* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Isaiah 13-14: Beyond Provincial Depictions of Divinity

The next segment of Isaiah contains many proclamations against the enemies of Judah, as well as some brief comments about what the kingdom of Judah can expect. Some of the "predictions" are so vague that one cannot really assess whether they were made before or after some historical event, and some of what the author of Isaiah predicts clearly never actually transpired. Based on this, then, it may be that these proclamations amount to wishful thinking expressed during a time of turmoil, rather than (as much of biblical prophecy is) "predictions" written down after the facts are known. For now, we will concentrate on a lengthy proclamation against Babylon and its king, with a hopeful prediction about Judah inserted in the middle, and two short proclamations against Assyria and Philistia.

These proclamations are supposedly sourced by Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian version of God, who is unchanging (based at least on Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17). So, what of God's character is revealed in these proclamations? To begin with, Yahweh is going to send a multitude of warriors from distant nations to execute his anger and destroy the world. A day of judgment is announced, at which time every person will experience physical and emotional anguish. The entire earth will be destroyed and every person who has ever missed the mark will be destroyed along with it. The stars, including the sun, will stop shining (and the moon will stop "shedding its light" too, but we won't go into the science of that). In order to punish people whose lives are characterized by wickedness, tyranny, and arrogance, Yahweh is going to destroy everything through a divinely commissioned army. This army of God will slaughter infants (who have had no opportunity to be wicked, tyrannical, or arrogant) in front of their parents, plunder the houses of the conquered, and rape the women they encounter. Suddenly, it seems that God was overly enthusiastic when he said he would destroy everything, because it turns out he was just talking about Babylon. But when God's army is through killing men, slaughtering babies, raping women, and plundering the houses of Babylon, the place won't be fit for human life ever again: "It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations" (Is 13:20). We're talking about the modern-day country of Iraq, just to be clear. Surely, it's not considered a popular place by a lot of people, but it's still teeming with human life.

Despite destroying everything (or just Babylon) with his immoral army, Yahweh will spare Judah. The people of Israel will settle comfortably back in their own land, and people from other nations (who somehow escaped the total destruction) will flock to Israel to be slaves. Indeed, Israel will own the other nations as slaves. Instead of behaving any differently from the people who oppressed them, the people of Judah will take their oppressors captive and rule over them. That is, whatever is left of them once the army of God sweeps through slaughtering babies, raping women, and destroying every man alive. This never happened, of course. Yet, does this sound like any sort of god invoked in the twenty-first century? Unfortunately, in some peoples' minds, this isn't far from the totalitarian deities many people still envision choosing sides in war, promoting violent solutions to international problems, and justifying collateral damage in the name of power or prosperity.

If there is any doubt about the sort of deity depicted in these proclamations, Isaiah continues with Babylon's king. The king of Babylon is taunted, primarily because he will eventually die and is thus as weak as any other human being. It's odd how a person can say, "You are no better than us," in a way that sounds so similar to, "We are better than you!" Predicting that an imperialist nation will be overthrown is not a risky prediction. Such has ever been the case, and it will likely happen again, even though people now build empires a little bit differently than they did thousands of years ago. Notice that the king of Babylon goes unnamed in this proclamation. This is either because there was no way to know which king of Babylon would eventually be overthrown, or because the author of Isaiah was attempting to rob the ruler of immortality by refusing to record his name. The name of the Babylonian king overthrown by Cyrus was Nabonidus, incidentally. I mention this because, if the authors of Isaiah had recorded the ruler's name, and if this portion of Isaiah could be reliably dated to a time prior to Nabonidus' rule, then this would perhaps be a more convincing prophecy. As it is, the author(s) of Isaiah simply indicate that all of the disgraced ruler's sons should be executed--not because of their own wickedness, tyranny, or arrogance, but because of who their father was.

This, then, is the kind of god Isaiah promotes: a god who commands the slaughter of infants (provided they are not Israelite infants), a god who demands the execution of people based on the actions of their parents, a god who condones rape and humiliation of women (provided they are not Israelite women), and a god who approves of slavery (provided the slaves come from nations other than Israel). Obviously, the people of Judah had reason to hate the Babylonians who conquered them and took them into captivity, as they had historical reasons to hate the Philistines. It would have been natural for a human representative of Judah to curse Judah's enemies and make hopeful predictions about Judah's future. If one wishes to be biblically sound in one's depiction of Yahweh, though, then this Yahweh is a localized, nationalist shill for Judah, not a monolithic deity for all people in all places and times. Yahweh clearly wishes brutal harm upon nations who are behaving as Judah is given permission to behave, the only difference being that Yahweh likes Judah. This is not congruent with the idea of a supernatural being who supposedly created the universe and cares about everything in it. Moreover, the proclamations are false on a number of accounts, which either means that the Israelite god lied or was mistaken, or that the Bible is not a reliable source of information. Most likely, there was no supernatural entity involved in the proclamations at all, and the human being(s) who wrote these passages was a bit off base (historically and morally), as emotionally-based human predictions often tend to be.

Biblical proclamations like these in Isaiah are obviously based on subjective personal preferences rather than objective data. Surely, some people have a feeling that continuing along the same trajectory is eventually going to be harmful or beneficial, and they just can't articulate why they think things will have a particular result. That does not amount to divine insight from some external supernatural source. The more we learn about human psychology and physiology, the more we can accurately predict what people will do in various situations; that doesn't mean that an action was foreordained or destined. It means that people are prone toward some patterns of behavior that can be scientifically analyzed. The authors of Isaiah weren't performing any sort of scientific, objective analysis, though. They were simply writing down what made sense to them and what they hoped would happen. Their recognition that empires get overthrown was strongly colored by their emotional reaction that they would enthusiastically gloat when this particular empire was overthrown. Of course, they couldn't have known that the conquerors would be any more pleasant than their current oppressors, which may suggest that the whole thing was written after Cyrus the Great swept through Babylon.

It has been said before, and it bears repeating: the problem with claiming to know what God is going to do is that such a claim is completely unfalsifiable. Of course, any "prediction" made after the fact is immediately dismissible. "I knew God would send an army to overthrow this empire," is a rather shallow statement once the army has done its slaughtering, raping, and pillaging. Even then, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the army showed up because of a summons from God rather than out of very human motivations. The armies that overthrew Nabonidus certainly weren't worshipers of Yahweh, and there's no evidence that they ever converted. Cyrus the Great was a respecter of various religions, and he mentioned gratitude toward the Babylonian gods specifically. Yet, nowhere do we have evidence that Cyrus acknowledged Yahweh. Announcing ahead of time that God is going to send an army to overthrow an empire is perhaps a more risky prediction, but once again, a person has no way of demonstrating that the impending army has any connection to the desires of a supernatural being. Unfalsifiable assertions are dangerous because they give people the impression that they have knowledge when what they actually have is hope. Hope is not knowledge.

We might hope that we are more important than other people. We might hope that we benefit and other people suffer. The authors of Isaiah seemed to have these kinds of hopes. We might even have the ability to make an educated guess about how to manage things so that we actually do benefit while other people suffer. What we do not have--what no person has ever had--is compelling objective evidence that a supernatural caused things to work out a particular way, or even wanted things to work out a particular way. When we assume that we have supernatural justification for our actions, we get into some dangerous territory. We might ignore the actual objective data available to us in favor of our subjective hopes and wishes.

The objective data that we have about systems of human interaction and the influence that people have on other human beings suggests that no person is actually more important than anyone else. No person deserves to benefit from the suffering of others. Morality--discerning what is right and what is wrong--is not based on identity or caste or income or title. If slaughtering an infant is immoral, it's immoral for everyone, no matter the circumstances or the cultural identity of the infant. If rape is immoral, it's immoral for everyone, no matter the circumstances or the cultural identity of the victim. If oppression and slavery are immoral, they are immoral for everyone, no matter the circumstances or the cultural identity of the oppressors and subjugators. Our own personal hatred does not justify immoral behavior against people who seem like Other--it doesn't even justify condoning or ignoring someone else's immoral behavior against people who seem like Other to us. The slanted ethnocentricity of biblical morality as depicted in Isaiah is simply unjustifiable.

I have proposed elsewhere that we locate divinity within rather than without--that many of the characteristics we ascribe to divinity are actually human characteristics. The problem is that sometimes the characteristics that are ascribed to a supernatural represent the very worst of human behavior. Surely, whenever a person believes that some communication with a supernatural has occurred, that person has only connected inwardly in an unfamiliar or unexpected way. Unfortunately, sometimes that inward connection is shallow. We get that we hate our circumstances and the people we blame for creating those circumstances, but we don't get that our hatred harms us more than it harms anyone else. The Babylonians weren't overthrown because the Israelites hated them or because a provincial god hated them. The Babylonians were overthrown because of human desire for power (which is largely rooted in fear), but that desire had nothing to do with the Israelite exiles. If we want to understand ourselves well, grow in emotional maturity, and be the best versions of ourselves possible, we have to reach a little beyond shallow comfort or imagined collusion with beings who don't exist.

What can we do then? If there is no external divine being and no supernaturals, we have only what we can know on which to confidently base our beliefs. We can hope for anything we like, but we are only justified in believing that which has objective evidence to back it up. Some people say that there is no objective truth, which is a polite way of never having to say that another person is wrong and a convenient way of never having to change what one believes in the face of evidence. Claiming that all truth is subjective is cowardly and dishonest. We are capable of better than that. We can know some things about the universe, about our world, about human beings, and about ourselves. More than ever before, we have access to an abundance of empirical evidence about reality. We may not always like what the evidence suggests, but if we try to base our lives on refusals of what actually is, where are the boundaries to that subjectivity? There are certainly some things about which the most honest answer must be, "I don't know." Problems arise when people decide to fill in those gaps by pretending to know something that they don't. Again, this is simply dishonest.

We can reach deeper within ourselves. We can be courageous in the face of new data that could warrant a change in our beliefs. We can examine what we believe and what we fear, and we can weigh our beliefs and fears against what we can know of objective truth. We can refuse to accept laziness and irresponsibility as excuses for not engaging in self-examination. We can be more emotionally mature in dismantling irrational fears and recognizing what we actually want. We are capable of growing into the best versions of ourselves possible, and we can transform the lives of countless others as a result. This is not a supernatural aim and it requires no divine endorsement. It is simply what is possible for willing, reasoning human beings. The question is: are you willing to be the best version of yourself possible?

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