Often, where the prophets of Hebrew scripture criticize injustice in Israel or Judah, they are referring to the leadership of those nations. Only a minority of people had the power to create policy, the authority to influence how other nations responded to the Israelites, and the wealth to steer the course of Israelite culture. In Isaiah 16, the oracle against Moab describes a scene of massive adversity in that nation, yet while the words of Isaiah pronounce judgment on the leadership of Moab, they prompt compassion for the refugees—the common people of the nation who suffer because of the poor decisions of their leaders. These words may tell us something of the perceived relationship between Judah and Moab, and they also offer some insight regarding a universalized sense of political responsibility that held the powerful accountable while recognizing the powerlessness of most people, regardless of their nationality. If the words of Isaiah are thought to be meaningful for twenty-first century readers, they perhaps hold some judgment against prejudice in personal life and in political decisions, as well as admonition for compassion toward refugees and aliens seeking greater safety and better living conditions.
For the purposes of this inquiry, focus will be on Is 16:1–12. As Kaiser and others observe, 16:13–14 are obvious additions to the text. Although the oracle clearly begins in Is 15:1, it is in chapter 16 that one reads of an appropriate response by the intended audience of the text. Some repetition of material exists between the two chapters, and the oracle does not necessarily flow as well as some commentators would prefer, which has led some to conclude
that the text of this oracle was assembled from several previously existing poems. Hamborg suggests that some of the more sympathetic material here may be Moabite poetry that the author of this oracle co-opted, transforming a sympathetic plea into a statement of judgment. While this is possible, the theory does presume some unknowable characteristics of the author of Isaiah 16 (as does Hamborg’s overall conclusions). Since no source poems for Is 16 and Jer 48 are extant, any discussion about their use for this oracle is pure conjecture, although the existence of Nm 21:27–30 is provocative. It is clear that portions of this oracle appear in Jer 48:29–38, although nothing from Is 16:1–6 appears in Jer 48. There are many possible explanations for this, including that (a) Isaiah in some earlier form (with 16:1–6 not yet part of its composition) was in the hands of the author of Jer 48, (b) common previously existing material was used for both Is 15–16 and Jer 48, (c) original portions of Jer were omitted by a compiler, or (d) material from Jer 48 was added to Is 15–16 at some point. No evidence to support any of these theories exists, however, and thus it must be enough that the commonality between these two oracles against Moab is recognized.
Another problem with placing Is 15–16 is that much is still unknown regarding Moabite history. Conflicts with Moab are reported in 2 Kgs and 2 Sm, and it is known that “at the end of the war against Syria and Ephraim the Moabite king Salamanu appears among the tributaries of the Assyrian emperor Toglash-Pileser III.” However, Moab was involved in several conflicts as a subject of Assyria and later as a subject of Babylon, such that several incidents could have sparked a mass flight of the victims of violence from Moab into a neighboring nation. Unlike the oracles of Ezekiel, Isaianic oracles do not reference specific political events; instead, the leader of Moab is accused of arrogance (16:6; cf. Jer 48:7, 27, 29 –30), an accusation that might be reasonably leveled at any leader of any nation at some point, but one consistently aimed at Moab in the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Ez 25:8–11; Am 2:1–3; Zep 2:8–11). Hamborg interprets the sin of pride as a general thoroughgoing motif in Hebrew prophetic oracles, and he specifically sees the oracles in Isaiah as expressions of disapproval for Judah’s alliances with other nations. Hamborg’s evidence, however, is unconvincing (although a greater body of evidence may have been amassed since); at the very least, the oracle against Moab clearly represents events, in which Judah was not involved, happening to the nation of Moab. While opinions may vary as to what the oracle recommends as Judaic response to the refugees from Moab, it is obvious that Judah was not involved in the events that resulted in the Moabites’ flight.
There is a common ancestry between Moab and Judah, according to biblical genealogies, however. Kunin notes that when peoples share genealogical closeness with the Israelites, ideological differences are magnified by the Hebrew scripture. For Kunin, it is significant that the Moabites were “of the same generation as the Israelites and born without the mediation of a concubine.” Over time, the Israelite attitude toward the Moabites shifted from negative to more neutral, as indicated by a Talmudic weakening of the commandment in Dt 23:3, which forbade Moabite converts to Judaism (Ber. 28a; Yeb. 69a; 76a). There is thus a sense that the Moabites became less ideologically problematic for Judah over time, although the Israelite perspective never turned entirely positive toward the nation of Moab.
The oracle against Moab begins in Isaiah 15; as it continues in 16:1, the refugees of Moab are clearly not safe in their own land. They are counseled to send a tribute ahead of them to the leader of Judah (Is 16:1). Fleeing to the southern border of Moab, refugees will be like a flock of inexperienced birds, scattered from the safety of their nest (Is 16:2). The verses that follow this colorful description of the Moabite flight are placed in quotes in most English translations, and it may thus be unwarranted to suggest that the author of this passage is advising Judah to comply with the requests of these refugees. Given the subsequent assurance that the eventual reality in Judah will be an end to extortion and oppression, and a rule based on tender benevolence, justice, and righteousness (Is 16:4b–5), it does seem that the words of Isaiah bend in the direction of compassion for those who are fleeing extortion, oppression, and injustice. If this is accepted, then the author of this passage may be seen to instruct the people of Judah to welcome the refugees from Moab, to shelter them from the harm inflicted on them by their leaders’ poor decisions, because it characterizes the justice and compassion that will one day reign in Judah.
In this instance, then, when the author of this passage refers to Moab in 16:6 and 16:12, the leader of Moab is the individual critiqued, while in verses 7 and 11, “Moab” may refer to the entire people of the nation. On the other hand, if one envisions a supernatural who can be both responsible for a city’s (or a people’s) destruction and saddened to the point of drenching the city in bitter tears, one might consider that supernatural also capable of having a mournful heart about a leader who wearies himself at ineffectual tasks (16:11).
Other place names within this passage may refer to sites of actual upheaval, or they may be symbolic. Kir-hareseth was a fortified city, a significant landmark in Moab from Judah’s past interactions (2 Ki 3). Although Heshbon had been possessed by Ammon and Israel at various points, its occurrence here and in Jeremiah’s oracle against Moab suggest that the city was under the control of Moab at some time as well (Jer 48). Similarly, Sibmah was at Mount Pisgah, near Heshbon and near Moab’s borders with Ammon and Israel, which may have shifted many times over the course of biblical history (Jo 13:8–23). Nm 32:37–39 suggests that the Israelite tribe of Reuben built these two cities, although this may be an exaggerated ethnocentric account. Jazer was also a city that had been in the control of Ammon at some point, and it played a significant role in Israelite history (Nm 21:23–33; 32:1– 36; Jo 13:25; 21:38–39; 2 Sm 24:5; cf. 1 Chr 6: 80–81; 26:31); like Heshbon, it is mentioned as a city of Moab in both Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s oracles, indicating that the border city also changed hands. Much later than this passage in Isaiah, Judas Maccabeus captured and burned the city of Jazer, according to Josephus (Ant. xii. 8, § 1). Elealeh was another city in this collection of border communities in the northern area of Moab, mentioned in both the Isaiah and Jeremiah oracles against Moab (Jer 48); it too changed hands between Ammon, Israel, and Moab (Nm 32:1–39).
Since all of these cities are clustered in northern Moab, in an area that was potentially contested between Ammon, Israel, and Moab, it may indicate something about how connected the nation of Judah and the nation of Israel were at the time this passage was written. It is noteworthy that the beginning of this oracle in Is 15 mentions a collection of communities in the south of Moab. One may wonder whether Moab faced violence on all sides, or whether these passages were originally addressing different events altogether. Whatever the case, the author of Is 16 seems to have no sense of vindication regarding these communities, but expresses compassion for the people who flee to the south, toward Judah. The author portrays the deity Yahweh as weeping bitterly, drenching the cities with his tears (16:9); his “heart murmurs like a harp for Moab” (16:11), reminiscent of the minstrel who accompanied Elisha’s prophecy regarding Moab in 2 Kings 3:15.
The refugees from Moab are the victims in this scenario. The leader, whoever it may have been in the historical context of this oracle, was too proud for his own good—too arrogant for the good of his nation (16:6). This accusation is almost identical to that of Jeremiah 48:29, followed by wailing and mourning (Jer 48:31–33), just as the accusation is followed in Isaiah (16:7–11). Any details about the manner in which this arrogance was displayed in practical reality are not specified, presumably because the reader would already know such details. Most likely, the destruction of Moab on which this oracle comments was at the hands of the Assyrians, but there is no indication here regarding the relationship between Moab and Assyria. It is clear, however, that the leader of Moab prays to an ineffectual deity (16:12), which spurs criticism from this prophet of Judah. It is curious that Yahweh was no more effective in protecting the Israelites; they had to evolve their theological understanding of their supernatural in order to make sense of their circumstances. In a later age, one might caution the prophet to tend to the plank in the eye of his own people primarily rather than pronouncing judgment on all of the neighboring nations.
That 16:4b–5 promise a future righteous leader on the throne of David may perhaps seem like poor consolation for the fleeing Moabites is one reason that some commentators believe that this passage is stitched together from other pre-existing poems. Perhaps it is congruous with the overall context of Isaiah, considering that all the nations are anticipated to one day stream to Jerusalem for wisdom from Yahweh (Is 2:2–4). One must also consider that the prophetic words were not missives to neighboring countries, but rather to the leaders of Judah. In addition to making sense of their own circumstances, they needed to understand the circumstances of the peoples around them in terms of their evolving theology. Moreover, this oracle is not intended to provoke jeers for Moab, but rather to embrace the refugees from that country with compassion, as if the prophet is saying, “at a certain level, these people are just like us, except that we will have nowhere to run.” The words of 16:3–4a are thus not merely a report of what was cried out by the fleeing population of Moab, but a command to the people of Judah: Welcome these people who need your aid; do not deny the fugitives hospitality. As Kaiser points out, the Moabites were “seeking the status of a gēr, a protected person, which was associated with permission to reside in a foreign country (cf, e.g. Gen. 15.13; Ruth 1.1 and II Sam. 4.3).”
One indication that the thrust of the passage is to incite compassion for these refugees is the sense of sincere lamentation at their plight (16:6–11). As Brueggemann notes, “the listener is called to wail with Moab.” Long finds similarities between the form here (perhaps intended to be the words of Yahweh) and the form of funeral lamentations throughout the ancient (and modern) Near East. Although the speaker of the words of grief is not made known, if the assumption in all of the oracles is that the prophet is speaking on behalf of the supernatural, then here it is Yahweh weeping and drenching the refugees of Moab with his tears. Lalleman also finds the Isaianic oracle against Moab to be more of a long lament, while the oracle against Moab in Jeremiah intersperses lament words with “many threatening words of judgment and doom.” From Long’s perspective, there is a trajectory of development of such passages, beginning with a lament that is not attributed to Yahweh (because of a cultural understanding of Yahweh that prohibited divine laments in this form) and progressing through theological developments such that “at a later stage of development this restriction was lifted to allow Yahweh to utter funeral laments—but only with overtones of taunt, threat, and punishment.” One might note even further nuance if one recognizes the distinction between the leader of Moab and his subjects; the divine may weep for the innocent and the oppressed while exacting brutal judgment against an arrogant and ineffectual leader.
Kaiser seems to miss the overall context of the Isaianic eschatology, however, when he suggests that 16:6 is exclusively a taunt to the people of Moab, and that 16:4b–5 conveys a situation that is exclusive to Judah and of no benefit to the Moabites. He sees the oracle as entirely future tense, imagining that one day, the Israelites will have their idealized righteous ruler—with the accompanying peace and justice in the land of Judah—and that the Moabites who seek refuge will be turned away. Aside from overlooking the prediction of Is 2:2–4, Kaiser assumes a rather tribal and localized eschatology for the Israelites. Either his interpretation of justice and peace is limited and ethnocentric, or he believes that the Isaianic interpretation of justice and peace was limited. Johnston sees 16:4b–5 in the context of “Judean subjugation of Moab,” which has some historical precedence, although certainly not under the conditions of supreme justice and peace that 16:4b–5 heralds. Goldingay interprets something slightly different from subjugation when he connects Isaiah’s oracles against the nations to Is 24–27, in which it becomes clear that “the nations’ destiny in relation to Yhwh is thus not so different from Israel’s destiny.” Everyone will eventually be gathered under the banner of equity, justice, compassion, and righteousness if Isaiah’s vision of the eschatological future holds true. On the other hand, perhaps Kaiser is correct to assume that Israel’s response to Moabite fugitives in 16:6 was intended to be a taunting refusal at the border, with a hubris-laced, “We’re all set here; sorry your king is so incompetent,” in which case the underlying lesson that pride comes before a fall would be ironically two-fold. Twenty-first century readers have nothing to gain from this oracle if that is the case, since it would then be a prognostication that proved to be inaccurate for a people that no longer exist. Perhaps Brueggemann’s insight is appropriate, that although just cause for the suffering of Moab is understood, “this song of grief is not interested in blame. The costs and hurts are too massive and acute for moralizing.”
Even if the text is taken as an admonition toward compassion, there is no common situation by which twenty-first century Americans can connect with the initial audience for this text. America is the Assyria of the situation in Isaiah 16, conquering with wealth and technology, in addition to military action where it is efficacious. There is something of the perceived character of Yahweh in Isaiah 16 that should alarm those in the developed world who consider themselves godly, and yet long for secure borders and the continued conservation of wealth. Even though the leader of Moab is misguided, arrogant, and devoted to an ineffectual supernatural, the plight of the people of Moab still prompts compassion. Yahweh expects his representatives to offer justice, refuge, and wise counsel, not because the asylum seekers can offer something of value, but because they are beloved human beings. From a certain perspective, one might say that the Moabites were made as much in the image of God as the Israelites.
When one sees that the Yahweh of Isaiah 16 is against oppression and against self-indulgent destruction of others, one must find wanting foreign policies and practices of corporations that exacerbate systematic poverty and hinder multidimensional well-being (shalom). When one sees that the Yahweh of Isaiah 16 favors leaders who demonstrate mercy, seek justice, and are swift to do what is right (or what leads to multidimensional well-being), one must conclude that the political leaders of America, and perhaps other countries of the developed world, are often not nearly as godly as they would claim. With specific regard to the attitude toward fugitives, if one wishes to apply the mindset of Isaiah 16 in the twenty-first century, one must at least promote open borders and open access to housing and healthcare. Given the global nature of humanity in the twenty-first century, one might well extend such efforts beyond the artificial borders of a nation and strive to support—at the very least—the accommodation of basic human needs for all people, regardless of geography, culture, or religious tradition. The implications of this passage, however, are that God will establish a new paradigm of leader, just as God is ultimately responsible for the destruction wrought by Assyria. If one believes that God alone will accomplish what he wants in his own timing, then there is nothing to be accomplished by human action and twenty-first century believers are justified in abdicating responsibility to their supernatural. Some might also posit that, if a supernatural has not effected a sustainable society of justice, equity, and compassion over the course of more than 3000 years, perhaps it makes more sense to devote human efforts toward solving human problems.
1. Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13–39: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, ed. Peter Ackroyd, et al, tr. R.A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 60.
2. This is the conclusion of G. R. Hamborg, “Reasons for Judgement in the Oracles against the Nations in the Prophet Isaiah,” Vetus Testamentum 31, no. 2 (1981), 150. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 11, 2014). Kaiser mentions others who have drawn this conclusion, Isaiah, 60.
3. Hamborg, “Reasons,” 151.
6. Seth D. Kunin, “Israel and the Nations: A Structuralist Survey,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (Mar 1999), 19. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 11, 2014).
7. Ibid., 33.
8. Even Oswalt finds it “tempting to see the person being referred to [in Is 16:9, 11] as God, since he is clearly the referent in verse 10.” John N. Oswalt, The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah, The NIV Application Commentary Series, Terry Muck, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 224.
11. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah Vol. 1: Chapters 1–39, Westminster Bible Companion, Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 144.
12. Burke O. Long, “Divine Funeral Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85, no 1 (Mar 1966), 85. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 6, 2014).
13. Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 21, ed. David G. Firth (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 286.
16. Philip S. Johnston, “Faith in Isaiah,” Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, ed. David G. Firth and H. G. M. Williamson (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 112.
18. Brueggemann, Isaiah, 145.
19. Oswalt suggests that “cruel Death will make us all refugees in the end, leaving all we have on the road to be pillaged by those who come after us,” (Oswalt, Isaiah, 227). Oswalt misses the fact that refugees actively seek refuge, something that the dead cannot do. Is 16 clearly places some people in the position of seeking aid and others in the position of being able to grant it; although the people of Judah would be driven from their own land as well, that was not the reality in mind for the author of Is 16. Personal theology can be a profoundly limiting lens through which to read a text, as Oswalt demonstrates when he claims that “in this world the only certainty is death and loss,” (Oswalt, Isaiah, 228). One must at least acknowledge that life must precede death and that gain must precede loss, thus the certainty of death and loss assumes the certainty of life and gain; where one chooses to focus and what one chooses to celebrate are personal choices.