The Complete Book of Isaiah
Several readers complain that I've gotten "punchy" during Isaiah. OK, I confess: I'm having a hard time with this book. The poetry is dense, the metaphors elusive, the history obscure, the themes repetitious. So please cut me a little slack! Compared to Isaiah, a book like Leviticus is The Cat in the Hat.
Another account of a Judgment Day, with the Lord raging wrathfully across the earth. A detail that caught my eye: "Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise." As I've written earlier, one contrast between modern Christianity and Judaism—at least the worldly Reform/Conservative Judaism I'm exposed to—is Judaism's relative lack of interest in the afterlife and the end times. Jews tend to focus on the here and now, and don't spend a lot of time pondering life after death. Until we got to Isaiah, that has been the Bible's attitude, too. It has been a very life-is-for-the-living book. The laws and stories all concern how we treat each other here on earth. Death is seen as a permanent, final state. There are a few references to Sheol—the place of the dead—but they are cursory. Isaiah, by contrast, is full of messianic and apocalyptic language. It takes a radically different view of life and death: In an earlier chapter, the Lord ends death, and here He proposes to bring all the dead back to life. Isaiah promotes the idea of eternal salvation, and urges Israelites to think about themselves in eschatological terms. In other words, Isaiah feels much more New Testament-y than other Bible books—which may be why it's so popular with Christians.
The Lord—"with his cruel and great and strong sword" (note that revealing first adjective)—slays the sea monster Leviathan. I take it this is where Thomas Hobbes got his title. Isaiah's Leviathan is killed in passing: It's not clear what the beast symbolizes.
Isaiah deplores the corruption of Jerusalem and Judah. He describes their priests as drunks, vomiting all over the temple. The leaders—"you scoffers"—have "made a covenant with death." They're doomed—God will sweep them away. In particular, God and Isaiah really have it in for the schemers and plotters and strategists—that is, the politicians.
Ha! Those who would hide their plans deep from the Lord, who do their work in dark places and say, "who sees us, who takes note of us?" How perverse of you!
I love this passage. The opening "Ha!" is a favorite gimmick of Isaiah's, and it's fabulous, a perfect combination of indignation and mockery. The closing, "How perverse of you!," also has a wonderful condescending smirk to it. And the central point—that God is watching everywhere, even seeing those who think they're hiding—is powerful. In Genesis and Exodus, God was everywhere, sniffing every animal sacrifice, smiting every Sabbath violator. But since the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, back in the book of Joshua, God has only been an intermittent presence in their lives, dropping in occasionally to unleash a plague or two. Isaiah wants to make it clear to his people that no matter their doubts, God is still watching. (As another great wordsmith wrote about a different religious figure: "He knows if you've been bad or good, so you better be good for goodness' sake.")
These verses are also interesting because they demonstrate how ancient, and how effective, the populist conspiracy theory against elites is. Even back in Isaiah's day, apparently, we worried that there were secret scheming cabals that controlled everything behind the scenes. (Exploiting this cabalist fear is still one of the best ways to get yourself elected to office.) As a populist prophet infuriated with his rulers, Isaiah sought to undermine and discredit this elite, and what better way than to expose their secret conspiracies to God and to their countrymen?
Chapter 29 also marks the first appearance of a lovely metaphor that Isaiah will repeat several times. The Lord is a potter, and we are His clay. Therefore, says Isaiah, it makes no sense for us to talk back to the Lord, to doubt Him, or to ignore Him: "Shall the thing say of its maker, 'He did not make me.' " Again Isaiah scores points not only with the vividness of his metaphor, but with the derisiveness of his tone.
Here's an experiment, analogous to the fortune cookie game in Chinese restaurants: Try adding "you idiots!" to the end of any verse in Isaiah. I guarantee that it will make that verse sound even more like Isaiah. I just did this. I put my finger down on a random verse. It was Isaiah 32:11:
Tremble, you women who are at ease,
shudder, you complacent ones;
strip, and make yourselves bare,
and put sackcloth on your loins, you idiots!
God seriously disapproves of any alliances with Egyptians.
These chapters, which describe a future ideal kingdom and a horrifying tyranny, are full of extraordinary wordplay. It's great in English, so I imagine the Hebrew must be amazing. Here's a snippet:
Ah, you destroyer,
who yourself have not been destroyed;
you treacherous one,
with whom no one has dealt treacherously!
When you have ceased to destroy,
You will be destroyed;
And when you have stopped dealing treacherously,
You will be dealt with treacherously.
The Lord threatens universal destruction, again. This time, He's infuriated with the people of Edom, who seem to be aligned with the Babylonians. After He has His day of vengeance, Edom will be in worse shape than Baghdad—soil turned to sulfur, land in flames, deserted except for owls and ravens and, of course, goat-demons. It will be so bad that "They shall name it No Kingdom There." No one delivers a threat like Isaiah!
But then, Lebanon will be restored, and a grand highway, "the Holy Way," will be built to bring joyful Israelites back to Zion. These chapters highlight perhaps the most distinctive structural element in Isaiah: constant reversals of fortune. In Chapter 34 and 35, for example, Edom goes from glory, to total destruction, to renewal. And it's not always the Israelites who triumph and their enemies who are destroyed. Sometimes, the Israelites are the ones who take it on the chin. In any case, you can always be sure that no happy time—and no sad time—will last more than a few verses. Death or glory is always just around the corner.
A very weird interruption to the prophetic poem. These chapters repeat, almost verbatim, the stories of King Hezekiah told in 2 Kings: Chapters 18-20. Isn't the Book of Isaiah long enough? Does it really need this padding?
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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.