Isaiah: Creator of Darkness, Designer of Light, Maker of Peace
What is God?
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It’s not easy to get through the book of Isaiah. With 66 pretty tough chapters to tackle, what seems like 100 different themes, only the really determined reader is going to make it through all the way. This book is like running the marathon. You get tired fairly quickly, but realize that you still have a long way to go. Bible critics divide the book into two parts, an early Isaiah and a late Isaiah. The first part is a lot of observation about events that were current to the prophet, and a good deal of forecasting what will become of the various players on the ancient Biblical landscape. The second part is a long series of inspirational preaching directed to the Jews either in exile or shortly after returning from exile. This final section is loaded with messianic hints, among other things. The Christians go wild over these chapters.
Interspersed with all the messianic hopefulness are numerous paragraphs and verses that lay down many of the foundations of Jewish theology. Many of the basic ideas of monotheism were selected from these verses. After the Chumash, Isaiah is the primary Biblical source for the understanding of God. In the context of the book these verses are meant to justify the messianic faith that God can actually do all that must happen, but they stand alone as theological ideas.
‘To whom will you liken Me, (to whom) am I compared, says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes to the heavens and see who created these, the One who brings out their hosts by number, He calls them all by name; from the magnitude of His might and the strength of His power not one of them is (ever) missing’ (40:25-26). ‘I am the first, and I am the last, and aside from Me there are no gods’ (44:6). Judaism has taken these statements and others like them, out of the historical context of Isaiah and used them to lay the foundations of monotheism. Reading them is like reading a primer on God.
In the middle of all this is a message from Hashem to Koresh, the king of Persia. ‘Thus says Hashem to Koresh, his anointed, whose right hand I have clutched to subdue nations before him and loosed the loins of kings to open doors before him and gates which will not be shut. I will go before you, I will flatten the mountains and break the brass doors and cut the iron bolts. I will give you treasures of darkness and hidden riches in order that you know that it is I, Hashem, who has called you by name, the God of Israel. For the sake of my servant Jacob and my chosen Israel I have called you by name and named you, though you did not know Me. I am Hashem, and there are none besides Me, there are no other gods; I girded you though you did not know Me. In order that that all should know, from the rising of the sun unto the west, that there is nothing other than Me; I am Hashem and there is nothing else. I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil; I, Hashem, do all this’ (45:1-7).
These verses all speak a similar message - God, and only God can make things happen. One has to wonder why Isaiah, or whoever it was who penned these verses, felt such a strong need to drive this point home. There must have been doubt in the air. It must have seemed completely unrealistic, fighting against invincible forces, an impossible dream. How does an invincible God somewhere in the distant heavens stand a chance against invincible odds on earth? What difference does it make if God brings out all the stars and never misses a single one? Who cares if no other gods can match God in power and might? Hashem may form light and create darkness, but does He gets involved in politics?
There was another problem at hand with the Jews. Their not so distant former co-religionists, the kingdom of Israel, had been booted off their land by this very God. Depending on when these chapters of Isaiah were written, even the Judeans may have already gotten the boot by that same God. If this is an exilic or post-exilic text, Isaiah’s audience should have been pretty skeptical that God would forgive them, let alone treat them like the Chosen People.
But this is exactly what Isaiah was telling them. The thrust of his message is that God created the universe. God stretched out the heavens and weighed out the mountains. There are no other gods with whom God must haggle or contend. There is only Hashem. With an act of finality Isaiah puts the last nail in the coffin of the pagan gods. They are no longer puny in comparison to Hashem. They are non-existent. This is the final chapter in Biblical monotheism.
The Israelites may have had doubts about whether they deserved Hashem’s intervention but Isaiah refused to let those doubts get in the way. Hashem created the Israelites as a people and guided them throughout their history. The non-existent pagan gods may have been helpless against the tides of history, but Hashem was the ‘first and the last’. Hashem makes history happen. Isaiah goes so far as to suggest that Hashem conveyed a message to Koresh the Persian king, calling him ‘His anointed’. The message rather blatantly puts out the idea that Hashem ‘opened doors’ for Koresh, that obstacles were removed and kings were weakened. Koresh was given ‘treasures of darkness and hidden riches’ not for his own storehouses, but for the sake of Israel. Though Koresh was unaware of all this, and did not know about Hashem, it was Hashem who was behind it all.
But what is that final verse in the message to Koresh? ‘I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil; I, Hashem, do all this’. How does this verse fit in to this message? How is this verse supposed to convince the doubting Jews that Hashem will sway Koresh to facilitate their return and rebuilding? For that matter, how is it supposed to convince Koresh?
That final verse is a whopper by anybody’s standards. There are three verbs that are used in this verse: yotzer ‘form’, boreh ‘create’, and oseh ‘make’ or ‘do’. They all mean something slightly different. Boreh, to create, has the familiar connotation of making something from nothing. Yotzer, to form or design, has the connotation of shaping or designing something that already has been created. Oseh, to make, has a dual meaning. It is a specific word referring to a process that is a further step removed from creation than form, and a general word that refers to all three of the processes.
Applying these meanings to the verse we have: darkness and evil are creations, light is formed or designed, and peace is made. Hashem does them all. Darkness and evil are contrasted to light and peace. The first two are creations in the sense that they are the default conditions that reality works by. It may sound more than a little surprising that the default condition of the world is evil. It should. It is radical. But it is also true. Everything would be dark, chaotic, and formless if Hashem did not shape it into its intended purpose.
The process of ‘making’ is putting everything into its final form. This was the stage of putting all of the creations that were formed from the original chaos into a cohesive arrangement through which they could function and achieve their intended purpose. Peace is a classic example of such an end-product. Chaos is the default state – war, death, destruction. What may shape that chaos into something more productive is light – using wisdom and insight to shape something better out of the chaos.
This is the message that the Jews, and perhaps Koresh, were supposed to receive. The wars that Koresh fought were the natural state of things. The evil and darkness that lurks in the minds of men is the default condition. There will always be wars unless light is shed on the situation. This is exactly what Hashem did with Koresh. Koresh may have been under the impression that it was his victorious army and his brilliant strategy that accomplished all this. The message here is that it is only through the light of God that these things come about. Peace, the final product of the long journey away from chaos and war, is achieved through God shaping the process until the outcome is harmony. Hashem does all this.
This is an image that we have not yet encountered. It is God playing on the political stage, shaping the minds and conditions of humanity to make things turn out in the intended way. It usually doesn’t work this way. The norm is for Hashem to take a back seat and let things develop the way they will. When Hashem takes a more active role, that order and that peace can come about almost supernaturally. We may not see the hand of God behind it all, but that does not mean that it wasn’t there all along. This image shows God manipulating things from start to finish. From the default condition of chaos and darkness, to the formation of light, to the final product of peace, God is there, making it happen. ‘I, Hashem, do all this’.
Perceiving the Image
It is nothing short of supernatural the way that darkness and evil always seem to be lurking in the background of any situation. The potential for chaos perpetually hovers over society. Light has to be brought in from outside. Without the constant application of light things will always revert back into chaos. The famous novel, “Lord of the Flies’, by William Golding depicted this reversion to primordial chaos in terrifying clarity. It will take over unless it is leashed and controlled. This is the messianic task of humanity.
But we are not entirely alone in this task. It may be true that it is impossible to fulfill this task due to the default condition that cannot ever be removed, but that does not make the task futile. We are not on our own. God created the default condition, but God also forms the light and makes the peace. If we look deep enough into our own situation, both on a global and on a local scale, we may see evidence of this. It is not easy to spot, and it is extremely easy to deny, but it is there. Sometimes peace comes about under the oddest of circumstances. A chance conversation, an unread message, a freak accident, a fortunate turn of events – these are natural events that don’t really need God. But God may bring them about nevertheless.
The real message of these chapters in Isaiah is that God does play a part in setting the political stage. This may sound very Biblical and messianic, but is that really all that terrible a way of looking at things? Perhaps we could use a little of that Biblical vision in our lives. Perhaps we all need to perceive this image a little more – the image of God as the ‘Designer of light’ and ‘Maker of Peace’. God may very well be behind all the evil and darkness that always threatens our lives. But God is also there in the light that shines through the cracks and in the peace that makes it all worthwhile. Light and peace may be messianic dreams, but they sure are a better image than chaos.
We tend to resent the idea of needing God to get us out of the messes that we make. Maybe the key to getting around this obstacle is to recognize that the very chaos that we always face is also a creation of God. Is the messianic vision really all that naïve?
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