Sunday, March 06, 2011

Isaiah 53-60: The Penultimate Isaiah Post!

Sometimes the chapter divisions in the Bible really throw you for a loop.  I closed last time at the end of Isaiah 52 by mentioning

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.
Now, we're running out of Isaiah at this point, and I knew there was supposed to be stuff in this Book that is thought (by Christians, anyway) to predict the coming of Christ, and frankly those three Verses had seemed a little thin on the ground.  But it turns out that Chapter 53, after a puzzling first verse, continues this description of a servant of God that is to come, and you can really see where people make the connection with Christ:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
It continues on in this vein, and you can really see here perhaps more than at any other point hitherto some content in the Old Testament that really feels ~Christian~ in nature.  Or rather, I can.  I shouldn't put words in your mouth.  I imagine there are many people to whom it felt pretty Christian all along, and many others -- Jews, say -- to whom Isaiah 53 doesn't introduce any special new Christian resonance.  And mind you, it's not a perfect fit, as there is nothing here about this servant being God, or the son of God, or both; he is merely identified as a servant.  Moreover, he is identified as something of a despised outcast, rather than as a successful, charismatic religious leader, the way I picture Christ to have been.  But then, I may be unduly influenced by my memories of Jesus Christ Superstar in that regard.

And Then...

...suddenly it's over, and the Book of Isaiah is off on another topic, because like almost everything since the Chronicles of the kings Isaiah isn't so much a cohesive body of material as a seemingly haphazard collection of short essays on a handful of recurring topics.  In this case, Isaiah 54 returns to the theme of the imminent greatness of the Israelites, with lots of odd metaphors involving the many children of barren women, and the confident expansion of one's tent, and city walls with foundations of sapphires.  Chapter 55 continues in an upbeat vein, with an invitation to everyone to come and, essentially, join God's Awesome spiritual party.

Chapter 55 is also remarkable for suggesting two memorable aspects of the nature of God.  First, He doesn't think like us:
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts.... 9 As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
cf. the common idea that God's creation of humanity in our image, in our likeness (from the first day of class, back in July 2006!) means that we do, in some sense, think alike, or at least have some sort of common cognitive frame of reference.  Does God think kind of like me, only a whole lot smarter?  Isaiah says no.  Then there is also this interesting passage in which speech seems coupled with intention and action.  Speech-act theorists, I suggest you sit up and take note! [rimshot]
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Isaiah 56 is for the most part a discussion of how you don't have to be descended from the Jewish patriarchs to participate in the worship of God, nor to be a family man: foreigners and eunuchs too, if they follow the practices of the law, will enjoy God's favor.  But then there is a transition at Isaiah 56:9 to an angry denunciation of an Israel populated by idol worshipers and adulterers.  And there's no doubt about it; the constant abrupt shifts between descriptions of God's love for and promises of blessings for Israel and his wrath toward and brutal punishments of Israel are among the most prominent and also, frankly, the most disturbing elements of the Bible to this point, 555 pages in.  But in this case, at least, the effect is magnified by the odd system of organization; if Isaiah 56:9-12 were numbered as the first four Verses of Isaiah 57 -- which it really is, textually -- at least the sudden shift of mood wouldn't seem quite as arbitrary.

Isaiah 58 is a warning against worshiping in form but without the proper spirit of devotion.  Specifically, it warns of fulfilling the obligations of fasting, but without a spirit of sacrifice toward others, particularly the needy.

Isaiah 59 is in large part a catalog of how awful and unworthy people are of God's affection, and then a brief discussion of a "Redeemer" that will come to punish the wrongdoers.  If this is the same "servant" we were talking about back in Chapter 53, he no longer sounds like Christ; this redeemer is a fearful military figure who will repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes (18), a powerful force in the material world who will come like a pent-up flood. (19)

And finally, in Isaiah 60, we return to what I have been calling Isaiah's "Israel-triumphant mode," a time when Israel will very rapidly be made a mighty, powerful, and prosperous nation, with peace within its borders and enemies weak and shattered.  As always, this vision seems a radical contrast from that of the Israel that was being so mightily punished for its wickedness just three chapters back.  Then, too, the two chapters in-between have not necessarily had much to do with either vision.  So, although it has not been as much of a line-to-line hodgepodge as Psalms or Proverbs were, Isaiah has certainly been more of an omnibus than a coherent line of narrative, or argument, or anything else.  Maybe I'm just too linear in my own thinking to be receptive to Isaiah?  This might be true.

NEXT: Ultimate Isaiah, or, Bring on the Jeremiads!

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