Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 44’

From the moment YHWH’s servant is introduced in 42.1, there is a hint that the servant’s career will be an arduous one. Indeed, the presentation formula at 42.1 says as much with its first breath:

הן עבדי אתמך־בו
Here is my servant, whom I uphold…

Isaiah 42:1 (NRSV)

YHWH’s pledge to uphold (תמך) all but requires that we imagine resistance to the servant’s work, the potential weakness of the servant himself, or both.

Not surprisingly, then, the passages that follow abound in promises by YHWH to supply all that the servant will require in order that he should persevere to the conclusion of his assigned agenda.

Chapter forty-four continues this sequence of promises, holding tight to the communal or collective identity of the curiously named ‘servant’ while painting with new color the circumstances of his adventure.

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

Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, 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 descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’S,’ another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, ‘The LORD’S,’ and adopt the name of Israel.

Isaiah 44:1-5 (NRSV)

The chapter’s opening oracle, quoted just above, provides essential elements for a comprehensive understanding of the servant figure in the book called Isaiah. Characteristically, it does so incrementally and in a dialect of rich and complex metaphor.

First, we find further assurance in a classic summons to overcome fear—‘Do not fear, O Jacob my servant…!’—that an evident danger ought not to be given more weight than it is due in the context of YHWH’s presence and provision. This continues the tone of reassurance that has accompanied the servant discourse from its beginning.

Additionally, we find overlapping imagery regarding the provision of water in a desert, on the one hand, and descendants/offspring, on the other. These are introduced sequentially, then blended a moment later when the aforementioned descendants/offspring spring up like tamarisk and willows in consequence of YHWH’s irrigation of the desert.

This interplay of images is further enriched by the realization that YHWH’s spirit and the water he provides appear to be two ways of speaking about the same thing.

Finally, the text drops plant imagery as quickly has it had introduced it in order to return to the matter of people. When it does so, we learn that the servant Jacob/Israel’s suddenly appearing children are in fact the offspring of other nations who now—remarkably—adopt the name of Israel.

The overall impact of this oracle’s supplementation of preceding servant discourse is extraordinary. The reference of YHWH’s spirit seems certain to echo that saturating spirit that comes to rest upon the Jesse-king of chapter 11, perhaps linking the collective Jacob/Israel servant with that quite individual, regal figure. And the servant’s YHWH-provisioned return—if this is the movement we are meant to imagine—somehow creates a more complex Jacob/Israel in the very act of its potentially wearying desert crossing.

The children are descended from their parents, yet they are from a different people. YHWH, supporting and sustaining his servant, will see to it. The task is hard, yet the outcome assured. The servant is vulnerable, yet strangely enriched by daughters and sons it did not bear in Babylon nor bring from that soon-to-be-forgotten place. Yet here they are, calling themselves by YHWH-names, more sons and daughters than new-found cousins.


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Isaiah is relentless in his description of idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers as empty, void, and useless. If one expects pity or some softening of the rhetoric, one will not find it here. Idols, in the Isaianic vision of things, cannot be reformed. Even their makers and their worshippers dance very close to the existential cliff. Only a decisive turn away from the abyss will rescue them from what the prophet simultaneously scorns and dismisses as ‘the things they have chosen’.

A mouthful of such derision has poured onto the scroll by the time we come to YHWH’s redemptive posture at 44.21. The passage that begins there is too easy to frame up as an entirely new oracle. In my view, it must be seen as the counterpoise to the emptiness that is chronicled before it begins, in verses 1-20. YHWH, whose glory fills the whole earth by one reading Seraphim’s cry in the programmatic Generative Vision at 6.3, is now portrayed as a deity in constant, redemptive motion. When idols stand inert or lie helplessly tipped to the ground, YHWH acts and accomplishes.

Two details stand out in this rehearsal not only of YHWH’s attributes in the abstract, as later theologies would capture the presentation, but of his nature over against the idols. The first is the sudden deployment of creation imagery, anchored in the verbs יצר and ברא as well as the allusion to the iconic stretching out of the heavens and spreading out of the earth. The latter glance at creation ideology adds to the mix resonant verbs like נטה (to stretch out) and רקע (to pound out). The point is not so much a celebration of cosmic creation motifs as it is an argument from the greater to the comparative lesser: if YHWH can do that (creation of the cosmos), he can certainly do this (new creation of his moribund servant, Jacob/Israel).

The second is the surge of participles that increasingly structure the discourse as it finds its pace and moves towards its conclusion. Hebrew poetry displays an affinity for the possibilities of participle forms when the intent is to describe YHWH’s most tenacious qualities. The parade example of this practice may be Psalm 103, which does not acclaim a moment of divine mercies but rather the sustaining probability that they can be expected to appear again and again.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives (הסלח) all your iniquity, who heals (הרפא) all your diseases,

who redeems (הגואל) your life from the Pit, who crowns you (המעטרכי) with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies (המשביע) you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5 (NRSV)

The introduction of YHWH as the servant’s redeemer is structured, unsurprisingly, around qatal and yiqtol verb forms. These are complemented by imperatives directed to the servant as well as to the heavens, the depths of the earth, to mountains, forest, and trees. But soon enough the rhetoric migrates into the participle habit I have mentioned just above. It is instructive that the participles describe even those actions of YHWH that cannot be expected to recur, as though the divine majesty that was evident in them once and for all is now in present and in future deployed in the new creation that is the servant’s redemption.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer (גאלך), who formed you (ויצרך) in the womb: I am the LORD, who made (עשה) all things, who alone stretched out (נטה) the heavens, who by myself spread (רקע) out the earth; who frustrates (מפר) the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; who turns back (משיב) the wise, and makes their knowledge foolish; who confirms the word of his servant, and fulfills the prediction of his messengers; who says (האמר) of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins’; who says (האמר) to the deep, ‘Be dry— I will dry up your rivers; who says (האמר) of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’

Isaiah 44:24-28 (NRSV)

In its context, the breadth and constancy of this redemptive activity contrasts emphatically with the useless and inert emptiness of the idols, idol-makers, and idol-worshippers who are described just before this YHWH-descriptive rhetoric bursts onto the page.

Although without the artistry of the chapter’s textured discourse, the contrast can be captured in a simple antithesis: The idols do not. YHWH does.

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Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic takes a decisive turn in the book’s forty-fourth chapter, which open with a summons to ‘Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen’. The first eight verses outline the incomparability of YHWH vis-à-vis other powers, with the emphasis placed upon YHWH’s reliability if his servant Jacob/Israel will only trust him. The principal motivation for such confidence in YHWH rests upon his ability to know the future and to bring it to fruition in the life of those who dare to trust him.

At verse 9, however, the anti-idolatry and anti-idolater rhetoric becomes considerably more pointed. The opening salvo, directed against idol-makers, is clear enough:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

More easily lost in translation or by a too accelerated reading is the insistent negation that occurs in the ensuing diatribe, structured around the Hebrew negative particles אין ,לבלתי , בל and לא. This negation is consistent with the Isaianic demand that idols—to say nothing of their artisans—are nothing. One must read beneath the quite exquisite satire in order to capture the formal contribution that undergirds it. I will attempt to clarify the point by illustrate and annotation:

All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit (בל־יועילו); their witnesses neither see nor know (בל־יראו ובלּידעו). And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good (לבלתי הועיל)? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails (lit. ‘and there is no strength’), he drinks no water (ואין כח לא־שׁתה) and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’

They do not know, nor do they comprehend (לא ידעו ולא יבינו); for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment (ולא ישיב אל־לבו ולא דעת ולא־תבונה) to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say (ולא־יציל את נפשו ולא יאמר), ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’

Isaiah 44:9-20 (NRSV)

An incisive if low-profile irony may lie in the the question the idolator does not manage to ask, anchored as it is by the negative introducer הלא:

Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud? (הלא שקר בימיני)

Isaiah 44.20c

The artistry of the prophet, upon scrutiny, is part and parcel of the anti-idolatry component of the Vision of Isaiah. Here is strong, dismantling rhetoric, insisting that idols are inert, useless, the complete disappointment of the idolater’s pretension.

It will be complemented in the passage just following by an equally persistent cataloguing of YHWH’s disparate activities. Idols do nothing. YHWH never quite stops doing. Isaianic and indeed wider biblical monotheism is seldom rehearsed via the assertion that other gods and powers do not exist. Rather, its native dialect is YHWH’s incomparability. Here, YHWH is quite busy. The idols, nothwithstanding the earnest activism of their makers and devotees, just stand around doing nothing. Indeed, you’ve got to prop them up to stop them tipping over where the children play.

Before hope’s profile arises afresh in the following verses and in celebration of YHWH’s redemptively active nature, the prophet allows us to glimpse the terrible contagion of nothingness that flows from idol to idolater, justifying the profoundly ironic conclusion that stands paradoxically at the head of this passage:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

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