The name of the son-of-hope

Listening to Life/6 - Believing in returning, in times of difficulties and exile

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 31/07/2016

Spighe di grano rid

Esarhaddon, king of the lands,
fear not!...
I am Ishtar of Arbela.
I wait to deliver your
enemies to you.
I am Ishtar of Arbela.
I go in front of you and
behind you. Fear not!

Cuneiform prophecies from Babylon, (English translation published by Stephanie Dalley), 7th century BC. .

Prophets are unsuccessful men and women. Their word and their existence give us an ethical and spiritual map to help our orientation in the hour of failure. They remind us that being unsuccessful is our ordinary condition. The gains we get are always too small and feeble. We tend to console ourselves with the achievements, to resize our questions and ideals to fit them within the confines of what is possible for us. And so we cease to grow and to make the world grow.

The prophets don't work like this: they continue to announce salvations that are greater and more just than us, and prefer their own failure, and even that of God, to the domestication of the word of truth that they must announce. No land reached is the promised land, no children come true in our dreams (woe to us if it were so!) and we're still waiting to see the arrival of the one who promised us that one day he would return. This is the non-vain hope offered to us by the prophets, that is not in vain exactly because it is greater than our successes, or theirs.

The wonderful story of the meeting between Isaiah and Ahaz King of Judah takes place when the Assyrian empire was conquering the Northern Kingdom (Israel or Ephraim) and other small neighbouring kingdoms, and even threatened Jerusalem. So we are in a war, a grave political crisis. Isaiah prophesies to the king the failure of the attempted occupation of his enemies ("It shall not stand, / and it shall not come to pass."; 7,7)

He invites him to believe. He also reassures him: "do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint" (7,4). "Do not fear...", another beautiful expression that brings us to the heart of Isaiah and the Gospel. In the economy of this story the "sign" (’ôt) that YHWH invites Ahaz to ask from him is a very important element. The signs that accompany the mission of the prophets are very serious things. They have nothing to do with the "signs" that religious women and men have always and still ask for, which is an expression of magic or idolatry and, at best, of an immature faith.

The sign is, instead, a fundamental element of the vocation and activity of the prophet. Prophecy is always a historical fact, it is done within the ordinary life of the people. In the midst of crises, catastrophes, joys, politics and the economy of their time. The signs say the concrete nature of the prophecy, which also uses the words of the facts, because the words spoken are not enough.

These signs are not bets made with God, or techniques to show their own prophetic talent to the public - which instead were and are the main exercise of the false prophets and the "Simon Magus" of all time. The false prophet manipulates the religious sentiment of the people, because the "God" of all the false prophets is just a tool, a means to achieve wealth and power. The signs of the prophets are the opposite of all these. True prophets do not like to give signs that the people always claim, because they know that people will end up transforming the prophet in the author of the signs, which is the most common death of true prophets.

"Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, »Ask a sign of the Lord your God«" (7,11). The prophetic sign is an act of faith, and therefore a relationship of trust. Not asking for it is therefore not an expression of humility or piety - it is only a lack of faith. Ahaz, to justify his refusal, invokes the prohibition of "testing God" (Exodus 17,2). He resorts to the same word of YHWH to try to turn the mistrust into faith.

This attitude is a very common one, especially in times of trials and crises. It is very common in leaders and community leaders, who refer to the Law, the Gospel, the Statutes to cover choices that arise only from the distrust of a person or the community itself, and so do not assume responsibility and costs. Isaiah immediately sees the true intention of the king, and reproaches him with the most appropriate words: "Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?" (7,13).

As if to say: you are not only insulting me ("men") by treating me as a false prophet; you are also denying your trust-and-faith in the Covenant. Ahaz was a wicked king: "he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God". He was an idolatrous king and guilty of infanticide: "He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel." (2 Kings 16,2-4) An idolater could not listen to the words of the prophet.

But the prophecy does not stop because of our sins. Isaiah responds to the refusal of Ahaz, with a true masterpiece, which still leaves us breathless: "the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7,14) The child, the Immanuel, God-with-us, was not the sign of Ahaz: it was the sign of Isaiah. The failure of the prophecy because of the rejection of an idolatrous king has provoked one of the most beautiful prophecies of all time. It is not uncommon for our most beautiful words to come second and to be those we can say about the pain of the failure of the first ones. Ahaz did not believe that his God would save him, and so began the political decline of his reign, culminating two centuries later in the Babylonian exile.

In this trialogue between Isaiah, Ahaz and YHWH, the grammar of the main word of the book of Isaiah, faith begins to unravel. Biblical faith is first and foremost a human word. Understanding it means penetrating into human life, and, perhaps, even understanding who God is. The first semantic meaning of the word faith is trust. It is believing in a word - and that word is always of a person -, and then acting accordingly. In biblical humanism faith is the first work. Ahaz did not believe, but acted. Mary believed and acted.

In the Bible God also believes: he trust in men, believes in us, in you, in me. The greatest category of biblical faith is the Covenant, where not only our response of love is preceded by the love of YHWH, but also our faith comes after the faith of God in us. Anyone who has had a child and really loved them can understand this dimension of trust-and-faith. The first form of love for a child is to believe in him, give him confidence, a trust-and-faith that lasts a lifetime and regenerates him a thousand times to the first life.

Even non-faith is action. When we do not believe in a word, in a project, in a promise, in a future, we act so that that word, that project or that promise do not become reality. The fulfilment of the signs of faith depends on freedom of the one in whom we put our trust, and therefore it is always uncertain. This is why the prophecies of non-faith are fulfilled much more frequently than those of faith, because they are self-fulfilling: our mistrust acts and produces the hoped the event. Not always, but often. The body will descend along the river if we contributed to the murder further upstream.

Many communities, businesses, families and works end because someone, at a precise moment, did not believe that they could have a different and possible future. And many are not dead but are alive because someone, at a precise moment, believed and acted. Because at least one person believed. There is a wonderful dimension of this faith that is revealed to us by a particular placed into the opening of the chapter: "And the Lord said to Isaiah, »Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son«" (7,3) Isaiah goes to that decisive meeting with a son. The meaning of the child's name is "a remnant shall return": a small group of the people will be saved, some will return from the exile. We will still have a history of salvation to live and tell. It's not over.

In the Bible the name chosen for a child is always a message. The first message that Isaiah brings to Ahaz was his son. The prophets know how to use these incarnate words, and this is how they have made it possible for us to intuit the mystery of a word-Son become a child one day. Like Jeremiah, who while Jerusalem is besieged and he had been imprisoned by the king for having prophesied that the city would be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, buys a piece of land: "Buy my field that is at Anathoth" (Jeremiah 32,7).

The prophet announces the exile, and as he announces it he buys a piece of land, to indicate through a sign that the exile will not be forever. That a remnant will return home. All are fleeing from the company in crisis, but one remains and invests in it; all are leaving the community, but someone stays, someone returns in the empty house, to re-express their faith in the first promise. Nothing speaks more of the future than a field bought at home in time of exile, or someone who returns while everyone is running away. Nothing speaks more than a child at the dawn of the greatest crisis whose name is "a remnant shall return". It is this hope-son that accompanies the prophecy of the Immanuel-child. Two children, the same message of life.

We do not know who the Immanuel of Isaiah was. Perhaps Hezekiah, the faithful king, the son of the unfaithful Ahaz and Queen Abiyah. Perhaps, for the medieval theologian Rashi, the third son of Isaiah. Perhaps a child of a young woman (’almâ), who was still a virgin at the time of the prophecy and was near Isaiah as he was prophesying. Maybe there is yet another, different explanation. Matthew and after him many Christians will have seen the announcement about Mary of Nazareth and her son. Biblical prophecy is still alive because it has turned out to be greater than our interpretations, even the highest ones. It will stay alive as long as we leave it open, plural and poor, and as long as we love it with gratuity.

Isaiah's ’almâ and Immanuel were a young woman and a child with a name of trust. Because in times of crises, in all crises, we can still hope for a salvation until there is a woman who will give birth to a child.

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