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What Has the Nile To Do With the Withywindle? Reading Isaiah Attentively

Categories Old Testament

Guest post by Emily Varner of

When my devotional Bible reading landed me in the book of Isaiah, I decided to take the opportunity to read it alongside the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Isaiah. Since the material on Isaiah now exists on its own—separated from its grouping in the hefty hardcover volume that covers multiple books—it finally seemed like the right format for helping me slow down and pay better historical attention to the text without feeling like I was preparing a research paper.

Zibbcot_isaiahThis exercise has startled me, not merely with nuggets of understanding about Isaiah, but through conviction about how lazy my Bible reading has become. Rather than dig deeper into textual elements I didn't understand, I had perfected the skill of skimming over them.

Prophetic literature in particular can start to feel like the Lord of the Rings books—especially their longer poetic portions—except that finding a foothold through prophetic literature can prove even more challenging than keying into the
next plot element of a great story. And readers miss so much in the process. I
don't regret much allowing the words of Tom Bombadil wash over me, to be
forgotten as soon as I read them. But applying this reading strategy to the
Bible is a setup for trouble.

On one hand, I will gladly promote glossing over as a preferable error to asserting mistaken assumptions about a text. But reading Scripture in this default mode for too long stunted my ability to understand Isaiah's profound message about God's ways and work long ago: God simultaneously aligned with the military conquests of pagan nations while calling God's chosen people to hope, to difference, and to submission to God's ways and will.

And though I still have questions about exegeting prophetic literature in relation to the future, failing to consult historical background resources undoubtedly brings overly ahistorical, apocalyptic, or futuristic visions of God's word rushing into the void. Be very frightened when your Bible reading suggests an interpretation with little relevance to people in much different political, economic, and cultural circumstances than your own. I knew this much, but had been avoiding the cure.

Retraining myself as I go, I've carried on – slowing down, rereading, reminding myself at what point in history the author is addressing in a particular section. The many images and explanations of the biblical
text contained in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Isaiah
are helping me accomplish those goals, as they transport my imagination to a
different time, place, and culture.

I am marveling anew at how, even though I stand in the faith tradition of Isaiah, for centuries Isaiah's audience had much more in common with its surrounding nations than with me.
For example, Isaiah uses language that fails to challenge the ancient understanding of many things: the structure of the cosmos, tacit assumptions of prevailing wisdom, a tough outlook of life born from a time when mere survival was brutal. Yet Isaiah vehemently challenges many aspects of the idolatry rampant in the ANE, attested in artifacts from all the main cultural groups whose reliefs, seals, and writings remain.

(Image: King anointed by gods, relief from Esna. Image by Brian J. McMorrow, excerpted from ZIBBCOT: Isaiah.)

Relishing the Withywindle's loquacious poet is unlikely to be a priority for me this side of Glory—and if we're being honest, it's not on the top of my list for eternal activities either. But my commitment to Christ, not to mention my education and work, demands relishing not only the Bible but the world of the Bible, God's choice for revelation in the ancient world and in mine. I am grateful for the
gift that Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Isaiah and
its sister commentaries on other books can be in this process of exploring
the Bible and its world.


Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Isaiah

General Editor: John H. Walton. Authored by David W. Baker.

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