Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.

Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.

One Isaiah

Everyone wants to be remembered. While many don’t wish to be famous, we all hope that someone notices the noteworthy things we’ve done. By any measure Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have succeeded. Every year around Christmastime his words, set to music, are sung in churches around the world. He gets regular readings among those who attend synagogue and even those who take secular Bible classes have to reckon with him. Isaiah even attracted imitators before his book was finally compiled. According to the Good Book he was a trusted advisor to King Hezekiah. But what do we know of him as a person? Biographical episodes in his book are rare, unlike those of his fellow major-leaguers Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Who was Isaiah?

It’s not Christmastime, so why am I writing about him now anyway? Well, a friend pointed me to a recent archaeological discovery from Jerusalem that is a broken seal impression (technically called a bulla) that may have originally read “Isaiah the prophet.” The news was broken in Biblical Archaeology Review, but it can be read about for free here. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist publishing the inscription, notes that it reads “Yesha‘yah[u] nvy…” As often happens in archaeology, the end of the inscription is missing. In case your Hebrew’s even rustier than mine Yeshayah sounds a lot like Isaiah—go ahead, sound it out. The word prophet is nvy’. Don’t let that apostrophe fool you; it’s a full-fledged consonant in Hebrew. If that final letter has been reconstructed correctly the seal would read “Isaiah the prophet.”

My friend asked me what I though of this. My initial impression is that it would be odd for anyone to sign themselves with the title “the prophet.” If they did it would require a bit more hubris than I mentally attribute to Isaiah. You see, a prophet was selected, so they believed, by God. Chosen even among the chosen people. It wasn’t a pleasant job—once again, Jeremiah’s jeremiads come to mind. Would someone have signed himself “the prophet”? We don’t have a terrible lot of information from the ancient world about individuals. What we do know is subject to exaggeration and other forms of hyperbole. Did Isaiah, mouthpiece of Yahweh, carry an official seal declaring that the contents were bona fide possessions of a man who saw God sitting on his throne and survived to tell the tale? Or is it a hopeful reading of those who want to demonstrate the Bible is true? It’s a question the reader must decide, for, as always seems to happen, the evidence is broken just at the crucial point.

American Caligula

In the days before the American Caligula, the Trump family disgusted average Americans. I mean specifically one of those whose songs are considered essential Americana. Woody Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land.” Many of us were taught to sing it in school, back when public education was still a thing. Some of us were taught that Guthrie was the Dust Bowl crooner who railed against social injustice. The lyrics to “This Land” are not celebratory, according to those who knew Guthrie. They’re a condemnation. But then, it’s just like later interpreters to prettify the words of a prophet. “A young lady will conceive,” for Isaiah meant the horrid crisis of Assyria’s attack on Jerusalem would soon be over. A couple centuries later it was made into an angelic birth announcement. But I digress. Guthrie often wrote and sang about social injustice. He was known to perform with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” appearing on his guitar.

Photo credit: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun, from Wikimedia Commons

Those of us who write are never far from our notebooks. You don’t always have time to write out in full form ideas that come to you like a gray matter receiver, often at the most inconvenient times. Recently it was discovered that Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump.” The song castigates the racism for the Donald’s father whose Beach Haven was once Guthrie’s home. Beach Haven was built to house returning veterans of World War II. It was off limits to African Americans. Guthrie responded in the way he did best, with poetry. The story of and words to “Old Man Trump” can be found in a Washington Post story written by Justin Wm. Moyer during Trump’s campaign. Although Guthrie never wrote the music, the song has been subsequently recorded, and in the light of the last few days, needs to be widely played.

Republican leaders, still hoping to profit from Trump, refuse to outright condemn his open and obvious racism. “This Land is Your Land” was written to protest just this kind of privileging of one “type” over another. It took some time before Romans realized their third emperor was insane. They may have know earlier, but there’s a social embarrassment to admit that the most powerful man in the world is off his rocker. Insanity and racism may not be the same thing, but neither is acceptable in a world leader. Ryan Harvey has put “Old Man Trump” to music and has made it available to the world. Give it a listen and think about where we are.

Industrial Revolution

Everything’s industry. It has haunted me for some years now that we’ve let our corporate greed run away with our imagination so that nothing but “industry” remains. We don’t wish to interfere with the gun industry. The guns we like the best are those designed especially for killing lots of people. We feel happy having them in our homes. We’ve supported industry. Time was when society had more than just industry. Education, for example, was not an industry. It was just education. No measurable outgoes but a better society. Now we quantify and try to measure, thinking there’s something magical about numbers. My, what big ammo you have! The better to shoot you with, my darling. Think of it as the people killing industry.

After all, if you spend all that money on an expensive automatic weapon and don’t kill anyone with it, haven’t you wasted your money? Well, wasting money is good for industry, so we shouldn’t be too harsh. Most people know better than to take their weapons out and blow away those they don’t like. I would feel better if more people were like Pedro Reyes. (We, however, want to build walls to keep his kind out.) Reyes is an artist who had people in Mexico City turn their guns in for useful things. He had the guns smashed with a steamroller, at an army base, no less. The metal from the guns he melted down and made shovel heads so that people could plant trees. Over 1500 guns were turned in. The biblical allusion has already been made, but we would rather, in this country, ignore the good book we love so.

What would the gun industry do if people stopped needing to defend themselves so much? What if people felt less fear? What if politicians, instead of cynically using fear to win nominations, and elections, had the best interest of citizens at heart? Guns are for wars, and wars are useless. We have far more to offer one another than pools of blood and gore and guilt everlasting. Does it not strike anyone as odd that mass shooters intend to die at the end? We could use more shovels to bury them all. Wouldn’t it be even better if, before the shooting began, their guns were melted down and cast into useful tools? One might, in an optimistic mood, call such a thing an industry.

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Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

JWatchtower

Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

Slippery Logic

Last week NBC reported on a baby in Tennessee. Babies in Tennessee, one might suppose, are pretty common. This one, however, was given a name stricken down by the courts. Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew declared that the baby could not be named “Messiah.” Apart from the statement that this is a title and not a name (don’t tell Judge Reinhold, please), the judge (not Reinhold) demonstrated her biblical illiteracy by stating that the title messiah has, “only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Oh well, this is the Bible Belt, after all. Nevertheless, I would expect someone so deep in the Bible Belt to know the actual Bible a little better.

“Messiah” derives from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one.” Its meaning is somewhat more literally along the lines of “smeared with oil,” for that is what anointing is. The title is used for several people in the Bible, not just one. Aaron, for one, was anointed. David was anointed as king, as were several other characters, including ill-fated Saul. And let’s not forget where Isaiah says clearly of Cyrus II, king of Persia, that he is “his anointed,” i.e., Yahweh’s anointed, in Hebrew, “his messiah.” Not Jewish, not Christian, Cyrus was a good old Zoroastrian. And he was just one in a long line of messiahs.

Where's your Messiah now? Oh, there he is.  (Photo by Persian Light.)

Where’s your Messiah now? Oh, there he is. (Photo by Persian Light.)

I’m not doubting Judge Ballew’s reasoning that it might be in the best interest of the child not to have such a controversial name. I do doubt, however, that it would be in the best interest of that child that he be raised being taught that evolution is a myth and special creation six thousand years ago is science. I do doubt that it is in his best interest to be taught that homosexuality is a sin and that it is something that only people have ever done because of their “fallen nature.” I do doubt that it is in the child’s best interest to be raised believing that if a woman is pregnant that a male-dominated government has the right to decide whether she carries the baby to term, no matter what. And once that baby is born, I do not believe it is the government’s right to decide on what his or her name shall be. And I expect that all the people named “Jesus” out there would agree. And Judge Reinhold.

Mercurial Monotheism

A friend recently asked about Isaiah 45.7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I remember as a college student how professors tended to translate the problem away. Perhaps I was too young to understand the truth of the Italian phrase, “Traduttore, tradittore”—if I may betray myself—“translators are traitors.” I eventually did come to learn that those who’d already decided what the Bible meant could translate troublesome passages according to their biases. In this case the connotations aren’t even necessary to raise hackles, for the denotations do so fine just by themselves. Let’s put Isaiah 45 in context first. This remarkable chapter is an oracle from the beginnings of the Persian period that show Yahweh doing things in unexpected ways. It begins by calling Cyrus the Lord’s anointed—yes, that is the Hebrew word for “messiah”—the people of Judah had been in exile a long while and Cyrus, king of Persia, was their deliverer.

Back then, as even today, some would’ve been scandalized at this turn of phrase. The Judahites were beginning to develop the idea that the messiah would be a mystical deliverer, someone who would free them from the sad lot of being deportees. Some thought the messiah might be a divine figure. Here Yahweh is declaring a non-Jew, a foreign king, as a messiah. You can be sure there was some questioning of the prophet’s words. Second Isaiah, however, throws a well-timed curve in verse 7: God can do this because God creates both good and evil. This is a consequence of emerging monotheism. In a polytheistic world, you could have a plethora of deities. Monotheism, however, quickly runs afoul of the question of evil. If there is one god, where does it come from? Deutero-Isaiah shows Yahweh is capable of surprising things. The verse’s plain sense is blatant. Bald. Obvious. Yahweh creates both good and evil. Otherwise monotheism would be making false claims.

In college professors tried to insist that “evil” here wasn’t that really bad kind of evil, but rather something milder—a filtered cigarette rather than a Cuban cigar. They were prevaricating, however, as I learned when I too took up Greek and Hebrew. Evangelicals like to read monotheism into the Bible from the beginning, but the Bible itself fights against them here. Monotheism, like everything else, evolved. By the time Isaiah 45.7 was being penned, it was necessary to show that Marduk, and Enlil, and Ishtar had nothing to do with Jerusalem’s destruction and the fate of the deportees. No, this was Yahweh’s doing. And there was no apology for it. Monotheism had come, but at the cost of Yahweh’s innocence. According to this part of the Bible, the origin of evil is no mystery—it is the same as the genesis of all good things.

Who's your messiah now?

Who’s your messiah now?

Isaiah Thwarted

Back in January, out of a sense of curiosity on a number of points, I began tweeting the Bible. I wondered how long it would take, at 140 characters a day, to type the King James Bible into Twitter. Since that time, I have not missed a day. Until this week. International travel and business travel with uncertain Internet access have been overcome as I flew with Bible in hand to keep it going. On Monday I was just wrapping up the flood story. Clearly this was going to take a long-term commitment. Then early this week a message popped up on my Twitter account stating, “You cannot send messages to users who are not following you. Learn more,” so naturally, I learned more. Unfortunately I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. Just a sentence in and words I don’t understand begin to flummox me, building confusion on confusion. What it appears to be telling me, in layman’s language, is that I can no longer post to Twitter.

Apart from the personal rejection such impersonal messages inevitably engender, this development brought to mind the famous verse from Isaiah 40.8, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Hath the Lord been stopped by Twitter? Technology changes rapidly, and those of us who’ve never had any formal training in it sometimes feel like we’re driving a car on a dark country road at night with no headlights. I’m not really sure how this all works, but I try to send daily thoughts out into cyberspace and, yes, what you say can and will be used against you. And I wonder about old Deutero-Isaiah sitting there in Babylon peering into an indefinite future.

Our abject dependence on the Internet has changed us as a species. I’ve recently read about how technological innovations have become the evolution of the human species. This collective brain we refer to as the Internet has revolutionized the way we do business, but it has also introduced a component of fragility into the equation. Electronic information is untested in the long term. Some of my earliest writing projects now exist only on three-and-a-half inch floppies, most of which are tucked away in some musty corner of the attic. And what if the earth passes through a comet’s tail or a nasty solar flare jets out our way? Doomsday scenarios have been based on such things (just remember Y2K and smile). So maybe Second Isaiah was onto something after all. Printed books have been known to survive for at least half a millennium, and in rare instances, a couple thousand years. And the pagan sources on which parts of the Bible are based, written in clay, last even longer. And one of the earliest stories recorded was that of a worldwide flood.

Lunchtime in Midtown

It was a brilliantly sunny day and there seemed to be rain nowhere in sight. It wasn’t even hot. Days like this have been rare this spring, so I went out for a lunchtime walk in my neighborhood. I’d been by the United Nations with some visiting family the day before, so I went down again and pondered the words attributed to Isaiah carved in the wall across from one of the largest intentional organs of peace in the world. I was reminded that a copy of the Edict of Cyrus resides in the UN; as a historical text it is often considered to be the first document promoting religious tolerance among lesser powers allowed by a greater power. The world could use a few more like old Cyrus the Great these days. I think Deutero-Isaiah would agree. So with biblical thoughts in my head, I strolled back toward Grand Central.

Along the way I saw a phrase from the Eucharistic Prayer on a building and it was like meeting someone from college that moved halfway around the world to disappear from your life. I saw that I was standing outside 815 Second Avenue. To the majority of the world—even the majority of Christians—this will mean nothing. At Nashotah House, however, “815” was regarded as the source of all evil. It is the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in America. It is hard, as a disowned son, to describe the feelings that assailed me there. Those good Christians who intended me such harm did not seem to realize all I had sacrificed to join them. Some of the clergy whose daggers remain in my back are well-paid priests right here in New York. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, I thought.

With that cloud in my sky, I turned the corner back to work. Parked in the street was a truck labeled “Divine Moving & Storage.” That sounded an awful lot like a trope for my life. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s God reaching to Adam contrasting with a phone number ending in 666, this bundle of contradictions might just have been a small sample of the human experience. Caught constantly between Heaven and Hell with doleful prophets and profit-loving dolers of sacramental grace living one next to the other. New York is a religious city in every sense of the word. Somewhere off in the shadows I think I hear Isaiah whispering, “I make weal and I create woe…” I love a sunny day in Manhattan.

Assyrian Dreamers

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

These lines from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” were recently quoted to me by one of my relatives who houses a tremendous store of memorized poetry. The poem is Byron’s vision of the siege of Jerusalem, a historical event that is now well understood because the actual annals of Sennacherib were discovered in 1830. The Akkadian version of Hezekiah’s revolt and the subsequent siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE match the statement in 2 Kings 18 that declares Hezekiah bought off Sennacherib, thus sparing his kingdom. The biblical version then goes on to add the event eulogized by Lord Byron that an angel was sent after a prophecy of Isaiah and the Assyrian army fell decimated outside Jerusalem. The latter event is not historically accurate, but it is much more poetic. Who would write a poem about a king paying off his enemies?

Annals of Sennacherib

The Bible is comfortable with conflicting accounts of events, sometimes laying them side-by-side without comment, supposing that the reader is bright enough to see the obvious contradictions and draw the relevant conclusions. With the birth of Christian Fundamentalism in the 1920s, however, the myth of biblical inerrancy was born. In a world rendered in shades of gray, a distinct comfort lies in having answers in black and white. The Bible, considered the exact (if sometimes dodgy) words of God himself, could not be other than one hundred percent historically accurate. This version of history distorts what actually happened to what must have happened.

Lord Byron, notorious sinner that he was, seems to have been closer to the biblical spirit when he penned his famous poem. Glorying in the bravado of a warrior God who lays waste an entire army without lifting a sword or spear is fanciful, if breath-taking, poetic license.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d,
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

bears a grandeur lacking in “Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.”

Religious Raven

Having seldom achieved any sort of public recognition in my youth, I have been gratified to observe the approbation my daughter frequently earns. One such instance occurred yesterday as she won an Outstanding Presenter award at the state level of 4-H. For her presentation she introduced and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. As much as I like to take credit for some of her taste in literature, her remarkable memorizing ability that has impressed several judges and parents along the way is the result of her own determination. “The Raven” has always been among my favorite poems. As I listened to my daughter’s recitation yesterday, once again the wealth of religious and biblical images stood out.

Starting subtly with the perching of the raven on a bust of Pallas, Athena, the protective goddess of Athens itself, Poe adds the supernatural to his lamentation on the death of his wife. The bird’s origins on “the night’s Plutonian shore” also point the reader to the classical underworld toward which the poem inevitably points. The last five stanzas, where Poe’s verse turns directly toward his black thoughts at the decline of his wife, introduce the presence of seraphim—the turning point in the poem—angelic beings mentioned as attendants to God’s throne in Isaiah. The divine presence, however, offers Poe no comfort as the raven refuses to relinquish his memories of his love. Asking with Jeremiah (and citing the bird as prophet) if there is balm in Gilead, the poet is informed no such comfort exists. Calling God in Heaven as witness the bereaved asks if in Eden (Aidenn) he will be reunited with his bride, only to be informed such will not be the case. The raven, compared to devil, thing of evil, and a demon, represents for Poe the ultimate reality.

“The Raven” is a dark poem, tinged with religious imagery that was freely drawn upon in the nineteenth century. Having heard it recited many times over the past few months, I have come to believe that Poe would have been in accord with my belief that religion and fear are close siblings. When the climax of the author’s pain and sorrow is reached, the religious imagery predominates. This is a paradigm of many human lives. How many non-religious folk seek to make their peace with the supernatural when death is imminent? “Eleventh hour conversion” may be a trite trope, but it does point to something that Edgar Allan Poe recognized long before me—when we find ourselves most afraid religious impulses are frequently at hand.

The Sign of Jonah

The Sign of Jonah?

Each year during the spring semester my Prophets class brings new levels of fixation on those familiar characters that so few actually know. The process began early this year. With several students of eastern Christian persuasion, Jonah became an issue based on the folkloristic nature of the tale. Jonah is particularly prone to a literal interpretation because of the “sign of Jonah” trope cited by none other than Jesus himself. Also, as I learned in my doleful days at Gorgias Press, many eastern Christians understand Jonah as a special favor to them, sent by Yahweh well before Christianity began. Even with the full weight of history against them, the students are unwilling to relinquish Jonah to his native literary genre. Then came Isaiah.

Isaiah is the most heavily co-opted prophet in the canon. Well, one might put Elijah in the running, and it would be a Chariots of Fire finish I’m sure, but as the most quoted prophet in the Christian Scriptures, Isaiah would come out on the Liddell end. So massive is this sense of ownership that Isaiah’s direct prophecy concerning the Syro-Ephramite Crisis in 7.13-17 is incapable of being understood as anything other than a prediction of a virgin birth some seven centuries down the road. Interestingly enough, it is the literal sense of this passage that is generally overlooked in favor of a later interpretation.

Even the sense of what prophecy was in the ancient world has been altered to an unrecognizable jumble by later agendas. Prophets spoke out regarding current issues (“the two kings you dread”), occasionally providing future, generally conditional, remarks. In our apocalypse-hungry society, pundits are eager for the culmination of all things and the more fireworks the better. If old Jonah and Isaiah were sitting together in a bar I can imagine the stories they’d exchange. And it wouldn’t be a whale (excuse me, “big fish”) that would be doing most of the swallowing.

Origins of Evil

The Bible might have benefited from a good editor. The final product is a world classic, of course, but contemporary people with their busy lives prefer straight and simple answers. These, often, the Bible refuses to yield. During a discussion of prophecy in class the other night the question of the origin of evil arose. I incidentally made reference to Isaiah 45.7 where God casually drops the line, “Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating evil, I am Yahweh making all this.” Many English translations attempt to mask the bald use of ra‘ “evil,” in this passage with nicer words such as “woe” or “calamity.” As I explained to my students, however, in a truly monotheistic system all fingers must point the same way for the ultimate responsibility. In this passage of Isaiah, Yahweh is presented as causing evil.

Now the editing of the Bible was never undertaken with the intention of creating uniformity, despite the railing of Fundamentalists. There are plentiful internal inconsistencies and disagreements. We should expect no less of a book written over a period of about a thousand years by several different writers grappling with life’s big questions. Inevitably students ask about the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2.17 has Yahweh state that newly created people must not eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil (ra‘).” Here the evil grows on a tree. Who planted that tree? It’s like blatantly laying the keys before your teenager and saying, “now don’t take the car.” Who is the source of that tree? (And, less frequently noted, the eating of the fruit in Genesis 3 is never called “sin.”)

The quintessential problem with a compilation is lack of uniformity. This did not bother ancient people as much as it does modern Fundamentalists. One reason is that many people equate the Bible’s value with it being a book that has all the answers from a single viewpoint. This the Bible lacks. According to the Bible there are various sources of evil. According to a strict monotheism (late in the Hebrew Bible) there can only be one. Enter the devil. To save the goodness of God a Zoroastrian anti-God had to be introduced. But the devil must stand in line to make his patent claim on evil.

God-Adam! Is That What it Really Says?

GodAdam

While reading a recent article on the origins of the abstract art movement I was struck by this quote from Wassily Kandinsky, widely considered to have been one of the founders of the movement: “the contact between the acute angle of a triangle and a circle has no less effect than that of God’s finger touching Adam’s in Michelangelo.” Apart from putting me in mind of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, this statement emphasized once again the power of one of Genesis’ creation stories. It also made me aware of a new dimension of the distressed pleas of Creationists for a reversal of science and a resetting of the hands of time itself. It seems that there is so much to lose.

Michelangelo’s Adam, as I always tell my students, has bestowed a disproportionate influence on all subsequent biblical interpretation. Rather like the case with Handel’s Messiah and Isaiah 9, modern readers find it exceptionally difficult to climb over Renaissance images to peer directly at the ancient sources themselves. Isaiah was writing about Hezekiah ben Ahaz rather than Jesus of Nazareth, but just try to convince any holiday shopper of the fact! Art has made the decision for us; there can be no questioning of Handel. Michelangelo was a brilliant painter, indeed, a genius by any stretch of artistic imagination, but he was no Bible scholar. Even if he had been, the tools available now were not available then.

I sense that Creationists fear the loss of the literal image (if it can even be considered literal) of Michelangelo’s God and Adam. How threatening it is to ponder that God is not a bearded white man! What blasphemy to consider that instead of an insouciant Adam we have promiscuously procreating ape-like hominids hopping around!

One of my favorite movies has always been 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s coming of age. The iconic monolith with early, distinctly apelike humans cavorting around it, timidly daring to touch it, to become something more — this abstraction felt like creation to me. Indeed, much of the film is abstract art. Creationists fear the demise of classical art; however, abstract artists do not destroy classical art, but rather build on it. It is humanity growing up. Like abstract art the biblical images leave much to the imagination. Is it better to remain firmly mired in what we know cannot be true or to allow human progression to continue? Even Wall-e reaches a mechanical hand out to the light (image copyrighted, all rights reserved).