This blog continues my commentary on Isaiah in the Complete Jewish Bible version.
18 Yes, when that day comes,
The Lord will whistle for the fly
in the farthest streams of the Nile in Egypt
and for the bee in the land of Ashur.
19 They will come and settle, all of them,
in steep wadis and holes in the rocks
and on all thorn bushes and brambles.
20 When that day comes, The Lord will shave —
with a razor hired beyond the Euphrates River,
that is, with the king of Ashur —
the head and the pubic hair
and get rid of the beard as well.
21 When that day comes, a man will raise
a young cow and two sheep.
22 Will they produce in abundance?
No, he will have to eat curdled milk.
Indeed, everyone left in the land
will eat curdled milk and wild honey.
23 When that day comes,
wherever there once were a thousand grapevines,
worth a thousand pieces of silver,
there will be only briars and thorns.
24 One will go there to hunt with bow and arrow,
because all the land will be briars and thorns.
25 You won’t visit hills once worked with a hoe,
for fear of the briars and thorns;
it will be good only for pasturing cattle
and being trampled down by sheep.
These verses are connected only by the theme of the Lord’s punishment of his people and are probably fragments placed here by a scribe. But they are interesting for the vivid language they use. The fly of Egypt and the bee of Assyria are whistled up by God to punish his people but they are still mere insects under his command. The Assyrian invasion of Judah is pictured as a humiliating shaving of the male hair of the nation, whose warriors are reduced to the appearance of eunuch slaves. The fertile land in Judah becomes wild pasture, suitable only for sheep.
These images which express the Lord’s anger challenge the modern reader, who may have no experience of the anger of God. I don’t think it’s helpful to assert that the biblical authors had supernatural experiences that we don’t have today. Rather, they interpreted various natural happenings as the expression of God’s anger:
1. Certain natural phenomena, storms, drought, locust plagues, etc
2. Certain events, famine, disease, defeat in battle, invasion by an enemy etc
3. Certain human dispositions: folly, rage, fear, stubborn stupidity, etc
4. Certain historical sequences: the rise to power of an empire or its fall
All of these and more were interpreted as acts of God and expressions of divine anger, used to punish evildoers and restore justice in the world. God’s kindness and anger, expressed in blessings and curses, could work across great spans of time, remembering good and evil actions, by both individuals and nations. God’s justice works a bit like “karma”, that is, it rewards good and punishes evil over time, but it is not impersonal: its blessings are full of love and its curses full of anger: God is passionate.
I do not accept this theology. I have no problem in attributing anger to God; indeed I cannot imagine love without anger. But I cannot see any history, even the history of Israel related in Scripture, as a direct expression of either the love or the anger of God. Blessings often seem to light on the evildoer, and curses on the good people.
What I do see in history is the non-intervention of God as God, and the reliance of God on human trust and action for the perfecting of creation. God’s love is God’s trust that human beings can live splendidly as part of a universal family in a creation which favours this sort of living. God’s anger is God’s refusal to impose God’s rule when human beings betray that trust and injure themselves, their brothers and sisters, and the created universe. In his anger, God will not adopt the method of human injustice and impose his will by force. This means that innocent people are caught in the effects of God’s anger, in their sufferings at the hands of violent, oppressive, greedy, powerful people, as Jesus was when he asked, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” .
There is a great truth here which I find difficult to articulate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew what it meant to be caught up in suffering, said, “The God who abandons us is the God who is always with us.” He also said, “Only a suffering God can help.” These utterances suggest that God’s angry refusal to sort out the mess of human evil, is also God’s choice to suffer the evil rather than to act against it. This leaves good people at risk from the actions of evil people.
Isaiah’s great successor whose words are found in chapters 40-55, recognised this dilemma and solved it by creating the character of the “servant of God” whose suffering is redemptive:
“But he was wounded for our wrongdoing
he was bruised for our iniquities…..“
The anger of God is an expression of God’s love, the terrible love which will not force God’s will upon creation.