This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.
Okay. It's been a long time since I've done one of these Friday Bible Blogging posts. But, now that the election's over and there's not as much pressure to write about politics (not that it did any good, anyway), I can get back into my old habits.
Wow, have I really let this series fall by the wayside. It's been over a year since the last entry, and my entries had already grown pretty sporadic before that. In my defense, there were just a whole bunch of events that screwed up what had become my routine for completing these entries, and once that routine was broken, it was hard to get back into it. On top of that is the issue of motivation. And on top of that is the fact that every time I did sit down to read Isaiah, it was just a little too much content - not so much Isaiah itself, but the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB). To be honest, I've actually read the first 10 chapters of Isaiah at least three or four times now. But my goal for these posts is to also read the NOAB footnotes before writing a post, and because Isaiah has so many footnotes, it seems like I never quite got around to reading all of them. And so, I've been hung up on Isaiah for a long time now. So, I figure there's nothing to do but just trudge through it, even if this post isn't quite as good as I'd like it to be. At least I'll be making progress again. I mean, I'm 4 years into this project and not even halfway done, when it should have only taken 2 1/2 years to finish up completely. Hopefully I can finish before another 4 years pass.
Isaiah marks the first of the Prophetic books. Like normal, the NOAB had a nice introduction to these books, how they came about, who might have written them, etc. Like most books of the Bible, most of the Prophetic books aren't the result of a single author, sitting down at a specific time to write them. While some may have begun as a record of a prophet's oral pronouncements, or even as written works by a prophet, the books we have now are the results of generations worth of editing. Here's one thing the NOAB wrote about this development:
The complex activity of preserving and developing the prophetic oracle collections reflects a conviction that prophet's words were not only significant of for the circumstance in which they were originally pronounced but potentially relevant for later ones as well. At the same time, the freedom with which later generations could rework the prophetic oracles indicates that prophets' words did not at first possess the kind of fixed authority that is later associated with the concept of "scripture."
The NOAB also pointed out the changing roles of the prophets over time. The earliest actually seem primitive - "itinerant holy men and women who were revered for their special religious powers and who might be consulted for a variety of private inquiries, from locating lost property (1 Sam 9.1-10) to learning whether a sick child would live or die (1 Kings 14.1-18)." As time went on, they became more politically influential - pronouncing on the fitness of kings, and then becoming advisors to kings as royal power was consolidated. The NOAB does note an apparent shift in the nature of prophecy in the eighth century, becoming more public speakers as opposed to private advisers, but that it's hard to know how much of this shift is due to the prophets in general changing, or just a bias in the prophetic books that happened to be preserved.
When it comes to Isaiah, the NOAB notes several sources who contributed to writing it. The core comes from its namesake, Isaiah ben Amoz, who witnessed the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Juda (742 - 701 BCE). Next came a revision by an anonymous author now commonly referred to as Second Isaiah, probably writing during the reign of King Josiah of Juda (640 - 609 BCE) to reflect his reforms. Next came a series of revisions by multiple authors during the Babylonian collapse and rise of King Cyrus of Persia in the sixth century BCE, when the Jews were authorized to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. And a final series of revisions by more authors came in fifth and fourth centuries reflecting further theological changes. So, the book was composed over a couple centuries of major political upheaval, mostly between Assyriah, Babylon, and Egypt, with Israel and Judah caught in the middle.
The opening message of Isaiah isn't such a bad one for the Bible. It's about how just going through the motions of sacrifice isn't good enough for God.
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
So, what shoud they do?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Like I said, not bad for the Bible. It's focused on actually helping people, not simply following sacrificial rituals (or the even worse parts about genocides and slaughters). Although, as the NOAB notes, this isn't to imply that sacrifices are no longer important to God. It's that he's turning his back on Israel for all the evil they've done, and not accepting any more sacrifices until they straighten up their acts. Of course, it wouldn't be the Bible if it didn't resort to violence, and God straightening up their acts by force.
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you...
Granted, the rest of the passage does go on to say that this will be for the ultimate redemption of Israel.
This chapter is all about the restoration of Jerusalem, and a coming glorious period for the whole world, with Jerusalem at the center.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and hsall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
I suppose this would have been comforting during the turmoil of the time.
This chapter also gives one of the more famous passages from the Bible:
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall no lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Chapter 3 is back to doom and gloom, with the punishment that's to come before the coming glory described in the previous chapter.
This passage caught my eye:
My people - children are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
Because there's nothing worse than having women as leaders.
This next passage caught my eye, as well, for how fashion was so much different in that culture. I mean, we're so used to classic European paintings depicting the Old Testament, that we sometimes forget what the culture was actually like.
On that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the head-dresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose-rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.
There was also a kind of disturbingly misogynistic passage.
the Lord will afflict with scabs
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.
Chapter 4 finishes up with the doom & gloom, talking about 'seven women' wanting to all marry one man just to be "called by your name; / take away our disgrace." Again, it's weird to think of women's role in that culture, being relegated to such inferior roles where they needed a husband to be respectable.
But after that, the chapter moved on to the restored Zion, recalling imagery of the pillar of smoke and fire from previous books.
Chapter 5 was long, and back to the doom and gloom - about how bad the people were, and how God was going to punish them. Honestly, I don't really feel like quoting any of it, because this book is already getting a bit boring with just repeating over and over the same themes.
Chapter 6 was a vision from Isaiah, and this part actually got somewhat interesting.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
So, like much of the Old Testament, God is presented as very anthropomorphic, actually wearing a robe. I also snickered at the mention of the Seraphs covering their 'feet', knowing what that's a euphemism for.
The very next passage was another very famous one, a version of which I heard just about every week growing up as a Catholic.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
After Isaiah said that he knew he was unfit to speak with the Lord, one of the seraphs took a live coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah's lips. According to the NOAB, "The cleansing of Isaiah's mouth with a hot coal from the altar presupposes the mouth purification rituals of oracular priests in ancient Mesopotamia so that they could speak on behalf of their gods."
God's pronouncements in the vision were chilling. First, God said he was going to intentionally make the people so that they wouldn't understand what was going on.
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand."
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.
After Isaiah put up a feeble protest (nothing like previous heroes from the Bible who bargained with God to try to save their people), God said it would last "until cities lie waste / without inhabitant, / and houses without people, / and the land is utterly desolate." And if the destruction wasn't complete, "Even if a tenth part remains in it, / it will be burned again..."
Chapter 7 touched on some of the alliances going on at the time, with Israel and Judah teaming with different nations, and how this war was all going to play out according to the Lord's plan (hint - lots of destruction).
One passage from this chapter is very famous among Christians. After Ahaz refused to ask for a sign from God and "put the Lord to the test", Isaiah responded:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
The NOAB indicates the 'young woman' (not 'virgin') was probably either the wife of Isaiah or of King Ahaz. Of course, from there the chapter went on to further describe this boy, and how he would grow up before this war was settled, along with the consequences of the war.
He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
This wasn't a prophecy about a coming messiah, and really only makes sense that way if you read it completely out of context.
One last passage from this chapter:
On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River--with the king of Assyria--the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Snicker - God's going to shave their 'feet'.
Chapter 8 continued this story. Frankly, it got a bit confusing to follow at points, becoming a little hard to distinguish in some places whether the child being referred to was Maher-shalal-hash-baz, son of the prophetess, or Immanuel, the prophesied boy from the previous chapter. Even the NOAB noted that "The narrative abruptly shifts to Isaiah's first-person account concerning the birth of his son..."
Then it was more prophecies of bad things happening to the unfaithful, along with commands to be good and follow the Lord.
Chapter 9 included another passage that I'm willing to bet Christians take as a prophecy of the Messiah, even if it fits in with the story being told about the then current war.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But mostly, this chapter was all about the destruction caused by God against his people. This passage really stood out to me.
So the Lord raised adversaries* against them,
and stirred up their enemies,
the Arameans in the east and the Philistines in the west,
and they devoured Israel with open mouth.
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.
It just seems odd, at least from the point of view of trying to look at believing in God. I mean, here you have the all powerful creator of the universe, who can do anything at all, and his method of punishment is to get this other group of people to go after his chosen people. But in the end, it's a wash. I mean, if you're an Aramean, half the time God's rewarding you so that he can use you to punish the Israelites. And the other half, he's rewarding the Israelites so that they can punish you. And vice versa - as an Israelite, half the time you're being punished, and half the time you're being rewarded. I mean, if God was real, you'd be no better off believing in him as an Israelite or worshipping a different god as an Aramean - you'd still end up being punished or rewarded the same amount. (Now, from the point of view of normal people trying to explain why things beyond their control are happening...)
More destruction. More evil doers. God does say that "he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria", for daring to think he had anything to do with his own victories on the battlefield, rather than realizing that God had given him those victories.
Shall the axe vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
There's also a little mention of restoring Zion once all the destruction is over.
Okay, so this may not have been my best review, but at least I'm back to writing in this series. I'm not too excited about this book, though. I've already read the next 10 chapters (though not the NOAB footnotes), and it's much more of the same. It's not a particularly exciting book of the Bible.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.