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Monday, February 27, 2017

Subversive words in Babylon

Some of the passages from Isaiah are so familiar we almost miss the words. They're beautiful and powerful poems, but they're also a record of real speeches proclaimed on real city streets. Reading them while looking at the exile in Babylon makes me see them through different eyes. Perhaps I'll see the world through different eyes too.

(42) Prophecy, Rebellion and Subversion

What if reading the Bible were subversive? What if its message contradicted the rule of secular authorities—or of the religious establishment? Would we pick and choose which bits to read aloud, and leave out passages that might be “misunderstood”? Or do we already pick and choose, to suit our own preference?

Isaiah has lots of wonderful passages, well suited for choruses and reminders of God’s power. But it also has passages which would have seemed terribly subversive in Babylon. Let’s start with the good and see what follows.

1.       Read Isaiah 42:1-9 then look at 1-2 So… someone who doesn’t scream and shout. That sounds good…

2.       Look at Isaiah 42:3-4 Is this subversive or comforting? They’re probably okay quoting it…

3.       Look at Isaiah 42:5-9. What “new thing” might the refugees have imagined? Are they really safe listening to this?

4.       Read Isaiah 42:10-13 Not so quiet anymore. Can you imagine the listening crowds beginning to disperse?

5.       Read Isaiah 42:14-16 Does this remind you of Exodus? Are we blind? What paths might we need to be led along?

6.       Read Isaiah 42:17-20 What might we not be seeing or hearing in today’s world? Do we choose to be blind and deaf? Do we choose to trust things that aren’t God?

7.       Read Isaiah 42:21-25. What happens when God’s people don’t listen? What happens when they do?

8.       Read Isaiah 43:1-3 When did the Israelites walk through rivers and camp near a fiery mountain?

9.       Read Isaiah 43:5-7 Why might this mean more than just the Israelites? Read verse 9

10.   Read Isaiah 43:10-13 In a land of many gods, living under a hierarchy of gods, why is this so subversive? Is it subversive today? How do we balance using the language and symbolism of culture with the purity of faith and the uniqueness of God?

11.   Read Isaiah 43:19 What did the refugees see as the “new thing”? What do Christians see?

12.   Read Isaiah 43:22-24 Should we be surprised they don’t respond better? The Israelites may not have built a temple in Babylon, but they would still have worshiped God—quietly. Faith says Isaiah’s message is wonderful – we’re going home! But pragmatism says don’t speak out or you’ll be tortured and killed. And doubt says it might never happen. How should we balance faith, pragmatism and doubt?

13.   Read Isaiah 44:1-5 Temple slaves were important and influential in Babylon. They wore the name of the god they belonged to on their head or on their hands – “I am Marduk’s” etc. This passage would remind the Israelites that they belonged to God. What reminds us?

14.   Read Isaiah 44:6-8. Hearing and reciting these verses was seriously subversive. Religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in Babylon, and there were many gods who all served Babylon’s god. Would verse 7—Who is like me?— be subversive today? Why or why not?

15.   Read Isaiah 44:9,12,13,15,18-20 We read this reverently, but try to imagine it shouted on a street corner next door to the shop selling idols. God is speaking very directly to his people. How have you experienced him speaking directly into your circumstances?

16.   Read Isaiah 44:24-45:1 God chose the invader, the destroyer of their present peace? How would that make God’s people feel? How attached are you to the status quo?

17.   Cyrus is recorded as claiming that Marduk chose him. Is he serving two gods?

18.   Read Isaiah 45:14 Why would this be subversive? What about verse 18 – is that going to cause trouble too? Who are the Israelites not trusting if they try to keep this quiet? Do we really trust God in times of social unrest?

19.   Read Isaiah 46:1, 5-7 Can you rephrase this so it’s clear that our modern idols (fame, fortune, power…) are worthless?

Cyrus is advancing. Babylonian life is changing. The Israelites had lived as lower-class refugees, providing labor for the rich and pampered – doing the jobs no-one else wanted to do? Should they stand with their overlords against a new oppressor, or should they trust that the Marduk-worshipping oppressor is really directed by God? Can we apply this dilemma to modern life?

1.       Read Isaiah 47:1-2, 6-7 What image do you get of Babylonian and Israelite society?

2.       Read Isaiah 47:12-15. Can you hear God’s scorn for their folly? The Babylonians studied the skies scientifically and developed great calendars. But they also believed in astrology—hence the need for great calendars. What about our society?

3.       Read Isaiah 48:1,5-8 Do we believe we have heard and understood everything? Or do we believe that God is still revealing himself?

4.       Read Isaiah 48:17-19,22 How would you describe your peace?

5.       Read Isaiah 48:20 Has God ever called you to “Go forth” before the obstacle (in this case Babylonian authority) was removed?

Isaiah’s message is not just for refugee Israelites, and not just for the approach of their release. In Isaiah 42:6,7 Israel was reminded of her call to be a light to the Gentiles, to free foreigners from blindness, but Israel became blind. Then the Babylonians came. And now the Persians are coming…

1.       Read Isaiah 49:1-6 Who is the servant? Israel, a leader of Israel, Daniel, the Messiah…, or all of these?

2.       Read Isaiah 49:8-13 What images do you recognize from other parts of the Bible?

3.       Read Isaiah 49:14 Is it surprising that the refugees feel forsaken? When do you feel forsaken?

4.       Read Isaiah 49:20-21 Can you imagine modern refugees feeling this way?

5.       Read Isaiah 49:23,25-26, Daniel 5:1-4 How does Daniel’s description of the feast seem now we’ve read about Babylonian culture for a while?

6.       Read Daniel 5:5-12 How is Daniel’s position different from the other Jews? And how is Daniel’s soothsaying different from the other Babylonians?

7.       Read Daniel 5:18-23 How is Belshazzar’s behavior similar to the faithless Israelites?

8.       Read Daniel 5:26-29 Why is Daniel rewarded?

9.       Read Daniel 5:30-31 Why isn’t Belshazzar spared?


10.   Where might we view ourselves in this story?

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