Saturday, July 24, 2010

Isaiah 35-41: Biblical Reruns

Chapter 35: This Chapter seems to carry on from Isaiah 34, which was largely about the destruction of Moab in a “day of vengeance” (8). But Isaiah is back on his Utopian theme here, describing an abundant landscape, a healing of the sick, lame, and blind, and the building of a holy highway, a safe and convenient road that only righteous people will be able to travel on.


Chapter 36: Up to this point, the Book of Isaiah has been rather loosely structured, one prophecy following another with very little context. Suddenly, in Chapter 36, a narrative breaks out! It’s the story of how the Assyrian king Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem and… hey, waitaminute! We’ve read this story before! Back in 2 Kings, when we were reading about King Hezekiah! In fact, Isaiah 36 is essentially identical to 2 Kings 18:17-37, with only a couple of words changed.

Chapter 37: Isaiah 37 is the same as 2 Kings 19. What we're talking about, incidentally, is the story of how an Assyrian commander offers the population of Jerusalem a choice between assimilation and extinction, but God intervenes by slaying 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their sleep.

Chapter 38: The first three verses of Isaiah 38, about King Hezekiah’s illness and Isaiah’s prophecy first of his death, then of his recovery – which is typical Isaiah, prophesying both ways – are identical to the first three verses of 2 Kings 20. Then, Isaiah 38:4-8 is essentially a paraphrase (or vice versa, I suppose) or 2 Kings 20:3-11. Then we’re back into original material, with a long passage of thanks and humility said to have been written by Hezekiah after his illness.

Chapter 39: Isaiah 39 is the same as 2 Kings 20:12-19. It is a darkly funny story, really, in which the King of Babylon sends an envoy to Hezekiah, having heard he hadn’t been feeling well. Hezekiah, pleased by the attention, gives the envoys a tour of all the riches and treasures of his kingdom. Afterwards, Isaiah asks Hezekiah what he showed the representatives of the powerful, expansive neighboring empire, and Hezekiah, perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed, says “There is nothing among my treasures I did not show them” (4). Then Isaiah makes a prophecy to the effect that – I paraphrase here – “We’re screwed. Babylon is going to conquer us and haul us and all our loot back to their capital.” This is a prophecy that turns out to be correct, but it would probably not have been a difficult prophecy for a savvy thinker of the time to have come up with, having heard or Hezekiah’s indiscretion.

New material!

Chapter 40: A Psalm-like meditation on the greatness of God and the insignificance of humans, nations, and the material world in comparison with Him.

Chapter 41: A sort of pep talk, delivered first-person in the voice of God, indicating that He will protect Israel and reduce all of its enemies to ashes. Also, a challenge to other gods and their priests and idols to try to show their worth and power by predicting the future.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Isaiah 25-34: More From Isaiah

I know very little about the long, long process in which decisions were made about what material is in the Bible and what material is not in the Bible. But as I read, I am always thinking about what an odd, fragmentary, and disorganized collection of documents it is. The stereotypical evangelist who encourages people to regard the capital-B Bible as a small-b bible, a coherent and comprehensible guide to theology, metaphysics, and/or right behavior, would be in serious trouble if the flock actually tried to engage with the whole of this massive and massively opaque text. Well, either that, or I’m way behind the curve in terms of my reading aptitude.

Take the case of Isaiah. He is regarded, I gather, as one of the great prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and he is given a huge amount of Biblical real estate -- about 5% of the Christian Bible, in fact. But now that we are well into his section, we see that it consists of little more than an elaborate precedent for the preacher of fire and brimstone. He has three basic messages: 1 – Israel is doomed, 2 – Israel (or the remnants of Israel) is going to have a utopian golden age, and 3 – all of the other nations of the Earth are doomed (although there are exceptions here, too). God will inflict endless punishments on Israel because his goodness, mercy, and might are not being worshiped in the proper fashion.

The prophet Isaiah is, in short, incoherent. He is also tedious and repetitive, which I suppose doesn’t disqualify him from a book of religious texts, but it’s hardly a recommendation. He seems at times a little crazy, especially when he says that God told him to run around naked. And, to cap it off, his prophecies are short-term affairs – he is explicitly interested in and making predictions about the current events of the day, “the day” being nearly 3000 years ago. So why is this guy in my Bible, which was printed in 1983? What am I supposed to get from him that will enhance my understanding of God or make me a better person? When State Senators from conservative states announce their literal belief of every word in the Bible, are they saying that they believe there is a meaningful literal truth, or even a meaningful abstracted truth, to be found in the swirling, rash thunderings of Jerusalem’s naked prophet? I am honestly baffled about this, and would be very interested to learn what it is people are seeing in here that I am not.

But enough of my frustration. Here’s the rundown:

Chapter 25: Isaiah praises God for his military power and mercy for the poor. He predicts a wonderful utopian age for all peoples – except for those of Moab, who will be trampled under him as straw is trampled down in the manure. (10)

Chapter 26: A song of praise that will be sung when the utopian age comes. It would not be out of place is Psalms. It includes this odd passage: But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. (19) Taken at face value, Isaiah seems to be prophesying zombies here.

Chapter 27: An especially difficult chapter. It begins with a prophecy of God killing a sea monster. Then there is an unattributed quotation – another song? – followed by what seems to be a prediction of Israelite world domination after God humbles all of the enemy nations. But it is not entirely clear.

Chapter 28: A prediction of God’s destruction of the people of Ephraim, who are all a bunch of drunks. Abuse of people who don’t respect prophets. A complicated agricultural metaphor, the point of which escapes me.

Chapter 29: Prediction of doom for Jerusalem. More abuse of people who don’t understand prophets. The assertion that once Jerusalem is good and humbled, the good Israelites who have proper respect for God and understanding of prophets will be very well off.

Chapter 30: Not unlike Chapter 29, with some interesting particular points. First of all, there is some added abuse for Israelites who “go down to Egypt.” Isaiah is living at a time when the Israelite kingdoms are being squeezed between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent empires, and no doubt emigration to Egypt seemed like a smart, safe choice to people with the resources or marketable skills to make it a viable choice. Isaiah and other Israelites staying behind would obviously resent the outward flow of wealth and talent.

Isaiah 30:9-14 is a memorable example of Isaiah’s complaints about how people don’t listen to prophets:
9 These are rebellious people, deceitful children,
children unwilling to listen to the LORD's instruction.

10 They say to the seers,
"See no more visions!"
and to the prophets,
"Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
prophesy illusions.

11 Leave this way,
get off this path,
and stop confronting us
with the Holy One of Israel!"

12 Therefore, this is what the Holy One of Israel says:
"Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,

13 this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.

14 It will break in pieces like pottery,
shattered so mercilessly
that among its pieces not a fragment will be found
for taking coals from a hearth
or scooping water out of a cistern."

That this can be read as a self-serving thing for Isaiah to say is perhaps too obvious to bear mentioning.

Finally, the chapter ends with a description of something that sounds kind of like the traditional notion of “Hell” – the first allusion to this concept I remember seeing here in the Good Book:
33 Topheth has long been prepared;
it has been made ready for the king.
Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,
with an abundance of fire and wood;
the breath of the LORD,
like a stream of burning sulfur,
sets it ablaze.
Of course, it’s typical to think of Hell – if this is indeed supposed to be Hell – as tended by “The Devil,” not by the breath of the Lord. Perhaps this will become clearer as we go.

Chapter 31: More invective against emigration:
1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD.
Chapter 32: A long series of tautologies: the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed (3) and the fool speaks folly (6) and so on. A culturally-specific style of rhetoric, perhaps? Then, the women of Jerusalem are enjoined to begin mourning now for a devastation that will occur within the year, which is described in a long torrent of bleak imagery.

Chapter 33: Another Chapter that would be unobtrusive in Psalms. Praise of God’s power, predictions of woe for the unrighteous, promises of safety and prosperity for the righteous, and vague metaphors implying the eventual triumph of Jerusalem.

Chapter 34: An announcement that God is angry with all of the nations, followed by a specific prediction of doom for Edom. Eleven verses of imagery describing just how very desolate Edom is going to be, once God is done with it.

NEXT: More Isaiah!