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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Isaiah, chaos, and idolatry (with a concluding peroration about Muslims)

I've been reading through the Bible in Hebrew for many years now, and I'm just over half way through. In the Jewish ordering of the canon, that means that I'm getting toward the end of Isaiah. I've made my way through the marvelous chapters 40-55 and am now up to chap. 60.

One of the things I enjoy about reading Hebrew is the rich word play that the authors engage in, particularly in poetic texts such as Isaiah (though there's lots of it in the prose narratives as well). It may be that sometimes I'm reading too much into the text because of my limited knowledge of Hebrew and because of the limited text samples that we have. (I.e., some things may seem more significant than they are because I don't know enough--and possibly no one today does--about how the words were normally used, so that what seems like a theologically loaded word play is just a normal usage.) But with that caveat, I want to point out some things that have jumped out at me, and my friends who are Biblical scholars can tell me when I'm either wrong or obvious or both!

In this post, I want to focus on the word "tohu," or "chaos." This is one of the two words used in Genesis 1 to describe the chaotic state of the world before God orders it: "tohu vabhohu," or "formless and empty." Isaiah 45:18-19 clearly echos the Genesis creation account:
For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, "Seek me in chaos." I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right.
 The word "chaos" here is "tohu," the chaos to which God brought order in Genesis 1. But there's more: this chaos is connected with idolatry. The chapter as a whole is declaring that YHWH has appointed Cyrus to bring Israel out of exile, and by doing this is proving that He is in fact the one true God, the Creator, and that the gods of Babylon are false idols. Key to all of "Second Isaiah" (40-55) is the distinction between the Creator and creation and the folly of worshiping creatures as if they were the Creator. The passage made infamous by Paul's use of it in Romans 9 and the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition's use of Romans: "Woe to you who strive with your maker, earthen vessels with the potter. . . ." (45:9) seems to be addressed to the idols and their worshipers. (Does that perhaps mean that when Paul uses it in Romans 9, he's trying to suggest that Israel's pride in its election by God has become a form of idolatry?)

In the previous chapter (44), we have an extended passage ridiculing the fact that the same piece of wood can be used for food, for cooking fuel, and as the raw material to make a "god." The passage is sandwiched between promises of mercy and restoration for Israel. The point is not just "how stupid those Babylonian pagans are" but "who made whom?" Because God is the Creator, God's promises of restoration (new creation) can be trusted. Because the Babylonian gods are made by humans, they can never be anything more than projections of Babylonian power. Furthermore, God is contrasted not only with idols but with the humans who make them. Human beings can do many ingenious things, but we cannot create--we can only refashion what God has already created. Yes, I know that this is a later distinction. I know that the Old Testament never explicitly teaches "creation ex nihilo," and I know that Genesis 1 can be read as implying a doctrine of creation out of pre-existing chaos (tohu again). But as with so many other Christian concepts, I see the classic Christian doctrine of creation implicitly here.

To worship idols is to embrace "un-creation," to slide back into chaos. The creation story in Genesis is not just an origin story for the universe, not just a serene narrative of cosmic order. It's a polemical text criticizing Babylonian creation myths in which the Babylonian god orders the universe by defeating chaos monsters representing enemies of the empire. Genesis and Isaiah together make the point that Babylonian imperialism and idolatry are themselves the source of chaos. But God doesn't need to fight the chaos (yes, there are other passages that suggest otherwise, and yes, Greg Boyd gives those passages more prominence--I've written about that elsewhere). God has only to speak. The same word that brought creation into being will bring Israel back from exile. And, of course, it is that same Word that the Gospel of John confesses to have become incarnate in Jesus.

This section of Isaiah underlines, for me, the reason why it's important to maintain that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God (as a follow-up to this post). Muslims absolutely confess the same things about God that are affirmed here: that God creates and is not created, that God is the sovereign source of everything, that God stands in contrast to all the false idols we create for ourselves. It is of this one true God that Christians affirm, and Muslims deny, the deeper truths of Trinity and Incarnation.


Joshua Barron said...

In response to your essay sans "peroration": this is well-written, Edwin, and well-exegeted.

In response to your "peroration": As you know, in the first generations of the Islamic movement, the Church universally saw it as a heresy, rather than as a false (idolatrous) religion. See especially St John of Damascus.

Anonymous said...

You say:
"It is of this one true God that Christians affirm, and Muslims deny, the deeper truths of Trinity and Incarnation."

How could the Muslims (or anyone else for that matter), come to see as true the "deeper truths of Trinity and Incarnation"?
Can you propose an actionable plan for them to do so?

The way I see it, the implicit problem in these (inter)religious issues is that different religions accuse eachother (and other, non-religious parties) of idolatry, ignorance, or defiance, but so far, I have yet to see an actually viable proposition for "how to convert to the right religion."