The Complete Book of Isaiah

Does the Book of Isaiah Predict Christmas?
What's really in the Good Book.
Dec. 22 2006 4:11 PM

The Complete Book of Isaiah

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A number of readers have complained—justifiably—that I often ask questions in the blog, but then never post any of your answers. I can only plead laziness! You send fascinating replies—they're much more insightful than anything I write—but I hardly have time to read them all, let alone pick out and publish the best ones. But my early New Year's resolution is to do better at this. So, let's get started. In my last entry, I asked why, if God is so powerful and good, the Israelites always abandon him, and worship idols such as Baal. Click here to read some of my favorite responses.

The Book of Isaiah

Christians may be wondering why I'm skipping to the Book of Isaiah, which comes much later in the Christian Bible. The Christian and Jewish Bibles part ways at the end of 2 Kings. Christians continue with the book of Chronicles. Jews go from 2 Kings into Isaiah. Since I'm Jewish, I'll read the Jewish way. I will get to Chronicles eventually, but not for a few months, since it comes at the very, very end of the Jewish Bible.

Uh-oh. Isaiah is going to be a slog. I mean no disrespect to Isaiah, who seems a mighty good poet and one heckuva prophet, but his book lacks the kill-them-all Tarantino gore of 1 Kings and 2 Kings or the across-the-desert thrills of Exodus and Numbers. First problem: The book of Isaiah is mostly a poem—a long, long, long poem. Second, reading it sometimes feels like being trapped in an elevator with a highly caffeinated Al Sharpton. Isaiah just won't stop shouting, tossing out one perfect metaphor after another, issuing an endless string of insults and threats. It's a bravura performance, very scary and sometimes quite beautiful, but not a lot of … fun.

Basic summary: Isaiah—channeling the Lord—exhorts various kings of Judah (Jotham, Hezekiah, etc.) and their subjects to return to God, and warns what will happen to them, their descendants, and their land if they don't. (You know, the usual: ruin, desolation, etc.)

Chapter 1 introduces this main theme with some gloriously bitter bullying from God, who spews at His people: "I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner … but Israel does not know. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly…"—you get the idea. God is particularly annoyed at the Israelites' superficial obedience. They continue to make sacrifices to him and burn incense: "Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."

This is particularly resonant in the holiday season. Here is God not demanding a public display of obedience—in fact, He loathes the Israelites' offerings and festivals. Rather, He is demanding a much more profound reformation. His people must change their hearts and, more importantly, change how they treat others. To regain His love, they must "cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."

As far as I can remember, this is the first time that God has explicitly valued good deeds over professions of faith and obedience to the law. Until now, the Israelites only got in trouble for disobeying God's law—idol-worshipping, Sabbath-scoffing, etc. But now, they're dealing with a Good Works God, who requires righteous behavior toward fellow men, rather than disingenuous prayer. The debate over whether God wants faith or deeds still rages today, but I think this is the first time the Bible alludes to it.

Crudely speaking, there are three sides to in this fight:

1) Those who believe you serve God by obeying the letter of His laws—the position generally staked out today by orthodox Jews;

2) Those who believe you serve God best through personal faith, and salvation comes through that faith—the position taken by most evangelical Protestants;

3) Those who believe you serve God best by acting morally toward your fellow humans—the position held by many liberal Catholics and reform Jews.

Till Isaiah, God has clearly favored Group 1, demanding obedience to His law and smiting for mere misdemeanors. So, as a subscriber to Group 3, I'm surprised and rather thrilled to see God endorsing it here. Let's see if He sticks with it.

Every verse in Isaiah sounds like something out of Bartlett's. This must be the most-quoted book this side of Genesis. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Isaiah takes a break from all the menacing threats and looks forward to when the Lord's kingdom shall finally be established. "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

(What's a ploughshare, you ask? I certainly did. It's the metal part of a plough that does the actual soil-cutting.)

Jerusalem is the new Sodom, Isaiah warns. Its moral decay dooms it. ("The people will be oppressed, everyone by another, and everyone by a neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder.") Isaiah particularly lays the wood to the women of Jerusalem, whose vanity and sluttiness offend him. "The daughters of Zion are haughty … glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go … the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets … Instead of perfume there will be a stench." Not the most pleasant image, but that is darn good writing!

Here's a passage that was a punch in the gut, because I saw myself in it. Isaiah damns: "You who call evil good and good evil … who are wise in your own eyes and shrewd in your own sight!" (Every journalist reads this and gulps.) The passage also indicts the entire bartending profession, condemning those "who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink." Valiant? I suppose that serving mobs of drunken frat boys at 2 a.m. does require a certain courage.

A truly baffling exchange: The Lord instructs Isaiah to make the Israelites dull, ignorant, and faithless. He seems to want His people to become irredeemably bad, so that He can start over fresh (as with Noah's flood). To achieve this dumbing down, He orders Isaiah to encourage the Israelites to sin and ignore God. It's sadistic: Why does the Lord wish failure on His people?

Don't look now—here comes Jesus! Isaiah counsels a fretful King Ahaz that, "The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. … The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house" glorious days. Maybe this is a Messiah prediction, maybe not. It's not clear who Isaiah is talking about. The woman is unnamed and unidentified. She may be King Ahaz's own wife. She may be just a metaphor, since the rest of the passage is all metaphor, with the Assyrians represented as bees and the Lord as a razor (don't ask). Another reason to doubt that this is a grand, long-term prophecy: This section narrowly concerns the geopolitics of the moment—the Assyrian conquest—not the eternal fate of mankind.

I have no idea what is going on in this chapter. I'm not kidding. It's gibberish to me. Just check out the opening verse:  

Then the Lord said to me, Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, "Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz."

Yeah. Whatever. If you do understand Chapter 8, please write to me at plotzd@slate.com, and I will publish the most persuasive/entertaining answer. Keep it under 100 words, please!

This savior business is getting more serious. Isaiah forecasts happy later days when "a child has been born for us, a son given to us … and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless people for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forever more."

According to the footnotes in my Bible—the Oxford annotation of the New Revised Standard Version—this passage may only be referring to Hezekiah, a king of Judah. But am I right in thinking that Christians view these verses as a messiah prophecy? Is it, in fact, the source of the Jesus nickname, "Prince of Peace"? (I assume that early Christians intentionally described Jesus in language matching the ancient prophecies, in order to connect him to the prophetic tradition.)

I always suspected Bob Dylan had a lot of Bible in him. Read (or better yet, listen to) the chorus of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll":

you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain't the time for your tears.

Now read the first lines of this chapter:

You who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes …

Similar phrasing and rhythm, right?

The Lord isn't peeved at just the Israelites. He has it in for the Assyrians, too. This chapter essentially retells in prophetic poetry the events of 2 Kings Chapter 19, when the Assyrian army was wiped out by plague while besieging Jerusalem.

Another Jesus prophecy—as well as a shocking discovery about one of the most famous phrases in the English language.

First, the prophecy: Isaiah looks forward to the day when the Lord's designated ruler shall reign, constantly judging the poor with righteousness, helping the meek, and killing the wicked "with the breath of his lips." When this savior arrives, the Lord will gather the remains of His people, bringing them back from their exiles in Assyria and Egypt and everywhere else, and they will drive the pagans out of Israel once and for all. This is eerily remniscent of the Christian End Time prophecies (or at least what little I know about them from reading a couple of the Left Behind books). Is Isaiah's prediction about the ingathering of the Israelites and the vanquishing of their enemies a foundation for the prophecies in the New Testament's Book of Revelation? *

Before this final showdown occurs, however:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Wait a minute! What's missing from this gorgeous, gentle verse? Who is not lying down with whom? Yes, you got it: The liondoes not lie down with the lamb! The leopard lies down with the kid, and the lion does with the calf, but no lion and lamb! (Incidentally, here's the story of a lion that does lie down with calves.)

The lion-lamb confusion is a fascinating example of the Bible's extraordinary cultural influence. If you asked 100 people—even 100 literary scholars—99 of them would say that the lion lying down with the lamb was a line from the Bible (and the very educated ones would even know it was from Isaiah). But it's not! It's a misquote, or, perhaps something even better than that. At some point during the 400 years since the King James Bible was written, a clever soul did a Bible mash-up, tweaking a favorite verse to make it sound a little snazzier, adding alliteration to juice up the phrase. Hmm. Wouldn't "lion and lamb" sound better than "leopard and kid"? And all I can say to that lion-and-lamb inventor is: Thanks for the great rewrite, kid!  

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, Dec. 27:The piece incorrectly referred to the New Testament's "Book of Revelations." It is actually singular: the "Book of Revelation." (Return to corrected sentence.)

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