Monday, September 19, 2016

Isaiah: Horse-Trading for Humans

     I'm not dead! Really! Just been through a lot of changes this summer, including starting a new job. Plus, I've been kind of focused on other projects, since truth-be-told Isaiah is boring as fuck! Motivation to trudge through it and try to turn some into blogging material has been a tad hard to work up. As it turns out, the story about Hezekiah I discussed in the previous entry (itself a redundant and inconsistent retelling of a story we heard twice in Chronicles and Kings) was the last thing resembling a historical narrative that is contained in this Book. From here on out, it’s mostly devotional poetry and sermonizing on a few repetitive themes. These are:
  1. God is more awesome than sex.
  2. If you’re an asshole, it still pisses God off even if you give sacrifices to make up for it.
  3. Other religions (and their followers) are stupid and/or evil.
  4. Someday, every nation on earth will totally kiss Israel’s collective backside.
  5. God is going to fuck up (or has already fucked up) everyone who doesn’t do as he says.

     Some of that is written from Isaiah’s perspective, and other bits are Isaiah claiming to be repeating God’s own words, but it’s basically the same stuff over and over. Kind of like Psalms, much of it would probably sound nicely poetic if one actually believed it were about anything real, but otherwise it just seems indulgent and repetitive. There are a few things, though, that stand out here and there. So as with past posts about sections that have no narrative structure, I’ll just highlight some bits that caught my eye. So, to kick that off:

Isa 43:3 For I am Yahweh your god, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”

     Ummm… what? God is giving other people and nations as ransom for the Israelites? Giving them to whom? Who could he be buying them back from? Is this a reference to the Babylonian captivity, suggesting that God is giving Egypt, Cush, and Seba to Babylon in exchange for the Israelites? Can you picture God sitting down to negotiate this sort of horse-trading with a mortal king (“Alright, I’ll give you two Egyptians and a Cushite for one Levite, but that’s my final offer!” “What?! Cushites are worthless! My kids will starve for the price of a Cushite! I’ll need two Egyptians and two Sebites, no less!”)? Or is this passage about ransoming the Israelites from God’s own wrath for their transgressions, suggesting that he’s willing to punish others for the sins of the Israelites? At any rate, it couldn’t be much clearer that the god in question is the tribal god of and for the Israelites, and fuck everyone else.

     Moving on, the next thing of interest is a bit railing against idolatry.

     “Isa 44:16 Half of [the tree], [the carpenter] burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’ 18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’”

     So the message here is clear: how can anyone possibly think that the same chunk of material they casually burn to make food could also be a god? Isn’t that stupid?

     Well, yeah, it kind of is. If people who worshipped idols thought they actually were gods, that would definitely be stupid. But that’s not how I understand idols to work. As I understand it, nobody ever believes that the little statue actually is a god. They believe that the physical representation creates a connection to the actual god, who is a separate being with its own independent existence elsewhere, and that this connection is necessary in order for the worship/prayers to reach said god. In other words, they don’t so much worship the idol as what it represents. I’m not certain whether Isaiah understood the distinction, and was intentionally straw-manning the process to make it look dumber than it was, or if he really didn’t get it.

     Not that it isn't kind of silly this way, either. Of course, I’m also not certain why he thinks “They worship a chunk of carved wood,” is inherently any dumber than “I worship a story.” They’re both something that a person made, either way.

     Later, there’s a bit talking about the Persian King Cyrus who, if you recall, is the dude who released the Israelites from their captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

     “Isa 45:1 Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue the nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 ‘I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron. 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.”

     There’s more. Like much of Isaiah, it really goes on and on, but I think this captures the gist. Basically, it’s a passage nakedly claiming credit for the military successes of Cyrus for Yahweh, in spite of the fact that Cyrus did not worship the Israelite god. Nonsensically, this passage claims that these victories were given to Cyrus so that he would know that he was in Yahweh’s favor, in spite of the fact that Cyrus was a devotee of Marduk and would naturally have given his own god credit for them since he “did not know” Yahweh. It’s a ridiculously self-serving assertion for Isaiah to make, being clearly aimed at co-opting the gratitude the Israelites would have felt toward Cyrus and redirecting it toward the god for whom Isaiah just happened to be the spokesman. The fact that there’s no evidence anywhere that Cyrus ever gave up worshipping Marduk in favor of Yahweh suggests this whole idea of Yahweh directly having such a conversation with him is completely made up.

     Since I'm still a good twenty-plus chapters away from being done with Isaiah, and this is already running long, I think I'll call this done for the day. Come hell or high water, the next post will be the last on the Book of Isaiah. Y'all be well!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Isaiah: Divine Lessons Versus Human Ignorance

            Yep, we’re still chillin’ with the Book of Isaiah today. And when last we left off, we were in the middle of Isaiah’s retelling of the story of Hezekiah (which we first saw in Second Kings). The part we just finished was about how Assyria invaded Judah and was turned back. It seriously reads like some poor dude was trying to write down a story about which he’d heard two versions (one in which the Assyrians turned back because God made the king hear a rumor that Cush was going to attack him, and the other where God sent an angel to slaughter his army en masse), couldn’t decide which version to use, and just decided “Fuck it! It was both!”

            Anyhow, with the Assyrian army out of the picture for the time being, the narrative stays with Hezekiah. The next event discussed is Hezekiah suffering from a deadly illness, during which Isaiah comes to visit and basically tells him that God says he should make out his will ‘cause he gonna die. This is not welcome news to the king, who bursts into tears and prays to God to spare him. So God sends Isaiah back to tell Hezekiah that he’s changed his mind and will add another fifteen years to his life.

            Now the timeline here is weird. First, all of this is written about after the Assyrian army has returned home and we’re told that sometime later the Assyrian king had been assassinated. But along with the promise to extend Hezekiah’s life, God was also promising to defend him from the Assyrians, implying that this event was taking place during the invasion. Secondly, in Isaiah 38:7, God (unprompted) turns the shadow on the sundial back ten steps as a sign that he really will do what he promised. Almost the whole rest of Chapter 38 is then dedicated to some prayer supposedly written by Hezekiah as thanks to God for saving him. And then, at the very end of Chapter 38 we get:

Isa 38:21 Now Isaiah had said, ‘Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover.’ 22 Hezekiah also had said ‘What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of Yahweh?’”

            And that’s just a weird place for it. It’s like the author forgot to mention it back when he was describing Hezekiah’s recovery, then remembered later and couldn’t be bothered to rewrite that section. So he just tacked it onto the end. It’s also weird because this is a retelling of a story from Second Kings, and in that version the bits about making the cake of figs and Hezekiah asking for a sign were placed in the sensible order with the rest of the story. I guess the author of Isaiah was just kinda crap with storytelling.

            The next little bit tells us about a visit from officials sent by the king of Babylon to wish Hezekiah well after his illness. He decides that the best way to demonstrate his hospitality is to show off to them everything in the treasury along with everything else in the realm that he owns. When Isaiah hears about this, he “prophesizes” that God has told him that after Hezekiah's death the Babylonians are going to come sack Jerusalem and carry off Hezekiah’s own sons to be servants and palace eunuchs to their king. Hezekiah’s response is… surprising.

Isa 39:8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, ‘The word of Yahweh that you have spoken is good,’ for he thought ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’”

            Yeah… I could have thought of many responses to Isaiah’s claim, but “Fuck my kids; at least things will be good while I’m alive,” would not have entered my mind. This guy who begged and wept for his own life to be spared (and had that request granted) just a chapter ago couldn’t be assed to offer even a token prayer on behalf of his children and kingdom for after he dies? Is this supposed to be demonstrating how good he is for accepting God’s decree? Because he sure as fuck didn’t accept it when it was his own ass on the line. Altogether, it makes Hezekiah out to be one selfish, heartless dick. And maybe he was; I guess I can’t just assume that every story is meant to give us some kind of a moral lesson. Maybe it’s just talking about what the guy was really like. Who knows?

            Anyway, that’s the last we hear of the life and times Hezekiah for now. And the last we hear of narrative structure for awhile, too – the next bit is really just worship poetry and prayers. The vast majority of Chapter 40 is just going on ad nauseum about how wonderful God is. Which, I suppose, might be taken as inspirational poetry if you happen to already believe it. But if you don’t, it’s kind of tedious and overblown. But there’s something in this section that might be worth commenting on before bringing today’s entry to a close.

Isa 40:22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.”

            This is one of those passages Christians like to point out to claim as evidence that the Bible contains miraculous knowledge that the people of the time could not have gotten on their own. Specifically, that the earth is round (based on “circle of the earth,” above) and that the universe is expanding (based on “stretches out the heavens”). I would have to say that’s a bullshit interpretation. That passage is very clearly (if somewhat poetically) describing a flat, circular earth over which the sky is placed and stretched taught like a tent canvas. In fact, a tent is the exact metaphor the text uses. Nobody who actually knew the earth to be a spherical object moving through a vast and expanding universe would ever use that metaphor to describe its structure. And nobody reading that description who didn’t already know those facts would ever glean them from that description. This does not describe divine knowledge, but rather all-too-human ignorance, and the apologetics that claim otherwise are simply pathetic.

            Anyway, that’s it for today. Much of the rest of Isaiah continues without a lot of storytelling. I’m not sure whether that will mean I can knock out the rest in a single post next time – there are still twenty-six more chapters to go, after all, and surely some of it will bear comment. But while we wait to find out, I hope you all remain happy and well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Isaiah: More Prophecy, More Nonsense, More Death

            Well, I’d like to say it’s been interesting reading the last few weeks of reading, but… yeah. The two dozen or so Chapters that follow the point in Isaiah where I last left off mostly consist of oracles: predictions Isaiah makes about the lands and peoples surrounding Israel. They’re largely various forms of Isaiah indulging in poetic revenge-porn fantasies about the differnet nations, races, and cities that are either the traditional enemies of the Israelites or who he just personally doesn’t like, mixed with the occasional predictions of future glory for the Israelites (but only if they repent and go back to obeying Yahweh). Now, I’m not gonna bother trying to research and confirm or debunk every single one of them; this isn’t that kind of blog, and others have done that work anyway. But there are a few things that are worth commenting on.

            Round about Chapter 17, Isaiah predicts that the city of Damascus and the nation of Syria will cease to exist. You may be familiar with Syria and Damascus; they’re in the news a lot lately. Because they still exist something like 2500 years after this prediction was made. Of course, since the passage making the prediction doesn’t bother with trivia like when or how any of this destruction will happen, plenty of people like to argue that it just hasn’t happened yet. But honestly “someday City X and Nation Y will cease to exist… eventually” is so trivial a prediction that any rational person would ignore any claim that it’s prophetic at all. It’s a statement that could be made about literally any city and any nation ever founded, and it will eventually come true.

            In the midst of Chapter 21 we get the prediction that one day Egypt and Assyria will join Israel in the worship of Yahweh. By a strict reading, not only has this not come true, but it’s impossible for it to come true. You see, Assyria stopped existing a couple thousand years ago. Of course, you could pull the popular apologetics trick of claiming that this just means the people who live on the lands Assyria once occupied rather than the actual nation of Assyria. And you could even really make a stretch and claim it actually has come true… but only if you make the assumption that Allah and Yahweh are, in fact, the same god and Islam is Biblically valid. Somehow, I suspect most Jews and Christians would not be willing to make that assumption. But in any case, Isaiah 21:24 further claims that the three nations will worship together and be “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” and I don’t know anyone with a fucked-up enough world view to think that portion of the oracle has come true!

            This is made all the more entertaining by the fact that the book later includes two chapters demanding that Israel not make alliances with Egypt, and detailing all the catastrophes that will befall them if they do.

            Then there’s this little gem….

            Isa 21:11 The oracle concerning Dumah. One is calling to me from Seir, ‘Watchman, what time of the night? Watchman, what time of the night?’ 12 The watchman says: ‘Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again.’”

            The very next verse starts introducing an oracle regarding Arabia, so that lovely little piece of gobbledygook up there is the whole of the “oracle concerning Dumah.” You know how you can shake a Magic 8-Ball, and get “ask again later” as a possible answer because it’s just a child’s toy with no real clairvoyant ability? Yeah, that.

            A few more oracles, some chapters dedicated to verbally fellating God, more warnings and condemnations of everyone from the women of Jerusalem to the whole of the world… and finally we get to something resembling history/storytelling in Chapter 36. Here, king Sennacherib of Assyria invades Judah, and this section seems to be written in a historical style similar to that of Kings and Chronicles. In fact, it’s a retelling of a story from Second Kings, which is a good thing if you want to have any clue what the context is supposed to be; Isaiah just jumps in right in the middle.

            Interestingly enough, this story is quite literally the exact one where, in my own blog entry on Second Kings, I declared “aw, fuck it!’ and started breezing through to the end out of sheer boredom. It says a little something about what it’s like to read Isaiah that I’m now willing to write about the same story.

            Anyway, Isaiah starts with the armies of Assyria attacking and capturing a bunch of cities from Judah, then starting to lay siege to Jerusalem. It leaves out the bits from Second Kings about how the king of Judah had been suckling at the Assyrian teat, had recently bribed them to attack and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and had tried (and apparently failed) to bribe the Assyrians into forestalling the attack on Judah that is the subject of this story. I think, based on trying to piece things together in the various books, that the Assyrians were attacking Judah to prevent them from allying themselves with Egypt against Assyria.

            Anyway, the commander of the Assyrian army (called the Rabshekah, which seems to be a title or military rank), shows up at Jerusalem to demand that Hezekiah surrender and to taunt them for the inevitability of their defeat. He makes a point of saying that their god can’t help them, since Assyria had conquered so many other kingdoms and their gods hadn’t saved them. He also mocks them for trying to rely on an alliance with Egypt for protection. Rabshekah also tries, unsuccessfully, to incite the people of Jerusalem to abandon their king and accept Assyrian rule.

            After the Rabshekah left to rejoin the Assyrian king, Hezekiah sent his servants to ask Isaiah for help. Isaiah’s response was:

Isa 37:6 Isaiah said to them ‘Say to your master, “Thus says Yahweh: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the kind of Assyria have reviled me. 8 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.”’”

            That just seems like odd and pointless phrasing. Why not just “I’ll cause him to hear a rumor…?” Why does a spirit need to be put in him that would make him hear a rumor. People don’t hear rumors because of spirits, they hear rumors because other people speak them. Ah, whatever.

            Meanwhile, the king of Assyria is besieging the town of Libnah, when he hears that the king of Cush is coming to attack him. And this is where things get a little confusing. Not sure if it’s just that the author of Isaiah is a shitty storyteller, or what. But it apparently, after hearing this rumor, the king of Assyria sends Hezekiah a letter with words to the effect of “I’m still coming to kick your ass.” Is this meant to suggest that God’s spirit/rumor gambit failed to turn him back? ‘Cause that would mean God lied and/or failed to do something he said he’d do. The book never actually explains this, or comes right out and says what is really happening either way. And since the Assyrian king eventually does leave (for other reasons, as we’re about to discuss), I suppose it’s technically true that he 1) heard a rumor and 2) returned to his own land, even though they are unrelated events and not linked as the little mini-prophecy implied.

            Hezekiah goes on another prayer binge after getting this latest letter, and Isaiah delivers God’s response. It’s weird, in that he’s speaking to Hezekiah even though portions of the response are clearly directed at the king of Assyria as if he were present. But the long and rambling response includes a promise to defend Jerusalem, which is accomplished by sending an angel to kill a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers in the middle of the night. This, finally, convinces the king of Assyria to go home to lick his wounds, where he is eventually assassinated by a couple of his own sons.

            And that will be my stopping point for today. When next we come back, we can get into Hezekiah getting sick, recovering, and being kind of a dick about his own kids as we continue our wondrous exploration of Isaiah.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Isaiah: Predictions of Murder

            Holy shit, it’s been a long time since I wrote in this blog!

            In my (sorta) defense, I worked a lot of 12 hour days since March. And I lost the thumb drive where I keep my writing files. But I also managed to find time to put up several posts in my personal blog, so those excuses don’t really fly. But if you recall where we left off last time (or want to go back and read my previous post), you might see why motivation could be pretty low.

            Isaiah, also, is a bit of a challenge to blog about. After all, it contains a lot of stuff that Christians like to claim is prophetic. Some of it happened. Some of it happened, but in different ways than Isaiah predicted, and some of it has never come true. Plus, there’s good reason to think that the Book of Isaiah wasn’t even finished until after some of the events it “predicts” had actually happened. I can try to research all the claims, but the fact is that I’m neither a Biblical scholar nor a historian, and I kind of have a life outside this book. This blog is really only intended to be the impressions of an ordinary guy reading the Bible. So I think I’m going to have to proceed with the policy of just commenting on whatever I feel needs commenting on simply from a straight reading, and leave it at that.

            Anyway, when last we left off, we were in Chapter 6 of Isaiah, wherein God commanded his prophet to deliberately deceive the Israelites into sinning more so that they wouldn’t repent and therefore God could justify punishing them horrifically at a later date (people find this stuff inspirational?). From there, we go on to a story from the time of King Ahaz of Judah. In this, the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel has teamed up with Syria to start attacking Judah, and Ahaz started losing his shit over it. So God sends Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that God’s totally not gonna let that happen. He even promises to give him a magical sign to prove that he’s speaking the truth, which brings us to one of those passages that is, oddly, held up as a prophecy about Jesus.

Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  16 For before the boy knows how to refuse evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

            This is very obviously supposed to be a sign that happens in the time of Ahaz (more than seven hundred years before Jesus’ time) specifically in relation to his troubles with Syria and Israel. I have no idea how anyone concludes it means anything else. I mean, the Immanuel character in this “prophecy” isn’t even supposed to do anything; it’s just predicting that Syria and Israel will cease to be threats to Judah sometime between the kid’s birth and him being old enough to eat solid food. Though maybe this was a case where the lands of Syria and Israel were never actually deserted, and since that makes it look like this was a failed prophecy the NT authors shoehorned it into the Jesus story in an attempt to rescue it. But that’s just speculation on my part. But what’s odd is how Chapter 8 starts out:

Isa 8:1 Then Yahweh said to me, ‘Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” 2 And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me.’ 3 And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then Yahweh said to me, ‘Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; 4 for before the boy knows how to cry “My father,” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.’”

            What’s odd about this? Well, it’s strikingly similar to the Immanuel sign; a kid will be born and given a certain name, and before he grows out of infancy the alliance of Israel and Syria will have been defeated. It’s just that the name is different, and this time the kid is Isaiah’s own son from banging a nameless prophetess rather than the fatherless son of a nameless virgin girl (dude, Isaiah, women have names. Because they’re people.). Is this maybe just a different telling of the same story? Because it’s pretty damn redundant otherwise. And what is the point of the tablet in the second story anyway? Just to illustrate that Isaiah had picked out the kid’s name before he was conceived? Big deal. We’d picked out my daughter’s name before she was conceived, too. None of this is explained, or even mentioned again.

            Anyhow, seeing as it’s been a long time since I read the Kings2 and Chronicles 2 versions of Ahaz’s reign (and I skipped over writing about it in my blog entries on those books since it was just another blip in the long parade of politicking and wars), I went back to see if there was anything corresponding to all this. When I did, I discovered that (surprise!) the two stories conflict: 2 Kings says Ahaz paid the king of Assyria to come help him, which he did by invading Syria and capturing Damascus, whereas 2 Chronicles says that Assyria took the money and still didn’t help. How does Isaiah address the situation? By claiming that Yahweh sent the Assyrians to wipe out Judah, and then would strike down Assyria for having the unmitigated gall to think they had acted of their own accord instead of as his tool.

            Why would a people who weren’t in Yahweh’s special favor and communication think to credit him for their own decisions? No reason. Just that the claim that this is the case supports the theological point the author is trying to make (that nobody should rely on anyone other than his god for anything).

            The next little bit is kind of tough to get through coherently. It mostly consists of supposedly prophetic passages about stuff that will occur in the future (relative to Isaiah’s time, though since much of it never happened it’s often interpreted to still be in the future relative to our time as well). Much of it is blood-drenched revenge fantasies against the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon, interspersed with other fantasies of future glory for the Israelite people (after appropriate periods of getting the shit whipped out of them by other people, who are really only acting as god’s instruments to chastise them for their lack of slavish devotion to him and his rules).

            Among the predictions of a glorious future is included the arrival of a new ruler for the Jewish people, who will be a descendant of Jesse (King David’s dad, presumably). And this fellow, it is said, will have an interesting method of ruling:

Isa 11:3 And his delight shall be in the fear of Yahweh. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the por, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

            So, ummmm… any guesses what the fuck that is supposed to mean? It’s interesting that at such an early date the Bible is already disparaging such ideas as evidence in favor of judging via “righteousness.” Like, what does that even mean? Fuck information, if you’re righteous you’ll just know what’s the right thing to do? How does someone know they’re actually righteous, without any information? If we’re talking about a human ruler (and bear in mind that this passage gives no hints that anything else is implied), this would be a clear recipe for disaster. But of course, I’m sure Christians are convinced that the ruler talked about in this passage is Jesus. And since Jesus is God, and righteousness is doing whatever God wants, then naturally anything he does is righteous by definition. So I guess this passage amounts to “And he’ll do whatever the fuck he wants, and kill anybody who disagrees, and trust me that this is a good thing.”

            But what the hell could it possibly mean to “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth?” I’m at a complete loss there, and every image the phrase might conjure up is pretty disturbing to dwell on.

            Oh, incidentally, other features included in the reign of this fellow are: predator and prey animals living together in peace, children playing in perfect safety with poisonous snakes, and the descendants of Judah and Israel teaming up to kill the everloving shit out of the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, etc., and plundering the nations of the east. So… peace among animals, side-by-side with genocidal war among humans (with, of course, the author’s people doing the genociding)? Like it matters for shit that you’re no longer afraid of snakes, when God’s chosen people are just going to come murder you anyway? Seems like more jingoistic fantasizing, to be honest: things will be miraculously beautiful for us, while we run rampant over all our old enemies.

            This seems as good a point as any to call it a day on this one. Hopefully I’ll be able to put the next post up in less than the six months it took me to get around to this one. If you’re still reading, thank you for your patience. And, until the next time, be well!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Isaiah: Lies and Damn Lies Redux

            The Book of Isaiah is one of those supposedly prophetic books of the Bible. It’s famous for predicting the Jewish exile in Babylon, despite the fact that the oldest known copy of the text has been dated to more than a century after said exile ended. But whatever. It’s also supposed to have some predictions about the Jewish Messiah (spoiler: Jesus), though that’s fairly heavily disputed. But let’s dig in and see what the thing actually says.

            The book starts off with a section that identifies itself as:

Isa 1:1 The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.”

            Clearly, we’re not talking about a single vision here, since the time period it mentions spans somewhere between thirty-two and one hundred three years depending on how much of Uzziah’s and Hezekiah’s reigns were actually included. It’s unlikely Isaiah spent all that time in a trance (or even alive). And anyway, he’s recorded as talking to some of these rulers in Second Kings, so we know he spent at least a little time conscious and interacting with the real world.

            What follows is a screed berating the people for their immorality. Of course, the claim is not that Isaiah is doing so, but that he’s relaying the words that God spoke directly to him in his vision. It’s typical of the sort of fundamentalist rants we get in America nowadays about how we’ve turned away from God and now he’s going to destroy us all, only rendered in a more poetic and long-winded fashion. In the middle of this rant, we get this interesting tidbit:

Isa 1:11 ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices’? says Yahweh; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.’”

            On the one hand… didn’t God himself require those sacrifices and feasts in the laws he gave Moses? Did he not, in fact, declare that he adored the smell of burning flesh? Didn’t he declare that nobody must ever appear before him empty-handed? Didn’t he say these sacrifices would be a statute forever, and that nobody could ever alter the laws? Why yes, yes he did. Now Isaiah is telling us that God doesn’t know where all that shit came from and he hates it, so people should stop following those laws based on his (Isaiah’s) say-so. Boy, it must be tough following arbitrary laws when they can be arbitrarily changed by any ol’ bugger who claims to speak for the otherwise silent and invisible lawmaker.

            On the other hand… this is followed up by saying that instead of just burning more animals the people should try applying a bit more justice and charity instead. Isaiah seems to be trying to push his theology in the direction of saying it’s pointless and stupid to burn animals on an altar to make up for being a douchebag if, in the end, you keep behaving like a douchebag. So... incremental improvement.

            Chapter 1 concludes with more about how Jerusalem and Judah collectively suck balls compared to how awesome and wonderful they used to be. So God is going to strike down the kingdom and return it to the much better days when it was run by judges. That’s kinda funny, because the Book of Judges bitched about how much everything sucked without a king to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. The grass is always greener, even if you’re God.

            Chapter 2 is short, and pretty much just apocalyptic yammering about how someday God’s totally gonna just take over the show of running the world in person. And on that day everybody in the world will bow down and exalt him, and all that stuff. I think this is the first time that kind of thing has shown up in the Bible, though it seems like pretty standard rhetoric among fundamentalist Christians these days.

            Continuing on, Isaiah talks about how, in the meantime, God’s going to be working on destroying all the wicked, cruel, and greedy people of Israel until only a purified group of righteous folks remain. This is also pretty standard for modern days, but not quite as unprecedented in the Bible since Moses sure liked to go on about the horrors God would enjoy inflicting on people who rejected him. Though Isaiah seems to focus a little more on social justice issues than mere obedience to the law. He has a real objection to people gathering wealth to themselves rather than seeing that their fellows have enough.

            There’s also an odd bit of argument that suggests that people will behave unjustly because God has stopped supporting them as punishment for… behaving unjustly. It’s circular and weird, and kind of undermines the idea of free will yet again.

            Later, Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that, despite all the care its gardener (God) has taken to ensure it bears good fruit, produces nothing but junk. Basically, the analogy is to make the argument that God will be justified in destroying the Israelites just as the gardener would be justified in tearing up the vineyard. I think it’s an equally valid interpretation to suppose that God’s just a shitty gardener, but that’s not the one the author is going for obviously.

            Now, to give credit where it’s due, I totally sympathize with the social justice stance Isaiah is taking. It’s just kind of a shame that he has no better argument for it than “So cut that shit out or God’s totally gonna bust you up.” I suppose, in a highly religious society, that might seem like a good argument to make… until Isaiah’s vision in Chapter Six completely undermines everything he had said or ever would say. In fact, I would go so far as to say that that this undermines the trustworthiness of the entire Bible. Because in this vision, God issues Isaiah the following order:

Isa 6:9 And he said ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ 11 Then I said ‘How long, or Lord?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and Yahweh removes the people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terabinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.’”

            In case you missed it, that is God giving direct orders to Isaiah to lie to the Israelites and teach them bullshit about what God wants, so that they will continue doing stuff that pisses God off so He can feel justified in punishing them. He specifically tells his prophet to prevent people from understanding His wishes, because if they were to understand and start behaving, he would have to forgive them instead of killing the fuck out of ‘em. And God apparently wants to kill the fuck out of ‘em way more than he wants anything else.

            And that, my friends, is it for the Bible. Because even if the god it describes really exists, everything in it could be a lie specifically told to deceive you into pissing that god off so he can justify fucking you up. And it would be that way because that’s what God wants. What teachings are true? What are false just to create an excuse for punishment? There’s no way to know. By the Bible’s own admission, everything in it is suspect.

            Really, this isn’t even the only place in the Bible this happens. We've seen it before. At this point, the only thing that justifies reading any further is the fact that this book is such a cultural phenomenon. So when I calm down a bit, I’ll get back to dragging through Isaiah. But for now, I think it’s time for a break.

            Y’all take care!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Minipost: Psalm 137 - Blessed Infanticide

            Remember when I said I might come back to Psalms to do mini posts on individual ones? Well, here’s the first of those.

            Many atheists love to quote the line “blessed is he who dashes your babies against the rocks,” from Psalm 137 as a refutation of the claim that the Bible is a perfect moral guide, because it’s an obviously morally repugnant verse. But Christians love to protest that verses like this are taken out of context. So in the interests of fairness I thought I’d give this psalm a full once-over to see what possible context could possibly justify the verse. Here’s the full text of Psalm 137:

Psalm 137:1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! 7 Remember, O Yahweh, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

            OK, so based on that it looks like this is a song about the Babylonian Captivity, when the Hebrew kingdoms were conquered and many of its citizens forcibly taken to live in Babylon. Those events were described both in Second Kings and Second Chronicles. The Psalm starts out as a lament for their current situation, and then it morphs into a deranged revenge fantasy about murdering the children of their captors.

            Nope. Sorry, the context still doesn’t justify it. Murdering children because you’re pissed at their parents ain’t cool, no matter how much the Bible seems to think that punishing people for the actions of their ancestors is justified. Well, in some places, such as the multiple times God orders genocides against people’s because stuff their ancestors two centuries back had done. In others, the Bible tells you that killing people for the sins of their fathers isn’t allowed. Because the Bible can’t really get its shit together long enough to give any consistent moral message.

            And heck, even within the context of the Bible itself, this is a shit attitude this Psalm is expressing. You see, according to both the Kings and Chronicles accounts, God caused the Babylonians to conquer Judah in order to punish the Israelites for not worshipping him properly. So this Psalm is a revenge fantasy about killing children because their parents did the bidding of the god the writer supposedly worships. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever!

            So yeah… I’m gonna go with the conclusion that atheist condemnation of this Psalm is fully justified.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Song of Solomon: Bible Porn

            So… what would be the last thing you’d expect to find in the Bible. If you answered “an entire book dedicated to passion between two lovers,” then the Song of Solomon will be a surprise for you. Written as a back-and-forth between a bride and her groom (with occasional interjections from a chorus of onlookers), the Song of Solomon is all about two romantics eagerly praising each other’s attributes. And from the very first line (sung by the bride), you can tell that this isn’t about chaste and virginal affection.

SoS 1:2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; 3 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you. 4 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.”

            What follows is a rather heated bit of poetical romance. Some of it is quite fanciful, some of it is subtle (and not-so-subtle) double entendre, and some of it is… well…

SoS 4:5 Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies.”

SoS 4:11 Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and mikl are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”

“SoS 4:16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come into his garden and eat its choicest fruits.”

SoS 7:1 How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O noble daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.”

“SoS 7:6 How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights! 7 Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. 8 I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, 9 and your mouth like the best wine.”

            So, yeah. Song of Solomon, everybody. Not much more to say about it, other than that it may just have been the wisest of the books attributed to him. Cold showers may be in order before moving on.

            Next up is Isaiah, which is listed at sixty-six chapters. Something tells me we’ll be awhile in getting through that one! Until next time, be well!