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Posts Tagged ‘biblical interpretation’

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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Because we are fashioned as embodied creatures, we live an embodied life and are shaped, damaged, and nurtured principally by other embodied people. They have names and faces.

Sometimes they lead us close to our Maker. Sometimes they provide such direction and sustenance that we cannot imagine life without them.

Or truth beyond them.

The apostle Paul reckons with the fidelity that grows deep attachments between servants of the gospel and those fellow travelers whom they serve. Yet he will not allow that attachment to become exclusive.

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23 ESV)

The remarkable fact about Paul’s words is that he, of all men, is not reluctant to argue his apostolic prerogatives. He is no shrinking violet when it comes to recognizing and asserting that the God of Israel speaks through him. Paul is not one for false modesty.

It’s all the more striking, then, that he will not have the Corinthian believers ‘boast in men’. All the life and truth that God pours through Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or other bruised luminaries of the early church is theirs. They need not choose a human patron to the exclusion of others, in fact they must not.

Such ‘men’ are critical. There would be no embodied Corinthian church of Jesus Christ without the limping, embodied service of such leaders.

Yet they are—at a deeper level—irrelevant, a paradox that Paul is not reticent to declare.

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As the Psalter works its way down the home stretch toward its finale in the 150th psalm, the gloves come off. Doxology reaches to a stretch, digs down to bedrock, summons even the unseen powers and convenes heaven’s lights.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.

(Psalms 148:1–6 ESV)

In the ancient Israelite context, calling upon sun and moon to praise their Maker is brave. They were often worshiped as gods themselves. It is also polemical: they are put in their place.

They do not seem to mind, in the psalmist’s opinion, though worshippers of the heavenly bodies might beg to differ. The psalmist imagines heaven’s lights praising YHWH at full throat simply for the privilege of having been created at his command so that they can do so.

There is, we are asked to accept, no corner of heaven or earth where praise is rightly withheld. If there is war in heaven, celestial conspiracies afoot, they are forgotten as the psalmist reaches forward to how things should be. Will be.

The most awesome, the most mighty, the high and almost holy, even these burst into song when their time comes. They know their place, and are glad in it.

How much more we mortals, elevated as we are now to sing along without too much embarrassment about our little voices, trembling hands, sad yesterdays.

Perhaps He commanded us, too, into existence so that we could sing like this, eyes moist because we are not yet fully home.

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Faith and audacity sometimes come close enough to each other to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.

While normally YHWH shows himself in the ordinary and the mundane, the confidence in his reliability that we call ‘faith’ sometimes emerges in the extraordinary moment.

Saul, Israel’s first and unfortunate king, will come to no good end. Yet his son Jonathan is the type of young buck that anybody (including YHWH and the future king David, its merges) would love.

As Israel’s line of battle faces off against the Philistines in one of those slow-motion encounters that could almost be seen as casual—until suddenly it is not and warriors are dying—Jonathan plans a reckless foray into the Philistine camp.

Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.’ (1 Samuel 14:6 ESV)

In the mix, the historian of Israel hears Jonathan speak out one of YHWH’s great truths: the strength of his human cohort is of no matter when YHWH’s purpose is to save.

Jonathan’s dictum, for so it stands in the narrative, is both perceptive and nuanced. This is not what one would expect from a two-dimensional comic-book war story, which the Book of Samuel most certainly is not.

It may be, Jonathan tells us across the centuries, that YHWH will work for us. There is no presumption here, just principled courage or recklessness. Time will tell.

But if he is in this, Jonathan coaches his young armor-bearer, whose life will be equally at stake, then YHWH can do what he wishes to do. His hand is unbound.

Biblical realism takes many shapes. Similarly, its dimensions are sometimes writ large—across the span of nations—and at others sketched into the small space of a young warrior’s disgust with passive resignation in the face of enmity against YHWH and his people.

Either way, it challenges the reader to reckon with YHWH’s reality, not as a religious principle or a psyche-soothing construct but as a real and powerful presence. Just as real as this chair, this laptop, this floor under my feet.

Against mammoth odds—YHWH’s truth has now become Jonathan’s—the Lord can save if he wishes. We are not alone in this world so full of destroyers, without and within.

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Centralization of power is easier to achieve than to undo.

The biblical narrative, child of an historical era in which kings were routinely elevated to the stature of demigods, displays countercultural and powerfully mixed feelings about the magnetic pull of power to the political center.

The prophet Samuel attempts in vain to persuade Israel’s tribal confederacy that the apparent gains of monarchy are not worth the cost.

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ (1 Samuel 8:10–18 ESV)

Alas, kingship had for these Israelites an obvious logic and an attraction too strong to resist. Besides, all the other nations have kings and it’s hard to be different.

Why swim against the tide?

Why, indeed, when we can be comfortably cared for, told what to think and when, provided for in our infirmity? Where’s the harm?

Then one day, we see our sons—their faces too young for such a hard, weary look—running and stumbling before his chariot. ‘Hail to your king!’, their lips move in unison.

Easy to do, impossible to undo.

 

 

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When YHWH calls the boy-prophet Samuel in the late-evening twilight of Eli’s life, light and speech have grown scarce in Israel.

The story of this special child’s emergence as Israel’s prophet is replete with last vestiges.

‘ … the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.’ (1 Samuel 3:1 ESV)

The nation’s state is mirrored by its Old Man’s own lot,

‘… for at that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. (1 Samuel 3:2 ESV)

One might as well sketch this scene as faded daguerrotype, the figures recognizable enough, but too little vision, too little light, too little clarity. Too little of all that mattered, YHWH having absconded to the shadows.

Even the physical ‘lamp of the Lord’ in YHWH’s Eli-tended shrine nears day’s end and the hour of its snuffing out. Or are we too read promise into its vesper flicker?

The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. (1 Samuel 3:3 ESV)

Soon the divine calling of Eli’s apprentice will occur in a voice that is at first too quietly enigmatic to be discerned. Samuel believes it Eli who calls, not only because the Lord has not yet clear ‘stood calling’ Samuel as he will soon do (v. 10). Indistinguishable whispers carry through the night air, for the boy Samuel is as yet a bare promise, a mere hint at Israel’s rescuer, not yet versed in the naming of voices, for …

‘… Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.’ (1 Samuel 3:7 ESV)

When YHWH inhabits the shadows—we are gently instructed by a narrative whose purpose seems prima facie to be bolder than just this—a restless boy might well become a man of God, evening’s shadow might just give way to a bright morning, lost Israel might find YHWH and thus herself.

Evening shadows, for those who will watch and listen, bear sometimes the quiet rustling of redemption.

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The most important turnings are finished almost before we have had the presence of mind to notice.

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. (Judges 2:10 ESV)

There is no correlation between the cost of a society’s abandonment of its accumulated legacy and the speed with which its people can mindlessly leave behind that treasure.

You might think a turning of such magnitude would require long generations of accumulated decisions. It does not. Nothing more than a single distracted generation is sufficient for the turning. Then all that has been discovered, constructed, sowed, cherished, watered, and repainted every second year against the blazing sun is gone. It is the grandchildren who will wonder what we were thinking, how we could have let this happen. Or perhaps as children of their age they will assume the herd truth that the abandoned way was retrograde, regrettable, embarrassing, oppressive.

If the book of Judges teaches anything, it is the speed with which self-absorbed vanity has its effect.

And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. (Judges 2:12 ESV)

Yet there is also this measure of grace in the book’s assessment the ancient Israelites’s plight:

 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. (Judges 2:18 ESV)

Still, the picture is almost entirely an unredeemed one.

Forgetting, we are taught, twists minds. When a society loses its grip on YHWH’s mercies—the deep mercies embedded in its history—it soon degrades women, children, and the weak. It goes a little crazy. Then a little more. Then the blood of innocents stains its streets, while unanimously celebrated theories explain why this isn’t such a bad thing.

Forgetfulness begets murder and murderers, cultured and confused self-seekers with no conscience to restrain them, while grandpa’s righteous body rests barely cold in its grave.

However terrible, forgetfulness is not inevitable. Like all virtues and most vices, it is chosen in a moment, then repeated over time.

So run to your children. Gather up the grandkids. Tell them what YHWH has done. Find words for the fearsome story of the long trek north from Egypt’s slave-houses. Show them your rough-healed welts, your sleeve-hid scars. Tell them what it felt like the moment you realized that the boss-man’s whip would crack no more, tear no more, its silence become liberation’s quiet song. Teach them to remember.

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