Isaiah 64:6

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

Jehovah, the God of Moses and Abraham, was a hard-ass motherfucker. Like a mafia don, he expected absolute fidelity and his wrath was severe if the rules were broken. The Israelites were always screwing up and forgetting to toe the line and so Yahweh had to come down again and again and straighten things out. This bit from Isaiah is lovely, don’t you think? That image of the filthy rags—that is, stained with menstrual blood—is particularly good, in olden times women’s monthly emissions were as unclean as the guys writing this stuff down could imagine. I think shit is a lot worse, and microbiology backs me up, but the Hebrew story-tellers had a particular thing about periods. Maybe that’s why women will never be Catholic priests!

I also like the image of the leaf, fading in color and texture, being borne off by the wind. I love autumn, and the fall of the foliage from the trees and its scattering always makes me wistful, all that energy that went into the making now dissipating with the coming of winter. I came across this last week when I was killing time in a motel room the night before a ski adventure. I usually poke through the Gideon at one point or another in my stays, it has lots of organized quotes in the preface, this passage was one of them.

I took it to mean that we are all posers, that we put on a show of being good, but in the end we will all be shown to be as equally full of shit. Or, at the very least, we’ll all wind up the same in the cosmic sense, that is, fertilizer. But I think the more religious types see the moral differently. That no matter how good our works are, they pale when compared to God’s goodness, and if we think that good works will get us to Heaven, we are mistaken. Only God can do that, and only if we accept that any goodness we have originates with God, not within ourselves.

That’s a little harsh in my book. People are clearly capable of goodness. All you have to do is observe people being good to each other, that’s clear evidence that people can be good. Of course the opposite is true as well. We are capable of being rather wretched beasts, right? We see that, too. The fact that people actually do things is proof that they are capable of those things.

So, are we losers who need to accept our complete loser-ness in order NOT to be losers? Or, are we better than that, rather decent in fact most of the time, and will it hurt us to say so? Perhaps the sages of lore were worried that if we thought too highly of ourselves we’d get into worse trouble. Hubris has its price. Humility is a difficult art to practice, and it is especially tough in this can-do, boot-strapping, self-made all-American capitalist enterprise we live in, where self-worth and self-belief are the cornerstones of economic advancement.

If you are poor in the US of A, it’s because you lack virtue. You didn’t get up early enough, study hard enough, or work long enough hours. You weren’t thrifty enough, hungry enough, or tough enough. At least that’s the free market credo and it works for enough folks that we take it for granted. I’ve no issue with ambition and I’ve no problem with getting ahead—more power to you and may you find success. But the world is more complicated than that and the exigencies of life are often outside our control. Bad stuff happens even to good people, no one is exempt from the vagaries of existence.

I don’t really know what to make of Isaiah 64:6. I found it rather poetic, and it made me contemplative. I thought it was telling me to be humble, to see that what makes us human, both good and bad, is shared by all of us, and that our fates are all the same. I’ll leave it to the biblical scholars to parse out the deeper stuff, I don’t read the Gideon for spiritual strength or mystical insight. I like the language, and the history, and the characters and their stories, and the great panorama of human nuttiness, all the crazy stuff we believe and all the crazy things we’ll do in service of those beliefs.

How we see the world is a product of our culture. What’s really out there depends on who and where you are. Anytime you can get a group of folks all together in one place experiencing the same shared reality you have to figure it’s a bit of a miracle. I’m a big fan of civilization and I hope it keeps chugging along and we keep muddling through. That’s a tall order what with seven billion of us here now and still growing. We’re all connected, like it or not, we are all passengers on the same spaceship and there aren’t any escape pods. I guess that means we’ll all have to figure out how to get along, eh?

 

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