Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 4 of 7

This 7-part series originally ran under the German title “Einige biblische Culturbilder” in Der Lutheraner from August 2 to October 25, 1904. The author is Georg Stoeckhardt, who served as a professor at Concordia Seminary – St. Louis for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commonly regarded as the greatest exegete in the history of the Missouri Synod. I offer this translation in the hope it will be edifying and thought-provoking to the 21st century Lutheran reader also. – R.L.L.

Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 4

We have used the Bible to make an overview of the most ancient history of mankind, from the beginnings through first steps of progress in culture.  Now we turn to the prophets.  We find in the prophetic books serious, gripping descriptions of moral decay.  Often the prophets chided the people for being unthankful, for despising the generous acts of God, and for misusing his good gifts.  Israel also stood apart, that it had God’s Word and revelation, and a highly gifted people, especially since the days of Solomon.  In all arts and skills they were well-practiced and schooled.  But since they had fallen away from the living God, they began to lose their way, becoming slaves to idleness and adopting the ways of the God-forgetting heathen.

The prophet Isaiah once placed before their eyes a powerful penitential sermon in chapters two through four.  There he showed his contemporaries the contrast between the glory of the kingdom of God, from which they had turned their hearts, and the glory of this earth, in which they found their pleasure.  The house of Jacob, which ought to have walked in the light of the Lord, had coalesced with the children of strangers.  It had filled its land with silver and gold and treasures without end, with horses and chariots.  It was proud of its majestic cities, its high towers, steep walls, and all its spectacles (Isaiah 2:5 ff).  The prophet goes after people of all social classes, especially preaching judgment on the leaders of the people.  Then he singles out the daughters of Zion in particular, and he castigates their pride and indulgence.  This moral-portrait, which details the decay of the Israelite woman (Isaiah 3:16 – 4:1), is also a descriptive picture of culture.  The art and culture of the time had brought about the production of all kinds of luxury items for women.

We give here the text in full: “The LORD said: ‘Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters Zion, and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts.’  In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.  Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.  Your men shall fall by the sword and your mighty men in battle.  And her gates shall lament and mourn; empty, she shall sit on the ground.  And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, ‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach’” (Isaiah 3:16 – 4:1 ESV).

We want to closer examine these Israelite fashion-women, who walked the streets of Jerusalem showcasing the culture and fashion of their time on their bodies.  We consider here the numerous fashion articles, which the prophet named somewhat haphazardly, and we bring them into a more careful order.  The daughters of Jerusalem wore a fine linen undergarment, which was imported from the Hindu-land, or East India.  It was not available to them at home.  The tight-fitting under garments were covered by a wide tunic with sleeves.  These served as a base garment to gala wear and expensive public dress.  This extravagance in clothing was fastened together by a colorfully embroidered belt.  The shawl formed the outermost layer of clothing, which one wore around the shoulder.  This type of dress was so fine and well-arranged, that every part was visible.  The head-covering was also manifold.  Out of multi-colored cloths turbans covered the forehead, and from these hung wavy veils.  Over the veils loomed carefully curled locks of hair.  In addition to all this came the main feature, the exquisite female jewelry, which was found on both the clothed and unclothed parts of the body.  The daughters of Zion knew well how to exhibit the abundant content of their jewelry boxes on their figures, and they knew of even the smallest defect on their bodies.  From head to foot the sublime female figure was decked out with decoration of every kind.  The turbans on the head were decorated with headbands, which were braided out of gold and silver thread.  In their ears they wore earrings, ear bells, or quite literally translated “ear drops.”  It appeared as if gold was flowing out of the woman’s ear.  In the pierced nasal wall were nose rings about the size of a dollar, and they hung down over the mouth.  Around the neck was a chain which reached down to the breast.  The arms had bracelets, and the fingers had rings which were heavily decorated, which also served as signet rings.  On the belt hung a fine wooden box, which served like a purse.  Somewhere on the body were perfume bottles with musk-filled capsules.  These covered the body in a pleasant aroma.  They also wore amulets, small silver and gold plates which were engraved with magic formulas.  While these fashion-women walked the streets, they carried small metal mirrors in their hands, so they could constantly see their reflection before their eyes.  Their tender feet also were accessorized with so-called foot rings or foot bracelets, which were bound together by small chains.  They made tripping a constant risk while they walked.  And these small chains were decorated with small bells, and this clinging noise announced to people on the street in advance, that once again one of the proud daughters of Jerusalem was coming.

It’s like a picture out of the present.  This description of the daughters of Jerusalem is a mirror image of the female generation of all times.  Culture and art have always had a partiality for women’s fashion in all civilized nations.  The way culture views women has always been a landmark of various peoples and tribes, of different periods of culture.  Thousands of trade laborers and artists, countless machines and factories are today bustling and busy, in order to produce fashion items for women.  Women’s clothing and women’s jewelry take the first place in both big and small advertisements for the big department stores.  And the female model has remained the same in all times.  Where wealth and luxury rule, they are working in the women’s department just as the tailor did for the daughters of Zion.  We consider especially the modern fashion-women, whom we see walking on the streets of our cities.  We see still the same extravagance of clothing, the opulence and excess of skirts, clothes, coats, jackets, robes, shoes, hats, a true hodgepodge of jewelry, makeup, necklaces, arm bracelets, rings, brooches, needles, buttons, etc.  And one observes that not only this wardrobe looks beautiful, but it also smells beautiful.  The assortment of perfumes of every kind has become a great industry.  Now surely culture has made notable steps in progress.  Women have laid aside the nose rings and foot rings.  They let their hair peek out under the head-covering rather than over it.  In many ways they are more tastefully clothed and decorated than women of past centuries and millenia, and also in many ways more tasteless.  They martyr their bodies and spoil the look of their figures, whereas the women of old did not think to wear tank-tops and force their feet into such small shoes.  And there was one difference which speaks in favor of the daughters of Zion.  With them their bodies were so packed with clothing, there was no room left for inappropriate baring of the body, which has become fashionable today.

With this description of the cultured world of women, the prophet Isaiah does not intend to make any sensation or effect.  He does not intend to grasp the intention of his hearers and readers in any special way, to insert a spicy tidbit into his first prophecy.  Isaiah is no novelist.  Even this, what he here describes, is God’s Word.  Throughout the entire description there is irony, Isaiah’s mockery.  Yes, God’s Word mocks the foolishness of the women who beheld all these frivolous things for important, who regarded clothing accessories and jewelry their life’s mission.  They made their beauty lent from God a caricature, a grimace.  Their whole pursuit of beauty, with so much art and so much effort, finally rendered them ugly.  And this mockery also applies to the men who found pleasure in such women, who discover in such superficiality the ideal woman.  Also this piece of culture, of women’s culture, stands in the service of sin, in the service of vanity and pride.  The daughters of Zion were “arrogant”, were proud of “the splendor”, “the pageantry” of their clothing.  When a man fancies himself on account of his intellectual gifts or intellectual production, certainly this is also objectionable and loathsome in God’s eyes.  But how vulgar and degrading is it, when a rational creature takes pride in outward rubbish and tinsel which one hangs on the body.  Still, the proud and vain women pursue another goal.  The daughters of Jerusalem blinked with their eyes at the men whom they met on the street.  They gave them seductive looks.  Their awkward walking and foot-clinking was all intentional.  With their artificial stimuli they intended to draw the attention of men.  These fashion-women not only go walking on the street for a while and then go home, but they are also women of society.  And as the fine and elegant ladies and gentlemen float in the higher social circles, discipline, shame, decency, and grace are trampled underfoot.  This happens were lust of the eyes and lust of the senses is cultivated, as is well-known.  And finally the prophet reminds us of the final end of this cultural development.  He proclaims to the women of Jerusalem a grave fate, which they would meet in their own time.  Namely, this fate would be the loss of men, isolation, and abandonment.  And since then how often has this repeated itself.  Much celebrated beauty, which parades around in velvet and silk, it first sucks in the desire of the world in full breaths.  Then what happens?  It closes its days of life in poverty, misery, and oblivion!  But soon a day will come, on which the Lord almighty will humble the proud on earth, on which we will throw all the colorful junk of proud women into a mess and give it over to the fire of judgment.  Yes, mold, stench, the mudhole, which burns with fire and sulphur, eternal disgrace and shame, that is the final fate of all children of men, who have forgotten and abandoned the living God, and in the desire and glory of this world seek their god and heaven.

But the Christian women should thank God, that they have been purified from the muck of the daughters of Zion (Isaiah 4:4).  They are content to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9).  Thereby they never forget what the apostle specifically warns: “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).

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