Monday 23 September 2013

From the Deep - God's Mighty Arm - Isaiah 51

Isaiah 51:9-10
    9] Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, in the generations of old. Are you not the one that struck Rahav and slew the sea monster (Tanin)? 10] Are you not the one that dried the sea (Yam), the waters of the great deep (Tehom); who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? 

ט עוּרִ֨י עוּרִ֤י לִבְשִׁי־עֹז֙ זְר֣וֹעַ ה' ע֚וּרִי כִּ֣ימֵי קֶ֔דֶם דּוֹר֖וֹת עוֹלָמִ֑ים הֲל֥וֹא אַתְּ־הִ֛יא הַמַּחְצֶ֥בֶת רַ֖הַב מְחוֹלֶ֥לֶת תַּנִּֽין: י הֲל֤וֹא אַתְּ־הִיא֙ הַמַּֽחֲרֶ֣בֶת יָ֔ם מֵ֖י תְּה֣וֹם רַבָּ֑ה הַשָּׂ֨מָה֙ מַֽעֲמַקֵּי־יָ֔ם דֶּ֖רֶךְ לַֽעֲבֹ֥ר גְּאוּלִֽים:

Isaiah 51 is a deep well of mythical ideas - the prophet describes the people calling on the Arm of God from exile, saying that just as the arm of God slew the sea monster in the mythic past, it should redeem us today from our troubles.

Note that each part of these two verses may be referring to a different event. Verse 9 describes the victory over the chaos monster in ancient times (known as the chaoskampf , that we already saw in Psalm 74). The beginning of verse 10 (drying up the sea and the great deep) seems to refer to the Flood narrative, a prime example of victory over the chaos waters. The end of verse 10, referring to the passage of the redeemed, refers to the splitting of the Red Sea in Exodus 15. Then verse 11, that describes how the ransomed of God will return home, is a prediction about the future redemption. The speakers argue that since God has defeated the monster many times, both in the primordial past, at the flood and at the exodus, God can do it again (David Gunn, Journal of Biblical Literature, '75).

We've already seen the terms Tanin, Yam and Tehom in mythological contexts, though Isaiah 51 ties all of them together very neatly. The new term for the chaos monster here is Rahav but we won't dwell on it too much here. Instead, I want to focus on the tone of these verses - why call on the Arm of God? Why not God God's self?

The scholar Jeremy Hutton ('07 Journal of Biblical Literature) has argued that Isaiah 51 is alone within Deutero-Isaiah, the end of the book of Isaiah that dates to the exilic period, in mentioning sea monsters and the battle against chaos.

Hutton points out that framing these words as an address to God's arm allows the prophet to phrase it in the feminine (the arm of God is grammatically feminine, while God is masculine). Why might this be important?

Because Hutton believes that there was original prayer written to address the Canaanite Goddess Anat, and that Isaiah 51 is written as almost a parody of that pagan prayer.

In the Baal Cycle in Canaanite mythology, Anat is on the side of Baal in his fight against the chaos monsters, and is a violent, stormy character, raging and boasting of her victories.

Why would Deutero-Isaiah frame this prayer to God along the lines of the prayer to Anat?

Hutton argues that D. Isaiah himself isn't into mythological imagery, and only uses it here when he is putting it into the mouth of the people. The Jews call on God using this mythological language that mirrors that of the Babylonians among whom they live, and D. Isaiah is subtly criticising them for doing so.

They think that God can be sleeping and needs to be awoken, to be stirred up to fight against chaos. But Isaiah knows that God is not sleeping, and that this exile is not defeat but only a temporary situation.

What does this have to do with us?

It seems to me that Isaiah 51 is highlighting the gap between the prophet and the people. The people are entrenched in mythic imagery, overly-swayed by their Babylonian neighbours, while the prophet has moved to a different place, with a more abstract God and a more uniquely Israelite identity.

Yet Isaiah uses the people's own language, and is able to express their point of view, even as he criticises them for it. He is able to relate to the people, to connect to them, and from that position show them the folly of their beliefs.

It seems to be that leaders always need to walk this tightrope - to not be so removed from the people that they cannot understand or be understood, and yet they must still be able to criticise, to chastise and help their followers to grow.

A leader must be one of the people and removed from them, speak their language and still speak the language of God - then they can lead the way and create a better world.

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