Fellow Passengers: Today’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 14: 1-20) transports me to the heartland of the Assyrian Empire in the region of modern day Mosul, Iraq, late 8th century BCE, where the Assyrian General Pulu has executed a successful coup and proceeded to capture control of the Babylonian Empire. As was the case for virtually all imperial leaders, from the ancient Sumerians and Egyptian Pharaohs on, these war generals who gained control soon gained deity status as well. Thus, Pulu became Tiglath-Pilesar, god of the Babylonians as well as their king. This is the setting for the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s passage, as the prophet of the besieged and soon to be defeated people envisions a day when the mighty will come tumbling down. Isaiah assures his audience with the hopeful and defiant promise that one day they will taunt this emperor god, how the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended! The lands will be at rest and at peace, with even the trees gloating over the fallen ruler. The realm of the dead will greet Tiglath with their own derision: You have become weak as we are. . . all your pomp has been brought down to the grave. . . maggots are spread out beneath you. . . How you have fallen from heaven. . .you have been cast down to earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said, I will ascend to the heavens and raise my throne above the stars of God. . . but you are brought down to the depths of the pit.
What interests me about this trash talk to the tyrant god is how Matthew and the other gospel writers would turn the whole tradition of imperial deification on its head with the story of Jesus. The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has written a fascinating article contrasting Jesus’ deification with that of the imperial rulers of his own day, namely Gaius Octavius, aka Caesar Augustus, who first became known as the son of god when his adoptive father, Julius Caesar was deified posthumously, and then after his own death Augustus received divine status as well. Carved on a Roman temple were these words honoring his birthday: Whereas Providence has adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with goodness for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Savior who has made war to cease . . . with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him. Sounds strikingly biblical and messianic, doesn’t it? But the gospel writers subverted this imperial tradition, not by doing away with human deification, but in radically changing who it was that got deified. Instead of their bestowing divinity upon a war general and imperial ruler, they assigned “Son of God” and “God With Us” status to a baby born of peasant parents, who grew to live and work on the extreme edges of the empire with the most marginalized of the masses. Crossan notes that sometime in the second century after Jesus’ birth, the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote a scathing attack on Christianity. It wasn’t human deification that he found outrageous; it was the incredulous notion that someone from the wrong side of the tracks would assume such a position. Listen to some of Celsus’ snobbish critique: First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called savior, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God. . .Taking its root in the lower classes, the religion continues to spread among the vulgar: nay, one can even say it spreads because of its vulgarity and the illiteracy of its adherents. And while there are a few moderate, reasonable, and intelligent people who are inclined to interpret its beliefs allegorically, yet it thrives in its purer form among the ignorant. John Dominic Crossan concludes his article by challenging his presumably “intelligent” readers to decide where they will look for their God – in power that dominates or in empowerment that liberates, among aristocracy or peasantry.
This was the same challenge Isaiah gave to his hearers. He looked for the day when God would have compassion on Jacob and choose Israel, not as an ethnically pure and privileged chosen few, but as a nation mingled with liberated foreigners who would unite with the descendants of Jacob to bring about the kingdom of God from below, from the margins. Instead of pinning their hopes on a war general who would rise to power, only to fall from heavenly heights, the gospel writers and Paul, all of whom who took their cues from Isaiah, understood true power as coming from a God who chose of his own accord to fall from heaven to earth and assume the form of a suffering servant. From what we read of the gospel writers, Jesus clearly understood this subversive destiny and radical identity. The question is, do we who live and breathe imperial privilege understand it?
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.