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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 31’

In chapter 31 of the book called Isaiah, a sequence of oracles addresses the predicted downfall of Egypt and Assyria. The passage depicts Israel renouncing and indeed disposing of its ‘idols of silver and idols of gold’, which your hands have sinfully made for you.’ Further, besieged Jerusalem/Zion is the locale upon which the entire passage places its focus.

For thus the LORD said to me, As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey, and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it— is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the LORD of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.

Turn back to him whom you have deeply betrayed, O people of Israel. For on that day all of you shall throw away your idols of silver and idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.

“Then the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of mortals; and a sword, not of humans, shall devour him; he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall be put to forced labor.

His rock shall pass away in terror, and his officers desert the standard in panic,” says the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 31:4-9 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The passage’s three primary metaphors surge forth in rollicking fashion. I have italicized fragments of each in the preceding text.

First, YHWH’s determination to prevail in his ‘fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill’ is portrayed as a fearless lion, recently fed and fearless in the face of a band of shepherds that attempts to drive it off. Here, YHWH stands as a singular lion facing down a plural ‘band of shepherds’.

Second, the Lord’s protection of Jerusalem is lined to ‘birds hovering overhead’. Here, the plural nature of the flock lies on YHWH’s side of the metaphor while the city stands in the singular. Although YHWH-as-bird metaphors are not unknown in the Hebrew Bible, one struggles to imagine another biblical text that dares to portray him as a flock of birds.

Then finally, at the oracle’s conclusion, we are told that YHWH has a ‘fire’ in Zion and a ‘furnace’ in Jerusalem. Now YHWH is referenced via a presumably human image, a man tending a flaming furnace that stands in or conceivably is Jerusalem. The context suggests that the fire’s heat is destructive of panicked Assyrians who show themselves unequal to the task of conquering a city so fearsomely defended.

Rarely do metaphors flow with such energy and diversity in Isaiah’s portrayal of YHWH. Each makes its point with brevity, then cedes to the next. Together, they touch multiple chords in their portrayal of the divine source of Zion’s security.

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The book called Isaiah weaves motifs of leaning and of trusting throughout the disparate textures of its many pages, though seldom more eloquently than in the first verses of chapter 31.

Leaning is of course a metaphorical representation of reliance upon a defender or savior, so it pairs naturally with the non-metaphorical concept of trusting. Two of the most commonly deployed Hebrew verbs for this are שׁען for leaning and בטח for trusting.

They occur here in uneasy juxtaposition with two actions that are understood to represent their opposite: looking (to the Holy one of Israel, שׁעה) and seeking or consulting (YHWH, דרשׁ). This touch of parallelism is made more elegant by the assonance of שׁען (sha-AN, to lean) and שׁעה (sha-AH, to look, usually intently).

Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!

Isaiah 31:1 (NRSV)

The point is not a mere nicety about where loyalties ought to lie. It is pragmatic, for the Egyptians are considered unreliable protectors for Judah as it faces threats from other quarters. Two verses later, we encounter Egypt’s alleged deficiency for those who would depend on that nation.

The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together.

Isaiah 31:3 (NRSV)

Leaning upon unreliable strength simply expands the tragedy, Judah is urged to comprehend.

If Judah’s rebellion manifests in the form of wrong activity, it also includes sins of omission. By choosing Egypt as her defender, Judah fails to look intently at God and to seek or consult YHWH. Reliance is portrayed as a zero-sum game. Choose your object, but you cannot choose both.

The stupidity that is embedded in Judah’s conduct—for Isaiah, in rebellion against YHWH there is always stupidity—is that Egypt in spite of her strength and numbers is simply not that impressive. The Egyptians are ‘human and not God’, Egypt is ‘flesh and not spirit’.

Behind every syllable of these declarations lies the Isaianic insistence that YHWH-granted powers of perception are the only reliable methodology for penetrating and living within reality. All else is fantasy of the disfiguring and murderous kind.

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