Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 15–16. An Oracle on Moab
These chapters describe a terrible disaster which has overtaken, or is about to overtake, the proud and hitherto prosperous nation of Moab. Ch. Isaiah 16:13 f. is a postscript, which states unambiguously that an earlier prophecy is here taken up and reaffirmed in its substance, the time of its fulfilment being fixed within a term of three years. The language leaves it uncertain whether the original composition was strictly a prophecy or a poetic lament over a visitation which the writer had actually witnessed. The element of prediction appears in Isaiah 15:9 and Isaiah 16:12; but the rest of the passage reads like a description of current events, and certainly exhibits a most minute and accurate knowledge of the geography of the trans-Jordanic region. The writer betrays a certain sympathy with the misfortunes of Moab, although he expresses the conviction that the notorious arrogance of that people demanded a retribution such as it has experienced.
The question of date and authorship is complicated by the peculiar form in which the oracle is presented. It is obvious that the Epilogue (Isaiah 16:13 f.) belongs to a later date than the body of the prophecy, and there is nothing whatever to suggest that both are from the same author. The internal evidence, indeed, is strongly opposed to such an hypothesis. While the Epilogue bears every mark of Isaiah’s rapid and pregnant style that could be expected in so short a piece, the original oracle (Isaiah 15:1 to Isaiah 16:12) presents a singular contrast to the prophecies of Isaiah. The pathetic, elegiac strain of this passage, its outflow of purely human sympathy towards the victims of the calamity, its poverty in religious ideas, and its diffuse and laboured style, combine to stamp it with a character foreign to his genius. And this general impression is confirmed by an examination of the vocabulary, which differs widely from that of Isaiah. On these and other grounds the majority of critics since Gesenius have been led to the conclusion that we have here the work of some unknown prophet, which was republished by Isaiah with an appendix from his own hand.
With regard to the date of the original prophecy the chief indications are these: (1) Although the assailants of Moab are nowhere named, we may at least infer from the fact that the fugitives took refuge in Edom (Isaiah 16:1), that their country had been invaded from the north. (2) It also appears from Isaiah 16:1-6 that at this time a strong monarch sat on the throne of Judah and held the Edomites in subjection (see the notes below). This last circumstance would seem to take us back at least to the days of Uzziah, the suzerainty of Edom having been lost in the beginning of the reign of Ahaz (2 Kings 16:6) and never recovered during the lifetime of Isaiah. Perhaps the most plausible conjecture that has been offered is that of Hitzig (adopted by a number of subsequent commentators), that the prophecy refers to the subjugation of Moab by the North Israelites under Jeroboam II., the contemporary of Uzziah. It is true that there is no particular mention of this campaign in the Old Testament, but we know that Jeroboam extended the boundaries of his kingdom to the “sea of the Arabah” (2 Kings 14:25; Amos 6:14), and it is reasonable to suppose that this involved an invasion of Moab. In every respect the circumstances of the time are in harmony with the allusions of the prophecy. Hitzig’s further suggestion, however, that the author was Jonah the son of Amittai (2 Kings 14:25), though ingenious, rests on no solid foundation. There are two earlier wars of North Israel against Moab which might conceivably be thought of in this connexion. One is the conquest of the country by Omri in the 9th century, known to us from the famous Moabite Stone, which commemorates the war of revenge waged by Mesha against Ahab. The other is the campaign of Jehoram, Ahab’s son, in alliance with Jehoshaphat king of Judah (2 Kings 3). This can hardly be the occasion of the prophecy, since at that time Judah took part in the subjugation of Moab, and would not be likely to be appealed to by the fugitives for succour (Isaiah 16:1 ff.). Nevertheless the Biblical account of that campaign throws a valuable light on some features of the passage, and illustrates the barbarity with which these frontier wars were conducted. We read that the allies “beat down the cities; and on every good piece of land they cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the fountains of water, and felled all the good trees: until in Kir-hareseth only they left the stones thereof” (2 Kings 3:25). We can readily suppose that Jeroboam’s invasion was carried out with equal thoroughness.
The date of the Epilogue (assuming it to be Isaiah’s) is comparatively unimportant. There is no doubt that Isaiah has the Assyrians in view as the agents of the Divine sentence against Moab. Perhaps the most likely time for such a prediction would be about 711, when the Moabites were in revolt against Sargon. At the time of Sennacherib’s great expedition they appear to have held aloof from the conspiracy and maintained their allegiance to Assyria.
The passage falls into three sections:
1. Ch. 15. The distress of Moab. In one night her two chief cities have been ruined (Isaiah 15:1); the sanctuaries are crowded with despairing suppliants, and a cry of agony ascends from all her public places (2–4). The fugitives are then seen making their way through the desolate country, and collecting their possessions at the brook of the Arabah, in order to carry them over into Edom (5–7). For the war-cry has circled round the whole land so that no refuge can be found within it (8), and yet worse things are in store for the survivors (9, Isaiah 16:2).
2. Ch. Isaiah 16:1-6. Moab vainly seeks protection from Jerusalem. From Edom the fugitives are represented as sending a present (Isaiah 15:1) to Jerusalem, along with a piteous and flattering appeal to the Jewish monarchy (3, 4; Isaiah 15:2 appears to break the connexion) whose glories are extolled in terms almost worthy of a Messianic prophecy (5). But the petition is rejected because of the well-known pride and faithlessness of the Moabitish nationality (6).
3Isaiah 16:7-12. There thus remains no hope for Moab, and the poet once more strikes up a lamentation over the ruined vineyards of the once fertile country where the vintage song is now stilled for ever (7–10). The personal sympathy of the writer finds clearer expression here than in the earlier part of the poem (9, 11); although his last word must be a religious application of the calamity of Moab as proving the impotence of its national deities (12).
4. Then follows the Epilogue (Isaiah 16:13-14), really a new prophecy announcing the fall of Moab within a very brief space of time.
The parallel prophecy on Moab in Jeremiah 48 is a greatly amplified variation of this ancient oracle. With the exception of Isaiah 15:1, Isaiah 15:8 to Isaiah 16:5 and Isaiah 16:12 ff. nearly every verse in these two chapters occurs in a more or less altered form in Jeremiah (the references are given in the notes below). A comparison of the two passages affords an instructive illustration of the freedom used by prophetic writers in handling the remains of ancient literature.
The burden of Moab. Because in the night Ar of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence; because in the night Kir of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence;1. The verse stands somewhat apart from the sequel of the poem. It announces the catastrophe which has placed the entire country at the mercy of the invaders, viz. the fall of the two chief cities of Moab. What follows is a description, not of the further progress of the campaign, but first of the universal mourning caused by this sudden blow, and second, of the flight of the inhabitants. The opening word because seems to have the force of an interjection, equivalent to “yea” or “surely.”
in the night] may be meant literally (by a night attack), or we may render “in a night,” i.e. “suddenly.”
Ar] the capital of Moab, lay on the Arnon (Numbers 21:15; Numbers 21:28). It is not to be confounded (as is sometimes done) with the later capital Rabba, which lies about 10 miles further south. Kir of Moab is the modern Kerak, some 17 miles S. of the Arnon. It is perhaps identical with Kir-hareseth or Kir Heres (ch. Isaiah 16:7; Isaiah 16:11; 2 Kings 3:25); its situation has always been considered well-nigh impregnable. These two cities were both S. of the Arnon and therefore within the proper territory of Moab. Those mentioned in Isaiah 15:2-4 on the other hand were in the fertile district to the north (now called El-Belka), which Israel claimed for the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The possession of this coveted tract of country was one great motive of the interminable wars between the two nations. Mesha’s inscription on the Moabite Stone is really an account of the reconquest of this region from Ahab. At the time of the prophecy Moab must have long held undisputed possession of these lands.
He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off.2. (Cf. Jeremiah 48:37) He is gone up … to weep] The sense of the clause is uncertain. If Bayith be a proper name the best rendering would be that of R.V. marg. Bayith and Dibon are gone up to the high-places to weep. But Bayith enters so frequently into compound place-names in this region (Beth-Diblathaim, Beth-Baal-meon, Beth-Bamoth) that it is hardly likely to have been used alone of a particular town. Some accordingly take it in its ordinary sense of “house” (here “temple”) and translate, “He is gone up to the temple, and Dibon to the high places …,”—a very harsh construction. The most satisfactory solution of the difficulty is that proposed by Duhm, who changes bayith into bath and reads the daughter of Dibon (Jeremiah 48:18) is gone up to the high places.… The “high places” are of course the local sanctuary.
Dibon (where the Moabite Stone was found) is only a few miles from the Arnon, and is naturally the first to receive tidings of the fall of the southern fortresses. On the whole the description observes the geographical order south to north.
Moab shall howl] Better howleth (other verbs also to be translated as presents), a peculiar onomatopoetic form occurring also in Isaiah 15:3 and Isaiah 26:7.
Nebo] is a town mentioned on the Moabite Stone near the mountain of the same name. It lay due east of the mouth of the Jordan; Medeba a short distance to the S. For over render on.
on all their heads shall be baldness …] On the signs of mourning mentioned here and in Isaiah 15:3 see ch. Isaiah 3:24, Isaiah 22:12; Micah 1:16; Job 1:20; Jeremiah 41:5.
2–4. The wailing of Moab.
In their streets they shall gird themselves with sackcloth: on the tops of their houses, and in their streets, every one shall howl, weeping abundantly.3. (Jeremiah 48:37 f.) on the tops of their houses] See on Isaiah 22:1. The word streets should not be used twice; substitute in the second case broad places (as in R.V.).
weeping abundantly] lit. “going down in weeping,” an unusually strong figure. In other passages the eye is said to “go down in tears” (Jeremiah 9:18; Lamentations 1:16; Lamentations 3:48); but nowhere else is the whole being spoken of as dissolved in weeping.
And Heshbon shall cry, and Elealeh: their voice shall be heard even unto Jahaz: therefore the armed soldiers of Moab shall cry out; his life shall be grievous unto him.4. (Cf. Jeremiah 48:34.) Heshbon and Elealeh (often mentioned together) are respectively about 4 and 6 miles N.E. of Nebo. Heshbon, once the capital of the Amorites (Numbers 21:26) and afterwards an Israelitish city (Numbers 32:37; Joshua 13:17; Joshua 21:39), is at the time of the prophecy in the possession of Moab. The site of Jahaz, where Sihon gave battle to the Israelites (Numbers 21:23), has not been discovered; probably it was some distance south from Heshbon.
the armed soldiers of Moab shall cry out] omit “shall” with R.V. Cf. ch. Isaiah 33:7. The “heroes of Moab” are mentioned in a similar plight in Jeremiah 48:41.
his life shall be grievous unto him] Rather, as in R.V., his soul trembleth within him (ethical dative).
My heart shall cry out for Moab; his fugitives shall flee unto Zoar, an heifer of three years old: for by the mounting up of Luhith with weeping shall they go it up; for in the way of Horonaim they shall raise up a cry of destruction.5. (Jeremiah 48:34; Jeremiah 48:5; Jeremiah 48:3) The new theme is introduced by an expression of the writer’s sympathy with the homeless fugitives: My heart crieth out for Moab (cf. Isaiah 16:9; Isaiah 16:11).
his fugitives] R.V. renders less suitably “her nobles.” The word as pointed means “bolts,” which is here taken as a symbol for princes. But it is better, with the Targum and nearly all modern commentators, to change the vowel, and translate “fugitives” as in Isaiah 43:14, where, curiously enough, the A.V. gives the same rendering as the R.V. here. The R.V. however is right in using the fem. “her”; Moab is here regarded not as a people but as a land.
Zoar (Genesis 19:22) lies near the S.E. corner of the Dead Sea; the flight therefore is southward, towards Edom.
a heifer of three years old] R.V. is better: to Eglath-shelishiyah; i.e. probably, “the third Eglath.” The locality is not known.
the mounting up (the ascent, R.V.) of Luhith is located by Eusebius’ Onomasticon between Rabba and Zoar.
the way of Horonaim] Jeremiah (Jeremiah 48:5) speaks of “the slope of H.,” which lay apparently (Jeremiah 48:34) between Zoar and Eglath-shelishiyah.
5–9. The flight of the Moabites.
For the waters of Nimrim shall be desolate: for the hay is withered away, the grass faileth, there is no green thing.6. (Jeremiah 48:34) the waters of Nimrim are generally supposed to be connected with Beth-nimrah (Numbers 32:36), now Tell-nimrin, on the Wadi Shaib, flowing into the Jordan about 8 miles from its mouth. A place in the south of Moab would perhaps suit the context better, and explorers have found a Wadi Numeirah running into the Dead Sea a little south of Kerak. Eusebius also (Onomast.) says that the place was known in his day under the name Βηνναμαρείμ (= the Heb. mê Nimrîm, “waters of N.”), and lay to the N. of Zoar. On the stopping of the waters by an enemy, see 2 Kings 3:25.
hay … grass] Better: grass … tender grass (R.V.).
Therefore the abundance they have gotten, and that which they have laid up, shall they carry away to the brook of the willows.7. (Jeremiah 48:36.) The fugitives have now reached the border of their own land, and prepare to cross into Edom. The boundary between the two countries was formed by the Wadi el-Ahsa (“valley of water-pits,” the scene of the miracle in 2 Kings 3:16 ff. See Robertson Smith, Old Test. in Jewish Ch. p. 147). In all probability this Wadi is identical with the brook of the willows here mentioned. There is, however, some doubt about the correct translation of the name, arising from its similarity to the “brook of the wilderness” in Amos 6:14 (here pl. ‘ǎrâbîm, there sing. ‘ǎrâbâh. Cf. 2 Kings 14:25 “sea of the ‘ǎrâbâh”). Some regard the word here as an irregular pl. of that used by Amos, and render “brook of the wastes.” But the two brooks are not necessarily identical, and even if they are, the translation “willows” (or rather, “poplars”) is perhaps to be preferred. Cf. ch. Isaiah 44:4; Psalm 137:2, &c., for the name of the tree.
the abundance] is lit. “surplus.” that which they have laid up is in Heb. a single word, meaning something entrusted for safe keeping. Instead of carry away to read carry over.
For the cry is gone round about the borders of Moab; the howling thereof unto Eglaim, and the howling thereof unto Beerelim.8. Summing up the effect of the previous description and explaining the forsaking of the land.
the cry (of destruction, Isaiah 15:5) is gone round …] We should expect the two places in the second half of the verse to mark the extreme limits of the country—the “Dan and Beersheba” of Moab. Eglaim is probably the village Αἰγαλείμ mentioned by Eusebius as lying 8 Roman miles S. of Rabba. Beer-elim (“well of the mighty ones”?) is unknown, but has been plausibly identified with the “well” (Bě’çr) of Numbers 21:16-18, in northern Moab.
For the waters of Dimon shall be full of blood: for I will bring more upon Dimon, lions upon him that escapeth of Moab, and upon the remnant of the land.9. the waters of Dimon] Dimon is generally supposed to be another form of Dibon, chosen for the sake of an alliteration with the word for “blood” (dâm). The conjecture may be taken for what it is worth; it has the authority of Jerome, who says, “usque hodie indifferenter et Dimon et Dibon hoc oppidulum dicitur,” and we know of no other place Dimon.
I will bring more (lit. “additional [evils]”) upon Dimon] This is the first strictly prophetic utterance in the passage; the speaker is Jehovah.
lions upon … Moab] Better: upon the fugitives of Moab (sc. I will bring) a lion. The “lion” is undoubtedly a symbol for a terrible conqueror, though it is difficult to say who is meant. It can hardly be Jeroboam II., who has already done his worst, and it is still less likely that Judah is meant. The peculiar prophetic form of the latter part of the verse has suggested to some commentators that it may have been inserted by Isaiah in the original oracle. In that case the “lion” would almost of necessity denote the Assyrians.