* 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, March 24, 2014

Mark 14: Giving and Receiving Authentic Hospitality and Celebration

An interesting legend appears at the beginning of Mark 14 that becomes transformed as the Jesus myth evolves in the first and second centuries. A woman approaches Jesus while he is staying in Bethany with Simon the leper, and she anoints Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. This is the kind of thing that must have implied extravagance, based on the incredulous reaction of others present, but within the context of the narrative, it is also interpreted as a harbinger of death. Corpses were anointed with perfumed oils (if the family could afford it) to keep the stench from overwhelming people who would perform burial ceremonies and rites of departure. The indignant people witnessing the extravagant display claim that a lot of poor people could have been helped if that perfumed oil had been sold, and Jesus reprimands them, saying that they would always have poor people to help. Between the lines, he may have been implying that they didn't really seem to be overflowing in compassion for the poor as a general characteristic, so their attitude was not only misplaced, but was also dishonest. In the story, Jesus makes the display of affection about his imminent death, and the reader is told that this is the straw that broke the camel's back for Judas, who determines to give Jesus up to the Pharisees (which is a bit odd in that everyone seemed to know where Jesus was, especially since he always had crowds pressing in on him).

The author(s) of Matthew copy the story fairly closely from Mark, but a few details get embellished. Here, instead of it just being "some people" getting indignant, it is the disciples themselves who are upset by the woman's action. This fits with the trend of how the disciples are often portrayed in Matthew, as never quite understanding what's going on. When Judas decides that he's had enough in this version, he asks what's in it for him, and the authors of Matthew give an exact payment: thirty pieces of silver. This is probably a misreading or flawed contextualization of an Old Testament passage, but this too is typical of Matthew.

In the gospel of Luke, the story of the woman is detached from the prelude to the passion narrative; the opening verse of Mark 14 flows right into Judas' decision to betray Jesus. Since there is now apparently nothing to prompt this sudden decision on the part of Judas, the authors of Luke attribute it to Satan. Some people still seem to prefer this explanation for harmful human behavior, and we've discussed at length how this compromises personal responsibility. Suffice to say that, if there was a historical Judas who committed a historical act of betrayal, he probably had very human fears that prompted him to do so, not some supernatural possession that overpowered his own will.

The story of the woman who anoints Jesus still appears in Luke, it's just much earlier. In the Luke version, Jesus is not at the home of Simon the leper, but at the home of a Pharisee. The author of Luke takes the opportunity to have the Jesus character offer a teaching about forgiveness and grace, and we'll explore that more when we properly make our way through Luke.

Even the gospel of John has a version of this legend, once more in the context of the approaching Passover celebration during which Jesus will be arrested and executed. However, in John, although he is back in Bethany, Jesus is not in the home of Simon the leper, but with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. This story may be an amalgam of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus and another story of this Mary, sister of Martha, that is told in Luke. In John, the only disciple who seems upset by Mary's actions is Judas, and his character is directly maligned by John in a way that the synoptic gospels only imply. At least we see here that he isn't compelled by a supernatural agent.

Incidentally, the value of the perfume begins at over a typical worker's annual wages in Mark, is just "a large sum of money" in Matthew, is not even mentioned in Luke, and is reported again as worth almost a year's wages in John. Just a detail, perhaps of some significance in the transmission of the tale. The extravagance of the gesture is probably more useful to keep in mind.

This legend is often made to be about elevating the character of Jesus, and it is sometimes used as encouragement for making sacrifices that might seem extravagant, for the sake of religious service. If the word "God" is acknowledged as a way that we talk about a part of ourselves, then perhaps serving the values of our deepest most noble selves is worthy of a bit of extravagance. At least in the Marcan narrative, the major idea seems to be about generous hospitality and a willingness to celebrate and be celebrated.

The tendency to think of the Jesus character as a historical figure who was beyond the ken of mortal human beings has been one of the most damaging perspectives of Christianity. If Jesus were seen as an exemplar of genuine human characteristics, there might be something toward which people could aspire. When concentration is placed on mythical miracles and a deity-demanded god-man sacrifice, there is little in that portrayal of Jesus to emulate, which makes the gospel narratives only as useful or useless as any other mythical tale. If there is something to Jesus' behavior and attitudes that can be seen as characteristically human, though, this story tells us a few things about how we might examine our own lives, even as people who have no interest in supernaturalism. After all, this story just has people as characters.

First of all, there is a bit of hypocrisy in the reactions of the onlookers. They probably aren't spending extravagant amounts of money on the poor, yet they are willing to tell this woman how she should have used her resources. Thus, the lesson here is, clarify your values and bring your own actions into alignment with your values. Don't try to force other people to live by your values, especially if your own actions are incongruent with your beliefs. It's one thing to be righteously indignant about another person's driving on the road when you obey every traffic rule and keep other people's safety in mind; it's another thing to insult other drivers who are behaving exactly as you typically behave on the road. Except that this woman was even going above and beyond what the devoted followers of Jesus did.

Which is a second lesson. This woman acknowledged something praiseworthy in the Jesus character. She was generous in her display of affirmation, and honestly she was extravagant in her celebration of this admirable person. She didn't seem to be expecting anything from Jesus, and he was willing to be celebrated and appreciated. Certainly, there is a balance to be struck in our lives, but experiencing wholeness in life involves being willing to both served and to be served, to celebrate others and to be celebrated by others. We often err on one side or the other out of fear about what it might imply about ourselves or about other people. The woman in this story was fearless -- at least in her actions. No one really knows what she might have been feeling.

A third lesson in this story is about how we judge other people's behavior. When we see other people being completely authentic in their celebration and hospitality, or in their reception of other people's celebration and hospitality, sometimes we feel ashamed that we aren't that authentic. Maybe some of the other people at this gathering weren't wealthy enough to buy perfume that cost a year's wages. Yet, instead of being inspired or delighted by this person's authentic affirmation and affection, they were critical.

For whatever reason, fear sometimes causes us to hate it when other people succeed and to love it when they fall. We love to point out people's faults, but we are reluctant to praise their strengths. This has nothing to do with other people and everything to do with how we see ourselves. We cannot live authentically by our deep passions or intentionally by our guiding principles if we are caught up in lies about ourselves. When we feel shame, we often like to think other people should feel shame too. Shame is not useful, particularly when it is based on lies about who we are or who we are supposed to be. And it certainly isn't a useful means of helping others be the best possible versions of themselves.

Thus, if we are to put something from this legend into practice in our own lives, our goals might be to draw on something from each of the characters featured: the woman, Jesus, and the onlookers. From the woman, we learn that we can be extravagantly authentic in our celebration of other people and in our hospitality (service) toward others. From the response of the Jesus character, we learn that we can be celebrated by others and receive hospitality from others without getting caught up in shame or obligation. From the reaction of the onlookers, we learn that some of our habits in judging others and ourselves get in the way of our being the people we most want to be in the world. We can celebrate and serve alongside others, or we can genuinely appreciate their actions without participating in them, when we are more at peace with ourselves.

All of these goals of being require that we spend time with ourselves, recognizing what is really most important to us and growing in our capacity to dismantle the fears that keep us from living into those values. The more we are willing to keep these things in mind, the more we might notice opportunities to celebrate and serve, and the more we might gracefully receive celebration and service. When we are able to bring our actions and attitudes into alignment with our deep guiding principles, our experience of the world becomes altogether different.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Compassion for the Moabite Refugees in Isaiah 16:1–12

Often, where the prophets of Hebrew scripture criticize injustice in Israel or Judah, they are referring to the leadership of those nations. Only a minority of people had the power to create policy, the authority to influence how other nations responded to the Israelites, and the wealth to steer the course of Israelite culture. In Isaiah 16, the oracle against Moab describes a scene of massive adversity in that nation, yet while the words of Isaiah pronounce judgment on the leadership of Moab, they prompt compassion for the refugees—the common people of the nation who suffer because of the poor decisions of their leaders. These words may tell us something of the perceived relationship between Judah and Moab, and they also offer some insight regarding a universalized sense of political responsibility that held the powerful accountable while recognizing the powerlessness of most people, regardless of their nationality. If the words of Isaiah are thought to be meaningful for twenty-first century readers, they perhaps hold some judgment against prejudice in personal life and in political decisions, as well as admonition for compassion toward refugees and aliens seeking greater safety and better living conditions.

For the purposes of this inquiry, focus will be on Is 16:1–12. As Kaiser and others observe, 16:13–14 are obvious additions to the text.[1] Although the oracle clearly begins in Is 15:1, it is in chapter 16 that one reads of an appropriate response by the intended audience of the text. Some repetition of material exists between the two chapters, and the oracle does not necessarily flow as well as some commentators would prefer, which has led some to conclude
that the text of this oracle was assembled from several previously existing poems.[2] Hamborg suggests that some of the more sympathetic material here may be Moabite poetry that the author of this oracle co-opted, transforming a sympathetic plea into a statement of judgment.[3] While this is possible, the theory does presume some unknowable characteristics of the author of Isaiah 16 (as does Hamborg’s overall conclusions). Since no source poems for Is 16 and Jer 48 are extant, any discussion about their use for this oracle is pure conjecture, although the existence of Nm 21:27–30 is provocative. It is clear that portions of this oracle appear in Jer 48:29–38, although nothing from Is 16:1–6 appears in Jer 48. There are many possible explanations for this, including that (a) Isaiah in some earlier form (with 16:1–6 not yet part of its composition) was in the hands of the author of Jer 48, (b) common previously existing material was used for both Is 15–16  and Jer 48, (c) original portions of Jer were omitted by a compiler, or (d) material from Jer 48 was added to Is 15–16 at some point. No evidence to support any of these theories exists, however, and thus it must be enough that the commonality between these two oracles against Moab is recognized.

Another problem with placing Is 15–16 is that much is still unknown regarding Moabite history. Conflicts with Moab are reported in 2 Kgs and 2 Sm, and it is known that “at the end of the war against Syria and Ephraim the Moabite king Salamanu appears among the tributaries of the Assyrian emperor Toglash-Pileser III.”[4] However, Moab was involved in several conflicts as a subject of Assyria and later as a subject of Babylon, such that several incidents could have sparked a mass flight of the victims of violence from Moab into a neighboring nation. Unlike the oracles of Ezekiel, Isaianic oracles do not reference specific political events; instead, the leader of Moab is accused of arrogance (16:6; cf. Jer 48:7, 27, 29 –30), an accusation that might be reasonably leveled at any leader of any nation at some point, but one consistently aimed at Moab in the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Ez 25:8–11; Am 2:1–3; Zep 2:8–11). Hamborg interprets the sin of pride as a general thoroughgoing motif in Hebrew prophetic oracles, and he specifically sees the oracles in Isaiah as expressions of disapproval for Judah’s alliances with other nations.[5] Hamborg’s evidence, however, is unconvincing (although a greater body of evidence may have been amassed since); at the very least, the oracle against Moab clearly represents events, in which Judah was not involved, happening to the nation of Moab. While opinions may vary as to what the oracle recommends as Judaic response to the refugees from Moab, it is obvious that Judah was not involved in the events that resulted in the Moabites’ flight.

There is a common ancestry between Moab and Judah, according to biblical genealogies, however. Kunin notes that when peoples share genealogical closeness with the Israelites, ideological differences are magnified by the Hebrew scripture.[6] For Kunin, it is significant that the Moabites were “of the same generation as the Israelites and born without the mediation of a concubine.”[7] Over time, the Israelite attitude toward the Moabites shifted from negative to more neutral, as indicated by a Talmudic weakening of the commandment in Dt 23:3, which forbade Moabite converts to Judaism (Ber. 28a; Yeb. 69a; 76a). There is thus a sense that the Moabites became less ideologically problematic for Judah over time, although the Israelite perspective never turned entirely positive toward the nation of Moab.  

The oracle against Moab begins in Isaiah 15; as it continues in 16:1, the refugees of Moab are clearly not safe in their own land. They are counseled to send a tribute ahead of them to the leader of Judah (Is 16:1). Fleeing to the southern border of Moab, refugees will be like a flock of inexperienced birds, scattered from the safety of their nest (Is 16:2). The verses that follow this colorful description of the Moabite flight are placed in quotes in most English translations, and it may thus be unwarranted to suggest that the author of this passage is advising Judah to comply with the requests of these refugees. Given the subsequent assurance that the eventual reality in Judah will be an end to extortion and oppression, and a rule based on tender benevolence, justice, and righteousness (Is 16:4b–5), it does seem that the words of Isaiah bend in the direction of compassion for those who are fleeing extortion, oppression, and injustice. If this is accepted, then the author of this passage may be seen to instruct the people of Judah to welcome the refugees from Moab, to shelter them from the harm inflicted on them by their leaders’ poor decisions, because it characterizes the justice and compassion that will one day reign in Judah.

In this instance, then, when the author of this passage refers to Moab in 16:6 and 16:12, the leader of Moab is the individual critiqued, while in verses 7 and 11, “Moab” may refer to the entire people of the nation. On the other hand, if one envisions a supernatural who can be both responsible for a city’s (or a people’s) destruction and saddened to the point of drenching the city in bitter tears, one might consider that supernatural also capable of having a mournful heart about a leader who wearies himself at ineffectual tasks (16:11).

Other place names within this passage may refer to sites of actual upheaval, or they may be symbolic. Kir-hareseth was a fortified city, a significant landmark in Moab from Judah’s past interactions (2 Ki 3). Although Heshbon had been possessed by Ammon and Israel at various points, its occurrence here and in Jeremiah’s oracle against Moab suggest that the city was under the control of Moab at some time as well (Jer 48). Similarly, Sibmah was at Mount Pisgah, near Heshbon and near Moab’s borders with Ammon and Israel, which may have shifted many times over the course of biblical history (Jo 13:8–23). Nm 32:37–39 suggests that the Israelite tribe of Reuben built these two cities, although this may be an exaggerated ethnocentric account. Jazer was also a city that had been in the control of Ammon at some point, and it played a significant role in Israelite history (Nm 21:23–33; 32:1– 36; Jo 13:25; 21:38–39; 2 Sm 24:5; cf. 1 Chr 6: 80–81; 26:31); like Heshbon, it is mentioned as a city of Moab in both Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s oracles, indicating that the border city also changed hands. Much later than this passage in Isaiah, Judas Maccabeus captured and burned the city of Jazer, according to Josephus (Ant. xii. 8, § 1). Elealeh was another city in this collection of border communities in the northern area of Moab, mentioned in both the Isaiah and Jeremiah oracles against Moab (Jer 48); it too changed hands between Ammon, Israel, and Moab (Nm 32:1–39). 

Since all of these cities are clustered in northern Moab, in an area that was potentially contested between Ammon, Israel, and Moab, it may indicate something about how connected the nation of Judah and the nation of Israel were at the time this passage was written. It is noteworthy that the beginning of this oracle in Is 15 mentions a collection of communities in the south of Moab. One may wonder whether Moab faced violence on all sides, or whether these passages were originally addressing different events altogether. Whatever the case, the author of Is 16 seems to have no sense of vindication regarding these communities, but expresses compassion for the people who flee to the south, toward Judah. The author portrays the deity Yahweh as weeping bitterly,[8] drenching the cities with his tears (16:9); his “heart murmurs like a harp for Moab” (16:11), reminiscent of the minstrel who accompanied Elisha’s prophecy regarding Moab in 2 Kings 3:15.

The refugees from Moab are the victims in this scenario. The leader, whoever it may have been in the historical context of this oracle, was too proud for his own good—too arrogant for the good of his nation (16:6). This accusation is almost identical to that of Jeremiah 48:29, followed by wailing and mourning (Jer 48:31–33), just as the accusation is followed in Isaiah (16:7–11). Any details about the manner in which this arrogance was displayed in practical reality are not specified, presumably because the reader would already know such details. Most likely, the destruction of Moab on which this oracle comments was at the hands of the Assyrians, but there is no indication here regarding the relationship between Moab and Assyria. It is clear, however, that the leader of Moab prays to an ineffectual deity (16:12), which spurs criticism from this prophet of Judah. It is curious that Yahweh was no more effective in protecting the Israelites; they had to evolve their theological understanding of their supernatural in order to make sense of their circumstances. In a later age, one might caution the prophet to tend to the plank in the eye of his own people primarily rather than pronouncing judgment on all of the neighboring nations.

That 16:4b–5 promise a future righteous leader on the throne of David may perhaps seem like poor consolation for the fleeing Moabites is one reason that some commentators believe that this passage is stitched together from other pre-existing poems.[9] Perhaps it is congruous with the overall context of Isaiah, considering that all the nations are anticipated to one day stream to Jerusalem for wisdom from Yahweh (Is 2:2–4). One must also consider that the prophetic words were not missives to neighboring countries, but rather to the leaders of Judah. In addition to making sense of their own circumstances, they needed to understand the circumstances of the peoples around them in terms of their evolving theology. Moreover, this oracle is not intended to provoke jeers for Moab, but rather to embrace the refugees from that country with compassion, as if the prophet is saying, “at a certain level, these people are just like us, except that we will have nowhere to run.” The words of 16:3–4a are thus not merely a report of what was cried out by the fleeing population of Moab, but a command to the people of Judah: Welcome these people who need your aid; do not deny the fugitives hospitality. As Kaiser points out, the Moabites were “seeking the status of a gēr, a protected person, which was associated with permission to reside in a foreign country (cf, e.g. Gen. 15.13; Ruth 1.1 and II Sam. 4.3).”[10]

One indication that the thrust of the passage is to incite compassion for these refugees is the sense of sincere lamentation at their plight (16:6–11). As Brueggemann notes, “the listener is called to wail with Moab.”[11] Long finds similarities between the form here (perhaps intended to be the words of Yahweh) and the form of funeral lamentations throughout the ancient (and modern) Near East.[12] Although the speaker of the words of grief is not made known, if the assumption in all of the oracles is that the prophet is speaking on behalf of the supernatural, then here it is Yahweh weeping and drenching the refugees of Moab with his tears. Lalleman also finds the Isaianic oracle against Moab to be more of a long lament, while the oracle against Moab in Jeremiah intersperses lament words with “many threatening words of judgment and doom.”[13] From Long’s perspective, there is a trajectory of development of such passages, beginning with a lament that is not attributed to Yahweh (because of a cultural understanding of Yahweh that prohibited divine laments in this form) and progressing through theological developments such that “at a later stage of development this restriction was lifted to allow Yahweh to utter funeral laments—but only with overtones of taunt, threat, and punishment.”[14] One might note even further nuance if one recognizes the distinction between the leader of Moab and his subjects; the divine may weep for the innocent and the oppressed while exacting brutal judgment against an arrogant and ineffectual leader.

Kaiser seems to miss the overall context of the Isaianic eschatology, however, when he suggests that 16:6 is exclusively a taunt to the people of Moab, and that 16:4b–5 conveys a situation that is exclusive to Judah and of no benefit to the Moabites. He sees the oracle as entirely future tense, imagining that one day, the Israelites will have their idealized righteous ruler—with the accompanying peace and justice in the land of Judah—and that the Moabites who seek refuge will be turned away.[15] Aside from overlooking the prediction of Is 2:2–4, Kaiser assumes a rather tribal and localized eschatology for the Israelites. Either his interpretation of justice and peace is limited and ethnocentric, or he believes that the Isaianic interpretation of justice and peace was limited. Johnston sees 16:4b–5 in the context of “Judean subjugation of Moab,”[16] which has some historical precedence, although certainly not under the conditions of supreme justice and peace that 16:4b–5 heralds. Goldingay interprets something slightly different from subjugation when he connects Isaiah’s oracles against the nations to Is 24–27, in which it becomes clear that “the nations’ destiny in relation to Yhwh is thus not so different from Israel’s destiny.”[17] Everyone will eventually be gathered under the banner of equity, justice, compassion, and righteousness if Isaiah’s vision of the eschatological future holds true. On the other hand, perhaps Kaiser is correct to assume that Israel’s response to Moabite fugitives in 16:6 was intended to be a taunting refusal at the border, with a hubris-laced, “We’re all set here; sorry your king is so incompetent,” in which case the underlying lesson that pride comes before a fall would be ironically two-fold. Twenty-first century readers have nothing to gain from this oracle if that is the case, since it would then be a prognostication that proved to be inaccurate for a people that no longer exist. Perhaps Brueggemann’s insight is appropriate, that although just cause for the suffering of Moab is understood, “this song of grief is not interested in blame. The costs and hurts are too massive and acute for moralizing.”[18]

Even if the text is taken as an admonition toward compassion, there is no common situation by which twenty-first century Americans can connect with the initial audience for this text.[19] America is the Assyria of the situation in Isaiah 16, conquering with wealth and technology, in addition to military action where it is efficacious. There is something of the perceived character of Yahweh in Isaiah 16 that should alarm those in the developed world who consider themselves godly, and yet long for secure borders and the continued conservation of wealth. Even though the leader of Moab is misguided, arrogant, and devoted to an ineffectual supernatural, the plight of the people of Moab still prompts compassion. Yahweh expects his representatives to offer justice, refuge, and wise counsel, not because the asylum seekers can offer something of value, but because they are beloved human beings. From a certain perspective, one might say that the Moabites were made as much in the image of God as the Israelites. 

When one sees that the Yahweh of Isaiah 16 is against oppression and against self-indulgent destruction of others, one must find wanting foreign policies and practices of corporations that exacerbate systematic poverty and hinder multidimensional well-being (shalom). When one sees that the Yahweh of Isaiah 16 favors leaders who demonstrate mercy, seek justice, and are swift to do what is right (or what leads to multidimensional well-being), one must conclude that the political leaders of America, and perhaps other countries of the developed world, are often not nearly as godly as they would claim. With specific regard to the attitude toward fugitives, if one wishes to apply the mindset of Isaiah 16 in the twenty-first century, one must at least promote open borders and open access to housing and healthcare. Given the global nature of humanity in the twenty-first century, one might well extend such efforts beyond the artificial borders of a nation and strive to support—at the very least—the accommodation of basic human needs for all people, regardless of geography, culture, or religious tradition. The implications of this passage, however, are that God will establish a new paradigm of leader, just as God is ultimately responsible for the destruction wrought by Assyria. If one believes that God alone will accomplish what he wants in his own timing, then there is nothing to be accomplished by human action and twenty-first century believers are justified in abdicating responsibility to their supernatural. Some might also posit that, if a supernatural has not effected a sustainable society of justice, equity, and compassion over the course of more than 3000 years, perhaps it makes more sense to devote human efforts toward solving human problems.

1. Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13–39: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, ed. Peter Ackroyd, et al, tr. R.A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 60.  

2. This is the conclusion of G. R. Hamborg, “Reasons for Judgement in the Oracles against the Nations in the Prophet Isaiah,” Vetus Testamentum 31, no. 2 (1981), 150. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 11, 2014). Kaiser mentions others who have drawn this conclusion, Isaiah, 60.

3. Hamborg, “Reasons,” 151.

4. Kaiser, Isaiah, 63.

5. Hamborg, “Reasons,” 145–59.

6. Seth D. Kunin, “Israel and the Nations: A Structuralist Survey,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (Mar 1999), 19. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 11, 2014).  

7. Ibid., 33. 

8. Even Oswalt finds it “tempting to see the person being referred to [in Is 16:9, 11] as God, since he is clearly the referent in verse 10.” John N. Oswalt, The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah, The NIV Application Commentary Series, Terry Muck, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 224.
9. Kaiser, Isaiah, 71.

10. Kaiser, Isaiah, 72.

11. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah Vol. 1: Chapters 1–39, Westminster Bible Companion, Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 144.
12. Burke O. Long, “Divine Funeral Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85, no 1 (Mar 1966), 85. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed Feb 6, 2014).

13. Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 21, ed. David G. Firth (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 286.

14. Burke, “Lament,” 86.

15. Kaiser, Isaiah, 72–73.

16. Philip S. Johnston, “Faith in Isaiah,” Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, ed. David G. Firth and H. G. M. Williamson (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 112.

17. John Goldingay, “The Theology of Isaiah,” Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, ed. David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 183.

18. Brueggemann, Isaiah, 145.

19. Oswalt suggests that “cruel Death will make us all refugees in the end, leaving all we have on the road to be pillaged by those who come after us,” (Oswalt, Isaiah, 227). Oswalt misses the fact that refugees actively seek refuge, something that the dead cannot do. Is 16 clearly places some people in the position of seeking aid and others in the position of being able to grant it; although the people of Judah would be driven from their own land as well, that was not the reality in mind for the author of Is 16. Personal theology can be a profoundly limiting lens through which to read  a text, as Oswalt demonstrates when he claims that “in this world the only certainty is death and loss,” (Oswalt, Isaiah, 228). One must at least acknowledge that life must precede death and that gain must precede loss, thus the certainty of death and loss assumes the certainty of life and gain; where one chooses to focus and what one chooses to celebrate are personal choices.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Isaiah 18-20: Visions of a Different World

The oracles against Ethiopia and Egypt in Isaiah 18-20 are more of the same kinds of prophecy as other proclamations against nations around Judah. The author of these passages predicts that Ethiopians will bring gifts to Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem, and that Egyptians will be plagued with infighting, drought, and eventually a harsh king. Later, the author claims, Egypt will experience mercy from the Israelites' supernatural, and several cities will be dedicated to Yahweh. Egypt and Assyria will be alongside Judah, reconciled and claimed as Yahweh's chosen people. The short passage that follows depicts Isaiah's sign-act of walking around naked for three years, interpreting that act to symbolize the captivity of Ethiopia and Egypt.

Scholars have a difficult time with these oracles, because there is no apparent place in known history that can match up with the implied events of the prophecies. Some aspects and details may seem to have relevance, but then other details would be out of place. This limits the application of the text as a historical testament of events or as an accurate forecasting of events that were yet to happen when the oracles were written. Since it's obvious that some editorial work has been done to create the existing versions of the book of Isaiah, some scholars attempt to rearrange passages to get a more accurate or sensible account. None of this work has any bearing on whether one can find meaning in the passage for life in the twenty-first century. If passages like this are about historical events, then their usefulness is exclusively past tense, since the events they describe either happened or failed to happen centuries ago. If one insists that the predictions are simply to demonstrate the power and authority of the Israelite deity, one must take into consideration that it's not clear that all of what is predicted here ever came to pass. In addition, a reader who already has a theistic bias doesn't need a passage about ancient nations to serve as evidence for God's power and authority, and a reader who doesn't have a theistic bias won't be convinced by the vague (and in some cases inaccurate) predictions of this passage.

A we've seen before, there are some problems with assuming that God is responsible for military conquests and natural disasters. Although the authors of Isaiah and other prophets had their reasons for seeing their supernatural as head over all nations' war efforts, they didn't understand the ramifications of their claims. They saw their society as unjust, with the wealthy and powerful neglecting their responsibilities toward the poor and disenfranchised. They saw their society as immoral, offering disingenuous religious sacrifices while they maintained systems of greed and self-indulgence. A foreign army at their doorstep was a clear indication to these prophets that Yahweh was unhappy, and that he was going to use whatever means were at his disposal to effect the  curses for disobedience proclaimed in the Sinai covenant. These same prophets trusted that Yahweh would also gladly bless the Israelites, if the people fulfilled the supernatural's expectations.

One cannot maintain a view of a god worth worshiping and also insist that such a deity was at the head of every military and ordaining the decisions of every government. It was fine motivation for change that the Israelites saw Yahweh behind their exiles, because in doing so they understood something about how their society had failed its own people. They also had the luxury of seeing their god behind their return from exile. In our time, we would have to see God as the one who ordained the many genocidal acts of the twentieth century, some of which continue in parts of the world today. We would have to see God as the true commander who ordered atomic bombs to be inflicted upon thousands of non-combatants in Japan. If God is the kind of deity depicted in Isaiah and other prophets of Hebrew scripture, all atrocities of war can be justified by a simple acknowledgment that the people who suffered or died did not live up to the demands placed on them by a supernatural.

The authors of Isaiah weren't necessarily off-base regarding what they wanted for their society, and even for their neighboring societies. This passage on Egypt has some pretty favorable predictions for what Yahweh will eventually do for that nation. The view of society's potential presented in Isaiah places justice, equity, and compassion high on the list of desirable qualities, and it sees these qualities as attainable by a people, particularly the people in charge. The authors may have been displaying a perspective that their supernatural was superior to every other nation's, but they were equally critical of their own people for failing to live by the standards that supernatural had set for them.

Israelite understanding of their agreement with Yahweh was not unlike other treaties between unequal powers in the Ancient Near East. The more powerful entity essentially tells the less powerful entity, "This is what you're going to do, and this is what I'm going to do." Basically, if the less powerful nation does everything that that the powerful ruler demands, then they get the benefits of the arrangement. However, if the less powerful nation fails to do everything the powerful ruler demands, then the curses of the treaty were valid responses by the ruler. There were perhaps phrased in colorful and symbolic terms, but essentially the ruler would take military action against the disobedient weaker subjects. That's how Israel and Judah saw their relationship with Yahweh. The supernatural said, "Here are my demands. Meet them and live prosperously; fail to meet them and die."

Through all of this proclamation of doom though, there is an undercurrent of hope. Isaiah 19 forecasts a future in which peaceful relations and unity exist between nations, at least between Egypt, Assyria, and Judah. This is a bit humorous, considering Judah's insignificance as a political power. Egypt was the seat of the previous empire, and Assyria was the seat of the current empire. Perhaps the prophet was hopeful that Judah would be the seat of a future empire; such a vision of the future is certainly suggested by other passages in Isaiah. Of course, that never happened, and it isn't likely to happen. The basic gist of that future alliance, though, was that justice and peace would be the rule rather than the exception. The vision of an empire ruled by Yahweh was that it would be the sort of place any person would want to live: where no one would go hungry, and no one would be afraid (Micah 4:4).

The values are a bit inspiring. The way the authors of Isaiah thought it would happen is a bit disappointing. They didn't think that people were actually capable of creating such a reality. They asserted that their god would make it so. Perhaps one could say that, just as Yahweh was seen as the primary actor when a foreign army swept in, Yahweh can also be seen as the primary actor when people make decisions that lead toward peace and justice. The tendency, however, is for people to abdicate responsibility for creating peace and justice. If we do not place the responsibility on a supernatural, perhaps we place responsibility on the government to make the kind of world we most want to live in. We may laugh at the suggestion, but that doesn't change our expectations.

There is, of course, another way of seeing the covenant promises and curses without assuming the existence of a supernatural. However the ancients thought of their world and society, they understood intuitively what characteristics and practices helped a society thrive and what characteristics and practices tore a society down. That their supernatural does not exist has no bearing on the value of justice, equity, and compassion. The view toward a world in which people are safe and have enough is still an inspiring vision. Human beings have to take responsibility for their actions in order for our reality to approach that vision.

God is not at the head of the military; human beings are. God is not in control of who has wealth and power; human beings are. God doesn't commit war atrocities; human beings do. God doesn't effect genocide; human beings do. God cannot respond compassionately to the world; human beings can. God is not capable of creating justice and equity; human beings must.

Whatever our vision of the world is, we are responsible for moving toward that, even if our only sphere of influence is our own lives. When we set aside fear, I suspect that most of us want the same kind of world, and I suspect that we value the same sorts of things that the prophets valued: justice, equity, and compassion. Aside from irrational fear, why wouldn't we all want to live in a sustainable world where no one went hungry and no one was oppressed? If that is our most noble vision for the planet, that is what we are called to create. We aren't called by some supernatural outside of ourselves; we call ourselves by the values we hold. When you set aside fear, what is your vision for the world? What will you do today to bring your life a little bit closer to that vision?