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!

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