* 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, February 11, 2014

Isaiah 17: Prophecies and Perspective

Again we find a biblical prophecy that is a bit of a challenge, since Isaiah 17 proclaims some events that have not, as yet, come to pass. Damascus, a city that this passage claims will be a heap of ruins, forever deserted, has been a major city since the second millennium BCE; even today, it has a thriving population and occupies an important cultural and governmental role. There are those who believe that they must defend biblical prophecy, claiming that what Isaiah predicted has simply not yet happened, but that someday it will. This is a convenient way to ensure that no prophecy can ever be demonstrated to have been false -- only to be yet forthcoming. The problem, of course, is that most people who want to put stock in prophecies also want to be able to distinguish between true and false prophecies.

Simply saying that a prophecy hasn't come true yet opens the door for all sorts of prophecies to seem warranted. We can say anything, really -- couched in the framework of a prophecy -- and it can have as much merit as prophecies from the Bible that haven't yet been fulfilled. Of course, there isn't much that we can do with such prophecies. Vague predictions with no time frame don't allow for intentional responses.

"Capitalism will fail."
When? How? What shall we do?
"I don't know, but someday it will fail."
Utterly useless.

Or even more ludicrous and yet equally warranted by these standards:
"Kangaroos will one day rule over men and usher in an era of peace."
Well, peace isn't bad, but I don't know that I want to be ruled over by kangaroos. Maybe we should just kill all the kangaroos now, just to be on the safe side.
"Ah, but the prophecy will still be tentatively true. It will just be something that hasn't happened yet."
But someone else predicts that dolphins will rule the world.
By our loose standards of prophetic veracity, of course, both can be true.

What may be more helpful is to consider what the authors of Isaiah may have been experiencing and what they were attempting to convey. As we have already seen in Isaiah, Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel) threatened Ahaz (king of Judah) because Ahaz wouldn't join their coalition against Assyria. Isaiah attempted to encourage Ahaz, but the king of Judah was a bit weak-kneed. Isaiah's message about this particular crisis has been, "These rulers won't even exist in a short time." That much was true. Of course, the Assyrian Empire outlasted Ahaz, and Judah remained a vassal state. The people of Judah weren't taken into captivity by the Assyrians -- the people of Israel (the northern kingdom) were.

So, perhaps this passage from Isaiah is really just encouraging the leader(s) of Judah that Damascus isn't going to be a threat to them, whoever is on the throne. Certainly, if taken as a prediction against Damascus, one would think that it would have some bearing on the current events when the "prophecy" was written. After all, if we take the book at face value, this prophecy was intended to be heard by the people alive at that time. It wasn't intended for people thousands of years later, even though some theologians continue to come up with justifications for reading multiple meanings into the ancient texts. As it reads, this chapter of Isaiah is just false. A more generous reading, however, can recognize the intended message that people have a difficult time with perspective. Understanding the passage as a message of hope also explains the bravado of the last couple of verses, "All who stand against us shall be eradicated!"

That which is immediate to us seems urgent to us. Sometimes, that perception is accurate. Certainly, a car veering into our lane is something we should respond to as quickly and safely as possible. Quick fixes are not the ideal approach to a lot of our problems, though. We make better decisions when we manage our anxiety and consider consequences and ramifications beyond the immediate moment. We make better decisions when we are clear about who we are and what we stand for, rather than reacting to what seems like the largest threat in the moment to just make it go away and stop threatening us. The message of this passage, in part, is to recognize that what seems urgent to us in this moment may not really be all that important in the larger scheme of things.

For the ancient writers of this text, this passage is part of a call to faithfulness and righteousness. Since the people's perception of practical reality was directly connected to their supernaturalism, all of the turmoil of war surely may have seemed like the consequences of their own spiritual behavior. It was unthinkable for anyone at the time that all of the circumstances they experienced were purely the result of human beings motivated by human emotions. If we recognize divinity as an intrinsic characteristic of all people, this passage may suggest something else to us. We have no reason to fear that we're going to be decimated if we do not respect the right supernatural in the right way, but we do have some things in our lives that we could improve -- for ourselves and for the people around us.

Consider Isaiah 17:7-11 reworked:

"Someday, people will realize their innermost beings, and they will be aware of their deepest, most noble selves; they will not react to their irrational fears, the anxieties that often seem urgent, and they will not foster a sense of entitlement, the illusion that they know how everything should be. By then, it may be catastrophe that awkens them to themselves; it may be that transformation has to emerge from crisis.

"For you have forgotten your deepest, most noble self,
and have not remembered the best possible version of yourself;
therefore, though your life has some pleasure in it,
and you measure up to some external sense of who you should be;
though you appear successful by some standards,
and your coping mechanisms do their job;
yet your success will be empty,
because your deep guiding principles have been abandoned."

This passage is intended to call people back to a sense of identity -- a sense of integrity with their own claims about who they were. We still need such exhortation. We are still threatened by crises, and we are prone to react to our anxiety without any real sense of our guiding principles. We just want the sense of threat to go away. If we begin now to invest time in understanding ourselves, we can engage in the process of transformation before catastrophe requires it of us. We can become more adept at recognizing our deepest, most noble selves -- the deeply rooted guiding principles that undergird our potential to grow toward the best possible versions of ourselves. We can be more intentional in our responses to the anxieties of life.

Of course, if we are content to have really honed reflexes, to be able to react to any seemingly urgent threat that rears its head, to use someone else's definition of success in our own lives --  we can do that too. We can assume that every fear we have is true. We can be oblivious to the principles that could guide us toward a more deeply satisfying life. The point is that we have a choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment