Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 2’

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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