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Posts Tagged ‘biblical reflection’

A reflection offered to United World Mission’s US Leadership Team

27 September 2021

I think we may find ourselves in a season of Joshua-like courage.

I’m no doubt influenced in saying so by John’s kick-off video last week, but also by a long weekend walk in the autumnal Connecticut woods with my dog Rhea and three recent conversations with—respectively—Jonathan, Jessica, and Chad. Those convos were of such quality that they left me feeling as though we’re in the kind of season that becomes a point of reference for entire careers. The kinds of seasons that have retired LAMers at Penney Farms still talking about the 60s and 70s when young renegades like René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, and Orlando Costas burst on the scene without asking permission. LAM, to the astonishment of many and the horror of some, cautiously embraced these Latin American voices.

The rest is history.

I’m sure we could narrate similar tales come from critical hinges in 20th and 21st century history, for example, when it became possible to serve behind the Iron Curtain as the Berlin Wall trembled and eventually crumbled.

In each case, Joshua-like courage was required … and forthcoming.

I think we might be in another of those seasons. We may someday talk about the moment we’re living now in the UWM retirement community that John will build for us. Some sooner than others.

Here’s a text:

Josh. 1:1  After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good successwherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1.1-9 (ESV)

 Can you see in this opening to the first book after the ‘five book of Moses’ how utterly grounded—the more appropriate term is rooted—Joshua is called to remain?

7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good successwherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Joshua 1.7-8 (ESV)

And yet Joshua’s commission is anything but backward-looking. To the contrary, he is charged with stepping into very large shoes and with leading his people into the scary unknown. Not all of them wanted to go there. Not all of them wanted to go there under Joshua’s baton.

This happens in the midst of lots of drama, with Yahweh responding in Deuteronomy to Moses’ plea to be allowed to enter the promised land after he’d been told that was not gonna’ happen:

Deut. 3:23   And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’

Deuteronomy 3.23-26 (ESV)

Deeply rooted …. forward-leaning.

I wonder if that’s where we find ourselves as UWM and as a USLT…

I might be tempted to leave Joshua and Joshua-like courage where it stands, not uprooting it from its native soil and forcing into some kind of relevance for us when that might not be what it’s there for.


Except for Psalm 1, one of my favorites.

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

in all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1.1-3 (ESV)

One of Israel’s poets has riffed on Joshua 1 and, in the process, democratized it. The way he redeploys the language of what for us is Joshua 1 make it indisputably a poetic restatement of the Joshua text. Then a final editor of this book of Israel’s praises—maybe the same persona, maybe not—has placed it as the very doorway into Israel’s hymns, laments, meditations, screams, and words of stabilizing wisdom.

So Joshua-like courage now becomes a summons for every daughter and son of Israel.

Again, we see that his blessed person is very, very deeply rooted. Now to say ‘grounded’ is not enough.

Yet this Psalm is no more antiquarian than the Joshua text, no more backward-looking that Joshua’s commission was. It is about wading forward into the psalms, wading forward into life with Yahweh, wading in as a responsible member of the community in which Yahweh has embedded each of us, wading in to forge a future out of sometimes unpromising raw material.

Joshua-like courage, now for everyone. Still deeply rooted …. and still forward-leaning.

It’s this line of thinking that has got its claws into me in this season of life within UWM (and FUSBC…) that has me seeking Joshua-like courage, which is no more innate in me than it was in Joshua. He, after all, needed strong exhortation to summon up this courage rather than simply employ a kind of heroic fearlessness that lay somehow on the surface of him, readily available.

That’s what I want to do and what I observe numbers of you doing.

I want to reminisce about this season someday on my rocking chair at Bernard Farms in central Vermont, when Autumn is falling and the voices of my LAM forebears in Penney Farms have gone quiet. It’ll be worth it.

So that’s what I’ve got.

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A brief reflection offered to UWM’s Leadership Team

10 May 2021

John asked me to share something from the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom Literature’. This happened last Thursday after I shared with him some anecdotes about teaching my ‘Escritos’ (roughly: ‘Old Testament sacred writings’) course at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia. I’m aware that these words will not be ‘inspirational’ in any conventional sense.

So allow me some non-conventionally-inspirational ruminations upon…

  • When God’s purpose is not to reveal doctrine in splendid clarity but rather to invite his people into a hard conversation.
  • What it’s like to teach at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (and other places like it).
  • Why I loathe the expression ‘training leaders’ (and why most TEI missional scholars would lean away from ‘indoctrination’ and towards ‘constructive theology’…).

One very daring part of the Old Testament’s wisdom literature is the book called Ecclesiastes. This work’s principal speaker is named ‘Qohelet’ according to the Hebrew presentation, so I’ll use that name as a point of reference over the next minutes.

Qohelet starts, ends, and punctuates everything in between with the cry that ‘Everything is vanity!’ (הבל = a breath, momentary, absurd, incomprehensible, a bare illusion)

Along the way, Qohelet makes stupendous claims that are extremely difficult to partner with ‘biblical orthodoxy’.

  • Nothing has meaning.
  • Nothing produces any result/benefit/profit.
  • We’re no better than the animals.
  • Nothing ever makes a difference.
  • God loads us down with meaninglessness in order to weary or even to torment us.
  • And there’s no way out of this endless Doom Loop.

Then, just to keep us off balance, Qohelet pairs these ‘unorthodox’ declarations, which are spoken with brassy self-assurance, with other statements that are more comfortable for believing readers: 

  • ’So here’s what you do: Enjoy the food, sex, and shelter God has given you. They’re his gifts.’
  • ‘Do your best to keep God’s commandments.’

Yet in spite of this whiplash-producing juxtaposition of declarations, never has Judaism or the Christian Church given serious, sustained consideration to the possibility that Ecclesiastes might be anything other than Holy Scripture. What are we to do with that?

Here’s where my students are right now:

They’re working painstakingly through chapter 6 via a methodology we call ‘Theological Conversation’. Each student does a deep dive into one of the chapter’s verses and presents his or her conclusions. Another student is assigned the responsibility of first response. After that initial exchange, it’s no holds barred on conversation that ensues.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”

Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 (ESV)

Yet these aren’t necessarily Qohelet’s wildest statements. There are others, like these:

2.7 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

3.19-20 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.

And at the same time we’re trying to do justice to an assessment that shows up in the book’s epilogue, a kind of final summary … a tying up of loose ends.

It commends Qohelet for his expertise in shaping Israelites in the ways of wisdom. Then it adds this summary:

“Qohelet sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.”

Ecclesiastes 12:10-11 (ESV, lightly emended and emphasis added)

So why does an old dude like me continue to invest the countless hours of preparation that are required in order to lead students through arguably depressing and unorthodox literature like Qohelet?

Some days, I’m not sure….

On other, brighter and clearer mornings—and I’m happy to report that these are the more frequent ones—this is what I think I see:

  • I do it for the sheer, inexhaustible, compelling beauty of the biblical text. It feeds me. It’s an intellectual task and and an existential compulsion that I can’t find a way to walk away from. Maybe this what the editor of Ecclesiastes has in mind when he says that Qohelet spoke ‘words of delight’ and ‘words of truth’
  • I do it because I don’t believe Colombia’s emerging Christian leaders basically need a list of things they need to believe. Or, even if they do need that, they can get it from someone who’s not me. I’m not interested in ‘training’ them in any narrow sense. I’m interested in sharing life and study with them to see whether there’s any way I can shape them as human beings whom I’d like to share a beer with. And whom I would trust at my wife’s bedside after a cancer diagnosis.
  • I do it because I believe that both Yahweh and the canonical Scriptures are bold and confident enough to set the table for a believing people’s ongoing conversation, knowing that they will be led into all truth as they refuse to over-simplify the most important things and as they process life honestly as it comes. This feels authentic to me, true to both the nature of Scripture and to life as I experience it. Scripture seems not to insist that redemptive conversations be easy conversations nor overly pious ones, nor conversations where the outcome is known from before things heat up.
  • I do it because I think one of the things theological education must be is frighteningly unpragmatic. I can’t tell you how or and I cannot quantify in what measure Andrés … or María … or Paolo … or Diego … or Tatiana … have been changed by immersion in Ecclesiastes. But I know them. I share life and community with them. I look them in the eye. And I know in by bones that they are better … richer … more human persons and servants of Jesus for having walked this way. So I’m gonna keep doing what I do until God makes me stop.

I think that, for most (not all) of our UWM colleagues who are TEI missional scholars, we could change the ‘I’ to ‘we’. And I suspect we could do the same to include many of you.

‘Vanity of vanities!’, says Qohelet. ‘All is vanity!’

I believe him. But not completely. 

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 3:1-8 ESV

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

They are on their couches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 63:3-6 ESV, emphasis added

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

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

Isaiah 63:8-10 ESV

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 63:15-19 ESV

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

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

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

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We long for permanence.

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

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

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

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

First, this:

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

Isaiah 61:9 ESV

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

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

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

Then, this:

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

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

Isaiah 61:10-11 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:1-19 RSV)

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:2 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV

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

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

This is not the Isaianic vision.

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

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

Isaiah 43:19 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 46:1-4 (ESV)

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

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

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

Two religious experiences could hardly be more starkly contrasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 44:1-5 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

We have no patience for planting trees.

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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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