* 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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Isaiah 23: The Lenses through Which We Look

Should one decide that there is little in Isaiah's "oracles against the nations" to be translated into a twenty-first century life, that conclusion would be understandable. Aside from placing these writings in a historical context, some biblical scholars don't seem to know what to do with them either, and they don't all agree on the historical context. Isaiah 23 is the last specific pronouncement against a foreign power, however, before the book of Isaiah turns to focus more on the nation of Judah. After this passage, Yahweh's destruction is reported as being global, and his devotion to humanity is focused specifically on Jerusalem (which is profoundly problematic, but we'll wait to delve into that).

Isaiah 23 contains commentary on the cities of Tyre and Sidon, both situated in present-day Lebanon, about 40 miles apart. These cities were located in a coastal area along the Mediterranean that was important for commerce, so every major empire that came along found value in claiming them. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks, Crusaders -- whoever was in power at the time controlled Tyre and Sidon. Now, the cities are more Muslim than the United States is Christian, so one might draw some interesting conclusions if one puts stock in the prophecy, "Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the Lord; ...her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the Lord."

It's interesting to note that people throughout history have read the words of their scriptures and interpreted them however they saw fit, and people frequently criticize interpretations and perspectives that differ from their own, even when there is not necessarily greater support for one view over the other. We often hold our own perspectives in rather high esteem. Authors can only write from their own perspective, though, and the authors of Isaiah reveal some things about their perspective. Historically, it would have been unsurprising for a growing empire to take control of Tyre and Sidon, and Assyria controlled not only Tyre and Sidon, but also Babylon for a time (which could have been the land of the Chaldeans referred to in verse 13). 

The coastal cities were too useful to simply be destroyed, however. Isaiah 23 suggests that the cities will be like prostitutes, which is an interesting pre-Capitalist view toward international trade. An honest look at "free" economy in the twenty-first century might warrant the same criticism, that people are made to prostitute themselves to those who hold the power. For the authors of this passage, Yahweh is eventually going to make use of and benefit from the prostitute Tyre. Try convincing your preacher to speak about that on Sunday morning. Interestingly, the authors throw in a reference to a folk song in verse 16, which might make one wonder how many other poetic turns of phrase in scripture are taken from unacknowledged vernacular entertainment of the day. Perhaps even more interesting is that Sanchuniathon, a Phoenecian historian, seems to have cast Sidon as a daughter of gods and the originator of melodic singing. Could this mythology have influenced the authors of this oracle?

We can't know the complete cultural or historical perspective that influenced the writing of Isaiah 23 (or any other bit of scripture). What we can see clearly is that the authors began with a particular understanding of the world and interpreted events through that lens. For the writers of Isaiah, the clear assumption is that Yahweh is in control, that their god is powerful enough to orchestrate events on a global scale, and that human actions prompt divine response. If a nation or a city is besieged, Yahweh is interpreted as the commander of the attacking forces if they win, and he is interpreted as the protector of the defending community if the attackers withdraw. In order to preserve their view of the divine, they cast a vision of the future in which all people understand the power and righteousness of their god -- in which everyone sees the world as they do.

Human beings have adopted a strange stance with regard to our beliefs. We think that other people agreeing with us somehow legitimizes our beliefs. If others see the world as we do, then our perspective must be accurate, right? Not necessarily. Yet, when our beliefs are challenged by people who disagree with us, we don't reconsider our beliefs; we don't think, "Hmmm, maybe I was wrong about this. Let me consider this other perspective carefully." Instead, we often become belligerent, insisting that other people see things as we do. We are often just afraid of being wrong about what we believe; we won't allow our perspective of reality to grow into something new. 

So, we interpret everything through a particular lens, to the point that we are often willing to dismiss or ignore those things that do not fit cleanly with our perspective. The argument of Isaiah seems to go something like: Yahweh is in control of everything. Thus, every military action is approved by him, and he uses military forces to jealously punish people who worship other gods. Thus, when our own communities are overrun by foreign powers, Yahweh is ultimately behind it. Thus, rather than looking at political or military weaknesses, we should figure out why Yahweh would want this to happen to us and fix that problem. Then, we will have success against foreign military forces, because Yahweh will protect us.

Some people today look through a similar lens, making some assumptions before considering any facts. Just as the authors of Isaiah made some assumptions about their god before interpreting events around them, many people today assume first of all that their beliefs about the world are accurate, then they look at the world and fit what they see into their assumptions. We could go into the multitude of problems that arise from the assumption that God is in control, but it might be more constructive to consider starting from a different set of assumptions. We will always have beliefs that create a lens through which we see the world, but we could embrace the possibility that our lens grows and develops as we encounter the world. In other words, we could start with the assumption that we don't know everything. When we claim that God is in control, we pretend to know something that we can't know. There is no way to grow from that perspective. The only option is to force our experience into a particular box -- and to discard or ignore whatever doesn't fit in that box. A bit of honesty about the limits of human knowledge would suggest that we can grow in our perspective. That's one really useful assumption to make: We don't yet know all that we could know.

Here's another assumption we might make, another lens through which we might choose to see the world: Human hands can solve human problems. When we recognize that our current reality doesn't match our hopes for the world, we have an opportunity to create a better world. We aren't necessarily in charge of military decisions or international politics, but when we acknowledge that human beings make those decisions, and not an omniscient supernatural, we look through a lens of human responsibility. Once we are able to acknowledge that human beings are responsible for their decisions, we can be empowered in our own lives to be personally responsible for the things we do get to decide. If a supernatural is in control of everything that will happen in the world, there isn't much for human beings to do except sit back and watch. When we accept our own role in creating a better world, we might catch a glimpse of the kind of world we most want to live in.

Through what lens are you looking? Is there room for that perspective to grow? Does your lens empower and inspire you to live toward a best possible version of yourself? To contribute somehow to a better world? How you look at the world determines how you are in the world, and you have some choice in the lens you look through.

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