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Readers of this blog will be familiar with Isaianic irony. The work of Israelite prophecy that we abbreviate as The Book of Isaiah does not instruct only with straight-forward words. Rather, its artistry drives its message home with relentless subtlety, some of which is inevitably lost when the book’s soulful poetry is translated into English or another modern language.

Nowhere is the subtlety more powerfully deployed than in the prophet’s anti-idolatry polemic. He finds the veneration of idols not only enslaving, but also astonishingly stupid. Idolatry, he insists, is a religious practice that wearies rather than invigorates the worshipper.

In chapters 44 and 45, the book indulges in a lengthy run of such sarcasm-with-a-purpose. YHWH’s creative abilities are articulated via a plethora of vocabulary that occurs with frequency in those moments when divine creation becomes the subject of the Hebrew Bible’s discourse. One verb stands out for its repetition in these two chapters: יצר or yatsar.  The word is commonly translated as to shapeto form, or to fashion. The reader with little command of Biblical Hebrew will recognize the verb’s three consonants ( צ , י , and ר ) in the verses quoted below.

No fewer than nine times in chapters 44 and 45, YHWH is seen to form or fashion important created works. The high-level persuasive task of the passage is to convince the reader that YHWH has been able to form Israel, his servant because he is unimpeded in all his creative whimsy. If he is free to form and shape whatever he wants to create, then he can certainly create and re-create Israel against all the odds of historical precedent and human calculation. For this reason, Judah/Israel’s demoralizing captivity in Babylon does not mean that she is doomed. On the contrary, she can become YHWH’s newest new thing. This otherwise despairing nation can become, in a national sense, born again.

Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2 ESV)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you (יצרתיך); you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. (Isaiah 44:21 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself … ‘ (Isaiah 44:24 ESV)

I form (יוצר) light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

Woe to him who strives with him who formed him (את־יצרו), a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it (ליצרו), ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? (Isaiah 45:9 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him ((i.e., perhaps, Israel; ויצרו): ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?’ (Isaiah 45:11 ESV)

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed (יצר) the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it (יצרה) to be inhabited!): ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other.’ (Isaiah 45:18 ESV)

The prophet-poet would have made his point if this were all he had to say about the matter. But his sardonic wit wants to make a further point. It runs something like this: YHWH is the sovereign shaper of Israel and of all things. Yet idolators insist upon sweating over the forming and shaping of their own pathetic little gods, tiring themselves out in the ‘creation’ of gods who do them absolutely no good.

Idolatry makes the creature the creator and the creator the creature.

Taken from the same two chapters, the following three verses make the point.

All who fashion idols (יצרי־פסל) are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions (מי־יצר) a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? (Isaiah 44:9–10 ESV)

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it (יצרהו) with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. (Isaiah 44:12 ESV)

The idolator makes himself a little YHWH, so he imagines. He creates his own god.

Still, the prophet’s satire has not exhausted itself, for in 44.9 he takes up the commonplace that the idols are nothing and extends it to the self-important idol-maker: All who fashion idols are nothing.

The modern reader who begins to discover the layers of sophisticated irony that make the book of Isaiah an enduring object of our contemplation might stop here, with a chuckle at those pathetic ancients who did such things and so became the butt of prophetic irony.

Yet one imagines that Isaiah’s sophisticated understanding of idolatry is as pertinent now as then, today as in pre-Christian antiquity. We modern and post-modern sophisticates labor hard over the things we worship, the constructs we assemble, the images we shape. Then we bow down to them, conceding to our pathetic little monsters mastery over our own very lives, our own destiny.

Imagining ourselves skillful and wise, we—like they—become nothing.

All the while, YHWH goes on forming and fashioning as he likes, via a simple word and with an implicit invitation that we should become the beauty he is creating in his world.

‘It cannot be!’, we decide, then return to our busy sanding and polishing, arms a bit sore and fingers worn almost to the bone.

 

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In a recent post I’ve noted the resolute anchoring of the events surrounding Jesus’ emergence in identifiable details that are open to debate, dispute, and falsification. The moment’s various layers of government and governance, the geographic and political entities in which these things took place, the calendar’s framing up of chronology and sequence, all these things mattered to Luke. Indeed, they matter twenty centuries later to people whose lives derive their meaning from Jesus himself and the early testimony about him.

Yet Luke was capable at the same time of asserting that common views of Jesus’ origin were mistaken ones. In the mist of a formulaic genealogy, where the pattern of one son and one father occur in a fixed rhythm, Luke marks an exception.

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai … (Luke 3:23–25 ESV)

So does Luke add genealogical weight to a claim he has already made in his narrative: Jesus’ origins were not normal.

He was the son of Mary, a matter that can be discussed with particular tenderness. He was also the son of Joseph, a father of a poignantly noble character. Yet he was not the son of Joseph in the way that people supposed.

The angel’s announcement, Mary’s question about how such things could come about ‘since I am a virgin’, and the generally momentous cadence of Luke’s story drive home a point that later theologizing would codify with enduring references to Jesus having been ‘born of a virgin’.

For now, Luke places before public opinion that claim that Jesus was born under circumstances that are familiar to anyone who cares to make a study of them. Except for one. His father was another, whose tracing lies beyond the capture of human genealogy.

Perhaps we should give up heaven for Lent.

Like a cleansing diet, it might be a good thing for us to lay aside our notions of an esoteric, heavenly faith. At least long enough to re-root in history, where YHWH’s redemption locates itself and—in its way—turns the world upside down.

Luke the evangelist could hardly initiate us into the story of Jesus’ adult life and work in a  more rooted, historically anchored way than the manner he has chosen.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:1–3 ESV)

We get Roman history. We get Jewish history. We get geography. We get John.

The gospel’s narrative names names, dates facts, anchors events in contested soil.

Into this mix, the venerably prophetic ‘word of the Lord’ arrives like a thunder clap.

We get the professions, too: real-world jobs, remunerated, food-on-the-table, sometimes graft-ridden occupations of real human beings with dust on their feet and sweat in their armpits. Before the scandalously biting rhetoric of this John, this desert prophet, recognizably employed people whose hearts have been bludgeoned tender by John’s impolitic truths, ask ‘What about us? What should we do?’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. (Luke 3:10–15 ESV)

It takes a lot of unpacking and unwinding of long theological habit to work our way back from common Christian notions of ‘heaven’ to the biblical texts that stand at the origin of our journey. It takes a lifetime of unwinding, for some of us.

Yet a modest beginning might consist of refocussing on this world as the normal and customary place where redemptive stories worth their trouble begin, take root, flourish.

And name names.

 

just dust: Isaiah 40

The long book called Isaiah displays a complex understanding of ‘the nations’.

One one extreme, it is capable of seeing them as naked adversaries to God’s chosen Israel. On the other, they are welcomed into the center of YHWH’s redemptive purposes.

In between, one can only admire the dexterity with which their existence, their behavior, and their destiny are so deftly explored. As with everything else in this book, their definition comes via an artful layering of truth upon truth. Each fresh level does not eradicate what has gone before, but rather reframes it.

The book’s monumental fortieth chapter recognizes the existence of these nations, but entirely dismisses the idea that their power or their multitude could restrain YHWH’s hand when he sets himself to redeeming his own people.

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. (Isaiah 40:15 ESV)

What can be said of the nations from this perspective is this: They are there, of course, but they don’t amount to anything.’

This, too, is a partial truth, for the book will have us understand in good time that these very nations share a destiny that is in some way glorious. Redeemed, purified, and brought to justice—the latter term itself is pregnant with pluriform resonance—they will bring their best cultural product with them on pilgrimage and with it beautify Zion itself.

Yet here, in chapter 40, they are seen in all their weightless impotence.

You can extrapolate a drop of water from a bucketful of the sloshing liquid if you strain at the mental task of it. But its loss won’t alter the weight of the load in any meaningful way.

If you squint carefully in just the right light, you can see the dust on a scale. But its presence won’t alter the outcome of the weighing. It is irrelevant.

So, in turbulent and threatening times, is the reader invited to consider the empires and powers of his generation’s globe. They are there, of course they are there. It is even possible to contemplate the horrors they are capable of visiting upon their neighbors.

Yet when YHWH sets about to accomplishing his purpose, the nations are best described as a drop in a bucket.

They are just dust.

We may live in a world with its horrors, yet we do not live in a horrible world.

There is goodness and gift aplenty amid these hills, in this city, within the troubled textures of this little life.

In his ‘sermon on the mount’, Jesus pictures life with his Father as a most loving, most natural conversation.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11 ESV)

The regularities of life when it is good, the patterns that lead us to expect that a request will be met, a knocked door soon opened, a hunger satisfied carry over—so Jesus instructs his audience—into life with our unseen Father.

There is goodness here, a responsive if invisible heart, an expectation of gifts and the satisfaction they bring. Jesus’ words both denote and connote a generous reciprocity as the normal life of one who lives dependent upon this tenderly described Father. In fact, the gentle imperative of Jesus’ teaching seems purposed to counter a sense in his listeners that life might not be so good as this. Ask, he urges. Knock. Seek.

You’ll see.

It might be a bridge too far for people acquainted with hunger and sorrow to imagine that the heavens—in the abstract—are kind. But our Father is, Jesus instructs them, choosing the image of the home to make his point. The Responsive One whom he describes is not far off, not hovering in some distant heaven. On the contrary, he is at home with you, as a father is just a few words away from his needy daughter, his momentarily lonely son calling out from a room just six steps down the hall.

Life becomes, in Jesus’ teaching, a gentle, generous conversation. One needs, so one asks. The answer can be expected to come. We live with our Father in the good domesticity of hearth and home.

Is it bread you need? A fish? The answer will not come as stone or snake.

But how can we know this?

Ask. Seek.

Knock.

 

The famous story of the ‘widow’s mite’ is a beloved slice of the gospels’ narrative testimony about Jesus. Her skinny little offering—amidst large and clanging competitors—touches a sentimental nerve in sympathetic readers.

A less natural readerly instinct notices that Mark places this vignette just after a more somber warning to the religious and the powerful.

And in his teaching (Jesus) said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12:38–44 ESV)

The juxtaposition of these two stories suggests that those who threw their impressive offerings into the receptacle with due fanfare are actually the devourers of widow’s houses, their livelihood, their slender remaining means of economic viability.

Thus, they are God’s enemies, notwithstanding their awesome religiosity.

Indeed, read closely, the syntax of Jesus’ warning to unjust worshippers is chilling in the way it speaks of criminal injustice and long prayers in a single breath:

And in his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplacesand have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (Mark 12:38–40 ESV)

Our widow, notorious for administering her poverty in a way that nourished generosity in spite of everything, is often read as the mere encouragement of similar sacrifice. She is God’s friend.

This is not wrong. It is simply partial.

More accurately, the widow is an inspiring figure in a broader instruction that ought to send a chill down the spine of every religious man and woman who sucks the economic life out of her sisters while chattering on about God, their sworn enemy.

 

 

Isaiah turns often to speak of the storied, shadow-kept ‘servant of YHWH’  with clear designation that what the figure represents is a people. In about equal measure, the ‘servant’ is figured as a person.

The latter is the case in Isaiah 50.

The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50:4–7 ESV)

This servant assumes a learner’s pose. YHWH’s morning wake-up call joins a God-opening of his ears, so that he might learn. He learns willingly, though in context it cannot have been easily.

It seems that this servant’s formation—his education, as it wereis an abusive one. He is beaten, his beard is yanked painfully, the saliva of his detractors spatters him with their venom.

Only YHWH himself stands between abuse and defeat.

Curiously, what emerges from this painful experience is a rock-like strength. Knowing that YHWH stands with him in the presence of his enemies, he sets his face like flint.

There is a strength in weakness. We come to it only as we wipe other people’s spit from our bruised cheeks.