led her far afield to found her colonies” [NJB]). Merchants of Tyre traveled extensively to the colonies in distant locations.

The Septuagint rendering identifies Tyre as a city in which the populace had an overweening pride. This was already early in its history, “from the beginning,” and the arrogance continued up to the time that the city suffered humiliating defeat, being handed over to the invading forces.

23:8. Masoretic Text: Who has counseled this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose traders [were] princes, whose merchants [were] glorious ones of the earth?

Septuagint: Who has counseled these things against Tyre? Is she inferior or not strong? Her merchants [were] glorious, rulers of the earth.

In Hebrew, the expression here translated “the bestower of crowns” shares many of the same consonants as does the expression for “is she inferior.” This may explain the reason for the Septuagint rendering.

Commentary

YHWH had counseled against Tyre, for he had announced beforehand through his prophet the judgment that would befall the city. Kings ruled in the colonies that Tyre had established and, in that sense, the city was a bestower of crowns. Her traders enjoyed a standing of dignity like that of princes. Her merchants were men of great repute or highly honored persons, glorious ones.

23:9. Masoretic Text: YHWH of hosts has counseled it to defile the pride of all glory, to treat contemptuously all the honored ones of the earth.

Septuagint: The Lord Sabaoth has counseled to bring down the arrogance of the glorious ones and to dishonor all the glorious things on the earth.

In the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, the first “all” precedes “pride,” not “glory.”

“Sabaoth” is a transliteration of the Hebrew expression for “hosts” or “armies” and identifies YHWH as the God with hosts of angels in his service.

Commentary

In this context, the “pride of all glory” refers to the great pride the inhabitants of Tyre had in their city on account of its importance and its prosperity as a commercial center. YHWH had purposed to humble the pride of Tyre and to treat the honored ones of Tyre with contempt. According to the Septuagint reading, he would disgrace the “glorious things” or everything that the Tyrians regarded as being valuable.

23:10. Masoretic Text: Pass over your land like the Nile, daughter of Tarshish. No restraint [is there] anymore.

Septuagint: Work your land, for even the ships no longer come from Carthage.

Commentary

For the “daughter of Tarshish,” or the people of Tarshish, to pass over their land “like the Nile” may denote that they could act freely as when the Nile overflows its banks. With the fall of Tyre, Tarshish would not have an overlord, making it possible for the people to pass through the land as they pleased and to engage in trade on their own terms. There would not be anyone from Tyre who could exercise restraint over what the people of Tarshish chose to do.

The Septuagint rendering “work your land” (instead of “pass over your land”) has the support of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, the Hebrew text of which seems to indicate that the people of Tarshish were to cultivate their own land like the land that stretched along the Nile. According to the Septuagint rendering, the reason for cultivating the land was that the commercial activity by sea had ended, for ships no longer came from Carthage. (Regarding Tarshish and Carthage, see verse 1.)

23:11. Masoretic Text: His hand he has stretched out over the sea. He has disturbed kingdoms. YHWH has given command concerning Canaan to destroy its strongholds.

Septuagint: But your hand no longer has strength by sea, O the one provoking kings. The Lord Sabaoth has commanded concerning Canaan to destroy its strength.

Commentary

The Mediterranean Sea bordered Phoenicia on the west, with Tyre being the most powerful city in the region. Therefore, when acting against Tyre and the surrounding territory, YHWH is portrayed stretching out his hand as if ready to strike. This would cause the kingdoms in the area (the cities of Phoenicia with their own kings) to be disturbed or to tremble in fear.

Unlike the Hebrew text, the Septuagint rendering appears to represent Tyre as no longer dominating the sea with its traders and provoking kings by the power it exercised over them.

YHWH had commanded or determined that the strongholds of Canaan (Phoenicia) be destroyed. These strongholds would have been fortified cities like Sidon. With the fall of the fortified cities to the invading forces that YHWH allowed to function as his instruments for executing his judgment, the “strength” (LXX) of Canaan or Phoenicia would be destroyed.

23:12. Masoretic Text: And he said, “You will no more exult. Oppressed virgin daughter of Sidon, arise, pass over to Kittim; even there [there] will be no rest for you.”

Septuagint: And they will say, “No longer will you continue to be arrogant and do injustice to the daughter of Sidon.” And if you go to the Kitians [Kitaeans], not even there will you have rest.

Commentary

According to the Hebrew text, YHWH is represented as the speaker. The expression “virgin daughter of Sidon” may mean that the city of Sidon had previously not experienced the ravages of war. Subjugated and oppressed, the inhabitants of Sidon would no longer be able to exult or to revel. The prophetic message was sure to be fulfilled. Therefore, what the Sidonians would do in trying to find a home on nearby Kittim (Cyprus) is expressed like a command. Even there, the people of Sidon would not enjoy any rest, peace, or relief from their distress.

The Septuagint rendering (like the wording of the Targum of Isaiah) does not identify YHWH as the speaker but represents people who learn about the downfall of Tyre as expressing themselves. They say that Tyre would no longer be arrogant and deal unjustly with Sidon. The humiliated Tyrians are told to go to the Kitians (Kitaeans), the people of Kittim, where they would have no prospect of any rest or relief from their sad plight.

While differing from the Masoretic Text, the Targum of Isaiah basically agrees with the rendering of the Septuagint. Tyre would become powerless and unable to continue oppressing the people living in Sidon.

23:13. Masoretic Text: Look! The land of the Chaldeans — this [is] the people [that] was not. Asshur [Assyria] established her for wild beasts [“yelpers” or “desert animals”]. They erected his towers. They razed her palaces. One made her a ruin.

Septuagint: And [if you head] to the land of the Chaldeans — it also has been desolated by the Assyrians. Not even there will [there] be rest for you, because her wall has fallen.

The Hebrew text is obscure and requires adding words to complete the thought. Therefore, translations vary considerably in their renderings and the meanings these convey. “Behold the land of Chaldea — This is the people that has ceased to be. Assyria, which founded it for ships, which raised its watchtowers, erected its ramparts, has turned it into a ruin.” (Tanakh) “Look at the land of the Babylonians, this people that is now of no account! The Assyrians have made it a place for desert creatures; they raised up their seige towers, they stripped its fortresses bare and turned it into a ruin.” (NIV) “This people is the land of the Chaldeans, not Assyria. She whom the impious founded, setting up towers for her, has had her castles destroyed, and has been turned into a ruin.” (NAB) “Look at the land of the Chaldeans. This is the people; it was not Assyria. They destined Tyre for wild animals. They erected their seige towers, they tore down her palaces, they made her a ruin.” (NRSV) “Look at this land, the destined home of ships! The Chaldeans (this was the people; it was not Assyria) erected siege-towers, tore down its palaces, and laid it in ruins. (REB)

A possible textual emendation found in the footnotes of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is the deletion of the reference to the Chaldeans and of the phrase about not being the people. The verse would then read, “Look! Asshur established her for wild beasts. They erected his towers. They razed her palaces. One made her a ruin.” That this emendation possibly represents the reading of the original text is highly unlikely. Both the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah and the Targum of Isaiah support the wording of the Masoretic Text. Although departing from the reading of the extant Hebrew text, the Septuagint does include a reference to the Chaldeans.

Commentary

The Hebrew text is perhaps best understood by taking the then-existing historical situation into consideration. Assyria was then the dominant power in the region, and the Chaldeans posed no threat to Tyre and the rest of Phoenicia. Decades later, however, the Chaldeans engaged in military action against Tyre.

Accordingly, the Chaldeans may be considered as not having been a people who then endangered the security of Tyre. In the Hebrew text, the verb that follows “Asshur” is singular. This may mean that the military action of Assyria resulted in the kind of devastation to Tyre that allowed wild animals to make the desolated territory their haunt. The Hebrew verbs relating to the erection of towers and razing palaces are plural, providing a basis for regarding the proper noun “Chaldeans” as the antecedent. This would mean that the Chaldeans are being portrayed as the ones to erect the siege towers under the direction of their king (“his towers”) and to reduce the palaces to rubble. The last Hebrew verb is singular, with possibly a generic significance regarding the agent (in a collective sense) that causes ruin. So it may be that all the military campaigns directed against Tyre may be viewed as desolating Tyre.

Historically, the Chaldeans or Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar brought greater ruin to Tyre than did the Assyrians. The mention of “seventy years” in this chapter provides a basis for understanding verse 13 to include the Chaldeans as playing a role with the Assyrians in desolating Tyre. (Compare Jeremiah 25:8-22.)

The Septuagint rendering conveys a different meaning and also requires the addition of words to complete the thought. If, instead of heading for Kittim, people of Tyre decided to go east to the land of the Chaldeans, they would find that the Assyrians had desolated that land also. Because the “wall” or the defenses of Chaldea had fallen, those going there would find no rest or relief from their distress.

23:14. Masoretic Text: Howl, ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold has been devastated.

Septuagint: Howl, ships of Carthage, for your stronghold has been destroyed.

Commentary

As in verse 1 (which see for additional comments), the ships of Tarshish or, according to the Septuagint, of Carthage, are to howl, wail, or lament. All who made their living by sailing the sea to engage in trade would be adversely affected because of the devastation of the “fortress,” the fortified city of Tyre. Those involved in maritime operations would do the wailing and so it would be as if the howling came from the ships.

23:15. Masoretic Text: And it will occur in that day [that] Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, like the days of one king. At the end of seventy years it will occur to Tyre as in the song of the harlot.

Septuagint: And it will be in that day [that] Tyre will be forsaken for seventy years, like the time of a king, like the time of a man. And it will be [that] after seventy years Tyre will be like the song of a harlot.

Commentary

Tyre was destined to sink into obscurity, forgotten as the dominant commercial center in the region for “seventy years.” The “seventy years” are identified as being “like the days of one king,” meaning the average life-span of a king and, as the Septuagint adds, “of a man.” At the end of this period, Tyre would need to get the attention of other peoples and nations in order to resume commercial activity as in former times. Inhabitants of the city would have to make others aware that Tyre was back in business, just like a prostitute would do what she could to make her presence known.

23:16. Masoretic Text: Take a harp; go about the city, O forgotten harlot. Play skillfully, touching the strings [of the harp]; [sing] many songs, that you may be remembered.

Septuagint: Take a harp; roam [in] the cities, forsaken harlot. Harp well; sing much, that you might come to be remembered.

The Targum of Isaiah seems to indicate that Tyre’s glory had been changed, with her former glory having been given to another province. After referring to Tyre as a harlot that had been rejected, the Targum of Isaiah addresses her with the words, “Turn your harp into mourning, and your song into lamentation. It may be that you will be remembered.” Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, however, do not support this interpretation.

Commentary

A forgotten or forsaken harlot would be a prostitute whose business had suffered neglect. She would have to pass through the city streets, playing her harp as best as she could and then sing many songs to the accompaniment of her harp. Like such a prostitute, Tyre would have to advertise that the city was again in business as a major maritime trader.

23:17. Masoretic Text: And it will occur at the end of seventy years [that] YHWH will visit Tyre, and she will return to her hire and will whore with all the kingdoms of the earth upon the surface of the land.

Septuagint: And it will be [that] after seventy years God will make a visitation to Tyre, and again she will be reestablished as of old and will be a market for all the kingdoms of the world.

In the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, the word for “all” is missing.

The Septuagint rendering conveys the meaning of the Hebrew in an abbreviated form and does not refer to the commercial activity of Tyre as committing prostitution with the kingdoms of the world.

Commentary

YHWH’s visitation or the attention he would give to Tyre after seventy years relates to his permitting the city to resume profitable commercial ventures. Apparently because extensive trade required continual contact with many nations, this is represented as prostitution and the profits made as the hire.

23:18. Masoretic Text: And her gain and her hire will become something holy to YHWH. It will not be laid up and not be stored up. But for those dwelling before the face of YHWH, her gain will be for eating to satiety and for fine clothing.

Septuagint: And her merchandise and her hire will become holy to the Lord. Not for them will it be gathered; but for those residing before the Lord, all her merchandise [will be gathered], to eat and drink and be filled, for a remembrance contribution before the Lord.

Commentary

According to the Mosaic law, the wages of a prostitute were regarded as unclean or abhorrent. (Deuteronomy 23:18) The gain and hire of the city of Tyre, however, would become holy to YHWH. This is because the gain and hire would be used for the benefit of his people. The profits would not be stored up to promote the arrogance of the people of Tyre. Instead everything would be for those who are represented as being in YHWH’s presence, persons having his approval. God’s people are portrayed as making use of what would become available for food and clothing. They would eat to satisfaction and be nobly dressed.

The Greek words that have been rendered “remembrance contribution” could indicate that a portion of all that was collected from the enterprises of Tyre would be contributed to further the worship of YHWH and thus would serve as a memorial before him.