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

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