Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

Rarely does the book called Isaiah indulge in retrospect. Particularly in the second half of the book, the operational summons is to sing a new song, to forget the former things, to embrace YHWH’s penchant for doing something shockingly new.

In this light, the first section of the book’s fifty-first chapter raises a readerly eyebrow.

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:1-2 (NRSV)

This chain of three imperatives is manifestly retrospective, although it would be wrong to call it nostalgic.

There must be something about ‘Abraham your father and … Sarah who bore you’ that elevates the ancestral couple as worthy of the exilic community’s contemplation. Indeed, the immediate text signals wherein that virtue lies and the context further ornaments the allusion.

First, the text of these two verses gives every indication of alluding to the famous calling of Abraham, with its promised of remarkably multiplied progeny.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Besides the naming of Abraham and Sarah, the Isaiah text picks up the notion of blessing (ברכה and verbal ברך). Additionally, both texts emphasize the dimension of multiplication towards vastness. In Genesis, this notion manifests as promissory: ‘I will make you a great nation’ (ואעשׁך לגוי גדול) and ‘and make your name great’ (ואגדלה שׁמך). In the allusive Isaiah text, the language is slightly different:

…for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:2 (NRSV)

One discovers, then, in both texts the notion of blessing towards vastness.

So much for the evident textual links that make Isaiah 51.1-2 a recontextualized echo of Genesis 12.1-3.

Yet the Abrahamic motif has not been concluded just yet. In the hands of the Isaianic interpretation of the exiles’ plight, there is more to say.

The clear and immediate insistence is that YHWH is still capable of multiplying his people via blessing towards vastness. What became true of Abraham and Sarah represents an invitation for the exiles to trust YHWH’s intention to multiply them in similar fashion.

Yet is striking that the ensuing verses are thick with reference to the paradoxical but intensely Isaianic notion of subjugating the nations in those peoples’ own interest.

Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.

I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Isaiah 51:4-5 (NRSV)

It appears, then, that this forward-looking book finds Abraham and Sarah to be worthy objects for a bit of retrospective pondering. This is so precisely because in the experience of the iconic patriarch and matriarch one discerns YHWH’s purpose to bless his people towards vastness in a way that has global implications for those nations who find themselves conjoined to YHWH’s little people.

If the Isaianic tradition constitutes exilic prophets coaxing out the meaning of the prophetic deposit that has become their treasure and also of conjuring the bracing concept of an imminent New Exodus, then it is also true that the tradition can reach even farther back into Israel’s long memory. When it does so, it becomes a summons to trust that YHWH’s stubborn insistence upon blessing not only Abraham and Sarah but also those nations who will look favorably upon them has survived the storm of exile.

In the hands of Isaiah’s interpreters, retrospect becomes prospect and memory, instruction.


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It is impossible to engage the enigmatic figure of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) without the immediate realization that paradox lurks in every syllable. There is no escaping this quality of the Servant figure, and the challenge to a ‘Who is this exactly?’ investigation must be acknowledged from the start. Answers to that particular question may not come easily, they may not come in the singular, and they may not come at all unless the question is reconfigured.

A layer of paradox occurs in the first six verses of Isaiah 49 that is true to the iconic experience of biblical prophets. On the one hand, there is profound divine engagement in their calling to the prophetic vocation, so here in the divine purpose that commissions the Servant into his improbable task.

On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of weariness, inadequacy, and even failure in the prophet’s experience. So here in the case of the Servant of YHWH.

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”  

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NRSV)

The Servant’s prenatal, in vitro calling and naming introduces the passage. This prior description then cedes to the imagery of YHWH’s preparation of the servant, still rendered in the Servant’s voice. Then a promissory note that might seem like just another brick on the road from glory to glory.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:3 (NRSV)

Yet this optimistic anticipation is not borne out, at least in the near term. The progress of the narrative seems trapped in an eddy of perceived insufficiency on the part of the Servant. The emphatically disjunctive ואני אמרתי (‘But I said…’) breaks the hopeful momentum established in the chapter’s first three verses.

The Servant’s complaint is met with divine reassurance that still greater achievements will issue from the Servant’s efforts. Yet this oscillation between divine reassurance on the one hand, self-doubt and exhaustion on the other, will beleaguer the Servant passages or songs for the duration. It is likely that we ought to read the famous passage at the end of chapter 40, with its deployment of יגע (‘to be[come] weary’) and its interaction of exhaustion and divine supply, as cut from the same cloth. This should not surprise us as it is Jacob/Israel who complains there as it is Jacob/Israel that is identified as the Servant of YHWH in most or arguably all of the so-called Servant Songs.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31 (NRSV)

Divine purpose and human experience thus live in uneasy tension and persistent dialogue throughout the Servant passages. In the sea of paradox that is Isaiah’s Servant discourse, this restless antithesis constitutes one undeniable drop.

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The forty-seventh chapter of the book called Isaiah surprises. It reads as a latter-day oracle against Babylon, something the work might have been expected to have got out of its system by the time the famous oracles against the nations are wrapping up in chapter 23.

Yet here is that venerable Schadenfreude smack in the middle of the book’s most lyrical ‘comfort’ pages, its contempt for Babylon dripping with poetic justice. It is not easy, matters would appear to suggest, to get over Babylon. She does not creep silently into our traumatized past.

An embittered oracle like this does fit comfortably in its current location in one detail: its predilection for the notion of naming and renaming. Often in this section of the book, renaming denotes a redemptive move that radically changes a character’s lot. Such new names are happy ones. They grace the redeemed and are a matter of celebration both in the soul of the renamed and in others who find its syllables delicious on their lips.

The maneuver traffics in two main discursive pieces. First, though less frequently, an actual new name (שׁם חדשׁ) is bestowed.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

Isaiah 62:1-2 (NRSV)

More frequently, the calling or naming of a collective and personified figure either reminds its members of a true, deeper identity that circumstances might have belied; or it inaugurates for those individuals and the community they comprise a new and elevated status. Typically קרא, to call, is the verb in question.

Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.

Isaiah 60:18 (NRSV)

In both cases, the outcome is to be welcomed for the naming or renaming heralds new and better days.

In chapter 47, where disgraced Babylon comes under inspection, things are very different. This conversion of a redemptive trope in support of rejoicing over a fallen enemy, occurs already in the chapter’s first verse.

Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate.

Isaiah 47:1 (NRSV)

Then again, after a clarifying note the YHWH, Israel’s Redeemer, is the author of Babylon’s fall and that this is a feature of Israel’s rescue, verse five goes at things once more.

Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.

Isaiah 47:5 (NRSV)

Verse 5, just quoted, is quickly complemented in the terms of Babylon’s own prior reflection on her status:

You said, “I shall be mistress forever,” so that you did not lay these things to heart or remember their end.

Isaiah 47:7 (NRSV)

Babylon’s tragic renaming is in fact a removal of prior appellatives rather than the application of a new one, although the context verbosely supplies descriptors of Babylon’s envisaged new status. That is, three names—Tender, Delicate, Mistress of Kingdoms—are removed and replaced with a studied namelessness.

The effect is powerful, for the context makes clear that the names that have now been stripped from Virgin Daughter Babylon were both crucial to her own self-identity and proffered by her commercial and political clients. This is no private ceremony of judgement but rather a catastrophic judgement executed in full view of Babylon’s erstwhile empire.

Babylon’s envisaged downfall is celebrated here because she stands in for all that opposes YHWH’s purpose to redeem Jacob/Israel. Among a range of candidates, Babylon has become something greater than herself. She is a loathsome symbol of all that stands in the way.

No wonder, then, that Babylon becomes in subsequent reflection a cipher for the worst of humanity’s worst, not least in the literature of a renamed Israel that sees itself in continuity with its historical and spiritual predecessor.

He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. 

(T)hey will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more.”

Revelation 18:2, 10, 21 (NRSV)

There is in the biblical literature of justice, theodicy, and eschatological trajectory something of a zero-sum game. YHWH is at his most ferocious not out of ephemeral pique or caprice, but rather when facing down unyielding resistance to his determination to redeem. The Bible’s literature is in the main not gratuitously vengeful. But yes, when it comes to this, there is some dancing on an a tyrant’s grave.

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The forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah summons up one of the Hebrew Bible’s several ‘sovereignty discourses’. In these a superior—YHWH in most cases—puts in his purported place a lesser who has lodged a complaint. Modern sensitivities are quick to cry ‘Bully!’, and at points this seems a viable charge.

In any case, the discourse describes a moral architecture in which the participants’ relative rank is not in question. The lesser in this arrangement is to practice a certain compliance before the greater. It’s just the ways things are.

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”?

Woe to anyone who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labor?”

Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?

Isaiah 45:9-11 (NRSV)

Such rhetoric is transparent enough in the abstract. Yet there is usually a concrete context that lends poignance and occasionally brings a justifying note to its sharp edges.

That is certainly the case here, where the Persian king Cyrus appears both before and after the ‘woes’ and the rhetorical questions that populate this sovereignty discourse. Indeed, it appears that YHWH’s choice to anoint and then deploy a pagan king for the benefit of his ‘servant’ Jacob lies at the very genesis of the quoted passage.

One must admit at the outset that the circumstances portrayed here defy expectation.

In the first verse, YHWH calls Cyrus his anointed one. The Hebrew word משיח (his servant = משיחו) will in due course become the main generator of the English ‘messiah’, which is in fact merely a transcription of the Hebrew noun. What is more, YHWH claims to have grasped Cyrus by the hand. Together the two expressions lay a foundation for the virtually unlimited conquest of the known world which is promised to the Persian king in the ensuing verses.

One might find it agreeable to imagine Israel as subject and object of this description. Israel, YHWH’s anointed, strengthened by YHWH’s own grasp. But Cyrus, the pagan king and Persian successor to Babylon’s empire? The plot has taken a new and disturbing turn.

The only limitation to the intimacy and collaboration that lock YHWH and Cyrus together as imperial co-conspirators is the twice-stated concessive clause ‘though you do not know me’ (verses 4-5), which is spoken of Cyrus. Paradoxically, Cyrus is anointed as YHWH’s own subduer of nations, yet he is not conceded the merit of knowing YHWH that remains somehow Jacob’s prerogative. Indeed, the entire anomaly that is Cyrus takes shape for Jacob’s benefit. Neither Cyrus nor his Persian nation supplants Jacob/Israel. Yet Cyrus is granted both a tactical intimacy with YHWH and strengthening by YHWH, all for the sake of Jacob/Israel.

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.

Isaiah 45:4 (NRSV)

If this description of circumstances commends itself, then we return to the question of what generates the sovereignty discourse of this chapter, with its potentially humiliating subjugation of Israel to YHWH in the figures of earthen vessels to potter, clay to divine molder, child to parents.

It appears that Israel’s implicit objection to YHWH redeeming his people in this Cyrus-centric way is the motivation for this dense and complex metaphor. No other dynamic in the context commends itself, it would be uncharacteristically abstract for the comment to come to us as a mere moral instruction, and—once glimpsed with clarity—Israel’s complaint about YHWH’s redemptive methodology fits perfectly with the chapter’s argument.

Even the culminating declaration of the chapter’s first unit (verses 1-7) stands out in sharper profile if YHWH’s deployment of Cyrus is seen to be the centerpoint around which the discourse revolves:

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.

Isaiah 45:7 (NRSV)

YHWH, it seems, presents himself here as the Lord of Exile as well as of Return, the Master of Cyrus as much as Jacob’s God. The text does not allow YHWH to shirk responsibility for darkness and woe, which in context must involve at least the calamity of exile in a way that excludes neither Babylon’s nor Persia’s role. Indeed, YHWH names himself darkness’ architect and maker.

‘You’re going to redeem Jacob’s children this way?’, one imagines a faithful old Judean man complaining in his most earnest prayers, lips trembling with indignation. ‘Will you sully your hands in clasp with this pagan king?’

‘There is no one like me’, comes YHWH’s reply, failing to conceal a shiver of divine delight.

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The Hebrew Bible’s first verb rumbles with creative energy.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

Genesis 1:1 (NRSV)

By virtue of its privilege of place and of the fact that what goes down here can never happen again—Israelite monotheism will allow only one all-creating deity—the verb ברא quickly acquires a particular resonance. In fact, the Hebrew Bible displays a deep reticence to deploying ברא with anyone other than YHWH as its subject and with anything other than a creation out of nothing as its effect. Strictly speaking, the subject of ברא in Genesis 1.1 is אלהים, but in context ‘God’ can be no other than YHWH.

Scholars debate whether this kind of creation discourse first takes shape in the earliest chapters of Genesis, in the second part of Isaiah, or elsewhere. For now, it is enough to observe the manner in which the verb ברא is all but reserved for spectacular and unanticipated acts of creation by YHWH himself.

In this light, it is not short of remarkable that ברא flourishes unreservedly in Isaiah 43, where a kind of creation ex nihilo is presaged. Here, YHWH is emphatically its subject. He is a Creator lifted above the capacity of all other deities, if it can even be imagined that these might exist. The object or effect of YHWH’s creative artistry is the rebirth of Israel out of the inert nothingness of Exile.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

For nearly the length of this chapter, its author weaves ברא into a rich tapestry of which the other components of creative production are יצר (commonly, to shape or mold) and עשׂה (to make). That this is not technically creation ex nihilo but rather ‘creativity with a history’ is betrayed in the verbal threads that bring in גאל (to redeem) and קרא (to call, name, or even re-name). The notion of redemption (גאל) in particular assumes a preexisting deficient state from which one is rescued.

This is redemption cum creation. The vocabulary places Israel’s rescue at YHWH’s hands in the category of creation in a stunning metaphorical dance that is sustained for verse after lyrical verse without a hint of tedium. The first tranche of this composition is delivered up with a resounding conclusion at verse 7.

I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name (כל הנקרא בשׁמי), whom I created for my glory (ולכבודי בראתיו), whom I formed (יצרתיו) and made (אף עשִֹיתיו).

Isaiah 43:6-7 (NRSV)

The whole enterprise is reinforced in the chapter’s nineteenth verse by the divine declaration of a new thing, albeit now having built allusions to a New Exodus upon the foundation of a New Creation:

I am about to do a new thing (הנה עשׂה חדשׁח); now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV)

After this, no careful student of the book called Isaiah can conceive of redemption across the trajectory of the entire biblical canon without viewing it against the backdrop of YHWH’s spectacular and unanticipated creative artistry. Yet his sovereign creative mastery somehow honors the unpromising clay which he now chooses to shape, remold, and name after himself.

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The first words of Isaiah’s forty-first chapter convene the nations in the interest of justice.

Rarely in the book called Isaiah is it more difficult to ascertain precisely the tone of the invitation and the nuance of the Hebrew word משׁפט, usually rendered ‘justice’ but sometimes ‘judgement’. I underscore the pertinent phrase:

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

Two features of this summons link it to similar passages involving Israel/Jacob/Judah rather than, as here, ‘coastlands’ and ‘nations’. The first, weaker than its successor, is the faint similarity between ‘let us together draw near for judgement’ and the more famous expression that precedes YHWH’s sentencing of Judah and Jerusalem in the book’s introductory chapter:

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

Although the contexts of the two passages are strikingly similar and the language somewhat so, it must be admitted that the key verbs are not the same. It is possible the similarity is merely superficial. However, in the light of the Isaianic tradition’s irrepressible desire to play and to tease with intertextual allusion, it is likely not. Probably, the convocation of Judah for a deliberative moment of sentencing is here echoed by the summons of the nations for a somewhat different objective that nevertheless pivots on the matter of justice.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

This possibility is arguably corroborated by a second ironic feature of this passage, this one also a matter of intertextual allusiveness but now with a textual partner that lies close at hand.

Once again, the matter involves an Isaiah text that can only be considered as famous:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 (NRSV)

We must remind ourselves that these words occurs immediately prior to Isaiah 41. A certain culminating conclusiveness and of course modern versification marks them off from our text, but that is all.

In 40.28-31, those sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel who complain that their way has been lost to the eyes of an inattentive YHWH are reassured that if they wait on YHWH, they shall renew their strength. The Hebrew expression that generates the italicized English just above is יחליפו כח. This is precisely the expression that is used of the ‘coastlands’ and by contextual implication also ‘the peoples’ in 41.1 In 40.31, the expression is taken to be imperfective with a future reference; that is, it describes. In 41.1, the same words are rightly understood as jussive, a detail I shall attempt to illuminate by once again quoting, italicizing, and inserting the corresponding Hebrew text.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength (יחליפו כח); let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41:1 (NRSV)

Such subtle ironies must certainly represent more than wordplay carried out for a purely aesthetic purpose. I am increasingly persuaded that the Isaianic voice is drawing the nations into the plight and the prospects of Israel/Jacob itself. YHWH’s purposes in redeeming his Israel increasingly seem include the nations without ever blurring the distinctions between the two nor across the ranges of the latter.

It seems every more likely that in summoning the nations for judgement, his intentions are—as with Israel—not finally lethal but rather restorative.

When you receive an invitation like this one with all its Isaianic tonalities, you are never sure exactly what for.

But, peace. The news is good.

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The biblical witness generally treasures Hezekiah’s legacy. He is remembered as a good king in the midst of many bad ones. He is honored by what looks from our distance as genuine friendship with the prophet Isaiah, who seems to have enjoyed deep access to Hezekiah’s royal court.

Yet biblical realism is a tenacious thing, clawing when it must even at the polished reputation of its protagonists. Hezekiah will be remembered warts and all.

The thirty-ninth chapter of the book called Isaiah is as ominous as they come. It is only a matter of time before the Babylonians will be hooting drunkenly atop Jerusalem’s ruins alongside their Edomite mercenaries. Yet here we find their emissaries enjoying a tour of the temple precincts during the tour that the recently recovered Hezekiah has giddily arranged for them. The text allows no hint that Hezekiah has a clue of the dark foreshadowing that stalks his clueless extravagance.

But the prophet does.

Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” Hezekiah answered, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:3-4 (NRSV)

One might anticipate at this point the surging forth of royal remorse, a grim determination to batten down the hatches in order to gainsay the subterfuge of Hezekiah’s Babylonian guests and the storm that must surely soon break upon Jerusalem.

Nothing like this occurs.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

A great sadness pervades this pathetic vignette. Its sorrow is all the more poignant for being the final word of the book’s first half. The next words, just across the boundary and into what is for us its fortieth chapter, are words about Zion’s consolation after the Babylonian exile—yes, these Babylonians—has wreaked its havoc.

Hezekiah’s error forever tarnishes his memory.

It is registered here in two shocking responses to the comeuppance he receives from the prophet Isaiah. First, there is a glibness about his response to Isaiah’s query regarding the fatal error he has just committed.

(Isaiah) said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:4 (NRSV)

Second, Hezekiah’s clay feet are monstrously visible in the chapter’s conclusion, which as we have seen serves as well as the final words of the book’s entire first half. It is not a pretty sight.

Here again, that passage, with Hezekiah’s moral blundering italicized:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

There is in fact nothing good in Isaiah’s grim warning, except that Hezekiah himself will be buried in peace at a time when the storm clouds have not yet broken over his people. Only the worst of narcissists—the kind of king he manifestly has not been—could find comfort in that.

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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 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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It appears that chapter 29 emerges from the white heat of Jerusalem’s crisis under Assyrian pressure.

It is a swirling, chaotic, difficult piece of prophetic literature and therefore a challenge to any interpreter. Among its most confusing verses figure these:

The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot, for it is sealed.’ And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot read.’ 

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.  

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?

Isaiah 29:11-16 (NRSV)

If the chapter is one coherent unit, then ‘the vision of all this’ which introduces this passage likely refers back to preceding woe pronounced over ‘Ariel’ or Lion of God. There, YHWH appears to encamp against Jerusalem, the likely referent of ‘Ariel’. Is it possible that the prophet uses ‘Ariel’, ‘Lion of God’ sarcastically, alluding to self-elevating nickname with which Jerusalemites in better times might have flattered themselves? In the verses just prior to our passage, YHWH’s activity vis-à-vis Ariel is described as follows.

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from strong drink!

For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers.

Isaiah 29:9-10 NRSV

It appears that, amid what Jerusalem’s anxiety-ridden citizens experience as impending doom, the prophet is doing battle with what might be considered a religion of remoteness. Apparently rejected as a source of intelligence regarding what YHWH is actually up to, the prophet critiques religion that is learned by rote and reliant upon esoterica.

Both approaches and perhaps their blending into anxious religious activism seems to distance Isaiah’s population from the message he purports to bring to their moment from YHWH himself.

One of YHWH’s quoted lines traffics in the language of the Davidic child-king called ‘Wonderful Counselor’ (פלא יועץ) at Isaiah 9.8.

(S)o I will again do amazing things (להפליא) with this people, shocking and amazing (הפלא ופלא). The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

Isaiah 29:14 (NRSV)

We can identify several features of this text that are clear.

First, the prophet has been rejected as a spokesperson for YHWH and for pertinent reality.

Second, YHWH has not finally rejected Zion in its current depravity. But his future engagement will take the form of unexpected and novel moves that cannot be captured or comprehended by Zion’s ordinary and official stewards of truth.

Third, if the link back to the child ruler of chapter 9 is more than casually lexical—in my opinion it must go far deeper than that—then ‘Ariel’s’ rescue will depend upon attentiveness to that development.

What the book of Isaiah presents here—chaotically, somewhat impenetrably—is not a moment for old wineskins, as another prophet might have put things.

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