Saturday, 1 February 2014

Passion for the City: A Celebration of the Book of Isaiah

Here is a draft of the Introduction to a book I am planning. I would welcome any comment on it.

An Angry Young Man

Two thousand seven hundred years ago a young man belonging to the upper class of Jerusalem society is angry about the state of the city. Its situation is desperate: the land has been almost entirely taken over by the ever-expanding Assyrian empire, and the ancient nation of Israel is now reduced virtually to the capital city. This is a nation that believes itself to be God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham to whom God had said “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). These are the children of the people God rescued from slavery in Egypt to mould them into “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). That people is now humiliated and its very existence threatened. But this young man sees beyond the political situation: he sees that the people are no longer what they were meant to be, no longer “holy” and no longer in any fit state to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Their rulers are corrupt, and the whole society is riddled with bribery, injustice and oppression. The poor are being ruthlessly exploited by those with wealth and power.
No one can accuse them of not being religious. People flock to the Temple to pray and offer sacrifices. They scrupulously observe all the ritual and turn out in great numbers for the festivals. But they have forgotten that their God is a God of justice and compassion, and that without these things worship is meaningless. And so in practice they have turned their backs on God and despised him.

How little has changed! Religious people are so often ready to blame national decline or misfortune on the decline in church-going, the neglect of the Sabbath, the retreat of religion from public life or challenges to traditional sexual morality. They love to quote the saying “righteousness exalteth a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). But what they forget is that the real meaning of “righteousness” is justice.
So the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah is an angry outburst. The prophet feels God calling on heaven and earth to listen to his complaint:

“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

The nation has forsaken its God and become estranged from him. It is like someone wounded, sick from head to toe, bleeding and uncared for. The land of Judah has been devastated. Its cities have been burned, and Jerusalem alone, the sanctuary of Zion, God’s beloved “daughter”, is left standing like a shed in a garden of cucumbers.

If it were not for the survival of Jerusalem and its few inhabitants the scene would resemble the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, those legendary cities near the Dead Sea that had been destroyed by a cataclysm in the distant past, a proverbial example of God’s punishment for wickedness. Indeed, says Isaiah, this “holy” city is in fact no better than those:

“Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
 Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”
God does not appreciate their conspicuous practice of religion:

 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts …
Trample my courts no more …”
Offerings, incense, the observing of special days and seasons – nothing escapes God’s scorn, says Isaiah. They have all become a burden that God is weary of bearing. Even prayer is futile:

“When you stretch out your hands
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers
I will not listen …”
Why? Because those hands stretched out in prayer are stained with blood. Before God will listen to their prayers the people must change their ways:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean …”
This of course would be an expected ritual preparation for worship, such as is customary in most religions. But Isaiah means more than just the washing of the body:

“remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
It is paradoxical that this book that presents us with so many hopeful visions of Jerusalem should start by identifying it with Sodom and Gomorrah. It is even stranger that these words should come not from a social drop-out but from a man of some status who is probably even a priest himself, tied into the whole system of worship and sacrifice against which he is ranting. Here is real radicalism.

Jesus was not the first to challenge the Temple and the whole way of life that revolved around it. It was in the spirit of the ancient prophets that he constantly put ethical behaviour, compassion for one’s fellow human beings, at the heart of devotion to God, taking priority over prayers and sacrifices:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

In the prophet’s eyes the “faithful city” has become “a whore”.  Instead of justice there is murder. Leaders are corrupt, easily bribed, “companions of thieves”, and it is the orphans and the widows who suffer. But the sermon (if we can call it that) ends on a positive note. God will certainly “pour out his wrath”, but only to cleanse and refine, and then he will restore the life of the city so that it will once again be “the city of righteousness, the faithful city”.
In this first chapter, then, the theme of the whole book of Isaiah is set out as at the beginning of a symphony. It is God’s vision and passion for Jerusalem, the stark contrast between the ideal and the reality, and the dream of a Jerusalem that will be what God truly wants it to be.

The Authors

The Book of Isaiah is mostly anonymous. It is a compilation of writings accumulated over several centuries. The only author whose name we know lived in Jerusalem about seven hundred years before Christ, but it is hard to say how much of the book originates with him. The book begins with a title:
“The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”

In chapter 6 there is an account of a vision in the Temple that looks likely to be a description of how Isaiah first experienced the call to be a prophet. It took place “in the year that King Uzziah died”. This was about 740 BC. Chapters 36-37 give an account (also found in the Second Book of Kings) of an attack on Jerusalem by the Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah, and the part that Isaiah played in that situation. This, as we know from the Assyrian records, was 701 BC. This means that Isaiah was preaching for about forty years, so we may probably assume that he was quite a young man when he began. The story in chapter 6 of his experiencing his call to be a prophet through a vision in the Temple may mean that he was a priest.
Isaiah’s lifetime was dominated by the threat from the Assyrians. This empire, based in what is now northern Iraq, was at its peak at that time, and was the biggest empire the Near East had yet seen. The original nation of Israel had, since the death of Solomon in about 922 BC, been divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom that had its capital in Samaria and retained the name “Israel”, and the southern kingdom called Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. It was during Isaiah’s lifetime, in 721 BC, that the Assyrians brought the kingdom of Israel to an end. They not only incorporated it into their empire, but they destroyed it as a nation, deporting many of its citizens and bringing in settlers from elsewhere, so that the whole area came to be known as “Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1). Judah survived on that occasion, though it seems that for a time at least the Assyrians were in possession of virtually the whole country, leaving the city of Jerusalem standing alone “like a shelter in a cucumber field” (Isaiah 1:8). The Assyrian threat eventually died away and the kingdom of Judah survived for another century or so, by which time the Assyrian empire had fallen and it was Babylon that dealt the fatal blow.

It is difficult to tell how much of the Book of Isaiah originates with Isaiah himself, but certainly from chapter 40 onwards we are in a completely different period of history. The Assyrians are no longer in the picture, and even Babylon is being taken over by the Medes (who later became the Persian empire). Cyrus the Mede is actually mentioned by name (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC and had deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon. Isaiah 40-55 comes from a time about fifty years after this, when Cyrus had given permission for Jews to return to Jerusalem, rebuild it, and reinstate their religion and way of life. This part of the book is largely a celebration of this good news by a prophet who seems to be based in Babylon.
From chapter 56 onwards the situation has changed again. The prophet now seems to be based in Judah and concerned with problems arising a generation or so after the return of the exiles.

Why is the preaching of at least three different prophets gathered together in one book under the name of Isaiah? The different parts of the book are in different styles and reflect different historical circumstances. However, in their different ways they share something of the spirit of the original Isaiah. Isaiah seems to have had disciples who noted his words and preserved them for posterity. At one point (Isaiah 8:16) these words are attributed to him:
“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”

It may be that this circle of disciples continued in existence for a long time, forming a community of people who treasured and repeated the words of the prophet. As time went on, their relevance would be seen in new situations, and people would preach and write in the name of Isaiah, saying what they believed Isaiah would say in their time. And so, over a period of centuries, there was added to the original core a series of layers that became the Book of Isaiah as we now have it.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

The one thing that seems to link the different parts of the book together is the city of Jerusalem. The original Isaiah challenged it, spoke very scathingly about as we have already seen, but was consumed with love for the city and a conviction that it had a special place in God’s purpose. This vision of Jerusalem, which started with the legendary days of David and Solomon but perhaps really got off the ground with Isaiah, has persisted down through the centuries. As the Jewish people were dispersed among the other nations. Jerusalem became the place to which they made pilgrimage and towards which they prayed. Jesus came there for the culmination of his ministry. The Gospels tell of his “triumphal entry” on the back of a donkey, and Luke (19:41) tells how he paused when the city came into view and wept over it because of the opportunity it was missing. Luke also (13:34) quotes Jesus, very much in the spirit of Isaiah, saying:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It was in Jerusalem that Jesus was condemned to death, and from Jerusalem that the Christian gospel was spread out to the rest of the world. Six centuries later, Jerusalem acquired sacred associations with the prophet Mohammed and his followers, and so it is to this day a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For Christians there is also the symbolic Jerusalem, derived mostly from the New Testament book of Revelation. Under its alternative names of Jerusalem, Salem and Zion it is a symbol of the Church:

“Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God.”
 It is a symbol of heaven:

“Jerusalem the golden,
With milk and honey blessed,
Beneath thy contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, ah, I know not
What joys await us there,
What radiance of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.”
It is also a symbol of the ideal world. The Book of Revelation (21:2) talks of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven so that God’s dwelling will be with humanity. On the last night of the Proms in London thousands of patriotic voices lustily sing the words of the visionary poet William Blake about building “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”.

Meanwhile the actual city of Jerusalem continues to exist on this earth. The Jews were driven out of it when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the second century AD. In the Middle Ages Europe sent out a succession of Crusades to drive the Muslims out of it and claim it for Christianity. Today it is a tragically divided city where Jews, Muslims and different kinds of Christians argue and fight over their territories, and the capital of a state whose policies and whose very existence excite passionate and often violent disagreement. Jerusalem today is no happier than it was in Isaiah’s time. It is still a microcosm of the divisions, the suffering and the mess of humanity. And yet it is still the stuff of dreams and utopian visions.
The vision of the Book of Isaiah still has its relevance for Jerusalem. The people of three faiths still regard it as a very special city, but Isaiah reminds us that God’s central concern is for justice, and only through justice will Jerusalem ever prosper. At the same time Jerusalem can serve as a symbol of every human society, and perhaps especially of cities. The world’s population today is becoming increasingly urban. There are cities whose population is on a scale that was unheard of even fifty years ago. A city is a world concentrated in a small area. Most big cities today are extremely diverse and cosmopolitan. People are drawn to cities because they are exciting, full of culture, variety and the opportunity to advance one’s career and make money. Every city has its pride and its distinctive profile. Many have an icon that is immediately recognisable all over the world: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Cristo Redentor, the Harbour Bridge ….  and so on. But at the same time the worst of human misery is seen in cities: shanty towns with open sewers, people scavenging on rubbish dumps, “cardboard cities”, sweat shops, lonely people paying an extortionate rent to live in desolate bedsitters, and some committing the final act of despair by jumping off a bridge. A city stands for everything that is miserable, joyful, ugly, beautiful, desperate, hopeful, hellish and heavenly in the human world. So Isaiah, as an important part of the Scripture of Jews and Christians and of the world’s literary heritage, is not just about Jerusalem: it is about a divine passion for the city.   

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