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!


UnwiseOwl said...

You're really not a big fan of our friend Isiah, are you?

Michael5000 said...

In my naive reading, Isaiah doesn't seem to be saying much that is relevant or even coherent outside of his immediate historical context. Yet he is in the Bible, which is widely believed to make what he says inherently important and meaningful. That frustrates me, because my impulse is to say "the folks who edited the Bible together just erred, and in so doing gave Isaiah this incredible bully pulpit that he didn't really deserve." But if I do that, I'm falling back on my intentions for this project, which were to accept the Bible as a whole and keep an open mind about whatever might emerge from it as a whole.

It's quite a pickle.

UnwiseOwl said...

"Those who edited the bible together"? The OT is (more or less) just the Tanakh (Hebrew bible), the oral tradition of a people dating back thousands of years. Unlike the NT, they didn't pick and choose which books to include and which not to include, it's all there. That means you get Isiah and Song of Solomon and all those wonderful things that don't seem to have much to do with the message of Christianity, they're just there. Isiah is the historical context, absolutely, but I think the historical context is so important for an understanding of the changes of the NT.

In the meanwhile, your reading of him is hilarious.

Michael5000 said...

Well, yes, in a way. But also, no. I mean, just because it's an oral tradition doesn't mean that people weren't making decisions about what stories and ideas were retained and what weren't; it just means that we have no way of knowing about the decision-making process. Too, the point at which somebody says "hey, we should write some of this stuff down" is a critical one -- however much the proto-OT had churned and developed up to that point, the actual act of assembling a written corpus inherently involves a picking-and-choosing and a standardizing process. Thirdly, I'm explicitly reading a Christian Bible here, which is very much an edited-together text. The very decision to include the Hebrew Bible is interesting (as is the common practice of publishing discount Bibles that consist of the NT, Psalms, and Proverbs only), and of course there are (albeit fairly minor) differences in the composition of the OT between Christian denominations. So there are any number of places along the way where, say, the Book of Ruth, or Isaiah for that matter, could have been punted if a cadre of decision makers had elected to do so. That they didn't decide to take it out effectively means that they decided to keep it in.

Thanks, I guess, for the "hilarious." I'm not especially trying to be funny, but maybe my sparkling wit is just irrepressible.