Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9
Isaiah 25:6-10a serves up one of the most glorious images in the Hebrew Bible.
“On this mountain,” God labors (God’s self!) to prepare a sumptuous, Julia-Childs-worthy meal. God crawls to the back of the wine cellar to retrieve the best vintage wines, wines that have aged for years, perhaps in preparation for this very occasion (verse 6). On this same mountain where the china has been laid out and the wine glasses are sparkling, God will not only nurture and feed; God will destroy. God will destroy “the shroud” and “the sheet” that cover all people (verse 7). Turns out this a feast to commemorate God’s defeat of nothing less than death itself.
The meal on Mt. Zion in Isaiah recalls the ritual meal taken on Mt. Sinai that served in part to ratify the covenant between God and the recently freed slaves from Egypt (Exodus 24:9-11). As in Isaiah’s vision, that meal on Mt. Sinai also marked the people’s transition from death to life, from slavery under Pharaoh to life with YHWH.
Prior to the feast in Exodus, the people make a covenant with YHWH, which stipulates that if the people obey God’s voice, they will be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (19:5-6). God assures them that the whole earth belongs to YHWH, but “you,” says God, “shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (verse 6).
Isaiah’s vision imagines the meal on Mt. Sinai in eschatological terms. In Isaiah’s vision, on this mountain, Mt. Zion, God will perform the final act of this performance, this drama between God and God’s people. On this mountain, the God of the whole earth will defeat the ultimate enemy and all the people of the world partake in the ritual feast. The enemy Pharaoh is cast onto the cosmic stage and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness become all the people of the world.
And as the people watch the drama unfold between God and Death on the cosmic big screen, God’s achingly tender side emerges for a moment. I imagine God looking into the eyes of dirty-faced children, broken men, and care-worn women, wiping away each tear of grief and disgrace. And the people stand in awe, flooded with relief and joy, and they say, “This is our God”, the one we have waited for (Isaiah 25:9).
It’s all so beautiful… and yet, we know that on the ground, for the Yahwists in Palestine and in the Diaspora, this was a fantasy — a stunning articulation of hope but not real life. Death was a reality for them as much as it is for us. How are we to understand this defeat of death when we have experienced death’s sting so acutely?
Gene Tucker helps navigate this disjunction between life and text, saying, “While readers may see the end of death as the focal point, the text emphasizes the end of mourning. That is, the stress is upon the pain that death creates for those still alive, the survivors that mourn their loss. Even in this respect the emphasis is upon life and the living.”1 The same, I think, is true on All Saints Day. We remember the dead, but through and in our acts of memorial, we also come to see and value life anew.
Like all good art, the images in Isaiah 25 are not uncomplicated — or blithely “beautiful.” For this imagery to work effectively for a people who are well acquainted with the powers of death, which come in natural and political forms, God must be more than just loving, more than just tender. God must be stronger, more voracious, and more vicious than Death. I capitalize Death because the Hebrew word for death (mwt) is related to the word that designates the god of death (Môt), whose appetite for human life is insatiable.
Metaphors of distress in the Psalter often focus on his vast mouth, which threatens to swallow up life in the span of a breath. In Canaanite mythology, YHWH’s counterpart the storm/weather god Baal defeats Môt (Death) as well as Yam (Sea). This myth of the defeat of Death, informed by the textual memory of the covenant on Mt. Sinai, is cast on a cosmic, future stage. And here God opens up God’s tremendous throat to swallow the swallower himself. Reminds me of that Goya painting of Satan Devouring His Son…
Maybe that’s a bit gruesome for a sermon. But apocalyptic scenarios, such as we find here in Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse,” juxtapose the stunningly beautiful and the horribly grotesque. Isaiah 25 contains images of life and banquets, but surrounding them are radical pictures of violence and judgment (see Isaiah 24:17-23). The rich pictures jump off the page and drip with life and, in so doing, they manage to make us simultaneously yearn and cringe. They engage our senses along the continuum of human experience like the mixture of hunger and revulsion evoked by the communion meal that swirls blood together with wine and serves up bread along with wounded flesh.
Apocalyptic images insist on, indeed depend on, the radical otherness of God. This, of course, is not unproblematic. And yet, shielding congregations from the violent acts and impulses of God in the Bible does make violence go away. War continues to rage, murder and abuse are almost commonplace, and blood flows in the movies, on TV and in video games every day. What are preachers, holding a potential tinder box (Isaiah 25) in their hands, to do? Read only the verses selected by the Lectionary and ignore God swallowing up death and its residuals in the surrounding text (24:17-23; verses 1-3, 10-12)?
That is the option we usually go with. Pastorally and liturgically, this makes sense. On All Saints Day in particular, folks in our pews are grieving over tragic losses of loved ones or remembering the kindness and warmth of grandparents or feeling conflicted and anxious over less happy memories of the “saints” they knew. Why poke a stick in the snake hole on a day like today? Why sully a perfectly glorious image of God wiping away the tears from all faces (verse 8) with talk of the other side of the coin: divine violence and judgment? Good question. Maybe we don’t.
But maybe we take up the issue on another day — because addressing and contextualizing the violence in the Bible (in particular, the violence of God) is a crucial task of the preacher. Violence is a preoccupation of the Bible because it is a preoccupation of humanity.
If we ignore it, we risk ignoring the full humanity of the people in the pews and the full spectrum of issues addressed by the biblical text. We risk communicating to them that this aspect of their lives and of their selves is better served by Hollywood.
To render God in terms both beautiful and grotesque, as Isaiah does, expresses the incomprehensibility of the divine without distancing God with abstractions. God in these depictions is utterly Other and yet also intimately — even disturbingly — near.
1 Gene Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 217.
November 4, 2012