Goldingay-the long wait

I have finished reading John Goldingay’s The Theology of the Book of Isaiah.

The last two chapters are about David and the Day of Yahweh.  But they are really about how to interpret the visions and promises of hope and finality in Isaiah.  Eschatology would be one word for this.  But Goldingay thinks that word and “apocalyptic” are tricky.

The chapter on David is about the idea of a Davidic Messiah.  Goldingay points to the phenomena of people in England and America putting much hope into the election of a new government or new President only to be disillusioned.  In Isaiah the same thing is going on except that Hezekiah was faithful enough to God to give some hope.  But by the time the Isaiah texts got compiled, the Davidic kingdom was pretty much done for.

The book now deconstructs the Davidic idea in different ways.  The Servant of God is like David but, as a suffering and despised one, different.  Most radically, Cyrus of Persia gets called God’s servant, anointed and beloved like David.

Nevertheless, Goldingay thinks the Christian practice of finding prophecies of the Messiah in Isaiah is not completely wrong.  There is something both imminent and ultimate about some of the prophecies.  For instance, the prophecy of the child to be born to a young woman in 7:14 refers to a child born in the reign of Ahaz.  But the names given to the child, especially in 9:3-7, point to something more ultimate.

“Isaiah thus constitutes a microcosm of the complex scriptural attitude to monarchy and to messianism.  The Old Testament both accepts and rejects the notion of kingship.  It both works with and sidesteps the notion of a Messiah.  And Jesus both accepts the idea that he is the Messiah and warns that it is misleading.”

This dual meaning of the imminent and ultimate future also applies the Day of Yahweh. The Day often refers to soon-to-come events like the destruction of Jerusalem or the return of the exiles.  But the “apocalyptic” language of Isaiah 13:10-13, for instance, gets taken up in later Jewish writings, in the Gospels, and in the Book of Revelation.  The signs in the heavens were probably a graphic way of talking about horrific events in ancient Judah.  But they came to take on a more cosmic and ultimate meaning–the end of the world.

Even within Isaiah there is an ultimate and cosmic idea of “that day.”  This is most clear in the passage about Leviathan in 27:1 ff.  This mythological language validates the more cosmic and ultimate interpretations.  This and similar passages imply a time that is far away rather than around the corner.  This is what the call for the response of waiting is all about.  Isaiah asks God’s people to “wait” for their redemption.

This has something to do with the idea mentioned in yesterday’s post that though God’s promises are certain, they are also somewhat dependent on human response.   Goldingay thinks this comes out particularly in Isaiah 30:18:

Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him (NRSV).

Sometimes, at least, the Lord waits to give mercy, but blessing will come to those who wait with faith that he is a just God.

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Goldingay–God is in control but we are responsible

Isaiah seems both to hold that God is behind violence–like the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem–and that God punishes the violent nations.  This raises the question of the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

A similar problem arises from the absolute declarations that sin cannot be forgiven before death (Isaiah 22:14) and that the whole land faces annihilation (28:22) juxtaposed with calls for repentance which suggest that there is yet a chance and that human action can change God’s decree.

According to John Goldingay in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, God’s prophetic speech informs but also performs.  In other words, when the prophet speaks for God the words express God’s action.  The words are more than forecasts.  But they can express God’s action in more than one way. God retains divine freedom.  His action is not put in bondage to his words.  And people can respond so that they either become beneficiaries of God’s action or bear the brunt of it.

So variables enter into the exact outcome of God’s decrees.  But human and political planning to get around God’s decree gets mocked:

You are tired out from listening to so much advice. Let them take their stand – the ones who see omens in the sky, who gaze at the stars, who make monthly predictions – let them rescue you from the disaster that is about to overtake you! (Isaiah 47:13 NET Bible)

The plans of man keep confronting the plans of God.  In the short-term the plans of God may seem horrific.  But on a more divine scale, the time will come when the holiness of God and the awe of the people will coincide.

Divine sovereignty is a subtler affair than it at first seems.  A dialectical relationship obtains between divine decision making and human decision making.   While nothing happens outside Yahweh’s control or outside parameters Yahweh lays down, and some things happen because Yahweh makes explicit decisions, many things happen in part because human beings respond to Yahweh in the way that they do. (I remind readers that I am reading in Kindle format that gives worthless location numbers instead of page numbers, precluding traditional citation.)

I have noticed this as well.  Sometimes the Hebrew Bible talks as though God causes everything that happens.  But sometimes it softens this and allows for human or angelic (Satan in Job) action.

When I read this I thought about economist Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  He says that when people act in self-interest they often unintentionally act in the public interest as well.  Cyrus, the Persian king, no doubt thought he was acting in his own interest when he allowed the exiles to return.  The Book of Isaiah, however, interprets his self-interested action as an act of God.  The same with the violent aggression of Assyria and Babylon–they act in accord with God’s plan, but God still judges them.

So there is a kind of double agency here.  God may act through people who have bad or indifferent motives.  On the other hand, people with the best intentions and motives often produce chaos or even evil.  So Isaiah’s take-down of human planning says much about why good intentions often end up causing harm.  I wonder if Isaiah’s theology leads to the idea that judgment is not really so much about motives and intentions, but about actual harm done.

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Goldingay-restoration of what remains

In one paragraph of The Theology of the Book of Isaiah John Goldingay lays out the historical bad news and good news for Jerusalem contained in Isaiah:

The destruction of Jerusalem in 587 is unreported but presupposed in the book; it is the more radical answer to the question of whether Yahweh will stay long-tempered forever.  But that catastrophe, too, cannot be the end of the story.  After fifty years of the city’s devastation and the exile of many of its people, Yahweh declares that its time of chastisement is over; the time of its comfort has come.  Yahweh intends to return to the city, taking its exiles with him.  The community is whithered like grass by Yahweh’s searing wind; but Yahweh’s word stands forever.  Thus there is good news to be proclaimed to Zion-Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:1-11).

A part of this good news is the idea of a remnant.  God punishes and brings what looks like an utter end to Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, God actually keeps the people in existence in a diminished form so that new life can eventually blossom again.  This allows God to keep to his promise of consequences for Israel’s rejection of him, and yet bring them back from ruin.

In the preaching of doom the prophet often leaves the possibility of restoration ambiguous.  Will God allow enough left overs for a restoration?  Sometimes the destruction prophesied seems so overwhelming as to preclude this possibility.  Yet such prophecies stand among more hopeful oracles.  The ambiguity confronts God’s people with a choice and demands that they respond to God’s call while keeping in mind his faithfulness.

Something Goldingay points out, which I had not considered, is that the concept of the remnant perhaps applies to the nations also.  In the prophecies about the nations, it is often predicted that they will also suffer calamity but a remnant will survive (14:22, 30; 15:9, 16:14, 17:3, and 21:17).  This allows Goldingay to interpret later prophecies about a remnant among the nations, not as about an Israelite diaspora, but about Gentile survivors whom God invites to turn to himself (45:20-25 and 66:19 ff.).

This idea might have arisen among Jerusalem priests who wrote about the desecration of the whole earth in the P source of Genesis according to Israel Knohl.  Thus, God deals with the whole earth in parallel to the way he deals with Israel.

Goldingay says,

The destiny of the nations in relation to Yahweh is thus not so different from Israel’s destiny.  Like Israel, they are expected to live in the light of their knowledge of God’s expectations of them in their attitude to God and one another.  Like Israel, they are liable to God’s “attending” to them because of the shortcomings in their attitudes.  Like Israel,  they are liable to be cut down so that little of them remains.  Like Israel, it is then open to these remains to turn to Yahweh, and ultimately the nations are indeed destined to turn to the God who lives on Zion and find their mutual relationships healed there.

If Goldingay is right about this, the apostle Paul deserves more credit as an exegete of Isaiah than he is usually given.  He seems to have taken these ideas up into his mission to the Gentiles.

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Goldingay-Israel and Zion

John Goldingay in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah moves from the doctrine of God to the relationship of God to his people and place.

When Isaiah ben Amoz, the founder of the Isaiah circle of prophets, lived and spoke the word “Israel” applied to the northern kingdom in contrast to Judah, the southern kingdom.  Yet Isaiah used Israel to mean the whole people of God.  He called the northern kingdom Ephraim.  But Israel had a theological meaning, not a political or geographical one.

Thus Isaiah’s addressees were Israel, the people of God.  Yet the addressees changed over the history of the book: Judah, the exiles, the people of Jerusalem, or perhaps some group within the larger community.  Isaiah’s point, says Goldingay is not that these addressees are the real Israel to the exclusion of others.  It is that these groups, who are under threat and have a hard time seeing that they are the people of God, have the blessings and duties of God’s Israel.

This is why Israel emerges as the servant of Yahweh after chapter 40:

You, my servant Israel,

Jacob whom I have chosen,

offspring of Abraham my friend,

 you whom I am bringing back from the earth’s extremities,

and have summoned from the remote regions –

I told you, “You are my servant.”

I have chosen you and not rejected you (Isaiah 41:8-9 NET Bible).

Isaiah’s addressees in the later chapters felt rejected rather than chosen.  They must have seen themselves as helpless pawns of the great powers.  Yet the Isaiah prophets insist that Israel’s God manipulated the great powers in the original exodus (51:10) and that he rules the whole world by being its creator (51:13).  Now comes a new exodus.  The God who created all nations will use his power to reinstate Israel and cause new growth.

In Isaiah the unique mark of God is that he is holy.  So it is surprising to find holy as the description of a place, Jerusalem or Zion (48:7, 52:1).    Isaiah opens with the self-description that it is a word about Judah and Jerusalem (1:1).

Much of Isaiah’s early chapters are devoted to bad news about Jerusalem.  It will fall.  It will be like Sodom and Gomorrah (1:8-9).

The reason for this fall is crucial.  If, as Israel Knohl suggests, Isaiah ben Amoz preached a message of holiness to the Temple priests and people in Jerusalem; then it means something that Isaiah does not condemn their ritual practices as inadequate or insincere. Goldingay says that what Isaiah condemned  was a mismatch between worship and life.  The priests have taught the people to say and do the right things at the Temple, but there is a distance between that and the life of holiness (29:13).

Isaiah says that the people’s heart is far from him.  To modern people this means that there is an emotional mismatch between God and the people of Jerusalem.  But for Hebrews that heart meant the will.  The mismatch was in life.

Jerusalem is holy because the Temple is there and it is the seat of David’s chosen dynasty. God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion because of Hezekiah, David’s descendant. But David had once made war on Jerusalem.  So God will, like David, besiege Jerusalem even though the altar (Ariel) is there (29:1-4).

Think how radical must have been the thought for faithful Jews who experienced the Babylonian desolation of Jerusalem, that Yahweh was now with the Babylonian army as he had been with David’s army.  Yet many residents of Jerusalem probably no longer thought of themselves as the people of God.   Why should God treat them differently than he treated the Jebusites that David conquered?

These are the issues faced by a later Isaiah prophet who tried to proclaim good news about Zion to the exiles.  So Goldingay will move on next to talk about restoration and hope for Jerusalem.

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Goldingay-doctrines of revelation and God

John Goldingay wrote his The Theology of the Book of Isaiah in two parts.  The first looked at the content of Isaiah by sections and in some historical context.  I covered that before the break for my trip to Montana.

Now I am back and reading the other part.  This deals with the substance of Isaiah’s theology considering the book as a whole.  Today I will talk about his exposition of Isaiah’s ideas about revelation and God.

A time-honored way of writing a theology is to start with the doctrine of revelation.  This  answers the question of how we know what we know.  The answer is that God has revealed (revelation) the building blocks for theology.  So Goldingay says that for Isaiah revelation means “words from Yahweh mediated through human agents.”

Isaiah begins with a vision: what he “saw” concerning Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:1).  In his vision he seems to overhear God speaking in the heavenly court.  Thus he claims to repeat the words of Yahweh (e.g. 7:7 and 10:24).

From this some get the idea that the Bible was dictated by God so that when we read it we are like a stenographer reading back the record of testimony  in court–verbal inspiration.

However, Isaiah contributes more than mere repetition.  He brings his own viewpoint:  his vision.  Perhaps he is like the envoy from the king of Assyria in Isaiah 36:13 ff.  The envoy sometimes repeats the king’s words and instructions, but he also engages in dialog with Hezekiah’s people and sometimes speaks for the king even when he formulates the words himself.

Beyond the visionary prophet is the notion of the prophet as Yahweh’s servant.

He said to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, through whom I will reveal my splendor.”

But I thought, “I have worked in vain;

I have expended my energy for absolutely nothing.”

But the Lord will vindicate me;

my God will reward me (Isaiah 49:3-4 NET Bible).

We see the inner dialog of the prophet.  He is tempted to take the view that his work is absurd and empty (see the Book of Ecclesiastes).  Instead, he maintains a partly subjective faith in a future vindication of his words.  This speaks to the human side of revelation.

Another aspect of revelation is that the Isaiah prophets wrote over a period of centuries so that the later part already recognized the early part as God’s word.

Regarding the doctrine of God in Isaiah, Goldingay starts with the formula that God is the Holy One of Israel.  That God is holy means that he belongs to a different realm than this ordinary, natural, created one.  And it speaks to his absolute sovereignty over this realm.

The book underscores this by using the phrase we often translate as “the Lord of Hosts.” Goldingay translates “Yahweh Armies”.  Interestingly (since Goldingay mostly refrains from historical conjecture) he thinks this term may go back to the shrine at Shiloh and the Ark.  It speaks to God’s power as a warrior.  Isaiah uses all kind of military metaphors for this God.

We usually interpret this to speak of God as the powerful deliverer of his people.  But Isaiah also has God going to war against Israel (63:10).  And God can embody his power in the pagan ruler, Cyrus, to deliver Israel and demonstrate his freedom to use world empires for or against Israel.  So as Lord of hosts or Yahweh Armies, God is not just the God of angelic armies but has sovereignty also over all human forces.

So perhaps Isaiah’s doctrine of God is best summed up in 45:6-7:

I do this so people will recognize from east to west

that there is no God but me;

I am the Lord, I have no peer.

I am the one who forms light

and creates darkness;

the one who brings about peace

and creates calamity.

I am the Lord, who accomplishes all these things (NET Bible).

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RIP Rene Girard

I had a series of posts some months ago about Rene Girard’s view of what Christ’s death meant.  Now comes word that Girard has died.

Christopher S. Morrissey talks about what he learned from Girard here.  He concludes:

So, how can we escape from grudges and conflict? Those who seek peace realize that true conversion happens when we turn away from all the world’s destructive myths and angry illusions.

I am grateful to René Girard for being a true teacher about the peace of the Gospel. He taught us how to purify our desires, and as he did so he was a gentle example of personal sanctity.


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The historical Elijah

The sermon I am preparing is about the prophet Elijah.  Our pastor uses something called the Narrative Lectionary.  So I am going to (sort of) use the scripture that comes up for November 8 in that.   I am going to present the contrast between the “then the fire of the Lord fell” (I Kings 18:38) and “the Lord was not in the fire” (19:12) as a riddle having to do with our desire to see God act dramatically and the reality that we usually have to pay attention to small and ambiguous events to see God working in the world.

But, as always, in my study I ask about the historical Elijah.  Israel Finkelstein has called the Elijah cycle a historical novel.  Neither history nor novel was really a category of literature in the Iron Age, so we are just making associations with literature we know when we talk about such categories.

Whoever wrote about Elijah in 1 Kings wrote about him in the southern kingdom decades or centuries later and from a perspective of hostility against the Baal worship that Ahaz and his Tyrian princess wife, Jezebel, mingled with Yahweh worship.

Nevertheless, the writer had old sources (1 Kings 14:19).  So what we have seems like a kind of narrative commentary upon old annals.  We would say this distorts history.  But remember, the author had no concept of pure history divorced from political and theological purposes.  Modern historians seldom or never carry out the pure history thing in practice either.  But modern historians have the ideal of history written from some neutral perspective.   The author or authors of Kings did not even have the ideal.

It is not possible to prove that Elijah existed.  He does not show up in any Phoenician or Assyrian accounts.  Other players in the story do show up in Assyrian inscriptions.  And in 1964 there was discovered a seal that may have the name Jezebel.


Seal of Jezebel with missing letters restored.

So Elijah likely existed.  Some of the stories about him seem to contain folklore–the ravens and the cake in 1 Kings 17.  I don’t think these stories were in the annals of the kings.  But that there was an important prophet who opposed Ahab and Jezebel, hid out in caves in the Carmel mountain range, and who passed on a legacy to Elisha and other “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3) is probable.

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