Archive for the ‘textures’ Category

What follows is my story. If you believe that learning the biblical languages should be quick or easy—and especially if you’re looking for tea and sympathy—read no further.


I had the good fortune to learn Hebrew under less than optimal conditions.

In truth, I did not come to the task with much passion. I considered myself a ‘New Testament guy’ and managed to pull off an M.Div. in ways that made it something of a bulked-up M.A. in New Testament. It was John and Paul who lit me up, not Moses and Jeremiah. I had learned Greek in university and nothing was going to get between me and the texts.

But Hebrew was a requirement of the M.Div. and I was not opposed. It had never occurred to me that I might do advanced studies in Bible in the future. I did not take Hebrew so that I could subsequently be admitted to a Ph.D. I simply wanted to know the Bible from as close in as I could and then to teach it as an outflow of that intimate connection. Anything else would have felt like a travesty, like walking past a cave full of diamonds and not poking your head in to see whether any of them lay on the surface for the taking.

My wife and I had just had a baby boy and another was on the way. She worked days at Hewlett Packard and I worked nights loading trucks at UPS in a questionable effort to avoid educational debt that might delay our intended missionary service. It was a grueling job for my twenty-something body, arguably as physically demanding as state-championship-level basketball had been for my teenage body a decade earlier. For two years, I loaded and for another two years I supervised loaders, which meant that I now layered organizational responsibility to the business of loading the trucks of guys who were too sick or drunk or depressed or uncommitted to punch in at 3:00 a.m. It was nobody’s only job. We were all at the end of the rope.

For me it was exhausting and necessary in equal measure, a way to get through seminary without starving.

On weekends, my wife and I refreshed ourselves by serving as youth pastors at our church. But that’s another story.

My aging Ford Pinto didn’t have heat and we were too poor to find out why and get it fixed. Often in the New England winter my 35-minute drive to work would take place behind the wheel of a car where the temperature was a single digit, Fahrenheit. I would often yell at the top of my lungs as I charged down the dark highway in order to stay awake, my whole body shaking from the cold.

After work, stinking from a night shift’s perspiration, I would drive to the day-care center on days when I didn’t have morning classes in order to pick up our infant son Christopher, whom my wife had dropped off two hours before on her way to work. Our cars would pass on Route 128, she heading west, me heading east. I would study all day while looking after Christopher. Once I woke up with the impress of the carpet on my face, having fallen asleep on the floor while crawling after my diapered-up boy.

Because my alarm clock went off at 1:30 a.m., I would regularly tell visiting friends at about 9:00 p.m., ‘You may stay as long as you want. But please turn off the lights when you’ve finished.’

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after the night’s work, I would drive past our apartment into the rising sun and continue on the additional half hour to the seminary. My car would shake almost uncontrollably at 58 mph, so I’d keep it steady at 57. Arriving at the seminary fifteen to twenty minutes after Hebrew class had begun, I’d throw a sweatshirt on to protect the other students from my sweaty stench. I’d stop by the cafeteria to snag two donuts and two cups of coffee in a sometimes failed effort to wake myself up and stay awake for the duration of Hebrew class, gulp it all down, and head down the hall to the last classroom on the left.

I’d let myself sheepishly into the classroom where class was already in session, find an empty seat, and begin to pay attention to the prof’s explanations of things that were by their vary nature alien and new. Our textbook was Thomas Lambdin’s classic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, the work of the famed Harvard linguist who had written grammars of several ancient Semitic languages. Neither Lambdin’s book nor our prof—who had been Lambdin’s student—suffered fools. Terms like ‘compensatory lengthening’ and ‘inalterably long vowels’ were explained patiently but just once. After that you were expected to understand or figure it out at home.

I clearly remember boiling with rage in class one morning as I struggled to penetrate the logic of dagesh forte, dagesh lene, and whether a freakin’ syllable was open or closed. I felt as if I were being tortured for the satisfaction of Thomas Lambdin, of our prof, or of some unseen, malevolent curriculum writer. It was humiliating. I had graduated summa cum laude in university and this was just seminary.

It took everything I had in me and more not to fold my cards and go home. At times I wanted nothing else. But I wanted to read and teach the Bible more. So I stayed.

I did not ask the prof to tutor me privately. If I missed a quiz, I did not ask the prof to extend the available time because I had failed to read the syllabus and did not realize we had a quiz today. I felt I was the poorest student in the classroom because on any given day all the other students were at least fifteen minutes and one or two topics ahead of me. I did not blame the curriculum or suggest that the prof had enjoyed more privileges than me or that Hebrew is more difficult for students who come from rural Pennsylvania Dutch contexts. I did not ask whether we could use a different textbook with fewer irritating details in it. I did not ask ‘how many hours of study are expected of me?’

In time, I found a toe-hold in the language. Barely. Then I got the other foot up onto the cliff. Eventually, I found that I could read the Hebrew Bible. I still learn something new in its pages nearly every day.

The Hebrew Bible still regularly slaps me around and calls me ‘Boy!’. When people ask—as they do—‘How long did it take you to learn Hebrew?’, my only honest answer is ‘I don’t know yet’.

But I live with this book now. It’s God-haunted. It’s inexhaustibly rich and alternately reassuring and deconstructing in the way of a very wise and somewhat recalcitrant uncle whom you can’t live with and can’t live without. It defies creeds and confessions and insists that I think again, that I look more closely, that I consider the unthinkable. If you ask me about a passage from the Old Testament and tell me I can’t look at the text, all I’ll be able to do for you is stare, glassy-eyed. It’s inside of me now. It’s taken nearly forty years and it’s still not finished with me.

If Providence brings us together as student and professor with biblical Hebrew standing formidably astride the landscape before us, and if you feel that your conditions are not optimal for working as hard as our subject is going to ask us to work, be careful what you say.

I had the good fortune to learn Hebrew, under less than optimal conditions. I hope you have the same good fortune.

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Ninguna voz habla más conmovedoramente desde el exilio que el escritor del salmo ciento treinta y siete. Junto a los ríos de Babilonia”, explica, “nos sentamos y lloramos por Sión”.

A estos captores de los judaicos exiliados, los cánticos de Sión les parecían un mero entretenimiento. El acento exótico, el extraño ritmo musical, debían parecer un respiro para el tedio del imperio. Todo lo que querían -no parecía mucho- era incitar a sus cautivos a cantar una o dos melodías de la Antigua Patria.

Cómo podían prever el doloroso popurrí de pérdida y lealtad que provocaría su petición:

¿Cómo cantaremos la canción del Señor
en tierra extraña?

Salmo 137:4 (LBLA)

Parece un sacrilegio entonar las viejas melodías de Jerusalén en esta tierra maldita y babilónica. “¿Cómo cantaremos los cantos de Sión en una tierra extraña?”, les pregunta el salmista a sus compañeros judíos. Dios no es tan bajo como para ser cantado a petición, por quien sea y con cualquier propósito. Cantar la canción de Sión aquí, señala el salmo, sería el acto por excelencia de cobardía y aculturación.

Seguramente Dios no está en este lugar, seguramente no está en posición de recibir alabanzas al estilo de Sión aquí, aquí en este maldito terreno babilónico, donde YHVH no es alabado y su pueblo no es libre.

Seguramente no…

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Es casi imposible, al borde de la muerte, imaginar la vida.

La muerte siempre hace gala de su inevitabilidad. Despojada de su ruidosa teatralidad, la muerte no es ni la mitad de temible. Pero prefiere que el secreto no salga a la luz.

Cuando leemos y cantamos los salmos, ensayamos el testimonio de hombres y mujeres -tan reales como nosotros, sólo que de hace mucho tiempo- que se vieron abrumados por la pretensión absoluta de la muerte, sólo para ver con sorpresa cómo YHVH invertía las cosas en un instante.

Bendito sea el Señor, que cada día lleva nuestra carga, el Dios que es nuestra salvación. Selah.
Dios es para nosotros un Dios de salvación, y a Dios, el Señor, pertenece el librar de la muerte.

Salmo 68:19-20 (LBLA)

Uno se podría permitir una sacudida retrospectiva, mirando hacia atrás en el momento aparente de la muerte, por lo cerca que estuvimos de ser absorbidos por ella. Haber escapado de la muerte, por muy convincente que sea o por mucho tiempo que pase, es haberlo hecho a duras penas. Por los pelos.

La muerte es presuntuosa, pero no un enemigo menos siniestro por exagerar.

Tanto si el propio roce con la muerte se produjo a través de una repentina externalidad, de la lengua ácida de quien una vez nos amó, del regreso de la empinada pendiente de la adicción o de esa destrozada depresión que reclama cada miedo como propio, es bueno detenerse y recordar lo cerca que estuvo todo.

Por Dios, casi me muero. Increíble, casi nos perdemos por completo.

Entonces, tras hacer una pausa -y estremecernos por cómo podrían haber sido las cosas-, cantamos:

Dios es para nosotros un Dios de salvación, y a Dios, el Señor, pertenece el librar de la muerte.

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It is foolishness to find our moment too easily in Scripture, as though the great matters that weighed upon prophets’ hearts melt away to reveal only the towering mountain that is us. It is another kind of folly to ignore patterns of divine and human conduct that might instruct us, nudge us from our ignorance onto a slight rise from which one can see more clearly.

In an era different from our own, an exasperated YHWH released his people to their own devices. One effect was that capable people withdrew from the pains of leadership. Only children stepped up.

For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable.

For a man will take hold of his brother in the house of his father, saying: ‘You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule’; in that day he will speak out, saying: ‘I will not be a healer; in my house there is neither bread nor cloak; you shall not make me leader of the people.

For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.

Isaiah 3:1-8 ESV

If we are too often led by children in the grown-up bodies of women and men—and we are—then we ought to ask about causes. Where are the adults? Where are the discerning, the skilled? Where are the clear-eyed, the truth-stewarding, the level heads who know whispered conspiracy from fact and how to call a spade a spade? Where are those with the cojones properly to despise a fool in the good old way because fools spit on things that have taken generations to nourish?

They are on their couches.

Leadership is hard and largely uncompensated. One leads for others, largely at the cost of oneself. This is simply how things are. There’s no crying in leadership.

When a community or a nation is no longer inspired by large ambitions, those who should lead do not. We abdicate.

Children take over. We elect them, we anoint them, we hand precious things over to them.

We ought perhaps to ask whether YHWH’s hand—now, as then—has turned against us, allowed us our ease, subjected us to infants and imbeciles.

Then we ought to repair the great breach that has opened up, or at least summon the courage to make a beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 63:3-6 ESV, emphasis added

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

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

Isaiah 63:8-10 ESV

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 63:15-19 ESV

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

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

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

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We long for permanence.

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

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

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

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

First, this:

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

Isaiah 61:9 ESV

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

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

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

Then, this:

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

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

Isaiah 61:10-11 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:1-19 RSV)

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:2 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV

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

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

This is not the Isaianic vision.

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

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

Isaiah 43:19 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 46:1-4 (ESV)

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

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

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

Two religious experiences could hardly be more starkly contrasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 44:1-5 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

We have no patience for planting trees.

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El ojo escrutador del Señor no siempre es una noción agradable para los escritores bíblicos. En su agonía, Job lo encuentra implacable. Los pecadores, nos dicen, lo consideran risible y a veces un tigre de papel destinado a asustar a la gente, pero bastante incapaz una vez que se obtiene un ángulo claro de las cosas.

Por otro lado, el escritor del salmo ciento treinta y nueve se deleita en la visión ilimitada de Dios en su vida. Ciertamente, después de relatar la imposibilidad de esconderse de su creador, él pide aún más transparencia:

Escudríñame, oh Dios, y conoce mi corazón;
pruébame y conoce mis inquietudes.
Y ve si hay en mí camino malo,
y guíame en el camino eterno.

Salmo 139:23-24 (LBLA)

Tal es la notable conclusión de un poema que insiste en que puedes correr pero no puedes esconderte, y luego afirma que una vida sin escapatoria es algo bueno:

¿Adónde me iré de tu Espíritu,
o adónde huiré de tu presencia?
Si subo a los cielos, he aquí, allí estás tú;
si en el Seol preparo mi lecho, allí estás tú.
Si tomo las alas del alba,
y si habito en lo más remoto del mar,
aun allí me guiará tu mano,
y me asirá tu diestra.
Si digo: Ciertamente las tinieblas me envolverán[f],
y la luz en torno mío será noche;
ni aun las tinieblas son oscuras para ti,
y la noche brilla como el día.
Las tinieblas y la luz son iguales para ti.

El escritor no señala qué experiencia de vida, qué dilema existencial puede haber despertado en él pensamientos de huida de Dios. No provee ninguna circunstancia para la hipotética auto-maldición que invocaría a la oscuridad para que lo cubra en sus sombras. Tales detalles sugieren que el hombre ha vivido mucho o al menos ha conocido el lado oscuro de la experiencia o por lo menos que ha sido estudiante de lo vivido.

También aparece asombro por la gloria de ser humano y una agradecida negación a dejar que el crédito de ese esplendor recaiga finalmente en la criatura que lo manifiesta.

Oh Señor, tú me has escudriñado y conocido.
Tú conoces mi sentarme y mi levantarme;
desde lejos comprendes mis pensamientos.
Tú escudriñas mi senda y mi descanso,
y conoces bien todos mis caminos.
Aun antes de que haya palabra en mi boca[c],
he aquí, oh Señor, tú ya la sabes toda.
Por detrás y por delante me has cercado,
y tu mano pusiste sobre mí.
Tal conocimiento es demasiado maravilloso para mí;
es muy elevado, no lo puedo alcanzar.

La vida vivida de esta manera transparente puede no ser siempre algo dulce, parece sugerir el salmista. Existe demasiada oscuridad en los márgenes de este poema para que nosotros pensemos eso. Sin embargo, es maravilloso. Uno es tan profundamente conocido que sólo las hipérboles, imágenes y exclamaciones de la poesía se acercan a decirlo bien.

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