Sunday, May 30, 2010

Isaiah 2-4: Judgement, Utopia, and Haughty Women

Michelangelo's Isaiah, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Isaiah in the Last Days

So! Isaiah 2 continues as a further transcript of the speeches of, who else? Isaiah! And in Verses 1 through 5, he makes good his reputation as a prophet by doing some good old-fashioned prophesying. Specifically, he speaks about the "last days," and it is a happy vision of the entire world turning to the Lord's temple in Jerusalem for binding arbitration of all disputes. These end times will apparently be pretty peaceful, and it is in Verse 4 that we get the famous quote they will beat their swords into plowshares. All the countries of the world will voluntarily demilitarize. It is a nice vision, but I feel obliged to bring up an inherent issue of "last days" prophecies -- they can not be disproven. No longer how continuously the prophecy goes wrong, as long as there's anyone around to read the prophecy, it's easy enough to say "well, obviously it just isn't the last days yet."

And hold on, anyway, because Verses 6 through 22 are much darker. They speak of how the Lord is truly pissed off about superstitions, divination, paganism, idols, and unorthodoxy in general, and has a day in store for all the proud and lofty (12) when the arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled. (17) When that day comes, says Isaiah, it will be best to throw away all you have and go hide in a cave.

Now, there's no indication of a timetable here, and the bit about the day of punishment comes after the bit about world peace, but I guess since the peace comes in the "last days," the punishment must by definition come before. Which brings up another problem with prophecy: he can be hard to tell if it has been fulfilled or not. The Earthquake of Lisbon, for instance, basically fulfills everything that Isaiah describes in Chapter 2. So, can we assume that (a) he was right and (b) we are over that hurdle now? Tough to say.

Isaiah 3 and 4

Next, Isaiah makes grim prophecies about the future of Judah and Jerusalem: See now, the Lord... is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support.... (3:1) He details all manner of nasty things that will happen to the city and its inhabitants, and of course history has proved him right on this score many times over, although perhaps not as quickly as the "about to" would have implied. He enumerates many specifics, and makes clear that the badness will happen because of God's anger: The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and the leaders of his people: "It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty. (3:14-15) That the punishment is itself a crushing and grinding of the faces of the people is kind of inexplicable, but that's the Old Testament for you.

Now, Isaiah is not what you would be likely to call a feminist. Here he is complaining about outrageous female behavior among the Israelites:

The Lord says,
"The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
flirting with their eyes,
tripping along with mincing steps,
with ornaments jingling on their ankles."

For this bad behavior, they are going to be punished with sores and all sorts of other bad business. Here's the run-down:
24 Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
instead of beauty, branding.
25 Your men will fall by the sword,
your warriors in battle.
26 The gates of Zion will lament and mourn;
destitute, she will sit on the ground.
4:1 In that day seven women
will take hold of one man
and say, "We will eat our own food
and provide our own clothes;
only let us be called by your name.
Take away our disgrace!"
And then -- rather suddenly it seems to me -- everything will be great. Isaiah 4 promises happiness, bounty, and peace for the survivors of the above troubles. There will be shelter from the heat of the day and from rainstorms, and the living will be good, just as soon as God has cleansed Jerusalem with a spirit of judgement and a spirit of fire and been able to wash away the filth of the women of Zion. (4:5) So! Something to look forward to, here in the prophecies of Isaiah!

NEXT: There are, I believe, 60 or 66 Chapters of Isaiah, and from the looks of things so far we're in for a real rollercoaster of doom and utopia. Onward!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Isaiah 1: Meet Isaiah!

So, I got transferred to a new job a few months ago, and between that and other items relating to home improvement and a million other things of no interest I have seriously lost traction with the Bible. Which is a real shame, as I had a lot of momentum going at the end of last year.

Truth be told, I have read the first chunk of the Book of Isaiah three times in the last few months. This time, I'm going to actually write something down. Whether this will kick off a stunning reemergence of Michael Reads the Bible as the best Bible blog that no one has ever heard of remains to be seen. But it can't hurt to move the ball forward a chapter.

The Book kicks off immediately with a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem experienced by Isaiah. It is a pessimistic but rather familiar vision, condemning the Israelites for their chronic waywardness and promising punishment a-plenty if they don't shape up. But it was a little hard for me to focus on this at first because, well, who is Isaiah, and why is he having visions? There's no introductory material, so I had to look back in my notes. I found that way back in 2 Chronicles 29-32 we read about Hezekiah, a king of Judah who rediscovered the Laws of Moses after what appeared to be a period of religious decline and reinstated real, by-the-Book Judaism. Well, Isaiah was the High Priest while all of this was going on. That gives us a context, and suddenly it makes sense that Isaiah would be having visions about the undesireability of religious backsliding.

Isaiah's complaints are many and mostly pretty vague: he rails against corruption, evil, evil deeds, poor treatment of widows and orphans, and forsaking of the Lord. But the most focused point of attack is against religious unorthodoxy:

"The multitude of your sacrifices -- what are they to me?" says the Lord.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats."
So wait a minute! Does this mean that God is telling Isaiah that he wants the Israelites (we've gone back in time to back before the Babylonian exile, so we're not talking about "Jews" anymore, but "Israelites" again -- well, I guess technically we're talking about "Judeans," but let's not get finicky.) to give up animal sacrifice? Because that would actually be a radical reversal from the Laws of Moses, which are in large part all about animal sacrifice. And the answer is no, God isn't angry about sacrifice in general, just that sacrifice is being done wrong.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -- I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
The Israelites have, it seems, gone all new age! They have a bunch of unsanctioned festivals and are ignoring the offical ones, they are sacrificing the wrong way at the wrong places and times, and they've made up a bunch of crazy new stuff that you won't find in Moses. You will be ashamed, thunders Isaiah, because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted. (1:29) And if they don't straighten up and fly right, says Isaiah, God will punish them mightily.

Back in 2 Chronicles, was read that after Hezekiah restored the Temple they weren't able to celebrate Passover the first year because nobody remembered how. Nobody understood the laws of ritual purity and cleanliness that are so central to the Laws of Moses, and a whole new generation of priests needed to be trained. Isaiah's initial rant lines up perfectly with this state of affairs. Whether Isaiah the priest and Hezekiah the king shared a common religious inspiration or at least a common agenda, or whether one of them had the other over a political barrel of some sort, is impossible to say. But, it seems like the religious and political leadership were very much on-message in this period of Judea's history.

NEXT: Hopefully relatively soon, we'll advance deeper into the Book of Isaiah. It's a long one, but hopefully we'll get this blog back into a rhythm! And by the end of the Book, I hope to be able to spell "Isaiah" without having to stop and check every time.