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Archive for January, 2021

There is drama enough in YHWH’s role as Israel’s father, sufficient for the angst that is seen both in children and in their father when passages like Isaiah’s sixty-second chapter come under our study.

Indeed, the book’s earliest translator has been joined by commentators ever since in airbrushing or arm-twisting divine pathos out of this passage and its similars in favor of an impassive deity who metes out justice serenely, untroubled. But this is not Isaiah’s YHWH, if one may use the possessive in that way.

The chapter is anguished almost to the point of over-wrought. An awful something hangs in the air. It is not the moment for this prophet’s customary and ironic light brush.

The chapter’s beginning is blood-spattered. YHWH, the warrior, strides into view with the stains of battle defiling his robes. To modern sensibilities, the scene does not make for pleasant reading and we ought not too quickly suppose that ancient preferences were very different. YHWH was found no one to join him in his execution of justice. The reiterated claims to that effect make this text the closest exposition of divine loneliness that we find in this book and perhaps in the Hebrew Bible itself.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.  I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.

Isaiah 63:3-6 ESV, emphasis added

But the divine suffering—again, I am aware that I am following Isaiah into language to which most theologizing is unreceptive—does not end with the solitude of heroic battle. It moves forward into the almost deranged disillusionment of a father to which the children have proven traitorous.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.’ And he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

Isaiah 63:8-10 ESV

The chapter pivots immediately after this extract, no longer profiling a jilted father but occupying itself with the children’s accusation against a now passive father.

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.  For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

 O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Your holy people held possession for a little while; our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.

 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name.

Isaiah 63:15-19 ESV

Saccharine emotivity about ‘life with God’ knows nothing of such family drama and withers when brought near to its heat. Or should do.

A Christian reader like this one finds that it is not his compeers among followers of Jesus who wrestle best with such texts, but rather Jewish interpreters whose long journey with YHWH carves out a space for, may one say it, Shoah.

Estrangement between a divine father and the human children whom he longs to gather happily around the family hearth finds too large a space in the Bible’s witness to be easily dismissed. Creation itself aches in its light. We are rightly undone.

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We long for permanence.

Much of humanity does or has done, anyway. It may be that the tyranny of the immediate has dulled this appetite in us moderns. We cremate instead of bury. We watch our population rates decline. We think only a little about the past and perhaps even less about the future.

If this is a fair description, then we have become impoverished. Now and here are important, but so is where we can from. So is where we’re going. So is that other day, the one we will not, cannot see.

The rambunctious hilarity of restored Israel’s joy, as it is splashed across the canvas of Isaiah 61 at any rate, spares a thought for the future. For longevity. For the stubborn lingering of fame. For offspring.

The sight is quite beautiful, coming as it does in this text from YHWH’s unseen mouth and developed in two small, lyrical movements.

First, this:

Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.

Isaiah 61:9 ESV

The biblical tradition is jealous for longevity, even when it lacks the language for ‘life after death’, to which religious readers naturally resort. If something is real, one holds it heavy in the hand, where it makes a little dent in soft flesh. It lasts. Endures. Does not ‘pass away’.

So with blessing, so with people who have known blessing. One expects the thing to last a good while, even forever. One anticipates that the melody will persist through multiple stanzas, that the variations will have their way with the theme, but that the theme will remain recognizable in each of them.

YHWH’s declaration then, if it is strange, is strange only in its extremity. Otherwise it maps naturally over the longing of Israel’s mothers and fathers. Yet it expands, noisily it expands. It moves beyond permanence and reaches for fame, in the way that the dynamic of crescendo ceaselessly does in this long, soulish work called Isaiah. The world will be visited, even saturated by these sons, these granddaughters, these ‘offspring’ as they can be abbreviated into the singular. They’ll be everywhere, and famously so. YHWH’s blessing, resting lightly upon their over-achieving shoulders, will be undeniable. Indeed, ‘all who see them shall acknowledge them.’

Then, this:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.

Isaiah 61:10-11 ESV

It is the second of these two verses that concerns us here, its lapse into horticultural metaphor simply another way of talking about people. It is a native dialect for this prophet and the interpreters and preachers of his legacy. There will be both YHWH-action and organic development in the vibrating, bodacious, fecund longevity of Israel’s offspring. Where they roam, their ‘righteousness’ and ‘praise’ will grow up like beautiful weeds, like an exuberant wildflower garden before spectating nations.

You’ll grow old, the text seems to concede to the redeemed generation, the stink of Babylon still stuck to their feet but freedom in their gaze. This will not last, it too will have its conclusion as it has known too its genesis in your days. But they, your own, will live on gloriously. Publicly. Like stubbornly beautiful flowers they will push through dirt and soil and rock and display their beautiful heads, while nations startle and wonder.

They’ll hang around, these heirs, these blessed ones, these children aborning, even this grand- and great-grandchildren whom your rescued arms will not cradle. I am not finished with you.

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coyotes in snow

We sat differently at breakfast this morning in this new old house, this Connecticut experiment, this place in the woods.

Our muscles still ached just a bit from yesterday’s load of furniture moved in and pushed around, aided by generous friends as the snow came down in earnest. Now to reap the fruit of our labors.

We perched on a new bench stationed on the side of the table that allows us to peer out over our backyard and into the woods from the rectangle off the kitchen that has now become The Breakfast Room.

The trees are winter-resplendent in their uncomplaining bearing up of two inches of snow, a mere sprinkling for New Englanders but remarkable enough to draw grateful eyes to the beauty of it all. You can see through the woods this time of year, an unveiling of fauna that must have our animals on their toes, or should. I remarked that if any animals moved about in those woods this morning, we’d spot them easily against the white upturning on the other valleyside of our fair-weather stream.

No cameras were at hand, but if this ain’t the spittin’ image.

It was an observation, not an expectation.

Yet not a minute later something moved. I grabbed the nearby binoculars and spotted a nice-sized coyote making his way slowly, right to left across the woods just beyond our rock wall, unaware of our admiration. No, two! No, three coyotes shuffling along from somewhere to somewhere, wild and beautiful!

They looked like German Shepherds, and were about that size. If one didn’t know better, you might even hear ‘Wolves!’ ring out in our amazement. But we do know better.

These were the coyotes who made short work of poor Morris the Deer, cleaning up his body to leave a med-school laboratory’s worth of pristine skeleton, then days later leaving no trace even of bone, just scattered fur here and there as mute testimony to Morris’ majestic life and inglorious death.

It’s amazing to me that from the inside warmth of this house, we become spectators of a wildness that moves the soul on a winter’s morning, hinting at other and deeper wildnesses that haunt this neighborhood, this state, this planet.

Who would have thought it when we said our tearful goodbyes to that other old house out in Indiana and came to this old house in New England’s generous woods?

Coyotes in the snow.

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The book called Isaiah is impatient with the rigidities that so easily install themselves in the minds and practice of religious people. Isaianic faith is disquieting, disruptive, and disturbing, all for the sake of fidelity to the nature of Israel’s God and the good future to which that deity is committed. This faith is clear-eyed about the prominence of suffering in the pursuit of that good future. It reckons with YHWH’s compulsion for accomplishing worthy aims in, for, and by a deeply compromised people

Religious thinking and religious practice, by contrast, are often conservative, static, preservative, committed to the stability of the status quo rather than its supplanting by something better. This thinking and practice are repelled by suffering, as by the notion that suffering should become the lot of good people. It assumes that good things happen to good people.

These disparities show their face in the substructure of the soaring rhetoric that comes to us in the book’s forty-third chapter. Arguably, the trajectory of this unquiet language culminates in verses 18 and 19, with their summons to forget the former things and perceive YHWH’s new thing. This divine novelty, still unclear as to its shape and dimensions, lies either just over the horizon or is already finding its form under the community’s very feet.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’

Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true. ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God. Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?’

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘For your sake I send to Babylon and bring them all down as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice. I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’ Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

 ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…’

Isaiah 43:1-19 RSV)

Let us start at the end of the three rigidities I’ve mentioned and then find our way back to the beginning. It is the wider context rather than the specifics of this text that speak to the matter, this third of three inflexible assumptions: Good things happen to good people.

The prophet’s declaration comes in the passage before us to a profoundly compromised, indeed, helpless and hypocritical people. We know this not so much by virtue of this chapter, but rather by the context in which this passage is framed. That wider context sketches the people with an ‘as if’ hypothetical in the terms of deep and genuine piety, only to turn that description on its head and reveal that YHWH’s people in point of fact exhibit none of the named virtues.

Yet, in spite of the stunning absence of virtue cum credentials, YHWH is here heard to describe his people as created, formed, redeemed, named, ransomed, honored, and precious. The derelict community that peers over the cliff into the abyss of assimilation in Babylon that will be its extinction is here pictured aspirationally. It is as though YHWH looks at this people and sees what they shall become rather than what they are.

Moving now from context and coming to our text itself, we observe its dismissal of any notion that their special valuation by YHWH exonerates them from the experience of suffering that is common to all humanity. Indeed, if we understand the world of metaphor in which it traffics, the text addresses suffering in its extremity:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Isaiah 43:2 ESV

The promissory note is strong and impossible to mistake. Yet it would be wrong-headed in the wider context of exile, redemption, and return to read this promise as assuring an evasion of suffering. It is rather a preservation of the people in the midst of endangerment and the stresses it brings with it.

The waters that drown, the rivers that overwhelm, the fire that consumes are the anticipated lot of a people that will dare to depart the hell it has known for the unknown bright future to which it is summoned. Yet, they are instructed, YHWH shall accompany them amid those threats and carry them through.

This is very far from the ideology of security that is too easily the byproduct of religious faith.

This brings us to the next item in the roster of ideological deformities that I have offered up: Religious faith functions often as the guardian of a broken status quo to which a people has accommodated itself and in which it has learned to make its unsatisfying home. But Isaianic faith, particularly in moments like the one into which this text invites us, looks audaciously forward to a good and dangerous future that will require renunciation of present circumstances rather than a faith-based clinging to them.

Here the verses I have claimed as the passage’s culminating declaration come to the fore.

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV

Because this passage flirts with the stuff of inspiring sloganeering, we too easily uproot it from its native soil and so both misread and misrepresent.

The former things, the old things, the matters now to be forgotten are not exclusively, perhaps not even principally, bad things. On the contrary, they include Israel’s finest moments, though it must be understood that they embrace as well YHWH’s just decision to tear his petulant children from the land to which he had brought them and exile them—no, better, accompany them—across the desert to the infidel’s turf. But these episodes from the people’s formative past are no longer to serve as the people’s point of preference, as though history had somehow ended on that calendar date, as though YHWH’s purpose had somehow met its culminating if unsatisfactory moment and the rest were merely a matter of playing out upon an unmoving table the hand the community had been dealt. Not a riveting experience, perhaps, but better than nothing.

This is not the Isaianic vision.

Rather, whatever the aesthetic pleasure, the warm nostalgia, or the aching sense that YHWH had been just, the people are now instructed to forget all that. We ought not to over-psychologize the point as though what were at play here is a scraping clean of the human memory by force of will. Rather, the Judaean captives are to understand—the language of perception flourishes in these context—that past events are no longer determinative for a people caught up in purposeful YHWH’s hand.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19 ESV

The Great Days, Judah is asked to understand, are but prologue, no longer strictly necessary for understanding who one is, who this people must become, what YHWH has up his no longer irritatingly unmoving sleeve.

Isaianic faith—indeed all faith that looks to the invisible God’s declared intentions as its taproot—is not safe, conservative, or nice.

It adopts, redeems, disrupts, endangers, protects, forgets, and perceives.

None of this is possible if the deity is the umbrella shielding a just bearable status quo from inclement historical weather. That deity is not found in the Hebrew Bible, not even recognizable to Isaianic eyes. That little, convenient deity is an invisible god that bears no resemblance to God Invisible.

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The book of Isaiah manages both to deride idolatry and to analyze it with a deft scalpel. At times, the two forms of protest merge almost without seam.

In chapter 46, it is Babylonian religion—presumably endowed for Jewish captives with all the pomp and appeal of the established faith—that was likely the attractive alternative to YHWH-religion and so now the target of the prophet’s derision. That sarcasm finds the accoutrements of such religion to be a burden that wearies both its practitioners and any beast of burden unfortunate enough to find itself under their rod.

By subtle contrast, YHWH is presented as the God who has always carried his sons and daughters, always borne them up.

So the text presents a jarring, two-ways analysis:

Weighed down by the inert, accumulated detritus of religion. Or carried along by YHWH’s invisible hands. This is the alternative the prophet’s message presents in its attempt to cut through the social and ideological fog to shed a piercing light on what is really going on here.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry (נשא) are borne (עמס) as burdens (משא, a form derived from נשא) on weary beasts.

They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden (משא), but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne (ֹעמס) by me from before your birth, carried (נשא) from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry (סבל) you. I have made, and I will bear (נשא); I will carry (סבל) and will save.

Isaiah 46:1-4 (ESV)

In the citation, I have italicized and provided the Hebrew root of the three words deployed both in the descriptions of Babylonian religion’s wearisome failure and on the canvas of YHWH’s bearing up of his own in the past, the present, and the promised future. The irony is thick and its constituent elements deployed with remarkable agility. Helpless Bel and Nebo weary those who would serve them. YHWH bears his along in invisible arms.

I have also placed in bold the double employment of a different verb, this time מלט, with its strong connotations of rescue, even of salvation. When describing the poor beasts who carry the leaden burden of Babylonian gods, the text credits them with the inability to ‘save the burden’, almost certainly utilizing an ordinary expression that would have been known to the handlers of mules. By way of contrast, YHWH claims at the end of this passage that he will carry ‘and will save’. In both cases, the same Hebrew term comes to bear, though with meanings that inhabit very different planes.

The passage is both bleak in its analysis of religious futility and resonant with hope, the latter by way of its assertion that YHWH acts on behalf of his own rather than wearying them with the responsibility of his care, even of his transportation.

Two religious experiences could hardly be more starkly contrasted.

There is a further resonance in this text that I will mention but not develop in this short post: collateral damage.

The prophet who paints this vivid picture of religious subjects and objects brings those suffering animals into the picture in a way that might seem purely circumstantial. That is, oxen and mules are needed to make the metaphor work, but they lack pertinence beyond that workmanlike function.

In fact, more than this is going on. In the scenes in which Zion’s far-flung sons and daughters return with joy to glorified Jerusalem that anchor the book’s development from this point forward, the returnees are served by certain attendants. In point of detail, they are carried, a matter of narrative the utilizes the same verbs we have seen in the passage before us. Those who carry these returnees are not brute beasts but—surprisingly—gentile human beings, who both serve and benefit from their unanticipated role as transport. Indeed, these unexpected protagonists are called to rejoice with Jerusalem and in the final verses of the book are commissioned to return temporarily whence they came to declare there the glory of YHWH where it has heretofore not been known. Though they never quite shed their subservient status, they become at the same time sharers in and contributors to Jerusalem’s bounty. In point of fact, it is the very cultural legacy of the nations these people represent that beautifies suddenly cosmopolitan Zion.

If such highway narratives can speak, as 46.1-2 does, of collateral damage they also anticipate collateral benefit, in this case for those who bear long-lost Jewish exiles back home. YHWH’s empowering habits, his burden-bearing instincts are in a sense contagious in a way that is the exact opposite of the dreadful contagion of unbearable weariness that is the product of Babylonian religion as it is here presented.

These intersecting ironic threads, where subject becomes object and one verb or a collection of them winds its way through differing contexts to make similar but not identical points, represents the very warp and woof of the book of Isaiah. Here, Bel and Nebo absorb the brunt of the text’s rhetorical violence, while the reader is invited alongside his ancient counterpart to consider that YHWH has been near all along, not to pressure, obligate, needle, or demand.

Rather, to carry. Rather, to rescue. Rather, to save

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YHWH’s commitment to honoring the reality, the means, and the processes of his creation astounds the mechanistic reader who expects him to accomplish everything he does directly, without mediation.

This orientation of honoring what he has made rather than setting it aside when the really important divine business appears on the agenda shows up everywhere, even in YHWH’s most memorable redemptive moments. As the prophet contemplates the national resurrection that is the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile, he finds it natural to envelop this miraculous contradiction of the expected outcomes of history in the language of organic process.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!

 Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.

 This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.

Isaiah 44:1-5 (ESV)

YHWH, the prophet instructs us, will not help his captive ‘servant’ Jacob by plucking those sons and daughters of Israel bodily from Babylon and removing them to their lost land with the movements of his own divine fingers. This will be no early experience in aerospace.

Rather, YHWH will ‘pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground’. Interspersed with the less organic but still gradualistic imagery of pouring YHWH’s Spirit upon Jacob’s offspring and his blessing upon his descendants, the prophet sustains this organic and even horticultural tone. These daughters and sons of a people who might have wondered whether the future would produce any ‘shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams’.

We modern practitioners of YHWH-religion and its spiritual offshoots are so naively taken by the sudden, the unconventional, the catastrophic, the rupture of purposeful gradualism in favor of ‘the miraculous’? We have little imagination and even less expectation that YHWH’s hand often moves by moistening up the soil. We struggle to accept that sons and daughters grow best as willows beside streams that were dry and unpromising a season ago. Things take time, we are asked to imagine, even for YHWH.

But things that grow slowly, we suppose, are not God’s work.

We have no patience for planting trees.

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