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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

Perhaps the rabbis were correct to affirm that some of the ‘deeper writings’ are not suitable for untrained eyes. Or perhaps the cynical proverb that affirms that ‘school is wasted on the young’ is, after all, on to something.

Or perhaps only mothers and fathers should read such a thing as this:

Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: “Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (Isaiah 29:22–24 ESV)

Jacob’s prodigals had not only run amok on their own terms. They had been dragged to distant lands by the powers of their day to suffer the quick extermination of our news cycle or the slow extermination of assimilation to the alien’s ways.

Jacob, figuratively, bows in the shame of a father’s silent-teared bereavement.

Everything is gone.

Then, suddenly—the word is absent from this passage but a favorite of such Isaianic turns elsewhere—here they are! 

Two ironies haunt this brief passage of over-the-top restoration. First, Jacob’s response goes unrecorded. All we know is that the prodigals are back both in body and in soul. They sanctify Jacob’s God. They are not the proverbial ex-smokers with their steel-faced prohibitions, not the loud and self-assured recent converts with a plan for your life. On the contrary, these lost children—now found— stand before their Returner in awestruck silence.

Jacob did not teach them such things, for they were far away, gone, children’s voices from torturing memories never to be heard again.

Indeed, this draws the reader into the text’s second irony.

For when (Jacob) sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.

They are, YHWH affirms, ‘the work of my hands’, now to be found ‘in his (Jacob’s) midst’.

This has not been Jacob’s work, this resurrecting of dead children, this returning of prodigals, this mourning turned to dance.

We do not read here of Jacob’s response to this majestic impossibility.

But a father, this morning, can imagine it.

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Before all things, we protect our children.

The park just outside my window is frequented by parents and small children, these defenseless little tykes who would not know a leaf from a wasp. Nor do we expect them to know. So, we cradle them in our arms against all threat unseen. We swoop them low to greet the neighbor’s little doggy, though we would not have them crawl beside the four-legger, for who knows what strange ferocity might kick in suddenly in a world like ours.

We expose them gradually to our little park, one that is in the main benign but might harbor here or there a sting, a bite, a lecher too kind.

Yet the book of Isaiah knows a day when such things will be unthinkable, so will wisdom and understanding and justice and fidelity have taken root in this world’s blighted soil, erstwhile a poison but now a garden.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (Isaiah 11:8 ESV)

This is not a tale of parental neglect. Rather, a ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’, a fruitful ‘branch from his roots’ shall have come first among us, the passage announces at its outset. This one (for the arboreal metaphor soon departs and he is simply ‘he’) will stand as a figure so drenched in YHWH’s wisdom, understanding, and knowledge that everything will be new and all will be peace.

This book called Isaiah, seldom given to baseless utopia, speaks of such a day with profuse confidence once the spell of ugly injustice has been broken. The passage before us becomes one of the Isaiah scroll’s earliest contributions to ‘Jewish messianism’, which can here be abbreviated as the expectation of an agent of YHWH who shall set things gorgeously to rights. The chapter presents this figure in the judging and reproving and straight-setting language of YHWH’s own work in the book’s Vision of Visions back in chapter two. What YHWH will accomplish among the suddenly submissive peoples there, this scion of Jesse’s chopped-down stump will enact here, becoming the kind of judge who is not swayed by appearances but rather sees through them to the real heart of the matter and decides accordingly.

Here, as in that Vision of Visions, the result is what we somewhat misleadingly call paradisiacal.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6–7 ESV)

Soon enough, the text will de-metaphorize itself long enough to signal that the promise is not chiefly about animals. Rather, wolf, lamb, and the rest of them are nations who have quite quickly become the becalmed peoples of whom YHWH can (again) say that ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.’

But that declaration and the explanation that is given for it still await our glimpse of the nursing child and the weaned child who are left to crawl and giggle about the hidings of cobra and adder, not negligently but with understanding of what has become transformed.

The poetry invites its reader to ask with the astonishment that has not been dulled by too much disappointment, has not reduced to cynical disillusion, ‘How could this be?’

Only then does the text give up its reason. It seems that this Figure, this Jesse’s son, this one who perceives, decides, and straightens as YHWH himself does, has not hoarded his understanding. Indeed, he has been globally—cosmically, we are to imagine—generous with it.

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9 ESV)

Everywhere, people shall know YHWH.

No wonder, then, that ‘snakes’ don’t bite and ‘wolves’ snooze amid spring lambs, that infants drool un-dangered, that the whole world is new.

 

 

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One of the most finely crafted and resonant chapters of the biblical corpus achieves its quiet doxology via a horticultural simile, which catches this reader’s eye on the morning after hauling yet another load of subtropical greenery to our Colombian patio.

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11 ESV)

The author has in the preceding verses gone a bit crazy in the search for metaphors that capture the extravaganza of YHWH’s turning towards his people after the ‘brief moment’ of their affliction. Now, they are walls called ‘salvation’, rebellious citizens will have become ‘the righteous’, the oil of gladness will have displaced mourning, Zion’s children will have become famous throughout the world. (more…)

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YHWH’s blessing comes not as a single product, well-worn branding splashed across familiar package.

Rather, it sneaks into life variegated, diverse, subtle, nuanced, its hues settling in across the broadest range.

Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness. (Isaiah 60:17 ESV)

The prophet reaches for a poet’s pallet to explain to a weary people why return to all that once was and has been snatched away beyond repair will be more glorious than a captive nation can just now imagine. The cadence of his Hebraic persuasion does indeed speak of shining extremity, for example in the ‘wealth of nations’ that will flow to resplendent Zion, in the transmutation of empty abandon into urban majesty. (more…)

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Most mornings do not bring peril.

But for some people—this writer numbers himself among them—and for all threatened peoples, morning arrives with the scent of danger. Before my feet hit the floor, a thousand potential disasters have stomped briefly on my soul.

A beginning is by nature an imperiled moment, a tender shoot extinguishable by the crush of a single boot. Anything can happen in a beginning. Fear tilts perception’s scale to the narrow downside of all eventualities. The day needs little encouragement to break darkly. (more…)

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After exploring idolatry’s irony in chapter 45 around the issue of shaping and forming, the prophet again trains his sardonic firepower on idolaters in chapter 46. This time his sarcasm needles the makers of idols via the metaphors of lifting and carrying. Behind each of the two images lies the wearying nature of making and worshipping one’s own gods, on the one hand, and YHWH’s tireless lifting up and bearing around of his daughters and sons, on the other.

I quote the short chapter in full, below. The speaker is presumed to be YHWH throughout. I have attempted to highlight in italics the chapter’s references to the wearisome burden-bearing that depletes idolators, idols, and even the gods those idols purport to represent. ‘Bowing down’ and ‘stooping’ are best understood as the collapse of persons subjected to a forced march. The exhaustion spreads to the unfortunate animals that are doomed to carry heavy idols around, though in the broader Isaianic irony these innocent beasts of burden are more perceptive than foolish Judahites. (more…)

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Readers of this blog will be familiar with Isaianic irony. The work of Israelite prophecy that we abbreviate as The Book of Isaiah does not instruct only with straight-forward words. Rather, its artistry drives its message home with relentless subtlety, some of which is inevitably lost when the book’s soulful poetry is translated into English or another modern language.

Nowhere is the subtlety more powerfully deployed than in the prophet’s anti-idolatry polemic. He finds the veneration of idols not only enslaving, but also astonishingly stupid. Idolatry, he insists, is a religious practice that wearies rather than invigorates the worshipper. (more…)

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