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History, genealogy, and confession can all be faked.

On its way to a profoundly moving promise of ‘new things’ that will be both redemptive and easy to welcome, the 48th chapter of the book of Isaiah digs deep into Israel/Judah’s pretension. We see here the logic of ‘refining’ this people ‘in the furnace of affliction’, for from Isaiah’s perspective only a humble nation can receive YHWH’s future. And Israel will not be humble until she has been humbled.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the Lord and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right. For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the Lord of hosts is his name. (Isaiah 48:1–2 ESV)

The passage begins as though bent on heroic declaration. Jacob’s historical identity leads the nation to bask in the name ‘Israel’. And we are probably to imagine the very genealogical datum of procreation when we learn that Jacob has come ‘from the waters of Judah’. All this legacy is then complemented by the present-day activities of ‘swear(ing) by the name of YHWH and confess(ing) the God of Israel.’

Then, the prophet’s acclamation, is rudely interrupted.

… but not in truth or right. (v. 2)

It is so very like the Israelite prophets to insist, with ineluctable insight, that appearances and reality diverge even—perhaps especially—when a people claims to enjoy YHWH’s favor.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul considers himself to stand on solid polemical ground when he issues the otherwise startling claim that …

(I)t is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring … (Romans 9:6–7 ESV)

Just as an abundance of smoke hints strongly at the presence of fire, so self-confident claims of YHWH’s favor lead the astute observer to wonder what reality is being hidden, by whom, and for what reason.

Still, the most startling feature of Isaiah chapter 48 is that this harsh diagnosis of Israel/Judah is not placed here as a final word of denunciation and dismissal. Rather, the prophet is in diagnostic mode, for YHWH has in spite of his people’s obstinacy the unswerving purpose to bring them healing and a future.

There is no measured reciprocity in YHWH’s mercy as this is sketched out in the book of Isaiah. The logic of quid pro quo has no place here, in this landscape of abundant pardon.

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6–9 ESV)

The call not to let the opportunity of experiencing YHWH’s mercy—forgiving and restorative—is based in part on the perhaps limited window of its availability. One should seek him ‘while he may be found’ and call upon him ‘while he is near’.

But the other motive for such questing after YHWH in this season, when he is unusually close at hand, is that his compassion for those ‘wicked’ and ‘unrighteous’ people who will forsake what they have become and return to YHWH is articulated as ‘abundant pardon’. In fact, it is the disproportionate mercy with which YHWH will embrace those who return that sets the context for a passage which is usually quoted in the abstract, as though it simply marked a generic difference between how YHWH reasons and how people think. In reality, the prophet is getting at something far more concrete and specific than that:

‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV)

The ways and thoughts that are so patently superhuman (if one may use that term without trivializing its subject) are the ways and thoughts of abundant pardon. That is, there is no restrictive calculation, no reductive logic, no parsimony about the forgiving mercy with which YHWH embraces the evil man who returns to him.

Those familiar human measurings-out of grace with which we are so damningly familiar are as low in altitude as a fetid swamp at sea level is over against a soaring bank of cumulus clouds. One can speak as though the two can be compared, but in point of fact they can only be contrasted. The former is very much unlike the latter. The two are not even close to each other in scope and scale.

To hew to verse nine’s precise cadence, neither the way YHWH thinks about pardon nor the way he acts to forgive can be captured in the small bowls and measly cups of human reckoning.

There is no self-help in the prophet’s insight, no tawdry bootstraps to be yanked up, no pathetic morality to be offered as bait to a god who is reluctant to forgive but might just be persuaded if one is sufficiently sad and sincere. YHWH is not like that, does not play that game.

If human forgiveness is our starting line, our point of reference, we can know nothing of divine pardon. The one is not a suitable analogue to the other. At our best, a very good man might forgive an evil man who is sorry. YHWH is not like that.

With him, abundant mercy is like nothing we have ever seen.

Few of the book of Isaiah’s statements about the ‘servant of the Lord’ are as densely packed as the image-rich section begins at Isaiah 49.1.

Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.’

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49:1–6 ESV)

First, we have the expression of profound intimacy between the servant and YHWH. This is made explicit throughout the passage, but the reader should not miss its implicit expression in the passage’s first words. The opening summons (‘Listen to me … give attention’) is sometimes offered in the book of Isaiah by the prophet with the immediately following declaration that ‘YHWH has spoken’. At other times YHWH himself seeks to use this convening expression himself.

Here, remarkably, it is the servant who both calls hearers to attention and delivers the content of the declaration: in this case, that YHWH is the initiator of the servant’s existence and his purpose. The effect of this transfer of a familiar and authoritative convening expression to the servant’s lips seems to effect an elevation of his status.

Second, there is an unwavering focus in this passage upon the plight of the coastlands, the far-off peoples, the nations, and the farthest end of the earth. Although some would argue that these expressions pertain to Jews who are found in those places, it seems to me that the traditional understanding that these are non-Jewish people(s) enjoys the preponderance of support from the data. The conventional view also enjoys the support of the juxtaposition in verse 6, where the comparatively ‘light thing’ of the servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and bringing back ‘the preserved of Israel’ stands over against what is by implication a weightier achievement: enlightening the nations and extending YHWH’s salvation to the end of the earth.

It appears that the developing profile of the servant, strengthened in this passage in measure that must not be overlooked, includes genuinely redemptive activity and achievement in the interest of gentile nations.

Third, one notes the juxtaposition of word and weaponry. That is, both here and elsewhere the servant’s principal occupation seems to be announcing YHWH’s redemptive purpose and calling people to participate in it. Yet the servant affirms in these verses that YHWH has made (both for deployment and for safeguarding, perhaps in the latter case until the appropriate moment) him to be like a sword and an arrow. These two poles come together in the exquisite detail that …

(YHWH) made my mouth like a sharp sword.

The implication is that the servant’s verbally centered activity serves to change fates and destinies in the way that battle changes the status quo of warring nations in one direction or another. His role is here not consoling or affirming, but rather one that intends deep change. That is, he does not consolidate and strengthen what is; rather he transforms it into something new.

Fourth, we should not overlook the note of wearying labor in the servant’s commission. The book is not sparing with the vocabulary that here comes into play once again, with a Hebrew verb like יגע carrying the reader’s mind to an arguably more famous passage like Isaiah 40.27-31.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

There, as in chapter 49, it is Jacob/Israel who contemplate the tragedy of final weariness and find that YHWH’s strength (כח) becomes the effective counterpoise to their fatigue in the face of unrelenting demands.

Finally, this passage insists upon what emerges here as part of a developing theme in the book of Isaiah: Jacob/Israel (here identified also as the servant) and YHWH find themselves in a mutually glorifying relationship. Honor and glory (at times complemented by ‘beauty) flow back and forth between YHWH and the servant as the former pursues his purpose and the latter his commission.

Jonathan Wilson’s intimate look at this most enigmatic artist is just the introduction a non-specialist like this reviewer needs for moving from a first encounter with Chagall’s work to a deeper understanding of his life and person. I suspect the veteran Chagall watcher will also find more than a little in Wilson’s pages that will enrich his understanding or throw fresh light on ambiguities that are worthy of further inspection.

51Tg6-LCzQLWilson’s method is to follow Chagall around from city to city and lover to lover. Evidence for this is seen in the titles of the book’s seventeen chapters. All but three of them simply present the name of one of Chagall’s places or one of his women. So, for example, ‘1. Vitebsk, 2. St. Petersburg, 3. Paris, 4. Bella … 12. New York, 13. Virgina (Haggard), 14 Orgeval …’ The three exceptions (6. Yiddish Theater, 15. A Problem of Conscience, 17. Blessings) explore matters of deep thematic importance that lie close to the soul of Chagall and his art.

So does Wilson periodize Chagall’s life in helpful ways. We travel with an artist as he moves from context to context in a world where it seemed impossible for him to own any one of them completely or to deny any one finally. Chagall emerges as a conflicted human being, unable fully to rank the places and the people that have shaped him, unable to leave any place behind, certain to live simultaneously as Russian, as Jew, as Frenchman, as quasi-American, as on-again, off-again Zionist, as an artist who was himself never other than a work in progress.

If Chagall failed to integrate these stages-of-residence, he at least combined them. For example, Wilson writes that …

Chagall, whether he believed that he was doing so or not, sneaked Yiddish culture into twentieth-century painting through the back door. Hardly anyone, with the exception of the odd French anti-Semite, noticed what was happening because the vibrant visual expression of his paintings carried the stamp of the modern and not the stigma of a dying language. Sadly, Chagall’s genius spawned a host of artists who specialized in Jewish kitsch, whereas Picasso’s had an impact on almost every great painter who came after him.

And again …

It was Chagall’s great talent as an artist to absorb influences without becoming a slave to them. He was not an intellectual, and he powerfully resisted ideologies and theories while, magpielike, stealing what he fancied from the various isms that surrounded him. This characteristic preserved Chagall’s artistic integrity in Paris but inevitably got him into trouble in Russia after the Revolution.

Along the way, Wilson touches repeatedly upon Chagall’s fascination with Jesus, this crucified Jew who frequents the artist’s canvas in a way that has generated multiple explanations, sadly none of them coming directly from Chagall’s own lips or pen.

Here is Wilson himself on the question:

Chagall, in what was perhaps an even more radical gesture, appeared to reach back to a pre-Christian Jesus, a man who has not yet been granted the powers of miracle and redemption, and is rather an ancient Jewish martyr presented as a symbol of contemporary Jewish martyrs. In so doing Chagall risked alienating those members of his Jewish audience for whom the simple presence of Jesus Christ in a painting signaled betrayal and oppression rather than their opposite … Chagall’s appropriation of the Crucifixion of Jesus as an icon of Jewish suffering is not entirely uncommon among Jewish writers and artists in the twentieth century. It occurs, for example, in the work of the Yiddish novelist Pinchas Kahanovich (known as Der Nister, The Hidden One), in Scholem Asch, to chilling effect in Elie Wiesel’s Night, and in Yehuda Amichai’s remarkable poem ‘The Jewish Time Bomb’. Whatever its degree of surprise to a Jewish audience, Chagall’s decision to paint a Crucifixion scene in 1938 is hardly out of keeping with his own obsessions, for, as has already been noted, his relationship with ‘Christ as a poet and prophetic figure’ was deep and long-lasting.

Wilson does not elevate the great man more than the evidence allows. He is wry about the massive and vulnerable ego that does not so much distinguish Chagall from his peers as it identifies him with them. He can just as easily register Chagall’s well-earned reputation as an attentive and caring teacher as he can quote this observation by one of the artist’s wives:

‘(H)e painted love but he didn’t practice it,’ Virginia Haggard remarks of Chagall in her memoire, more in sorrow than in anger.

Writing as he does for the Jewish Encounter Series, Jonathan Wilson is particularly perceptive on the dynamics of Chagall’s Jewishness, both as the artist lived this identity and as others (both Jews and non-Jews) perceived and interacted with it.

In the end, Wilson’s life of Chagall appropriately humanizes the man, recording in his final pages Chagall’s wistful observation in a speech before the Israeli Knesset that ‘I tend to look with some sadness at everything—friend or foe.’ Wilson has done us the service of introducing us to an artist who tended more than he declared, who brought his abiding enigma into his art and so illuminated our own unshakeable paradoxes, nuances, and mixed identities as we engage the very bright and deeply brooding blue art of Marc Chagall.

Easter is becoming a rough time for Christians in lands where Islam is the dominant religion. It’s likely to become still rougher, as this preeminent Christian holy day packs the elements that most enrage Islamist sensitivities into one dense cluster of hours.

A poignant and stirring pair of paragraphs closes today’s Wall Street Journal coverage of the pain and anger that follow upon this weekend’s double massacre in Egypt.

The Journal‘s Maria Abi-Habib and Dahlia Kholaif introduce us to Hoda Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Egyptian university student, who says with a grim determination that is familiar on the lips of Christians in the Middle East these days:

We no longer see a future for us in Egypt, but we won’t leave … Yes, we’re very angry at the government. After each attach, they make the same promises only for it to happen all over again.’

Yet the article’s enduring resonance takes shape in its final paragraphs, which signal that this mess is not nearly as easy to figure out as Muslim-v.-Christian rhetoric suggests:

Youths sobbed on the sidewalk as they waited to enter the church, some clutching white flower wreaths shaped like crosses. Others had come immediately from class, textbooks in hand.

Ms. Ibrahim showed photos on her phone of 11 friends killed on Sunday. Her Muslim classmates also attended the funeral, women wearing the hijab embracing friends donning crucifix necklaces, crying alongside them.

However we may choose to come to grips with the pluriform shapes, convictions, and impulses of Islam as a religion, it is a mistake to indulge the feel-good language that lays such evil violence at the feet of all Muslims, let alone those of my Muslim neighbor.

Those hijab-covered friends of Hoda Ibrahim accompanied her into a Christian holy space to mourn the violence that their co-religionists have once again perpetrated upon the innocent.

There is no blood on their hands.

We may in good faith ask them what holds them to a religion that appears to engender such horrors at its margins. But we must not demonize them or suppose that theirs are crocodile tears.

The Middle Eastern man whose resurrection is celebrated this week would not have done so. Probably, he would have looked them in the eye, taken them at their word, found his heart moved by their grief and confusion. Likely, his tears would have mingled with theirs. In time, he would have taken their hands in his and shared with them some good news.

 

I never blog about stuff like this.

But the reports and video coming out regarding a passenger’s forceful removal from an aircraft at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport yesterday have me incensed.

Let me clarify my modest credentials for expressing my opinion: I am a Million Miler on United Airlines. My butt has been in a United Airlines seat more often than I care to remember. Sadly the incident that’s hitting the news today is the logical conclusion of the contempt for its passengers that United displays far too often. Many of us fly this airline only because we must.

I was safe at home in Indianapolis yesterday. But I feel like I’ve been on that plane in Chicago, minus the dragging of a passenger down the aisle, the bloody face, and most of the screaming.

With some regularity, United flight attendants, gate agents, and pilots show extraordinary human kindness and patience, often in the face of stunningly belligerent passengers. The ones who do know who they are and they are likely almost as embarrassed and upset about this incident as the passengers on that plane at O’Hare who were forced to live through what happened.

According to news reports, United needed to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville and could persuade no paid customers to defer their travel for a day in exchange for $800 in highly conditioned and caveated United travel vouchers (I’ve got enough of them to know) and a hotel voucher. I’m not surprised.

In regular life, this is a company problem, not a customer problem. United, true to form, chose not to find a way to solve its problem by itself (offer the passengers $2000 if that’s what it takes; get their employees to Louisville by another way, just as the four passengers who were forced to abandon the aircraft would need to find another way; good grief you can drive to Louisville).

Take some responsibility, United. And, please, turn off the ‘friendly skies’ music until you do. Is that too much to ask?

A lot went wrong here. An awful lot. Clearly, United could not have anticipated the behavior of the security officers charged with removing (forcibly if necessary) four ordinary passengers whose day went badly south in an instant.

I hope Mr. Muñoz, by all accounts a decisive and highly relational CEO, is on this. I hope he’s doing nothing else for the next week but fixing this problem and then getting in front of a camera to explain that this will never happen again at United Airlines.

Meanwhile, United Airlines, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

Isaiah is not so much the herald of unlikely beginnings as he is the prophet of unpromising re-starts.

His signature is not the tale of origins, but rather the anticipation of dead things springing quietly to life. In chapter 11 of the book that bears Isaiah’s name, the prophet assumes the destruction of the Davidic monarchy. Having done so, this compelling oracle goes back to Jesse, the father of David, the shepherdly antecedent to kings and kingdoms. It is as though a fresh start requires a radical retreat to the moment before the long trajectory of Israelite disappointment in its kings had set off upon its tortuous arc.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1–5 ESV)

This unnamed scion of the house of Jesse emerges from a dead tree, cut down to stump and left to rot amid the leveled forest of kingdoms that did not pan out.

His intimacy with YHWH is breathtaking. In this closest of relationships lies his capacity. Indeed, he is saturated with YHWH’s enabling Spirit, which rests upon him in the way a dense fog takes virtual possession of the valley upon which it descends. In consequence, this new David—if that is how we are to understand this Jesse’s son—is not hobbled by Israel’s eventual blindness and deafness. He sees and listens through appearances, through posturing, through the national hypocrisies which make claims to rightness and inevitability that fool all but the most perceptive watcher.

As a result, justice rather than sham manipulations of the powerless by the powerful takes its life-generating place at the core of the nation’s shared life.

As so often in this long book, we are moved to deep yearning by such lines. And then left to ask in something close to interpretive exasperation …

But who is this … ?