Bible blog 2127

This blog continues my commentary on Isaiah.

ISAIAH 9

The Lord sent a word to Jacob
and it has fallen on Isra’el.
8 (9) All the people know it,
Efrayim and the inhabitants of Samaria.
But they say in pride,
in the arrogance of their hearts,
9 (10) “The bricks have fallen,
but we will rebuild with cut stone;
the sycamore-fig trees have been chopped down,
but we will replace them with cedars.”
10 (11) So The Lord  has raised up Retzin’s foes against him
and spurred on his enemies —
11 (12) Aram from the east, Philistia from the west;
and they devour Isra’el with an open mouth.
Even after all this, his anger remains,
his upraised hand still threatens.
12 (13) Yet the people do not turn to the one striking them,
they don’t seek The Lord of armies.
13 (14) Therefore The Lord will cut off
Isra’el’s head and tail,
Tall palm frond and lowly reed in a single day.
14 (15) The old and the honored are the head,
while prophets teaching lies are the tail.
15 (16) For those leading this people lead them astray,
and those led by them are destroyed.
16 (17) Therefore The Lord takes no joy in their young men
and has no compassion on their orphans and widows;
for everyone is ungodly and does evil,
every mouth speaks foolishly.
Even after all this, his anger remains,
his upraised hand still threatens.
17 (18) For wickedness burns like fire,
it devours briars and thorns;
it sets the forest underbrush ablaze,
with clouds of smoke whirling upward.
18 (19) The anger of The Lord of armies
is burning up the land;
the people, too, are fuel for the fire —
no one spares even his brother.
19 (20) The one on the right grabs but stays hungry,
the one on the left eats but is unfilled.
Everyone devours his own arm’s flesh —
20 (21) Manasseh devours Efrayim;
and Efrayim, Manasseh
while together they oppose Judah.
Even after all this, his anger remains,
his upraised hand still threatens.

There is an obvious relationship between this passage and Isaiah 5: 25 -30 which uses the same refrain. It may be that those verses belong at the end of this passage.

These are Isaiah’s criticisms  of Israel, at this time a separate kingdom from Isaiah’s Judah. After an anarchic internal history of coups and assassinations, it was destroyed by Sargon, king of Assyria in 721BCE. Isaiah was convinced that its misfortunes were the result of its lack of faith and justice: its leaders had lost allegiance to Yahweh, failed to observe the Teachings, and oppressed the poor and powerless. Therefore, acccording to Isaiah, Yahweh abandoned them to the Assyrian conquest.

Isaiah considered that the best policy for these small nations was to worship their God, live by just laws, and stay out of international disputes. Hindsight suggests that although they might have been attacked anyway, such a policy might have been their best bet for survival. It’s clear that Isaiah’s theological judgements were based on a shrewd analysis of national and international politics. He credited the Lord with his own political insights. He interpreted the disasters which befell Israel as the Lord’s punishment of his unfaithful people.

His special scorn was directed at the arrogance of powerful leaders who were blind to the imminent catastrophe. Serious defeats were airbrushed into minor problems which could easily be put right or even into occasions for beneficial improvement. This is still at tactic of power today. The UK Government which had outsourced huge amounts of public work to an outfit called Carillion, paid no serious attention to repeated evidence that it was in danger of collapse, and instead offered it more profitable contracts. These are politicians who had more regard for rewarding their supporters than making stable provision for their citizens. Power blinds politicians to the consequences of their policies.

Isaiah saw the sequence of disasters in Israel as evidence of the Lord’s anger. Repeated refusals to heed these warnings would lead, according to Isaiah, to a more comprehensive catastrophe. The Hebrew text crackles with alliteration and assonance, using fire as a metaphor for the spread of violence amongst the people. The readiness of people to fight with each other is captured in the bold metaphor of self- cannibalism, a man eating his own arm. (It’s testimony to the tin ear of modern scholars that they think this image so unlikely that they want to emend the text from ‘arm’ to ‘neighbour’.)

The spiral of destructive folly and violence is emphasised by the repeated couplet which asserts the Lord’s inexorable wrath. If we think of a prophet as drawing his message from a secret source of truth inaccessible to others, we will get Isaiah wrong. His source is the goodness which is the true centre of his people’s way of life, accessible to all but neglected and denied by many. That’s why the voice of his God is angry.

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