* 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

Monday, January 27, 2014

Isaiah 15-16: Contextualization and Imagination

Recently, I've been accused of taking out of context some of the biblical passages on which I comment. This is a charge worthy of discussion, given the nature of books like Isaiah. Let's consider the context of Isaiah 15 and 16, for instance, in which some predictions are made about Moab, a nation neighboring ancient Israel (Judah) to the east. Moab and ancient Israel were not often friendly with one another, as we have seen in the way Moabites are represented in the Genesis narrative and in the myth of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Genesis mocks Moabites as descendents of Lot and his incestuous daughter, which would mean that the people of Moab have a common ancestry with Abraham and his children. Some archaeological evidence also points to conflict between Moab and ancient Israel, with the Mesha Stele proclaiming Moabite victory over one of the sons of Omri (9th century BCE).

Within the context of the ancient world, then, there is some evidence that the people of Israel had political reason to foster some prejudices against the people of Moab. The Moabites also held different religious beliefs than the Israelites. There is some mention of Moabite worship in 2 Kings, in which they are accused of human sacrifice to Chemosh. Then again, Solomon built a site dedicated to Chemosh too, and that site remained until Josiah's reign in the late seventh century BCE. (So, people in and around Jerusalem were apparently engaged in Chemosh worship during the time that the prophet Isaiah was alleged to have written these early chapters of the book that bears his name.)

Contextually speaking, honest readers must acknowledge that the Hebrew scriptures represent particular biased points of view by particular people in particular circumstances; these writings cannot be assumed to objectively represent the culture of their neighbors. Unfortunately, we have very little objective evidence about Moabite religion. It can be said that they were polytheistic, like most of their neighbors. Archaeological evidence indicates that, in addition to Chemosh, the Moabites revered the goddess Ashtar-Chemosh, and the god Nebo, which may have been the Babylonian god Nabu. The Israelite authors of biblical texts obviously expressed consistently negative opinions about these religious practices, based on the Israelites' beliefs about their own god.

This is a tricky statement to make, however. The Bible does not reflect a consistent impression of Yahweh, but rather suggests the growth and development of a belief system over time. As the people of Israel continued to experience different circumstances, their ideas about their god had to develop as well. The alternative would have been for them to abandon their religion and take up other practices, and there is some evidence that people did just that on more than one occasion. It's a major theme for some of the prophets, at least. So, Israelite belief about Yahweh is not an inflexible concept that leapt fully-formed from the minds of the earliest religious practitioners. We can see throughout the Hebrew scriptures that their religious concepts evolved over time.

That being observed, one cannot simply assert that there is a fixed context within the Hebrew scriptures. The writings were composed and assembled over centuries, and they reflect centuries of development in terms of thought and practice. Some attempts by later editors and compilers were made to harmonize the material, but even that process is something we can't accurately discern. The book of Isaiah, for example, claims to be the work of a prophet who lived in the last half of the 8th century BCE (based on the kings named in the first sentence of the book). Later portions of the book contain details about events that happened two centuries later, and then some. Some people would like to claim that the same person wrote the entire book, having been gifted with supernatural foresight by a supernatural. This would be a reasonable claim if we had any copy of the text from the 8th century BCE, but we don't. Most scholars believe that the book is the work of at least three separate authors writing at different times, along with an unknown number of scribes and editors.

What we have of the book of Isaiah is a completed version dating from the early 1st century BCE. This version shows obvious signs of editorial work, but it's impossible to trace the 600+ year journey of the material from inception to our earliest extant copy. We simply cannot know how the material developed, and we may not ever be able to know. In a very honest sense, this means that we cannot know with complete assurance the context(s) within which the material was written, nor can we know how many pens were involved in the process. Moreover, the different ancient copies of Isaiah that we actually have are not identical. There are over 5000 differences between the most "reliable" versions of the book of Isaiah.

The Bible as an overall whole is what some people prefer to consider as context--the canonized works that men approved as authoritative expressions of their faith. This could prompt the question: Which canon is the appropriate context? The Hebrew canon was determined over a few centuries from around 200 BCE to 200 CE, but there are still variant canons among Ethiopian Jews and the descendants of Samaritan Jews. The Christian canon was supposedly fixed by 350 CE, but variations exist all over the world. Eastern Orthodox canons differ from the Roman Catholic canon. Oriental and Assyrian Orthodox canons differ from one another, as well as from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic canons. The Protestant canon has some major differences with all of the Catholic and Orthodox canons. So, when one speaks of the "biblical context," one is already speaking of something rather subjective.

Most people, including the people who determined various canons, develop an idea of what they believe first, and then they assess their scriptures accordingly. People formulate ideas about God, and then they latch onto supporting scriptures (or other data) and dismiss all of the information that disagrees with what they have already decided. For instance, some people have decided, completely apart from scripture, that it's immoral to sell their daughters. The Bible doesn't tell them this, but they interpret the parts of the Bible that refer to selling a daughter as being antiquated and no longer applicable to them. In some parts of the world, in the twenty-first century, people are still selling their daughters into slavery. Based on biblical testimony, there's some support for their actions. If we wish to confront the practice of selling one's daughters into slavery, we can't do so on the Bible alone. We must rely on some additional moral understanding. We rely on our personal perspectives every time we read anything, but especially when we read scripture.

Accusing someone of misrepresenting the context, then, may mean nothing more than, "I disagree with you." It just sounds more damning to suggest that someone has made a grievous error of interpretation rather than to merely state a difference of opinion. Millions of people claim to believe in the Bible without going through the trouble to define what they mean by that. The Bible cannot be completely morally accurate, because it is not completely morally consistent. The Bible cannot be completely historically accurate, because it internally conflicts with itself and it externally conflicts with evidence. The Bible cannot be completely spiritually accurate, because its depiction of divinity develops over time as the beliefs and circumstances of the people who composed it changed.

When someone says they believe in the Bible, then, what must they really be saying? My suspicion is that they have developed a set of beliefs, and they read the Bible through the lens of those beliefs. For those portions of the Bible which can be read in support of their beliefs, they consider the Bible authoritative. For those portions of the Bible which seem to contradict their beliefs, they discover or create justification to ignore what is written. Add to this a coating of self-assurance, indignation, or superiority whenever one's assertions about the Bible are questioned, and a rather tidy illusion has been created. It seems to be a biblical context, since support can be found in the Bible, but it is actually a context created by the individual's imagination, since personal beliefs have the ability to trump what the text actually says. There is no way to deny that this is the reason for a multiplicity of denominations and sub-denominations within Christianity. If everyone went with exactly what the text said, wouldn't every Christian believe exactly the same thing?

Of course, that is a trick question framed a bit dishonestly. The sad truth is that one must formulate beliefs external to what the Bible says, because the Bible says such a great many things that do not fit neatly into one system of beliefs. There is no secret formula or correct answer to determining how to interpret biblical texts accurately. Some of it is simply the result of a great number of people writing things from their own perspective. Some of it was only relevant to the particular culture in which it was composed, and it cannot have any real meaning for people who are not members of a pre-scientific patriarchal monarchy. There is no single biblical context. There are lots of people with individually developed beliefs looking at texts and drawing the conclusions they prefer.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons I undertook this commentary in the first place. If we want to draw some wisdom from any text, we have to engage it from an honest perspective. Part of being honest involves recognizing that there is an objective reality in which we exist, and that objective reality is going to be what it is, whether we like it or not. If we try to reject reality, we create problems for ourselves and the people around us. Imagining something different doesn't change what is. If we recognize reality and align our own values and intentions with what is, we stand a much better chance of creating the lives that we most want and having a positive influence on the people around us. Within the context of reality, no person has been able to make consistent accurate risky predictions about the future. Within the context of reality, no god has ever been demonstrated to be observable by any objective means. Within the context of reality, the (approximately) 4.3-billion-year-old earth goes around the (approximately) 4.6-billion-year-old sun, and life has been evolving on this planet for (approximately) 3.6 billion years. Within the context of reality, human beings behave as they do for natural reasons. Human beings wage war for human reasons, and human beings can create peace for human reasons.

So, Isaiah 15-16 in its context? The Moabites were another little Ancient Near East nation that was around before Israel as an Egyptian vassal state and most likely fell during the Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE. The Israelites didn't like the Moabites because they were different, most specifically in terms of their religious practice. The authors of these passages of Isaiah, being a little more ignorant than we are today about the way that the world works, saw every event as being ordained by their supernatural, which they naturally thought of as superior to every other supernatural. Yet, the general message is for the Israelites to be hospitable to the Moabites fleeing destruction at the hands of the Assyrian army (late 8th century BCE).

These neighbors of Israel would most likely have been treated like illegal immigrants are often treated in the United States today, and yet the prophetic words are to shelter them and mourn with them. Perhaps the Moabite king, seen by the authors of Isaiah as arrogant, has made Moab a target by allying with Philistia, Judah, and Edom to revolt against Assyrian ruler Sargon II (r. 722-705 BCE). Or perhaps this is written in reference to the Moabite king Salmanu paying tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE). As previously mentioned, the precise historical context is impossible to discern; these passages may actually refer to multiple historical contexts, as Isaiah 16:13-14 may indicate. These last phrases seem very much like the addition of a later scribe.

In any case, it's obvious that the authors see no hope for Moab's prayers to be answered, because they are praying to the wrong god. This is interesting, since Yahweh wasn't any more forthcoming in sparing the Israelites from being conquered and taken into captivity. If Yahweh has justifiable reason for allowing his people to be disciplined by foreign powers, might not the gods of Moab have been displaying equal power in the situation? It's interesting how the same ideas that we use to bolster our own belief systems, we also use to mock the beliefs of others.

We all have biases, and yet we can work toward objectivity. To say that we all bring our own beliefs and perspectives into a situation is not grounds to throw up our hands in futility. Knowing that we have biases helps us see how those biases may be affecting our perception, and we can perhaps conduct an experiment or two to see whether what we believe is congruent with reality or if our beliefs are more products of our imagination. The Israelites had obvious biases against the Moabites. They probably looked at them as lesser human beings. Although Isaiah doesn't come out and say so, the words admonishing Israel to compassionately welcome Moabite refugees challenge the people's biases against Moabites. They were fellow human beings, worthy of compassion, even if they were praying to ineffectual gods. Perhaps these words were an attempt to contextualize the presence of these strangers flocking across Judah's borders.

There's nothing we need to know about Moab that will make any difference in our day-to-day lives. We don't need to know about Chemosh or Yahweh or any other god in order to create meaningful relationships and lives. What we might draw from these chapters, though, is the idea that there are still people around us who are suffering as a result of other people's actions. There are refugees of all manner and stripe around us every day: from actual immigrants, to people who are seeking refuge from domestic violence, to people who are suffering economically. We can imagine stories about these people that will keep us from feeling any obligation toward them--
They deserve what they get...

If I give them a little bit, they'll just want more...

They don't really want to work for a better life... 
We can imagine stories about ourselves that will keep us from feeling any obligation toward them--
I have to take care of myself first...
It's not my problem...

I don't have anything to offer... 
Or we can engage our compassion, see human beings of inherent value, and treat them accordingly. There doesn't actually have to be any sense of obligation in that at all.

Honestly, all of the people around us are our context. They are part of our reality. We can imagine whatever we like about the world in which we live and the lives we lead, but the reality is that we share this world with a lot of other people. Some of those people make a difference in our lives that we may not even recognize, and we can make a difference in other people's lives whether they recognize it or not. We don't need a religious book or a contrived belief system to know that people matter to one another -- we matter to the people around us, and they matter to us. We can choose to be more discerning about the difference between what things we have good reason to believe and what we just like to pretend about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. The sharper we are willing to be about these things, the greater our opportunities to build a better world.

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