Archive for the ‘biblical reflection’ Category

The book called Isaiah excels at telling the same story over and over again.

Isaiah’s fascination with what the influential scholar Christopher Seitz has called ‘Zion’s final destiny’ manifests in the coin of crafty and subtle repetition of a narrative of which the punch line is ‘Mount Zion glorified’. Somehow, the repetition of this tale is not tedious. It is told from a dozen or more angles, producing an effect like that of slowly turning a diamond in order to view its beauty each time from a fresh angle.

I consider Isaiah 2.1-5 to be the book’s Vision of Visions, its paradigmatic statement of the story of Mount Zion as imposing, welcoming, life-generating, glorious destination. In truth the city figures in the book as the very center of the cosmos. In that Vision of Visions, the excited nations flow up to it like a river, turning to each other with animated encouragement as they make their improbably way. There they hope to encounter some element of YHWH’s instruction. There they receive a ‘correction’ so effective that they forget the art of war in order to concentrate on nourishing life.

Isaiah 11.1-9 retells the story, adding its own important flourish but preserving at least two critical pieces of that Vision of Visions.

The chapter begins by introducing the now familiar element of Judah’s surviving remnant, although in this version it the familiar appears in a new and intensely personified manner. A ‘shoot’ and a ‘branch’—just one burst of new life twice reported, rather than two—springs from the felled timber that was the house of David. This new quasi-Davidic ruler is saturated by YHWH’s multifaceted Spirit, which rests upon him like a thick blanket of moist fog upon a river valley. It is the Hebrew נחה, to rest, which anchors the image.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

Isaiah 11:1-3 (NRSV)

Although the remnant theme is familiar already in the book’s introductory chapter, not until now have we encountered this intense personification of it.

With respect to the matter of retelling, two matters stick out with particular poignance. First, we recall that the Vision of Visions deployed two particular verbs to portray YHWH’s effect upon the vision’s pilgrim nations. I highlight the below.

(YHWH) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Isaiah 2:4 (NRSV)

The appearance of the Hebrew verbs שׁפט (‘to judge’) and נכח (‘to arbitrate’, ‘to decide between’) and their double recurrence as depictions of chapter 11’s anointed ruler subtly but indisputably frame the latter vision as a retelling of the former. New and Davidic life in the form of this Spirit-saturated leader takes the form of the aforementioned actions:

(The shoot/branch sprung from Jesse’s felled tree) shall not judge (שׁפט) by what his eyes see, or decide (נכח) by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge (שׁפט) the poor, and decide (נכח) with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

Isaiah 11:3-5 (NRSV)

Quite simply, this new figure will perform and accomplish YHWH’s work, as this is introduced in chapter two’s Vision of Visions. He will do so with a preternatural capacity not be be misled by appearances. His perception is not the rather superficial assessment of which eyes and ears are capable, but rather a deeper penetration into reality with a particular concern for those who have suffered at its hands. He is no friend of an unjust status quo, but rather the agent of YHWH’s reordering of the world in the interest of its suffering least.

A new stage of this ‘messianic’ vision now follows, one whose images conjure descriptors like ‘paradise’ and ‘allegorical’. With respect to the daring adjective ‘messianic’, a messiah is by definition in the biblical framework and its echos someone who is anointed and endowed by YHWH to accomplish his purposes, as this quasi-Davidic ruler certain is.

This paradise is populated by animals normally connected only by the enmity of predator and prey. Here they frolic without bloodshed. It is easy to overlook the detail that these animals almost certainly represent nations.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:6-9 (NRSV)

It is in the section’s summary statement that we discover the second subtle but sinewy connection back to the Vision of Visions.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

The italicized declaration (re-)locates the entire vision precisely where the Vision of Visions took place: on YHWH’s ‘holy mountain’. We have already seen that YHWH’s action there (judging and arbitrating / שׁפט and נכח) are chapter 11 the deeds of the Spirit-saturated scion of the Jesse/David line.

The diamond has turned. The story of ‘Zion’s final destiny’ has been retold.

The entire Zion-focussed assembly in both chapters two and eleven might be seen as a retreat from the wider world or a rejection of it for better, more cultic things. This is emphatically not the case. The reconciliation of nations in the Vision of Visions speaks for itself. Here, the same nuance—though it is so much more than that—is heard in the passage’s final declaration. Without doubt its reference to ‘knowledge of the Lord’ alludes to the nations’ hunger to be taught ‘some of YHWH’s ways so that we might walk in his paths’ (2.3) back in the Vision of Visions.

I refer of course to the vision’s stirring conclusion:

For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11.9 (NRSV)

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