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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 2’

Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (2.1-5) is shared by the book of Micah in its fourth chapter. It is much disputed whether one borrowed from the other or whether both drew their visionary waters from a common well. In the book called Isaiah, this short glimpse of a prophetically imagined future becomes the deeply driven pillar of the entire adventure. It is Isaiah’s very Vision of Visions.

Both editions, that of Micah and that of Isaiah, speak identically of the nations’ animated conversation as they flow on their riverine course all the way up to recently elevated Zion. A feature of the exchange appears to bear out the wider impression that in Isaiah salvation is from the Jews and for the nations.

I refer to the combination of the verb ירה (to teach) with the preposition מן (conventionally, from) mediating the verb’s relationship with its direct object דרכיו (his ways). Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, outside of Micah’s and Isaiah’s shared vision, does this construction appear.

In my view, the preposition is best understood as partitive מן, an established manner of communicating ‘part of’, ‘some of’, or ‘a portion of’. If we apply what we know of the expression to its appearance in Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (and of course Micah’s version of the same), verse two comes to read as follows:

Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us some of his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Isaiah 2:3 (NRSV, adapted for partitive מן)

There is nothing in the ebullient eagerness of the nations that suggests a limited appetite for YHWH’s instruction. Rather, the limit seems to apply to their expectation.

In the turned-on-its-head world that the prophet glimpses, aliens stream to lowly Zion now elevated above the vastness of the world’s topography, hungering and thirsting after righteousness as a later prophet might have described them. Yet even they cannot imagine that the God of Jacob might slake their entire thirst, might lay out the full banquet for such unwashed late arrivals.

So, in a reading of the text that appears to me entirely defensible, they hedge their bets.

…that he may teach us some of his ways…

‘Perhaps we’ll be allowed some tasty crumbs’, one almost imagines them to hope.

Little do they know.

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Isaiah 60 must figure in anyone’s list of the most powerfully lyrical of this long book’s offerings. This chapter’s vision of Zion’s restoration is breathtakingly beautiful.

Along the way, it gathers up the components of the book’s multi-faceted view of ‘the nations’ and their destiny and presents a composite—a hopeful reader might dare say coherent—picture that is not reductive and therefore demands patient rather than dismissive reading or radical reconstruction.

In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to enumerate the pertinent allusions to those nations and to abbreviate the nature of the light that each casts on what I am persuaded is indeed a coherent if complex presentation.

First, restored Zion is brightly lit. By contrast, the nations live in darkness but are drawn (והלכו, shall come).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Second, the nations exercise important agency in transporting Zion’s sons and daughters back to their maternal city. The nations’ wealth accompanies them to Zion. Their animals (camels, young camels, flocks, rams) perform oddly anthropomorphic deeds: they ‘proclaim the praise of the Lord’ and ‘minister to you’. In spite of their alien provenance in nations near and far, those animals are also rendered acceptable on YHWH’s altar in a way that appears to connect with YHWH’s glorification of his ‘house’.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.

Isaiah 60:4-7 (NRSV)

The long section from verse 8 to verse 16 presents the most mixed picture of the lot. A posture of willing anticipation is likely signaled in the expression ‘the coastlands shall wait for me… to bring…’. Non-Jews are described in their complementary roles of transportation, construction, and urban enrichment. As counterpoise to the aforementioned anticipation, there appears to occur a less than comprehensive embrace of new realities on the part of the nations. For example, ‘kings shall be led in procession’, an image of military conquest by almost any light. Further, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’. And then, the ‘descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, all who despised you shall bow at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’.

This last, complex image clearly denotes subjugation. Does it also suggest conversion from one perspective to another that is wholly new and perhaps not the product of sudden persuasion alone? I suspect that it does.

Finally, a maternal-filial metaphor merits particular scrutiny: ‘You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings’. At the risk of pressing the metaphor too rudely, it appears in the light of other quite positive maternal imagery in this book that the nursing mother that is ‘nations’ and ‘kings’ executes her maternal labors with the tenderness and even fulfillment that are so often native to the experience.

The passage in full reads as follows:

Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest.

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:8-16 (NRSV)

How is one to assimilate the breadth of expression with regard to nations and kings that is gathered into this single chapter?

An interpretation that is consonant with the wider picture in the Vision of Isaiah of the peoples’ destiny and at the same time accomplishes an attentive reading of chapter sixty would seem to produce the follow conclusion: Zion’s restoration will turn the tables on the historic power relationships that have exalted some nations over Israel/Jacob. Some nations will welcome this revolution. Some will reject it. The preponderance of expression addresses the former group and suggests they will undertake their new role vis-à-vis Zion with some combination of anticipation, fulfillment, and tenderness. This vision is consonant with the Vision of Visions in Isaiah 2.1-5, though its imagery represents an alternative expression of that succinct description of the prophet’s imagined future.

Isaiah 60 is therefore a hopeful declaration for all peoples except those (few?) who will resolutely resist the divine purpose it propounds.

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The good life is sometimes, for a moment, the pleasant lot of slaves.

The persuasive powers of Assyria’s king are in full bloom as his emissary, the Rabshakeh, argues with besieged Jerusalem. The Rabshakeh’s discourse is an extraordinary astute and full-bodied rebuttal of everything Jerusalem’s unfortunate citizens have been schooled to believe by king and prophet.

In the midst of the Rabshakeh’s apology for Assyrian might and beneficence comes this little gem.

Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.’

Isaiah 36:16-17 NRSV

What we know of Assyrian politics of exile throws the transparence of the king’s promise in doubt, to say the least. A tyrant who lacks omnipotence nearly always resorts to bullying. Usually, his modest but highly effective end game is simply to sow sufficient doubt that things can be any worse over there than they already are right here. Here amidst these streets whose dust we have year after year carefully tamped down, these houses we’ve scratched out of the desert, this mothy grain, these hoaky community meetings when it takes forever to get anything done, here where father and mother lie buried.

Maybe he’s not so bad…

Yet the prophet knows that slavery makes every quiet street a prison, every morsel of the tyrant’s bread a kernel of undying resentment, every comely daughter a magnet for his lust.

The biblical ethic is clear that the good life can sometimes be the experience of slaves. Its eyes-open realism was clear back in Isaiah chapter 2, where the prophet’s ironic parallelism shattered any perceived link between wealth and true religion:

Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.

 Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.

Isaiah 2:7-8 NRSV)

There in chapter two, the people’s abjectly miserable slavery is both fueled and veiled by their prosperity. There is no true abundance there, only enslavement.

Fast forward to the book’s thirty-sixth chapter.

There is no abundance here, either, in the empty words of the Assyrian king’s lying Rabshekah.

Even if the Assyrian despot were to make good on his offer of your own vine … and fig tree after Jerusalem’s besieged daughters and sons consent to being carried away as exiles—though any well-weathered observer of imperial Realpolitik could predict he would not—shackles would still encumber Jewish hearts and minds.

One can almost hear the whispered passion in the plea of a wife to a her husband home after a bad day at Hezekah’s court, the curtains drawn, the children put to bed: ‘Honey, it won’t happen. We’ll be slaves there until history forgets we ever existed. They’ll make us sing Zion songs in that awful place. Here we’re free and we get by. And I know you can’t believe it any more, but YHWH might still be with us…’

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

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

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

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

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

What moment does the prophet have in mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the days to come…

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

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

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

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

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

But one fine day…

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