and his sword is bathed in heaven

Yesterday I got some sort of a reminder, I think on Facebook, that this Sunday begins the new D&C curriculum year, so I thought I would read the assigned text, which is D&C 1. So I’m reading along and I come to verse 13: “And the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth.” And I was struck by the expression “his sword is bathed in heaven”; what the heck is that supposed to mean?

I quickly found that it is a quote from Isaiah 34:5: “For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment.”

This sort of martial imagery set in heaven was unfamiliar to me. Could it be an allusion to the war in heaven? Maybe, but God actually wielding a sword seems a little bit literal for that episode (especially since the combatants were spirits).

And what does “bathed in heaven” even mean? My first guess was that it meant “bathed [in blood] in heaven.” Most modern translations render something like “When my sword has drunk its fill in heaven,” which you’ve gotta admit is some kickass imagery! That’s something Errol Flynn as Captain Blood would say.

The NET renders:

He says, “Indeed my sword has slaughtered heavenly powers.

Look, it now descends on Edom,

on the people I shall annihilate in judgment.”

The heavenly powers are the stars, planets, gods and other heavenly luminaries that are members of the Divine Council and here are portrayed as opposing the high god El and being defeated by him in battle.

Why would Isaiah use this Canaanite imagery? We must remember that the Israelites and the Canaanites were cousins in many ways, both geographically and linguistically, and there was overlap between them religiously as well. And when a prophet like Isaiah wanted to make a point strongly, as here, they would sometimes borrow Canaanite imagery and tropes. We may not think God had a sword battle with the moon, but that was powerful imagery in the religious culture of the time, which the prophets were willing to unleash when it suited their purposes. (I have previously addressed overlaps between Israelites and Canaanites in my articles “On Elkenah as Canaanite El” and “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven.”)

And I’ve gotta admit, I’m impressed that Joseph was able to come up with and deploy this powerful biblical imagery. That young man knew his Bible.

Comments

  1. Wonderful! I’m here for any of this!

  2. Chad Nielsen says:

    Huh. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve always wondered why the term Idumea was used in verse 36 as a term for the world. It seemed rather obscure compared to other possibilities (i.e. Babylon or even just cutting to the chase and saying “the world” to begin with). I guess it’s just drawing on the Isaiah phrase already used earlier in the section that you point out here.

  3. Wondering says:

    Yes. “That young man knew his Bible.” I have often wondered to what extent his knowledge of biblical phrases/rhetoric was general in his immediate family or even in the wider culture in which he grew up.
    It is not uncommon for contemporary LDS to miss his use of such biblical imagery/phrases for lack of their own familiarity with the bible. E.g. I’ve been slightly amused at the shock it is to some to find the Lord in the D&C quoting the Song of Solomon — or at least repurposing phrases from the Song of Solomon just as Isaiah could repurpose Canaanite imagery. I suppose the shock was a reaction either to the Song of Solomon itself or to what JS is reputed to have said about it.

  4. Allan Garber says:

    I do not appreciate your use of the word “kickass” when discussing sacred matters.

  5. Anonymous Gideon says:

    I hope Allan is trolling for sake of humor.

  6. Very interesting. Scripture passages like this are quite hard for translators. The Finnish D&C says “pesty taivaassa” (“washed in heaven”), when Bible is more in line with “drunk its fill in heaven”. Also, verse 36 uses “Idumea”, whereas Finnish Bible uses “Edom”.
    These kind of differences make it hard to spot biblical allusions.

  7. Kevin, I love this imagery too. I prefer the REB (Revised English Bible) to the NET and it reads, “For my sword appears in heaven”. This tracks with the Great Isaiah Scroll as can be seen below, as well as the Targum.

    Robert Alter has, “For My sword slaked its thirst in the heavens,”

    In his Hermeneia volume, JJM Roberts translated it as “And all the host of heaven will rot away, and the heavens will be rolled up like the scroll, And all their host will wither as a leaf withers from the vine, or withered fruit from a fig tree. FOR MY SWORD HAS BECOME DRUNK in the heavens, Behold on Edom it will come down, and upon the people I have doomed to judgment.” (vv.4-5) In his translation note, he offers some other variants, “The verb in MT ‘for my sword will give drink abundantly in the heavens,’ should probably be corrected from the piel to the qal with LXX, Vg. Syr. (‘for my sword will become drunk in the heavens’); cf. v. 7; 1QIsa ‘for my sword will be seen in the heavens,’ so Tg. ‘for my sword will be revealed in the heavens.'” [I’ve simplified the full quote for purposes of typing. (2015, pp. 433-434).

    Exploring the variants is good when we’re dealing with Isaiah specifically, but my questions is how helpful is it when we’re dealing with Joseph Smith’s revelations that use such imagery. How far do the variants transfer?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Allan, my apologies for the offense. I was trying to portray vividly what a swashbuckling image “when my sword has drunk its fill” conveys.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Edom and Idumea are just different forms of the same name. Edom is a Hebrew word meaning “red” (presumably from the color of the soil Transjordan) and Idumea is just the graecized form of the same word.

  10. You can only use the phrase “kickass” when referring to Balaam.

  11. “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
    Revelation 2:16

  12. Aussie Mormon says:

    CM: “You can only use the phrase “kickass” when referring to Balaam.”

    Nah, he used his staff, so that was an ass beating.

  13. Very interesting! Thanks for the history on this.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.