The Complete Book of Isaiah
Lots of readers accepted my challenge to explain Chapter 8 of Isaiah, which utterly flummoxed me. You sent me dozens (and dozens, and dozens, and dozens) of answers that were funny, smart, and sometimes both. Thanks! It's all clear to me now! Click
Oh, and several of you discovered a gaping hole in my education. My Christmas Eve entry about the Jesus prophecies in Isaiah never mentioned one of the most important reasons why they're so famous today: The text of Handel's Messiah—the most popular piece of holiday music ever—is drawn heavily from Chapters 7 and 9.
This chapter is an oasis. In the midst of all the hectoring, screaming, and threatening, Isaiah pauses for a moment of quiet contemplation. It's a very brief respite: The chapter is just six verses—perhaps the shortest in the Bible. But it's a soothing, lovely passage about faith. Isaiah thanks God for His "comfort," then says:
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
For the Lord God is my strength and my might;
He has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord.
The language of the chapter—comfort, salvation, joy, trust, thanks—is very much the language of modern worship. But it is totally, utterly, massively at odds with the rest of Isaiah. Isaiah is difficult to read not merely because it's an endless, plotless, prophetic poem, but also because the God of Isaiah is so cruel and vengeful. He's God as played by Jack Nicholson. He has only two settings: angry and furious. Except for this all-too-brief chapter, He is never a God of love or mercy. Which is why I'm clinging to Chapter 12 like a security blanket.
The first of a series of "Pronouncements" by Isaiah. This one is the Babylon Pronouncement, to be followed in later chapters by, to name a few, the Moab Pronouncement, the Damascus Pronouncement, the Egypt Pronouncement, the Desert of the Sea Pronouncement, the Valley of Vision Pronouncement, the Tyre Pronouncement, and the Beasts of the Negeb Pronouncement. These Pronouncements vary a bit, but they're generally Isaiah prophesying exactly how the particular enemy of Israel will be punished by God. (They eerily correspond to Israel's current foreign-policy complications: Don't the Israelis dream of being rid of the problems of Babylon, that is, Iraq; Damascus, Egypt, and Tyre, that is, Lebanon?)
Anyway, back to the Babylon Pronouncement. The Lord is really going to give those Babylonian brutes a walloping. "Every human heart will melt … [T]he sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. ... I will make mortals more rare than fine gold. … Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes and their wives ravished." Etc., etc. Babylon will be so destroyed that it will be overrun by wild animals: "There ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance"—how's that for a spooky image?
As you begin to see from the mouth-frothing above, the Pronouncements resemble nothing so much as the obsessive, vindictive, logorrheic rants of local sports talk radio, particularly sports talk radio in a city with a losing football team—such as, say, New York. In place of the Babylon Pronouncement, there's the Coach Pronouncement: Coach Coughlin is a friggin' idiot. I can't believe he kept Manning in the game that long. He's gonna get fired—he's definitely gotta get fired if they don't beat the Redskins. A friggin' goat-demon could do a better job coaching than him. Instead of the Damascus Pronouncement, the Quarterback Pronouncement: Eli Manning? Are you friggin' kidding me? I throw better than Eli Manning. Heck, an ostrich throws better than him. They've gotta trade him, right now, even if they just get a third-string safety. He's never gonna be an NFL QB. Instead of the Egypt Pronouncement, the Tight End Pronouncement: Jeremy Shockey—he's a friggin' quitter. What they need to do—today, not next year, not when his contract is up—is just bench that guy and trade him for someone who wants it. I want to rip out his eyes and tear out his heart—not that he has one ... Think of Isaiah as the World's Angriest Fan.)
A similar fate, but not quite as bad, awaits the Moabites. Here's what confuses me: I can't figure out if the tone of this prophecy is sarcastic glee or mild regret. Isaiah advises us to "weep" for Moab and says that "my heart throbs like a harp for Moab." Yet he also clearly delights in the fall of the insolent Moabite king and the toppling of their false idols. So, perhaps his weeping and mourning are actually mockery. I don't know. Do you?
Pronouncements about Damascus, Egypt, and Nubia. These Pronouncements, like the others, obviously relate to the geopolitics of Isaiah's time. When he writes these swooping metaphorical verses about Damascus, he is actually commenting—punditlike—on the state of relations between Assyria and Judah. But because the prophecies are so metaphorical, it's difficult for a casual reader (i.e., me) to understand exactly what Isaiah is talking about. In Chapter 19, for example, he describes the Lord riding to Egypt on a "swift cloud" and stirring up the Egyptians to fight each other. This clearly refers to some kind of Egyptian civil unrest, but what in particular, I don't know. Most of the time, my effort to read the Bible without outside sources works pretty well. But Isaiah is a case where I could really benefit from some historical context.
The most remarkable passage in these chapters begins at Chapter 19, Verse 19, when a group of Egyptians—those very same Ra-idolizing, Israelite-enslaving, plague-suffering Egyptians—start to worship the Lord. And then Egypt, Israel, and Assyria join in a kind of brotherhood under the Lord. God says, "Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My heritage." What does this mean? Why is God inviting the Egyptians and Assyrians onto His team? Does His invitation only extend to the diaspora Jews in Egypt and Assyria—that is, the Israelites who were expelled to Assyria back in 2 Kings, and the God-worshipping Egyptians mentioned in Verse 19? Or is Isaiah referring to some alliance that includes all the Assyrians and Egyptians?
The world's first nudist! Isaiah walks around naked and barefoot for three years. This is supposed to be a warning to Egypt and Ethiopia that after Assyria defeats them in war, they will be forced to parade naked. It does seem a little hard on poor old Isaiah, who doesn't otherwise display Anna Nicole Smith-type exhibitionist tendencies.
For the third or fourth time in the book, Isaiah compares someone in trouble to a woman in labor. Back in Chapter 19, he also likened the Egyptians to "women, trembling and terrified." The frequency of these woman analogies is troubling. It reveals a misogyny that's absent in most of the rest of the Bible. The Bible often ignores women, or only notices the hookers, but it hasn't scorned women as a group, or derided them for their cowardice and weakness the way Isaiah does.
The source of another one of the Bible's most famous verses! Yet another disaster is looming for the Israelites, and the Lord expects them to mourn and wear sackcloth. Instead they rejoice crazily, with a bacchanalian feast: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Interestingly, this phrase has come down to us as a good thing, a way to seize life in the face of adversity. (See: countless war movies, Casablanca, any pop cultural representation of Vikings, etc.) But the Lord is not charmed by the frenzied pleasure-seeking. He's infuriated, and vows not to forgive the feasters.
Sidon and Tyre are doomed, too.
Chapter 24 is one of the most ghastly in the entire Bible, rivaling the Noah story for global existential misery. It's awesome in its menace. Everyone will be wiped out. You can't buy your way out of this one: "as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller." Because we have broken our covenant with God, He will break it with us. It actually is the Noah story, minus the water. Again we have "polluted" the earth. But this time, instead of a deluge, the earth "dries up and withers." As in the Flood, the silence and emptinessof the cursed world are most shocking. "The mirth of the timbrels is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased."
But all is not lost. After "the gladness of earth is banished," the Lord comes back, punishes all the wicked kings, and brings justice for the poor and needy. "The song of the ruthless was stilled." Unlike the earlier Pronouncements, this is not some minor geopolitical prophecy. This is the Big One, Judgment Day. For example, on this day, God "will swallow up death forever."
Even so, there's a darkly comic moment in this triumphal celebration. Even as the Israelites rejoice in God's victory, marvel at the greatest day in human history, wonder at the Lord's awesome achievements, they pause to give the poor Moabites one more kick. After all the high-flown rhetoric, the final verses of Chapter 25 gloat that the Moabites "shall be trodden down … as straw is trodden down in a dung pit." That's Isaiah in a nutshell: All praise to our mighty God! OK, now let's go rub our enemies' face in dung! (Just another way, I suppose, that Isaiah is like football.)
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.