Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah; textures; biblical reflection’

Among the reasons for the notoriety that attaches to the Book of Isaiah figures its introduction of ‘Emmanuel’ (Hebrew: עמנו אל) as a name.

As with everything in this massive biblical work, it happens enigmatically. The more famous attachment of the name to a child yet to be born is preceded by the word’s appearance in a context of warfare, threat, and deliverance. No one would yet think of a child.

Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah,therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel. (Isaiah 8:6–8 ESV)

Violent, surging Assyria rises almost to the point of drowning vulnerable, flailing, ever-conspiratorial Judah. Its waters flood even to the neck, leaving no corner of the land untouched. Although there is one other interpretation that makes ‘Immanuel’ itself/himself the owner of ‘outspread wings’, the most common readings understand ‘O Immanuel’ as something of an exclamation. Either the outspreading wings of Assyria ‘will fill the bread of your land, O Immanuel’, where Immanuel is the lord of the violated land. Or ‘Emmanuel’ is a stand-alone cry of desperation: ‘… and (Assyria’s) outspread wings will fill the breadth of your (that is, Judah’s) land. O, Immanuel!’

In either case, ‘God with us’ remains an odd and puzzling expression that elicits the reader’s thoughtful curiosity about just what is going on here.

The text requests only the slightest pause before racing on to its second use of Emmanuel as a something close to a name. Again, children are neither seen nor heard.

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us. (Isaiah 8:9–10 ESV)

The doomed collusion of two of Judah’s near neighbors (Syria and Ephraim, 7.5-7) is heard here by way of echo. Although ‘you peoples’ and ‘all you far countries’ likely includes also Assyria and even other nations, it begins closer to home with Judah’s plotting neighbors Syria and Ephraim.

Judahite desperation in the face of the Assyrian onslaught a few verses earlier now fades before a confident message of defeat to nations that would dare come against her. If ‘Emmanuel’ functioned as a quasi-name in verse 8, its mystery is drawn out still further here, where the word provides the reason for which Judah will not fall to the dark designs of well-armed peoples and nations.

‘Emmanuel’—whatever at this point the odd juxtaposition Hebrew עמנו (‘with us’) and אל (‘God’) can mean—will not allow the final destruction of his land and his people.

But where are the children?

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The prophets poke at the sanctimony that assumes material blessing is YHWH’s endorsement. To be rich is to be good, people too easily assume. Isaiah, among others of his peers, will have none of this moral non sequitur.

For you have rejected your people, the house of Jacob, because they are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners. 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 2:6–8 ESV)

The irony—with Isaiah, there is always irony—pivots upon the Hebrew verb מלא, ‘to be full’. The prophet peppers his denunciation of false religion with this verb as though there’s no tomorrow.

The first and the last of the italicized מלא-phrases point to the lazy amplitude of their religion. Their very piety is an act of wandering, their religiosity a rejection of the exclusive Israelite God who has named himself to be unlike all others. The middle two italicized phrases refer to their wealth.

They are not good, because rich. They are, at the same time, very bad and very rich.

Idolatry, for the prophets, is not open-mindedness, not sophistication, not the cologne of the worldly-wise. It is treason, rebellion, the spiritual equivalent of getting stupidly hot and horny with a neighbor’s hungry wife. There is nothing good in it.

It is possible to gild it with gold, to ornament it with silver. Yet it remains the pathway to a world of eventual hurt.

Riches, declares the text, are not God’s endorsement. Sometimes wealth is just wealth, the shiny trinkets of the doomed.

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