Sunday, October 09, 2011

Isaiah 61-66: Ultimate Isaiah

So, as I was saying, the Book of Isaiah is an unsettling document to the lay reader. By “to the lay reader” I of course mean “to me.” Still, the whiplash transitions throughout the Book between prophecies of paradisiacal futures to come and prophecies of relentless destruction of Israel, Israel’s enemies, or both, are pretty extreme. I’ve also noted that, for a major prophet, Isaiah doesn’t seem to have been much of a hand at predicting the future. Other disturbing details have cropped up in the Book as well; virgin birth seems to be more common than you’d expect, and at least some of Isaiah’s preaching is done, per God’s instruction, in the buff. The Bible is full of surprises.

Isaiah 61 is Isaiah at his gentlest. It speaks of the coming “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” a time of peace, prosperity, and plenty for everybody who has had a tough life up to now. It speaks of “the oil of gladness” and “double portions” and the rebuilding of ruined cities. But we are still in the brutal mindset of the Old Testament age, of course, and even in this idyllic vision there are undercurrents. Part of the blessing, for instance, is that people won’t have to work so hard because Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. The Israelites will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. (5-6) To our minds this may seem a little cynical, but to Isaiah a natural part of plenty is being in the position to boss, rather than to be bossed.

Chapter 62 keeps up this positive theme, and stipulates that the name of Jerusalem will be changed to Hephzibah, and that its lands will be called Beulah rather than Zion. “Beulah” doesn’t really seem to have taken off; “Hephzibah” I’ve never even heard of.

Isaiah 63 is of two parts. Verses 1 – 6 are a short vignette of a figure – God, one supposes – who comes from “trodding the winepress” so that his clothes are soaked and red; what he has really been up to is the bloody business of trampling the nations.

Verses 7 through 19 are a prayer that starts by reciting “the kindnesses of the Lord” to the Israelites, but then interestingly modulates into a tone of complaint that God is perhaps not as kind as he used to be. “Why, O Lord,” the prayer asks, “do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” (17) This is a very fair question, and addresses a puzzling Old Testament commonplace: God is so often said to cause people to defy him, and then to punish them mightily for defiance.

Isaiah 64 continues this prayer. (Here, again, the division of Isaiah seems very arbitrary. One so wishes to correct the editing so that 63:1-6 stands alone and 63:7-19 are not separate from 64, but I suppose that there would be brisk institutional resistance to any such rationalizing scheme.) In it “the people” (as portrayed by Isaiah?) continue to ask rather poignant questions of God. Why, when He has claimed an ability and responsibility to actively intervene on behalf of His people, do things always go badly? Why aren’t there miraculous interventions any more, like there used to be. Or, why does divine action seem to consist always in punishment, never in reward? If God is all-powerful, and the Israelites are his people, why is Zion a wasteland, Jerusalem a slum, and the Temple burned down?

Isaiah 65 is God’s answer, and in Verses 1 – 16 that answer is “incorrect ceremonial practice.” People that make sacrifices of the wrong kind, in the wrong places, who don’t keep kosher, and so on, are in for a world of hurt. This kind of misbehavior is as always blurred with religious infidelity, the outright worship of other gods instead of or in addition to God.

11 “But as for you who forsake the LORD
and forget my holy mountain,
who spread a table for Fortune
and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,12 I will destine you for the sword,
and all of you will fall in the slaughter;
for I called but you did not answer,
I spoke but you did not listen.
You did evil in my sightand chose what displeases me.”

Then, is Verses 17-25, God says – or is made to say, by Isaiah – that He is going to start over with a new universe. He will make a new heavens, a new Earth, and a new, better, Jerusalem. There will be no sorrow and no sickness, and lifespans will be much increased. The existing heavens and Earth “will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” It’s a remarkable passage, and rather alarming in its casual promise of obliteration of our entire reality. On the face of it, is seems isolated from anything that has come before, and from anything I’ve ever heard of Jewish or Christian theology.

Isaiah 66 is the final chapter of the Book. It does not really wrap things up, so far as I can tell, but seems a fitting reprise to all of Isaiah in its puzzling muddledness. It contains within it celebration at the coming greatness of Jerusalem, but it’s right there alongside angry imagery like this:
15 See, the LORD is coming with fire,
and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For with fire and with his sword
the LORD will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the LORD.
For whom does the bell toll?
“These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.
3 But whoever sacrifices a bull
is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
and chose what displeases me.”
Well, this is frankly puzzling, because Isaiah and indeed the entire Old Testament to this point has been all about following instructions, and sacrificing bulls and lambs and making grain offerings is very much something you ARE supposed to do. In fact, a few verses later, there is a reference to the grain offerings that are going to happen when the Israelites triumph over all of the other kingdoms of the world.

Isaiah, ladies and gentlemen.

COMING SOON in Michael Reads the Bible: Jeremiah!

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