Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: Drunk on Rage

How do you console people who have been vanquished?

Babylonians besiege Jerusalem, 10th-cent. French ms.

This week Jews read the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy, accompanied by the fourth “haftarah of consolation”1 from second Isaiah (chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah, a collection of prophecies given after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.).

This week’s haftarah of consolation opens with God saying:

I, I am the one who comforts you.

            Who are you that you fear a mortal, who must die,

                        A human, who is like grass?

And you forget God, your maker,

            Who stretches out the heavens and establishes the earth!

And you are constantly terrified all day

            By the rage2 of the oppressor, as he prepares ruin.

But [after that] where is the rage of the oppressor? (Isaiah 51:12-13)

Nebuchadnezzar II with ziggurat, Babylonian stele, 6th cent. BCE

The oppressor of the Judahites was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who conquered Judah and exiled its leading citizens to Babylon. Yet the king and his generals did not necessarily feel anger toward the people of Judah; their strategic decisions for expanding the Babylonian Empire were probably cold-blooded. However, when an army is seizing one’s country through battles and sieges, it feels like a violent attack of rage.

By pointing out that all humans die, God encourages the Judahites to believe that even the Babylonian Empire and its apparent rage will pass away.

After a few verses reminding the exiles from Judah that God has sheltered them in the past and has the power to do it again, God says:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage;

The chalice cup of the tareilah

            You drank to the dregs. (Isaiah 51:17)

tareilah (תַרְעֵלָה) staggering, reeling, shaking uncontrollably.

Here the haftarah refers to the rage of God. Often the Hebrew Bible depicts God as smiting people in fury. After all, a lot of people are killed by war, disease, and famine; and according to the bible, God controls all those things. No wonder the bible paints God as a violent and abusive father with no anger management skills. When God has a fit of rage, the people must drink whatever God gives them. Naturally they feel terrified.

A drinking cup of the Achaemenids, who took Babylon in 539 BCE

In this week’s haftarah, the “cup of rage” might also refer to the answering rage of the Judahites, as they react to the apparent rage God by feeling their own anger at a God that has no compassion for them.

The Judahites drink the cup of rage, down to the dregs. And their own fear and rage incapacitate them. Both their bodies and their minds are tareilah, reeling and quivering, out of control.

Tareilah is a rare word in the Hebrew Bible; outside of this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah, it appears only in Psalm 60, in which the poet reminds God:

You made your people experience hardship,

          You made them drink the wine of tareilah! (Psalm 60:5)

A word related to tareilah appears in the book of Zechariah, when God says:

“Hey! I made Jerusalem a bowl of ra-al for the peoples all around, and [the ra-al] will also be for Judah, because of the siege on Jerusalem. … Her burden will certainly damage all the nations of the earth, and they will gather against her. On that day,” said God, “I will strike every horse with confusion and its rider with madness …” (Zechariah 12:2-4)

ra-al (רַעַל) = staggering, quivering; poison. (From the same root as tareilah. It occurs only two more times in the bible.3)

The book of Zechariah was written after the Babylonians were defeated by the Achaemenid Persians, but before any of the exiled Judahites returned to Jerusalem to take advantage of the Persian policy of limited self-government for provinces.4 Zechariah claims that everyone in the lands surrounding Judah has been going mad since the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He warns that any further war against Judah will turn into chaos.

Before Zechariah, Jeremiah delivered a similar prophecy while the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem:

The Land of Cockaigne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

Thus said God, the God of Israel, to me: “Take the cup of the wine of rage from my hand, and make all the nations to which I am sending you drink it! … And you shall say to them: “Thus said God of Hosts, God of Israel: Drink and get drunk and vomit and fall down! And you will not rise up, because of the edge of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:15, 17)

In Psalm 60, Zechariah, and Jeremiah, people are completely helpless once they drink the cup of rage. Overwhelmed by their fear of God’s rage, and perhaps by their own answering rage, they stagger and shake, reel, vomit, and fall down.

Yet in Isaiah 51:17, God urges the people who have drunk the cup of rage:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage!”

How can they “wake up” from their tareilah?

The bible often refers to Jerusalem as a woman. But if she is a mother, she has no children who can help her get up.

There are none carefully leading [Jerusalem],

            Out of all the children she bore.

And there are none holding her hand

            Out of all the children she brought up. (Isaiah 51:18)

Soon we learn why Jerusalem has no “children” to help her up and lead her. At the end of the siege, everyone in the city who is not rounded up and marched off to Babylon lies faint with starvation, wounded by Babylonian weapons, or dead.

Your children have fainted;

            They lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net,

Glutted with the rage of God,

            The rebuke of your God. (Isaiah 51:20)

In other words, all the people of Jerusalem are dead or incapacitated in some way, and therefore they cannot help one another to wake and rise up. In this verse the rage of God is the “rebuke” God delivers through the Babylonians in order to pay back the Judahites for worshiping other gods and failing to follow God’s ethical rules.

Does the punishment (death, incapacitation, and tareilah) fit the crime (cheating on God and cheating the poor)? Second Isaiah never questions it.

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine:

Thus says your lord, God,

            Your God who conducts a lawsuit for [God’s] people:

“Hey! I have taken from your hand

            The cup of the tareilah,

            The chalice cup of my rage.

You will not drink from it again!” (Isaiah 51:21-22)

That is the ultimate consolation: that the period of incapacitation is over, and it will not return.

*

How do you comfort people who are being vanquished—by external enemies, or by enemies in their minds?

This week’s haftarah considers the case of people vanquished by enemies from outside. The unrelenting battles and sieges shatter them—both physically, through wounds and hunger, and mentally, through fear and answering rage over their plight. Thus the Judahites are also vanquished by enemies from within, emotionally overwhelmed until they are driven to madness, like the horse riders in Jeremiah.

When I reread the fourth haftarah of consolation this year, I thought of my mother, who has been suffering from tareilah for years now. A lifelong teetotaler, in old age she reels around because her balance is so poor. She often falls, and I keep expecting her to be vanquished by physical incapacitation. Yet after each hospitalization except the last she healed enough to stagger to her feet and use her walker. For all I know, she will rise up again at age 93.

My mother also staggers mentally, due to early-stage dementia. Sometimes her absence of short-term memory and subsequent confusion make her panic. She knows something is terribly wrong but she does not know what it is. Then in is my job as her daughter to hold her hand and “carefully lead her” by telling her the sad facts of her situation yet again. She calms down, so I must be comforting her, temporarily.

I hate to see my mother lie helplessly in bed “like an antelope in a net”. But I cannot take the cup of rage, or fear, away from her.

A people may live for hundreds of generations. But an individual human being is indeed “a mortal who must die”, like grass. Someday every one of us will be vanquished by incapacitation, then death.

If I said, like second Isaiah:

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine—

I could not promise an end to tareilah. I could only add:

“I came back to hold your hand. Look at the flowers I brought you. Look out the window at the sky and the green trees. Wait.”

  1. We are in the middle of the seven-week period during which Jews read a “haftarah of consolation” from second Isaiah each week.
  2. Throughout this essay I translate the nouns chamah (חֲמַה) and chamat (חֲמַת) as “rage”. Other translations include “wrath” and “fury”.
  3. The two other occurrences of the root ra-al are hare-alu (הָרְעָלוּ), “they were shaken”, in Nahum 2:4; and hare-alot (הָרְעָלוֹת), which appears in a list of ornaments women wore in Psalm 60:5.
  4. King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, quickly captured Babylon and its empire in 539 B.C.E.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s