God’s Friend

The Old Testament accords that honor to only two humans.

Rembrandt_Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels

Abraham serves the three angels, painting by Rembrandt, 17th century.

I was reading in Isaiah 41 this morning when I stumbled upon this sentence fragment:

But you, Israel, my servant,

                        Jacob, whom I have chosen,

                        the offspring of Abraham, my friend…(Isaiah 41:8)

 It is part of a passage where God is addressing Israel about its divine calling–the calling to be God’s servant. But what immediately arrested my attention is that fact that God also calls Abraham his friend. I had never noticed that before.

Now this is to accord to Abraham an enormous honor, at least in the values of the ancient world. For much of the ancient world, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate of human relationships. It was a far higher form of human relationship than was marriage. I discussed in my previous blog posting Jesus’ Privileged Friends why that was.

Here in this passage of Isaiah God calls Abraham his friend. I wondered if Abraham stood unique in the Old Testament in bearing that honor. So I checked my Bible concordance to explore if anyone else had been called that.

I found that Abraham was not alone in this honor. One other Old Testament figure has been accorded that same honor: Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we read: Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Apart from these two giants of the faith, no one else is raised to that honor.

Compassionate Friends

In the case of Moses, friendship with God is described as a relationship in which God speaks to Moses face to face. In some mysterious way Moses has access to God where Moses may speak his mind freely with God and engage in some persuasive debate. We see this in Exodus 32-33 where Moses tries to persuade God not to destroy Israel after the debacle of the golden calf. Moses becomes the compassionate defender of sinful Israel.

Likewise we see Abraham play this same role in Genesis 18 as God reveals to Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This revelation evokes from Abraham an effort to speak up compassionately for the righteous people in these two cities who will be lost in the destruction. Abraham dares to call into question God’s compassion just as in a sense Moses does as well.

This is one of the extraordinary privileges that is accorded to Abraham and Moses as God’s friends. One gets the sense that God would not tolerate such presumption from anyone else, but because of the high regard he has for both men he pauses to listen to them and in the case of Moses to even change his mind.

It is truly an extraordinary motif in these two Old Testament passages. But the most extraordinary twist upon this motif comes in the New Testament in John 15:14-15. There Jesus at the Last Supper calls his own disciples his friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

What is extraordinary about this passage is that the disciples are far from being giants of faith when Jesus accords them this honor. They will soon show themselves highly fallible as Peter denies Jesus that very evening and the other disciples desert Jesus in his time of greatest need.

Yet what Jesus does in this passage is point to that intimate relationship with him that he extends to all his disciples, including us today. For the end goal of spiritual formation–for most of us an arduous, life-long journey–is this privilege of becoming what Jesus says we are: God’s friends.

 

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In God We Trust

Isaiah’s provocative take on America’s national motto.

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The American national motto appears on all American coinage.

If the prophet Isaiah were to enter the pulpit of many American churches today, he would baffle if not alienate most who heard him. American Christians generally hold the view that preachers should stay clear of politics. In fact, our tax code recognizes the rule that in order for a church to retain its tax-exempt status, preachers in the pulpit must refrain from endorsing particular political candidates.

When you read the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, you realize that Isaiah did not share this viewpoint. His message was highly political. Among other things he repeatedly counsels the kings of Judah on how to handle the kingdom’s foreign relations. His authority? The word he says he receives from God. His approach can and should make American Christians uncomfortable.

The Historical Context of Isaiah

Isaiah was active during a particularly tumultuous time in the ancient Near East. In the 14thcentury B.C., the Egyptian empire had largely abandoned its garrisons stationed in the Levant.

As a result, a historical window opened up that allowed a throng of mini-states to gain independence and flourish. They included the city states of Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistine Pentapolis. They also included mini-kingdoms like Aram, Moab, Ammon, and others. Among them was the united kingdom of Israel that under David and Solomon dominated the region for a short period. Then it broke apart into the two rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

This international situation prevailed for approximately 600 years. Then in the 8thcentury B.C. the Mesopotamian power of Assyria began an imperial drive to expand beyond its Mesopotamian roots. As Assyria expanded east and west,* it swallowed up and destroyed most of the mini-kingdoms and city states that had flourished for a half millennium.

Assyria even defeated Egypt and annexed it into its empire, just as one mighty python might swallow up another python of equal size. The Assyrians established an empire whose extent had never been matched in the previous history of the ancient Near East.

Among its potential victims was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. Israel along with its neighbor Aram had launched an alliance to resist Assyrian advance. They hoped to enlist the southern kingdom of Judah, which was ruled by the dynasty of David, as another partner. When the current king Ahaz resisted, they chose instead to invade Judah and replace the king with a puppet.

In desperation, Ahaz contemplated calling on Assyria to come to its aid. Isaiah the prophet told him he would be foolish to do so. Instead Isaiah counseled Ahaz to place his confidence in God who would be the kingdom’s true savior.

Ahaz ignored Isaiah. Isaiah’s counsel seemed impractical and unrealistic. How could faith in God be a reliable defense? Ahaz summons Assyria.

Judah and Assyria

Assyria was only too happy to come to the rescue. The threat against Ahaz was lifted. The Assyrians destroyed Aram and its capital Damascus and then turned to Israel and its capital of Samaria, which it wiped off the political map of the Near East in 722 B.C.

Then Assyria turned its attention to Judah. In 701 B.C. the Assyrian king Sennacherib  invaded Judah, leveling one Judean city after another. Then Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, now ruled by Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. (Jerusalem’s lonely desperation is well described in Isaiah 1:7-9.)

Hezekiah sought to defend the city by strengthening its defenses, pulling down houses to build up the walls. He also constructed a tunnel to direct the waters of the city’s one spring, which lay outside the walls, inside the walls. He opened up the city’s armory. And he sent a delegation to Egypt to plead for assistance. All of these seemed to be necessary and very practical responses to the Assyrian threat. His measures are described in Isaiah 22.

Throughout this tumultuous time, what was Isaiah’s counsel? He constantly advised Judah’s leadership not to put any trust in foreign alliances or in relying on their armaments (chariots and horses in particular), but to place their trust in God. God would deliver them.

A Uniting Message in Isaiah?

Reading through Isaiah 1-39 can feel very confusing. Oracles are not listed in chronological order. Rather we feel that we are dealing with a jumble of oracles hastily thrown together. There seems to be no uniting thread.

But I have come to question that assumption. What I think the editor of Isaiah has done is take the many oracles of Isaiah, delivered over a number of years in this time of particular crisis for Judah, and arranged them into an order where they deliver an enduring message of warning and hope for future generations.

As I read through these chapters, I catch hints here and there of a unified message emerging. The prophet sees the chaos that is roiling the Near East in his day as the work of God. The aggressive Assyrians are simply the tool of God’s judgment.

For example, foreseeing the fall of the city state of Tyre, the prophet cries:

Who has planned this

                        against Tyre, the bestower of crowns,

            whose merchants were princes,

                        whose traders were the honored of the earth?

            The LORD of hosts has planned it—

                        to defile the pride of all glory,

                        to shame all the honored of the earth. (Isaiah 23:8-9)

The era of the mini-city states and kingdoms is coming to an end. During their centuries of flourishing, they also engaged in constant predatory raids and warfare on each other. In the prophet’s eyes, the land has become polluted as a result of the incessant bloodshed. In addition, the elites of these states have exploited the lives of the poor and marginalized. Life for these oppressed ones has become bitter.

We see this theme most clearly expressed in Isaiah 24:5-6:

The earth lies polluted

                        under its inhabitants;

            for they have transgressed laws,

                        violated the statutes,

                        broken the everlasting covenant.

            Therefore a curse devours the earth,

                        and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;

            therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,

                        and few people are left.

The time of reckoning has arrived. This is the reality Judah must confront as it looks upon its desperate situation. God is moving in the international scene. Judah, along with the other mini-states of the Levant, are reaping the bitter harvest of their unceasing warfare, conflict, social oppression, and religious hypocrisy.

Judah’s Hope for Salvation?

Because God lies behind this turmoil, Isaiah warns Judah’s leaders against turning to their customary tools of statecraft.They should not place their hopes in international alliances, especially with regional powers like Egypt. Egypt will prove a broken reed. Nor should they place their hopes in their military preparedness or advanced armaments (like horses and chariots, the tanks of Isaiah’s day). None of this will ultimately save them.

Rather Judah’s king and people should place their trust in the Lord. That is the burden of the famous oracle that Isaiah delivers to King Ahaz, that we read each Christmas:

Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel(Isaiah 7:14). [The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with us.”]

The point of this sign is that before this child has emerged out of infancy, the international threat against Judah will have passed. All Ahaz has to do is trust in God.

As counsel to the Judeans, the prophet delivers this word from God:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;

             in quietness and trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).

The message of Isaiah does not seem to be a message of disarmament pure and simple, but it comes close. He certainly places no great confidence in spending vast sums on building up Judah’s military might. Rather he is advocating a radical change of mindset, a mindset that places priority on trust in the Lord.

The Real Source of National Security

Where should then Judah invest its energies and resources, if not in military preparedness? Here is where I hear the import of Isaiah’s constant cry to establish social justice and personal righteousness in the land and in every one of its inhabitants.

It is in caring for the welfare of all in society (especially the vulnerable ones referred to customarily as the widows, orphans, and resident aliens) that Judah can best work for its national security. The cultivation of personal integrity is vital for its peaceful future.

We hear this viewpoint expressed in the following passage:

The effect of righteousness will be peace,

                        and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

                        in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places (Isaiah 32:17-18).

 If I am hearing the message of Isaiah correctly, then we can begin to appreciate why few Americans today would welcome his voice. Proponents of Realpolitik will dismiss his message as nonsense. Isaiah, they will say, is living in a delusion. He doesn’t know how the real world works.

Judah’s leaders also ignored his counsel. So why were the words of Isaiah preserved and treasured rather than thrown on the dung heap of history as words of madness?

The Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was lifted not because foreign allies came to the rescue. Nor because Judean military might overwhelmed the Assyrians. Rather something totally unexpected broke the siege. The Old Testament reports that a mysterious plague decimated the ranks of the Assyrian army (see 2 Kings 19:35-37).  2 Chronicles 32:21 says that as a result Sennacherib returned to Assyria in disgrace. There he was assassinated by his own sons. What saved Jerusalem was not power politics, but the contingencies of history, which the prophet along with the Old Testament as a whole attributes to the hand of God.

This is why Isaiah’s message can be very provocative for us. He can call into question our own national priorities and obsessions. Is the practice of Realpolitik, especially in its most bullying form, going to ensure peace and prosperity? Are the vast sums we spend on our military establishment really going to secure America, especially when they are paid for by drastic reductions in programs of social welfare? Is what makes a nation strong its military might or the integrity of its institutions and its people?**

Our national motto is: In God we trust. But what does it mean in practical terms for a religiously pluralistic country like ours to trust in God? Here is where the prophet Isaiah may challenge some of our most fundamental national assumptions. And here, too, I suggest lies the enduring power of the prophet’s message.

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* Isaiah turns to the metaphor of a raging river that is overflowing its banks and flooding the land (see Isaiah 8:5-8).

** If you wish to hear a thoughtful reflection on the message of Isaiah and America’s obsessions with guns, I would refer you to a short talk made by Chris Hays, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Seminary, during a panel discussion on “The Bible and American Gun Culture” that happened at the seminary in March 2019. Hays opened up for me new perspectives on Isaiah that are in part reflected in this blog posting.

Respectfully Yours

An apostle’s counsel on living with diversity in a congregation.

I love the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians.  One reason: it is dead-on realistic about life in a congregation. The church in Corinth was a mess. It was wracked with tensions, scandal, theological confusion, and pretensions. Sound familiar does it not?

I also love the book because we witness Paul the apostle turn into Paul the pastor. Paul had got this community of faith started. He longed to see it grow up into a mature fellowship. So he gives a great deal of attention to its needs and problems.

What Is Acceptable Christian Behavior?

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The sacrifice of a pig on a Greek altar. Depicted on an Athenian cup, 6th century B.C. Now in Louvre Museum.

One locus of tension in the church was the issue of whether Christians could rightly buy and eat meat that came from the animals sacrificed on the altars of pagan temples. These sacrifices were a major source of supply for butchers. An additional issue was whether Christians could participate in civic dinners and trade gatherings in temples where sacrificed meat might constitute the main dinner entrée.

Some members of the Corinthian church asserted that it was perfectly OK.* After all, they argued, pagan gods did not exist. Eating meat from temples then involved no endorsement of pagan gods. Other members of the church were not so sure. They were scandalized by the practice, believing that it entailed a faith compromise. The church seems to have asked Paul’s advice on the subject. He answers in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1.

I’m fascinated by his response. His advice is very practical and pastoral, but it is far from simple and clear cut. Which makes it tricky to deal with.

The dispute in the church was not one of theological principle, but of Christian behavior. One group in the church saw no problem in eating meat sacrificed on pagan altars. Nor did they have any scruples about attending dinner in pagan temples. And concerning those in the church who did not agree, they were ready to dismiss them as “weaker brothers.”

Other members of the church, however, felt scruples about these practices. Maybe they were newly converted Christians, who were not quite yet convinced that pagan gods were not real. They were therefore offended when they saw fellow believers eating temple meat.

Both sides had merit in their viewpoints, but apparently little tolerance or compassion for other viewpoints or sensitivities. That led to contention in the church’s life.

Paul’s Counsel

In conviction Paul himself seems to have shared the viewpoint of those who saw no problem in eating the meat. But the rightness of his viewpoint was not his chief concern. Nor was it the issue that he felt the “more enlightened” members of the church should be agitated about. Paul’s chief concern was whether this intra-church dispute was going to wreck the congregation’s communal life. Were the behavior and attitudes of either side building up the church? Or were they undermining its welfare and unity?

On this point Paul was decisive. If by eating meat, an “enlightened” member of the community causes a weaker member to stumble in faith, then the enlightened member should voluntarily give up his or her liberty and refrain from eating meat. In such disputes over behavior, the welfare of the community must take priority over the rights and liberty of the individual. So he says in verse 8:13:

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

To support his argument, he sets himself up as an example. As an apostle, he is entitled to many things—including financial support from the community. But he says he has voluntarily chosen not to exercise those rights—all for the cause of advancing the gospel of Christ.** As further warrant for his practice, he claims he is imitating Christ.

He summarizes his conclusions in verses 10:23-24:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.***

 In listening to Paul’s counsel, it is important, I think, that what he counsels is voluntary restraint. He is not arguing that the community should impose conformity on all. There is diversity in the church. That diversity is not just a matter of different backgrounds and upbringings. That diversity may be inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. Therefore diversity is to be reverenced and cherished. A forced conformity may be a form of abuse and defilement of the Body of Christ.

Distorting Paul’s Counsel

Yet I find Paul’s counsel tricky to implement. One party in a church may argue that another party should refrain from certain behaviors because the first party finds them offensive. They can argue that if the second party continues in its offensive behavior, that party is not demonstrating Christian love. And so we can devolve into a situation where one party in the church becomes a minority dictating behavior for the greater whole.

I do not suspect that Paul would have countenanced his counsel be used as grounds for a tyranny by the minority. Paul, for example, did not give way to what we might have considered the weaker brothers in the case of the disputes in the Galatian churches. There he felt a serious theological principle was at stake, and he was not about to give way to the Judaizing party and its sensitivities about Christian behavior.

So I find that Paul’s counsel is not as quite as simple and clear cut as I would like. At times, our life in the church may call us to voluntarily surrender our rights for the sake of the good of the greater whole. At other times our life may call us to stand firm on our rights. This calls for careful discernment. We may find that we make many mistakes and experience a great deal of anguish.

Valuing Respect

Yet what can it mean for us today to exercise love in building up the Body of Christ, as Paul counsels? One thing I do believe it requires is learning to respect the differences among us.

Respect is a largely undervalued virtue, but it goes a long way to maintaining harmony. People hunger to be respected in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. It is one reason I believe we are experiencing so much turmoil in our political life. Too many people in our country feel they have not been respected. In anger they raising hell to ensure they are not ignored. Something similar can happen in the church.

Treating someone with respect is letting someone be himself or herself. It does not mean smoothing out differences, but it allows diversity to be, understanding that there is a hidden wisdom to diversity that eludes all attempts to unite by imposed conformity.

Treating each other in the church with respect does not make differences, conflicts, and disputes go away. But treating others with respect does mean our disputes need not tear us apart and destroy our life together.

So the strange dispute in Corinth over eating meat sacrificed to idols becomes an occasion for Paul to illuminate an important principle in our life together in the church. Neither arrogant individualism nor smothering social conformity are to govern life in the church. Rather, says Paul, let love govern our behavior. And one manifestation of love is respect.

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* They may have belonged to a group in the church who prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Earlier in the letter Paul chastises them for their putting down what they may have regarded as their “less enlightened” brothers.

** Paul walked his talk. While in Corinth, he earned his living as a tentmaker. He did not receive financial support from the church.

*** The translators of the NRSV has placed certain phrases in quotation marks because they believe that those are words that Paul is quoting from the letter the church sent him.

A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

Sloppy Editing or Rhetorical Subtlety?

I’m fascinated by the way the book of Isaiah begins.

 I was reading the book of Isaiah recently when I was struck by how oddly it begins. The books of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all begin with an account of the prophet’s call to be a prophet. That account may be short, as in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) or long, as in the case of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27).

This call establishes the prophet’s credentials in proclaiming a word of God to the people. Only once that authority has been established do we get the content of the messages each prophet is commissioned to deliver.

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The prophet Isaiah, as envisioned by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, 16th century.

The call of Isaiah, however, does not come in his book until Chapter 6. What precedes it are five chapters of the actual messages that Isaiah delivers. That’s what I find odd. We don’t learn about Isaiah’s authority to speak for God until we have been exposed to a powerful summary of his prophetic burden.

Lifted High, Dropped Low

That summary is a real emotional roller coaster ride. Chapter 1 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The prophet denounces the people’s religious infidelity. This infidelity is shown in the people’s extravagant piety in worship while they accommodate to injustice in the kingdom’s social and economic life.

So fierce is the prophet’s denunciation that he calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities are the Old Testament’s great symbols of urban corruption. They suffer a fire and brimstone fate (Genesis 19). One can hardly imagine a greater insult to Judeans, who considered themselves pious, faithful, and respectable.

Chapter 2 opens, however, with a glorious vision of the temple mount in Jerusalem drawing pilgrims from all over the world. People come to the mount because there they expect to receive instruction from God and the word of the Lord. It will be a transforming word, for they shall end up beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Then the prophet returns to his denunciations. The land is filled with riches and the machinery of war, but it will be humbled when the Lord comes in judgment. Chapter 3 continues this recital of destruction, describing a society collapsing in chaos. It contains a particularly vivid description of the elite women strutting around town in their jewelry and finery (Isaiah 3:18-23),* before they will be reduced to baldness and sackcloth.

Then abruptly in chapter 4 the prophet returns to a hopeful vision of the glory that will return to Jerusalem after its spiritual cleansing. The Lord will dwell in the city and protect it as the Lord did the Israelites journeying through the wilderness during the Exodus. Whoever lives in the city will be called holy.

Then as we launch into chapter 5 we plunge again into a fierce denunciation of Judah as a people who were created to be the vineyard of the Lord, but a vineyard that has produced a harvest of sour, wild grapes. As a result, Sheol, the land of the dead, will open its mouth and swallow the people into its land of no return. This chapter ends with a vision of darkness enveloping the land:

They [foreign invaders] will roar over it on that day,

            like the roaring of the sea.

And if one look to the land–

            only darkness and distress;

and the light grows dark with clouds. (Isaiah 5:30)

Only after this rhetorical cycle of highs and lows do we come to the story of the prophet’s call. When I reach chapter 6, I am crying out for a respite. In a sense that is what chapter 6 provides for at least its first eight verses, before the text launches into another searing description of the judgment to come.

Why This Beginning?

When I read all this, I find myself asking what rhetorical purpose did the editor who compiled the book of Isaiah have in mind when he chose to arrange his material in this way. Was it to grab his audience’s attention immediately, and when they begin to protest to the emotional barrage, to spring the authority behind it with the call of the prophet?

I am not sure I see clearly the rhetorical purpose. But I have learned that the biblical writers and editors are generally very astute communicators. Things in the biblical text are seldom left to chance. The writers and editors bring an acute intelligence to their work.

And so when I come upon things that I don’t understand, I don’t immediately assume that this is a case of sloppy writing and careless editing. There may be a rhetorical subtlety at work that I don’t yet perceive. Is such the case with the opening of Isaiah?

Any thoughts among you, my readers?

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* This passage is a particularly detailed description of all the paraphernalia that the women of ancient Jerusalem would have considered high fashion.

God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

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Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.

Power and Service

Jesus’ counter-cultural paradigm of power.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition on Hatshepsut, the ancient Egyptian queen. My wife bought a catalogue for me as a gift. I had not read it until a couple of weeks ago.

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Colossal images of Hatshepsut in the guise of the god Osiris at her mortuary temple. Photo: S.F.E. Cameron

Hatshepsut is a rare figure in Egyptian history. She is the most prominent woman who occupied the throne as a sovereign Pharaoh in the over 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization, a position she held for some 20 years. During her rule, Egypt flourished. She seems to have sparked some new directions in art, as is demonstrated by the many wonderful artistic creations in the exhibition. They include several sculptures of Hatshepsut (often dressed in the regalia of a male king).

As I turned the catalogue pages I was fascinated to watch Pharaonic propaganda at work. Egyptian kings, including Hatshepsut, made sure they were the chief subject of royal art, especially the art in public locations. Pharaohs often added new structures to old temples or built brand new temples. They covered these temple walls with images and hieroglyphics proclaiming their exploits. They magnified the gods by magnifying themselves.

When they built new gateways into temples, they adorned them with colossal sculptures of themselves seated on thrones or striding forward. So large were these statues that a person of normal height might only come up to the statue’s ankle or calf when he or she stood beside it. Any person entering the temple must have been intimidated by these displays of royal power, or at least reminded of how insignificant he or she was beside such  power.

Hatshepsut was a great builder in this time-honored tradition. Her greatest construction was her mortuary temple (Deir al Bahri). It sat on the west bank of the Nile, directly in alignment with the great temple of Karnak on the other side of the river. It is one of the highlights of Egyptian architecture, with beautiful terraces advancing up to the inner sanctuary.

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Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir al Bahri reconstructed. Photo: Andrea Piroddi

Across the façade of these terraces Hatshepsut erected a series of colossal statues of herself in the garb of a king or in the garb of Osiris, god of the afterlife. It marked a formidable entrance into the structure. Statues in the exhibition were smaller, but very formal in pose presenting images of sober majesty.

I am sure Pharaohs chose to sponsor such art because they believed it proclaimed their superior power and divine status (Pharaohs were considered living gods.) Such art legitimated their rule, but also must have been designed to make sure their subjects never questioned who was truly in control.

Such propaganda has been common in other cultures as well. Many a strongman has resorted to it. One only needs to remember the colossal statue of Nero which he erected in ancient Rome or the colossal statues of Lenin and Stalin erected in the Soviet Union.

Jesus’ Paradigm

As I turned the pages of the catalogue, however, I found myself thinking how totally opposite is this mindset of power to the mindset we see exhibited in Jesus in the New Testament. I am drawn in particular to the famous Christ hymn that the apostle Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11:

[Christ], though he was in the form of God,

            did not regard equality with God

            as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

            taking the form of a slave,

            being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

            he humbled himself

            and became obedient to the point of death—

            even death on a cross.

  Therefore God also highly exalted him

            and gave him the name

            that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

            every knee should bend,

            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

            that Jesus Christ is Lord,

            to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn is a remarkable reflection on Jesus’ mindset concerning power. It states, for example, that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not grab at equality with God. Instead Jesus freely chose to empty himself and take on the form of a servant.

The word servant in Greek is actually the word slave. One can hardly think of a more powerless person than a slave who has virtually no control over his or her life. Yet Jesus freely accepts such humiliation, even when it ends in death.

Yet paradoxically this choice leads in the end to the highest of power as God exalts him by giving him the name which exceeds all names, namely the name of God himself. It is in humble service that Jesus comes into the fulness of power. The apostle Paul holds up Jesus’ example as the one Jesus’ disciples are to follow.

Hatshepsut and her fellow monarchs would have found such advise incomprehensible. Also do many people today, Christian and non-Christian. Yet this is the seemingly crazy message that the Christian gospel proclaims. It is a message that goes against every natural instinct we have. It has been, therefore, a hard message to live, as Christian history shows.