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.