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?