Isaiah 17 – The Burden of Damascus & Damascus

Wow, now I understand, we aren’t supposed to be happy when bad things happen to them, even if they deserve it, or if we think they deserve it, we still shouldn’t be happy about it.  You and Isaiah were both crying because You had to punish them for their own good (Eze 33:11; Matt 5:29-30; 2 Pet 3:9).

1 The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.

Baal
Baal properly Baʿal, was a title and honorific meaning “owner,” “lord” in the Northwest Semitic languages spoken in the Levant during antiquity. From its use among people, it came to be applied to gods. Scholars previously associated the theonym with solar cults and with a variety of unrelated patron deities, but inscriptions have shown that the name Baʿal was particularly associated with the storm and fertility god Hadad and his local manifestations.

The Hebrew Bible, compiled and curated over a span of centuries, includes generic use of the term in reference to various Levantine deities, and finally pointed application towards Hadad, who was decried as a false god. That use was taken over into Christianity and Islam, sometimes under the opprobrious form Beelzebub in demonology.

“Damascus” – the capital of Aram (Syria), located northeast of mount Hermon on strategic trade routes between Mesopotamia, Egypt and Arabia.  Since the time of David the Arameans of Damascus were frequent enemies of Israel (see 2 Sam 8:5; 1 Kgs 22:31).

2 The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.

“Aroer” – about 14 miles east of the Dead Sea on the Arnon River.  It marked the southern boundary of Aram’s sphere of control (see 2 Kgs 10:32-33).

3 The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Syria: they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel, saith the LORD of hosts.

“Ephraim” – the northern kingdom is mentioned here because of its alliance with Damascus against Assyria.

“Kingdom” – in 732 B.C. Tiglath-pileser III captured Damascus and made it an Assyrian province.  Man of the cities of Israel were also captured (see note on 9:1).

4 And in that day it shall come to pass, that the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean.

17:4-11 – the prophet shifts from Damascus to Israel (likely the northern kingdom) – a shift prepared for at the end of v 3.  This association of judgment on Damascus and Israel reflects the same linkage as that in chapter 7.

5 And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim.

“Reapeth the ears” – harvest can dignify a time of judgment (see Joel 3:13).

“Valley of Rephaim” – a fertile area southwest of Jerusalem (Josh 15:8) and the scene of Philistine raids (1 Chr 14:9).

Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof, saith the LORD God of Israel.

7 At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.

8 And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images.

“Altars” – probably altars for Baal (cf 1 Kgs 16:32).

“Groves” – Lit “Asherim” (“sacred trees”), wooden symbols of the goddess Asherah.

“Images” – or “incense altars,” associated with high places in Lev 26:30 and with altars for Baal in 2 Chr 34:4).

9  In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, which they left because of the children of Israel: and there shall be desolation.

Tiglath-pileser III, an alabaster bas-relief from the king’s central palace at Nimrud, Mesopotamia.
Tiglath-Pileser III, who introduced advanced civil, military, and political systems into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

TiglathᐨPileser III seized the Assyrian throne during a civil war and killed the royal family. He made sweeping changes to the Assyrian government, considerably improving its efficiency and security. He created Assyria’s first professional standing army.

Tiglath-Pileser III subjugated much of the Near East region; to the south, his fellow Mesopotamians in Babylonia and Chaldea, and further south still, the Arabs, Magan, Meluhha, and Dilmunites of the Arabian Peninsula. In the south west, Israel, Judah, Philistia, Samarra, Moab, Edom, the Suteans and Nabatea fell. To the north, Urartu, Armenia and Scythia in the Caucasus Mountains, Cimmeria by the Black Sea, and Nairi were subjugated, and in the north west much of eastern and south western Asia Minor, including the Hittites, Phrygia, Cilicia, Commagene, Tabal, Corduene and Caria. In the west, the Greeks of Cyprus and Aram (modern Syria), and the Mediterranean City States of Phoenicia/Caanan were subjugated. To the east he subjugated Persia, Media, Gutium, Mannea, Cissia and Elam, and later in his reign, Tiglath-Pileser III was crowned king in Babylonia.

Tiglath-Pileser III discouraged revolts against Assyrian rule with the use of forced deportations of thousands of people all over the empire. He is one of the most successful military commanders in world history, conquering most of the world known to the Assyrians before his death.

“They” – perhaps the Canaanites whose religious practices are referred to in v 8.

10 Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips:

17:10-11 – moves from speaking about Israel in v 9 to speaking to Israel in vv 10-11.  Israel is the nation that has “forgotten” their God and “not been mindful” of the Lord.

“The rock” – see 26:4, 30:29, 44:8; Deut 32:4, 15, 18; Ps 19:14.

Pleasant plants…strange slips” – for Israel as a vineyard, cf 5:7, 18:5, 37:30-31.  The planting of “strange slips” (imported vines) probably refers to how Israel has been corrupted as God’s vineyard through the worship of foreign gods.

11 In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow.

“Grief and…desperate sorrow” – brought by the Assyrian invasions.

12  Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters!

17:12-14 – the same sequence of a powerful invader that is quickly cut down occurs in 10:28-34.  Both passages may refer to Sennacherib’s invasion of 701 B.C. (see 37:36-37).  But it is more likely that the prophet here speaks more generally if Israel’s experience of the world of nations as a perpetual threat to her existence.

“Noise of the seats…rushing of nations” – see Ps 46:3, 5, which states that Zion is secure even as the seas “roar” and the nations “rage.”  The churning sea represents the forces of evil and chaos that oppose God and his people.  The underlying promise here is that the Lord has chosen Zion as his dwelling place (Ps 132:13) and will protect the city from its enemies.  Assyria is also called “the waters of the river, strong and many” in 8:7.

3 The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but God shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.

“Chaff—rolling thing” – symbolic of the enemy also in 29:5, 41:15-16; Ps 83:13.  The whirlwind of God’s judgment will blow away the enemy armies like chaff and dust.

14 And behold at evening tide trouble; and before the morning he is not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.

Damascus

Damascus was, and still is, the capital city of Syria.  As is the case today, ancient Damascus was often set against ancient Israel.

Continuous occupation of Damascus since antiquity makes excavation of ancient remains there virtually impossible.  Nevertheless Assyrian, Syrian and Egyptian sources all shed light on the Biblical data. 

The city’s location along the fertile Barada River at the crossroads of major trade routes (the Via Maris and the King’s Highway) ensured continued prosperity.  Damascus is mentioned in a number of ancient writings.

In a text at the temple of Amon at Karnak, for example, Thurmose III of Egypt claims to have forced Damascus to submit to him (c 1482 B.C.).  Damascus was the dominant city of Aram (Syria) from the 11th century B.C> to its annexation by Assyria in 732 B.C.

The city and its kings had numerous dealings with the kings of Israel.

David subjugated the Aramean kingdom of Syria, but King Rezin of Damascus (955-925 B.C.) regained independence during Solomon’s reign.

Ben-Hadad I  (900-860 B.C.) entered an alliance with Asa of Judah to attack Baasha of Israel (1 Kgs 15:16-22), and Ben-hadad II (860-843) began an expansion that took most of Israel’s Transjordanian territories.  This project was interrupted in 853 B.C. when Damascus, Israel and other nations combined to check Assyrian expansion under Shalmaneser III at the Battle of Qarqar.

Asherah
Asherah, in ancient Semitic religion, is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. She appears in Akkadian writings by the name of Ašratu(m), and in Hittite as Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s). Asherah is generally considered identical with the Ugaritic goddess ʼAṯirat.
Signifiance and roles.

Asherah is identified as the queen consort of the Sumerian god Anu, and Ugaritic El, the oldest deities of their respective pantheons, as well as Yahweh, the god of Israel and Judah. This role gave her a similarly high rank in the Ugaritic pantheon. Despite her association with Yahweh in extra-biblical sources, Deuteronomy 12 has Yahweh commanding the destruction of her shrines so as to maintain purity of his worship.

The name Dione, which like ‘Elat means “Goddess”, is clearly associated with Asherah in the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon, because the same common epithet (‘Elat) of “the Goddess par excellence” was used to describe her at Ugarit. The Book of Jeremiah, written circa 628 BC, possibly refers to Asherah when it uses the title “Queen of Heaven”in Jeremiah 7:16-18 and Jeremiah 44:17-19, 25.

In Ugaritic texts
Sources from before 1200 BC almost always credit Athirat with her full title rabat ʾAṯirat yammi, “Lady Athirat of the Sea” or as more fully translated “she who treads on the sea”. This occurs 12 times in the Baʿal Epic alone. The name is understood by various translators and commentators to be from the Ugaritic root ʾaṯr “stride”, cognate with the Hebrew root ʾšr, of the same meaning. There she appears to champion Yam, god of the sea, in his struggle with Ba’al.

Her other main divine epithet was qaniyatu ʾilhm which may be translated as “the creatrix of the Gods (Elohim)”. In those texts, Athirat is the consort of the god; there is one reference to the 70 sons of Athirat, presumably the same as the 70 sons of El.

She is also called Elat, “Goddess”, the feminine form of El (compare Allat) and Qodesh, “holiness”. Athirat in Akkadian texts appears as Ashratum (or, Antu), the wife of Anu, the God of Heaven. In contrast, ʿAshtart is believed to be linked to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar who is sometimes portrayed as the daughter of Anu while in Ugaritic myth, ʿAshtart is one of the daughters of El, the West Semitic counterpart of Anu.

Among the Hittites this goddess appears as Asherdu(s) or Asertu(s), the consort of Elkunirsa (“El the Creator of Earth”) and mother of either 77 or 88 sons. Among the Amarna letters a King of the Amorites is named Abdi-Ashirta, “Servant of Asherah”.

Under Hazel (843-796 B.C.) Syria’s expansion into Israel and Judah continued, despite losses Damascus suffered against Assyria.

Ben-Hadad III (796-770 B.C.) was successful against Israel early in his reign and later headed a coalition against Zakur, king of Hamath.  Under Jeroboam II Israel recorded territory previously lost to Damascus.

Rezin (750-732 B.C.) and Pekah of Israel tried to force Ahaz of Judah to join and anti-Assyrian coalition, but Ahaz paid Tiglath-Pileser III to attack Damascus, resulting in its annexation into Assyria and in the death of Rezin.

Damascus continue as an influential provincial city under Assyria, Babylon Persia, Greece and Rome.  It was a major cosmopolitan center during the New Testament era, when it was home to a large Jewish community.

Thus, Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) traveled there searching for early Christians.  “Straight Street” of Acts 9:11 may have been a major thoroughfare from the Roman period called in Latin the cardo maximus.