The Isaiah Project: Chapter 23, or, The Sacred Whore
Here is one of my favorite chapters, and a reflection on its ever-shocking implications. Recordings, as always, can be purchased here.
The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 23
1. Tyre's Burden:
Wail, ships from Tarshish. It’s emptied: no entry, no access, no homes. From Kittim’s land it’s revealed to them.
2. Stand hushed, you island settlers, you, replenished by tradesmen from Sidon who pass through on the ocean —
3. And on many waters — that seed of the Dark Stream, the river-harvest, is her revenue — the commerce of the nations.
4. Hang your head in shame, Sidon: the ocean speaks; the ocean’s might speaks, and it says, ‘I suffered no labour pains; I gave no birth; I chose no growing boys to nourish, no maidens to raise.
5. When news comes to Egypt, the news about Tyre will torment them.
6. Cross over to Tarshish and wail, you island settlers.
7. Is this your joy, this ancient city from ancient days? Her feet took her far; she wandered.
8. Who laid this plot against Tyre, that crown city, whose tradesmen are princes — whose salesmen are revered in their majesty on Earth?
9. God of Legions. He laid the plot: to disfigure all the beauty of pride; to belittle the majesty of those revered on earth.
10. Pass across your land like the Nile, daughter of Tarshish: its girdle is no more.
11. His hand reaches across the ocean; he sets kingdoms quaking: God commands a legion against Canaan, to topple her strongholds.
12. And he said, ‘you won’t rejoice anymore. You violated maiden, Sidon’s daughter — get up. Pass over to Kittim: even there, no rest for you.
13. Look. Chaldean land. This is the nation that wasn’t, when Assyria founded it for the wildlings, erected its towers, leveled its peaks, laid waste to it.
14. Wail, ships from Tarshish: your stronghold is ravaged.
15. And it happens On That Day: Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, as many days as a single king’s reign. And at the end of seventy years there will be a song in Tyre like a whore’s song.
16. Strum your strings, circle the city, you forgotten whore. Sing well and play long, so you’ll be remembered.
17. It happens at the end of seventy years: God will remember Tyre, and she’ll go where she gets paid. She’ll whore hreself out to all the world’s kingdoms, right on the face of the earth.
18. But her trade and her payment will be sanctity for God: it won’t be hoarded and it won’t be amassed. Her payment will be for those who live with eyes facing God — so they’ll have clothes that last and enough to eat.
North of ancient Israel lay the region of Phonecia and the mystery of the sea. On the coastline which today belongs to Lebanon, the Phonecians built a network of colonies and trading outposts between which their ships darted with unparalleled speed. From the island of Cyprus to the shores of Lybia and Egypt, Phonecian sailing routes spiderwebbed across the Mediterranean for generations. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Jews of antiquity imagined Phonecia as an exotic wonderland of luxury and danger.
The city of Sidon and its colony, Tyre, were two opulent Phonecian outposts of which Israel was at once enamored and wary. The great king Solomon, son of David, who ruled Jerusalem in the 900s BC, entered into an intimate alliance with Hiram, king of Tyre and Sidon. Hiram had been on good terms with David, and he gave Solomon a lavish gift of cedar and juniper wood to help build Jerusalem's temple (see 1 Kings 5). According to some Phonecian historians,* Hiram's daughter was one of the many 'foreign women' whom Solomon married (see 1 Kings 11). Solomon's attraction to the customs and people of non-Jewish or 'gentile' nations facilitated lucrative political alliances, but it also threatened the racial and religious purity of God's chosen family.
Chapter 23 closes out the bleakest part of Isaiah's vision -- his prophecy of doom for Jews and gentiles alike. In the prophet's view, Jerusalem has given up its reliance on the one true God and thus forfeited its unique right to divine protection. It will now be trampled underfoot by Babylon along with Assyria (which ruled Tyre and Sidon in Isaiah's day) and the surrounding principalities.
This tragedy will prove once and for all that no one, not even God's chosen people, can remain faithful and righteous by their own efforts. And thus all peoples, Jewish and gentile, will be called to acknowledge their need of mercy and reach out to God for forgiveness. As clients of Assyria, Tyre and Sidon are now caught up in this destruction -- 'emptied,' 'belittled,' and 'disfigured' as the ravages of war obliterate their former glory (verses 1 and 9). These Phonecian cities will at last be called, along with the Jews, to answer the only question which matters anymore: will they turn to God for healing?
Isaiah refrains from answering until the very end of the chapter. Right up to verse 17, he compares Tyre to a 'whore' wandering desperately through abandoned streets -- singing mournful songs of desperation for food and money, searching for anyone to buy what she's selling. It looks like a picture of utter degradation: this once proud city is now like a destitute woman who must sell her body to survive, living at the mercy of 'all the world's kingdoms,' begging for support and food from mightier powers like Babylon.
But then in verse 18, the final verse, comes the twist: the whore will at last earn her wages, and her wages will be 'sanctity . . . for those who live with eyes facing God.' In her despair, perhaps as a last resort, Tyre or some of her people will reach out for grace on the off-chance that the God whom they once denied will take them into his care. Long ago it looked as though that God was meant only for the Jews, but now Jerusalem is fallen and everyone, from every race, is in the same position of total need. It is in this devastated emptiness, this last-ditch cry for help, that Tyre and Sidon will find themselves -- against all odds -- saved.
Seven centuries after Isaiah, a man was born into the line of King David. He performed supernatural healings and commanded adoration; he spoke words of heartbreaking mercy and claimed to be the son of Israel's God. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died a Jew during a time when suspicion of foreigners had never been stronger in Jerusalem. Rightly distrustful of the Roman empire's corrupt officials, and still smarting from the ancestral memory of Babylonian exile, the religious leaders of Israel's great temple were ferociously protective of their customs against all dilution. Foreigners, eunuchs, prostitutes -- anyone who seemed impure was a threat.
It was as a native son of this same Israel, raised in this cultural climate of wounded mistrust, that Jesus dared to visit Tyre and Sidon. While he was resting there, a local woman came to him with an ailing daughter, asking for healing. Begging for it, in fact: she compared her position to that of a dog at its master's table, craving fallen scraps. This outsider, this downtrodden woman, cried out for an improbable mercy that was not her birthright and, through acknowledging her desperation, she received it (Mark 7:24-30).
In this moment, humanity beheld the transgressive grace that was prefigured in Isaiah's vision of Tyre. Tyre the whore, Tyre the fallen nation, Tyre the foreign land, came weeping in humility for mercy and was healed. Later on, Jesus claimed that Tyre and Sidon would actually find it easier to receive him than the guarded and ungenerous towns of Israel -- perhaps because, not being assured of God's acceptance, the Phonecian region was more sensitive to its need for salvation (see Luke 10).
Christians would do well to remember this, I think: the more satisfied we are with our own piety, the more likely we are to miss or even reject the holiest among us. It was repentance and bereavement, not purity or rectitude, that got Christ's attention -- it was to prostitutes and to Tyre that he gave himself. The call girl whom you pass crying on the street, the crack addict who moans in quiet agony and self-loathing, may, appallingly, be nearer to sincere prayer than you or I in our complacent recitations on Sunday morning. But if we see ourselves in those who seem to us most broken -- if we meet them with solidarity rather than condescension -- then the hand that healed Tyre will indeed cleanse us, even us, of our sin.
* These Phonecian historians are qutoed by the 2nd-century AD church father Tatian (Contra Graecos 37).