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Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised By) Isaiah

Posted on the 20 November 2022 by Russellarbenfox
Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I'd missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall's surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God's seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet's lips with a burning coal taken from God's altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God's will).

The centralized Sunday school schedule followed by the Mormon church around the world has only recently finished reading Isaiah; it is a heavily proof-texted and selective approach--but then, Isaiah itself has been heavily proof-texted and read selectively by Christians for centuries. No other set of poetic and prophetic texts which made their way into the canonical Old Testament have had a similarly massive impact on how Christians, over all the course of ancient and medieval and even modern Christendom, articulated the faith which the recorded statements of Jesus and the accounts and letters of His early followers inspired. It's not just that Jesus Himself is shown in the New Testament gospels to be quoting from or referencing Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book besides the Psalms; it's that our entire cultural and theological appropriation to and interpretation of Jesus's message and meaning comes to us via a heavily Isaian lens--language of Handel's Messiah being just the most obvious example. And Mormons like me have our own particular doubling-down on this; you can't get a more unambiguous association than the resurrected Jesus explicitly stating in 3 Nephi 23:1 in our Book of Mormon, "great are the words of Isaiah."

That the words of the prophet--or possibly two or even more prophets, spread out over a century, all writing under the name of Isaiah--are great is something I fully agree with. (When I summed up my Old Testament journey before with personal ranking of its books, I put Isaiah in my top ten but near the bottom; now that I've read Alter's translation, I think I need to push him up a few slots.) The poetry of the book is stunning, and frequently arresting, especially for a life-long Christian whose background assumptions include a Christianizing of the language of the Isaian text at such a basic, routine level as to often not even be aware of it. It soars to immense heights, but also digs deep within; it's lovely. For whatever it's worth, I want to share some of what Alter's translated words captured for me--and also push back against Alter is one crucial way, where is deeply informed secular perspective struggles to make sense of something which all us clumsy, pious proof-texters over the millennia might have gotten right after all.

From the beginning, the book of Isaiah is--far more than those associated with any of the other Old Testament prophets--is a text which presents calls to social justice on the same level as its condemnations of the cultic failures and ritual sins of Israel. Isaiah 1:14-17 sets the theme with its explicit comparison of those who hypocritically attend outwardly to religious duties, but ignore the needs of those who are part of that same religious community:

Your new moons and your appointed times I utterly despise. / They have become a burden to me, I cannot bear them. / And when you spread your palms, I avert My eyes from you. / Though you abundantly pray, I do not listen. Your hands are full of blood. / Wash, become pure. Remove your evil acts from My eyes. Cease doing evil. / Learn to do good, seek justice. / Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow's case.

Importantly, the text of Isaiah regularly connects the evil that must be ceased if the orphan is to be defended with the accumulation of wealth itself, entirely aside form what charitable purposes such wealth might be set to. Growth itself, in a society where land had been--at least insofar as the legends of the Israeli conquest of Palestine suggested to those living in the 7th century BCE--distributed as an inheritance to every family, risks great evil: "Woe, who add house to house, who put field together with field till there is no space left, and you alone are settled, in the heart of the land. / In the hearing of the Lord of Armies: I swear, many houses shall turn to ruin, great and good ones with none living in them" (Isaiah 5:8-9). Of course in today's economy, far more shaped as it is by speculative, debt-financed exchanges of information and images than by productive, land-based work, such warnings about growth might be easy to dismiss as limited to the agrarian world of ancient Israel. That the author(s) of Isaiah were primarily reflective of an agrarian sensibility is undeniable--but perhaps recognizing the pastoral and anti-urban context from which such beautiful visions and invocations of God's justice were articulated ought to be recognized as potentially inseparable from the repentance which this prophet-author called for as well. Consider Isaiah 32: 13-20:

On My people's soil thorn and thistle shall spring up / for on all the houses of revelry, the merrymaking town, / the villa is abandoned, the town's hubbub left behind. / The citadel and the tower become bare places for all time, / wild asses' revelry, pasture for the flocks. / Till a spirit is poured on us from above, and the desert turns to farmland and farmland is reckoned as forest / And justice abides in the desert, and righteousness dwells in the farmland. / And the doing of righteousness shall be peace, and the work of righteousness, safe and quiet forever. / And My people shall swell in abodes of peace, in safe dwellings and tranquil places of rest. / And it shall come down as the forest comes down, and in the lowland the town shall come low. / Happy, you who sow near all waters, who let loose the ox and the donkey.

Pastoral visions like this naturally generate all the usual individualistic reactions--start associating God's promises some kind of communitarian ideal, and the next thing you know everyone's on the hunt to drive out the dissidents, the foreigners, and anyone else who is seen as not fitting in with the community, right? To be sure, there's really no way to honestly discern in the Isaian voice any kind of validation of liberal concerns; it just ain't there. But, perhaps surprisingly, what is there--and which I'd never noticed, until I read Alter's translation--is the degree to which the prophecies in the book of Isaiah reflect the Mosaic insistence upon respect for, even the inclusion of, the stranger--even strangers that live in ways contrary to the community's shared faith. "And let not the foreigner say, who joins the Lord, saying / 'The Lord has kept me apart from his people,' nor let the eunuch say, 'Why, I am a withered tree.' / For thus said the Lord: Of the eunuchs who keep My sabbath, / and choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, / I will give them in My house and within My walls a marker and a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name will I give them that shall not be cut off..../ For My house a house of prayer shall be called for all the peoples" (Isaiah 56:3-5, 7). These kind of almost-if-not-quite universalist moves appear frequently throughout text (especially in the later, so-called Second Isaiah sections). Of course, that move away from understanding God's revelation solely in terms of a tribal covenant and towards recognizing in it the seeds of a kind of universal love, is, culturally at least, inseparable from Jesus's message in the Sermon of the Mount and elsewhere that God calls us to higher law. And while Alter's presentation of the book of Isaiah is rigorously committed to a secular literary interpretive lens, there comes a point when even he struggles to separate the voice coming through these ancient prophecies from the Christian promise.

It's not the usual suspects; passages like Isaiah 9:5 ("For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and leadership is on his shoulders") are pretty obviously--at least in Alter's capable linguistic hands--presented as belonging to 7th-century BCE concerns particular to an Israel longing for an escape from the threats posed by Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. But then you come to Isaiah 53, starting with a powerful question--"Who could believe what we heard, and to whom was the Lord's arm revealed?"--and going from there into a long, unprecedented vision of a Servant, first mentioned in the previous chapter, who redeems Israel through his suffering. Alter, while dismissing the Christian interpretation, to his credit admits that the verses perplex him, suggesting as they do a posthumous restoration of a Servant whose identity--as least insofar as "virtually all serious scholars" are concerned--remains unclear:

Yet he was wounded for our crimes, crushed for our transgressions. / The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, and through his bruising we were healed. / All of us strayed like sheep, each turned to his own way, / and the Lord brought down on him the crimes of all of us. / Afflicted and tormented, he opened not his mouth. / Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like an ewe mute before her shearers he opened not his mouth. / By oppressive judgment he was taken off, and who can speak of where he lives? / For he was cut off from the land of the living for My people's crime, bearing their blight. / And his grave was put with the wicked, and with evildoers his death, / for no outrage he had done and no deceit in his mouth..../ My servant shall put the righteous in the right for many, and their crimes he shall bear. / Therefore I will give him shares among the many, and with the mighty he shall share out spoils, / for he laid himself bare to death and was counted among the wrongdoers, / and it is he who bore the offense of many and interceded for the wrongdoers (Isaiah 53:5-9, 11-12) 

My reading of the Old Testament over the years has, more than anything else, taught me to think in terms of God's patient, always evolving, always emergent work: the divine power manifest through the inconsistency and inconstancy of we fallen human beings. Such haphazardness, revealing almost against its own grain the loving attendance of the Creator, has come to me to be essential to understanding the whole complicated structure of this ancient, fascinating, maddening collection of texts. What I have come to not expect, by and large, is exactly the sort of thing so many Christians like myself were raised to focus solely upon: proof of the truthfulness of some doctrine or practice or miracle, delivered to us whole, across centuries of time and thousands of editorial interventions (both intentional and unintentional), in the plain words of the text. I'm pretty confident at this point that I'm really not missing much actual spiritual nourishment by discounting pious claims of such. But when a text more than 2500 years old lays out the possibility of resurrection and restoration, one that has barely any connection to what we know about Hebrew thought of the time, and which matches both future texts and the spiritual experiences of hundreds of millions so well? In this case, bring on "All We Like Sheep," says I. I mean, Christmas is on its way, isn't it?

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