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!