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Archive for February, 2018

unforgotten: Isaiah

Are those who die unjustly simply to be forgotten?

In a world like ours—battered and bleeding—it is for too many the farthest thing from an arcane question. The rubble of battlefield and broken neighborhood covers far too many lifeless bodies for that.

It has become for us, as it was in the beginning, a question most real.

The very first chapters of the biblical witness both affirm the validity of the question and declare that, at least in this first episode of fratricide, amnesia will not conquer the victimized dead, will not annul their enduring meaning, will not finally silence their cry.

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’ (Genesis 4:8–10 ESV)

Students of Scripture have often wondered whether Urzeit ist Endzeit (roughly: ‘first time is last time’ or ‘first epoch is final epoch’). That is, will a promised new heavens and new earth in some way be aligned with features of the primordial awakening of creation? Is there a correspondence between what was in the beginning and what shall be in the end?

The biblical canon’s answer seems to consist of a qualified yes.

What is more, when the biblical witness becomes most pressured to assure its readers that our awful in-between time is not simply a sad, violent descent into hell, it seems to focus most specifically on those elements of The Beginning that shall return to us in The End. We call such literature apocalyptic or revelatory, not least because its insistence that God’s future must be radically different than life as we have come to know it requires new information. It depends less on continuities with the present and more on sharp breaks from history’s path and its redirection towards something entirely new. Its truths cannot be derived from the reality we know, so they must be revealed or disclosed if we are to grasp them.

The 26th chapter of Isaiah is part of such an apocalyptic section.

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain. (Isaiah 26:20–21 ESV)

Cain’s blood still cries, as it were, in the ears of the prophetic-apocalyptic author.

When the Isaianic voice shouts in strange verse about a cosmic resolution of those ills which threaten little Israel’s very existence in the face of marauding conquerors, it remembers the greater threat. This threat is not so much the danger that this Assyrian power or that Babylonian empire might devastate us yet again, but the higher and deeper threat that this might occur with no one looking on to prevent it nor even to lament the unjust silencing of the doomed when it has occured.

The text moves to assure its reader that YHWH has a punishment in store for those who swing the sword unjustly. But, significantly, there is more to this divine re-activation than merely the retribution that YHWH will visit upon the conqueror. The earth, we read, will disclose the blood shed on it. It will cease conspiring with the covering up of innocent blood, spilled from Abel’s time up to the present.

It is not an accident that hints of something like resurrection also occur as part of this cluster of ideas, nor that resurrection suggests itself even in these Isaianic verses, for only—by some logic—a rebirth and revivification is adequate to the silencing claims of lethal injustice. If life has been taken, life must be given again. No mere forensic accounting, no bare punishment of murders, is sufficient for the restoration of what has been lost.

But for now, in a prophet’s days long before ‘resurrection’ has become a way of thinking about such things, the text makes a quieter promise: these fallen ones, their blood covered over by aeons of dust and soil, shall not be forgotten.

Abel’s blood, their blood, still cries out as YHWH watches and takes notice.

What will he do for these righteous dead?

 

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