Confusion is Good

Confusion, for lack of a better word, is good. At least that’s what we see in several passages in the Bible.  Why would God want to intentionally confuse people?  Great question. When God called the prophet Isaiah, he gave him confusing message .

When God called Isaiah to be his messenger this is what God told him to say:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; 
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull
and their ears heavy
and blind their eyes:
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with the ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

What’s Isaiah’s message? Don’t understand, don’t perceive, don’t see, don’t hear, don’t turn, don’t be healed. What? It sounds like God wants the Israelites to remain confused. It’s confusing that God would want people to be confused.  I guess God gets what he wants.

While many of us avoid or ignore weird texts like this one, Jesus didn’t. In each of the four gospels Jesus quotes these verses from Isaiah 6 (Matt. 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). There are very few Old Testament texts quoted from the mouth of Jesus that appear in all four of the gospels. Jesus thought this confusing text was important, that sometimes it’s good to be confused.

Those of us who teach the Bible often like to put the cookie on the lowest shelf, to make it really simple, to help people understand. But there is a problem from always making things simple and easy to understand.  That’s not how God does it in the Bible most of the time.  The Bible is often confusing. Many of Jesus’ parables are confusing. God makes his word confusing intentionally.

We need to not remain in a perpetual state of confusion. But sometimes, confusion is good. If we are never challenging, provoking, and even confusing people, we aren’t teaching like Jesus.

What purpose does confusion serve?  I see three.

First, confusion makes us humble.  We have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. We are finite. We may not like it, but we are dependent. Do we really expect that we could fully comprehend a gloriously mysterious God? Confusion keeps us humble before an infinite, sovereign, power God.

Second, confusion causes us to ask questions.  In his confusion about this confusing passage Isaiah asks a question, “How long, O Lord” (Isa. 6:11).  Jesus quoted this passage to the disciples when they asked him a question about the parables.  When we’re confused we should ask questions.  People ask questions about things they care about. Care enough about the Bible to ask questions.

Third, confusion leads us to God. What does Isaiah do with his question? He goes directly to God with it.  “How long, O Lord” is one of the psalmist’s favorite questions (Psa. 4:2; 6:3; 13:1, 2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84). In the midst of our confusion, our humility and our questions should take us to God who may or may not answer them.  But if our confusion leads us into a deeper relationship with God, it serves a great purpose.

Prophets in the Former Prophets

The books of Joshua, Judges, 1, 2 Samuel and 1, 2 Kings are known by three titles:

1) The Historical Books (along with a few other books).
2) The Deuteronomistic History (by scholars, because of connections to the book of Deuteronomy).  My dissertation was on the Deuteronomistic History.
Righteous Jehu and his Evil Heirs: The Deuteronomist’s Negative Perspective on Dynastic Succession (Oxford Theological Monographs).
3) The Former Prophets (within the Jewish tradition).  The Latter Prophets are also known as the Major and Minor Prophets.

One of the reasons the title Prophets makes sense for these books is that there are a lot of prophets mentioned.  Well, not really in the books of Joshua and Judges, but in Samuel there’s a fair amount, and in Kings there are tons (literally).  Hundreds of prophets are mentioned in the book of kings.

As I study, research and write about these books, I like to make charts and tables.  Here is a link to my family tree of the Kings of Israel and Judah.

I’ve included a table below that will appear in some form in a couple of books I’m working on, but those versions won’t be in color.  The title: Prophetic Figures in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings).  Prophetic figures include people the text calls a prophet,  a “man of God,” and several prophet groups (sons of the prophets).

The left column lists all the biblical references.
The middle column includes the prophetic figures, in red when the text provides a name, gray if anonymous, and pink for prophetic groups.
The right column lists the king (only for Samuel-Kings) who reigned while the prophet ministered.  The color coding, green for United Monarchy, blue for the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and yellow for the Southern Kingdom (Judah), matches the color coding used for the Family Tree chart mentioned above.

What observations and patterns do you notice about these prophets and kings?  Add your thoughts in a comment below.  In my next blog in a few days I’ll share a few of my own comments.

If you know people who study the Bible seriously, send them a link to this table.  They’ll find it helpful.

Prophetic Figures in DH

“Smoldering stumps” (Isaiah 7:4): More biblical trash talking

King Ahaz of Judah is worried.  His two rivals to the north, Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel had allied against him, probably to force him into their anti-Assyrian alliance.  The whole nation is fearful, and their hearts are shaking like the “trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isa. 7:2).

So, YHWH sends the prophet Isaiah to calm Ahaz’s nerves, telling Isaiah to talk trash about Rezin and Pekah: “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of those two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Isa. 7:4).  Yes, I know, “smoldering stumps” loses something in translation (and in the Hebrew there’s no illiteration), but would you expect God to be an expert trash talker?  We can at least give YHWH credit for picking up the tree imagery (stumps, shaking trees) from verse 2 (although that came from the narrator).

But isn’t trash talking supposed to be targeted directly at the insulted party?  Usually, but not always.  As we know from the world of modern sports, when a competitor insults his or her opponent indirectly, it often finds it’s way to their ears (now this happens through the news media).  Trash talking has a dual purpose, to intimidate a foe and to encourage a friend (or oneself).  Here, Ahab needs help.  So, God tells him he doesn’t need to worry about Rezin and Pekah (they’re past their prime, they’ve shot their wad).

Encouragement for Ahaz is given another way.  Interestingly, in this section Ahaz is twice referred to as “the house of David” (Isa. 7:2, 13), an allusion to the Davidic promise of an eternal ruling descendent on the throne of Israel (2 Sam. 7).  So, in essence YHWH is saying, don’t worry about those two losers to the north, I’ve got you covered because you’re a son of David.

A few verses later (Isa. 7:14), YHWH also promises that a young woman (or virgin?) will give birth to a boy named “With-us-God” (Immanuel). As Matthew’s gospel informs us (1:23), the virgin birth/God-with-us theme fits nicely with the birth of Jesus, but a wait of over 700 years for Jesus wouldn’t be particularly encouraging for poor Ahaz who needs help now, so presumably the Immanuel prediction had an earlier fulfillment for Ahaz.

If it’s OK for God to trash talk I assume it’s OK for us, so when should we talk trash?