"Tarshish Has Perished": The Crux of Isaiah 23,10

Michael L. Barré

Isaiah's oracle concerning Tyre (Isa 23,1-14) is generally recognized as a text with more than its share of interpretational difficulties. Perhaps the most problematic line in this problematic poem is v. 10. A straightforward translation of the MT would be: "Cross over to your land like the Nile, O Daughter (of?) Tarshish, (the) belt is no more". Crossing over "like the Nile" makes no sense, nor does "(the) belt is no more". There can be little doubt that some corruption has occurred in this verse.
        Any plausible solution to the problems of this line has to "work" in all of the following three areas. First, any emendations to the text should be plausible in terms of Biblical Hebrew grammar and lexicography. The resulting line should make good sense in itself. Second, the emended reading should be recognizable as good Biblical Hebrew poetry (a requirement frequently ignored in proposed emendations of Hebrew poetic texts!). Third, the resulting reading should fit well into the context of this poem. It is incumbent on the one proposing any emendations to the text to show that they fit these requirements.
For the purpose of establishing the earlier reading of this verse the most important textual witness is the LXX: e)rga/zou th_n gh=n sou, kai_ ga_r ploi=a ou)ke/ti e!rxetai e)k Karxhdo/noj. P.W. Flint, in the most thorough and perceptive treatment of the LXX of this passage to date, translates: "Till your land, for no longer do ships come forth from Carthage1 [= Tarshish]"2. According to Flint, this is a very free rendering3 of the Vorlage: dw( zxm Ny) #$y#$rt tbr)l yk Kcr) ydb( which he translates: "Till your land, for the boats of Tarshish no longer have a harbour"4. Literally, of course, dw( . . . yk is "because for the boats of Tarshish there is no longer a harbor". The translation understands Tarshish's situation to be so desperate that she might as well forget her lucrative trading activities on the high seas (as part of the Tyrian-Sidionian trading empire) and turn to farming.
I judge Flint's restoration of the Vorlage to be essentially correct and an important step toward recovering a more original Hebrew text. I say this because with one exception every letter in his proposed Vorlage corresponds to a letter in the MT or one of the Dead Sea Isaiah manuscripts and the letters are in the same sequence except in one case (zxm for the MT's xzm).
The only quibble I have is the letter l. I would eliminate this preposition before tbr) because it is unsupported by any of the early Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran or the MT. Moreover, the preposition l is not really necessary to arrive at the translation he proposes. It is plausible that the LXX translator had before him #$y#$rt tbr), which he interpreted as a casus pendens or nominative absolute5 perhaps because he did not know what else to make of it taking the line to mean: "for as regards the boats of Tarshish there is no longer a harbor".
The Vorlage restored by Flint, with its reading of zxm, i.e., zxomf, "harbor", for the MT's xzame eliminates the only problem in the latter part of our passage. The only plausible translation of the hapax legomenon xzame is "belt, sash", taking it as a loanword from Akkadian me4h~e/azu 6. But this clearly does not fit the context7. The proposal to assume that a metathesis occurred here at some point and the word was earlier zxomf was made over a century ago by B. Duhm8 and has been adopted by many if not the majority of commentators since then. As we shall see presently, his emendation and this part of the LXX Vorlage is absolutely correct.
The most important part of Flint's restoration, I submit, is his reading tbr), which he takes to be tborF)j, a plural form, the name of a type of boat attested in rabbinic Hebrew/Aramaic and which may occur in Isa 25,11 (a difficult passage). This is an inspired suggestion, since it requires no changes to the lettering of the MT and is eminently plausible as the term underlying ploi=a. It seems that the Hebrew word denotes some kind of small boat9. Flint notes that in modern Hebrew it is the name of a type of flat-bottomed vessel10. If this is correct, the LXX Vorlage does not present a pristine reading here, since the large sea-going merchant vessels of Phoenician trade, elsewhere in this poem called #$y#$rt twyn), "Tarshish ships" (vv. 1, 14, and so in the rest of the OT), were certainly not small or flat-bottomed boats, which are completely unsuited for sailing on the high seas.
Still, the LXX Vorlage does take us back to a pre-Masoretic stage of this text. In particular, #$y#$rt tbr) yk is a more accurate division of words than the MT's #$y#$rt tb r)yk. It is not the original reading, but at this point only two textual errors separate us from what I would claim to be the original text of this verse, and both occur in the word tbr). The first of these is another metathesis: trb). The second is the common confusion of dalet and resh. The word earlier read tdb), to be pointed tdab;)f an archaic 3d fem. sg. Qal11.

The three words in v. 10 are to be read: #$y#$irat@v tdab;)f yk@i. Thus I propose that the "original text"12 of v. 10 was:

dw( zxm Ny) // #$y#$rt tdb) yk Kcr) yrb(
Cross (back) to your13 own land, for Tarshish has perished,
   (for) the harbor/port city14 is no more.

Does such a reading reflect the conventions of good Biblical Hebrew poetry? It does, because the restored bicolon is based on an attested word-pair, (dw() Ny) // db). This pair occurs 9x in the MT15 and also in CD 5,17; 9,14-15. By way of illustration I cite one biblical example:

Mynbm hc( hdb) // Nmytb hmkx dw( Ny)h
there no wisdom in Teman anymore?
   has counsel perished from the wise? (Jer 49,7)

Finally, as I mentioned above, the proposed reading must fit well with the overall context of the passage itself. Does a reference to the destruction of Tarshish "fit" in this poem, and specifically at this particular juncture?
First we shall consider the immediate context of v. 10. (1) The reading of v. 10 argued here is on the mark thematically. The theological center and the real message of Isa 23,1-14 is found in vv. 9 and 11, which in characteristic Isaian fashion speak of Yahweh's intention to humble the "proud"16 in this case by destroying the ports17 of the Tyrian-Sidonian maritime empire.

Reference to the destruction of the port city of Tarshish (zxm // #$y#$rt) in v. 10 is particularly appropriate just before v. 11b, in which the prophet speaks directly of Yahweh's destructive purpose: "With regard to Canaan Yahweh has ordered // that its harbors/port cities be destroyed [hyzw(m18 dm#$l]". (2) Verse 10 fits here also because of several verbal connections to the second colon of v. 11b. The two terms that make up this second colon refer back to two of the words restored in v. 10. (a) dm#$ forms a parallel word-pair with db) which is attested 13x in the OT19. (b) zw$(mf has a connection with zxom! that is both semantic and sonic: the two terms are synonymous in this context and identical in terms of sound except for a single phoneme20.
Second, a look at the larger context shows that the proposed reading fits better than the MT. (1) As restored, v. 10 is formally very similar to the poem's inclusion (vv. 1a, 14). All three verses begin with an imperative and conclude with yk + a verb of destruction (dd#$ or db)) + a reference to a port city:

v. 1a Wail . . .

for destroyed is tybm21

v. 14 Wail . . .

for destroyed is your port city (Nkz(m)

v. 10 Cross over . . .

for perished is Tarshish

(2) The MT takes #$y#$rt-tb as the subject of the feminine imperative yrb(. But this does not accord with the rest of the poem. Four other feminine

imperatives occur at the beginning of a stanza, as does yrb( in v. 10: y#$wb(v. 4), "be ashamed"; yrb( (v. 6), "cross over"; and yrb( ymwq (v. 12c), "arise and cross over"22. These feminine imperatives are functionally significant within the poem, since they act as indicators of stanza divisions and also drive the action23. Sidon is clearly the subject of the first and of the others as well. That this is true in the case of v. 10 is beyond question, as the only other 2d person form in this stanza is v. 12a, "You (fem. sg.) shall exult no longer," which is followed immediately by the vocative, "virgin daughter Sidon".
(3) Another feature that should be carefully noted with regard to the larger context is the movements of Sidon within the poem, which is indicated by the verb yrb(. She is first told to cross over to Tarshish at the beginning of the third stanza (v. 6). Thus in v. 10 the command "cross (back) to your own land" makes sense because she is ostensibly in Tarshish. Finally, in v. 12c she is told to "cross over (the sea)" once more, this time from her land to Cyprus, which by way of inclusion takes us back to the beginning of the poem (cf. Mytk in v. 1). Given this itinerary, a command to Tarshish in v. 10 to cross over to her own land makes no sense whatsoever. This is without doubt the source of the reading Kcr) ydb(, "Work/Till your land," in 1QIsaa and the LXX Vorlage, which is simply an attempt to make sense of a senseless imperative.
In this discussion of Isa 23,10 I have attempted to show that P. W. Flint's restored Vorlage of the LXX establishes a Hebrew text more pristine than the MT or any of the Dead Sea Isaiah manuscripts. Building on that text I propose a reconstruction of this verse that not only makes sense in itself unlike the MT but fulfills two other requirements that every such restoration should fulfill: it conforms to the established conventions of Biblical Hebrew poetry and fits well within the context of this poem.


1 P.W. FLINT, "The Septuagint Version of Isaiah 23:1-14 and the Massoretic Text", Bulletin of the International Organization for LXX and Cognate Studies 21 (1988) 48, n. 57. I am indebted to J.S. Kselman for bringing this article to my attention.
2 In vv. 1, 6, and 10 the LXX translates #$y#$rt as Karxhdw/n.
3 FLINT, "The Septuagint Version of Isaiah 23:1-14", 39.
4 Ibid., and 48, n. 57.
5 On this construction, see B.K. WALTKE M. O'CONNOR, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN 1990) 4.7a-c.
6 AHw, 650; CAD M/2, 46. W.L. HOLLADAY (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, MI 1988] 189) gives the meaning "wharf" as does (apparently) O. KAISER (Isaiah 13-39. A Commentary [OTL; Philadelphia 1974] 161), but neither provides evidence for such a translation.
7 A. VAN DER KOOIJ defends the reading xzm but I do not find his argument convincing (The Oracle of Tyre. The Septuagint of Isaiah XXIII as Version and Vision [VTS 71; Leiden 1998] 139).
8 B. DUHM, Das Buch Jesaja (HKAT; Gttingen 1892) 169. The term in question is attested otherwise in the Hebrew Bible only in Ps 107,30. In proposing this emendation Duhm did not refer to the reading of the LXX or to its putative Vorlage.
9 J. LEVY, Wrterbuch ber die Talmudim und Midraschim (Berlin 1924) I, 157 defines this vessel as a "Skiff [or] Kahn," which designates some kind of rowboat or river barge.
10 "The Septuagint Version of Isaiah 23:1-14", 42, n. 39.
11 See GKC 44f. Theoretically one might go further here and suggest another emendation in this word. Since t and h were at times confused in the script (see F. DELITZSCH, Die Lese- und Schreibfehler im Alten Testament [Berlin Leipzig 1920] 105a), it is possible that the proposed tdb) resulted from an earlier hdb), the standard form of the 3d fem. sg. Qal. But prudence cautions against multiplying emendations, especially within a single word, though there are instances in which more than two errors in a single word can be demonstrated.
12 I am aware of at least some of the current discussion surrounding the term "the original text", that the very existence of such a thing is controverted and that the term means different things to different authors. Therefore for this paper I take for the definition of "the original text" one of the possible meanings given by E. Ulrich: "[The original text is the text] as reconstructed from the extant testimony insofar as possible but with the most plausible conjectural emendations when it is generally agreed that no extant witness preserves a sound reading" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible [Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature; Grand Rapids, MI 1999] 13).
13 The subject of the imperative yrb( and of all the other feminine imperatives in this poem (vv. 4 [y#$wb], 6 [yrb(], 12 [yrb( ymwq]) is Sidon.
14 In the ancient Near East many terms for "harbor" also meant "harbor district" and from this "port of trade." zwxm has this meaning in post-biblical Hebrew (see M. JASTROW, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature [New York 1967] 757: "harbor, trading place"). Its Ugaritic cognate ma /ih~d = /ma())h~a4du/  is occasionally written in Akkadian as URU.ma-a-h~a-di, where the determinative URU denotes a city-name (see G. DEL OLMO LETE J. SANMARTN, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition [trans. W.G.E. Watson; Leiden 2003] 513). Cf. also Akkadian ka4ru, "harbor, harbor district, city quarter destined for traders and sailors" (see CAD K, 231).
15 Deut 32,28; Job 31,19; Ps 142,5; Qoh 9,6; Isa 41,11; Jer 49,7; Mic 4,9; 7,2; Zeph 2,5.
16 In v. 9 Nw)g, "pride", is parallel to ydbk, "nobles (of the earth)", and thus may be translated concretely in this context as "the proud". For this "abstract // concrete" construction, see W.G.E. WATSON, Classical Hebrew Poetry. A Guide to Its Techniques (JSOTSS 26; Sheffield 1984) 11.10 (pp. 314-316).
17 Although many translate zw(m in this poem (vv. 4, 11, 14) as "stronghold", strictly speaking this is not correct. This word is unrelated etymologically to the root zz(, "to be strong", and derives rather from zw(, "to seek refuge". The root and the same nominal form are attested in Arabic with this meaning (ma)a4d = zw$(mf; see H. WEHR, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic [Ithaca, NY 31976] 656). In the MT the root of the nominal form is often confused with zz(, as may be seen from the frequent erroneous doubling of the zayin in this word. The term properly means "a place of refuge" > "haven." In the context of this poem the "haven" in question is a haven for ships, i.e., a harbor. This meaning of zw(m in the poem has been recognized by H. WILDBERGER, Isaiah 13-27 (Continental Commentary; Minneapolis 1997) 405.
18 Read hyzw(m with 1QIsaa instead of the MT's hynz(m, which is probably a conflation of zw(m and Nw(m (see S. TALMON, "Aspects of the Textual Transmission of the Bible in Light of Qumran Manuscripts", Textus 4 [1964] 124).
19 Num 33,52; Deut 4,26; 7,24; 9,3; 28,20.51.63; Isa 26,14; Jer 48,8; Ezek 25,17; Esth 3,13; 7,4; Dan 7,26 (Aramaic). This word-pair was noted by Y. AVISHUR, Stylistic Studies of Word-Pairs in Biblical and Ancient Semitic Literatures (AOAT 210; Neukirchen-Vluyn 1984) 240, 472.
20 In Isa 23,1-14 there are in fact three terms for "harbor/port city", all of which are closely related as to sound: zw$(mf (vv. 4, 11b [read hyzw(msee n. 18], 14), zxomf (v. 10), and )w$bmf (v. 1 [MT: )w$b@mi]) = "entrance" > "port of entry" (see NAB/REB and Ezek 27,2). These three wordsand they alone in this poemhave the following three features in common: all of them are bisyllabic, begin with m, and have an a4 - o4 vowel pattern.
21 The fact that the first and last verses of the poem form an inclusion and are identical but for the last word tybm and Nkz(m argues that these two words are synonymous and that the former is actually the name of a port city on the Phoenician trade routes (probably on Cyprus). It may be the "harbortown" connected with an important commercial center, of whose name no trace has been preserved in the historical record (it is only by the luck of discovery certain Ugaritic tablets that we know the name of Ugarit's main port, Ma())h~a4du). The MT (mis)understands tybm as "from/without a house", although it may preserve the correct consonants of the name. (The striking alliteration)wbmtybm indicates that at least the first two letters may well be correct.) If this hypothesis is right, each of the terms for "port" in the poem )wbm, zxm, and zw(m is in parallelism with the name of a port city: mbyt, Tarshish, and Sidon respectively (Sidon is parallel to Myhzw(m, "seaport", in v. 4). The first city-name, mbyt, is associated with two of these terms: with )wbm by means of "terrace parallelism" (see WATSON, Classical Hebrew Poetry, 8.3 [pp. 208-211]) and with (Nk)z(m by "distant parallelism".
22 Of these, only the double imperative yrb( ymwq in v. 12 does not begin but rather ends a colon. In this respect these verbs differ from all the other feminine imperatives in the poem, and also by being a a double imperative (the only example in the oracle). These differences are deliberate and by breaking the pattern established up to this point serve to signal the concluding stanza of the poem.
23 As I see it, the poem divides into five stanzas: 1-3, 4-5, 6-9, 10-12b, 12c-14. The feminine imperatives occur in the first colon of each stanza but the first which begins with the indusionistic imperative wlylyh (vv. 1a, 14a).