The Complete Book of Isaiah

Isaiah's Big Finish
What's really in the Good Book.
Jan. 9 2007 6:23 PM

The Complete Book of Isaiah

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The Book of Isaiah

I got lots of great mail about the last entry, in which I asked if Jews, like Christians, believe the suffering "servant" in Isaiah 53 is the Messiah. The short answer is: no. For Jews, the servant is the nation of Israel itself. For the long answer—which is also no—I refer you to reader Pam, whose note to me begins: "No, of course not, don't be such an idiot. You've been reading Isaiah and you need to Pay Attention …" (Click here to read the rest of her response, which is learned, derisive, and funny, sort of like Isaiah itself.)

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Several eagle-eyed readers noted the peculiarity of Isaiah, Chapter 40, in which God "sits above the circle of the earth." If the earth is "a circle," they wrote, doesn't that imply the ancient Israelites believed the world was round? It sounds that way to me. Are there any historians, archeologists, or scientists out there who can settle this? (I don't think it's a translation anomaly, either, since all the other Bibles I checked also refer to "the circle of the earth.")

That God—He's so Postmodern about gender! A few chapters ago, the Lord was a mother in labor. Now it's Jerusalem who is a barren woman made suddenly fertile, while the Lord is her husband.

Here's an interesting rebuke to those who would try to interpret or explain God. (A rebuke, in other words, to people like me.) "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." According to Isaiah, our efforts to humanize Him, to turn Him into a friend or a relative, even to understand Him, are doomed. The impossibility of imagining God may be the essential theme of Isaiah. Isaiah objects to any effort to contain, reduce, limit, represent, or explain God. (This is the source of his rage against idols.) Once you accept that He can be limited, faith is compromised.

God promises eternal glory to "the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths." Eunuchs? Where do the eunuchs come from?

Much of this chapter savages the sorcery-practicing, child-sacrificing worshippers of Molech. This is at least the 37th time Isaiah or another prophet has inveighed against the child-killing Molechites. But I'll bet you a cup of coffee that this is a blood libel—an exaggeration or distortion of Molechite practices designed to dehumanize the enemy. Have you ever heard of any society, culture, religion, or tribe in the entire history of humanity that sacrificed its own children? It's a Darwinian dead end. Of course, there are groups that kill young prisoners and ritually sacrifice a virgin or two, and there are occasional mass suicides that include kids (see: Masada), but no group makes a standard practice of killing its heirs. Wikipedia seems to confirm my suspicion that the Molechites didn't sacrifice their children. (The false murder charge may have derived from a ritual where they harmlessly passed their kids through a fire to give them strength.)

The Lord again demands good works rather than rituals. This is His strongest plea yet. He savages those who pray to Him and observe fast days even as they continue to mistreat others. If you want to get saved by Me, God says, then you better "loose the bonds of injustice … share your bread with the hungry … bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them." Then, and only then, will the Lord bless you. (Oh, and you have to keep the Sabbath, too.)

Isaiah asks the question that has plagued every child since time began. If God is omnipotent, why doesn't He heed our prayers? Of course, if you've read the last 58 chapters, you know exactly how God is going to answer that one. He doesn't pay attention because our sins are too great, our tongues too wicked, our hands too bloody. God's scathing denunciation is followed by this breast-beating passage, one of the most hauntingly beautiful in the Bible:

We stumble at noon as in the twilight,
Among the vigorous as though we were dead.
We all growl like bears;
Like doves we moan mournfully.
We wait for justice, but there is none;
For salvation, but it is far from us.
For our transgressions before you are many,
And our sins testify against us.

"We stumble at noon as in the twilight." That's a powerful image!

Isaiah's getting for a big finish—just a few more chapters to go! Here's a jolly section. The Lord lifts the world out of gloom, and sheds light everywhere. Zion returns to glory. The prophet arrives to deliver the Lord's vengeance against the wicked, and comfort the suffering. It's good news for everyone, but particularly for the Israelites, who will finally reap the benefits of being God's Chosen People. For Israelites, it will be like being seniors during Senior Week, a senator at a Washington cocktail party, the fraternity president at pledge initiation. All the other peoples of the world will pay tribute to the Israelites, tend their flocks, and treat them as God's own ministers on earth. Speaking as a Jew, I must say: All right! Can we set a firm date? How's next Thursday?

The poor Edomites are the battered wife of the Near East. (Remember Chapter 34?) Whenever God's had a bad day, He gives the Edomites another kick in the head, seemingly just for the heck of it. This time, the Edomites are grapes, and God is operating a wine press: "I trod on them in my anger, and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments and stained my robes. … I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth." Yeesh.

Changing the subject, our narrator, who seems to be speaking for all of Israel, poses this doozy of a question: "Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from our ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?"

This is the most difficult question in the Bible. It's confounding because it doesn't deny human failure, and it doesn't deny God. It asks God to reconcile His awesomeness and our wickedness. Over and over again in Isaiah, God has emphasized that He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. And over and over again, the book emphasizes that the Israelites willfully spurn Him and are punished. But if God is as mighty as He says He is, what possible reason does He have for allowing us to fail all the time? Why is He so eager to punish us for failing, when He himself could stop us? Why does He actively encourage us to fail—"make us stray from our ways"? This question poses a profound challenge to the existence of God. It also poses a profound challenge to the existence of a God who is all powerful and all good.

Isaiah doesn't have an answer for its own impossible question. Neither do I. Do you?

These two chapters comprise a fascinating dialogue between us and God. In Chapter 64, the Israelites ask why no one has seen God for ages, why He has withheld his presence from His people for so long. They beg him to end His silence, because silence is the cruelest punishment He can inflict. In the next chapter, He answers. His tone is a kind of wry anger.

"I said, 'Here I am, here I am,' to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people."

God agrees not to keep silent, but the price will be brutal punishment for all the sins of the Israelites. "My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty …" etc. God is often like a mean stepfather. Your choice is either having Him talking to you but furious, or ignoring you altogether. And it's not clear which is the better option.

In the glorious new Jerusalem, someone who dies at age 100 will be "considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed." Sort of like Denmark. 

This final chapter nicely encapsulates the rest of the book. It includes marvelous verses about God's greatness and the superfabulous future that is to come. But, of course, it also revels in carnage. After an ecstatic description of the coming of God's kingdom, the lucky survivors go outside—to look upon "the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against Me." That's my Isaiah: God, glory, and guts.

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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