Friday, January 31, 2014

The Effects of Gender Language

Back in 2012 I wrote a series of blog posts dealing with issues of biblical translation, including this post concerning gender language. If you share my concern for these topics you might want to check out a 2-part series titled "Footnoted" on the Junia Project blog. It's author, Rebecca Card-Hyatt. cites a footnore in the English Standard Version:
“Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”

This footnote first occurs in Matthew 5:47, “And if you greet your brothers only …” I remember thinking “Huh?! Totally didn’t know this! Interesting!”

One hundred and thirty-five times later I was in shock. Brothers, brothers, brothers, brothers. This footnote (or the truncated footnote “brothers and sisters”) appeared at the bottom of more pages than not in my New Testament.  I had always mentally translated “brothers” to something like “fellow Christians” without a second thought. But here, in no uncertain terms, translators were telling me that the original language provided the choice between brothers and brothers and sisters, and they had chosen the former.  There were other options brothers was an intentional choice.

For the first time in my life, I looked at the Bible in my hands and wondered if it was actually for me.
Click through to read the whole thing. It is worth it.

Rebecca Card-Hyatt does an excellent job of describing the effects that masculinist language can have on a woman's spirit. Readers might also want to ponder the effects that it can have on a man's spirit.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Isaiah 59:1-63:19


Third Isaiah had to deal with the fact that the exiles return to Jerusalem and Judah was not nearly as rosy as Second Isaiah had promised. This is not to say that Second and Third Isaiah were necessarily different people. They may have been the same person or, they may have been more than two. That is, the portions of Isaiah that are identified as Second and Third Isaiah may have been the work of a whole Isaianic school of prophets.

Who knows?

In Isaiah 59:1-15a  the prophet addresses the fact that YHWH seems aloof. The problem, he says, is the persistent injustice among YHWH's people. Verses 15b-20 are a separate oracle in which injustice is now a Gentile problem. YHWH promises to help Israel. Verse 21 is a short prose passage in which YHWH promises to pour his Spirit on Israel. The Apostle Paul will quote this verse in Romans 11:27 to the effect that Israel, and not just the Gentiles, will be saved.

The oracles in the book of Isaiah fall into three broad time spans: pre-exilic (First Isaiah), exilic (Second Isaiah), and post-exilic (Third Isaiah). Within any of these sections, however, the oracles don't seem to be arranged chronologically. The unrestrained joy of chapters 60-32 suggest, according to the New Interpreters Study Bible, that these oracles come from shortly after the return from exile, before the people got weary of rebuilding.

Isaiah 60:1-22 speak of Gentiles coming to help rebuild Jerusalem.  In its account of the visit of the magi the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2) alludes to, but does not quote, verse 6:

Herds of camels will cover your land,
   young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
   bearing gold and incense
   and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. 

This may be the origin of the camel in nativity scenes. Matthew says nothing about camels, or any other animals, in the stable. In fact, Matthew says nothing about a stable.

Verse 10 promises that Gentiles will come to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra had other ideas.

In chapter 61 the prophet,speaking for himself, says that he has been anointed with God's Spirit. According to Luke 4:18-19, Jesus used this as the text of his first sermon:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim freedom for the captives
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor....
      (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Isaiah 61:8 exemplifies Isaiah (all three Isaiahs) at his/their best:

"For I, the LORD, love justice;
   I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
   and make an everlasting covenant with them."

YHWH loves justice.

Chapter 62 declares that Zion (Jerusalem), once a deserted city in a desolate land is now called "Hephzibah" ("my delight is in her") and "Beuelah" ("married"). Lots of happy wedding imagery in this chapter.

Isaiah 63 starts off a bit darker with an oracle of judgment against edom (vv. 1-6). In verses 7 ff. the Israelites pray in the first person singular. YHWH shared their distress in exile (v. 9), and brought them home in a new exodus (vv. 11-14). Now they seek YHWH's help in rebuilding the temple (v. 18). This prayer doesn't really end until Isaiah 64:12 so let's just say, "To be continued...."

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. The image of the Magi mosaic from the basillica of S. Apollina Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy came from this website

Next: Isaiah 64-66

No Rapture

For the church, the experience of being called into God's heavenly world is no escapist "rapture"; in John's revelation Christians go to the presence of God through tribulation and martyrdom, not instead of it.

      --M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation,
        A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

Something to consider before you shell out the coin to see the latest Nicolas Cage movie.

Something else to keep in mind...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Isaiah 54:1-58:14


In Isaiah 54 the prophet uses a new metaphor for Jerusalem. The city is like a woman, widowed at a young age, now remarried, I guess. The point of the metaphor is found in verses 7-8:

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
   but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
   I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
   I will have compassion on you,”
   says the LORD your Redeemer.

In verses 9-10 YHWH tells Jerusalem what he told Noah after the flood, "Never again."

Verses 11-17 describe the city restored, glorified, perfected, and protected. There is probably a little hyperbole in this passage.

Chapter 55 invites the thirsty to come to YHWH's free banquet. It seems that Second Isaiah believed the restoration of Jerusalem would usher in a golden age.

Verses 8-9 are another declaration of YHWH's transcendence:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways...”

YHWH's word is effective (vv.10-1). Return to Jerusalem will bring joy (vv. 12-13).

Chapter 56 begins the section known as Third Isaiah, a collection of oracles addressed to the former exiles, returned to Jerusalem, and facing the daunting tasks of rebuilding. Third Isaiah shares with his predecessors an ongoing concern for social justice, an abhorrence of idolatry, a commitment to the notion of YHWH's sovereignty, and a universalistic idea of  salvation.

Chapter 56 tells the Jerusalemites that if they "maintain justice" salvation, that is the restoration of the community, will come to them. Devout foreigners and even eunuchs will be welcome in the temple which will be "a house of prayer for all nations" (v. 7). This universalism is a stark contrast to the ideas of ethnic purity found in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Isaiah 65:9-57:2 are an oracle condemning the "watchmen" and "shepherds" of Israel as blind drunkards. Apparently bad leadership in Jerusalem was still a problem in the postexilic period.

Chapter 57:3-13 condemn idolatry and pagan worship practices. The Harper Collins Study Bible notes that "Pagan practices still threaten the struggling postexilic community in Judah." The prophet describes those practices in sexual terms. It's a simple equation. Going after other gods is like cheating on YHWH. Idolatry = Adultery.Verses

Verses 14-21 promise peace for the righteous. Not so much for the wicked.

Chapter 58 returns to the theme of justice. Fasting without doing justice is displeasing to YHWH.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
   ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
   and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
   and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
   and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
   and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
      (Isaiah 58:3-4)

Do what is right, the prophet says, and YHWH will come to your aid.

Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
   you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
      (Isaiah 58:9a)

Prosperity will follow justice:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
      (Isaiah 58:12)

Scripture quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Isaiah 59-62

Monday, January 27, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-53:12


Isaiah 49:1-6 is the second of the four passages that are traditionally called "Servant Songs." Scholars used to claim that these passages predicted a Messiah, and particularly Jesus of Nazareth. I guess some scholars still do claim this. Better scholarship, however, says that these passages should not be read apart from their context. The image of the servant, a personification of the Israelite community, occurs throughout the writings of the anonymous prophet called Second Isaiah. Sometimes the servant seems to refer to an individual within the community, probably the prophet himself, although arguably even those references are to the whole community.

So, in brief, the Servant Songs are not a real thing. Having said that, three of the traditional Servant Songs occur in today's reading.

In Isaiah 49:1-6 the servant speaks for himself. His task is to gather Israel to YHWH (v. 5) which sounds like an individual though I don't think the idea of the community gathering itself is too far-fetched. The CEB Study Bible suggests that the Servant may be a portion of the community called to bring the reluctant remnant along. Perhaps the prophet identifies himself with his nation to such an extent that the image of the Servant might stand for them both at the same time. Whatever the case, YHWH tells the Servant that this mission is too "small," "light," or "little" a thing. In keeping with Isaiah's universalistic emphasis, the Servant is now called to be a light to the nations, so that YHWH's salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Verses 8-13 declare once again that the Israelite exiles are to return home from Babylon via a miraculous highway through the desert.

In verses 14-18 Israel complains that "YHWH forgot me." The Lord's response uses a remarkable feminine image. YHWH is like a nursing mother. She cannot forget the child at her breast.

Verses 19-26 promise that Judah will be repopulated. Overpopulated, even. Israel's oppressors will be humiliated and punished.

Chapter 50 begins with YHWH's assertion that he did not divorce Israel (vv. 1-3). Apparently the time in Babylon was a temporary separation.

Verses 4-11 comprise the third of the traditional Servant Songs. Here the Servant, whose role is to teach, describes the humiliations to which he has been subjected. When we get to Jeremiah we'll see that he was mocked and belittled for preaching YHWH's message. It might make sense to think that Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, was also treated harshly by his fellow Israelites but I can think of no other passage that suggests this. On the other hand, Israel as a whole has been subjected to abuse by its Babylonian captors. The Servant declares that YHWH is coming to vindicate him.

Isaiah 51:1-2 basically refers to the people of Israel as "a chip off the old block."

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
   and who seek the LORD:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
   and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
   and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
   and I blessed him and made him many.

This is the only reference to Sarah outside of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. The favor that YHWH showed for their ancestors extends to Israel in Isaiah's day. They were saved. Israel will be saved (v. 3).

Verses 4-6 proclaim that even though the earth may pass away, YHWH's salvation is endless. Verses 7-8 tell us that the righteous will be preserved and their enemies destroyed.

Isaiah 51:9-23 Call upon YHWH for aid and invoke a motif from Canaanite mythology:

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
   who pierced that monster through?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
   the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
   so that the redeemed might cross over? 

The sea monster Rahab here stands for Egypt. Once again Second Isaiah is invoking the story of the exodus, one of his favorite motifs.

Waking from sleep is a refrain in this section. YHWH (51:9), Israel (51:17) and Jerusalem (52:1) are all told to wake up.

Chapter 52 is about the restoration of the holy city. Verses 3-6 are a prose passage with another reminder of the exodus. Verse 7 includes the famous words:

How beautiful on the mountains
   are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
   who bring good tidings,
   who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
   “Your God reigns!” 

The messenger's good news is that YHWH will take his people home (vv. 7-12).

The fourth and last Servant Song is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The Servant, Israel, has been humiliated but will now be restored and exalted. This passage is a traditional reading for Christian Good Friday services where it serves as a meditation on Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus was "lifted up" on the cross and bore the suffering of sinners who had gone astray like sheep.

Personally I find this application of the passage meaningful. It is an aid to contemplation on and comprehension of Christ's cross. It just isn't what Isaiah originally had in mind.

In context, Isaiah was saying something else. He was not predicting Jesus' Passion but was saying that Servant Israel, formerly humiliated, is now being exalted. Lifted up, Israel draws the Gentile nations to YHWH. The nations that used to stray after idols, now confess that Israel's suffering was actually on their behalf.

Isaiah truly seems to believe that the exiles return to Jerusalem will serve as a beacon leading all nations to the worship of YHWH, the only true God.

Scripture is quoted from the New International Version. I lifted the image of Meister Franke's Man of Sorrows from this page at Wikipedia. Next: Isaiah 54-58

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Isaiah 45:1-48:22


Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus of Persia the Messiah. The Septuagint renders the title as Christ. English translations like to render the word "anointed" which is, after all, its meaning. But don't miss the significance of this verse. Cyrus, a non-Israelite, is YHWH's chosen Messiah, his anointed Christ, who will liberate God's people.

Only Cyrus doesn't know it (Isaiah 45:4).

Still, there is no use arguing with YHWH (verses 9-10), who is, after all, Almighty (verses 11-12) and can do as he pleases, even making Cyrus his Messiah (verse 13).

Reading through this chapter I was unsure to whom verses 14 ff. were addressed. The Sabeans, Egyptians, and Cushites, (YHWH gave them as a ransom for Israel in Isaiah 43:3) are acknowledging that YHWH is God to someone. Israel? Cyrus? Apparently I'm not the only one confused. The New Interpreters Study Bible favors Israel. The Jewish Study Bible says Cyrus.

In Isaiah 45:23, YHWH swears by himself. As the only true God, who else can he swear by?

By myself I have sworn,
   my mouth has uttered in all integrity
   a word that will not be revoked:
Before me every knee will bow;
   by me every tongue will swear.
      (Isaiah 45:23)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul quotes the last part of that verse in his letter to the Romans 14:11 and alludes to it in Philippians 2:9-11.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
      (Philippians 2:9-11)

Chapter 46 brings us yet another screed against idols, this one specifically targeting the God's of Babylon.

I find that Isaiah sounds very much like my Calvinist friends in these chapters, putting a heavy emphasis on YHWH's sovereignty.

I form the light and create darkness,
   I bring prosperity and create disaster;
   I, the LORD, do all these things.
      (Isaiah 45:7)

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
   I am God, and there is no other;
   I am God, and there is none like me. 
I make known the end from the beginning,
   from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
   and I will do all that I please.’ 
      (Isaiah 46:9-10)

That last bit even hints of a doctrine of predestination, though I think it is better read as a statement that God can and will do what God has said he will do.

Chapter 47 declares that Babylon will be humiliated. Babylon was YHWH's instrument to punish Israel but now Babylon will be punished for it cruelty. (Doh! You did what I told you to do!) The image in this chapter is of a noble woman, a queen, living in reduced circumstances. Once proud Babylon is now mocked. Her wisdom and sorceries are useless.

Isaiah 48 is an oracle directed toward Israel. They have been stubborn, stiff-necked and hard-headed.

For I knew how stubborn you were;
   your neck muscles were iron,
   your forehead was bronze.
      (Isaiah 48:4)

They have been idolatrous.  And they have paid a price.

See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
   I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
      (Isaiah 48:10)

Now YHWH is setting them free (verse 20). The image of water from a rock (verse 21) recalls the exodus ( Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 20:2-13). The chapter ends with a verse that sounds suspiciously like something my grandmother used to say:

“There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”
       (Isaiah 48:22)

No rest for the wicked.

The verse seems a perfect non sequitur to me. Maybe you can make more sense of it. It will occur again in Isaiah 57:21 and may make more sense there.

Scripture quotes are from the New International Version. The picture of Cyrus of Persia came from this website. Next: Isaiah 49-53

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-44:28


There are four poetic passages in Second Isaiah that have traditionally been identified as "Servant Songs." These are Isaiah 42:1-4 (or 9), 49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:2. What unites these passages is their descriptions of an ideal servant of YHWH who is tasked with a mission, who suffers, and who redeems YHWH's people. The identity of the servant has been the subject of debate. Is it the prophet himself? (Some passages such as 49:4 seem to refer to an individual apart from Israel). Is it the Israelite community? (Throughout second Isaiah Israel/Jacob/Judah are called "servant"). Or is it the Messiah, specifically Jesus?

More biblicisitic commentators don't hesitate to suggest that Isaiah was predicting Jesus. For instance the NIV Study Bible note says:

There are four "servant songs" in which the servant is the Messiah.

And Concordia Publishing House's The Lutheran Study Bible says:

[N]either an individual nor Israel collectively can qualify as the Servant described in vv 1-9 and in the other Servant Songs....In these passages it becomes increasingly clear that Isaiah is not speaking "about himself or about someone else" among his fellow Israelites but is proclaiming "the good news about Jesus."

Concordia's The Lutheran Study Bible also identifies Isaiah of Jerusalem as the writer of all of the oracles in the book that bears his name.

The same year that Concordia published The Lutheran Study Bible, Augsburg Fortress released its own Lutheran Study Bible (without the definite article). This book takes more recent scholarship into account:

In the late- nineteenth century, scholars identified four texts from Second Isaiah as "servant songs"..., frequently interpreting them apart from the context of the book and attempting to discover the particular identity of the servant. Christians tended to see the servant as an individual and identified him with Jesus, who like the servant suffers, is rejected, and bears the sins of many.... Jewish readers saw the servant corporately as Israel .... It is now agreed that the four passages must be read in the context of the book and in relation to other texts that seem clearly to identify Israel as God's servant (41:8- 9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1- 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20). Still, in the traditional four servant songs, the servant is given a particular commission or task that sometimes sounds quite individual. In 49:1- 6 and 50:4- 11, the servant speaks directly and sounds like the prophet. Certainly the servant is Israel, but it may also be true that sometimes a particular member of Israel represents the whole people.

The CEB Study Bible takes a moderate approach to the question:

Christian tradition tended to read this and the other servant passages in Second predictions of Jesus. The context of these passages shows that the servant was a model for returning Israel for Second Isaiah's earliest readers. Since Jesus also lived as a model Israelite in his time, it makes sense to understand him in terms of these passages without excluding the earlier understanding of the prophet's readers.

Personally I see no sense in taking the Servant Songs apart from their context in the book of Isaiah or their historical context. The servant is Israel and, perhaps occasionally, the prophet. In context, the Servant Songs do not speak of the Messiah and certainly were not meant as predictions of Jesus' life and career. They do, however, provide excellent material for meditation about Jesus. The New Testament's use of Isaiah's servant imagery indicates the continuity between the two Testaments. In Jesus Christ the God of Israel continued to work in ways that were consistent with his character as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In chapters 40-41, YHWH challenged the gods--"worthless idols"--of the nations. No other god is so powerful. YHWH is in charge of all nations, and YHWH is going to bring Israel, what's left of it, home.

Chapters 42-44 continue the same oracle. Chapter 42 begins with the servant passage discussed above. Verses 10-17 are a song of praise to YHWH (commanded by YHWH?) who will bring Israel home through the wilderness. Verses 18-28 declare that Servant Israel has been deaf and blind. I have already noted that vision and hearing, especially the lack thereof, are themes of Isaiah.

We pause to note that no one has tried to equate the servant of 42:19 with Jesus.

Who is blind but my servant,
   and deaf like the messenger I send?
Who is blind like the one in covenant with me,
   blind like the servant of the LORD? 

Chapter 42 ends with a statement that God sent Israel into exile as punishment verses 23-25.

In Chapter 43 YHWH speaks tenderly to Israel. Isaiah 43:1 is sometimes quoted, without regard to context, in reference to Christian Baptism. This promise is to a community, not an individual.

But now, this is what the LORD says—
   he who created you, Jacob,
   he who formed you, Israel:
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have summoned you by name; you are mine."

YHWH will redeem them because they are his people. Other nations are given in ransom for Israel, whatever that means. In verses 14-28 YHWH proclaims that he has been faithful to Israel though Israel has been unfaithful to YHWH. But YHWH is doing a new thing (verse 19), taking the exiles home.

In Isaiah 44:1, YHWH calls Israel "Jeshurun," a name that mans "upright." Verses 7-20 mock idols and those who make and worship them. Have I mentioned that Second Isaiah really dislikes idols? Verses 21-24 declare YHWH's forgiveness for Israel's offenses and call on nature to join in a psalm of praise.

Verses 24-28 declare that Jerusalem and the towns of Judah will be inhabited once more. In verse 28 YHWH

...says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd
   and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,”
   and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ 

Cyrus is, of course, the Persian emperor who conquered Assyria and permitted the Judahite exiles to return to their homeland. In Isaiah YHWH's power is so expansive that even Cyrus, the pagan conqueror, is his unwitting subject.

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version. Next: Isaiah 45-48

Friday, January 24, 2014

Isaiah 36:1-41:29


Chapters 36-38 of Isaiah are virtually identical to 2 Kings 18:13-20:18 and were probably copied from that source. These chapters  comprise a prose narrative of the Assyrian threat against Jerusalem. Hezekiah seeks Isaiah’s advice. Not surprisingly, Isaiah tells the king to trust YHWH. The city will be safe. All of this comes to pass when YHWH’s angel kills Assyrians in thir camp. Isaiah further says that Sennecharib, king of Assyria will go home and be assassinated. Again, it is no surprise when this actually happens.

 Hezekiah is taken ill but prays to YHWH and is granted another 15 years of life. Isaiah offers Hezekiah a sign and YHWH makes the sun move backward.

When Babylonian envoys visit Jerusalem, Hezekiah foolishly shows off all of his palace treasures. Isaiah declares that, therefore, the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem in a couple of generations. Hezekiah takes this as good news since it means that there will be peace during his own reign.

Most of the differences between this account and its parallel are small, a word here and a word there. Some of the changes seem deliberately editorial to me. Of course it is possible that the redactors who added this account from 2 Kings may have been using a variant text from the one that ended up in the Masoretic text. Any of these possibilities presents difficulties for those who maintain that the written text of the Bible is in some way inerrant.

A curious difference is that Sennecharib is said to have “dug wells and drunk foreign waters” in 2 Kings 19:24. The parallel verse, Isaiah 37:25 lacks the word “foreign” (though the New International Version “helpfully” adds it and thereby harmonizes the two passages).

More significantly, 2 Kings 18:14-17 told how Hezekiah at first capitulated to Sennecharib and, to pay tribute, stripped the gold from the doors of the temple. This passage is omitted from Isaiah. I speculate that this may be to make Hezekiah look better.

Isaiah 38:9-20 is a prayer of Hezekiah’s that is missing from 2 Kings. Again, this may be an addition to enhance Hezekiah’s reputation.

Scholars call Isaiah 40-55 "Second Isaiah" or "Deutero-Isaiah." The oracles in these chapters have linguistic and thematic similarities to those of earlier chapters but the historical setting is very different. First Isaiah addressed the people of Jerusalem during the period of the Assyrian threat (c. 742-701 BCE). Second Isaiah is the work of an anonymous prophet, or perhaps an Isaianic school of prophets, who spoke oracles of hope to the Judahites living in exile in Babylon (c. 605-538 BCE).

In chapter 40 YHWH tells the prophet to "Comfort my people" with the news that they will return to Jerusalem in a new exodus. They will travel a miraculous highway in the wilderness:

 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
   the rugged places a plain."
      (Isaiah 40:2-3, NIV)

All four Gospels apply verse 2 (punctuated differently) to John the Baptist. He is the "voice calling in the wilderness."

Verses 19-20 proclaim that idols are worthless, one of Second Isaiah's favorite themes.

Verse 21 introduces a poetic refrain "Do you not know? Have you not heard?" The almighty YHWH is God of all nations. He will give strength to his people. He will give them "eagle's wings" (verse 31). It is a wonderful image but it reminds me of a certain contemporary hymn of which I am not fond.

Chapter 41 continues the themes of chapter 40. The nations tremble before YHWH (verse 5). YHWH favors Israel, though it is just a "worm" or an "insect" compared to God (verse 14). Verses 6-7 and 21-29 are more diatribes against idols.

I borrowed the photo of the eagle from this website. The eagle that Isaiah had in mind was not an American bald eagle, a bird that is unknown in the Middle East. In fact, Isaiah might have been thinking of a vulture.

Next: Isaiah 42-44

Monday, January 20, 2014

Isaiah 31:1-35:17


Don't rebel against Assyria. Don't turn to Egypt for help. Trust YHWH.

That is a vest pocket account of at least some of Isaiah's preaching. I can see why the leaders of Jerusalem dismissed the prophet's message as childish gobbledygook (Isaiah 28:9-10). It might have been easy to write Isaiah off as naive. Mad even. Surely he didn't understand international politics. The pragmatist might say "Trust God but row for shore." Isaiah was no pragmatist. His motto could have been "YHWH take the wheel!"

Curiously, Isaiah seems to have read the situation correctly. Egypt was no help. The Assyrian campaign against Jerusalem was called off.

Isaiah 31 reiterates the themes of chapter 30. Turning toward Egypt is an act of treason against YHWH. The Lord himself will destroy Assyria.

The Harper Collins Study Bible states that Isaiah 31:6-7 are a "call to repentance originally addressed to the Northern Kingdom." If so, these words are out of place:

Return, you Israelites, to the One you have so greatly revolted against. For in that day every one of you will reject the idols of silver and gold your sinful hands have made.

The Jewish Study Bible notes seem to assume that these verses are addressed to Judah.

This is the first passage in which Isaiah calls on the nation to repent since 6. 9, where God ordered Isaiah not to engender penitence among the Judeans.

The Judahites were, arguably, also Israelites.

Chapter 32, verses 1-20 describe the justice and righteousness that will exist when an ideal king rules presumably at the "end of days."  In verses 9-15 the prophet addresses the women of Jerusalem a little more respectfully than he did in 3:16-4:1. The women are complacent and their city will be devastated. Isaiah calls them to repent and promises prosperity.

Chapter 33 brings the prophecies of First Isaiah to an end. YHWH will defeat Assyria. Only the righteous will live in Jerusalem.

Chapter 34 is an oracle ostensibly addressed to "all nations."

The LORD is angry with all nations;
   his wrath is on all their armies.
He will totally destroy them,
   he will give them over to slaughter.
      (Isaiah 34:2)

Very quickly, however it narrows its focus down to Edom. Things will not go well for Edom. It will become a desert, a haunt for unclean wild beasts and demons.

The desert owl and screech owl will possess it;
   the great owl and the raven will nest there.
God will stretch out over Edom
   the measuring line of chaos
   and the plumb line of desolation.
Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom,
   all her princes will vanish away.
Thorns will overrun her citadels,
   nettles and brambles her strongholds.
She will become a haunt for jackals,
   a home for owls.
Desert creatures will meet with hyenas,
   and wild goats will bleat to each other;
there the night creatures will also lie down
   and find for themselves places of rest.
      (Isaiah 34:11-14)

The New Revised Standard Version and the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh version translate that last verse to include "goat-demons" and the "lilith" (a "kind of demon" according to a textual note in the JPS Bible).

While all of this is bad news for Edom, it is good news for Judah. Chapter 35 tells how the desert where Edom once stood will blossom as the Judahites, in a new exodus, return from their Babylonian captivity on a miraculous highway. There may be a little prophetic hyperbole here.

Scripture quotes are still coming from the New International Version, though I'm not always sure why.
Next: Isaiah 36-41

Isaiah 28:1-30:33


 Chapter 28 returns us to the prophecies of First Isaiah. The oracles in today's portion date from the time of King Hezekiah of Judah.

The argument of chapter 28 seems to go like this: The rulers of Israel (called Ephraim here) are condemned as self-serving gluttons and drunkards. (verses 1-6) Samaria, the capital of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Jerusalem's leaders are no better. The priests and prophets mock Isaiah as a speaker of gibberish (verses 9-10). The prophet turns their mockery back against them (verses 11-13) and proclaims YHWH's judgment (verses 14-22). Jerusalem's leaders have made a covenant with death but the city will stand by YHWH's power and grace. Like a farmer, YHWH uses the necessary techniques in judicious measure to bring about the desired results (verses 23-29).

The image of the foundation stone in Isaiah 28:15 was applied to Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:6-8)

See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone,
   a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who relies on it
   will never be stricken with panic. 

Trusting in YHWH and establishing justice are hallmarks of Isaiah's preaching.

Chapter 29 begins with an oracle about Jerusalem, here called "Ariel." According to the Jewish Study Bible this Hebrew word can  mean either "hearth of God" (i.e. an altar) or "lion of God." A textual footnote in the New Revised Standard Version suggests the former which, in context makes good sense. The New International Version translates "Ariel" as "altar hearth" at Isaiah 29:2. The translation is interpretive but not unjustified.

The gist of the oracle seems to be that Jerusalem will be besieged and punished but, finally, spared.

Verses 9-14 declare that YHWH has metaphorically blinded, that is confused the prophets. These prophets, we must assume do not include Isaiah. The reason: worship without corresponding ethical action. The result: YHWH will do something surprising. What might that be? Isaiah doesn't say. Why spoil the surprise.

Verses 15-24 proclaim bad news to those who fail to subject themselves to YHWH but promise good news to those who are humbled by circumstance, the meek and poor. Good news for the poor and a concern for social justice are common concerns for the biblical prophets.

Chapter 30:1-18 is an oracle occasioned by Hezekiah's rebellion against his Assyrian overlords. Hezekiah refused to pay tribute and sought aid from Egypt. According to Isaiah, YHWH did not think this was a good idea. Still, YHWH stood ready to forgive (verse 18),

Verses 19-25 are a prose section expanding on the idea of forgiveness. It promises blessings for repentance. The reference to towers falling in verse 25 is not clear to me.

Verses 27-33 pronounce judgment against the Assyrians.

Scripture quotes are taken from the New International Version.
Next: Isaiah 31-35

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Isaiah 23:1-27:13


Chapters 13-22 of Isaiah contained a series of oracles concerning various nations, peoples, and cities. They were, in order: Babylon, the Philistines, Moab, Damascus, Cush, Egypt, Babylon (again), some Arabian cities,  and Jerusalem (specifying two individuals in that city). Now, in chapter 23 the Phoenician seaport city of Tyre gets its turn.

Tyre was attacked and defeated by the Assyrians in 734 and again in 701 BCE. Isaiah may have had one of these incidents in mind. Verses 1-14 are an oracle about Tyre's destruction framed by the words "Wail, you ships of Tarshish!"

Verses 15-18 describe the restoration of Tyre after 70 years. That restoration is partial at best. Once a great merchant city, Tyre is now reduced to the status of a prostitute (verses 15-16). The 70 years is probably a symbolic number signifying a period of desolation. Psalm 90:10 says that 70 years is the span of a human life. Jeremiah 25:11 says that Judah will be in bondage to Babylon for 70 years.

Chapters 24-27 make up the "Isaiah Apocalypse." Though embedded in the section that scholars call "First Isaiah" these chapters may well have been written in the Persian period (i.e. after the return from exile) or possibly the even later Hellenistic period according to the notes in the Jewish Study Bible. The preceding chapters dealt with specific times, places, and events. These chapters speak about the end of the world in more general terms.

In chapter 24 we read that YHWH is about to lay waste to the earth. While people--possibly Judah, maybe all people--praise God for this display of power, verse 16 tells us that the treacherous still betray.

Chapter 25 is a song of praise for God's salvation. Though it is unspecified, there may have been a historic referent for the fortified city that is reduced to rubble in verse 2.

Verses 6-9 are a common reading for Christian funerals. They describe a future time when all people will be nourished and comforted at "this mountain" which I take to be Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Whether this passage reflects a belief in life after death is an open question. This may be an early hint of a doctrine of resurrection or, as the Jewish Study Bible notes, it may use the imagery of dying and rising, like Ezekiel 37, as a metaphor for restoration, revitalization, and return from exile.

Verses 10-11 are an ugly swipe at Moab that seems out of place in this section.

On the question of life after death Chapter 26 doesn't help much. Verse 14 states bluntly:

The dead do not live; shades do not rise—
   because you have punished and destroyed them,

    and wiped out all memory of them.
      (New Revised Standard Version)

While verse 19 contradicts it:

 But your dead will live, LORD;
   their bodies will rise—
let those 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. 

I quoted the NRSV above because, as it so often does, the New International Version translates the difficulty away. The NIV renders verse 14:

They are now dead, they live no more;
   their spirits do not rise.
You punished them and brought them to ruin;
   you wiped out all memory of them. 

Chapter 27 is a vineyard song similar to the one we read in 5:1-7. Here the emphasis is on YHWH's ongoing care for the vineyard. Verse 4 says that YHWH is not angry but there is still a note of warning. Verses 9-12 describe the desolation of exile and the joy of return. At least I detect joy in the imagery of the harvest.

Except where noted Scripture quotes are taken from the New International Version. The Isaiah icon came from wiki

Next: Isaiah 28-30

Friday, January 17, 2014

Isaiah 18:1-22:25


Today we continue reading a collection of oracles against the nations that began in chapter 13. I suspect this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. That is, though they are all attributed to First Isaiah, my guess is he spoke them at different times and only later did some redactor group them together.

Isaiah 18:1-7 is an oracle against the nation that was known in Hebrew as Cush but which we are more likely to call Ethiopia. The oracle is bracketed by a pair of verses  describing the Cushites in the same words:

a people tall and smooth-skinned,
   ...a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
   whose land is divided by rivers.
      (Isaiah 18:2 and 7)

The smoothness of their skin may suggest that the Ethiopians, unlike the Judahites and most of their neighbors, were clean-shaven. During Isaiah's time there were Ethiopian pharaohs who ruled over Egypt. The point of this oracle is that the fearsome Cushites will one day submit to YHWH and bring tribute to Jerusalem.

Isaiah 19:1-15 is a poem describing disasters, and the resulting civil unrest, that YHWH will bring upon Egypt. If Judah is turning to Egypt for aid against the Assyrians, Isaiah says, it won't work out well.

Next comes a prose section (Isaiah 19:16-25) in which the prophet declares that Egypt will submit to Judah and that, one day, Assyria, Egypt, and Judah will live in peace under YHWH. Isaiah is universalisitic like that.

Chapter 20 tells how Isaiah spent three years walking naked and barefoot as a prophetic act-sermon to illustrate that Egypt and Cush ("those in whom we hoped" v. 6) would be taken captive and led away--naked and barefoot--by the Assyrians. Public nudity was considered shameful in ancient Israelite culture.

Isaiah turns his attention toward Babylon in 21:1-10. The watchman's refrain "Babylon has fallen, has fallen!" will be echoed in the book of Revelation (14:8, 18:2) where John the Seer equates Rome with Babylon. The actual Babylon fell to Persia in 538 BCE.

Isaiah 21:11-12 is a short, curious oracle against Dumah (verse 11), a town in northern Arabia. A footnote in the New International Version suggests that Dumah, which means "silence," is intended as a wordplay on "Edom." Maybe. The town of Dumah appears to be a long way off from Edom on the maps I've consulted. The Septuagint does insert "Edom" where the Masoretic text says "Dumah" and "Seir" (later in verse 11) is unquestionably Edom. I'm not sure what to make of this short passage. A note in the CEB Study Bible says

[T]he oracle headings in Isaiah 21:1,13; and 22:1 refer to indefinite locations, leaving the referent of this one in doubt. What sounds like a chance exchange between a a sentinel and an inquirer minimizes the impact of the momentous news of Babylon's defeat, perhaps as if to say, "Empires come and go."

Isaiah 21:13-16 is an oracle about "the desert." It encourages the people of Dedan and Tema towns, like Dumah, in northern Arabia to welcome Judahite refugees. The Kedarites who, according to Genesis 25:13, were offspring of Ishmael, are in for judgment.

Isaiah's oracle in 22:1-14 comes close to home. The people of Jerusalem are partying on the rooftops, celebrating a victory--or at least a non-defeat--and putting their trust in human abilities, weapons, preparations, and resources. They should have been repenting, not partying. Isaiah says YHWH is still mad.

The LORD Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: “Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for,” says the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
      (Isaiah 21:14)

In 21:15-19 the prophet gets personal. It seems a self-aggrandizing government official named Shebna has been building a monumental tomb for himself. (Archeologists have uncovered such a tomb though the name is partially missing). Isaiah says that he will be replaced by someone named Eliakim. The end of the chapter gets a little confused but it may be that Eliakim engages in nepotism and proves no better than his predecessor.

The picture of the inscription from what may be Shebna's tomb came from wiki. Scripture quotes are from the New International Version.
Next: Isaiah 23-27

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Isaiah 13:1-17:14


With chapter 13 of Isaiah we begin a series of oracles against the goyim, the gentile nations. First the prophet turns his attention toward the bellicose Babylonians, conquerors of the Judah. It will not go well for them. The will be defeated by the Medes (Assyrians, verse 17).

 Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
   their houses will be looted and their wives violated.
See, I will stir up against them the Medes,
   who do not care for silver
   and have no delight in gold.
      (Isaiah 13:16-17)

The oracle against Babylon is interrupted in Isaiah 14:1-2 with a prose interlude promising the return of Israel (meaning Judah?). Verses 3-23 depict Israel mocking the defeated Babylonians.

All of them will speak
   and say to you:
"You too have become as weak as we!
   You have become like us!"
Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
   and the sound of your harps;
   maggots are the bed beneath you,
   and worms are your covering.
      (Isaiah 14:10-11)

In context, verses 12-20 are clearly about the king of Babylon. Taken out of context they have become the basis for the legend that Satan was a rebellious angel named Lucifer ("morning star," verse 12) who was cast out of heaven. John Milton wrote a great poem about it, but the text in no way supports this interpretation.

The Assyrians, who defeated the northern kingdom, get a short oracle in 14:24-27.  YHWH is going to put a smack-down on them.

The Philistines are going to get a comeuppance too according to an oracle dated to the year of King Ahaz's death (Isaiah 14:28-32).

In Isaiah 15:1-16:14 Moab gets a longer oracle replete with the names of devestated cities.

Isaiah 17:1-7 prophecies the downfall of Syria's capitol city, Damascus. Verses 8-11 chide the Judahites for their syncretistic worship of foreign gods. And verses 12-14 wag a prophetic finger at Judah's enemies in general.

I found Blake's illustration of Lucifer for Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost at wiki
 Next: Isaiah 18-22

Imprecations, Supplications, and Bumper Stickers


Politically I describe myself as “a left-leaning independent.” I retain the right to be pissed off at both parties.

In the days of the George W. Bush presidency an angry right-winger, painting with a broad brush, addressed this accusation toward me: “You liberals just want to see President Bush fail.”

I was taken aback. After a moment’s thought, I denied the accusation.

“That’s not true,” I said. “I would like George Bush to be the best president this nation has ever elected. I would like to see him lead our country into a new era of peace and prosperity. I’m just skeptical that his policies will accomplish that.”

The current political climate in the United States is divisive, vituperative, and not given to compromise. I don’t blame a single party for this state of affairs. As I said, I reserve the right to be pissed off at both parties. All parties. There is corruption, stupidity, and stubbornness on both sides of the political divide. Nor am I an uncritical supporter of our current president. As was the case with his  predecessor in office, I would like to see Mr. Obama be the best president our nation has ever elected. And, as was the case with his predecessor, I’m skeptical that this will be the case.

Yesterday I saw a car in my hometown. In the driver’s side rear window was a handmade sign, a piece of white cardboard with ragged edges, it’s message written in black marker. “Psalm 109:8,” it said. Below that in smaller letters, “Pray for Obama.” This message showed up on bumper stickers during Mr. Obama’s first term.

Psalm 109 is one of the nastiest of the psalms of imprecation. Perhaps no single verse quite matches the angry violence  of Psalm 137: 9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!” Nevertheless the hateful rhetoric of Psalm 109 is overwhelming as it piles curse upon curse.

May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
May his children wander about and beg;
   may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
   may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
   nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
May his posterity be cut off;
   may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the LORD,
   and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the LORD continually,
   and may his memory be cut off from the earth.
     (Psalm 109:9-15)
Still, the driver of that car had taken one verse from the context of Psalm 109. I doubt that she or he had any of the verses quoted above in mind. Taking Bible verses out of context is a common enough practice and can be great fun. The verse that the sign cited was this:

 Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
      (Psalm 109:8, KJV)

During Obama’s first term it was almost clever. In his second and constitutionally final term it’s just nasty.

I really don’t expect the tone of our political discourse to improve any time soon. I do, however, think that we all be better served if we had a little less Psalm 109 and a little more  2 Timothy 2:1-4

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-12:6


 If you have ever attended a Christmas Eve service of worship, if you have ever heard Handel's Messiah, Isaiah 9:1-7 should sound familiar. The poem in this passage was probably composed for the coronation of King Hezekiah of Judah, whose faults were noted in 2 Kings and whose reforms were idealized in 2 Chronicles.

Psalm 2 was one of the royal psalms, probably composed for another coronation. It included the words "You are my son. Today I have begotten you" (verse 7). The idea that, at his coronation, the king was reborn a son of God also occurs in Isaiah 9:6-7:

For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
   authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
   for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
   with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onward and forevermore.

It is almost impossible for Christians not to apply these words to the birth of Jesus. It is entirely impossible that this is what Isaiah intended. Isaiah who, we have noted, was a big fan of the Davidic dynasty, composed these words as a tribute to a king of his own time. He may have idealized a bit but so did the Chronicler it seems.

I suppose one could argue that God had a double intent for Isaiah's poem: it was meant to apply to Hezekiah in Isaiah's own time and to Jesus at a later time. That argument would rest on unprovable assumptions about the prophet's inspiration.

To me it makes more sense to say that these words, like other Old Testament passages, are not predictions per se. Instead they apply to Jesus typologically. The writers of the New Testament, seeking to understand the Christ event, found models in their Bible--our Old Testament. Christians ever since have followed suit.

Isaiah 9:8-10:4 is an oracle concerning the destruction of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, by Assyria. The point: YHWH is really angry over injustice in Israel. This refrain is repeated four times:

For all this his anger has not turned away;
   his hand is stretched out still.

The same words occured at Isaiah 5:25. The New Interpreters Study Bible notes suggest that 5:25-30 may have originally belonged to the passage at hand. 

Isaiah 10:5-19 is an oracle against Assyria. That nation may have been YHWH's tool to punish Israel, but it too will be punished in turn for its pride. Assyria has not subjected itself to YHWH. It has been too rapacious in turning on Judah and Jerusalem.

Isaiah 10:20-23 promises that a remnant of Israel will return. Whether by "Israel" Isaiah means the Northern Kingdom or the children of Israel, (ie, both kingdoms) is not entirely clear to me.

In Isaiah 10:24-34, the prophet tells Zion not to fear the Assyrians. They have destroyed other cities, but YHWH will not allow them to conquer Jerusalem.

Chapter 11:1-9 is an oracle about an ideal Davidic king. The cut off "stump" of David's father Jesse will sprout anew. Verse 2 has found its way into some baptismal liturgies:

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

The imagery of verses 6-9 give us a vision of Eden restored, the world living in a state of shalom.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
  the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

Would that it were so!

The remainder of chapter 11 describes the return of the remnant using imagery borrowed from the exodus. Chapter 12 contains two brief songs of praise that will be sung "in that day."

The image of Edward Hicks' painting The Peaceable Kingdom was taken from the Worcester (Massachusetts) Art Museum website. Bible quotes are from the New Revises Standard Version because its a good translation and I happened to have it at hand.
Next: Isaiah 13-17

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Isaiah 5:1-8:22


There is a lot going on in today's assigned portion of Isaiah.

Chapter 5 is Isaiah's "Song of the Vineyard." Using the form of a love song, the prophet compares Judah to a vineyard planted and tended by YHWH. When it fails to yield good fruit, YHWH says that he will let it be destroyed. The parable is made explicit in verse 7. In the chapter's remaining verses judgment is pronounced against the rapacious wealthy (v. 8), idle drunks (v. 11), those who "drag along with cords of deceit" (v. 18, whatever that means), those who call good evil and vice versa (v. 20), those who esteem themselves wise (v. 21), and those who get a gold medal in drinking but take the booby prize for justice (v. 22). Not to put too fine a point on the matter, YHWH is pissed and is therefore calling in enemies to conquer his people.

Chapter 6 describes a vision that Isaiah has at the temple (Was Isaiah a priest or Levite?) in the year that Uzziah died. He sees YHWH seated on his throne. This vision is a far cry from the anthropomorphic YHWH who walked in the garden with Adam. This YHWH is big, the ruler of the universe. The hem of his garment fills the temple. Six-winged seraphim fly around his throne shouting "Holy! Holy! Holy!" Is this a song of praise or some sort of warning?

The seraphim may be some sort of winged serpent. "Seraph" is the same word that was used to describe the fiery serpents that bit the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21). Two of their wings are used for flying. They use the remaining four wings to protect themselves, covering their eyes and "feet."

Yeah, "feet." That means "genitals," remember?

At the sight of YHWH, Isaiah is overcome with a sense of his own sinfulness. One of the seraphs helpfully presses a hot coal from the altar to the prophet's lips making him "clean," at least clean enough to speak YHWH's word. When YHWH asks "Whom shall we send?" Isaiah answers "Hineni (Here I am)," a word we have previously heard from Abraham (Genesis 22, 24), Jacob (Genesis 31, 46), Moses (Exodus 3), and Samuel (1 Samuel 3).

YHWH's message through Isaiah is not a happy one. YHWH is angry. The people will be destroyed. There may or may not be a remnant left. The last verse (6:13) is ambiguous but seems to hold out some small hope.

Somewhere along the way I was taught that this vision was Isaiah's initial call to serve as prophet. I find myself wondering now whether it actually represents the inauguration of a new phase of Isaiah's work distinct from what we read in chapters 1-5.

In 7:1-8:4 Isaiah uses his three sons (8:18) as "signs" for King Ahaz. The sons have symbolic names: Shear-Jashub ("A Remnant Shall Return," 7:3), Immanuel ("God With Us," 7:14), and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz ("The Spoil Speeds, The Prey Hastens," 8:1).

The situation was this: Syria (aka Aram) and Israel (aka Ephraim) formed an alliance to attack Jerusalem, hoping to displace King Ahaz. Isaiah's message is that the alliance will fail because Assyria will conquer Syria and Israel. There are a number of obscure points in this passage. 7:8 says that Ephraim will be shattered in "65 years." In fact Assyria conquered Israel much sooner than that. Again, 7:21-25 describe a crop failure but an abundance of "curds and honey." Are curds and honey delicacies or short rations?

Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 in reference to Jesus' birth. Matthew uses the Septuagint's wording: "a virgin shall conceive." The Hebrew text says something far less miraculous, "a young woman shall conceive." Many English translations (KJV, NIV, ESV) etc), harmonizing Isaiah with Matthew's use, translate "virgin" here. The translation is not justified.

I think it is safe to say that Isaiah did not intend the oracle about Immanuel to apply to a Messiah who would be born of a virgin in the far future. One could argue that God intended something that Isaiah did not himself understand, but that is a hard case to make, being as it involves reading God's mind and all. I think we are on firmer ground if we say that Matthew used Isaiah's prophecy typologically as he tried to make sense of the story of Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In fact, I think the New Testament's use of the Old Testament Scriptures is usually typological in nature.

Wrapping up today's passage: 8:9-10 is a brief poetic section warning the nations that "God is with us (i.e. Judah)." In verses 11-15 Isaiah recounts how YHWH tells the prophet to trust him, despite opposition. In verses 16-22, Isaiah tells his disciples to keep his words (write them down?) and not to resort to divination.

The important point there is that Isaiah had disciples.

Next: Isaiah 9-12

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Isaiah 1:1-4:6


The oracle in Isaiah 1 says, roughly, that Judah has rebelled against YHWH (1:2) and has been punished (1:5) but not utterly destroyed (1:9). What YHWH wants is justice:

Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
   plead the case of the widow. (1:17)

If Judah complies, YHWH will forgive them (1:18). Otherwise YHWH will take further punitive action (1:24-31).

Chapter 2 begins with an oracle about the "last days" when Jerusalem's temple mount will be exalted and even Gentile nations will come to worship YHWH. There will be peace among the nations. I find it interesting that this peace is not a complete absence of disagreement, but that disputes will be settled by arbitration:

[YHWH] will judge between the nations
   and will settle disputes for many peoples. (2:4)

Isaiah 2:6-22  says that YHWH has abandoned the descedants of Jacob because they have gone native, lapsing into idolatry. This oracle promises (or is it threatens?) a coming day when the proud will be brought down, the idols will be removed, and people will hide in caves.

Isaiah 3:1-4:1 describe a "breakdown of society" (per the Harper Collins Study Bible) which comes as a judgment for Judah's injustice and the oppression of the poor. The "daughters of Jerusalem" come in for particular criticism. They are accused of ostentation and haughtiness. Some commentators seem to think that these "daughters" stand for Jerusalem as a whole. Their finery will be replaced, forcibly, with signs of mourning.

Isaiah 4:2-6  is a prose passage describing the "Branch of the Lord" (a remnant? Jerusalem?) which will be glorious once YHWH cleanses it of the "filth of women" which sounds pretty misogynistic. I suspect that image is based on menstrual uncleanness and is symbolic of injustice. Still, it sounds pretty misogynistic. Once the purification takes place YHWH will be present to Jerusalem as he was present to the Exodus generation in a pillar of cloud and fire.

The concern for justice in these opening chapters is striking. So, too, is the possibility of repentance and restoration which will be harder to find after chapter 5.

I cribbed Raphael's painting of Isaiah from wiki. I'm still quoting Scripture from the New International Version.
Next: Isaiah 5-8

Monday, January 6, 2014

Before We Plunge Into the Book of Isaiah

From the very first verse of Isaiah it is clear that, without some historical background, a reader will be lost.

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Fortunately we have met these four kings of Judah, and the prophet Isaiah himself, in the books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. My point is that Isaiah spoke in real historical contexts. Unless we keep those contexts in mind we will not understand the prophet's writings.

The book of Isaiah addresses situations that existed in Judah from 742 BCE through 537 BCE or later. Some commentators take this to mean that Isaiah had amazing predictive abilities. Critical scholarship suggests instead that the book contains of Isaiah writings from multiple authors in three distinct time periods.

First Isaiah (Isaiah of Jerusalem, the son of Amoz) was active during the Assyrian period (c. 742-701 or possibly 689). He addressed king Ahaz when, threatened by a Syrian/Israelite coalition, the king sought military aid from the Assyrians. His work is found in chapters 1-39, though chapters 24-27 (The Isaiah Apocalypse), and 34-35 probably date to later times. Chapters 36-39 are a prose narrative virtually identical to 2 Kings 18:13-20:19 and possibly copied from that work.

Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, gives oracles of hope to the Judahites living in Babylonian exile. Chapters 34-35 may also belong to this period.

Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, are from the Persian period and address the situation of the returned exiles and their tasks of rebuilding Jerusalem.

Each of these three sections has unique stylistic features. Still, there is a cohesive unity book of Isaiah as we now have it. This may be because the book was heavily redacted into its final form or because it was the work of a distinct Isaianic school of prophets. Or both. Or something else.

Throughout Isaiah there is concern for Jerusalem as the City of God, emphasis upon the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty, and stress upon the need for social justice. In the People's Companion to the Bible (page 155) Hyun Chul Paul Kim notes that a "leading motif in Isaiah is humanity's inability to see or hear."

Of the prophetic books, Isaiah is most frequently quoted in the New Testament. In fact, with the possible exception of the Psalms, Isaiah is cited in the New Testament more often than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. Christian interpreters have always seen allusions, parallels, and even predictions of Jesus' life and career in passages from Isaiah. I'll try to note these as they come up.

I found the image of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel depiction of Isaiah at wiki.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Song of Songs 1:1-8:14


There is a legend, a romantic fiction, that Solomon wrote the Song of Songs when he was young and full of sap, the Proverbs when he was fully mature, and Ecclesiastes when he was old and bitter. Although all three books have been associated with Solomon's name, it is unlikely impossible that he, if he wrote any part of them, is responsible for their finished form.

According to the introduction to the Song of Songs in the CEB Study Bible, the language and imagery of this book date it to the 4th or 3rd century BCE. From what I can discover this seems to represent a scholarly consensus. The Jewish Study Bible's introduction mentions that there is also some archaic language to be found in the Song.

Song of Songs is a Hebrew superlative like "King of kings" and "Lord of lords." It indicates that this is the very best song. There is some question as to whether the Song is a single composition or a collection of poems. There are narrative passages in the Song but no discernible narrative structure to the whole.

Like the book of Esther, the Song of Songs does not mention God or any religious practices.

The Song of Songs is made up of frankly erotic love poetry. Most of the poems are in the voice of a woman, a Shulammite (6:13), who is "dark and lovely" (1:5). Her darkness may be a result of laboring outdoors (1:6), an indication of lower economic status. Other poems are in the voices of her beloved whom she calls a "king" (1:4 et al). Could social class have been an impediment to their love? The daughters of Jerusalem speak as a sort of Greek chorus, and the woman's brothers have a small speaking part (8:8-9) though not all translations indicate this. For the most part the Hebrew text is clear about who is speaking though some passages are in doubt. For example, at Song of Songs 8:11-12 the CEB ascribes the words to the man, the NIV to the woman. It makes a difference as these verses refer to Solomon in the third person. Those who defend Solomonic authorship would prefer the woman to speak these lines.

Did I mention that this is erotic poetry? Erotic, not pornographic. Readers looking for biblical porn will have to wait until we get to Ezekiel 23. The Song of Songs is full of suggestive imagery: locks, gardens, hands dripping with myrrh. There are passages which praise the woman's beauty in rather explicit terms:

How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
   my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,
   and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
   I will take hold of its fruit.”
      (Song of Songs 7:6-7)

Some of the imagery is foreign to modern westerners:

Your hair is like a flock of goats
   descending from the hills of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
   coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
   not one of them is alone. 
      (Song of Songs 4:1b-2)

It may help to keep in mind that goats and sheep were measures of wealth, and that a full set of white teeth was probably rare in those days before toothpaste and modern dentistry.

Some translations (e.g. the New American Standard Bible) insert headings suggesting that the man and woman are "bridegroom" and "bride." I find no indication in the text that these lovers are married. In fact, they seem to be sneaking around in the dark to consummate their passion. I'm not suggesting that theirs is an adulterous affair, only that they were young, single, horny, and maybe socially mismatched.

Jewish and Christian commentators have seemingly had a hard time understanding the place of this erotic poetry in the canon of Scripture. It has been a common strategy to interpret the Song of Songs as an allegory for the love of YHWH and Israel, Christ and the Church, or even Christ and the individual soul. (Talk about your "Jesus is my boyfriend" worship songs!)  The King James Version of 1611 provided "helpful" chapter headings making the allegory of Christ and the Church clear.

Frankly, I can't imagine that any such allegory was originally intended by the author/s of the Song. This is ancient, sexed-up love poetry. Romantic love and sexual desire are gifts of God. No allegory is necessary.

I had a little fun with the Psalms, suggesting modern musical genres for some of them. The Song of Songs should be a soulful duet, maybe something by Barry White and Lisa Stansfield.

If it didn't have to be a female/male duet, I'd have gone with this number from Barry White and Isaac Hayes:

I found Gustave Moreau's painting of the Shulamite woman at wiki. Next: Isaiah 1-4

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Ecclesiastes 9:1-12:14


As we wrap up Ecclesiastes, we find Qohelet in his usual optimistic mode.

In chapter 9:1-12 he reminds us that death awaits us all. And while a living dog is better off than a dead lion (verse 4), the dead have one advantage:

For the living know that they will die,
   but the dead know nothing;
      (Ecclesiastes 9:5a)

But they have nothing more to hope for:

they have no further reward,
    and even their name is forgotten.
      (Ecclesiastes 9:5b)

Qohelet's solution, as always, is to enjoy what you have while you can (verses 7-10). And that's where the video embedded at the end of today's post comes in.

Verse 11 reminds us of some of life's injustices and verse 12 tells us that no one knows when they will die.

Verses 13-18 are a parable of sorts. I've noticed that Qohelet really is not very good at parables. The point of this one is that wisdom is better than strength.

In chapter 10 we have a collection of proverbs. Verse 1 may be the source of the expression "a fly in the ointment." The proverbs deal with life's injustices, the value of wisdom, hard work, and governance, and the need to be cautious in what we say. Is verse 20 the source of our saying "a little bird told me"?

There are more proverbs in chapter 11beginning with one that the good old King James Version made mysterious in translation:

Cast thy bread upon the waters:
   for thou shalt find it after many days.
      (Ecclesiastes 11:1 KJV)

The New International Version clarifies that this is probably about the value of international trade:

Ship your grain across the sea;
   after many days you may receive a return.
      (Ecclesiastes 11:1 NIV)

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7 are about youth. Enjoy it, Qohelet says, while you've got it. And don't forget God while you're young (Ecclesiastes 12:1) Verse 8 concludes Qohelet's teachings with his usual refrain:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
   “Everything is meaningless!”  

Verses 9-14 are an epilogue, probably from another writer. I have a friend who insists that it undermines everything Qohelet said. I'm not so sure, but I will admit that there is a deuteronomistic ring to it.

Now all has been heard;
   here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
   for this is the duty of all mankind.
 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
   including every hidden thing,
   whether it is good or evil.
      (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

And now the promised video. I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter Todd Snider. You should be too. Here he is performing a song that he didn't write. Neither did Qohelet, but he could have.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotes are from the New International Version.
Next: Song of Solomon

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ecclesiastes 5:1-8:17


Is Qohelet a cynic or a realist? His view of human life is certainly darker than the Deuteronomist's but, like the book of Job, Ecclesiastes takes into account the fact that the wrongdoers sometimes prosper and the righteous sometimes suffer unjustly. It is an unusual move for a biblical author to judge human endeavors "vain" but it is unjustified?

In my consideration of Ecclesiastes 3 I didn't pay attention to verse 21:

Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

The implicit answer to this question is "God knows." I have a couple of study Bibles that  lean toward biblicism. (I don't think it is good to read only the things that confirm one's own biases). A note in the NIV Study Bible says:

On their own, human beings cannot know. They can only guess. The answer, revealed at first in glimpses...,was "brought fully to light through the gospel."

That answer may be doctrinally satisfying, but I'm not sure it does justice to Qohelet's thought. There was, apparently, some debate in Qohelet's time, concerning the fates of humans and animals after death. A note in the Jewish Study Bible (using the variant spelling "Koheleth" where I use "Qohelet") puts the matter this way:

Here Koheleth questions the difference that evidently others in his community were asserting: that humans have an afterlife above (in heaven) and 'beasts' only one below (in the netherworld). All Koheleth can see, however, is the same 'fate' of the 'dust' of death for both. He does not deny that there may be something more, and some rabbinic Sages, trying to harmonize Koheleth with their own beliefs, reinterpret all these lines to make Koheleth finally affirm a human afterlife with God.

The bottom line: Qohelet is content to admit the limits of his knowledge. I wish sometimes my fellow Christians would be as circumspect. Too often we state as fact what we hold as faith, hope, and promise. Although I affirm the Christian doctrine of the resurrection I will not pretend to know just what it means. I don't have first hand evidence for what the world to come will look like. I am ready to trust God for it.

This is actually a liberating stance. Leaving the next life in God's hands frees me to live this life as fully, as meaningfully as possible.

Anyway, back to Ecclesiastes. Chapter 5 opens as Qohelet turns his attention to matters of worship. Vows are to be kept. Worship should be unhypocritical (verses 1-7).

Next Qohelet says that the oppression of the poor is not a surprising thing. It's built into the hierarchical system of government that prevailed in Qohelet's time. Still, he concludes in a verse that the Jewish Study Bible says is "difficult," that it is good to have a king. I'm not sure I'm buying that one. Had Qohelet been among the poor, he may not have been so sanguine about their oppression.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 state that the pursuit of wealth is "meaningless." From this Qohelet concludes once more that the best course is to eat, drink, and enjoy what you can.

Qohelet is not quite done with the topic of wealth, however, as chapter 6 takes up the topic once more. Some of the rich cannot enjoy their possessions. A stillborn child is better off, he says (verses 1-6).

In verses 7-9 Qohelet renders a negative judgment on desire. Desire interferes with enjoyment of what one has. In 10-12, he reiterates his theme that there is nothing new under the sun.

Qohelet was such a cheerful fellow. Really. How could anyone consider the man a cynic who wrote that "the day of death is better than the day of birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:1b) and "sorrow is better than laughter" (Ecclesiastes 7:3a, NRSV)? In case anyone is wondering, I was being sarcastic there.

Laughter or sorrow, weal or woe, God is responsible for all things (Ecclesiastes 7:14). And Qohelet has seen it all in his meaningless life (Ecclesiastes 7:15) which provides all the excuse I need to embed the video at the end of this post.

Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 again call for moderation, advising us to be neither too righteous nor too wicked. In 7:28, arguing that people are unreliable, Qohelet indulges in a little misogyny:

I found one upright man among a thousand,
   but not one upright woman among them all.  

I'm not sure he meant that quite the way it sounds but, then again, it was a masculinist culture.

Chapter 8 begins with a declaration that wisdom is good (verse 1). It goes on to say that we ought to obey the king because he is powerful (verses 2-9). Still, even the king is mortal (verse 8). Next Qohelet observes that good people and bad people don't always get what they deserve (verses 10-14). What to do? Enjoy yourself, naturally (verse 15).

Chapter 8 concludes with a statement of wisdom's limits. The human mind cannot comprehend the deep things of God (verses 16-17).

That brings us to the promised video. If you don't like the song, you have to dig the haircuts.

Scripture quotes are from the New International version except for Ecclesiastes 7:3 which I took from the New Revised Standard Version. The NIV reads "Frustration is better than laughter...."
Next: Ecclesiastes 9-12

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ecclesiastes 1:1-4:16


Qohelet's opening move is dramatic and startling. Life he says is hevel. The Hebrew word is variously translated as "vanity," "futility," "emptiness," "meaningless," "pointless," and so on. You get the idea. The literal meaning of hevel in Hebrew is air or breath. According to the notes in the Jewish Study Bible "the word has acquired the sense of something fleeting, without substance (cf. its occurrence as the name 'Abel,' Gen. ch 4), or even unreliable." The circle of life is a hamster wheel, spinning endlessly, going nowhere. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-10). People die and are forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:11).

Qohelet may have been ancient kin to the existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century or to Thomas Hobbes who, in the seventeeth century described human life as

solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
    (Leviathan, 1651)

I've long wondered why Hobbes, if he thought life so nasty and brutish complained that is is short. No matter, Qoholet takes a rather dark view of life and, like other philosophers throughout the ages, questions its value. Even the philosophical enterprise, seeking wisdom, is futile.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
   the more knowledge, the more grief.
      (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

What to do? Qohelet decides to test the pleasure principle.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
   I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
   and this was the reward for all my toil.
       (Ecclesiastes 2:10)

Guess what? Pleasure is fleeting and meaningless.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
   and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
   nothing was gained under the sun.
      (Eccleisastes 2:11)

Next Qohelet tries the course of wisdom. It is better, he concludes, than folly. But not much. Fools and sages both die. Death mocks every human endeavor.

Then I said to myself,  
 “The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
   What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself,
   “This too is meaningless.”
      (Ecclesiastes 2:15)

Work is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:16-23). There is nothing better than to enjoy the moderate pleasures God permits.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
      (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
I read Qohelet as advocating moderation in all things as an antidote to despair. Don't work too hard. Don't play too much. Don't overindulge in anything. Because there is a time for everything.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot....
      (Ecclesiastes 3:1 ff.)

Turning his attention to God, who sets those times, Qohelet finds God ineffable. God is judge and his judgment, what can be known of it, is not very favorable.

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
      (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21)

I think Qohelet may have had a case of the mysterium temendums. Certainly he recognizes the limits of human wisdom.

In chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet turns his attention to the oppressed. He says they'd be better off dead (Ecclesiastes 4:3) but doesn't really offer a solution. In chapter 1 Qohelet hinted, without actually saying it, that he was Solomon. Solomon was himself an oppressor, taxing his people and pressing them into forced labor. He also had the power to relieve the situation of the oppressed. For many reasons I don't think Qohelet was actually Solomon. This is one of them. One so wise should have had a bit more self-awareness.

There is value, Qohelet says, in companionship (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). Concluding today's portion, Qohelet compares a poor, wise youth to a foolish, old king. The youth comes out on top (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16).

Qohelet's comparison of humans and animals, both of which die, reminds me of the opening line of Tom Waits' song "Fall of Troy." moderation:

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
Next: Ecclesiastes 5-8