Today this blog starts on the prophecy of the first Isaiah, that is chpaters 1-39 of the book as we have it.
1 This is the vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz, which he saw concerning Y’hudah and Yerushalayim during the days of ‘Uziyahu, Yotam, Achaz and Y’chizkiyahu, kings of Y’hudah:
2 “Hear, heaven! Listen, earth!
For The Lord is speaking.
“I raised and brought up children,
but they rebelled against me.
3 An ox knows its owner
and a donkey its master’s stall,
but Isra’el does not know,
my people do not reflect.
4 “Yes, sinful nation,
a people weighed down by iniquity,
descendants of evildoers,
They have abandoned The Lord
spurned the Holy One of Isra’el,
turned their backs on him!
5 “Where should I strike you next,
as you persist in rebelling?
The whole head is sick,
the whole heart diseased.
6 From the sole of the foot to the head
there is nothing healthy,
only wounds, bruises and festering sores
that haven’t been dressed or bandaged
or softened up with oil.
7 “Your land is desolate,
your cities are burned to the ground;
foreigners devour your land in your presence;
it’s as desolate as if overwhelmed by floods.
8 Jerusalem is left
like a shack in a vineyard,
like a shed in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.”
9 If The Lord of armies had not left us
a tiny, tiny remnant,
we would have become like Sodom
we would have resembled ‘Gomorrah.
The first verse dates the prophecy to the 8th century BCE, when Judah was struggling to exist against the power of Assyria. Isaiah was active perhaps from about 740 BCE during which time the Northern kingdom of Israel/ Samaria ceased to exist after defeat by the Assyrians.
Or at least, that’s a history derived mainly from the Bible, which tells the story of the Kingdoms of Israel/ Judah from the time of king Saul, as a history of rebellion against the true religion of Yahweh, the God of the ancestors. Although there are occasional mentions of the kings of Israel and Judah is the annals of the Assyrians, there is very little external evidence about Israel/Judah prior to the late 6th century, when Cyrus of Persia allowed captive Jews to return to their homeland from Babylon.
What we do know is that those who returned to rebuild their temple also edited the ancient writings of their people, including most of what is known as the Jewish Bible. The narrative history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, from their remote ancestors and enslavement in Egypt, through the glorious reign of King David, to the ignominious destruction of Judah in 586 BCE, is a creation of those editors, who intepreted it as a history of disobedience to God and its consequences.
The editing of the records of the prophets is part of that process. Small wonder that the repeated message of all the prophets is that disobedience to Yahweh and especially idolatrous worship of other Gods, brings disaster. Disobedience by disregarding the provision of God’s Teaching, with its emphasis on social justice, is considered by the prophets as little better than idolatry. Although the prophets came from all classes of the people- Amos was a farm labourer, Isaiah probably a scribe – they were united by their loyalty to Yahweh God and to the poor. No ancient literature is so uncompromising in its commitment to the cause of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
Many of them, including Isaiah, were also convinced that obedience to God’s Teaching would bring blessing, and disobedience, disaster. They do not seem to have found their own very mixed blessings any contradiction to this teaching. Modern nutcases, who have blamed the frequency of hurricanes on the availability of abortion, can claim the prophets as their brothers. I note this similarity because although I want to celebrate the prophetic tradition, I totally disagree with this bit of their theology.
The evidence of the book of Isaiah is that the prophet was literate, familiar with the temple, Jerusalem, the Court, and with the international news, characteristics which probably place him in the temple or palace bureaucracy. He dates his special calling to the prophetic task as the “year that King Uzziah died” 742 BCE. He seems to have survived at least as far as 701BCE.
He writes with great passion and eloquence, using a form of loose poetry, which involves frequent parallelism, that is, the repetition of phrases with small changes. Exclamation, question, mourning, cursing, direct speech, praise and prayer are common, as are all sorts of metaphorical devices, like simile, metaphor and parable.
The introductory material does not reflect the beginning of his ministry, but rather a time when the nation had already been invaded. It sets out the essentials of God’s quarrel with his people. How can we describe the voice of God represented here? It is dry, passionate and angry, knowledgeable about the life of the people, including the attitudes of its kings and their foreign policies, ready to make threats or promises about the future of the nation. God speaks in the character of a caring father whose wisdom has been scorned by his children.
Where does this voice come from? It is represented in the narrative books of the bible, especially in Exodus, Samuel, and Kings, but more extensively in the book of Deuteronomy, the update of the Teaching of God. It is unclear whether these traditions, at least in written form, predate the work of Isaiah. The same voice however is found in Isaiah’s near contemporaries, Amos and Micah, while a similar but different voice of God as rejected husband, is found in Hosea.
Familiarity with this mode of drama should not blind us to the extraordinary achievement of inventing and maintaining this voice of God, this immediate lapel- grabbing, in-your-face, explosion of divine passion. Prophets give us glimpses of their visions, their arguments with and prayers to this God, telling us they did not invent but were accosted by their God: they listened before they spoke to the people. Through them, the One who is beyond is among the people, the eternal is present, the holy faces the sinful, the future enters history. God splutters in your face.
In the Hebrew the speech of God begins with a spluttering alliteration:
Shemu shamayim – Hear heavens!
This speaker is mighty enough to present his case against his children – the sort of complaint that might have been heard in a village square- before the entire universe, the heavens and the earth. This cosmic geography gives power to the voice, but at first it uses the language of the village, with oxen and donkeys as examples of stubborness, until the children are given their name, Israel, the people of God; they are the rebel children! Not only have they rebelled but they are childern of rebels, who are wilfully ignorant of their parentage.
The voice howls out its rage in Hebrew:
Hoy goy choteh!
Yes, sinful people. Modern English has no equivalent form of address that combines anger and disgust as the word “ach” sometimes does in Scots. They have “turned their backs” on their God. The Spanish version, “ vuelto la espalda” has a useful hint of the cold shoulder. The holy God might justly turn his back on sinful people, but for them to do it to God is a special impertinence which God expects his hearers to notice.
Then the voice turns to the state of the nation which is engaged in self-harming by doing things that bring punishment, which comes from God but is inflicted by the aliens who have invaded their land. The almighty Assyrians are just a stick in the hands of God. Behind the anger of the voice Isaiah depicts the concern of God for his people. Why are they doing this to themselves? Just when the old wounds should be healing, they suffer fresh wounds. The destruction brought by the foreign enemy is vividly painted, cities wrecked, productive land stolen, Holy Jerusalem left like the sheds used in a vineyard or a cucumber patch. The voice projects a mixture of scorn and concern.
The prophet adds his own summing up, comparing the invasion to the famous destruction of the cities of the plain, where ultimately there were no survivors.
I’ve tried in this blog to emphasise the strangeness of the prophetic ability to transmit the character of God in speech:once you truly hear it, it’s hard to forget.