Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No mo' woe.

I can't resist the Hebrew prophets. So here's another in this series of riffs on the assigned readings for Sunday services at my church. Here's my take on the one I'll be reading on the Second Sunday in Advent -- December 2, this year: Isaiah 11: 1-10. And I'm afraid it's turned into something of a sermon. But even a lector can indulge in a bit of exegesis.

This is a famous passage -- about lions and livestock lying down together, and a little child shall lead them. It's a vision of a highly stylized utopia, a "version of pastoral", built on very different principles from the normal, natural world.

At one level, it harkens back to the ideal of the Garden of Eden -- carnivores no longer eat meat: "the lion shall eat straw like the ox". The former predators and the former prey shall lie down together and all are tame enough to be led by a child.

But not really. The verses following this excerpt talk of Israel joining together in a new unity, and then returning home from exile while subduing and plundering their old enemies, and then becoming an example to the rest of the world, a sign of what their God can do. If it's Eden-like in some respects, it's not a complete restoration nor is it an End of Days renewal, even though "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

So what is it?

Evidently the lion, wolf. leopard, bear, lamb, kid, calf, cow, gentle vipers, and the children playing near the snakes without being harmed all symbolize the restored Israel, freed from its internal divisions, jealousies, and feuds. They're finally tame enough to be led by a child, which leads me to think of the later saying that unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom. In this vision, the child not only enters the kingdom, but leads it. The kingdom is that pacified.

How did this happy state come about? It was the work of the messiah -- not the cosmic Christ of later centuries, but the child of the "stock of Jesse", the idealized royal line of the Hebrews. He will lead this now pacified assemblage of predators and prey, and then their God will bring back to their own country the scattered remnants of Israel and Judah.

I could see how the language used to describe this leader could, by the standard processes of royal propaganda and egomania, be hijacked by ordinary kings and caesars to describe themselves. After all, the coronation psalms for the kings of Israel and Judah referred to them as having been begotten that day by God.

But there's some different language here: instead of breaking the nations with a rod of iron, as in Psalm 2, this leader "shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." That's not as violent as it sounds: it's all done by words.

Just as the story of Creation has the universe created by the right words from the right source, so here the killing off of evil is done by words, not by swords. Perhaps evil is destroyed by the shame of being exposed by the words, or perhaps it's destroyed by being converted. It doesn't matter: the point is that it's done with words alone, by calling things by their right names.

By using the right names, this leader uncovers the inequities done to "the meek of the earth" and then decides in their favor "with equity". He judges the poor with righteousness, not with the oppression that is their normal lot. He can do this because he's not misled by the surface noise of self-serving propaganda. Instead, "he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear." He shall perceive the deeper realities of poverty and the unrighteousness that causes poverty.

He can do this because of his spiritual gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, (inner) power, and knowledge. It's not a result of his impressive military forces or good generalship.

Plus there's one more thing, something that doesn't easily compute for us today: "the fear of the Lord" which is "his delight" (or "his fragrance" -- the perfume of the myrrh with which he is anointed). Much commentary reduces "the fear of God" to reverence, honor, and a kind of generalized awe. Older commentaries dwell more on awe as "dread" and the simultaneous experience of joy and dread that comes from encountering this ultimate greatness and terrible finality.

I think it's particularly appropriate for us to feel that dread nowadays. We're aware that the margins of safety for life are very narrow. There's a universe out there that can break through our flimsy shields of atmosphere and magnetic fields. We've compromised our life support systems of climate, air, soil, water, and food. Our ways of life seem to be more in tune with the destructive rather than the creative forces of the universe.

That's why this passage in the book of Isaiah speaks so strongly to me. There's the model of peace (that will calm a still warring world); there's the primacy of the poor and the meek over the rich and the powerful; and there's righteousness, which is defined as justice for the poor and equity for the meek. And then there's the primacy of spiritual discernment and the special role of "the fear of the Lord".

This is a simple but comprehensive framework for those who would take the Bible seriously. As a later lady was reputed to have said, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away." Add environmental protection and restoration as a response to existential dread (and as a necessity if we're to fill the hungry) -- and there you have a skeletal agenda for those who call themselves Progressive Christians, as well as other kinds of Spiritual Progressives.

Isaiah even provides a model for dealing with the schismatic tensions associated with "identity politics". The wolves and lambs, when taken as images of conflicted identities within the body of the poor and meek, can learn to lie down together. That is, identity issues arise from the divisive policies of the high and mighty. If people find ways to confront the truths of war and geopolitics, and of corporate power and its destructive effects on government, on the environment, and on our economic well-being, then they are likely to find that they are actually working on each other's agendas.

So I say "always connect" -- never see people or issues in isolation: these wolves and lambs are really co-dependent, not like the predator wolves of the corporate world.

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