Surprised by Scripture

I suppose that by now I should be used to it and even expect it–reading a passage of scripture and being completely surprised by language, concepts, or themes that I hadn’t noticed before.

It happened today while I was reading the text appointed for the Eucharist for the Wednesday in the third week of Advent. The reading came from Isaiah 45, which is a passage I assigned when I taught Intro to Bible. I used it in that context to point out the exilic context of Second Isaiah. It is clearly set during the Babylonian exile; the author is expecting the defeat of Babylon by the Persian Empire led by Cyrus. The chapter begins:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, …
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.

There are two very important ideas here; the first that Cyrus is called the anointed, language used of Davidic kings and prophets, but never of non-Israelites; and second, that God is responsible for everything “I make weal and create woe.” This is a clear sign of the development of monotheism.

But what surprised and fascinated me in the text was something else:

18For 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.
19I 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.

This is obviously a polemic directed against Babylonian notions of divinity and creation. It’s even rather woodenly so, at least in the NRSV’s translation, with the use of parentheses. It draws a sharp distinction between the orderly way in which Yahweh creates and what must have been the author’s understanding of Babylonian creation myths.

Of course the priestly account of creation (Gen 1) shows God creating out of chaos. Creation in Genesis 1 is all about order, dividing light from darkness, day from night, dry land from sea, and this idea reverberates in this passage from Genesis.

The tension between order and chaos is a very human one and we tend to oscillate between two extremes. I remember a roommate whose mantra was regularly, “I’ve got to get my life in order.” It was something he said in the midst of the chaos of unkempt hair and clothes, a room that was littered with papers, books, and dirty clothes.

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