Idol-taunt in Isaiah 44:9-20 Prophetic Construction or Construction of Prophecy? A Dalit/new Historicist Reading

Irudayaraj, Dominic S. (2012) Idol-taunt in Isaiah 44:9-20 Prophetic Construction or Construction of Prophecy? A Dalit/new Historicist Reading. Masters thesis, Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University.

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A leader … in a crisis almost always acts subconsciously and then thinks of the reasons for his action. Crisis in human life begets surprising reactions and ramifications. In crises – real or imagined – people scamper for immediate resolutions. When expected resolutions do not seem to come by, the process of seeking answers is not abandoned; people continue to seek other ways and means. The idol taunt in Isaiah 44:9-20 sounds problematic from an image-rich Indian Christian perspective. This paper explores other ways of appropriating this difficult text. Born and brought up in a Christian family of south India, I was initiated into the ethos of south Indian Christian heritage. At the same time, the dominant religious tradition of Hinduism was in close proximity. Such a twin exposure has shaped my religious sentiments. With these sentiments, when I approach the idol-polemics in the Bible in general or Isaiah 44:9-20 in particular, I am faced with a double-trouble. The First Trouble – Insensitivity to Hindu Religiosity: Of the many characteristic features of India, numerous representations of gods and goddesses in the Hindu temples draw much attention of even passing visitors. On the one extreme,“Hinduism is sometimes said to be the religion of 330 million gods.” Such an exaggerated account is counter-balanced by the view that “each living being is a unique expression of God. In ancient times it was believed that there were 330 million living beings. This gave rise to the idea of 330 million deities or gods.” On the other extreme is the Hindu philosophical system of Advaita, which advocates absolute monism. All that exists is Brahman or the Ultimate Reality. Even the perception of oneself as an individual being is maya, an illusion, because in “the depth of my being, which is not ‘mine,’ is Reality” Therefore, Advaita proposes that salvation is through ahaṃ brahmāsmi, namely the realization of one’s identity of the inner self and the Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. In order to understand the Ultimate Reality as being one but with innumerable representations, Hinduism proposes that “when the heart is absorbed in the love of God, the soul transcends the narrow bounds of religious dogma and is convinced of the infinite number of possible divine manifestations.” In a similar vein, “Vedas proclaim that the one Brahman, call it the Truth or Reality, is manifested as so many different devatās or 3 Bansi Pandit underscores that this is a misconception. It is only “a symbolic expressiondeities.” Hence, “Hinduism generally regards its 330 million deities as extensions of one ultimate reality.” For such a nuanced religious tradition of Hinduism, a cursory reading of idol-polemics in Isaiah sounds insensitive and insulting. The Second Trouble – Offense to my Religious Background: If numerous representations of gods and goddesses mark the worship places of Hindus, the statues and icons in our parish Church are no less prominent in their variety or appeal. In addition, there is a considerable overlap in the way the feasts of these two religions are celebrated. Spectacular car processions – with statues of Jesus, Mary, and saints enthroned, dramatic animal sacrifice, cooking and offering of freshly harvested rice etc. – mark our parish feasts. Similar features, interestingly, are characteristic of the Hindu harvest festival. Having grown up in a religion in which statues and icons played a key role in promoting individual and communal devotion, Isaiah’s idol-polemic – which derides iconic representations as nothing (WhTO) – sounds both thoughtless and offensive. This paper looks at other ways of appropriating the icon parody in Isa 44:9-20. Whom does the idol of this text represent? Is it Yahweh or the god(s) of other nations? Can a lowly wooden or metallic object embody an eternal divine? Who are the idol-makers and the idol-worshippers that the text ridicules? Why does the text belabor every minute detail of idol production while at the same time belittling the whole idolmaking effort? What are the consequences of idol-making and idol-worship? These are some of the questions that have occupied the attention of the biblical scholars through the years. Drawing from these scholarly works, chapter 1 presents a short survey of literature on the chosen idol-polemic. The survey culminates with a summary of various options that the biblical scholars offer in order to understand and interpret the anti-idol outburst in Isaiah. After a consideration of the scholarly options, a Dalit/New Historicist reading will be proposed as a way to help appreciate and appropriate this idol-taunt not only in its literary provenance but also in the subsequent interpretations. The proposed Dalit/New Historicist reading forms the central part of the paper, proceeding in two different but complementary directions. Chapter 2 encompasses the first part. It situates and interprets the idol-polemic in Isa 44:9-20 as a prophetic discourse of identity formation and affirmation, especially during a time of crisis – the exile. To do so, a Dalit reading is helpful. Dalit literature is filled with themes and features that resist, ridicule, and reverse the dominant and hegemonic narratives. In doing so, the Dalits attempt to construct their otherwise fragmented and marginalized identities. Accordingly, a Dalit reading of Isa 44:9-20 will situate the struggle of a prophet who attempts to construct the identities of a defeated deity, a dispersed community, and a de-centered prophet. In a striking parallel to Dalit writings, literary characteristics such as resistance, ridicule, and reversal stand out when 13 In this, what I call, a Dalit/New Historicist reading, I propose to proceed sequentially. The first part begins with a Dalit reading that underscores a prophetic construction of identity(s). The second part consists of a New Historicist critique that highlights the continued constructions of prophecy. These two foci are viewed and presented here as complementary to each other. the idol parody is given a Dalit focus. Put succinctly, a Dalit reading underscores the prophetic construction that is operative in and through the chosen text in its exilic origin. Such a sympathetic reading of the text as prophetic construction is then complemented by a New Historicist critique, which is undertaken in chapter 3. A New Historicist reading underscores the continued constructions of prophecy in later interpretive traditions. In order to highlight these continued constructions, three interpretive examples on the chosen text are presented: (1) the text in the hands of the returnees; (2) the text from the perspective of Christian missionaries; and (3) an Indian reading of the text by an author who is steeped in the ethos and religiosity of India. Chapter 4 highlights the continued journey to, within, and from this paper. The origin of the journey is traced back to a lively conversation which I had with a Hindu in the winter months of 1992. That conversation and the resulting unanswered questions laid the foundation for my journey to this paper. The journey within this paper underscores the gleaned insights from the chosen double foci: Dalit/New Historicist reading. The Dalit reading helps to situate a prophetic discourse of identity that is at work in this text. Reciprocally, such reading also helps readers to be sensitive to the continued struggles of the Dalits and other marginalized groups in the world today. Such a sympathetic Dalit reading needs to be counter-balanced by the awareness to the possibility of a biblical text becoming a caricature of itself in the hands powerful persons. Thus it can become what can be termed a construction of prophecy. New Historicist reading turns the spotlight on such degenerations. All the same, it will be indicated that in the final analysis, the chief concern is not so much the choice between the binaries of prophetic construction/construction of prophecy as about a reading that helps promote religious sensibilities and sensitivity, especially in a multi-religious context such as India. The paper then ends with a note on my journey from this paper. The chosen idoltaunt stimulates a wide variety of scholarly inquiries, including: the monotheistic tendency in Isaiah; iconography and the Bible; and images and worship patterns in ANE.The chosen trajectory, namely a Dalit/New Historicist reading, has the scope to be enriched by these and other related scholarly inquiries.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
Divisions: Jesuitica
Depositing User: Geoffrey Obatsa
Date Deposited: 28 Apr 2017 13:05
Last Modified: 28 Apr 2017 13:05

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