Loose Loins Sink Kings (Isaiah 45:1)

Okay, I admit the title is a very bad revision of “Loose lips sink ships,” but bear with me...

I’ve read through the book of Isaiah quite a few times, but I’ve discovered over the years that when I prepare to teach a passage, I always find new elements of the text I hadn’t seen before. One of these insights came from a phrase I came across in Isaiah 45:1, which is part of Isaiah’s prophecy to Cyrus.

In the Hebrew, the phrase is simplyוּמָתְנֵי מְלָכִים אֲפַתֵּחַ which translates somewhat literally as “and loins of kings I will loosen/open.”

The context revolves around Cyrus of Persia, the king who would allow the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple as chronicled in 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra. Cyrus is an interesting individual. He was a pagan king, comparable to Nebuchadnezzar who, in spite of his foreign religion, was called God’s servant (Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). Like Nebuchadnezzar, God chose to work through this non-Israelite as part of his divine purposes, demonstrating his sovereignty even upon those who do not acknowledge him.

There are allusions to David in God’s depiction of Cyrus. He calls him “my shepherd” (‏רֹעִי) in Isa 44:28 and perhaps more startlingly his “anointed one” (‏מָשִׁיחַ, /māšiyaḥ). Thus Cyrus is the only individual in the Bible to be called “anointed one” (or messiah) outside of Israelite kings, priests and Jesus Christ. Cyrus had also been raised by a shepherd. Further, there seems to be imagery related to Moses as well as Cyrus becomes the one who leads (by decree) God’s people out of their captivity to the Promised Land.

Above: The Cyrus Cylinder which includes detail of the king’s granting expatiates permission to return to their homelands.
Bible Lands Photo Guide, version 3 (Accordance)

I try very hard when I’m preparing a lesson to attempt interpretation by myself first before consulting commentaries. I had to admit (although it seems somewhat obvious now) that I was stumped by this reference to God loosening the loins of Cyrus’ rival kings. I’ve begun teaching from the New Living Translation on Sundays, and I consulted Isa 45:1 in the NLT:

This is what the LORD says to Cyrus, his anointed one,
whose right hand he will empower.
Before him, mighty kings will be paralyzed with fear.
Their fortress gates will be opened,
never to shut again.

Most formal translations simply translate the phrase literally, “loose the loins of kings” or something similar. The NLT certainly gets the end result across. I understood that. None of the kings who went before Cyrus would be able to stand before him. But what did the phrase actually mean? I wondered if it meant that foreign kings would be impotent before Cyrus, or perhaps it meant they would wet themselves. The problem, as I would later discover, was that my focus was too literally loin-centered.

Incidentally, when I taught the lesson Sunday and was relaying Cyrus’ rather colorful history, one person in the class asked whether Cyrus came “before or after ‘that guy’ in 300.” I told him that Cyrus came before Xerxes who was featured (rather outlandishly) in the movie 300. But I pointed out that the incredibly large army depicted in that movie had not been built by Xerxes (for the most part), but rather by Cyrus much earlier before him.

Using Accordance, I tried running searches for the exact phrase and then similar phrases, but to my knowledge (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), there are no other occurrences of loins being loosened, only tightened up, or more appropriately girded up. And then suddenly it made sense! My problem was that I had not been thinking in terms of Hebrew and ANE culture.

At this point, thinking I’d figured it out, I went ahead and consulted a number of commentaries that confirmed my hunch. In the Bible, to “gird up one’s loins” (see Exod 12:11; 1 Kgs 18:46; 20:32; 2 Kgs 1:8; 4:29; 9:1; Job 12:18; 38:3; 40:7; Jer 1:17, esp. in more formal translations) was to tuck the ends of one’s garments into one’s belt so as to be ready for any kind of action, whether fight or flight. What was being described in Isa 45:1 was just the opposite.

Thus, before Cyrus, God would immobilize any king or king’s army who would oppose him. Their readiness for battle would come to nothing. The TNIV renders the phrase “strip kings of their armor” which nicely captures the military aspects just as the NLT’s rendering above relates the psychological end result. The ESV translates the phrase as “to loose the belts of kings,” but that sounds a bit too much like the aftereffects of a Thanksgiving meal.

Regardless, it’s clear in the passage that the God of the Bible is sovereign, choosing to use whom he will when he will, often despite the objections of those who feel themselves to be part of the “in group” (Isa 45:9-13). To those who first objected, God had this message:

“I will raise up Cyrus to fulfill my righteous purpose,
and I will guide his actions.
He will restore my city and free my captive people—
without seeking a reward!
I, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”” (Isa 45:13, NLT)

And as history records, that’s exactly what happened.


Whither the Land of Cush?

Nile River from the Accordance Bible Atlas
Another minor mystery came from this past Sunday's Bible study. Why are there no maps depicting the land of Cush?

First, read the message I posted on the Accordance Support forum early Sunday morning:

For today (March 26) Southern Baptist Sunday School literature focused on Isa 17-18. In ch. 18, there were references to the land of Cush (Ethiopia in some translations). I usually put together a handout for the class that I teach, and I had hoped to include a map that showed where the land of Cush was. I had even greater hopes of finding a map that demonstrated that Cush was actually greater in size than merely modern-day Ethiopia.

So I fired up the Accordance Bible Atlas, and I was disappointed to see no entry for the land of Cush. I tried searching for Ethiopia, but no luck there either. I looked in other modules that I have such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary and the IVP New Bible Atlas, but no luck. I even looked in the Photoguide thinking maybe I could find photographs from the region. But nothing.

From there, I fired up VirtualPC where I keep a few Windows Bible programs from my pre-Mac days (I switched in 1998). The version of Logos Bible Atlas had nothing, and neither did the map module in Wordsearch.

Even a Google image search yielded nothing (except for some really weird stuff).

All of these programs are in equal standing it seems. There are also no references to Cush in the maps in the back of my Bible! I've decided this morning just to tell my class to think "south of Egypt, going down the Nile."

Here's my question... I admit that I don't have the newest version of the Accordance Bible Atlas. Just out of curiosity, is Cush included in the new Atlas? Admittedly, Cush would be the very southwestern edge of the biblical world, but I would think that it's mentioned enough in the Bible to warrant inclusion in a biblical atlas.

Today, David Lang of Accordance responded to my message confirming that Cush was not included in the newer version of the Atlas either, but should probably be added in a future release. I'm not surprised at this point. My search has not been exhaustive, but I can't find one decent depiction of Cush anywhere. I don't have a map of Cush in any Bible or any reference book (that I know of).

What exactly was the extent of Cush? Grogan (EBC) notes the following:

[Cush] designates a much larger area than present-day Ethiopia--an area including the Sudan and Somalia. This somewhat mysterious area, situated at one of the limits of the normal biblical world, had come right into the world in Isaiah's day. It was normally in Egypt's area of influence and, usually, of control; but for a period during the eighth century, Egypt was ruled by an Ethiopian dynasty.

If you know of a good cartographical depiction of ancient Cush, please share.

Incidentally, one person commented in the Accordance forums that my description "south of Egypt, going down the Nile was incorrect." The Nile oddly flows northward, so the direction to Cush should be "south of Egypt, going UP the Nile!"


Bugs or Boats? Isaiah 18:1 in the NLT & the LXX

NOTE: Due to deficiencies in Internet Explorer, Greek and Hebrew fonts in the blog entry below may not display correctly if you are using that browser. I encourage you to use a better application such as Firefox (Mac or Windows) or Safari (Mac) for optimal viewing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "Romans 14:4 in the NLT." It was in response to a seemingly odd translational choice in the New Living Translation (NLT) discovered by my wife while studying her Sunday School lesson. Upon further examination, I discovered it wasn't as odd as first thought; it was just an example of the dynamic equivalent method of the NLT translators.

Well, it happened again last night. Kathy had her copy of the NLT next to her Sunday School book which includes both the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) text as well as the King James Version (KJV). Again, she made the statement, "Well my Bible reads completely different in this passage."

The passage in question is Isaiah 18:1. Note the original Hebrew below and a selection of a few recent translations:

ה֥וֹי אֶ֖רֶץ צִלְצַ֣ל כְּנָפָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעֵ֖בֶר לְנַֽהֲרֵי־כֽוּשׁ׃
Ah! The land of buzzing insect wings
beyond the rivers of Cush
Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Cush Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush

Geoffrey Grogan notes in the Expositor's Bible Commentary that "The phrase 'the land of whirring wings' (v. 1) is highly evocative for any hearer or reader who has been in the Nile valley, with its swarms of insects." And most, in fact, are agreed that the reference to whirring wings is a reference to bugs. Note that the translators of the HCSB, under their guidelines of "optimal equivalence" felt free to even add the word "insect" to the verse for the sake of clarity.

But there are no bugs in the NLT's rendition of this verse. The NLT (2nd ed.) reads, "Listen, Ethiopia--land of fluttering sails that lies at the headwaters of the Nile... ." The fluttering sails here are undoubtedly referring to the sails of boats as evidenced in 18:2, "that sends ambassadors in swift boats down the river."

Why the boats instead of bugs? Good question. At the very least, the NLT is being consistent in it's roots to the original Living Bible. Compare all three editions together:

The Living Bible (1971)
New Living Translation
(1st ed./1996)
New Living Translation
(2nd ed./2004)
Ah land beyond the upper reaches of the Nile, where winged sailboats glide along the river!
Destruction is certain for the land of Ethiopia, which lies at the headwaters of the Nile. Its winged sailboats glide along the river. Listen Ethiopia--land of fluttering sails that lies at the headwaters of the Nile,

Of course, the Living Bible traced its roots to the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV) of which it was a paraphrase. But contrary to the Living Bible/New Living tradition, even the ASV seems to imply bugs (or birds?):

"Ah, the land of the rustling of wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia."

So where do the boats come from? Well, upon further investigation, I found that the boats tradition goes back to the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from the second century BC. Below is the LXX along with my translation:

οὐαὶ γῆς πλοίων πτέρυγες ἐπέκεινα ποταμῶν Αἰθιοπίας
Woe to the wings of the land of boats beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.

Undoubtedly, the Living/New Living tradition is based on the LXX and not on the Hebrew text. But the real question is "Why?" Unfortunately I don't know. Perhaps someone does and can offer an explanation in the comments. I might only speculate that perhaps Kenneth Taylor, when working on the original Living Bible consulted a commentary that drew a connection between the buzzing of insect wings and the flapping of sails. Or perhaps he read a source that made a case for the wording of the LXX. Undeniably, there's a connection being made between the insects of v. 1 and the boats of v. 2. That was enough for the translators of the LXX evidently.

Personally, I'd want to stick with the Hebrew tradition.

If you have a definitive answer as to how the LXX tradition found its way into the Living Bible/New Living Translation, please share it in the comments.