Saturday, June 19, 2010

Isaiah 11-16: There Goes the Neighborhood

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom.  It's pretty unlikely that Hicks, a Quaker, would have bought into the more bellicose aspects of today's section of Isaiah, but this painting certainly epitomizes the whole 'wolf will live with the lamb' business.
Isaiah 11-12 offer more of what is I guess the roots of the messianic tradition in Judaism and Christianity. It begins by saying, famously I think, that "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse," and describes a figure of great wisdom who shall usher in an era of peace and glory, striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and slaying the wicked with the breath of his lips (11:4). Under this guy's leadership, everyone will get along; the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat (11:6), and the cow will feed with the bear. (11:7) All of the rivalries within the Israelite kingdoms will vanish, and everyone will live together in peace.

Well, everyone who's anyone, that is. While the Israelites are enjoying their love-fest,
14 They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
So it's not really a vision of universal peace so much as one of God trying for the umpteenth time to get his chosen people to get their ducks in a row and to lay off of the Azeroth worship. Isaiah 12 is basically a suggested song of thanks and praise, ready for use when the big day comes.

Bad News for the Neighbors

Throughout the first dozen chapters of Isaiah we've seen a real duality of predictions concerning Israel. In some cases, Isaiah is predicting some serious suffering for the Israelites, in other cases he's predicting an eventual, if possibly rather far off, happy ending.

Beginning with Chapter 13, Isaiah turns his attention from the Israelites themselves to their neighbors and enemies. In these cases, the predictions are pretty much always grim, grim, grim. The twenty-two verses of Chapter 13 itself spell out the future for Babylon, and man, it doesn't look good.
9 See, the day of the LORD is coming
—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.

15 Whoever is captured will be thrust through;
all who are caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.

19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the glory of the Babylonians' pride,
will be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 She will never be inhabited
or lived in through all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there,
no shepherd will rest his flocks there.
21 But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.
22 Hyenas will howl in her strongholds,
jackals in her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.
All of this is to be regarded as a good thing. In Isaiah 14, Verses 4 through 23 are -- explicitly -- as a long and, it must be said, rather smug taunt to be hurled at the King of Babylon when all of the dire events list above transpire. No, really. Look it up if you don't believe me. (The Bible has all sorts of weird stuff in it. How could I ever have come up with something like that?)

The rest of Chapter 14 is a prophecy of doom for Assyria...
I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.
...followed by a prophecy of doom against the Phillistines...
Wail, O gate! Howl, O city!
Melt away, all you Philistines!
A cloud of smoke comes from the north,
and there is not a straggler in its ranks.
And Isaiah 15 & 16 are prophecies of doom against Moab....
1 An oracle concerning Moab:
Ar in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
Kir in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
2 Dibon goes up to its temple,
to its high places to weep;
Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba.
Every head is shaved
and every beard cut off.
3 In the streets they wear sackcloth;
on the roofs and in the public squares
they all wail,
prostrate with weeping.

5 My heart cries out over Moab;
her fugitives flee as far as Zoar,
as far as Eglath Shelishiyah.
They go up the way to Luhith,
weeping as they go;
on the road to Horonaim
they lament their destruction.
...and I note, looking ahead, that other kingdoms are lined up for prophecies of doom as the reading continues.

Biblical Prophecies in Long-Term Perspective

It's tough not to read these ancient prophecies of the future of the Middle East and not think about contemporary events in the region. And as you can see from the magazines at your supermarket's check-out line, any can can mangle the prophecies and the events together in such a way that, say, Isaiah 13 must be about the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Well. I strongly recommend against getting too excited about this kind of interpretation. For one thing, the details don't line up with known historical events in anything but the most tenuous fashion, and that seems important when you are evaluating prophecy. Secondly, there is every appearance that Isaiah himself was expecting all that he predicted to happen pretty much right away -- indeed, he specifies that the fall of the Moabites will happen within three years of his vision (16:14), not 3000 years.

But let's say you want to grant Isaiah a great deal of poetic licence about the details of his prophecies, and suppose too that he simply didn't understand the depth of time involved in the visions that God sent him. In that case, the problem is just that in any place that is continuously inhabited for thousands of years, there will be some dark days and some golden years. Sure, Babylon fell. It has fallen lots of times, up to and including the suffering of today's Baghdad. Every very old city has fallen from time to time. Take "Babylon" out of the prophecy and replace it with "Paris" or "Rome" or "Japan" or "Cuba," and Isaiah's vision works just as well.

In other words, if your prophecies survive long enough, it's easy to be a successful prophet. I, Michael5000, predict that the city that you are currently living in will be struck by great sorrow and destruction sometime in the next 3000 years. And I'm right! I double-dog guarantee it. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news. (If it makes you feel any better, there will also be an era of peace and prosperity.)

NEXT: More prophecies of doom!