Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Isaiah 2: Israel's Plowshares, or Lack Thereof

I don’t always intend my blog posts to be topical. Actually, I reject the obsessive cyber-need to be eternally contemporary. However, recent news has given me so many interesting opportunities to discuss Biblical literacy with respect to current events that I can’t pass them up. So here I go again …

Coincidentally, this topical blog post—like a previous entry on Donald Rumsfeld’s misuse of Bible passages on intelligence reports—brings us back to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel—the northern half of the split promised land—during its fall to Assyrian invaders in the eighth century B.C.E. (Actually, most Bible scholars now believe that Isaiah is at least two, and maybe even three, separate books, only the first of which happens in eighth century, but I’ll let you look that up.)

Last Sunday, June 14, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a major policy speech in which he for the first time offered conditional support for a Palestinian state. (The Times’s coverage of the speech can be found here.) This is no small thing for a hard-line Israeli leader who has previously rejected calls for an independent Palestine, and the international news media perked up its collective ears. And as they did, they were treated to a healthy little dose of the Bible.

Near the beginning of the speech, Netanyahu calls for regional peace by quoting Isaiah 2: “We want our children and your children to ‘know war no more’ […] We want us and our neighbors to devote our efforts to ‘plowshares and pruning hooks’ and not to ‘swords and spears.’” (You can read the full text of the speech here.)

This is a piecemeal version of Isaiah 2:4, given here (as always) in the NRSV translation: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; / nation shall not life up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4).

Isaiah’s call for peace is one of the best known—and most frequently quoted—passages in the Hebrew Bible, and it is not surprising that the prime minister would turn to such reliable prophetic wisdom to add religious and scriptural depth to his call for reconciliation.

However, even when quoting such well worn adages, original context matters, and the rest of Isaiah 2 is not nearly so pacific as the verse itself.

Though we begin with the hope that the Lord’s Temple be lifted up—that “the Lord’s house / shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (2:1)—and that God will judge justly from his elevated throne—“He shall judge between the nations” (2:4)--we quickly recall that God’s judgment does not always mean the people’s reward.

Immediately following the talk of plowshares and pruning hooks (and rose petals and flowers and teddy bears?), the prophet begins to do what prophets do best, launching into a long list of Israelite sins. The most startling of these misdeeds—at least, presumably, for Mr. Netanyahu—involves “[clasping] hands with foreigners” (2:6). Isaiah, we must recall, speaks for a God who doesn’t always want the Israelites to accept the neighbor in their midst. And all of a sudden, we wonder if the prime minister might have picked another chapter from which to quote.

Later, Isaiah suggests—in what I read as a xenophobic rant—that the Lord will have His day, and will be exalted above other local nations, among them Tarshish, Bashan, and Lebanon (2:13-16). (And do the hairs on our necks raise a bit after this last, especially after the incursions of 2007?)

By the end of chapter 2, we are left cowering in caves fleeing the Lord’s wrath; the Israelites shall “enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts in the crags, / from the terror of the Lord […] when he rises to terrify the earth” (2:21). Isn't the translator's stumbling alliteration on the "c" sound beautiful? But poetry aside, perhaps in the face of divine anger, we’ve begun searching for our swords and spears once more.

I don’t mean to question Mr. Netanyahu’s motives, nor (really) to excoriate him for Biblical illiteracy. I only wish he and his speech writers would read a bit more carefully before turning to the easy adage. Because while the prophets of the Hebrew Bible occasionally want farm tools, they much more frequently want weapons. And more weapons are the last thing Israel and Palestine need right now.


  1. Sometimes it seems as if the Palestinians have read the Bible best--what better imagistic metaphor than the young Davids hurling stones against the Goliath? Not that it makes much sense demographically, but it makes for good press.

    Prophets are a tricky bunch--Isaiah and Muhammad included both--and how they get spun is trickier still.

    If you'll forgive a digression, when the UN required that the Lebanese militias dispose of their weapons following the (first) Lebanese civil war, they dutifully obliged--by selling them to Serbia and Bosnia.

    Sigh. Thanks for the context, Joshua.

  2. Maybe we could put together a database of Biblical quotations used in political speeches. Could have some interesting results.

    As far as the entire passage goes, I think its possible that fear is actually the basis of many successful human relationships. The Catholic fear of hell, children fearing their parents, me & my boss. This strategy could work.

    I apoogize for my complete layman perspective, as this is my first post. :)

    Very interesting Joshua.


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