Saturday, May 02, 2015

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord

2 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
    and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord.
(Isaiah 2:1-5).

Should we interpret this oracle? Before we can begin to answer that question, we need to define literality. For the term is used in different senses, and that's often not distinguished in debates over Biblical interpretation:

i) Oftentimes, Christians use "literal" as a synonym for "factual" (or historical). To say you read Gen 1-3 "literally" is to say it really happened. It describes real people, real places, real time and real space. To say Jesus "literally" rose from the dead means he actually rose from the dead. 

Put another way, literal is an antonym for fictional. 

ii) On a related, but different note, literal is often used as a synonym for "representational." That the narrative describes an event the way it happened. A prosaic, matter of fact depiction. 

iii) This, in turn, segues to another sense, where literal is an antonym for figurative or allegorical. But in this sense, a description could be both literal and fictional. In addition, although it's fictional, it may have realistic analogues. 

Consider some illustrations. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Regress is fictional, but non-literal because the places and characters stand for something else. Same thing with Lewis's Perelandra, where the planet represents Eden, Random represents Christ, the Queen represents Eve, and Weston represents the Satanic Tempter. 

Likewise, Woolf's To the Light House and Bradbury's Dandelion Wine are both autobiographical insofar as they draw heavily on the childhood of the respective authors. In a sense, they allegorize their childhood. Even though both are fictional, they have a factual basis. 

In Linebarger's Norstrilia, by contrast, you have a self-contained fictional world. The world of the story is all there is. The narrative has no referential dimension. In that sense, C'mell is a literal character. She doesn't stand for anyone else. 

i) From a Christian standpoint, it's tempting to recognize the Second Coming of Christ in Isa 2:1-5. Strictly speaking, that's not what it means. Isaiah didn't have anything that specific in mind. It's a more generic Day of the Lord motif. But arguably, it has reference to the return of Christ, even if Isaiah's understanding of that event was less distinct than ours.

ii) On one definition of literality, even if we interpret the passage, literally, there are degrees of literality. The most literal interpretation might be taking Isaiah to mean that God will raise the elevation of Mt. Zion. Make Jerusalem a mountaintop city, higher than Everest. 

And, of course, it's possible for an omnipotent God to do that. However, that doesn't seem very practical. The air would be pretty thin up there. And frigid. Residents of Jerusalem would need to don oxygen tanks and arctic clothing. So this is arguably figurative. 

iii) In addition, the original audience knew nothing about the Himalayan range. So that could hardly be their standard of comparison. Therefore, one might dispute whether that's even the most literal interpretation. Presumably, the highest Middle Eastern peak would be a better frame of reference.

iv) Assuming this oracle refers to the Parousia, a literal interpretation would mean that Jesus will govern from Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be the world capital. And I think that's a live interpretive option. 

v) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the center of gravity will shift to the New World. Suppose Jesus will govern from San Diego. If that were the case, would Isaiah say: 

For out of Coronado shall go the law,
    and the word of the Lord from San Diego.

a) Problem is, even if were true, it would be unintelligible to Isaiah's audience. San Diego didn't exist in the 8C BC. No ancient (or Medieval reader) would have any inkling what he was talking about. The names would be opaque. 

b) In addition, if Isaiah had named San Diego as the world capital in his oracle, that would probably sabotage the fulfillment, for many pioneers in the New World would name their settlement San Diego. If that place-name was used in Scripture, in a prominent prophecy, then in all likelihood the Californian city would have a different name because San Diego would have already been used to designate a number of other towns. 

So even if, at the Second Coming, Jesus was going to govern from Peking, San Diego, or Rio de Janeiro, it would still make sense for an ancient Jewish prophet to use "Zion" and "Jerusalem" as placeholders.   

vi) In addition, many commentators think this plays on the mythopoetic imagery of a cosmic mountain. But in that event, it isn't about Jesus ruling from one particular locality, but his global reign. "Jerusalem" is a synecdoche for the earth. Jesus will rule everywhere. His dominion will be world-wide. 


  1. Jerusalem doesn't have to be raised above Everest to be the tallest mountain. Other mountains could be lowered either in Israel or worldwide. Zechariah 14:10

    Zechariah 14:16 also pictures the nations coming to Jerusalem.

  2. Given the fact that Mt. Zion is only half a mile high (although we could add that Jerusalem itself is half a mile above sea level), it would take some cataclysmic changes in world topography to make every other mountain or city lower than Jerusalem.

    1. Don’t be afraid. It surely will be less cataclysmic than world-wide flood.

    2. "Don’t be afraid. It surely will be less cataclysmic than world-wide flood."

      If I were an atheist in the vein of Hawking or Dawkins, I'd be afraid any number of events could wipe out humanity including humanity wiping itself out by any number of means. For the atheist, life is far too insecure!

    3. If you think the text envisions the lowering of everything that's currently at a higher elevation than Mt. Zion (e.g. plateaus, mountain ranges), then how would that be any less cataclysmic than a world-wide flood?