Saturday, August 30, 2014

Isaiah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Isaiah is a collection of Hebrew poems written roughly between 740-537 B.C.E.  These poems are written in direct response to the various historical events of this turbulent time period.  Therefore, to understand Isaiah, we must first understand the context in which its parts were written.  The perspective of the poems is that of a prophet who is commenting on, criticizing, and making predictions about the state of affairs of Israel.  The prophet/poet claims to speak for God, as a kind of divine social critic and religious reformer.

"The Prophecy of Isaiah" by Marc Chagall

Although the book appears as the work of a single author, scholars today generally believe it had two (or perhaps three) authors, which are described as 1.) First Isaiah (who wrote in Jerusalem around 740-700 B.C.E.), 2.) Second Isaiah (who wrote from exile in Babylon around 540 B.C.E.), and 3.) Third Isaiah (who wrote from Jerusalem around 537 B.C.E. after Jews had been allowed to return to their homeland).  Thus, the book of Isaiah, spans the crucial time period in which the nation of Israel was conquered, the captives taken away to Babylon, and finally allowed to return home and rebuild their shattered nation.  The overall theme/progression is that of destruction, exile, and restoration.  For the purposes of this report, I will divide Isaiah into these three sections…

I. First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), written between 740-700 B.C.E. in Jerusalem…

Opening Oracles and the Call of the Prophet… (Chapters 1-6)

The book begins with a series of poems which criticize the nation of Israel (and the capitol city of Jerusalem) for breaking God’s covenant.  The people have rebelled against God by tolerating corruption and allowing social injustice to exist.  The city has become “sick” and devastation is foreseen.  The only hope for restoration is to put away corruption, idolatry, and social injustice.  The prophet foresees a future time of universal peace, and an end to war.  The poet describes his call to be a prophet, which resembles the call of Moses.  God asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Here I am, send me!”  The prophet is embarrassed about his foul mouth and lack of eloquence.  So one of God’s angels literally burns the prophets lips with a fiery coal, purifying them.  Then the prophet is prepared to speak to the people.

Oracles from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War (735-732 B.C.E.)…(Chapters 7-8)

In 735 B.C.E., the country of Aram (also called Syria) and the northern Kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) organized a coalition against the powerful Assyrian Empire.  These two nations attacked the Southern Kingdom of Judah, to force it to join their coalition.  King Ahaz of Judah instead sought to ally himself with Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah counseled Ahaz against this alliance, urging him simply to rely on God for protection.  This is a recurring pattern in First Isaiah—counseling the kings of Judah against foreign alliances, and encouraging trust in God.  While this makes theological sense, it makes for rather ballsy foreign policy, especially because Judah was surrounded by much more powerful nations.  

Isaiah tells King Ahaz that the Lord will give him a sign of protection.  A young woman (likely Isaiah’s wife) will give birth to a child, and his name will be called Immanuel (which means, ‘God With Us’).  By the time the child is a toddler, God will send Assyria to attack and destroy Aram and the northern Kingdom of Israel.  New testament writers quoted this passage in reference to the birth of Jesus; however, in its original context, it referred to the Syro-Ephraimite War.  

Isaiah’s wife has another child, which is also a sign for Ahaz.  This one’s name is Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (which means “Swift the Spoil, Prompt the Plundering”).  This child is a sign that God will send Assyria to destroy Judah’s enemies Aram and Northern Israel.  Isaiah again warns Ahaz against entering into an alliance with Assyria.  Ahaz is not convinced.

The Righteous Reign of the Coming King (probably Hezekiah)…(Chapter 9)

Despite their dire situation, Isaiah predicts the rise of a king of Judah who will bring peace, prosperity, and justice to the land.  Christians have interpreted this as being in reference to Jesus.  Again, in it’s original context, it probably referred to King Hezekiah, who ruled from 715-687 B.C.E. and brought about great reforms in Judah.  Hezekiah was actually a very good king.

The Fall of the Northern Kingdom (722 B.C.E.)…(Chapters 9-10)

In 722 B.C.E., the northern Kingdom of Israel was attacked and defeated by the powerful Assyrian Empire, one of the great world powers of its day.  The prophet laments the devastation, and gives some explanation of why the north was destroyed.  The people were prideful and did not trust in God.  Their prophets spoke lies, and the leaders did not seek to alleviate social injustice.  Isaiah warns the southern kingdom of Judah that they will share the same fate of the north if they do not follow God, and uphold social justice.  For Isaiah, following God and upholding social justice are inextricably linked.

Assyrian stone carving (c. 700 B.C.E.)

An Oracle Against Assyria…(Ch. 10)

Isaiah speaks the words of God in the first person, saying that, although Assyria has destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern city of Jerusalem will not fall.  Indeed, the Assyrians did not destroy Judah.  Instead, the prophet declares, God will punish Assyria for its arrogance in thinking it could take the holy city of Jerusalem, the place of God’s temple.

The Peaceful Kingdom…(Ch. 11-12)

The prophet then envisions a time of peace and justice, in which a king from David’s dynasty will rule with righteousness.  The hallmark of a good king is how he treats the poor and marginalized, and this king will do well.  This passage is often seen by Christians as predicting Jesus the Messiah.  However, again, in its original context, it probably refers to the good king Hezekiah.  Isaiah predicts a return from exile for those from the north who were taken captive by Assyria.  Peace between north and south is also predicted, as is renewed military might.

Oracles Against Various Foreign Nations…(Ch. 13-23)

Then Isaiah gives a series of poetic proclamations against foreign nations who are enemies of Israel.  The tone of many of these oracles is quite apocalyptic, using language of total destruction and judgement.  This language makes sense given the volatile context in which they were written.  The northern kingdom had fallen, and the tiny nation of Judah stood alone and vulnerable, surrounded by vastly more powerful empires.  The only hope of the people is their God.

The first oracle, against Babylon, is brutal.  The prophet promises total destruction for this great empire, and horrors inflicted upon its people: “Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.”  In other words, Babylon is fucked.  The problem with big, global empires is that they tend to oppress people.  Such is the nature of empire.  God says that tyrants and emperors who oppress people (like the king of Babylon) will be humbled and cut down to size.  

The same fate is seen for Assyria.  God says, “I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him under foot.”  To the maritime kingdom of Philistia, Israel’s long-time enemies, the prophet says, “Melt in fear, O Philistia, all of you!”  Meanwhile, Jerusalem will remain as a refuge for the needy and oppressed.

Isaiah is much more compassionate toward the nation of Moab.  Destruction is promised for Moab, but Isaiah writes, “My heart cries out for Moab” and “I drench you with my tears.”  Though Moab will be destroyed, its survivors will take refuge in Jerusalem, under the reign of a good king who seeks justice for the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah predicts destruction of Damascus, the capitol of Syria (also called Aram), for their idolatry and oppression of Judah, particularly during the Syro-Ephraimite War.  God is seen as a powerful being who transcends all nations.  Isaiah writes, “The nations roar like the roaring of many waters, but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away.”

Next is an oracle against Ethopia (also called Nubia), which will suffer defeat and ultimately bring gifts to Jerusalem.   Egypt will also fall, due to internal strife.  Indeed, Egypt in the 8th century was beset by internal strife, until the rise of the Ethiopian ruler Piankhi, who established a new dynasty in 715 B.C.E.  Amazingly, the prophet predicts a future time when not just Jews, but Egyptians and Assyrians, will worship the God of Israel.

For a three-year stretch, during the time of a revolt against Assyria (which included Philistia, Egypt, and Ethiopia), God told Isaiah to roam around Jerusalem naked, as a sign against the rebels, who would ultimately be defeated by Assyria around 711 B.C.E.  For much of First Isaiah, Assyria is seen as the agent of God’s judgment on foreign nations.  However, Assyria herself would not escape this judgement eventually.

While Isaiah gives yet another oracle against Babylon, foreseeing her destruction, he describes how difficult and painful it is to be a prophet: “My mind reels, horror has appalled me; the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.”  It was not a pleasant occupation to be a prophet.  It was a job filled with suffering.

Continuing this theme of suffering, the prophet then foresees the destruction of Jerusalem itself, something unimaginably devastating for him.  Isaiah writes, “Therefore I said: Look away from me, let me weep bitter tears; do not try to comfort me for the destruction of my beloved people.”  In 701 B.C.E., Assyria invaded Judah and its capitol Jerusalem.  Isaiah laments the possibility that God’s chosen city could be conquered.

The last oracles against foreign nations are about the Phoenician port cities of Tyre and Sidon, which were invaded and conquered by Assyria in 701 B.C.E.

"Isaiah" by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

Isaiah’s Vision of Apocalypse…(Ch. 24-27)  

Following Isaiah’s proclamation of judgment on foreign nations is a series of oracles dealing with global apocalypse.  Some scholars do not believe these were written by First Isaiah, because they reflect a kind of literature that did not emerge until the late 6th century B.C.E.  These texts were probably written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 B.C.E., and the fall of the southern Kingdom of Judah, an event that profoundly affected the Israelites and their sense of religious and cultural identity.  Isaiah’s visions of apocalypse may be seen as a kind of microcosm for the whole pattern of the book of Isaiah, which is: destruction, exile, restoration.  For this section, I would like to quote some excerpts, to show this pattern…

Destruction…

Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate…
The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, 
violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer from their guilt…
The city of chaos is broken down…
the gladness of the earth is banished…
Desolation is left in the city, 
the gates are battered into ruins…
I pine away, I pine away.
Woe is me!
For the treacherous deal treacherously,
the treacherous deal very treacherously.
Terror, and the pit, and the snare
are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is torn asunder,
the earth is violently shaken…
it falls, and will not rise again.

Exile…

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat…
O Lord our God,
other lords besides you have ruled over us,
but we acknowledge your name alone…
We have won no victories on the earth…
hide yourself for a little while
until the wrath is past…

Restoration…

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken…
On that day: a pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day
so than no one can harm it…
let it make peace with me,
let it make peace with me…
On that day…you will be gathered one by one,
O people of Israel.
And on that day a great trumpet will be blown,
and those who were lost in the land of Assyria
and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt
will come and worship the Lord
on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.

Oracles from the Reign of King Hezekiah (705-701 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 28-33)

Isaiah laments the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, and also criticizes the prophets and leaders of the southern Kingdom in Jerusalem, who are trusting in their alliances with foreign nations, instead of trusting in God to save them from Assyria.  The prophet comments on the siege of Jerusalem by Assyria in 701 B.C.E., but ultimately promises hope and salvation for the holy city.  King Hezekiah is criticized for seeking alliance with Egypt.  As before, however, the prophet sees restoration after destruction.

More Oracles of Destruction and Restoration (probably written by Second Isaiah)…(Ch. 34-35)…

Inserted among oracles dealing with the Assyrian threat is a brief poem probably written by Second Isaiah, because it deals with exiles returning from Babylon, an event which would not happen for another 150 years.  God pronounces judgment upon Israel’s enemies, total apocalyptic destruction.  Again, like a recurring motif, the people of Israel are described as experiencing restoration.  Here are some lovely passages on this theme…

"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing…
And sorrow and signing shall flee away.”

Narratives of King Hezekiah and Isaiah (705-701 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 36-39)

The poetry of Isaiah is then interrupted by a prose narrative which is probably taken from 2 Kings.  While King Hezekiah was ruling Judah (around 701 B.C.E.), the Assyrian empire came to Jerusalem and threatened to destroy it.  Hezekiah consulted Isaiah about what to do.  Isaiah said, again, to trust in God, and that Assyria would not take Jerusalem.  According to the Bible narrative, an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians, and sent them packing.  According to Assyrian records, King Hezekiah agreed to pay Assyria tribute, and become a subordinate state.

After the Assyrians left, King Hezekiah became sick, and again consulted Isaiah, who said that God would heal him.  When he was healed, Hezekiah wrote a poem of thanks.

Meanwhile, some representative from Babylon came to visit Jerusalem, seeking a partner in an alliance against Assyria.  Hezekiah proudly showed these Babylonians all his treasury and weapons and stuff.  Isaiah was like, “You fool!  Now Babylon is going to come and conquer us!” 

And that is what happened in 587 B.C.E.  The southern kingdom of Judah was conquered.  Jerusalem was destroyed, and the survivors were taken away into exile.

Israelites Taken Captive by Babylon (stone carving)

Second Isaiah (Written from Babylon during the exile around 540 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 40-55)

Unlike First Isaiah, which begins with harsh words of judgment upon Israel, Second Isaiah begins with words of comfort.  The Israelites have lost their homeland and have been carried away to Babylon, a troubling crisis of faith.  Second Isaiah speaks consoling words to a wounded and confused people, like this famous passage:

“He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like wages,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Despite all that Israel has suffered, the prophet insists that God has not abandoned his people, that he will redeem them.  The people are encouraged to not be afraid:

“I have chosen you and not cast you off;
do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

To the poor exiles, thirsting in the wilderness, God will provide water and new life:

“When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.”

The Servant Songs (Ch. 42-53)

Scattered throughout Second Isaiah are several poems which have come to be called “The Servant Songs.”  In them, God describes his “Servant” who will bring justice to the nations of the world, and a new era of peace.  Later Christian writers interpreted these servant songs as referring to Jesus Christ.  However, in their original context, they often refer explicitly to the nation of Israel, as in this passage from Ch, 44:

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel who I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do nor fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun (Israel) whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground.”

When seen in this light, the Servant Songs continue the main theme of Second Isaiah, which is comfort and restoration.  A greater purpose lies beyond their suffering in exile.  After their suffering, God will use them to actually bless the nations of the world.  This theme of Israel’s suffering leading to widespread healing and restoration is poignantly expressed in the famous song of the “Suffering Servant” in Ch. 53:

“He (Israel) was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.”

In Ch. 54, Israel’s suffering in exile will lead to a new era of peace and love:

“For a brief moment I abandoned you (Israel),
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love
I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer…
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, says the Lord.”

Cyrus the Liberator 

Second Isaiah says that God will use Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, to liberate the Israelites.  The prophet writes, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city, and set my exiles free.”  Judgment and destruction is given against Babylon, with Cyrus as the instrument of this.  Indeed, in 539 B.C.E., Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, and let the Israelite exiles return to their homeland.  God is envisioned as a universal, transcendent being, who orders events, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.  Foreign gods and “idols” are condemned and seen as powerless and nonexistent.  This radial concept of monotheism would prove a powerful one in the centuries to come.

Cyrus the Great of Persia

Third Isaiah…(Written from Jerusalem after the return from exile between 535-520 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 56-66)

The last section of Isaiah, written from Jerusalem after the return from exile, is not quite as optimistic as Second Isaiah.  Yes, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, but their homecoming was bittersweet, and nothing like the glorious return Second Isaiah envisioned.  They had returned to a ruined land and upon them fell the daunting task of re-building a shattered and scattered nation.  Third Isaiah contains very harsh passages of disillusionment and judgment, but also contains hopeful and beautiful passages.  The prophet remains convinced that Jerusalem will be re-built and a new nation will emerge from the ruins.  If First Isaiah is a book of judgment, and Second Isaiah is a book of mercy, Third Isaiah is a balanced mix of judgment and mercy.  The author might have been a disciple of Second Isaiah or, as some scholars argue, Second Isaiah himself, albeit an older and more world-weary prophet.

Universal Acceptance…(Ch. 56)

Third Isaiah begins with a beautiful vision of an inclusive community.  Formerly excluded foreigners will be accepted as part of the new community of Israel.  The prophet writes, “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Judgment on Israel’s Rulers…(Ch. 57)

The prophet condemns leaders of the post-exile community in Jerusalem, calling them “blind” and “without understanding.”  He also condemns those who stayed behind in Jerusalem during the exile, or fled to Egypt, citing their idolatry and non-Jewish religious practices.  He encourages a return to true worship, keeping the covenant, and observing the Sabbath.

Hope for the Future…(Ch. 58-64)

Despite Israel’s mistakes and shortcomings, the prophet insists that God will heal them.  “Peace, peace,” he writes, “to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.”  The way to gain the Lord’s favor is humility and a focus on social justice.  Throughout all of Isaiah, social justice is seen as a necessary part of peace.  Religious rituals (like fasting) are not enough.  Direct action on behalf of the oppressed is required:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet ultimately proclaims a message of liberation and restoration:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…”

A New Kingdom…(Ch. 66)

The book of Isaiah ends with an apocalyptic vision, not of destruction and death, but restoration and new life.  The writer of the book of Revelation quoted from Isaiah, to describe the “new creation” at the end of the world.  For Third Isaiah, however, such a vision is not some distant, otherworldly thing, but very much of this world.  It is meant to give hope to real Jews living in a real Jerusalem around 530 B.C.E…

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make,
shall remain before me, say the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name 
remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.”

Rebuilding Jerusalem

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