* 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, August 12, 2014

Isaiah 36-37: Values and the Consequences of Losing Sight of Them

By now, you may be getting tired of all this business about war between different ancient nations. This, unfortunately, is the basic subject matter of a large chunk of the Old Testament. Of course, the thrust of these writings was usually to reinforce the ideas that Yahweh was in control, that the people of Israel and Judah were suffering the consequences of their spiritual infidelity, and that Yahweh would do what he would do because of his nature, not because of any sacrificial bribery on the part of his people. The message isn't always that cut and dried, and there is certainly some development over the centuries. Still, the exclusivity of the Hebrew scriptures with regard to their supernatural is the basic theme throughout. "Our god is better than anyone else's, and we're his favorite people, even when we act irresponsibly and suffer as a result." In any case, this week and next week, we'll look at the last little bit of the first section of Isaiah, and then we'll take a break from this theme for awhile.

Near the close of the eighth century (BCE), King Hezekiah apparently incited a rebellion against Assyria, with the support of Egypt and Babylon. There are several ancient accounts of the event and the outcome, and it is worth noting that the record cannot be set straight because there is no evidence remaining to support any particular version of events, and there is no account that exceeds the others in terms of credibility. In a sudden shift from poetry into narrative writing, the biblical account in Isaiah 36-37 says nothing explicit about Hezekiah provoking Sennacherib (the Assyrian emperor), but it is implied that Hezekiah has at least made some threats of revolution. This account also does not mention the cities that Sennacherib conquered on the way to Jerusalem, but it is understood that, by this time, the kingdom of Israel has already been taken and its people scattered through the Assyrian empire. In Isaiah, an angel moves through the Assyrian army's camp in response to Hezekiah's prayer, and soldiers are struck down by the thousands one night.

Sennacherib's version says nothing about any massive loss of life. According to the Taylor Prism, Sennacherib claims to have taken several cities in Judah and to have threatened Jerusalem sufficiently that Hezekiah paid a tribute of gold, silver, and other treasures, ending the rebellion. Incidentally, 2 Kings first presents the equivalent of Sennacherib's account, then has a story identical to Isaiah. (It isn't at all clear whether 2 Kings or Isaiah was written first.) Herodotus -- writing 250 years after the event -- claims that, on the eve of battle with the Egyptians (not Hezekiah), field mice devoured the bow strings, shield straps, and quivers of the Assyrian army, thus leaving them defenseless and easily slaughtered on the field of battle. Berossus (writing more than 400 years after the fact) reports that it was disease that wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night, and we cannot be sure of the context of that event. None of Berossus' original writings are extant, but he is quoted in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, which was authored near the end of the first century, CE.

We don't really know when the story in Isaiah 36-37 was originally written, but if we hope to derive any meaning from the tale, it is clear that we must look beyond mere historical veracity. Obviously, Sennacherib marched on Jerusalem and then something happened and the city was left standing. There's not much of a life lesson in that, except perhaps that events don't always wind up going the way they appear to be headed. Sometimes, the impending siege just doesn't happen. Sometimes, the layoffs are just a rumor. Sometimes, an extraordinary IPO is no indication of a company's future success. Sometimes, people and circumstances will surprise us. Maybe that's enough of a lesson to keep in mind.

However, there is more to consider in the account of Hezekiah. First of all, it appears that Hezekiah may have made some empty threats. Judah's military was no match for the Assyrian army, and the king most likely knew this. Maybe he had convinced the leaders of Egypt (or parts of Egypt) and Babylonia to join his revolution, but either the plan was toothless or it was still in its infancy when Sennacherib caught wind of it. Hezekiah put his family, his city, and his kingdom at risk because of his bluster. His words were born out of anxiety and anger rather than out of a sense of purpose and integrity, and anxiety and anger can blind people to reality.

When reality hit home, the leaders in Jerusalem were doing all they could not to let the population of the city know just how serious the threat was. They asked the Assyrian emissaries to speak in a language that the rank and file soldiers wouldn't understand, just so they wouldn't be demoralized! Were the Judahites so naive that they didn't realize that demoralization of the people was the real purpose of such talk? Or does this exchange just make for good storytelling? No matter. The soldiers at least did well in the story by not playing into the taunts of the provocateurs. They didn't make the king's problem their problem, even though it could become their problem rather quickly if violence escalated. They didn't take responsibility for something that wasn't theirs to deal with. They just kept silent.

Hezekiah, on the other hand, decided to plead with Yahweh, to make the actions of Sennacherib about God rather than about Hezekiah's irresponsibility. Sennacherib wasn't at Jerusalem's gate because he had a problem with Hezekiah's god; he was there because he had a problem with Hezekiah's attitude. Dealing with Sennacherib wasn't really Yahweh's responsibility. Yahweh didn't tell Hezekiah to incite a rebellion. Yet, Hezekiah wanted to provoke his god into taking personal offense at Sennacherib's actions, which were pretty predictable actions when you think about it. In the story, Yahweh isn't controlled by Hezekiah's desperate prayer. He decides to act based on what he wants, not based on what Hezekiah wants. The king will still experience the consequences of his actions. His convenient faith in a desperate moment doesn't remove his personal responsibility for his own decisions.

The book of Isaiah assumes the reality of Yahweh, and yet we can conceive of analogs of this story that understand divinity as inherently human rather than externally supernatural. We also are prone to ignore our deepest values, and we too sometimes experience the negative consequences of reacting out of our anxiety. In fact, a lot of the automatic things we do to alleviate our anxiety often exacerbate our anxiety. Quick fixes are perhaps the best example of this. Seeking a quick solution just to make our anxiety go away rarely gets us the results we really want. Hezekiah's problem was not that he was dishonoring a supernatural until he really needed help. His problem was that he wasn't acting with integrity, and then expected another quick fix to take care of the consequences of his integrity gap. Many of us can probably relate.

We have an alternative. We can commit to expressing our deepest, most noble selves more authentically. We can learn to dismantle the irrational fears that produce unnecessary anxiety in our lives. We can recognize our values -- the things about which we care most deeply -- and act with integrity to those values. This is the same as being true to our inner divinity, of honoring whatever qualities we imagine represent the divine. We don't need to talk a big talk and make unrealistic promises or threats; we just need to be our authentic selves.

There will still be consequences to our reactionary behavior when we slip up. Shifting back to a more intentional and principled way of being doesn't eliminate the results of our integrity gaps. There may even be consequences we don't like about living with intentionality and integrity. Some people may not respond to us the way we want them to. We might have to do things differently if we align our actions with our deepest values. Yet, we can bring greater clarity to our decisions when we understand the values upon which our actions are based. In understanding and honoring our values, we allow ourselves to be more complete people, better equipped to make decisions that reflect our deepest, most noble selves. And each time we are willing to act with integrity to ourselves, we build our confidence and ability to keep doing so.

For us, then, the message of Isaiah 36-37 need not be about a supernatural wiping all our problems away in an overnight killing spree. It can be about our willingness to trust our deepest values to guide our actions and decisions. We can be encouraged to recognize our own deep beauty, insight, and creativity, and to honor our selves by acting with integrity -- showing up authentically. We don't have to make demands on other people or insist that everyone else's values line up with ours. In honoring our own deepest, most noble selves and exhibiting integrity in our lives, we open space for others to do the same. Not everyone will take advantage of that space we open up, and that's alright. Our job is to live our own lives the best we can, and that means acting with integrity to our deepest values.

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