The next two chapters of Isaiah are contrasting predictions about the fates of "Yahweh's people" and the fates of everybody else. Some of the symbolic themes from previous portions of Isaiah return here. The blindness and deafness that Yahweh commanded the prophet to enforce (Is 6:9-12) will now be removed. Water, symbolic in much of the prophetic literature, is used here as an assurance of life, but of course only Yahweh's people will have access to the streams and pools of water in the wilderness. After acknowledging the literary context of these prophecies, we might gain something from recognizing one last time the flaws in the suggested dependence upon a supernatural and the Us vs Them perspective of this prophetic writing before considering a more intentional perspective that might better align with our guiding principles.
These are the final poetic chapters of "Proto-Isaiah"; after a short narrative, the book of Isaiah continues with words written at a much later time, as indicated by specific historical references in the text. Recall that no autograph of the book of Isaiah has been discovered, and that the earliest copy we have is from the early first century BCE. On top of that, there are thousands of differences between existing copies of the book. One prevailing conclusion by scholars is that the book was assembled by an editor from disparate writings (perhaps by the same author or school of authors). Thus, the sequence in which the writings appear may have been determined by someone at a much later time than when they were written. The only thing we can honestly assess is the end product, because we don't have anything earlier to examine. At the same time, honest assessment must include the fact that we cannot know the intentions of the author, and that the sequence in which texts are read has an influence on their interpretation.
In fact, "interpretation" may not even be the right word for what we do with such texts. We often read through the lens of our own wisdom and values, and we judge what we read based on what we already believe. The Unitarian Universalist tradition, for instance, currently recognizes six broad sources: direct experience, the words and deeds of prophetic people, ethical and spiritual wisdom from the world's religions, the call to love our neighbors in Jewish and Christian teachings, Humanist teachings, and the spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions. The intrinsic values of Unitarian Universalism were not drawn from these sources, however; the accepted values informed the choices of sources. The whole of Jewish and Christian scripture is not compatible with Unitarian Universalism, just as the whole of Islamic or Humanist teachings is not compatible with Unitarian Universalism. Our values are the scales on which the merits of a particular text are weighed.
This is true of everyone. American Christians reading the Bible do not honestly accept everything within its pages as legitimate timeless ethical and moral truth. They all recognize, to varying degrees, that there are cultural differences between twenty-first century Western society and the ancient Middle-Eastern societies in which the biblical texts originated. They determine the validity of a particular portion of scripture not based on the fact that it is in the Bible, but based on a set of values that they already accept as guiding principles in their lives. To be sure, those values are also supported by some portions of scripture. The call to reconciliation and love in human relationships is a major theme in the Bible, for instance. Yet, this theme is in conflict with passages like Isaiah 34-35, in which it is clear that the enemies of Judah are considered to be the enemies of Yahweh, and proclaiming their destruction is justified in the name of religious superiority. This is incompatible with the values of reconciliation and love.
Even if one interprets Isaiah as saying that human beings are free to seek reconciliation and love because God will take care of those other people, this does not resolve the conflict. The Bible also suggests that human beings are supposed to be emulators of God, and a perception of God as vengeful and destructive creates some problems. Readers of the Bible have to be selective and discerning, and that selectivity and discernment derives from the values through which the pages are read. We are always going to be biased readers. We can only strive to have biases that reflect our deepest values rather than our fears.
This brings us to a couple of flaws in the writing that we have noted before, but which bear repeating. Isaiah 33 and 34 both express a reliance on a supernatural to either punish or provide. There is surely some comfort in the idea that God is going to punish the people you don't like, although laying waste to the environment may be a bit extreme. There is surely some comfort in the promise that everything will be alright for you because God will provide what you need. There are problems with the implied converse of these assumptions, though. What happens when you do not have the things that you need? Has God abandoned you? Are you wicked? Are you being punished, or are you supposed to take comfort in the eventual good things that God is going to do, even if they happen long after you are dead? What about other people who suffer? If God has promised to provide for what his people need, doesn't it follow that people who are hungry or thirsty or oppressed are not God's people, and are thus wicked? The implications of God's partiality and the impossibility of interpreting "divine will" make such promises very problematic, even though they provide some shallow comfort.
Seeing the world as Us vs Them is a natural perspective for people to adopt. We are fearful by nature, and if we let our fear be in control, then we might imagine anything and anyone as a threat. We want to be right, and thus in our anxiety about possibly being wrong, we construct a worldview in which everyone else is wrong and blind to it. Thus, we get to be right at the expense of connection with other human beings, or at the expense of ever growing beyond what we are currently able to do in the world. Our fears are not values.
The people of ancient Judah were put in a position -- as the result of warfare -- in which they were in a constant state of acute fear. Foreign soldiers were laying siege to their cities and taking them into exile. They were not in a position to live by their values. They were living desperate lives. This happened multiple times in the history of Israel, and it is happening in some places today. People cannot live by a set of deep values when their lives are constantly threatened by legitimate, real dangers. It's important to know who is safe and who is dangerous when your life is literally on the line, and it's natural to invent some stories about the people who seem dangerous. In those stories, the people you perceive as dangerous are obviously going to be the bad guys, and when you feel desperate and powerless, the most hopeful story you can tell might seem to be that a powerful superhuman force will punish the bad guys and rescue the helpless victims.
Our tendency, though, is that we sometimes see ourselves as victims when we aren't. We sometimes feel threatened when we aren't. We sometimes believe we are powerless when we aren't. And we still make up stories about the people we perceive as dangerous, even when they aren't an actual threat to our safety and well-being. We have to learn to recognize the difference between actual threats to our well-being and anxiety that originates and thrives inside our own heads. There may be a lot of different people on the planet with a lot of different beliefs and a lot of anxiety prompting them to tell stories about how the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be saved, but in actuality, our well-being depends upon the well-being of everyone else. There is no Them. There is only one big Us. This idea may be as much of a hard sell to the oppressors as it is to the oppressed, but those of us who can recognize this simple truth and start living it out in our lives can influence things toward greater hope for everyone.
This is the real power that Isaiah 34 and 35 miss: Human beings are responsible for human relationships. The problems we create will not be resolved by supernatural intervention. We are responsible for living according to our values. We are responsible for finding solutions to the challenges in our lives. We are responsible to the people around us -- the people with whom we share our lives, our communities, and our world. There is no more empowering and hopeful truth than this. It just isn't necessarily what we want to hear when we look around and see evidence that other people are not behaving very responsibly. Since we can't really control anybody but ourselves, it's tempting to want a more powerful entity to take care of all the irresponsible people in the world and reward us for being so awesome. That isn't going to happen. We need a more reliable approach to navigating our own awareness of human responsibility and the apparent lack of awareness around us.
First, we can be more aware of our values. We are constantly interpreting the things we read and hear through the lens of our values, but we don't often take the time to articulate just what those values are. When we are aware of the ideals that matter most to us, it's much easier to determine how we want to be in particular situations, and it's much clearer when we are reacting out of anxiety or fears that are not aligned with our values.
Second, we can stand to see a larger perspective. When we are willing to bear witness to the actual suffering that takes place in the lives of people in more poverty-stricken countries, for instance, or even in the lives of people in our own neighborhoods, our own sense of suffering might be more realistic. We might be less inclined to play the role of victim inappropriately, and we might be less inclined to demonize other people for petty reasons. Our lives have value, and we need not be so self-sacrificial that we deny ourselves what we need. Still, being honest about our own positions on the spectrum of human suffering can help us live more intentionally.
Third, we can recognize our role in the world. Once we know what we care about most deeply, we can start living more intentionally according to those values. When we are willing to see the realities of people's lives, we can start to see opportunities to influence things toward greater well-being. This might mean funding education for a girl on the other side of the world, or it might mean spending time with people in our own neighborhoods. Our values and our own personal passions will guide us toward ways that we can influence the world, even if it is in some seemingly small way. I personally don't like building or fixing up people's homes, but I know a lot of people who love swinging a hammer. I really love teaching and tutoring people, whether its educating people about human trafficking or tutoring folks in a GED program. Some folks would be terrified to stand up and speak to a group of people. We all have values and passions that can direct us toward meaningful action.
This is how we contribute to a better world. We cannot wait for a supernatural to sweep in and destroy all the people we choose to see as villains and create a lush and thriving landscape just for us. This is not a realistic hope. Such stories might symbolically represent something to us, but our real hope is in our values and our willingness to live intentionally by them. Our ability to recognize our values and live intentionally is not impeded by other people's lack of awareness. This doesn't have to create an Us and Them dichotomy, but it's alright to acknowledge that some of us are becoming more practiced at managing our anxiety. We may be frustrated sometimes by other people, but if we look around, we will probably also spot some people who are living more intentionally. Two or three people with shared values and a willingness to live intentionally might be able to create more together than one person can create alone. Having community with people who have shared values can be a source of hope when we start to feel angry or frustrated.
So, what are your values? What ideals matter most deeply to you?
Where are you on the spectrum of human suffering? Do you need to focus on your own well-being before you consider how you can positively influence other people's lives?
What actions do your values and passions call you toward?
Who are your potential collaborators? With whom will you build partnership and mutual support?
The answers to these questions strengthen weak hands and make feeble knees firm. The answers to these questions inspire courage and help to dismantle irrational fear. The answers to these questions help us see and hear and act and speak with greater clarity. The answers to these questions are our streams in the desert, our refreshment and empowerment in life. The answers to these questions are our Holy Way, and all are welcome to travel on it. (cf. Is 35:3-8)