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Posts Tagged ‘biblical reflection’

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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Isaiah’s 37th chapter puts on display the subtle interplay that is prayer in the moment of crisis.

The threatening king of Assyria may be a cartoonish villain. Nevertheless his shadow casts over little Judah the power of extermination. The Assyrian tyrant is, in a word, invincible. The carcasses of nations that once were, lying with their scorched gods by the side of empire’s highway, bear mute testimony that Assyria and its king are unstoppable.

Judah trembles for good reason, for it would seem that its final hour has come.

As soon as King Hezekiah heard (the threat of the Assyrian emissary), he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”‘

The vestige of King Hezekiah’s scrawny hope lies in two realties. First, the prophet may know what to do. There are, as they say, no atheists in foxholes. (more…)

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As Jesus’ ministry gathers steam in Luke’s telling, we glimpse the drawing up of battle lines in the three-times-repeated memory that Jesus rebuked a collection of enslaving adversaries.

And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’ (Luke 4:33–36 ESV)

The verb that abbreviates Jesus’ belligerent command over the ‘unclean demon’ that holds this unnamed man in bondage is ε͗πιτιμάω (traditionally, to rebuke), supplemented in the people’s astonished after-commentary by ε͗πιτάσσω (usually, to command). As mentioned, Luke deploys ε͗πιτιμάω three times in close proximity, two of them of loud confrontations with demons reluctant to leave their hosts and once of Jesus’ command that an incapacitating fever should leave Simon’s mother-in-law. (more…)

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There is a fruitful agony, a suffering that bears life rather than merely pushing open the door to death. Jesus’ agony was of this kind, in spades we might say in retrospect and from the angle of hope’s full flowering.

Yet the moment left its early evidences as well.

And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). (Mark 15:20–22 ESV)

As many have noted, Mark’s narrative mentions two names that don’t much illuminate the crisis of the moment: Alexander and Rufus. (more…)

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Perhaps the rabbis were correct to affirm that some of the ‘deeper writings’ are not suitable for untrained eyes. Or perhaps the cynical proverb that affirms that ‘school is wasted on the young’ is, after all, on to something.

Or perhaps only mothers and fathers should read such a thing as this:

Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: ‘Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.’ (Isaiah 29:22–24 ESV)

Jacob’s prodigals had not only run amok on their own terms. They had been dragged to distant lands by the powers of their day to suffer the quick extermination of our news cycle or the slow extermination of assimilation to the alien’s ways. (more…)

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Before all things, we protect our children.

The park just outside my window is frequented by parents and small children, these defenseless little tykes who would not know a leaf from a wasp. Nor do we expect them to know. So, we cradle them in our arms against all threat unseen. We swoop them low to greet the neighbor’s little doggy, though we would not have them crawl beside the four-legger, for who knows what strange ferocity might kick in suddenly in a world like ours.

We expose them gradually to our little park, one that is in the main benign but might harbor here or there a sting, a bite, a lecher too kind. (more…)

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One of the most finely crafted and resonant chapters of the biblical corpus achieves its quiet doxology via a horticultural simile, which catches this reader’s eye on the morning after hauling yet another load of subtropical greenery to our Colombian patio.

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 61:11 ESV)

The author has in the preceding verses gone a bit crazy in the search for metaphors that capture the extravaganza of YHWH’s turning towards his people after the ‘brief moment’ of their affliction. Now, they are walls called ‘salvation’, rebellious citizens will have become ‘the righteous’, the oil of gladness will have displaced mourning, Zion’s children will have become famous throughout the world. (more…)

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YHWH’s blessing comes not as a single product, well-worn branding splashed across familiar package.

Rather, it sneaks into life variegated, diverse, subtle, nuanced, its hues settling in across the broadest range.

Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness. (Isaiah 60:17 ESV)

The prophet reaches for a poet’s pallet to explain to a weary people why return to all that once was and has been snatched away beyond repair will be more glorious than a captive nation can just now imagine. The cadence of his Hebraic persuasion does indeed speak of shining extremity, for example in the ‘wealth of nations’ that will flow to resplendent Zion, in the transmutation of empty abandon into urban majesty. (more…)

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Most mornings do not bring peril.

But for some people—this writer numbers himself among them—and for all threatened peoples, morning arrives with the scent of danger. Before my feet hit the floor, a thousand potential disasters have stomped briefly on my soul.

A beginning is by nature an imperiled moment, a tender shoot extinguishable by the crush of a single boot. Anything can happen in a beginning. Fear tilts perception’s scale to the narrow downside of all eventualities. The day needs little encouragement to break darkly. (more…)

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