Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 51

If you'll recall, right before the Lord utters those words in 3 Nephi 23:1, he commands his listeners (twice!) to "search these things diligently." For those of you whose New Year's resolutions include obeying this commandment, here are some notes from the 51st chapter of that book.

In Isaiah 51:1, the prophet urges Israel to "look unto the rock whence ye are hewn." The rock refers both to Abraham (who is explicitly referenced in verse 2) and, more importantly, to Christ (verse 3, who Isaiah calls "a stone of stumbling" and "a rock of offence" in 8:14). This is a verse cited by John the Baptist (at least implicitly) when he rebukes the Pharisees in Matthew 3:9, chastising them because they "say within [them]selves, We have Abraham to our father: for I [John] say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." The whole point of John's rebuke is that the Pharisees have missed the point of Isaiah, "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4:14). Isaiah's call to look toward the Rock is a call to focus on Christ, a point that the Pharisees have missed in their reliance on the arm of flesh, the arm of Abraham; John's chastisement is a reminder of the importance of focusing on a Living Rock (Christ) as opposed to one who is dead (Abraham).

When Isaiah writes "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you" in verse two, he isn't repeating himself; he's providing two examples of individuals who successfully turned toward the Rock and were saved from the buffetings of Satan (Helaman 5:12). This is a point that we can appreciate more fully with an alternate translation of the Hebrew. Janet Hovorka, who provided evidence regarding Ishmael's relationship to the Abrahamic covenant, provides insight into this verse:

"Isaiah wrote that the Lord 'called him [Abraham] alone' (Isaiah 51:2). Was the Abrahamic covenant an agreement between the Lord and Abraham alone? Isaiah answers in the same verse, "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you." The word translated as 'alone' in this verse is 'ehad, the same word as the numeral one. However, 'ehad can also mean 'united' or 'each one.' Further, the male preposition in Hebrew is inclusive of the female. So Isaiah 51:2 can also be translated, 'Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you, for I called them as one united, and blessed them and increased them each one.'" (162)

This new translation helps us in two ways. 1) It makes it clear that Abraham is not "the rock" to which we must look, because he was not "called alone." 2) It provides Old Testament evidence that the Abrahamic covenant involves a partnership between man and woman, husband and wife; in other words, it provides a sneak preview of the doctrines revealed in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132.

There are lots of other things that could be said about this particular chapter, but time will only permit a look at one more verse. In verse 9, Isaiah cries, "Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?" The first half of that verse would be better translated: "Awake, awake, and clothe thyself with power." Understanding this new translation does two things. 1) It contrasts the clothing of the Lord with the "clothing" of man; in verse 8, Isaiah prophecies that "the moth shall eat [men] up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool." Verse 9 is very much a counterpart to verse 8, a continuation of the imagery begun as early as verse six, where he states that "the earth [symbolic of mortal things] shall wax old like a garment." 2) The phrase "clothe thyself with power" is Old Testament speak for receiving temple ordinances; compare Luke 24:49; D&C 38:32, 38; 138:30.

For a piece of context in understanding Rahab (and turning to the second half of verse 9), I quote The Biography of God, by Jack Miles (an insightful examination of the Old Testament as a literary text):

"Rahab is a Hebrew name for the watery chaos-dragon whom in other Semitic creation myths the high god defeats to create order, or the younger warrior god defeats to restore order." (229)

It's also worth noting that rahab literally means "broad," so when you hear prophets say things like "broad is the way that leadeth to destruction" (Matthew 7:13) or "the devil . . . leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost" (1 Nephi 12:17) or that "broad [is] the way which leads to death," (3 Ne. 27:33), you're hearing overtones of an original Hebrew rahab. There is power in a name!

Just a few thoughts about Isaiah; I hope you think he's as great as I do.