The Complete Book of Isaiah

He Died for Our Sins … But He's Not Jesus. What To Make of Isaiah's Most Puzzling Chapter?
What's really in the Good Book.
Jan. 4 2007 7:19 PM

The Complete Book of Isaiah

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The Book of Isaiah

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Say goodbye to the confused, vengeful, wild-eyed prophecies of the first half of the book. Isaiah has calmed down, offering hymns of praise rather than orgies of damnation. Chapter 40 is probably the grandest hosanna to Almighty God ever written. Its basic theme isn't new—God is unimaginably powerful, and we are pathetically weak—but the pileup of metaphors, analogies, images, and rhetorical questions is still astonishing. Taste a little bite:

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
And as are accounted as dust on the scales …
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 live in;
Who brings the princes to naught,
And makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

This chapter and the next few sound familiar—almost clichéd—but I think that's for the same reason Casablancaor Romeo and Juliet sound familiar. It is an urtext, so powerful that it actually determined how we think and write about God. Isaiah's over-the-top comparisons ("Lebanon would not provide fuel enough … for a burnt offering") and the rhetorical questions ("Who taught Him knowledge and showed Him the way to understanding?") resonate because we use the very same language today to talk about God.

God is still not excessively pleased with His chosen people. (They're a "worm" and an "insect.") But at least He's back on their team again. "Those who war against you shall be nothing at all."

Again, I'm struck that Isaiah cares so much more about the poor and helpless than anyone else in the Bible. He's always insisting that superficial obedience to God means nothing—only caring for the lowest among us earns His love. It's a wildly different emphasis than everything that has come before. Till now, the Bible has been nominally sympathetic to the poor but mostly concerned with the Israelites as a whole. Isaiah races way off toward radical, liberation-theology egalitarianism. (Surely Jesus borrowed much of his blessed-are-the-meekism from Isaiah?)

Plagiarizing a trick from Elijah, God mocks rival deities and challenges them to a fight. "Set forth your case, says the Lord; Bring your proofs. …Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be afraid and terrified." They can't, of course. The Lord dismisses with a gloating sneer: "You, indeed, are nothing, and your work is nothing at all."

I know it's juvenile of me, but I love these catty biblical comments. Here's God acting just like we would if we were God! The Good Book feels most real, and most persuasive, when it's funny, mean, and scornful. It reminds us that the Bible is not an idealization, but a book written by (and written about) real people, who can be both scornful and kind, faithful and cruel, sarcastic and sweet—as their God can be, too.

God instructs Israel to be "a light to the nations." Isaiah tells us: "Sing to the Lord a new song." Hello, Bartlett's.

Isaiah 42:14 offers one of the strangest and most humanizing images of God yet. God is explaining that He has kept silent and restrained himself for too long. Now he's coming back to punish the wicked and lead the righteous. "Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant." As I mentioned, the first half of Isaiah is full of misogyny—weakness and women are always linked. But here we have God Himself as a woman undergoing the agonies of childbirth! As far as I can remember, this is the first comparison of God to a woman. Have there been others that I missed?

Like certain in-laws and unbeloved uncles, the Lord just can't let a happy moment pass without a putdown. Here in Chapter 43, He again redeems Israel, but He's bitterly resentful as He does it. Rather than celebrate their new glory, he grumbles at the Israelites for their infidelity: "You have not brought me sweet cane … or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities."

As in Chapter 40, there is fulsome praise of God's awesomeness. Only this time, God is talking about Himself. "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it. ...There is no other rock; I know not one. … I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things."

(Have you ever wondered what inspired Muhammad Ali? Where his florid braggadocio came from? Wonder no more.)

The chapter also riffs on how you make an idol. First, the carpenter cuts down a tree. Second, he uses wood from the tree to bake his bread and warm himself. … It's not clear where Isaiah is going with this, and then—the brilliant turn: "The rest of [the wood] he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it." The Lord scoffs at the fool who would fall on his knees before a block of wood, who would think the kindling that cooks his food is a god, who is so stupid that he can't see that the statue he holds "is a fraud." God doesn't merely object to us worshipping other gods. He is actually insulted by the idea we would fall down before an idol. It impugns his "enormous enormance"—I'm quoting Dr. Seuss here—to be reduced to a block of wood. Treating a wooden statue as God Almighty is like calling a Ferrari a nice car, or saying Ella Fitzgerald is a decent singer. It's much better to say nothing—to make nothing—than to offer such insultingly small praise.

Sometimes the Bible and modern geopolitics brush against each other. And sometimes they crash head on at 55 mph like they do in Chapter 45. The Lord sends a huge shout-out to King Cyrus of Persia. God promises to lead him to victory, "cutting through the bars of iron" to help him. Why help this pagan king? Because Cyrus conquers Babylon, frees the Jews, ends the "Babylonian Captivity," and allows the Israelites to return home to Zion. There are so many layers of irony and analogy here, you could practically make baklava. Cyrus remains a great hero to modern Iranians as the father of Persia. Yet Cyrus is also a hero to Jews, because he liberated them and was famously tolerant of Judaism. So, you have Iran, a nation led by anti-Semites, sharing a hero with Jews. Plus, what does Cyrus conquer? Babylon—that is, modern day Iraq. At this moment, Americans are fretting about Teheran's rising influence in Iraq and its possible transformation into a vassal state of Iran. Twenty-five hundred years have passed, and it's the same fights, the same land, the same people.

God makes a very sweet promise to us. He says to the Israelites, "Even to your old age I am He, even when you turn gray I will carry you." There are plenty of good reasons why people get more religious when they get older—the duh! one being that religion offers the consolation of eternal life—but here's another. God doesn't discriminate. He loves us, young and old. 

God continues his attack on the Israelites' enemies with a particularly graphic image: Babylon is a "virgin daughter." God orders her to sit in the dust, strip off her robe, and uncover her nakedness—if not quite a rape, certainly a sexual assault.

All families replay the same dramas over and over again.

Dad: I told you to be home by 11. Were you out with that football player again?
Jane: I'm 16, Dad, I can do what I want. And I love him.
Dad: I told you to be home by midnight. Were you out with that Marine again?
Jane: I'm 17, Dad, lay off. And I love him. Etc.

It's no different with the Lord and His Chosen. They must have had the same squabble 15 times in Isaiah alone. Israelites: abject, flattering, hoping for mercy. God: irritated, reluctantly granting forgiveness, rehashing all the Israelites' old mistakes, making the Israelites sorry they ever asked for mercy. To whit: "I know that you are obstinate. … I knew that you would deal very treacherously, and that from birth you were called a rebel."

The line so nice God drops it twice: " 'There is no peace,' says the Lord, 'for the wicked.' " This is the closing verse of this chapter, and of Chapter 57.

The Bible so far has been written for a small audience—a small tribe of Israelites, embattled by enemies, struggling for survival. It never bothers to speak to the rest of the world: Non-Israelites are usually enemies and always irrelevant to God's covenant. But Isaiah makes God a universal God. In Chapter 49, for example, God chooses a "servant" whose job is to speak to the whole world. "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Moses and David did not care an iota about universal salvation or the end of the earth: They wanted Jewish survival. But Isaiah has repurposed God's mission for everyone. Not to belabor a point made by a million people before me, but it's certainly no surprise that Isaiah is popular with Christians, since the book teaches a proto-Christian theology.

Here's another proto-Christian theme in Chapter 51: Don't worry about minor problems here on earth, because "my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended."

And here's another! The "servant" is killed, or perhaps only mangled and disfigured, yet returns more exalted than ever.

And even one more, the most obvious yet! The servant is "despised and rejected by others." He is:

wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities … and by his bruises we are healed. … The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. … Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin … through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.

Wow! The earlier Jesus language in Isaiah is nothing compared to this. This sounds exactly like the prayers I used to hear during chapel at St. Albans. It's obvious that the essential Christian ideas about the redemptive suffering of Jesus are founded in Isaiah. The notion of God sending a servant and making him suffer for our sins, so that we may be redeemed—it starts here.

Question for Jewish scholars: Do we Jews also understand this "servant" to be the Messiah?

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.)

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