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Archive for August, 2022

The first words of Isaiah’s forty-first chapter convene the nations in the interest of justice.

Rarely in the book called Isaiah is it more difficult to ascertain precisely the tone of the invitation and the nuance of the Hebrew word משׁפט, usually rendered ‘justice’ but sometimes ‘judgement’. I underscore the pertinent phrase:

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

Two features of this summons link it to similar passages involving Israel/Jacob/Judah rather than, as here, ‘coastlands’ and ‘nations’. The first, weaker than its successor, is the faint similarity between ‘let us together draw near for judgement’ and the more famous expression that precedes YHWH’s sentencing of Judah and Jerusalem in the book’s introductory chapter:

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

Although the contexts of the two passages are strikingly similar and the language somewhat so, it must be admitted that the key verbs are not the same. It is possible the similarity is merely superficial. However, in the light of the Isaianic tradition’s irrepressible desire to play and to tease with intertextual allusion, it is likely not. Probably, the convocation of Judah for a deliberative moment of sentencing is here echoed by the summons of the nations for a somewhat different objective that nevertheless pivots on the matter of justice.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

Two features of this summons link it to similar passages involving Israel/Jacob/Judah rather than, as here, ‘coastlands’ and ‘nations’. The first, weaker than its successor, is the faint similarity between ‘let us together draw near for judgement’ and the more famous expression that precedes YHWH’s sentencing of Judah and Jerusalem in the book’s introductory chapter:

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

This possibility is arguably corroborated by a second ironic feature of this passage, this one also a matter of intertextual allusiveness but now with a textual partner that lies close at hand.

Once again, the matter involves an Isaiah text that can only be considered as famous:

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 strengthens the powerless.

 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those 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 40:28-31 (NRSV)

We must remind ourselves that these words occurs immediately prior to Isaiah 41. A certain culminating conclusiveness and of course modern versification marks them off from our text, but that is all.

In 40.28-31, those sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel who complain that their way has been lost to the eyes of an inattentive YHWH are reassured that if they wait on YHWH, they shall renew their strength. The Hebrew expression that generates the italicized English just above is יחליפו כח. This is precisely the expression that is used of the ‘coastlands’ and by contextual implication also ‘the peoples’ in 41.1 In 40.31, the expression is taken to be imperfective with a future reference; that is, it describes. In 41.1, the same words are rightly understood as jussive, a detail I shall attempt to illuminate by once again quoting, italicizing, and inserting the corresponding Hebrew text.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength (יחליפו כח); let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41:1 (NRSV)

Such subtle ironies must certainly represent more than wordplay carried out for a purely aesthetic purpose. I am increasingly persuaded that the Isaianic voice is drawing the nations into the plight and the prospects of Israel/Jacob itself. YHWH’s purposes in redeeming his Israel increasingly seem include the nations without ever blurring the distinctions between the two nor across the ranges of the latter.

It seems every more likely that in summoning the nations for judgement, his intentions are—as with Israel—not finally lethal but rather restorative.

When you receive an invitation like this one with all its Isaianic tonalities, you are never sure exactly what for.

But, peace. The news is good.

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José, en su madurez, es uno de los personajes más atractivos de las narraciones patriarcales de Israel. Hemos visto su ensoñación juvenil y hemos sentido una leve aversión ante ella. Incluso el modo en que juega con sus hermanos cuando éstos llegan a Egipto en busca de grano y no reconocen a José con sus vestiduras egipcias deja que uno se pregunte si todavía hay demonios oscuros revoloteando en el alma de este hombre, si alguna vez podrán ser subyugados ahora que la agencia corruptora del poder se ha unido a ellos.

Sin embargo, al final José parece haber aprendido a amar y, ciertamente, a perdonar.

Tras la muerte de su padre Jacob/Israel y la elaborada peregrinación de luto que concluye con el entierro de sus huesos en el suelo de Canaán, la tropa regresa a Egipto. Sin el salvoconducto que la vida de su padre -mientras duró- proporcionó a los hermanos antes de José, les aterra la idea de que ahora éste último se vengue por la forma despiadada en que lo dieron por muerto décadas antes en el desierto.

Tal vez con cierta justificación, se acercan a David y le suplican con la autoridad de su padre que les perdone este agravio y los acepte como sus esclavos en Egipto. José está horrorizado, pero su horror ante la idea se ve atenuado por lo que parece ser compasión:

Pero José les dijo: No temáis, ¿acaso estoy yo en lugar de Dios? Vosotros pensasteis hacerme mal, pero Dios lo tornó en bien para que sucediera como vemos hoy, y se preservara la vida de mucha gente. Ahora pues, no temáis; yo proveeré para vosotros y para vuestros hijos. Y los consoló y les habló cariñosamente.

Génesis 50:19-21 (LBLA)

Cuando el libro del Génesis ha llegado a su fin, su sucesor -Éxodo- retoma la narración alertando a su lector de que los descendientes de los hijos de Jacob se han convertido en una tribu numerosa, incluso en una nación dentro de Egipto.

Podría haber sido de otra manera. Si José no hubiera aprendido a ser humilde ante los inescrutables propósitos de YHVH, si su corazón no se hubiera engrandecido en el proceso, los viejos huesos de Jacob podrían haberse convertido en tierra, abandonados en Canaán. Sin nadie que los cuide. Nadie que los llore. Poco prometedor.

 

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Un breve anexo a la historia de la muerte y el entierro de Jacob/Israel muestra cuán profundo la sospecha y el miedo se habían inmiscuido en las células y los nervios de las primeras generaciones de Israel:

Al ver los hermanos de José que su padre había muerto, dijeron: Quizá José guarde rencor contra nosotros, y de cierto nos devuelva todo el mal que le hicimos.

Génesis 50:15 (LBLA)

José lloró cuando sus hermanos le plantearon su atroz negociación de convertirse en sus esclavos si sólo José renunciaba a la triste tradición de la venganza de sangre. Después de todo lo que habían pasado, parece que a este jefe de estado medio hebreo y medio egipcio le apena saber que sus hermanos todavía no le consideran uno de ellos.

El triste arreglo que los hermanos presentaron a José como procedente de su propio padre fallecido – ¿dónde está la reverencia? – suscita esta notable respuesta:

Pero José les dijo: No temáis, ¿acaso estoy yo en lugar de Dios? Vosotros pensasteis hacerme mal, pero Dios lo tornó en bien para que sucediera como vemos hoy, y se preservara la vida de mucha gente. Ahora pues, no temáis; yo proveeré para vosotros y para vuestros hijos. Y los consoló y les habló cariñosamente.

Génesis 50:19-21 (LBLA)

La obra de Dios hace cambiar los corazones de los miembros de la familia de manera desigual. José, dispuesto a atormentar a los hermanos que lo habían vendido como esclavo cuando se presentaron por primera vez ante él como mendigos, parece ser ahora el hermano que más ha interiorizado esa justicia y misericordia que son comunes a YHVH y la aspiración de quienes viven cerca de él.

Hay poca narración abierta en esta sección de la Torá, sólo una insinuación significativa.

Los hijos de Jacob están a punto de transformarse en una nación cuya presencia amenazará al mismo Egipto del que José se ha convertido en salvador en tiempos de hambruna.

La escena final de este acto generativo está llena de miedo y perdón. Israel -y nosotros- descubrimos nuestro perfil en sus líneas.

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Ante la mezcla de tonos, matices y puntos de vista que aparecen en los “cinco libros de Moisés”, los estudiosos de este material han recurrido a menudo a complejas teorías de composición. Seguramente, según la lógica, esas perspectivas divergentes nos obligan a conjeturar una amplia mezcla de tradiciones orales y literarias que, por algún mecanismo, se integraron en el documento o documentos que tenemos ante nosotros.

Es una conjetura razonable. En la naturaleza del caso, los estudiosos con su atención fija en las minucias de los datos a veces llevarán una buena idea a un extremo menos que plausible. Sin embargo, esto no descarta la probabilidad de que complejas capas de tradición hayan hecho sus distintas y variadas contribuciones a nuestro Pentateuco, nuestra Torá, nuestros cinco primeros libros de la Biblia.

Aparte de la cuestión de la historia de su composición, la Torá, tal y como está ahora, ofrece una visión compleja de los acontecimientos que narra. Esto no debería sorprendernos. C.S. Lewis nos ha enseñado con elegancia que la realidad tiene tendencia a ser extraña. La pulcritud ante los acontecimientos -humanos o de otro tipo- es tan a menudo un indicio de que los datos se han alineado con fuerza en una teoría dominante. La propia realidad tiende a ser extraordinaria, al menos si la ordinariez es el empeño de pequeñas mentes por alinear y controlar realidades complicadas.

La narración de José, por ejemplo, es una historia de traición emocionalmente turbulenta, tejida de sueños, ascensos improbables al poder, dolor hundido profundamente en el suelo de una familia y giros extraordinarios del destino. No se lee, en la superficie, como una bonita historia sobre lo bien que Dios dirige las cosas.

Sin embargo, cerca de una de las puntadas críticas de la historia, encontramos al anciano patriarca entregándose a sí mismo sus últimos pensamientos, cargas y bendiciones. Llamado a veces Jacob y a veces Israel -ambos nombres, a su manera, son ominosos-, este personaje ya anciano recibe a su hijo José y a los dos nietos que éste le ha proporcionado. Su comentario es revelador:

E Israel dijo a José: Nunca esperaba ver tu rostro, y he aquí, Dios me ha permitido ver también a tus hijos.

Génesis 48: 11 (LBLA)

Es un comentario extraño y un poco atractivo, ya que Jacob/Israel ha sido un personaje cambiante y cambiado a lo largo de su estancia en el escenario literario del libro. Nos ha dado pocos motivos para admirarlo. Sus palabras suelen transmitir maquinaciones, lloriqueos o autocompasión. Su voz parece capaz de un poco más.

Sin embargo, aquí lo encontramos exclamando en un círculo familiar íntimo en el que Dios ha sido mejor con él de lo que podría haber previsto. De hecho, vemos en el comentario del padre algo de la confianza que el hijo se ha ganado a pulso y donde YHVH no ha estado ausente de los contextos de traición y asesinato por celos. Más bien, ha llevado activamente dichas cosas a un orden culminante por medio del cual se han preservado las vidas de los seres humanos en tiempos de hambruna.

Como pista hermenéutica -incluso como marco-, las palabras del patriarca moribundo arrojan toda la longitud narrativa del Génesis bajo una luz intencionada y favorable.

Sin embargo, poco después, a medida que avanza el libro, el mismo Jacob/Israel se dirige a exponer sus convicciones sobre ‘lo que le sucederá’ a sus doce hijos y a la descendencia de éstos una vez que él haya muerto y desaparecido. En el caso de tres de los hermanos más sobresalientes, se encuentra una renuncia muy violenta:

Rubén, tú eres mi primogénito,
mi poderío y el principio de mi vigor,
prominente en dignidad y prominente en poder.
Incontrolable como el agua, no tendrás preeminencia,
porque subiste a la cama de tu padre,
la profanaste: él subió a mi lecho.
Simeón y Leví son hermanos;
sus armas instrumentos de violencia.
En su consejo no entre mi alma,
a su asamblea no se una mi gloria,
porque en su ira mataron hombres,
y en su obstinación desjarretaron bueyes.
Maldita su ira porque es feroz;
y su furor porque es cruel.
Los dividiré en Jacob,
y los dispersaré en Israel.

Génesis 49: 3-7 (LBLA)

YHVH puede sentarse imperturbable en su trono de orden. Sin embargo, en la familia que se gana la parte principal de su atención, persisten el desorden y los traumas profundamente acoplados.

No hay un repentino estallido de una dulce luz en un claro del bosque, un cambio de circunstancias que destierre a los lobos de la vida y de la historia a lo profundo del bosque donde ya no amenazan.

Eso sería ordinario. La vida y la realidad son extrañas.

En esta narración y en toda la antología bíblica se nos enseña a respaldar una hipótesis de lo más extraordinaria: que YHVH ordena su mundo por medio de la justicia. Y que las personas que ha seleccionado como sus agentes no escaparán, no han escapado aún de los ciclos asesinos de daños mutuos de los que el orden y la justicia deben ser seguramente polos opuestos.

Sin embargo, la narración se inclina hacia adelante de una manera que moldea las almas para que anhelen la misma justicia ordenadora que dicha lectura y audición siembran. Es como si ese material colocara sus adverbios locativos y temporales en coyunturas críticas de la reflexión que incumbe a los lectores atentos del material. Adverbios como estos ‘no aquí’; ‘todavía no’; ‘pero algún día’.

No hay que renunciar a estas pequeñas palabras, a estos adverbios, a estas sílabas de paciencia y de esperanza.

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The biblical witness generally treasures Hezekiah’s legacy. He is remembered as a good king in the midst of many bad ones. He is honored by what looks from our distance as genuine friendship with the prophet Isaiah, who seems to have enjoyed deep access to Hezekiah’s royal court.

Yet biblical realism is a tenacious thing, clawing when it must even at the polished reputation of its protagonists. Hezekiah will be remembered warts and all.

The thirty-ninth chapter of the book called Isaiah is as ominous as they come. It is only a matter of time before the Babylonians will be hooting drunkenly atop Jerusalem’s ruins alongside their Edomite mercenaries. Yet here we find their emissaries enjoying a tour of the temple precincts during the tour that the recently recovered Hezekiah has giddily arranged for them. The text allows no hint that Hezekiah has a clue of the dark foreshadowing that stalks his clueless extravagance.

But the prophet does.

Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” Hezekiah answered, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:3-4 (NRSV)

One might anticipate at this point the surging forth of royal remorse, a grim determination to batten down the hatches in order to gainsay the subterfuge of Hezekiah’s Babylonian guests and the storm that must surely soon break upon Jerusalem.

Nothing like this occurs.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

A great sadness pervades this pathetic vignette. Its sorrow is all the more poignant for being the final word of the book’s first half. The next words, just across the boundary and into what is for us its fortieth chapter, are words about Zion’s consolation after the Babylonian exile—yes, these Babylonians—has wreaked its havoc.

Hezekiah’s error forever tarnishes his memory.

It is registered here in two shocking responses to the comeuppance he receives from the prophet Isaiah. First, there is a glibness about his response to Isaiah’s query regarding the fatal error he has just committed.

(Isaiah) said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:4 (NRSV)

Second, Hezekiah’s clay feet are monstrously visible in the chapter’s conclusion, which as we have seen serves as well as the final words of the book’s entire first half. It is not a pretty sight.

Here again, that passage, with Hezekiah’s moral blundering italicized:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

There is in fact nothing good in Isaiah’s grim warning, except that Hezekiah himself will be buried in peace at a time when the storm clouds have not yet broken over his people. Only the worst of narcissists—the kind of king he manifestly has not been—could find comfort in that.

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The good life is sometimes, for a moment, the pleasant lot of slaves.

The persuasive powers of Assyria’s king are in full bloom as his emissary, the Rabshakeh, argues with besieged Jerusalem. The Rabshakeh’s discourse is an extraordinary astute and full-bodied rebuttal of everything Jerusalem’s unfortunate citizens have been schooled to believe by king and prophet.

In the midst of the Rabshakeh’s apology for Assyrian might and beneficence comes this little gem.

Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.’

Isaiah 36:16-17 NRSV

What we know of Assyrian politics of exile throws the transparence of the king’s promise in doubt, to say the least. A tyrant who lacks omnipotence nearly always resorts to bullying. Usually, his modest but highly effective end game is simply to sow sufficient doubt that things can be any worse over there than they already are right here. Here amidst these streets whose dust we have year after year carefully tamped down, these houses we’ve scratched out of the desert, this mothy grain, these hoaky community meetings when it takes forever to get anything done, here where father and mother lie buried.

Maybe he’s not so bad…

Yet the prophet knows that slavery makes every quiet street a prison, every morsel of the tyrant’s bread a kernel of undying resentment, every comely daughter a magnet for his lust.

The biblical ethic is clear that the good life can sometimes be the experience of slaves. Its eyes-open realism was clear back in Isaiah chapter 2, where the prophet’s ironic parallelism shattered any perceived link between wealth and true religion:

Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.

 Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.

Isaiah 2:7-8 NRSV)

There in chapter two, the people’s abjectly miserable slavery is both fueled and veiled by their prosperity. There is no true abundance there, only enslavement.

Fast forward to the book’s thirty-sixth chapter.

There is no abundance here, either, in the empty words of the Assyrian king’s lying Rabshekah.

Even if the Assyrian despot were to make good on his offer of your own vine … and fig tree after Jerusalem’s besieged daughters and sons consent to being carried away as exiles—though any well-weathered observer of imperial Realpolitik could predict he would not—shackles would still encumber Jewish hearts and minds.

One can almost hear the whispered passion in the plea of a wife to a her husband home after a bad day at Hezekah’s court, the curtains drawn, the children put to bed: ‘Honey, it won’t happen. We’ll be slaves there until history forgets we ever existed. They’ll make us sing Zion songs in that awful place. Here we’re free and we get by. And I know you can’t believe it any more, but YHWH might still be with us…’

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The book called Isaiah weaves motifs of leaning and of trusting throughout the disparate textures of its many pages, though seldom more eloquently than in the first verses of chapter 31.

Leaning is of course a metaphorical representation of reliance upon a defender or savior, so it pairs naturally with the non-metaphorical concept of trusting. Two of the most commonly deployed Hebrew verbs for this are שׁען for leaning and בטח for trusting.

They occur here in uneasy juxtaposition with two actions that are understood to represent their opposite: looking (to the Holy one of Israel, שׁעה) and seeking or consulting (YHWH, דרשׁ). This touch of parallelism is made more elegant by the assonance of שׁען (sha-AN, to lean) and שׁעה (sha-AH, to look, usually intently).

Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!

Isaiah 31:1 (NRSV)

The point is not a mere nicety about where loyalties ought to lie. It is pragmatic, for the Egyptians are considered unreliable protectors for Judah as it faces threats from other quarters. Two verses later, we encounter Egypt’s alleged deficiency for those who would depend on that nation.

The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together.

Isaiah 31:3 (NRSV)

Leaning upon unreliable strength simply expands the tragedy, Judah is urged to comprehend.

If Judah’s rebellion manifests in the form of wrong activity, it also includes sins of omission. By choosing Egypt as her defender, Judah fails to look intently at God and to seek or consult YHWH. Reliance is portrayed as a zero-sum game. Choose your object, but you cannot choose both.

The stupidity that is embedded in Judah’s conduct—for Isaiah, in rebellion against YHWH there is always stupidity—is that Egypt in spite of her strength and numbers is simply not that impressive. The Egyptians are ‘human and not God’, Egypt is ‘flesh and not spirit’.

Behind every syllable of these declarations lies the Isaianic insistence that YHWH-granted powers of perception are the only reliable methodology for penetrating and living within reality. All else is fantasy of the disfiguring and murderous kind.

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It appears that chapter 29 emerges from the white heat of Jerusalem’s crisis under Assyrian pressure.

It is a swirling, chaotic, difficult piece of prophetic literature and therefore a challenge to any interpreter. Among its most confusing verses figure these:

The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot, for it is sealed.’ And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot read.’ 

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.  

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?

Isaiah 29:11-16 (NRSV)

If the chapter is one coherent unit, then ‘the vision of all this’ which introduces this passage likely refers back to preceding woe pronounced over ‘Ariel’ or Lion of God. There, YHWH appears to encamp against Jerusalem, the likely referent of ‘Ariel’. Is it possible that the prophet uses ‘Ariel’, ‘Lion of God’ sarcastically, alluding to self-elevating nickname with which Jerusalemites in better times might have flattered themselves? In the verses just prior to our passage, YHWH’s activity vis-à-vis Ariel is described as follows.

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from strong drink!

For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers.

Isaiah 29:9-10 NRSV

It appears that, amid what Jerusalem’s anxiety-ridden citizens experience as impending doom, the prophet is doing battle with what might be considered a religion of remoteness. Apparently rejected as a source of intelligence regarding what YHWH is actually up to, the prophet critiques religion that is learned by rote and reliant upon esoterica.

Both approaches and perhaps their blending into anxious religious activism seems to distance Isaiah’s population from the message he purports to bring to their moment from YHWH himself.

One of YHWH’s quoted lines traffics in the language of the Davidic child-king called ‘Wonderful Counselor’ (פלא יועץ) at Isaiah 9.8.

(S)o I will again do amazing things (להפליא) with this people, shocking and amazing (הפלא ופלא). The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

Isaiah 29:14 (NRSV)

We can identify several features of this text that are clear.

First, the prophet has been rejected as a spokesperson for YHWH and for pertinent reality.

Second, YHWH has not finally rejected Zion in its current depravity. But his future engagement will take the form of unexpected and novel moves that cannot be captured or comprehended by Zion’s ordinary and official stewards of truth.

Third, if the link back to the child ruler of chapter 9 is more than casually lexical—in my opinion it must go far deeper than that—then ‘Ariel’s’ rescue will depend upon attentiveness to that development.

What the book of Isaiah presents here—chaotically, somewhat impenetrably—is not a moment for old wineskins, as another prophet might have put things.

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The culminating oracle of blessing pronounced over Egypt now widens to include what might have seemed to a Judahite hearer or reader of Isaiah the three most important nations in the world. The oracle is in this sense a global vision.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’

Isaiah 19:24-25 (NRSV)

This simple declaration culminates the carefully constructed crescendo of the five sequenced oracles not only because of it stunning reconstruction of Israel’s place in the world. It also claims first-among-equals status as the chain’s supreme statement because for the first time YHWH speaks in his own voice, without a prophet’s mediation.

Clearly, this oracle—manifestly one of five—towers over and completes the work of its peers.

Interpretive difficulties cling to to details. First, what is the antecedent of ברכה, a blessing? The referenced blessing might be Israel herself. Or it might be the composite trio of the three named peoples.

Second, how should we understand the antecedent to the relative particle אשׁר and indeed to the pronominal suffix of ברכו? The latter feature is omitted in the rendering of NRSV that I’ve quoted above, probably wisely.

Reconstructions of sense and syntax abound and the matter is indeed complex. With ברכו, we may indeed have a slightly corrupt text.

With regard to the first question, it must be noted that the Hebrew relative particle אשׁר is undeclinable. Morphology therefore gives us no clues as to its antecedent. The full interpretive burden falls upon syntax.

NRSV’s representation of אשׁר with ‘whom’ indicates that it understands ‘whom the Lord has blessed’ to refer back to Israel, Egypt, and Assyria. Although this trio of nations is not the nearest possible antecedent to אשׁר, they are picked up again in the spoken blessing that the clause introduces. This is a very viable understanding and quite possibly reflects the intentionality woven into the Hebrew text.

A second and equally viable understanding of the matter sees the antecedent of אשׁר not in personal terms that can be represented in English by ‘whom’ but rather as an impersonal antecedent best glossed by ‘which’. In this case, the antecedent is the land. This reading has the benefit of linking אשׁר to its nearest antecedent in the flow of the sentence. As well, it evokes a land that now receives the blessing of its human denizens’ reconciliation. It is not difficult to hear Abrahamic resonances in this reading, to say nothing of potential harmonies with the ironic biblical motif of the land resting after its iniquitous possessors have finally been expelled.

With regard to the remaining details, the 3rd person singular pronominal suffix of ברכו in the Massoretic text, a reconstruction of the text may be in order. I favor an explanation that considers the possibility that the final waw of ברכו is extraneous and results from confusion with one or more of the initial letters of the following יהוה. The Septuagint seems to have arrived at a similar understanding, if indeed its Vorlage corresponds to our MT.

Laying these matters to rest for the moment, YHWH’s concluding declaration is a radical return to Abrahamic convictions, where YHWH’s purpose through Israel is blessing for the nations rather than the mere elevation of Israel’s prospects.

Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.

YHWH’s direct discourse sustains the claim that Israel is now ‘third in the land’ by placing her in exactly that position after Egypt and Assyria. Yet her dignity in that place resonates as loudly as ever.

Now, however, Israel is seen as one component of a vastly broader commitment on YHWH’s part. His determination, according to the Isaianic affirmation so gorgeously unfurled in this sequence of blessing oracles, it to bless, to fashion, and to preserve. The objects of those divine activities are plural rather than singular. Arguably these objects represent all the peoples of the earth, humanity itself. Indisputably, YHWH’s intentions bend towards the three most important nations in Israel’s world.

The careful reader hears in the background the second affirmation of the Seraphims’ song in the book’s generative vision (chapter 6):

The fulness of the earth is his glory!

One detects as well reverberations of the Vision of Visions in chapter 4, where the reader is invited to imagine a world in which swords have been beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Nations, reconciled there in Zion as they become students of YHWH’s instruction, indeed become a blessing in the land rather than the soil’s most stubborn curse.

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Las narraciones patriarcales parecen casi embriagadas por el hábito desestabilizador de colocar la posteridad y la bendición sobre los hombros del hijo equivocado. El primogénito, una y otra vez, ve cómo las circunstancias superan su privilegio. El menor se convierte en el mayor. El legado saca a su protagonista de lo marginado y lo coloca en el centro.

Este instinto extraño, pero fuerte es un rasgo característico de la historia constitucional de Israel. El brillante erudito bíblico Jon Levenson ha escrito conmovedoramente y con conocimiento de causa sobre ello (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son y  Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel). Para el lector suficientemente sabio como para pasearse despacio por estas páginas, tiene el mismo poder cautivador que ejerce incluso sobre el resto de la literatura bíblica que se ve arrastrada a su órbita.

¿Cómo así? ¿Por qué una rareza se convierte en el centro de la historia? ¿Por qué se preserva con tanto cuidado, como si la sabiduría acumulada del canon viera en el intercambio de menor a mayor una indicación de la forma en cómo el Creador hace las cosas?

Tal vez sea eso. A Israel le enseña su propia narrativa de que la centralidad en el programa de YHWH es una cuestión de chiripa divina. Jacob luchó y engañó por su futuro, pero sus propios hijos y los hijos de sus hijos deben entender que la gracia aparece en lo marginado, en las listas B, en los caminos de los sin credenciales y en los sin esperanza.

La antología bíblica insistirá en este punto de muchas maneras, quizá ninguna tan poderosa como cuando cuenta la historia de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob.

Los primogénitos deberían salir de esta trascendental leyenda bíblica con cuidado de no dar un paso en falso. Los segundos y los duodécimos deberían preguntarse cuándo vendrá la siguiente sorpresa elevadora y de qué inesperado rincón.

Todos nosotros deberíamos entender que, al final, nosotros no hacemos el mundo. YHVH, más bien, sabe cómo hace las cosas.

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