I love scripture, and enjoy reading it–both as a disciple and a scholar. What did scripture mean, for them, there, and then? What does scripture mean today, for us, here, and now?

Judgment at Ninevah

I’ve been binging some older episodes of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Dan Carlin, together with John Talbot (professor at BYU), Brandon Dell’Orto (my AP US History teacher), Mike Duncan (host of The History of Rome podcast), and Tom Holland (author of some excellent narrative histories), are a collection of people who really infused me with a love of history–each in a specific way. Dan Carlin’s contribution, though, is to simply expose me to great history via extremely entertaining and compelling stories.

Because I’m trying to read through the biblical book of Isaiah right now, I listened to Judgment at Ninevah, a short but fascinating Hardcore History episode on the fall of Assyria (major players in Isaiah and the Hebrew world generally). Ninevah–I’d heard about it from the Bible–something about Nimrod and Jonah. But Dan Carlin emphasizes that Ninevah’s fall is perhaps the biggest event in history you’ve never heard of. A couple of notes from the episode:

  • We have a hard time believing our society could end. Dan Carlin loves the moment in the old “Planet of the Apes” when Charleton Heston’s character, thinking he was on an alien planet, discovers that it’s really this earth. Carlin points out that there’s something difficult about believing that in hundreds of years, people might be digging up our skyscrapers, trying to figure out who we were. But history has a pattern, and it may be hubris to believe that pattern’s ended with us. Everyone else thought this way, too.

“Planet of the Apes”

  • Dan Carlin’s Great Division of History. He divided it into “the very, very old world,” “the very old world,” and “the old world.” (Presumably, there’s a “this world” too.) The very, very old world begins when empires and writing began, and ends with the Fall of Ninevah. It’s the crash that mandates a new version on the computer of history. It’s “the greatest event in history no one knows about,” a “very big deal.”
  • There are two kinds of societies in history. The ones that are always a player on the world stage and endure as a people–think China and Egypt–and the ones that have a glorious moment, and then effectively never play a role again–or are wiped out entirely. For this latter group, think the Mongols, or, Assyria!
  • The Assyrians were around for a long time, a very, very long time. If we assume the modern world began (generously) in the Renaissance, around 500-600 years ago, then bear in mind: Assyria lasted a lot longer than that, 3-5 times longer. They have unbroken records going back to ~2300 years ago!
  • The Assyrians were bad people. They had war reliefs, “unique in human history,” that depict awful things they did. Now, keep in mind, they were the first empire–and they perfected the art of keeping subjugated people’s in check by doing terrible things to rebellious peoples, and then installing reliefs of their punishment in the lobby area of their palaces–something visiting dignities got to see. On the plus side, this kept the place unified, allowing for a lot of civilizational progress. On the down side, they subjugated people’s brutally. (And there’s some evidence they enjoyed it…)
  • Assyria had a lot of neighbors. I drew from Dan Carlin’s description of their neighbors, but also my Phillips’ Historical Atlas (one of my favorite books) to figure this out. Basically, Assyria was situated smack dab in Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent. They had Urartu on the north (and nomads, like the Scythians, beyond them), Persians and Medes to their east, Egypt and Judah/Samaria to their west, and Phrygia (and later the Ionian Greeks) in Anatolia, to their northwest. And Assyria had no really great geographical protection.

A map of Mesopotamia, 750-550 BCE

  • Assyria fell into the Empire Traps. Assyria was at the height of its power just before it died. It committed the great sin of all empires: it overextended itself. While its armties were off conquering Egypt, it was left mostly defenseless to a series of allied forces (mainly the Medes and Babylonians) who, along with everyone else, hated the Assyrians for all the awful things they’d done to them. So like a surprising stock market crash, Ninevah fell from greatness–to being abjectly destroyed.  And no one cried.

It was a great episode, and I learned a lot. It ended, nicely for my study in the Hebrew Bible, on the words of Nahum (the biblical prophet): “Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery… it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?… for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?”

Woe indeed!

Isaiah’s Two Halves

In my scripture study, I’m starting to study Isaiah. And so far, it’s going alright!

I’m starting with two chapters from Joseph Spencer’s amazing and incredible book A Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record. The book is mainly about Nephi, the Book of Mormon prophet, uses Isaiah, but there’s two chapters in the beginning that introduce Isaiah’s book generally. And it’s Isaiah’s book that I want to understand first.

The first thing I learned is that Isaiah’s book is split into two halves. I drew up some sketchnotes to figure this out.

The first half? It’s about God’s judgment on God’s covenant peoples and the gentile nations; it’s about writing a book and sealing it up; and it mainly focuses on the 8th century BCE, when Assyria was the dominant power–and threat.

The second half? It largely centers on Babylon in the 6th century BCE, after Israel had been defeated by Babylon and was set to return from their exile; it’s about opening the book that was written, and reading it; and it’s about God restoring his covenant people withe help of the gentiles.

I like starting with the big picture stuff because it gives me a map of where I’m going. Mentally, I’m going to wade through a lot of judgment with some promise of better times, when God is going to save his people; and then I’m going to wade through a lot of God saving and restoring his people. And I’m going to be bouncing across two very different time periods to do it!

It was also interesting to realize that Isaiah is the first prophet whose writings we have, bound up in a book. As Spencer points out:

In the first half of the Book of Isaiah, primarily focused on judgment, there’s a strong emphasis on writing, on the actual work of writing prophecies down. It’s an essential theme, since Isaiah was among the earliest of the Hebrew prophets whose oracles were put into writing. Before his era—that is, before Amos (his near-contemporary and the earliest of the so-called “writing prophets”)—prophecy seems to have been considered a kind of in-the-moment affair, an oral business that was supposed to accomplish something important but basically temporary. So what we get with the prophets before Isaiah’s day are really just stories. We have stories about Elijah, but no book of Elijah. But something about Hebrew prophecy changed at the time of Isaiah… Because he was called to prophesy, but to a people who couldn’t receive his word, he helped to launch an era during which prophecy was understood to be directed to a later age rather than to the prophet’s own people. And that’s why it was to be written down.

Rad, right? But it all makes sense. Isaiah wasn’t writing to his people then and there (as much as he would have liked to, I think). He was writing to a future people, a people who would actually listen. That’s got to be frustrating, but at least he understood what would happen, what his mission really was.

There’s more, but those are the main strokes. I think my next goal is to get a sense of the two histories, particularly what was going on with Assyria and Babylon. Then I think I’ll try to get a sense of who Isaiah is. And then I’ll come back to the book: Joseph Spencer has another chapter on the theology of the book, and I have another commentary by Gary Smith on the same subject. So it might be a little while before I get into the actual text, but I think this preliminary stuff will be good!

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