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Archive for September, 2022

Isaiah 60 must figure in anyone’s list of the most powerfully lyrical of this long book’s offerings. This chapter’s vision of Zion’s restoration is breathtakingly beautiful.

Along the way, it gathers up the components of the book’s multi-faceted view of ‘the nations’ and their destiny and presents a composite—a hopeful reader might dare say coherent—picture that is not reductive and therefore demands patient rather than dismissive reading or radical reconstruction.

In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to enumerate the pertinent allusions to those nations and to abbreviate the nature of the light that each casts on what I am persuaded is indeed a coherent if complex presentation.

First, restored Zion is brightly lit. By contrast, the nations live in darkness but are drawn (והלכו, shall come).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Second, the nations exercise important agency in transporting Zion’s sons and daughters back to their maternal city. The nations’ wealth accompanies them to Zion. Their animals (camels, young camels, flocks, rams) perform oddly anthropomorphic deeds: they ‘proclaim the praise of the Lord’ and ‘minister to you’. In spite of their alien provenance in nations near and far, those animals are also rendered acceptable on YHWH’s altar in a way that appears to connect with YHWH’s glorification of his ‘house’.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.

Isaiah 60:4-7 (NRSV)

The long section from verse 8 to verse 16 presents the most mixed picture of the lot. A posture of willing anticipation is likely signaled in the expression ‘the coastlands shall wait for me… to bring…’. Non-Jews are described in their complementary roles of transportation, construction, and urban enrichment. As counterpoise to the aforementioned anticipation, there appears to occur a less than comprehensive embrace of new realities on the part of the nations. For example, ‘kings shall be led in procession’, an image of military conquest by almost any light. Further, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’. And then, the ‘descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, all who despised you shall bow at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’.

This last, complex image clearly denotes subjugation. Does it also suggest conversion from one perspective to another that is wholly new and perhaps not the product of sudden persuasion alone? I suspect that it does.

Finally, a maternal-filial metaphor merits particular scrutiny: ‘You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings’. At the risk of pressing the metaphor too rudely, it appears in the light of other quite positive maternal imagery in this book that the nursing mother that is ‘nations’ and ‘kings’ executes her maternal labors with the tenderness and even fulfillment that are so often native to the experience.

The passage in full reads as follows:

Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest.

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:8-16 (NRSV)

How is one to assimilate the breadth of expression with regard to nations and kings that is gathered into this single chapter?

An interpretation that is consonant with the wider picture in the Vision of Isaiah of the peoples’ destiny and at the same time accomplishes an attentive reading of chapter sixty would seem to produce the follow conclusion: Zion’s restoration will turn the tables on the historic power relationships that have exalted some nations over Israel/Jacob. Some nations will welcome this revolution. Some will reject it. The preponderance of expression addresses the former group and suggests they will undertake their new role vis-à-vis Zion with some combination of anticipation, fulfillment, and tenderness. This vision is consonant with the Vision of Visions in Isaiah 2.1-5, though its imagery represents an alternative expression of that succinct description of the prophet’s imagined future.

Isaiah 60 is therefore a hopeful declaration for all peoples except those (few?) who will resolutely resist the divine purpose it propounds.

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If in fact the first chapter of the book called Isaiah is a preliminary summons to attentive reading, then the book itself begins at 2:1, as has been argued elsewhere. Further, if chapter 1 is that kind of convocation to well-postured reading, then we should expect attacks throughout the book on a certain kind of piety.

What other conclusion could one derive from this savage debasement of the liturgy of the bloodstained in the book’s first chapter?

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah 1:10-15 (NRSV)

Yet even there, the text offers a path to healing of the breach. It involves a conscious and determined turn towards the kind of practical justice that cleans the bloodied hand.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (NRSV)

In the light of the entire context, this prophetic denunciation is probably not a wholesale rejection of cult in favor of ethics. Indeed, the liturgy briefly sketched here appears not to be formally aberrant. Rather, it is likely the contradictory ethics of its practitioners that is under fire.

The nuance is instructive, not least when we encounter similar deconstruction of liturgy in chapter 58. It is necessary to take the entirety of the chapter’s first twelve verses into account, sarcasm directed at the the people’s apparent piety included.

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)

Just as is true of the discourse of Isaiah 1—representative as it is in my view of the entire Vision of Isaiah—it is possible to read the first installment of this prophetic screed against the liturgy as a dismissal of cult itself and an option for a countervailing ethics that has no place for formal, enacted religion. Tempting as this option is, it is belied by the concluding verses of the oracle.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV)

Clearly, the concluding words of this oracle are preoccupied with ‘the sabbath’ (לשבת ,משבת) and ‘my holy day’/’the holy day of the Lord’ (לקדש יהוה ,ביום קדשי). One might argue that Sabbath has been entire reconfigured here in terms of the justice activities of the early part of the oracle. However, the emphasis on ceasing certain activities—‘not going your own way, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs’—makes such a radical assessment unlikely.

Rather, the anti-liturgy jeremiads of chapters 1 and 58 seem to conserve an estimable place for the cult. However, they surround that sacred space with deeply ethical demand that expects of YHWH’s worshippers the same משפת and צדקה that the Vision of Isaiah insists are among the God of Jacob’s most prominent qualities.

Then bring those sacrifices. Then lift this prayerful hands.

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In classical Isaiah criticism, the third section of the book begins with chapter 56. Labeled Trito-Isaiah—the ‘Third Isaiah’—the section is assigned to the period of Persian domination. Chapters 56-66 do in fact seem to have much to say to the circumstances and indeed the disappointment associated with the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the struggle to establish a Jewish Commonwealth in the land they had been forced to abandon two generations earlier.

The argument has much to say for itself, though recent decades have not been kind to overly neat dissection of books like this one. In any case, chapter 56 hurries on to one of the book’s most lyrical exclamatory passages, one that is warmly welcomed by modern and post-modern readers with our appetite for the widest possible embrace. Indeed, foreigners and eunuchs are there welcomed into robust inclusion in the liturgy and the identify of Israel on the basis of their attitude towards YHWH rather than their ancestry or their anatomy.

So strong is the magnetic pull of such an invitation that the reader hops over the chapter’s first two verses as though they had little or nothing to add up front. Yet have something they do.

Verses 1-2 embody the delicate sequence that one might call ethics before theophany.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Isaiah 56:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The sequence that exhorts believers to act now in a certain way because the deity will soon act in a corresponding manner is part and parcel of biblical ethics. The most familiar prayer to be found on Christian lips turns it into words addressed to God himself:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (NRSV)

Although the verse cited refers explicitly only to divine activity, the context of the prayer—with its reference to human need and the very this-worldly matter of forgiving others the offenses they have committed against us—alludes to the matter of human behavior in a world where God’s rule has not yet been completely established.

In this light, Isaiah 56.1-2 hardly make a unique contribution to the matter under discussion. But their voice does make itself heard, particularly in the book’s third section in which qualities like משפט (justice) and צדקה (NRSV, what is right) that are typically representative of divine action become exhortations toward appropriate human behavior.

This little oracle is not complex. It offers a straight-forward explanatory clause that clarifies why משפט and צדקה are commanded:

…for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

כי־קרובה ישועתי לבוא וצדקתי להגלות

NRSV’s rendering of צדקה as ‘what is right’ in the first line of 56.1 when it refers to human conduct and as ‘my deliverance’ in the second line when it is YHWH’s work parallel to his ‘salvation’ exemplifies the difficulty faced by the translators when appropriate human and divine activity are represented by the same word. Arguably, the NRSV translators might have been better served—and we with them—if they had allowed the continuity to remain clear in English. The ESV manages to accomplish this without undue rigidity:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.’

Isaiah 56:1 (ESV, emphasis added)

In any case, Israel is here exhorted to do work like YHWH’s work because he will soon be doing it undeniably on his own. The expansive embrace of the ensuing verses should no doubt be read in the spirit of this divine-human collaboration.

‘Do this now’, runs the prophetic summons to ethics in a critical moment, ‘because YHWH will soon be upon us, and it’s what he’ll be up to when he comes’.

Ethics before theophany.

Righteousness now as one can. A greater righteousness soon.

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The splendid redemption oracle that is the book’s fifty-second chapter begins with a series of imperatives to Zion/Jerusalem. Together form a comprehensive picture of her erstwhile degradation as well as of a glorious new identity. They restore agency to the downtrodden personified city. Zion becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon.

Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more.

Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter Zion!

Isaiah 52:1-2 (NRSV)

The exhortation’s rhetoric is worthy of careful attention.

First, it initiates with the double-cognate-imperative that is a signature of the book’s second half from the moment it announces itself in the very first words of Isaiah 40.1:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

נחמו נחמו עמי, יאמר אלהיכם

Isaiah 40.1 (NRSV)

Then the passage draws the reader’s intention to its intensely vocative address to the recipient of its imperatives:

O Zion … O Jerusalem, the holy city … O captive Jerusalem … O captive daughter Zion!

ציון … ירושלים עיר הקדש … שבי ירושלם … שביה בת ציון

Arguably, however, the most striking feature of summons is the manner in which it returns agency to the community of the exiles in the figure of the personified city. There is no mention of anyone doing anything for her. Rather, she is exhorted to rouse herself in a way that embodies a new reality, indeed a new identity. The imperatives, six of them if double imperatives are counted as one, flow as follows:

Awake, awake! עורי עורי

Put on your strength! לבשי עזך

Put on your beautiful garments! לבשי בגדי תפארתך

Shake yourself from the dust! התנערי מעפר

Rise up! קומי

Loose the bonds from your neck! התפתחי מוסרי צוארך

Zion is addressed as able, as capable, as possessing the resources utterly to change her lot.

Where she has lain sleeping, she is urged to wake up. Where she has been weak, she is summoned to strength. Where she has been disheveled and unkempt, she is is ordered to put on the garments of her glory. Where she has crouched in the dust, she is commanded to shake herself clean. Where she has crouched passively, the imperative is to rise up. Where she has been enchained, she herself—as though her captors were no more—now removes the iron restraints from about her own neck.

The Vision of Isaiah will eventually assign to Zion a series of new and empowering names. In the light of this astonishing oracle, they seem almost an afterthought. Zion is here summoned to become already what those new names will signify.

The city hitherto acted upon with barbaric cruelty becomes in the prophetic imagination the actor. Even YHWH stands aside, as it were, before the stunning protagonist of a new reality impregnated with strength, dignity, beauty, and freedom.

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The bright and promissory nature of chapter 48 begins by rehearsing the sequence of warning-and-calamity that comprise ‘the former things’ (48.3) which the prophet now considers to lie behind Jacob/Israel while the horizon brightens just ahead. I discuss that retrospective view here.

The striking pivot towards the redemptive future that awaits is initiated at verse 6 by two principal means. First, the earlier and retrospective identifier the former things (הרשאנות) at 48.3 meets its counterpart in the prospective reference to new things (חדשות) at 48.6. It is critical to observe the degree to which both expressions are ‘empty’ identifiers; that is to say, they establish a sequence but their content must be provided by additional text and context. This does in fact occur, and so establishes a base of meaning that can travel with both identifiers into new and different contexts.

Second, the adverbial expression מעתה (from this time forward) establishes a new temporal baseline for the aforementioned new things. It states that these novelties in Jacob/Israel’s experienced will be announced now and from this point forward.

You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known.

They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, ‘I already knew them.’

You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would deal very treacherously, and that from birth you were called a rebel.

Isaiah 48:6-8 (NRSV, emphasis added)

There are a number of contrasts between the former things and the promised new things, some of which are obvious while others are less so. One that is often missed pertains to the prehistory of both elements. In the case of the former things, the text describes a long prehistory of warning that anticipated the actual, sudden calamity of Zion’s destruction and the people’s exile. By contrast, the new things that are here introduced are described as unimaginable. Jacob never saw them coming, indeed could not have been trusted to steward news of them appropriately. They were hidden from both humans and their idols, as we shall see. YHWH alone knew of them. YHWH alone creates them now.

Curiously, there is no suggestion here that the prophet Isaiah had known of them either. The smelting (48.10-11) and returning remnant motifs are of course embedded deeply in the eighth-century prophet’s words. Both of these presage a kind of future beyond the storm. Yet in chapter 48 detailed foreknowledge of the new things is not claimed on the prophet’s behalf, including the role to be played by the here unnamed Cyrus, whom YHWH loves, calls, and brings to Zion’s aid (48.14-15).

There is a touch of regret in YHWH’s address, yet he seems to lament a misfortune that has in any case now passed.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the LORD your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go.

O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.”

Isaiah 48:17-19 (NRSV)

This backward glance at the sad necessity of those former things is soon overcome by the summons to an unspecified plural audience energetically to proclaim ‘this’ to the end of the earth. Presumably ’this’ (זאת) alludes to the whole trajectory of YHWH’s engagement with Jacob/Israel, and most certainly the very recent news that YHWH ‘has redeemed his servant Jacob’—to the end of the earth. Declared as though an accomplished fact, it seems to indicate more precisely an imminent result of a decision that YHWH has taken. It is the unexpected agency of the unnamed Cyrus that renders YHWH’s new things not only sequentially new but also entirely unforeseeable.

On the strength of all this, the exiles are encouraged to…

…(g)o out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,

declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,

send it forth to the end of the earth;

say, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!’

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The book called Isaiah describes and eventually presumes a trajectory of divine purpose that provides considerable context for important moments of the tale it tells. The reliability of its restoration promises to Israel/Jacob hinges upon the integrity of this divine intentionality as it is announced and executed in its various stages.

Simply put, if YHWH’s purpose has been reliable when its primary focus was dealing with Israel’s misconduct, then dispirited exiles can be called upon to trust its reliability when it forecasts a bright and imminent new dawn. In the light of long traditions of reading the book that receive it as an unrooted bundle of predictions, one uses the word ‘forecasts’ cautiously. Yet the book itself is less wary than this.

Although Isaiah 48.1-5 serves in great measure as the antechamber to that bright dawn, these verses bear inspection on their own terms.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came forth from the loins of Judah; who swear by the name of the LORD, and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.

For they call themselves after the holy city, and lean on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  

The former things I declared long ago, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.

 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,

 I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:1-5 (NRSV)

In a context of superficial—though perhaps deeply felt—identification with YHWH and ‘the holy city’, the prophet makes clear that Jacob’s conduct has not proceeded ‘in truth or right’. It is critical to understand that the oracle is part of a summons embrace YHWH’s new dawn, but as an introduction to that summons it casts a retrospective glance. This is precisely because the prophetic burden must establish that YHWH has always done what he has said he will do. There is a kind of theodicy at work here, no longer for the primary sake of establishing the rightness of YHWH’s judgement but rather in order to present a case for the fidelity between YHWH’s word and YHWH’s deed. The sequence of the two, one might say, has been entirely trustworthy.

The former things, italicized above and just here, must refer to YHWH’s warnings ‘through his prophets’ and to the eventual reality of the exiling storm that broke upon Judah. That calamity did not come without warning. Then suddenly these things became deed rather than word. פתאם (here, suddenly) occurs four times in Isaiah, each time with reference to large-scale disaster of which YHWH claims authorship. The point in our present instance seems to be that after long warning, the circumstances of Judah’s destruction crashed suddenly upon her walls.

At the end of the passage, the prophet has YHWH explain that this word-deed, warning-execution sequence served a specifically anti-idolatry motive. YHWH was describing his sovereignty over times and peoples so that it might not be attributed to other agents.

These are ‘the first things’ over which YHWH claims unalloyed sway. In a moment, the text will claim for him similar sovereignty over new and better things that lie just over the near horizon. That claim, the discourse asserts, will be every bit as reliable as its early compeers.

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Isaiah is relentless in his description of idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers as empty, void, and useless. If one expects pity or some softening of the rhetoric, one will not find it here. Idols, in the Isaianic vision of things, cannot be reformed. Even their makers and their worshippers dance very close to the existential cliff. Only a decisive turn away from the abyss will rescue them from what the prophet simultaneously scorns and dismisses as ‘the things they have chosen’.

A mouthful of such derision has poured onto the scroll by the time we come to YHWH’s redemptive posture at 44.21. The passage that begins there is too easy to frame up as an entirely new oracle. In my view, it must be seen as the counterpoise to the emptiness that is chronicled before it begins, in verses 1-20. YHWH, whose glory fills the whole earth by one reading Seraphim’s cry in the programmatic Generative Vision at 6.3, is now portrayed as a deity in constant, redemptive motion. When idols stand inert or lie helplessly tipped to the ground, YHWH acts and accomplishes.

Two details stand out in this rehearsal not only of YHWH’s attributes in the abstract, as later theologies would capture the presentation, but of his nature over against the idols. The first is the sudden deployment of creation imagery, anchored in the verbs יצר and ברא as well as the allusion to the iconic stretching out of the heavens and spreading out of the earth. The latter glance at creation ideology adds to the mix resonant verbs like נטה (to stretch out) and רקע (to pound out). The point is not so much a celebration of cosmic creation motifs as it is an argument from the greater to the comparative lesser: if YHWH can do that (creation of the cosmos), he can certainly do this (new creation of his moribund servant, Jacob/Israel).

The second is the surge of participles that increasingly structure the discourse as it finds its pace and moves towards its conclusion. Hebrew poetry displays an affinity for the possibilities of participle forms when the intent is to describe YHWH’s most tenacious qualities. The parade example of this practice may be Psalm 103, which does not acclaim a moment of divine mercies but rather the sustaining probability that they can be expected to appear again and again.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives (הסלח) all your iniquity, who heals (הרפא) all your diseases,

who redeems (הגואל) your life from the Pit, who crowns you (המעטרכי) with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies (המשביע) you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5 (NRSV)

The introduction of YHWH as the servant’s redeemer is structured, unsurprisingly, around qatal and yiqtol verb forms. These are complemented by imperatives directed to the servant as well as to the heavens, the depths of the earth, to mountains, forest, and trees. But soon enough the rhetoric migrates into the participle habit I have mentioned just above. It is instructive that the participles describe even those actions of YHWH that cannot be expected to recur, as though the divine majesty that was evident in them once and for all is now in present and in future deployed in the new creation that is the servant’s redemption.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer (גאלך), who formed you (ויצרך) in the womb: I am the LORD, who made (עשה) all things, who alone stretched out (נטה) the heavens, who by myself spread (רקע) out the earth; who frustrates (מפר) the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; who turns back (משיב) the wise, and makes their knowledge foolish; who confirms the word of his servant, and fulfills the prediction of his messengers; who says (האמר) of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins’; who says (האמר) to the deep, ‘Be dry— I will dry up your rivers; who says (האמר) of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’

Isaiah 44:24-28 (NRSV)

In its context, the breadth and constancy of this redemptive activity contrasts emphatically with the useless and inert emptiness of the idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers who are described just before this YHWH-descriptive rhetoric bursts onto the page.

Although without the artistry of the chapter’s textured discourse, the contrast can be captured in a simple antithesis: The idols do not. YHWH does.

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Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic takes a decisive turn in the book’s forty-fourth chapter, which open with a summons to ‘Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen’. The first eight verses outline the incomparability of YHWH vis-à-vis other powers, with the emphasis placed upon YHWH’s reliability if his servant Jacob/Israel will only trust him. The principal motivation for such confidence in YHWH rests upon his ability to know the future and to bring it to fruition in the life of those who dare to trust him.

At verse 9, however, the anti-idolatry and anti-idolater rhetoric becomes considerably more pointed. The opening salvo, directed against idol-makers, is clear enough:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

More easily lost in translation or by a too accelerated reading is the insistent negation that occurs in the ensuing diatribe, structured around the Hebrew negative particles אין ,לבלתי , בל and לא. This negation is consistent with the Isaianic demand that idols—to say nothing of their artisans—are nothing. One must read beneath the quite exquisite satire in order to capture the formal contribution that undergirds it. I will attempt to clarify the point by illustrate and annotation:

All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit (בל־יועילו); their witnesses neither see nor know (בל־יראו ובלּידעו). And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good (לבלתי הועיל)? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails (lit. ‘and there is no strength’), he drinks no water (ואין כח לא־שׁתה) and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’

They do not know, nor do they comprehend (לא ידעו ולא יבינו); for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment (ולא ישיב אל־לבו ולא דעת ולא־תבונה) to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say (ולא־יציל את נפשו ולא יאמר), ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’

Isaiah 44:9-20 (NRSV)

An incisive if low-profile irony may lie in the the question the idolator does not manage to ask, anchored as it is by the negative introducer הלא:

Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud? (הלא שקר בימיני)

Isaiah 44.20c

The artistry of the prophet, upon scrutiny, is part and parcel of the anti-idolatry component of the Vision of Isaiah. Here is strong, dismantling rhetoric, insisting that idols are inert, useless, the complete disappointment of the idolater’s pretension.

It will be complemented in the passage just following by an equally persistent cataloguing of YHWH’s disparate activities. Idols do nothing. YHWH never quite stops doing. Isaianic and indeed wider biblical monotheism is seldom rehearsed via the assertion that other gods and powers do not exist. Rather, its native dialect is YHWH’s incomparability. Here, YHWH is quite busy. The idols, nothwithstanding the earnest activism of their makers and devotees, just stand around doing nothing. Indeed, you’ve got to prop them up to stop them tipping over where the children play.

Before hope’s profile arises afresh in the following verses and in celebration of YHWH’s redemptively active nature, the prophet allows us to glimpse the terrible contagion of nothingness that flows from idol to idolater, justifying the profoundly ironic conclusion that stands paradoxically at the head of this passage:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

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The opening lines of the first of four ‘servant songs’ in the book of Isaiah establish with their bare descriptiveness a range of qualities about this figure that will be sustained and developed in the ensuing chapters. It is indeed an introduction in every respect, just as הן עבדי (‘Behold, my servant’ or [NRSV] Here is my servant…’]) would lead us to expect.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)

Notwithstanding the neatly aligned, almost prosaic, sentences that profile this newly introduced figure, the vocabulary is so rich that it renders the interpreter reluctant to offer the kind of abbreviation that follows. Nevertheless, there is value in doing so.

First, the servant’s relationship with YHWH is both substantive and deeply felt in a way that captures the formidable turn from justice to mercy and from enmity to collaboration that surges forth from chapter 40 onward. YHWH upholds and chooses the servant. Yet there is sentiment in the arrangement, for the servant is the one ‘in whom my should delights.’ The subsequent expression—‘I have put my spirit on him’—likely envelopes both the substance and the feeling that have been expressed just before it.

A rupture has been repaired, giving way to a remarkable functional intimacy between YHWH and his enigmatic servant.

Second, there is a preoccupation with the servant’s role vis-à-vis the world beyond Judah’s borders. We read that the servant ‘will bring forth justice to the nations’. Later, the servant will prove resilient until ‘he has established justice in the earth’. Indeed, a kind of reciprocity is hinted at, for on their side of things ‘the coastlands wait for his teaching’. The combination of these elements seems to suggest something other than a mere judgement upon the nations. In any case, that point could have been made more simply, and in combination the elements suggest that populations remote from Judah will welcome the servant’s justice when it arrives and perhaps even cooperate in seeing it established.

This is all the more so if the תורה for which the coastlands wait in 42.4 is understood principally as instruction rather than an imposed regimen, as seems likely to be the case. If this is the correct reading, then one discerns an allusion to the nations’ eager receptivity in the Vision of Visions at 2.3, taking into account that the learning of YHWH’s תורה back on that exalted mountain leads directly into some kind of imposed—even if welcomed!—rearrangement of relationships among the nations.

Third, the modus operandi of the servant is firmly established as a quiet and persistent one. Even if the servant is destined to achieve great and international things, the quiet and persistent gentleness of his manner will be sustained to the end. An excerpt establishes the point:

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Isaiah 42:2-3 (NRSV)

There is more to be said, even in this first of four servant songs, about the conduct and the anticipated accomplishment of YHWH’s servant. Yet these three observations will be sustained even in those moments when the more glorious aspects of the servant’s commission are commended. It begins to seem that his identity as YHWH’s עבד—his servant—is multivalent. Quite obviously, this figure is a servant in a way that faces YHWH himself, who here presents and upholds him. That is to say, he is an agent of YHWH’s purpose. Yet his manner also suggests a servant’s posture with regard to those entities whom he faces in the course of fulfilling his commission. ‘A dimly burning wick he will not clench’ stands here as an early declaration of this latter point.

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El profeta Isaías no inventó el lenguaje de la búsqueda de Dios, pero lo habla como su lengua materna.

Todo el asunto se degrada tan rápidamente en tópicos sin sentido que debemos apresurarnos a realizar alguna inspección más. Curiosamente, un oráculo contra Egipto puede ser el mejor lugar para empezar.

Entonces el espíritu de los egipcios se apocará dentro de ellos; confundiré sus planes, y ellos acudirán a los ídolos, a los espíritus de los muertos, a los médiums y a los espiritistas.

Isaías 19:3 (LBLA)

Las traducciones inglesas suelen utilizar el verbo to consult o to inquire of al traducir la palabra hebrea דרשׁ. Son traducciones adecuadas porque captan la realidad de que el sujeto necesita un conocimiento que espera que le llegue por revelación de alguna fuente religiosa externa. Consultar e inquirir son correctas hasta ese punto.

Sin embargo, en el discurso de Isaías, hay un movimiento asertivo, un empuje hacia, incluso una necesidad desesperada que falta en esa traducción inglesa. Curiosamente, el verbo buscar, que en los círculos religiosos de lengua inglesa se convierte tan perversamente en algo esotérico y contemplativo, parece mejor aquí. Connota que algo oculto es muy deseado y que requerirá algo de energía por parte de los que lo necesitan si es que van a poner las manos sobre él.

Si ese es el caso que exige una determinada traducción al inglés, ¿qué podemos decir del uso que hace Isaías de la expresión?

Antes de llegar al tipo de búsqueda que el profeta recomienda, debemos observar la forma irónica en que la búsqueda de la revelación es, de hecho, un ejercicio inútil. El discurso de Isaías considera que la búsqueda de fuentes espirituales distintas de Yahvé refleja una confusión, incluso una estupidez moral, que es lo contrario de la verdadera sabiduría. En Isaías 19.3, que es representativo de este diagnóstico, consultar o buscar los ídolos y las sombras, y los fantasmas y los espíritus familiares sucede porque los egipcios se han agotado en el espíritu y porque Yahvé ha confundido sus planes. Los sabios, los estables, los confiables no hacen este tipo de cosas. Los confundidos, como los egipcios condenados, por ejemplo, buscan la revelación religiosa en fuentes poco fiables.

No se trata de una sátira puntual. El libro de Isaías mantiene su crítica a este tipo particular de extravío. Desgraciadamente, no sólo los ignorantes egipcios son presa de esta locura (véase, sobre todo, Isaías 1.3). Israel/Judá también encuentra la luz del profeta con relación a su comportamiento:

Y cuando os digan: Consultad a los médiums y a los adivinos que susurran y murmuran, decid: ¿No debe un pueblo consultar a su Dios? ¿Acaso consultará a los muertos por los vivos? (Isaías 8:19 LBLA; los dos primeros ejemplos traducen XXX, el tercero hace que el verbo sea explícito en español, aunque sólo esté implícito en hebreo).

Pero el pueblo no ha vuelto a Aquel que los hirió, no han buscado al Señor de los ejércitos.

Isaías 9:13 (LBLA)

¡Ay de los que descienden a Egipto por ayuda! En los caballos buscan apoyo, y confían en los carros porque son muchos, y en los jinetes porque son muy fuertes, pero no miran al Santo de Israel, ni buscan al Señor.

Isaías 31:1 (LBLA)

Buscar en el lugar equivocado es un fracaso despreciable de la realidad. No buscar a YHVH probablemente viene a ser lo mismo; es decir, en Isaías probablemente denota no una falta de búsqueda en absoluto, sino más bien una búsqueda de otras fuentes en lugar de la única verdadera y fiable.

Si esta larga discusión sobre la falta de búsqueda sirve como una introducción adecuada al uso que hace Isaías del dialecto de examinar y buscar, pasemos a lo que significa para este profeta buscar bien. Como es lógico, la respuesta es matizada y variada. Después de todo, estamos leyendo el libro de Isaías, donde las cosas son sólo ocasionalmente complicadas, pero casi siempre complejas.

En primer lugar, descubrimos que buscar la justicia es un sinónimo discutible de buscar a YHVH.

Y cuando extendáis vuestras manos, esconderé mis ojos de vosotros; sí, aunque multipliquéis las oraciones, no escucharé. Vuestras manos están llenas de sangre. Lavaos, limpiaos, quitad la maldad de vuestras obras de delante de mis ojos; cesad de hacer el mal, aprended a hacer el bien, buscad la justicia, reprended al opresor, defended al huérfano, abogad por la viuda.

Isaías 1:15-17 (LBLA)

Se establecerá en la misericordia un trono, y en él se sentará con fidelidad, en la tienda de David,
un juez que busque lo justo y esté presto a la justicia.

Isaías 16:5 (LBLA)

De hecho, parece haber un reconocimiento explícito de que se puede fingir la búsqueda de YHVH, pasando por los movimientos religiosos sin que importe la pasión de YHVH por la justicia. No debemos pasar por alto que Isaías 58:2 juega satíricamente con dos actividades religiosas venerables -buscar a YHVH y deleitarse en sus caminos- que son magníficas cuando se dan en el contexto de vidas alineadas con los propósitos más amplios de YHVH, pero una abominación cuando se presentan por sí solas como una piedad superficial que se ha desbocado trágicamente.

Con todo me buscan día tras día y se deleitan en conocer mis caminos, como nación que hubiera hecho justicia, y no hubiera abandonado la ley de su Dios. Me piden juicios justos, se deleitan en la cercanía de Dios.

Isaías 58:2 (LBLA)

Sorprendentemente, Isaías no relega la búsqueda de la justicia a los márgenes esotéricos de la piedad, sino que la sitúa en el centro de las convicciones que definen la vida. Se puede argumentar que Isaías sostendría que buscar la justicia (משׁפט) es casi lo mismo que buscar a YHVH. La búsqueda puede comenzar en el barrio o en la corte donde los privilegiados se alinean contra los pobres indefensos o en el templo en las oraciones de la mañana, pero todo esto para Isaías está cortado de la misma tela. La reducción de cualquiera de ellos a una simple actuación religiosa hace que YHVH se disguste, se canse y se adolezca.

Finalmente, cuando nos abrimos paso entre los textos isaísticos que describen la búsqueda adecuada, descubrimos que esta búsqueda puede ser mediada. Descubrimos también que la gracia divina parece alcanzar y finalmente superar la actividad humana de búsqueda de YHVH.

En cuanto a la mediación, el ‘libro de YHVH’ aparece de una manera que sugiere que la búsqueda es, como mínimo, polifacética. Aparentemente, uno puede leer o escuchar su camino hacia la revelación de YHVH.

Buscad en el libro del Señor, y leed: Ninguno de ellos faltará, ninguno carecerá de su compañera.
Porque su boca lo ha mandado, y su Espíritu los ha reunido.

Isaías 34:16 (LBLA)

Y entonces, tal vez como no es de extrañar, a medida que uno se familiariza con la dinámica de la aceleración de la misericordia que se burla del lector que se atreve a seguir la larga marcha de este libro, encontramos que Israel/Judá y tal vez incluso las naciones gentiles receptivas no sólo buscan, sino que son buscadas por YHVH.

Acontecerá en aquel día que las naciones acudirán a la raíz de Isaí, que estará puesta como señal para los pueblos, y será gloriosa su morada.

Isaías 11:10 (LBLA)

Buscad al Señor mientras puede ser hallado, llamadle en tanto que está cerca.

Isaías 55:6 (LBLA)

Y los llamarán: Pueblo Santo, redimidos del Señor. Y a ti te llamarán: Buscada, ciudad no abandonada. 

Isaías 62:12 (LBLA)

Me dejé buscar por los que no preguntaban por míme dejé hallar por los que no me buscaban. Dije: «Heme aquí, heme aquí», a una nación que no invocaba mi nombre.

Isaías 65:1 (LBLA)

Sarón será pastizal para ovejas, y el valle de Acor para lugar de descanso de vacas, para mi pueblo que me busca

Isaías 65:10 (LBLA)

Parece, pues, que buscar a YHVH, para este profeta, significa preocuparse y perseguir sus propósitos de una manera que excluye la revelación alternativa y abraza el cuidado de YHVH por el bienestar de la comunidad, especialmente por aquellos que se desechan en el ejercicio de la influencia y el poder. Es una actividad que se asocia fácilmente con la crisis de la comunidad, aunque probablemente no de forma exclusiva. En el esfuerzo, se descubre paradójicamente que buscar a YHVH es también descubrir que YHVH ‘busca de vuelta’ de una manera que relativiza los esfuerzos de Judá y los nuestros por descubrir y vivir en su propósito.

‘¿A quién vas a llamar?’ es una pregunta que podría haber sonado familiar a aquellos que caminaron al alcance de este profeta. Isaías podría incluso haberse contado entre los cazafantasmas a la hora de desacreditar la gama de opciones inútiles que se ofrecían cuando Israel/Judá se encontraba en necesidad de rescate y revelación.

La pregunta sigue siendo pertinente en estos siglos.

¿A quién vas a llamar? 

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