Sunday, December 4, 2016

Honest Advent: God's Light

Sunlight coming through clouds. Image source.
The next Honest Advent reading is Isaiah 60:19-22:
The sun will no more be your light by day,
nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun will never set again,
and your moon will wane no more;
the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of sorrow will end.
Then all your people will be righteous
and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendor.
The least of you will become a thousand,
the smallest a mighty nation.
I am the Lord;
in its time I will do this swiftly.”
This is great. I interpret this as a description of resurrection and the future kingdom of God. "Light" means goodness and truth- everything will be full of goodness and truth. No evil, no pain, no mourning.

When it says "the Lord will be your everlasting light," I do NOT take that to mean anything along the lines of a "personal relationship with God" like evangelicals believe. It would be possible to interpret that verse as "everyone will believe in the correct version of God, and it will be SO OBVIOUS, like a light shining" but NO, that's not what I believe.

Because everyone is able to experience God's goodness, regardless of their beliefs about God. That's what we are all doing right now, on this earth. When there are good things in our lives, those things are from God. It doesn't matter if we believe in God or not, it doesn't matter if our beliefs about God are right or wrong- we still experience the pleasure from the good things in our lives. And that's what it will be like in heaven, as these verses describe. It's not about religious beliefs, it's not about "a personal relationship with God." Everyone can experience the goodness and light.

For the bit about "they will possess the land forever"- okay, now we're starting to see some signs that originally this was written just for the people of Israel, not the whole world. There's a bit of an "us vs them" dynamic contained in the concept of "possessing the land." Reassuring the readers that no one will take their land only makes sense if there is someone who could possibly take their land- if there are people who are not in the land.

Throughout the majority of the Old Testament, it was understood that God's promises and God's blessing were just for Israel. (Though there are a few exceptions.) In the New Testament, the idea that people could be Christians without being Jewish was SUPER-CONTROVERSIAL. But they decided yes, Christianity is for the whole world. This was a big change from the beliefs of Old-Testament people.

As for the part that says "the least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation"- yeah that doesn't make any sense, mathematically. If one person, the least powerful person, becomes so great that they end up having power over a thousand people (or they have a thousand descendants, or whatever), then wouldn't they no longer be "the least"? It's not possible for every member of a set to be greater than at least 1000 other members of that set.

Seems like they're just using "thousand" and "mighty nation" as shorthand for great blessings and goodness, totally not thinking about the actual reality of one person having power over a thousand people.

The bible does this a lot, actually- using large numbers of people as nothing more than a symbol that affects one person. Look at how God punished David for taking a census by killing 70,000 people. So basically David's punishment is he has to deal with this crisis and feel guilty about it, and the punishment for each of those 70,000 people- who were totally innocent in this whole census-taking business- is death. How on earth does that make sense? Innocent people were hurt far more than the actual target of God's punishment. It only makes sense if you don't think of the 70,000 people as real people with their own complex, imperfect, valuable lives. Instead, they're nothing more than symbolic indicators related to David's status as king.

So we could say the writer wasn't really thinking through this whole "the least of you will become a thousand" thing, and it's not meant literally in any sense at all. But there's another possible interpretation, a very shady one. Perhaps those referred to as "you" and those referred to as "a thousand" are completely different groups of people. Perhaps it's saying "the least of you Israelite men will become rulers over a thousand women, slaves, and immigrants." As I said, in the Old Testament they didn't think God's promises were for everyone.

Maybe the "thousand" are treated as a status indicator for one person, rather than treated like real human beings, because the culture back then actually didn't treat everyone as real human beings.

I don't know if that's what the writer actually meant, but it's certainly true that the culture back then did not see women and men as equal, and of course that ends up being reflected in the bible they wrote. This is why I do NOT believe "what was the writer's original intent?" is the be-all-end-all of biblical interpretation. Yes, it's very important- but just because a writer held certain biased assumptions which influenced their writing does NOT mean that we need to respect and perpetuate those biased assumptions now.

Overall, I like this passage. God's light. It's about resurrection. Someday everything will be good.


So about disqus: I'm finding I'm usually not able to see the disqus comment box at first, but then I load the page a second time and it's there. So... yeah still working on this.

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