This reflection is part of the ongoing Forest Hills Haftorah Series. The rest of the content can be found here: .

Scribes in the ancient world had an unfair advantage; Given that the skill they honed was writing, they could use their very craft to spread propaganda, speaking of how meritorious, or how much more important, scribal work was than any other profession.

Let's take a look at one example:

There but for the grace of God

(כג) חכמת סופר תרבה חכמה, וחסר עסק הוא יתחכם.

(כד) מה יתחכם תומך מלמד, ומתפאר בחתנית מסעיר.

(כה) אלוף ינהג ישובב לשדד בשור, ושעיותיו עם בני בקר.

(כו) ושקידתו לכלות מרבק, לב ישית לשדד בתלמים.

(כז) אף עשה חרש וחשב, אשר לילה כיום יגיע.


The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity for leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise.


When it comes to the smith, he sits by the anvil, intent on his iron-work;

The breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace;

The sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object.


These professions do not give the people council, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.

They do not sit in the judge's seat, nor do they understand the decisions of the courts.

The above passage comes from what might be one of the most important works of ethics that we have from the ancient Judeans, authored by a scribe named Yeshua ben Sirah of Jerusalem in the early 2nd century BCE. It's a work that you might see referred to as the Wisdom of Ben Sirah, or the Book of Sirah, or maybe Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, another work of (similar) philosophical musings which is included in the TaNaKh-collection).

Note what Ben Sirah does here; He praises the profession of the scribe as being uniquely a profession that allows for leisure, and it is only with leisure that one can pursue wisdom.

In addition to this advantage of the scribe, Ben Sirah then goes through a number of other professions and shows that they result in utter misery. In the above example of the smith, his flesh is burned, his eyes and ears weakened. He also has what to say about farmers, jewelers and potters.

While Ben Sirah was certainly wise, he was not the first scribe to come up with the idea of using his skills to celebrate his own field. In fact, the entirety of this poem might be a play on a much more ancient work; the Satire of the Trades.

What's most interesting, in my opinion, about the Satire of the Trades is that there's an argument to be made that this work is the oldest known written work of satire that humankind possesses, going back to the Ancient Egyptians of the early second millenium BCE; And Ben Sirah was probably familiar with it!!!

Here is how it begins:

1. The beginning of the teaching which the man of Tjel named Dua-Khety made for his son named Pepy, while he sailed southwards to the Residence to place him in the school of writings among the children of the magistrates, the most eminent men of the Residence.

2. Thereupon he spoke to him:

"Since I have seen those who have been beaten, it is to writings that you must set your mind. See for yourself, it saves one from work.

Behold! There is nothing that surpasses writings! They are like a boat upon the water. Read then at the end of the Book of Kemyet and you will find this statement in it saying: As for a scribe in any office in the Residence, he will not suffer want in it."

We have here a man named Dua-Khety, who is taking his son to Scribe-School. And as he does, he makes it a point to tell his son how wonderful a profession it is! Note that like Ben Sirah above, Dua-Khety says that one of the advantages of the Scribe is the opportunity for leisure.

What happens next is just great, and this, too, is something that Ben Sirah mimicked; Dou-Khety then launches into a 20-line satire, poking fun at all the other professions that their neighbors and friends are engaged in. It's a satire that is so biting that I'd bet if someone found this text in ancient Egypt as they were about to look for a job, they would put their very life on the line in order to ensure they end up a scribe rather than something else!

I'll share with you a few of the lines:

I do not see a sculptor on a mission

or a goldsmith on the task of being despatched (?)

but I see the coppersmith at his toil

at the mouth of his furnace

his fingers like crocodile skin

his stench worse than fish eggs

Yuck - fish-egg stench. That's what you had to put up with, according to Dou-Khety, if you went into goldsmithing.

Here's how he feels about barbers:

The barber shaves into the end of the evening

continually at the call, continually on his elbow,

pushing himself continually from street to street

looking for people to shave.

He does violence to his arms to fill his belly,

like bees that eat at their toil.

I can't say I fully understand the "bees" reference, but interesting that the barbers in ancient Egypt had to go wandering around town yelling as they sought out people who needed a shave.

Like Ben Sirah, over a thousand years later Dou-Khety will go through profession after profession, showing his son how he would be in for the most miserable life had he been fated to do anything other than scribing.

below: Dou-Khety and Pepi on the Nile, en route to Scribe-School!

Satire therefore goes a long, long way back. Of course, it very well might even go back farther, but this is the earliest we have.

If you can recall, we once spoke about how some of the works we have from the Israelites were reminiscent of Egyptian literature. Our example was the Song of Songs calling to mind Egyptian love poems. (See our learning for Holy Matrimony,

The Israelites were quite aware of, and admired some of what the Egyptians had been producing since before any Israelites ever entered the scene. It should therefore not be surprising that Ben Sirah would follow closely in the footsteps of Dou-Khety, when Dou-Khety would be a major favorite of scribes for copying exercises for Egytians for hundreds of years!

Nor should it be surprising that satire in general was a huge favorite of some of the writers of the works in the TaNaKh.

One of my favorite examples comes from the prayer-poem of Psalm 115.

Where is their elohim????

(ב) לָ֭מָּה יֹאמְר֣וּ הַגּוֹיִ֑ם אַיֵּה־נָ֝֗א אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃ (ג) וֵֽאלֹהֵ֥ינוּ בַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כֹּ֭ל אֲשֶׁר־חָפֵ֣ץ עָשָֽׂה׃ (ד) עֲ‍ֽ֭צַבֵּיהֶם כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֑ב מַ֝עֲשֵׂ֗ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָֽם׃ (ה) פֶּֽה־לָ֭הֶם וְלֹ֣א יְדַבֵּ֑רוּ עֵינַ֥יִם לָ֝הֶ֗ם וְלֹ֣א יִרְאֽוּ׃ (ו) אָזְנַ֣יִם לָ֭הֶם וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמָ֑עוּ אַ֥ף לָ֝הֶ֗ם וְלֹ֣א יְרִיחֽוּן׃ (ז) יְדֵיהֶ֤ם ׀ וְלֹ֬א יְמִישׁ֗וּן רַ֭גְלֵיהֶם וְלֹ֣א יְהַלֵּ֑כוּ לֹֽא־יֶ֝הְגּ֗וּ בִּגְרוֹנָֽם׃ (ח) כְּ֭מוֹהֶם יִהְי֣וּ עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם כֹּ֭ל אֲשֶׁר־בֹּטֵ֣חַ בָּהֶֽם׃


Let the nations not say, “Where, now, is their elohim?when our elohim is in heaven! And ALL that He wills, He accomplishes!

While their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

  • Mouths, they have - but cannot speak.
  • Eyes, they have - but cannot see.
  • Ears, they have - but cannot hear.
  • Noses, they have - but cannot smell.
  • Hands, but cannot touch; Feet, but cannot walk.

They can make no sound in their throats. Those who fashion them, all who trust in them, shall become just like them.

This is a great poem, and is actually quite hilarious, in that we see from this that both the Israelites as well as their non-Israelite neighbors viewed each others' faith as as complete nonsense.

The "Nations," i.e., non-Israel, would look at Israel's worship practices and not see an idol - i.e., a god - anywhere in sight. And so they would mock! Where is your god??? Is he hiding? Has he gone to the bathroom? Has he fallen asleep somewhere?

While from the Israelite's perspective, their neighbor's practice was equally hilarious. Do you really worship this silver and gold, this work of your own hands? Figures whose eyes don't see, and ears can't hear???

Note how our poet walks us through this whole dialogue. Though of course, in this version it is Israel who gets the last word.

The whole irony that our poet seems to want to highlight is that the elohim of Israel, who cannot be seen nor found in the world, has complete mastery of everything, such that all he wills, he accomplishes. Which is of course stark contrast to the idols, who can be seen, and yet are beyond worthless.

If you think the above example is good, wait til you see what the Herald of Zion has to say; and what he does is brilliant! He invites us to see the world from the eyes of the Makers-of-the-Gods.

Here is the passage in full; Try to catch onto all of his humor; He doesn't hold back, but is sometimes more subtle than others.

the Makers-of-the-Gods

(יג) חָרַ֣שׁ עֵצִים֮ נָ֣טָה קָו֒ יְתָאֲרֵ֣הוּ בַשֶּׂ֔רֶד יַעֲשֵׂ֙הוּ֙ בַּמַּקְצֻע֔וֹת וּבַמְּחוּגָ֖ה יְתָאֳרֵ֑הוּ וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֙הוּ֙ כְּתַבְנִ֣ית אִ֔ישׁ כְּתִפְאֶ֥רֶת אָדָ֖ם לָשֶׁ֥בֶת בָּֽיִת׃ (יד) לִכְרָת־ל֣וֹ אֲרָזִ֔ים וַיִּקַּ֤ח תִּרְזָה֙ וְאַלּ֔וֹן וַיְאַמֶּץ־ל֖וֹ בַּעֲצֵי־יָ֑עַר נָטַ֥ע אֹ֖רֶן וְגֶ֥שֶׁם יְגַדֵּֽל׃ (טו) וְהָיָ֤ה לְאָדָם֙ לְבָעֵ֔ר וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֵהֶם֙ וַיָּ֔חָם אַף־יַשִּׂ֖יק וְאָ֣פָה לָ֑חֶם אַף־יִפְעַל־אֵל֙ וַיִּשְׁתָּ֔חוּ עָשָׂ֥הוּ פֶ֖סֶל וַיִּסְגָּד־לָֽמוֹ׃ (טז) חֶצְיוֹ֙ שָׂרַ֣ף בְּמוֹ־אֵ֔שׁ עַל־חֶצְיוֹ֙ בָּשָׂ֣ר יֹאכֵ֔ל יִצְלֶ֥ה צָלִ֖י וְיִשְׂבָּ֑ע אַף־יָחֹם֙ וְיֹאמַ֣ר הֶאָ֔ח חַמּוֹתִ֖י רָאִ֥יתִי אֽוּר׃ (יז) וּשְׁאֵ֣רִית֔וֹ לְאֵ֥ל עָשָׂ֖ה לְפִסְל֑וֹ יסגוד־[יִסְגָּד־] ל֤וֹ וְיִשְׁתַּ֙חוּ֙ וְיִתְפַּלֵּ֣ל אֵלָ֔יו וְיֹאמַר֙ הַצִּילֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י אֵלִ֖י אָֽתָּה׃ (יח) לֹ֥א יָדְע֖וּ וְלֹ֣א יָבִ֑ינוּ כִּ֣י טַ֤ח מֵֽרְאוֹת֙ עֵֽינֵיהֶ֔ם מֵהַשְׂכִּ֖יל לִבֹּתָֽם׃ (יט) וְלֹא־יָשִׁ֣יב אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ וְלֹ֨א דַ֥עַת וְלֹֽא־תְבוּנָה֮ לֵאמֹר֒ חֶצְי֞וֹ שָׂרַ֣פְתִּי בְמוֹ־אֵ֗שׁ וְ֠אַף אָפִ֤יתִי עַל־גֶּחָלָיו֙ לֶ֔חֶם אֶצְלֶ֥ה בָשָׂ֖ר וְאֹכֵ֑ל וְיִתְרוֹ֙ לְתוֹעֵבָ֣ה אֶעֱשֶׂ֔ה לְב֥וּל עֵ֖ץ אֶסְגּֽוֹד׃ (כ) רֹעֶ֣ה אֵ֔פֶר לֵ֥ב הוּתַ֖ל הִטָּ֑הוּ וְלֹֽא־יַצִּ֤יל אֶת־נַפְשׁוֹ֙ וְלֹ֣א יֹאמַ֔ר הֲל֥וֹא שֶׁ֖קֶר בִּימִינִֽי׃ (ס)

(13) The craftsman in wood measures with a line And marks out a shape with a stylus; He forms it with scraping tools, Marking it out with a compass. He gives it a human form, The beauty of a man, to dwell in a shrine.

(14) For his use he cuts down cedars; He chooses plane trees and oaks. He sets aside trees of the forest; Or plants firs, and the rain makes them grow. (15) All this serves man for fuel: He takes some to warm himself, And he builds a fire and bakes bread. He also makes a god of it and worships it, Fashions an idol and bows down to it!

(16) Part of it he burns in a fire: On that part he roasts meat, He eats the roast and is sated; He also warms himself and cries, “Ah, I am warm! I can feel the heat!”

(17) Of the rest he makes a god—his own carving! He bows down to it, worships it; He prays to it and cries, “Save me, for you are my el!”

(18) They have no wit or judgment: Their eyes are besmeared, and they see not; Their minds, and they cannot think. (19) They do not give thought, They lack the wit and judgment to say: “Part of it I burned in a fire; I also baked bread on the coals, I roasted meat and ate it— Should I make the rest an abhorrence? Should I bow to a block of wood?”

(20) He pursues ashes! A deluded mind has led him astray, And he cannot save himself; He never says to himself, “The thing in my hand is a fraud!”

Isn't this great?

I love how, as we see this craftsman at work in the poem, we have no idea yet that it will be his hands which will ultimately fashion the gods. In fact, the Herald only really presents idols as the craftsman's afterthought. What's of higher priority is having a place for warmth, and then having a place to bake bread. After completing his idol, he uses the same furnace to cook his meat!

Note how in his narration, he goes back and forth, back and forth between the idol-making and other chores, as if our craftsman has just a handful of things to get done, the idol being but one thing on the list without any particular importance.

Do you notice any other attempts at satire in the above passage? There are a few hidden gems that you can probably find if you read slowly and carefully.

The commentary in the Jewish Study Bible has something interesting to say about all of this:

The prophet mercilessly lampoons people who make their own gods to worship, implicitly contrasting them with people who worship the true God. The former worship their own creation; the latter, much more sensibly, worship their Creator.

Deutero-Isaiah to some extent misrepresents, or misunderstands, the actual nature of idolatry as practiced in the ancient Near East, however. Pagans did not believe that idols really were gods, but they believed that the presence of the god entered the idol as the result of complex rituals used to activate the idol after it had been made.

What do you think ---- misrepresentation? or misunderstanding?

Our prophets and poets loved their idol-satire, which I know we've touched upon in the past. Jeremiah was another master at it. Here's one of his:

All hail the Scarecrow - His kindness is everlasting!

(ג) כִּֽי־חֻקּ֥וֹת הָֽעַמִּ֖ים הֶ֣בֶל ה֑וּא כִּֽי־עֵץ֙ מִיַּ֣עַר כְּרָת֔וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יְדֵ֥י־חָרָ֖שׁ בַּֽמַּעֲצָֽד׃ (ד) בְּכֶ֥סֶף וּבְזָהָ֖ב יְיַפֵּ֑הוּ בְּמַסְמְר֧וֹת וּבְמַקָּב֛וֹת יְחַזְּק֖וּם וְל֥וֹא יָפִֽיק׃ (ה) כְּתֹ֨מֶר מִקְשָׁ֥ה הֵ֙מָּה֙ וְלֹ֣א יְדַבֵּ֔רוּ נָשׂ֥וֹא יִנָּשׂ֖וּא כִּ֣י לֹ֣א יִצְעָ֑דוּ אַל־תִּֽירְא֤וּ מֵהֶם֙ כִּי־לֹ֣א יָרֵ֔עוּ וְגַם־הֵיטֵ֖יב אֵ֥ין אוֹתָֽם׃ (ס)

(3) For the laws of the nations are delusions: For it is the work of a craftsman’s hands.

  • He cuts down a tree in the forest with an ax;
  • He adorns it with silver and gold;
  • He fastens it with nails and hammer, so that it does not totter!

They are like a scarecrow in a cucumber patch, They cannot speak. They have to be carried, For they cannot walk.

Be not afraid of them, for they can do no harm; Nor is it in them to do any good.

This all does seem to make idolatry sound kind of ridiculous, don't you think? If something that is created is worthy do be worshipped, shouldn't whoever actually created that thing be even more worthy???

Jeremiah, like the Herald several decades later, would find it to be a riot that the person who went out and chopped the tree, moved it to his home and adorned it with jewelry would find nothing wrong with declaring his love and devotion to it a moment later!

Alter even thinks that, given the similarities, the Herald is riffing on Jeremiah's satire here:

The absurdity of attributing divinity to a material object fashioned through human craftsmanship would be picked up by Second Isaiah. [Known to us as the Herald of Zion.]

In a moment, I'm going to show you what I think is the TaNaKh's greatest satiric moment of all. But in order to appreciate it fully, I want to just put some things into perspective.

The Israelite prophets, as hopefully you have long since recognized, were amazing. During their lifetimes, their friends, families and neighbors were sometimes given plenty of reason to despair. The prophets would give them all wings, teaching them to soar above and beyond everything!

At a time of chaos, in-fighting and a growing threat from the east (the Assyrians), one of them would be able to imagine real peace:

Staying Hopeful

(ו) וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃ (ז) וּפָרָ֤ה וָדֹב֙ תִּרְעֶ֔ינָה יַחְדָּ֖ו יִרְבְּצ֣וּ יַלְדֵיהֶ֑ן וְאַרְיֵ֖ה כַּבָּקָ֥ר יֹֽאכַל־תֶּֽבֶן׃ (ח) וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק עַל־חֻ֣ר פָּ֑תֶן וְעַל֙ מְאוּרַ֣ת צִפְעוֹנִ֔י גָּמ֖וּל יָד֥וֹ הָדָֽה׃ (ט) לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃ (פ)

(6) The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, With a little boy to herd them.

(7) The cow and the bear shall graze, Their young shall lie down together; And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. (8) A babe shall play Over a viper’s hole, And an infant pass his hand Over an adder’s den. (9) In all of My sacred mount Nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to YHWH as water covers the sea.

How amazing is this - that in the ancient near east, when things like conquest and slavery and slaughter were the norm, that the Kingdom of Israel would produce an individual who would be capable of hoping forward towards the realization of this image! To a time when there would be real, lasting peace, no one having to kill anyone else; Rather, ALL can live in harmony, and only then could the land be filled with devotion to YHWH.

(I'm so grateful to live at time when this possibility is being realized. To lambs, historically, humans are wolves; yet now we no longer have to cause incomprehensible suffering to the vulnerable and the innocent in our eating habits, and I can think of nothing more Holy that I could be doing other than being a vegan, thereby eating with compassion.)

below: Isaiah, surrounded by some of his most grateful friends.

In addition to lifting up the spirits of Israel, the prophets were also known for channeling the will and word of YHWH! Of bringing the thunder!

For when Israel would do such things as turn to idolatry herself, or exploit oppressed, the prophets would come forward as the agents through whom YHWH's wrath would sound throughout the land:

When injustice prevails

(א) שִׁמְע֥וּ דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּ֣י רִ֤יב לַֽיהוָה֙ עִם־יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֠י אֵין־אֱמֶ֧ת וְֽאֵין־חֶ֛סֶד וְאֵֽין־דַּ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ (ב) אָלֹ֣ה וְכַחֵ֔שׁ וְרָצֹ֥חַ וְגָנֹ֖ב וְנָאֹ֑ף פָּרָ֕צוּ וְדָמִ֥ים בְּדָמִ֖ים נָגָֽעוּ׃ (ג) עַל־כֵּ֣ן ׀ תֶּאֱבַ֣ל הָאָ֗רֶץ וְאֻמְלַל֙ כָּל־יוֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּ֔הּ בְּחַיַּ֥ת הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְגַם־דְּגֵ֥י הַיָּ֖ם יֵאָסֵֽפוּ׃

(1) Hear the word of YHWH, O people of Israel! For YHWH has a case Against the inhabitants of this land, Because there is no honesty and no goodness And no obedience to Elohim in the land!

(2) [False] swearing, dishonesty, and murder, And theft and adultery are rife; Crime follows upon crime! (3) For that, the earth is withered: Everything that dwells on it languishes— Beasts of the field and birds of the sky— Even the fish of the sea perish.

For the Israelite and Judahite prophets, when there was injustice, YHWH would rage, such that the very existence of the cosmos would be at risk. And through the prophets, this rage would be echo throughout the land.

The last two examples - bringing forth YHWH's anger on one hand, and inspiring Israel with exalted imagery on the other - show sides of prophets that most people generally have in mind when reflecting on their role.

But as we've seen in the satire above, they could also laugh, could also have fun.

Let's now turn to the beginning of Isaiah 28:

the Drunkard-Kings

(א) ה֗וֹי עֲטֶ֤רֶת גֵּאוּת֙ שִׁכֹּרֵ֣י אֶפְרַ֔יִם וְצִ֥יץ נֹבֵ֖ל צְבִ֣י תִפְאַרְתּ֑וֹ אֲשֶׁ֛ר עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ גֵּֽיא־שְׁמָנִ֖ים הֲל֥וּמֵי יָֽיִן׃ (ב) הִנֵּ֨ה חָזָ֤ק וְאַמִּץ֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔י כְּזֶ֥רֶם בָּרָ֖ד שַׂ֣עַר קָ֑טֶב כְּ֠זֶרֶם מַ֣יִם כַּבִּירִ֥ים שֹׁטְפִ֛ים הִנִּ֥יחַ לָאָ֖רֶץ בְּיָֽד׃ (ג) בְּרַגְלַ֖יִם תֵּֽרָמַ֑סְנָה עֲטֶ֥רֶת גֵּא֖וּת שִׁכּוֹרֵ֥י אֶפְרָֽיִם׃ (ד) וְֽהָ֨יְתָ֜ה צִיצַ֤ת נֹבֵל֙ צְבִ֣י תִפְאַרְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־רֹ֖אשׁ גֵּ֣יא שְׁמָנִ֑ים כְּבִכּוּרָהּ֙ בְּטֶ֣רֶם קַ֔יִץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִרְאֶ֤ה הָֽרֹאֶה֙ אוֹתָ֔הּ בְּעוֹדָ֥הּ בְּכַפּ֖וֹ יִבְלָעֶֽנָּה׃ (ס)

(1) Ah, the proud crowns of the drunkards of Ephraim, Whose glorious beauty is but wilted flowers On the heads of men bloated with rich food, Who are overcome by wine!

(2) Lo! My Lord has something strong and mighty, Like a storm of hail, A shower of pestilence. Something like a storm of massive, torrential rain Shall be hurled with force to the ground. (3) Trampled underfoot shall be The proud crowns of the drunkards of Ephraim, (4) The wilted flowers— On the heads of men bloated with rich food— That are his glorious beauty. They shall be like an early fig Before the fruit harvest; Whoever sees it devours it While it is still in his hand.

There's something about the northern-Israelite Ephramites that Isaiah is not happy about. Those who wear the crown are the ones who have allowed themselves to become drunkards and gluttons. And so, they shall all be trampled underfoot completely.

But unfortunately, the corruption runs too deep for comfort - for even the priests and those professing to be prophets - the very ones to whom the people should have been able to turn for sound leadership and for inspiration - are no better.

False Priests, False Prophets

(ז) וְגַם־אֵ֙לֶּה֙ בַּיַּ֣יִן שָׁג֔וּ וּבַשֵּׁכָ֖ר תָּע֑וּ כֹּהֵ֣ן וְנָבִיא֩ שָׁג֨וּ בַשֵּׁכָ֜ר נִבְלְע֣וּ מִן־הַיַּ֗יִן תָּעוּ֙ מִן־הַשֵּׁכָ֔ר שָׁגוּ֙ בָּֽרֹאֶ֔ה פָּק֖וּ פְּלִילִיָּֽה׃ (ח) כִּ֚י כָּל־שֻׁלְחָנ֔וֹת מָלְא֖וּ קִ֣יא צֹאָ֑ה בְּלִ֖י מָקֽוֹם׃ (ס)

(7) But these are also muddled by wine And dazed by liquor: Priest and prophet Are muddled by liquor; They are confused by wine, They are dazed by liquor; They are muddled in their visions, They stumble in judgment.

(8) Yea, all tables are covered With vomit and filth, So that no space is left.

(9) To whom would he give instruction? To whom expound a message? To those newly weaned from milk, Just taken away from the breast?

You can tell here that Isaiah is furious. It's bad enough that the Kings are despicable. But the priests and prophets, too???

But this time around, instead of reacting by calling down fire and brimstone, we get something else.

Look at the last sentence of the passage above. Isaiah is arguing that the speech and instruction of these drunken northern "prophets" is now so nonsensical, such that it is only fit to be heard and interpreted by babies newly weaned from their mothers' milk.

And what is their instruction, which only babes would understand? Well, Isaiah puts himself into these prophets' shoes and speaks for them.

Translation, however, in all cases and in this case specifically, is a very delicate art, so let's look at a few translations together.

First, the JPS:

Murmur upon murmur

(י) כִּ֣י צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ צַ֣ו לָצָ֔ו קַ֥ו לָקָ֖ו קַ֣ו לָקָ֑ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֥יר שָֽׁם׃ (יא) כִּ֚י בְּלַעֲגֵ֣י שָׂפָ֔ה וּבְלָשׁ֖וֹן אַחֶ֑רֶת יְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּֽה׃ (יב) אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם זֹ֤את הַמְּנוּחָה֙ הָנִ֣יחוּ לֶֽעָיֵ֔ף וְזֹ֖את הַמַּרְגֵּעָ֑ה וְלֹ֥א אָב֖וּא שְׁמֽוֹעַ׃ (יג) וְהָיָ֨ה לָהֶ֜ם דְּבַר־יְהוָ֗ה צַ֣ו לָצָ֞ו צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ קַ֤ו לָקָו֙ קַ֣ו לָקָ֔ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֣יר שָׁ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן יֵלְכ֜וּ וְכָשְׁל֤וּ אָחוֹר֙ וְנִשְׁבָּ֔רוּ וְנוֹקְשׁ֖וּ וְנִלְכָּֽדוּ׃ (פ)

(10) That same mutter upon mutter, Murmur upon murmur, Now here, now there!

(11) Truly, as one who speaks to that people in a stammering jargon and an alien tongue (12) is he who declares to them,

“This is the resting place, let the weary rest; this is the place of re pose.”

They refuse to listen. (13) To them the word of YHWH is:

Mutter upon mutter, Murmur upon murmur, Now here, now there.”

And so they will march, But they shall fall backward, And be injured and snared and captured.

Unfortunately, I think JPS really missed it. This is one of the most fun lines in all of the TaNaKh, in which Isaiah reduced these prophets to blabbering, drunken fools, and Isaiah's words really capture this so well. The English here, does not.

So let's turn to another few translations to see how they render it.

But first, if you can, take a look at the Hebrew to see it in Isaiah's own language. Here is the transliteration of verse 10 for those who need it:

tsaw l'tsaw tsaw l'tsaw / kaw l'kaw kaw l'kaw / zeir sham zeir sham.

With that, let's turn to The Message, an "idiomatic translation" from the late 90s / early 2,000s.

“Is that so? And who do you think you are to teach us? Who are you to lord it over us? We’re not babies in diapers

to be talked down to by such as you—

‘Da, da, da, da,

blah, blah, blah, blah.
That’s a good little girl,

that’s a good little boy.’”

11-12 But that’s exactly how you will be addressed.

God will speak to this people

In baby talk, one syllable at a time—

and he’ll do it through foreign oppressors.

He said before, “This is the time and place to rest,

to give rest to the weary.

This is the place to lay down your burden.”

But they won’t listen.

13 So God will start over with the simple basics

and address them in baby talk, one syllable at a time—

“Da, da, da, da,

blah, blah, blah, blah.

That’s a good little girl,

that’s a good little boy.”

And like toddlers, they will get up and fall down,

get bruised and confused and lost.

Wow.... what???

That's quite a different feel from the JPS above! But one that I think really gets what Isaiah is trying to get at. (You might notice that The Message also interprets Isaiah's mock conversation quite differently. The important part is that in all versions, Isaiah is mocking the northern prophets - but there are a few different ways to understand how he does this.)

Here's another take on verses 9-10 specifically, from the Lexham English Bible (2010):

To whom will he teach knowledge,

and to whom will he explain the message?

Those who are weaned from milk,

those taken from the breast?

For it is blah-blah upon blah-blah,

blah-blah upon blah-blah,

gah-gah upon gah-gah,

gah-gah upon gah-gah,a little here, a little there.

In their comments, they explain their translation thusly:

In this context, the Hebrew expressions tsaw-tsaw and qaw-qaw are likely meant to sound like baby talk, but they could mean “command upon command” and “rule upon rule” .

And of course, I saved the best for last; And who could that possibly be other than Robert Alter?

Once again, we'll just look at verses 9-10:

To whom will they teach knowledge and to whom will they convey lessons? -

To the milk-weaned, to babes pulled from the breast?

For it is filth-pilth, filth-pilth, vomit-momit, vomit-momit, a little here, a little there.


I wouldn't be surprised if there is someone out there who read the TaNaKh with Alter's translation, and upon being asked their favorite verse, started to recite: filth-pilth, filth-pilth, vomit-momit, vomit-momit......

All joking aside, however, Alter picked up on the depth of Isaiah's game in the Hebrew that everyone else that I saw completely missed!

Here is how he puts it:

Wildly divergent interpretations have been proposed for these words. The literal sense would seem to be: "precept precept, line line." But if precepts are at issue here, they are precepts that have been turned into gibberish by these drunkards. The phonetic kinship between tsaw, precept or command, and tso'ah, filth or exrement, and between qaw, line, and qi', vomit, is surely not accidental. The translation seeks to convey both this correspondence and the effect of gibberish.

(I bet you thought I was joking when I said "profound." But that's really what this is! Alter's ability to sense the nuanced layers of intent behind the prophets' and poets' words, rather than only the meaning, is amazing.)

Our Israelite prophets, poets and storytellers did not shy away from humor. It wasn't enough to just shout and wave their arms. They had to draw on different tools with which to draw people in. And satire is a powerful tool indeed. It is engaging, it is appealing; It worked for the ancient Egyptians, it works for us today - and it worked for the Israelites of yore.

Once I realized this was worth keeping my eyes open for, I would start to see it more and more. The TaNaKh abounds with play, with word-games, with humor. Isaiah was most definitely not happy with those who claimed to be his colleagues to the North - so he told his listeners how he really feels, but in a way that probably earned some chuckles, if not some hoots of laughter, as would Jeremiah after him, and the Herald after him.

below: I oftentimes try to imagine, in my minds-eye, what the scene might have looked like when the prophets would proclaim their oracles. Can anyone picture Isaiah in the picture below, participating at Open-Mic Night?

Personally, I LOVE that this is the case! Once upon a time, I had the notion in my mind that these works could only be approached with stiff seriousness, with fear and trembling. But if that's not what the very writers always had in mind - why should we? At times, they found ways to be light and to smile, and to even speak about serious topics in ways that for us, can be reminiscent of how our middle-schoolers might taunt each other!

What do you think about such passages being in our TaNaKh? Does it change the way you view this collection of literature? If so, how?

Here are a couple of ancient-Israelite proverb which came to mind for me throughout this:

(יג) לֵ֣ב שָׂ֭מֵחַ יֵיטִ֣ב פָּנִ֑ים וּבְעַצְּבַת־לֵ֝ב ר֣וּחַ נְכֵאָֽה׃

(13) A joyful heart makes a cheerful face;

But in sorrow of heart, a spirit is broken.

(כב) לֵ֣ב שָׂ֭מֵחַ יֵיטִ֣ב גֵּהָ֑ה וְר֥וּחַ נְ֝כֵאָ֗ה תְּיַבֶּשׁ־גָּֽרֶם:

(22) A joyful heart makes for good health;

Despondency dries up the bones.

The Israelites, in their proverbs, praised the importance of having a joyful heart. And while it is most definitely true that the prophets were oftentimes compelled to say things that would lead not to joy, but to possible panic and fear - they took it upon themselves to make room for the fun, as well, addressing heavy things with lightness and playfulness.

May we be attuned to such moments, and join them in their fun!