Monday 16 September 2013

From the Deep - The Monster Always Returns - Isaiah 27

Isaiah 27:1
On that day the Lord will visit with his sword, hard, great and strong, Leviathan the swift serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and He will slay the Sea Monster that is in the sea.

א  בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִפְקֹד יְהוָה בְּחַרְבּוֹ הַקָּשָׁה וְהַגְּדוֹלָה וְהַחֲזָקָה, עַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ בָּרִחַ, וְעַל לִוְיָתָן, נָחָשׁ עֲקַלָּתוֹן; וְהָרַג אֶת-הַתַּנִּין, אֲשֶׁר בַּיָּם.

    Isaiah 24-27 are known as the Apocalypse of Isaiah, and describe the prophet’s vision of “that day”, a day of true justice and national resurrection of the people of Israel. But this section is notoriously difficult to interpret - what is “that day”?
    This phrase structures the whole section, appearing at the beginning of chapter 26, our verse at the beginning of chapter 27, again in 27:2 as well as 27:12 and 13. Whereas chapter 26 is a long continuous vision, here the phrase seems to introduce a section of only a single verse, tantalising in its imagery but difficult to understand.
    Is Isaiah prophesying about the literal destruction of a sea monster (or possibly 3 sea monsters)? or is it just a metaphor for the haughty city described in chapters 24-26?
    When he refers to “that day”? Does he mean to indicate the final day, the eschaton, the messianic age? Or is he referring to future day coming within history, within the foreseeable future?
    Whatever Isaiah originally meant (and much hinges on when you date this verse, and scholars put it anywhere between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE) we have to ask - what does this verse have to say to us?

    This verse is the only hint in the Bible that the battle between God and the chaos monster will happen in the future.
    The sea monster is here given the name Leviathan and described as a Nachash, a snake, as well as Tanin (that we have seen already in Genesis and Exodus) and Isaiah describes how in the future God will slay that creature. How can it be that God has already slain the monster in the past, and will slay it again in the future?

    Mythologically however, this makes sense. In myth there is a tendency to have the end of time mirror the creation process (sometimes in reverse) - just as God defeated the monster to create the universe, the primary act of establishing order against chaos, so God will do so again to bring about a final act of order, removing the destructive power of chaos once and for all.
    God won a victory at the creation, yet that victory is not complete in this world.
    This is how we experience the world - at the same time a place of radical order and yet with chaos always lurking beneath the surface, threatening to tear everything down and return the world to the primal void.

    I’m writing this on a plane from England to New York, returning from my first trip to the New Stoke Newington Shul, a small Masorti congregation in London. 35000 feet above the earth, travelling over 500 miles per hour, I’m able to cross the Atlantic in 7 hours.
    What greater symbol is there of the order that we experience in this world than the amazing criss-crossing of flights around the globe? And yet when the turbulence starts, and everything begins to shake, and I feel my stomach plunge, I am aware of the chaos beneath it all, how close we are to the edge.
    Our world is one of radical order, and it is also one of lurking chaos.
    We are fortunate that, most of the time I think, we experience more of the former than the latter, that we live in a point in history when we can be comfortable and live relatively long, peaceful lives. Not everyone in the world is so lucky.
    Isaiah 27 reminds us that while God won a major battle against chaos, the war is still ongoing. The monster always returns.
    Our challenge is to help advance the cause of order, to bring “that day” just a little closer.

Chag sameach for all of you celebrating sukkot this week!

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Isaiah 51: Calling on the hand of God.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash.

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