Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Dalliance of the Eagles

I am in the process of polishing up some of my thesis chapters and came across perhaps the most famous verse in the Isaianic corpus:

But those who wait for the Lord
shall renew
their strength,
they shall mount up with wings
like eagles.
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Comforting words no doubt, and plastered all over coffee cups and posters; perhaps responsible for a high percentage of sales in the Christian Kitsch market. Now for those who know me, you all understand that I allow for a reasonable amount of ambiguity when it comes to what a text means. And I continue to believe that a texts meaning is able to vacillate over time, and that there is really no way to stabilize the meaning of a text. You can call me a relativist, but I am not, and my point here is not to bring forth another argument on meaning. Rather, this little aside, is more or less a full disclosure kind of thing.

What I am really on about is what this verse means. And my bone of contention is when people appropriate this verse to the individual, as if it is a promise to me individually, that if I wait on the Lord, he will bless me (which may or may not be true that is not what I want to dispute).

I believe that Isaiah 40 starts a new section in the Isaianic corpus, and that the 'historical' or at least the 'historical' context the narrative attests to, is that of exile. The nation of Israel finds itself in exile, and is trying to cope with how this could have happened. How could Israel be defeated by other nations, by other gods, if YHWH is the incomparable and all powerful god that he claims to be. Israel in exile is experience a crisis of faith, they began to question the very nature of the god they worshiped. In the Ancient Near Eastern culture, the only god to be worshiped, is the god who has just won the latest battle. And as Israel looks out at the world through the lenses of exile, this god is not YHWH.

So within this context Isaiah 40, is a word of hope to Israel, as a nation in exile; it is a reminder of the essence of who YHWH is; it is a strong polemic against the gods of the nations; and it is a reminder of the incomparability of YHWH. But to get back to Isaiah 40.31, the key to interpreting this verse is the context set forth in 40.27:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the
and my right is disregarded by
my God"?

Here we have YHWH countering Israel's claims that he won't fulfill his promises. Israel looks at its present condition (exile), ponders the defeat of YHWH by the gods of the nations (the only way they could be in exile is if YHWH lost a battle), and concludes that YHWH does not have the power to fulfill his promises that he made to them (because he lost the battle).

So in light of this, the verse has a very specific 'meaning' (if you must), and a reworking of the verse might look like this:

but those who trust that the Lord will be faithful to his promise, will be

So what is the promise? And what is the blessing?


Daniel Kirk said...

It looks to me like you're onto a good path here. In fact, I would say that there is considerable overlap between this and what we've been talking about over on sibboleth. The question of God's faithfulness, his remembrance of his people, his acting on his people's behalf, his willingness and ability to deliver them to be free to worship him and him alone--all of this is bound up in God's identity b/c of how God has invested himself in Israel's story. So mounting up on wings like eagles is a reiteration of promises to the people that the one true and living God is their God, and perhaps that they will run and walk and soar--back to the Land.

metalepsis said...

Thanks for the comment Daniel, I appreciate it.