Archive for the ‘textures’ Category

By the time Isaiah’s ‘oracles against the nations’ have meandered their way to Tyre’s denunciation in the book’s twenty-third chapter, the reader has learned to anticipate a sudden turn from woe to weal in each chapter’s concluding lines.

Throughout the chapter, the glories produced by Tyre’s ceaseless commercial journeying have been defiled. The sea itself has turned against Tyre and Sidon, her sister city. Tyre herself will be ‘forgotten for seventy years, the lifetime of one king’ (v. 15). Her ambitious energies have been compared to those of a street-walking prostitute. In the prophet’s rhetoric at least, Tyre has like so many others of Israel’s neighbors been brought low.

Yet one hopes for better things upon arriving at the expected hinge language in verse 17: והיה מקץ שׁבעים שׁנה / ‘At the end of seventy years…’ This, after all, is where horizons nearly always grow brighter.

But if we expect an oracle of blessing at the end of this chapter, we are left scratching our heads over its details.

At the end of seventy years, the LORD will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade, and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth. Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD.

Isaiah 23:17–18 (NRSV)

Oddly, we find no splendid, redeemed Tyre in white linen, blessed by YHWH and blessing the earth. At least not exactly.

Instead, her activity is still presented as that of a woman who ‘prostitute(s) herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.’ Tyre has not gone still. Her incessant wanderings have not grown obsolete during those seventy years forgotten.

Only the purpose has changed, and this dramatically. The judgement oracle against Tyre had described her thus:

Who has planned this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth?

Isaiah 23:8 (NRSV)

It seems that none of her commercial prowess has been lost. In the restoration oracle—if that is what it is—her relentless buying and selling are still styled as prostitution. However, its beneficiaries have been supplanted by new and nobler ones.

Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD.

Isaiah 23:18 (NRSV)

If the well-established pattern in Isaiah’s oracles against the nations is our interpretive North Star, then it is possible that the pattern has been sustained even here. The description of Tyre after her seventy years is then likely to be a depiction of blessing and even of service to YHWH. Perhaps, then, Tyre’s ‘prostitution’ is now a wry rather than a barbed description of her commercial activism. The form of it remains unchanged but its purpose is transformed.

No longer hoarded for her own glory, the ‘profits’ of Tyre’s ‘prostitution’ now feed and clothe the Lord’s own.

If such a reading captures the chapter’s deeply ironic burden, then we might look backward to the nations’ beating of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We might also glance forward to the parade of the nations’ cultural product into Zion the beautified and the beautifying. We might discover in those disparately populated metaphors a template for this chapter’s odd transformation of a pagan city’s commercial ‘prostitution’ into bread, wine, and wool for the daughters and sons of Zion’s wide and welcoming embrace.

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We’ve considered the sudden turning in Isaiah’s nineteenth chapter from a bleak oracle of judgement against Egypt to a declaration about her healing and indeed her unlikely integration into Yahwistic faith. Some would categorize the ambiguous vignette at verses 16-17 with the preceding doom oracle against that nation. I’ve argued on the basis of the overwhelming note of blessing in the five oracles and the precisely repeated introductory clause ביום ההוא (‘In that day…’) that those two verses are best understood as a first of five oracles of blessing rather than a dismal prelude to them.

When we come to the chapter’s second declaration of good fortune for Egypt, the sunnier disposition of the oracle occasions relatively less doubt. I understand it to be the second of five parallel oracles of blessing.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

Isaiah 19:18 (NRSV)

Curiously, there is a crescendoing of the element of blessing from the first of the five oracles—where it is seen only through the prism of the happier declarations that follow it—to the fifth and culminating vision. In that culminating version of events, not only Egypt but also Assyria will be placed before Israel as nations that are the beneficiaries of YHWH’s blessing.

When verse 18 is seen in this wider context, it makes its own contribution to the gradual clarifying of Egypt’s enviable plight. Taken by itself, this second oracle of blessing might be read as conventional imperial rhetoric of an Israelite type. Those ‘five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and wear allegiance to the YHWH Sebaoth’ could quite naturally be understood as settlements of occupying Israelites within Egypt.

It is only as we continue to read on into the third oracle and then the fourth and fifth that such an understand loses its viability. In the third, a deep rapprochement between Egypt and YHWH himself will become evident. If we read the oracles together—as the ביום הוא mechanism seems to suggest that we must—then these five cities are Egyptian cities peopled by Egyptian inhabitants living on Egyptian land. Yet they speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to Israel’s deity. Whether this vow is understood as an initial feature of faith by conversion or as an ongoing Yahwistic piety is almost immaterial. In either case, we view Egyptians worshiping YHWH and participating in the ongoing identity that is represented by dialect.

Elsewhere, the book called Isaiah will traffic in the language and concept of a new name and of re-naming. Here we have all of that in a different key that does not depend upon the mention of a new name but rather by reference to two activities: swearing of allegiance and language. Indeed, as we shall see, these Egyptians manifestly remain Egyptians.

Still, upon looking below the surface, one thing becomes clear: everything has changed.

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Arguably the most stunning redemptive turning in Isaiah’s oracles against the nations involves the Egyptians. That the prophet can imagine these historical oppressors of Israel turning to YHWH and finding his welcome extended to them says something powerful about the Isaianic tradition. It ought to unsettle any reader who expects to find here garden-variety denunciation of an ancient adversary in tones of triumph.

Isaiah gives us something far different than that, remote from convention, alien to religious nationalism of any ordinary kind.

After the Schadenfreude of Egypt’s imagined downfall has run its course, the nineteenth chapter’s verses 16 through 25 serve up no fewer than five short tales of Egypt’s redemptive turning. Each is introduced by the familiar but indeterminate expression ביום ההוא (‘On that day…’).

Within the prophetic rhetoric, the imagined moment of Egypt’s new and greater glory—this in contrast to the faux wisdom that is ridiculed in the chapter’s first seventeen verses—is no less certain for being difficult to date. The prophet speaks of something that will happen even as he makes no effort to ascertain just when these things might occur.

The first of the five restoration oracles is in modern editions of the Bible often grouped with the oracle against Egypt that precedes it, no doubt because its tone appears to fit better with that dismal litany than with the brilliant promises that follow.

This seems to me to be mistaken. I prefer to allow the formula ביום ההיא perform its natural work of anchoring verses 16-17 as a first of five oracles of blessing, although this immediately requires us to explain how words of terror can speak of good fortune.

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the LORD of hosts is planning against them.

Isaiah 19:16–17 (NRSV)

Indeed, this apparently damning oracle twice refers to YHWH moving against Egypt, first by means of the hand he raises against them and then again by way of the counsel or plan that YHWH has planned/counseled against them.

Is it not absurd to find blessing in such fury?

In ordinary circumstances, it would certainly be so. But this book’s conception of redemption is not ordinary. We have already seen that the recurring vocabulary of what are manifestly five oracles begins here and continues verbatim in the remaining four. Since the latter four declarations are stunningly positive in terms of their outcome, we might suspect that the first is not an entire outlier in this regard.

Such a hermeneutical suspicion that better things lurk here finds corroboration in the summary statement of the third of five oracles, where verse 22 renders a stunning verdict:

The LORD will strike (ונגף) Egypt, striking and healing (נגף ורפוא); they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them (ורפאם).

Isaiah 19:22 (NRSV)

My presentation of the text just above intends to illustrate the stirring deployment of two Isaianic verbs of wide and resonant import: נגף, to strike; and רפא, to heal. The careful reader will have encountered from the book’s first chapter onward that YHWH’s striking of his people is with redemptive intent. Jacob shall know no healing and there is no restoration without the fire of affliction, without passing through the Great Calamity of exile that is YHWH’s own doing.

Yet here the same dynamic is extended to Israel’s pagan neighbor, with redemptive adumbrations no weaker for the detail that the object of YHWH’s strange ministrations are the oft-loathed Egyptians rather than YHWH’s own Jacob/Israel/Judah.

If we allow the architecture of Isaiah 19 to speak as loudly as its words, then we are in my view obligated to read the strange work of striking-in-order-to-heal back into verses 16-17. In doing so, the raising of both divine hand and divine plan against Egypt is in fact penultimate, a step on the way to her greater and YHWH-inclined glory. Isaiah 19.16-17 is indeed an oracle of blessing, a strange word in which dark terror births an eventual brilliant light.

So does the עצת יהוה—Isaiah’s notorious counsel of YHWH—slip the hands of conventional management. YHWH is not to be administered or managed, the prophet seems to suggest. His ways defy comprehension.

He is passing strange. You would never imagine.

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The book of Isaiah’s oracles against the nations can be quite savage in their predicted debasement of those peoples who have been cruel to Israel/Judah. Their envisaged downfall is met with Schadenfreude of the first order.

Six of the seven verses of chapter 18 give themselves to this kind of vengeful celebration at the expense of Cush, or Nubia/Ethiopia. If enigmatic in its allusive details, the oracle is perfectly clear in its thirst for the downfall of a distant nation, one whose storied mobility perhaps makes it easy to understand as not quite distant enough!

The sixth verse brings the oracle to a close with a blood-curdling sneer. What could be more pathetic than to fall from quasi-imperial grace and become the soil under the talons and feet of mere animals?

They shall all be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the animals of the earth. And the birds of prey will summer on them, and all the animals of the earth will winter on them.

Isaiah 18:6 (NRSV)

Yet these savage oracles tend to swing abruptly upon a redemptive hinge. When they do so, we discover a temporal phrase that points to a moment of restoration beyond the destruction for which the prophet so passionately hopes.

In this chapter, the vision of posterior blessing occupies a single verse.

At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah 18:7 (NRSV)

The Hebrew clause בעת ההיא generates English ‘(a)t that time’ and locates Cush’s reversed circumstances in the unspecified future. Indeed, the book employs a handful of synonymous expressions that do the same. Usually, they provide no information regarding the ways and means of the radical turn of events they introduce. They simply indicate that there is more to the story. Then, quickly, the prophet tells it.

In my view, a declaration like that of Isaiah 18.7 cannot be dismissed as simple imperial subjection of an enemy with its parade of tribute-bearing slaves. There is too much of a pattern of doom-to-blessing in these oracles against the nations with which interpretation of a verse like this must reckon. There is as well a vocabulary of hope-fulfillment that frequently appears in the midst of such turns of fortune.

There is more here than simply subjugation. There is, as well, fulfillment.

Taken as a whole, this oracle promises a terrible future to Cush. And then a beautiful one.

Interpreters of the book called Isaiah have often failed to resist an effort simply to assign the two phenomena—separated and joined as they are by a brief, temporal hinge—to two hands. The first can imagine only woe for Israel’s perceived enemies. The second brings a radically different corrective to the conversation, while allowing the woe oracle itself to stand.

There must be more to the canonical arrangement that this. In a way that within the constraints of this book rather defies penetration, the Isaianic vision embraces a deeper purpose on YHWH’s part vis-à-vis the nations. This secondary and arguably deeper divine commitment roughly parallels the expectation of a devastating purification that Israel herself must undergo on the way to her Zion-centric rehabilitation.

If we can summon the courage and the patience to step inside the Isaianic world view, we are drawn to conclude that YHWH is not simply against the nations. Indeed, he is for them in somewhat analogous terms to his passionate goodwill towards Israel.

Yet the road to his restorative mercies is—here too—long, dark, and blood-spattered.

So does this enigmatic scroll lurk restlessly in the hearts and minds of attentive readers, becoming—somehow and alongside Deuteronomy and the Psalms—Israel’s and the early Christian church’s most treasured documentary legacy.

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When the book called Isaiah simultaneously addresses the future of Judah and of ‘the nations’, a persistent ambiguity attaches to its portrayal of the latter.

The nations quite often figure as something like forced laborers serving restored Judah and Jerusalem. Their lot seems neither happy nor chosen.

Yet with great frequency such depictions also include a hint at the choice of a volunteer who signs up for a difficult job that in some way improves his or her situation, even fulfills a deep longing.

The book’s fourteenth chapter, more famous for its notorious and highly sarcastic taunt of the fallen Babylonian king, actually kicks off with a two-verse vignette of the kind I’ve mentioned.

“But the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the nations will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the LORD’S land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them.”

Isaiah 14:1-2 (NRSV)

The initial declaration deploys three pieces of familiar promissory language, richly laden with denotations and connotations of YHWH’s stubborn commitment to restore his captive people. I refer to the words בחר, רחם, and נוח, here rendered in context as the verbal portions of will have compassion on Jacob, will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land.

It is not difficult to imagine this promise developed without reference to anyone except the beneficiaries of YHWH’s restorative mercies. Yet Jacob/Israel is in fact accompanied by ‘nations’ who serve as the porters of returning Israelite captives and are further identified as ‘male and female slaves’, as former captors now turned captives, and as Jacob’s former oppressors.

The picture fits nicely in a tables-turned narrative of poetic justice.

Yet there is more—squeezed in between the assertion of YHWH’s redemptive activity and the description of Israel’s unlikely servants—and it is in this additional detail that we glimpse an ambiguity that can only be described as studied:

…and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.

The language of this description is not that of bare captives. There is decision here. There is choice. Indeed there is inclusion and even what we moderns call conversion, mediated by the verbs ונלוה (will join) and ונספחו (and attach). It is virtually impossible to imagine this dual action as forced subservience. Indeed, it is the language of throwing in one’s lot, of a change of identity, of an existential joining an entity to which one has previously been alien.

Under such scrutiny, the promise of this brief oracle becomes clearer. Jacob/Israel is not the only beneficiary of YHWH’s fortune-turning, muscular mercy. The least likely, the formerly adversarial, the oppressor of rough-hewn speech somehow participates alongside YHWH’s immediate daughters and sons.

Yet he does not cease to be a subject and even a slave, does not merely find a place among the sweaty knots of rejoicing Jewish returnees to Zion, does not lose his identity as a son of ‘the nations’ and a former captor. The text is unfamiliar with the proverbial melting pot. Its treasured future is chunky, not blended.

The book called Isaiah, here as so often, turns on the intentional ambiguity that shrouds YHWH’s most coveted actions in the mystery that becomes him.

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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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The book called Isaiah clears a particular space for influential children.

Whether Isaiah’s story of redemption is considered as proximate to Judah’s fate amid the imperial episodes involving Assyria, Babylon, and Persia or across a trajectory involving New Testament messianic readings of the texts, the little ones exercise a surprising and potent agency.

In Isaiah 9—one must be aware that the Hebrew and English versification differ by a count of one unit—sudden and exuberant reversals are in play.

The section that comprises Isaiah 9:1-7 (English versification) swings on a hinge that might best be understood to usher in glorious light in place of hopeless darkness and peaceful celebration where moments ago the people knew bloody oppression. The tables are turned suddenly and in happy directions across these two ranges of experience.

The author of this revolution is understood to be YHWH, this by way of the second-person address in verses 3 and 4. I quote now the first five of the passage’s seven verses, with 3 and 4 italicized.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Isaiah 9:1–5 (NRSV)

Then Isaiah takes one of the tradition’s signature turns. I’ll again italicize, this time the references to the child whom the text now introduces.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:6–7 (NRSV)

This child’s birth is a monarchical moment of deep importance to our author. Scholars move quickly and understandably to map the birth of this royal child across what we know of Ancient Near Eastern kings and houses, a move that produces an interpretation that is very much contained within the text’s historical moment.

The grand titles attributed to the child may tug at the edges of such a reading, but it’s a viable understanding in its context. A child sired within the David household will presumably grow up to liberate the royal house and its subjects from imperial oppression. The resonant Hebrew expression כי ילד ילד־לנו בן נתן־לנו—For a child has been born to us, a son is given to us—locates liberation in the person of an infant or a mere lad. This is YHWH’s way of achieving his greatest redemptive feats by means of the least promising of human agents. The imperial yoke is broken and Judah erupts in grateful celebration.

It’s a stirring picture and not one whose utility for Israelite/Jewish understanding is difficult to appreciate.

It is of course not the end of the story.

Rather, the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew offers a complementary reading of the text. I choose the highlighted word carefully. It is not necessary to conclude and is in any case impossible to prove that Jewish messianic readers of the Hebrew Bible (in many cases via its Greek translation, the Septuagint) rejected or discarded an initial historically-contained reading of a text like this one. We may never know their precise assumptions in that regard. At the very least, an evangelist like Matthew offers an additional reading and admittedly one that for his community likely eclipsed almost altogether the earlier one.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Matthew 4:12–17 (NRSV)

Those same 8th-century tables have been turned. Gloom has again been displaced by glorious light. Imperial oppression of a different sort has been vanquished in a way that occasions peaceful celebration.

A blessed kingdom has regained or secured effective dominion.

Christian faith, then, understands the birth of Jesus in revolutionary, table-turning terms that resounds with the life-or-death gravity of the Isaiah oracle’s textures. As well, it embraces YHWH’s purported penchant for using ‘the least of these’—language that will become familiar on a grown-up Child’s lips—to accomplish his finest work.

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The book called Isaiah insists on counterposing fear to faith. Or, better put, fear to trust in YHWH.

It is arguably the most persistent binary in the book. If Israel could manage a reliable glimpse of how things actually work, we are led to believe in a hundred places, they would quite naturally trust this sovereign YHWH who has called them his own and vowed to secure their survival and their eventual flourishing.

But Israel (in the dialect of ‘Jacob’, ‘Judah’, ‘Zion’, ‘Jerusalem’, ’the house of David’, and similar monikers) does not acquire that view, does not give herself to such trust, cannot cease to fear one overlord or another.

She does not earn the prophet’s sympathy for this shortcoming. Instead, Isaiah holds his people accountable for what the book considers a culpable failure rightly to decide where she will place her trust.

The book’s portrayal of misplaced fear becomes, at turns, quite impressive.

In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Isaiah 7:1–2 (NRSV)

The mindless shaking of trees against the wind becomes picturesque foil and contrast to the solid reliability of YHWH, on the one hand, and the anchored steadiness of a people who trusts in him, on the other.

Soon we hear YHWH’s prophet declare with regard to the conspiracy of the neighboring nations that unsettle the David king and his subjects in this moment…

It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.

In its context, this declaration does not bring good news, for Ahaz and his court find themselves incapable of responding aright.

For the moment we are left with the unsettling image of Judah, light as a feather, set to trembling by the slightest breeze, self-victimizing object rather than decisive subject.

The image shapes its reader to understand what constitutes the opposite of faith in the Isaianic vision: Israel trusts. Or Israel trembles.

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The cryptic oracle that constitutes this shortest chapter in the book called Isaiah serves up one of the Isaianic tradition’s most beguiling combinations.

The prophet and the proclaimers of his message love to fuse the notion of survivors/remnant, on the one hand, to that of beauty/glory on the other. In fact, the book of Isaiah would not be what it is if this odd alchemy did not lie at its heart.

It’s worthwhile to quote in full three of the chapter’s six verses while highlighting the words most closely related to this observation.

In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

Isaiah 4:2–4 (ESV)

Suffice it to say that the horticulturally resonant branch and fruit cling enigmatically to the survivors of Israel and he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem. The fact that both branch and fruit are beautiful, glorious, pride, and honor with respect to the surviving remnant engenders messianic interpretation of this declaration, since it seems to hint at two entities in what we might call Jerusalem-after-the-storm rather than just one. Incidentally, the Hebrew behind the static and twice-stated ’shall be’ (2x) is in my judgment better rendered ‘shall become’. This rendering honors both the Hebrew syntax (יהיה ל…) and the core contextual idea of movement from a sorry state to its opposite.

The verses excerpted here place this beautification and glorification in a future moment when the eventual remainder of Judah’s people shall have passed through and survived some purifying calamity. The sequence is already apparent in the verses quoted just above. The nature of this fruitful disaster becomes even clearer in the verses that follow.

…once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 

YHWH’s flame then becomes a divine shield over Zion in the chapter’s remaining verses, a transformation narrated in prose that is deeply resonant of YHWH’s earlier redemptive engagement with Israel.

Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

Isaiah 4:5–6 (ESV)

What are we to make of these glorious survivors, painted with an allusive brush in this early chapter of a massive book that has merely begun by the time we encounter the impressionistic canvas from which they stare out at us?

For a start, it bears underscoring that nothing portrayed in this cameo rubs roughly against the book’s longer and greater trajectory. Rather, the story of purification through a disaster designed and delivered by Jerusalem’s impassioned Divine Protector is part and parcel of the Isaianic package. Everything we discover here is constant with that greater story. If the tale is told briefly here, it will be developed, promised, declared, and pressed home time after time before this scroll can be rolled up and put away.

So, too, the notion that those who submit to the storm and survive its lashing will emerge as beautiful, honored, and holy. These splendid qualities, which cling naturally in the text to YHWH himself and to all that he restores, are here promised to those who endure the storm in the most intimate dialect that this book knows how to speak: that of re-naming.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem…

Isaiah 4:3 (ESV)

The language of ‘prophetic promises’ is spoken too often and too glibly in connection with the company of the biblical prophets.

Yet without it we would stand baffled before a text like Isaiah’s fourth chapter, unable to speak.

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The book called Isaiah is moored by three three weighty anchors: the Representative Summary that is chapter 1; the Generative Vision of chapter 6; and the Vision of Visions in the first five verses of chapter 2.

The Representative Summary prepares the intrepid reader of this immense work for what he or she is about to encounter. The Vision of Visions is the sine qua non of the book as we have it. I find it impossible to imagine the book called Isaiah without this generative and entirely unexpected confrontation of our eventual prophet by the exalted King, high and lifted up. He thinks he will not survive the moment, yet survive he does, with a vision in his soul that he cannot shake loose.

This leaves us with the Vision of Visions in chapter 2. Read slowly, it unveils a breathtaking glimpse of a world turned on its head, an inversion of all that we assume to be true and real. Power dynamics that present themselves as unmalleable, as the very unmovable architecture of Reality, are deconstructed before our eyes. This vision depicts an impossible world, where rivers—floods of humanity, no less!—flow uphill against the always-there force of gravity to the highest place on earth, and for reasons no son or daughter of Israel could imagine finding on unwashed pagan lips.

All of this comprises or at the very least initiates the curiously introduced word that Isaiah saw’. If we concede to דבר its most common meaning—a spoken and heard word—then the prophet’s Vision of Visions has already dismantled the way of things even before the text has moved from introducing that vision to narrating it. One doesn’t see a word. Yet here we are.

This will be no ordinary world, this YHWH-vision, this prophet’s imagination, this new and inviting place.

What moment does the prophet have in mind?

The answer has been much tortured by biblical translation, vulnerable as the practice is to importing anachronisms into its text. So we find, particularly in the handiwork of evangelical translators with their sometimes careless assumption of Christian eschatological systems, translations that sound like technical references. For example, in the latter days. The words work, all right, but millions of readers will immediately insert the vision into a preconfigured assumption about where history goes when God takes the wheel.

It does not belong there. The words work well enough, but the connotations are too concrete. And, therefore, misleading.

Rather, the prophet is looking beyond circumstances as we know them to an undefined future. The Hebrew expression והיה באחרית הימים, if we allow ourselves a momento of clumsy literalism, can be rendered…

Now it shall happen in the after-part of our days that…

He is simply looking ahead, this newly envisioned prophet, to a future that he himself does not claim to know.

‘Eventually’ is too loose. ‘One fine day…’ is too casual. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation may do as well as we can:

In the days to come…

The prophet does not appear to know how long his bruised people will have to endure this present darkness. Things as we know them to be. This conventional, this hopeless, this dismal time.

But he imagines that things shall not always be this way.

One day a little hill shall become the cosmos’ highest mountain, the kind of mountains where gods move amidst the clouds, the kind of place where YHWH lives. Then, strangely, nations with new-lit appetite for instruction and for peace will find a welcome there. Everything will be different.

For the moment, this is how far prophetic hope knows to reach.

Hearers and readers are invited to anchor their lives, too, in a different place and a different time in order to live well and promisingly here. Now.

But one fine day…

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