Sunday, February 27, 2011

Isaiah 47-52: The Antepunultimate Isaiah Post!

Isaiah, Duccio Di Buoninsegna, c. 1310

Isaiah 47: More prophesy from Isaiah, of course, this time an extended metaphor predicting the fall of Babylon. The mighty empire to the east is characterized as a young woman who dabbles in the supernatural, and Isaiah gives her what-for for 15 verses to let her know that, though she’s had a good run up to now, she’s due for big trouble ahead.

Two points of detail, though. At the beginning of the – shall we call it a rant? – the anthropomorphized Babylon is described as a “Virgin Daughter,” yet by the midpoint she is being threatened with widowhood and the death of her children. Well, I have learned not to look for consistency in Isaiah. More interesting, perhaps, is a footnote to the effect that the word “Babylonians” might actually refer to the Chaldeans. Apparently we’re not sure. But somebody was doomed, that’s for sure.

Isaiah 48: Isaiah the Prophet speaks on behalf of God about how stubborn the Israelites are for not listening to prophets, and about how his prophets are always right. God has refined the Israelites, he says, through affliction.

In the second part of the passage, there are odd things going on with the quotation marks, and I’m unsure what is the Book of Isaiah reporting on events, Isaiah talking, Isaiah reporting what God is saying, and what is God quoting things he said in the past. The upshot seems to be that God is going to destroy the Babylonians (or Chaldeans), and also that the Israelites should flee from the Babylonians. If this is confusing, there is also some tension between the notion that God has intentionally refined the Israelites through affliction in order to demonstrate his might and glory, as has just been announced in verse 10, and a long passage (verses 17-19) that the Israelites would have had an awesome deal, if they’d just followed instructions.

The chapter ends with a stand-alone verse, the awesome and familiar quote “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked” (22).

Isaiah 49: A longish chapter in full-bore Israel-triumphant mode, prophesying that Israel will become a nation of enormous prosperity, an example and inspiration to other peoples, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (7) The dominance of Israel shown here gets a little over-the-top, as the kings and queens of the Gentiles prostrate themselves before Israelites to lick the dust at their feet (23) and the enemies of Israel are forced to drink their own blood and drink their own wine. (26) Well, it’s the Bible! It’s a violent book!

Isaiah 50: This short chapter begins with a couple of odd metaphors about suffering. The gist is, if I’m reading this right, that God is capable of saving you from any mishap, but may choose not to do so if you are proud or sinful; ergo, if you are in trouble it’s your own damn fault. From Verses 4 to 9, Isaiah the Prophet talks about how awesome he is for continuing to pass on the messages that God gives him every morning, despite that people don’t always believe him and often make fun of him for it. In Verses 10 and 11, he closes with another metaphor to the effect that anybody who makes decisions based on anything except the will of God – as expressed by Isaiah the Prophet, naturally – will suffer eternal torment.

Isaiah 51: Another chapter in full Israel-triumphant mode, promising imminent and everlasting peace, prosperity, and political dominance for Israel. Never again, Isaiah says that God says, will the Israelites drink from the goblet of my wrath…. I will put it into the hands of your tormentors. (22-23) Again – because I think this is a really important point in evaluating Isaiah’s cred as a prophet -- The Lord will surely comfort Zion… he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. No more troubles for the Israelites, says Isaiah. Sometime in the late 700s B.C.

Isaiah 52: A puzzling chapter, in which Isaiah predicts the triumph of Israel, then suddenly encourages the people to Depart, depart, go out from there! (11), without really making clear why it’s important to leave or where everybody’s going.

The chapter closes with three verses about a servant who will act wisely, who will be exalted, who will be physically disfigured, but who will be very influential to many nations and many important people. I’m guessing that much will be made of this passage down the road.

NEXT -- the Penultimate Isaiah Post

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Isaiah 42-46: O, Hai Blog

Right, so where were we?

The book of Isaiah continues with the teachings of this great prophet of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Unfortunately, he continues to impress this naïve reader as at best a ranting enthusiast, at worst a genuine lunatic. The effect is only heightened by dipping back in after an inexplicable half-year absence, right into the thick of things.

Isaiah 42

Verses 1-4 introduce the Servant of the Lord, a soft-spoken messianic figure, but verses 5-9 go off on a different tangent altogether, reminding the Israelites that they are supposed to be a good example for all of humankind, and reaffirming (as is so often reaffirmed) that idol worship is a big no-no. Verses 10-13 are a Psalm, encouraging various communities to raise their voices in songs of praise and joy, because God will assure their military success. Verses 14-17 represent God’s intention both to lavish destruction on the Earth and to lead people to enlightenment, as long as they don’t worship idols. Verses 18 to 25 assert that things go bad for Israel because it’s God’s punishment for sin. In short, in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way, Chapter 42 brings us right back in where we left off. Say what you like about Isaiah, he knew how to stay on-message.

Isaiah 43

Verses 1 through 21 are about God’s love for the Israelites, who are precious and honored in [His] sight. (4)  Fear not, God is given to say, for I have redeemed you (1).

Verses 22 through 28 are about God’s anger at the Israelites, who do not properly conduct the rituals he laid out for them. Even He, who has infinite love for them, will therefore condemn them to destruction and humiliation.

Isaiah knew how to stay on-message, but he doesn’t seem to have had much of a feel for irony.

Isaiah 44

Verses 1 through 5 are a continuation of Chapter 43, and now the message is not to worry about the destruction and humiliation, because God intends to bless later generations; Verse 5 speaks vaguely again of a possible Messianic figure.

Verses 6 through 23 take aim at idols, and for the first time that I remember employs an interesting rational argument. (Generally, up to this point, there have been three takes on idols: (1) those other gods are nowhere NEAR as powerful as God; (2) obviously idols are fake, because God is the only God; and (3) it’s a bad idea to mess with idols, because God says not to.) Here, Isaiah goes into great detail about where an idol comes from, carved out of a block of wood or a stone. He points out that, from a wood carving, the chips will probably be used as kindling, and asks why the rest of the block of wood should be more special than the kindling part. It’s fairly clever, and drives home the message that worshiping human idols is just silly superstition.

The remainder of the Chapter is God reaffirming his greatness and power in all things. This, too, has been a very common theme throughout Isaiah.

Isaiah 45

This entire Chapter is Isaiah transmitting, if that’s the right word, a speech from God. It strikes several time on familiar key themes: God is very powerful, God made the Earth, there are no other Gods, idols are very bad. This Chapter is in what you might call the Israel-triumphant mode, with various nationalities foreseen as subject to the Israelites; the Israel-punished mode is pretty much absent for a good page and a half.

Individuals who carve idols or who shoot their mouth off to God are in trouble, though. Do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? (11) God asks. It’s a rhetorical question, but the drift is clearly that one ought not ask such things.

Does the clay say to the potter,
“What are you making?”
Does your work say,
“He has not hands”?
It’s a stern metaphor, and it is perhaps unfair to point out that although the answer is certainly no – clay is nothing if not humble – there is also no mandate for clay to follow a rigorous legal, religious, and ethical code lain down by its potter.

By the by, Both Chapters 45 and 44 make specific references to God using “Cyrus” as an instrument of his will, and in Chapter 46 God says that he will bring from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose (46). This Cyrus fellow is, if I am not mistaken, an emperor of the Persians, who was at the time a very powerful actor in the human community. Isaiah’s explicit references to a known contemporary figure, whom he sees as a puppet carrying out the will of God in real time, certainly makes one look again to those passages which, ever so vaguely, seem to prophesy a messianic figure sometime in the future. Maybe those passages, too, were just referring to Cyrus.

Chapter 46

Primarily another anti-idol Chapter, Isaiah points out another problem with idol worship: what do idols actually DO, anyway? They just sit there! They can’t even talk back when you talk to them! So, here we have another and, I must say, really rather reasonable demonstration that idols are just so much empty superstition.

This Chapter remains in Israel-triumphant mode, and its final words are “I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.”

NEXT TIME:  I will try not to let a half-year go by.