Trees and Dragons
Isaiah 4, tiny chapter though it is, introduces us to an image for Christ that we see in numerous places in the Old Testament: the Branch.
Seems like an important concept, since it appears throughout Isaiah as well as in Zechariah 3 and Jeremiah 23. Also seems like one of those terms that one could spend months reflecting on the depth of its full meaning.
So, we'll just start with some Hebrew here.
The Hebrew word for Branch that appears here in Isaiah 4 is tsamach, which has to do with a root sprouting forth to produce a tree. The connotation is one of lineage (as in, family tree), strength, and beauty. We're told the Branch will be beautiful and glorious.
Despite modern imaginings of heaven being comprised of floating clouds, the scriptural view is much more of a garden. As a bit of a nature-lover myself, I'm not at all disappointed.
In contrast to the lists of unhappiness we've seen in the previous chapters, Isaiah now lists what the Branch will create:
the cloud of smoke by day and the flaming fire by night that directed the Israelites during the Exodus
a canopy (I'm picturing the forest realm of Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings, and a beautiful yet fearsome Cate Blanchett making an appearance)
And, we're told that this canopy will be a:
shade from the heat of the day
hiding place from storm and rain
Coming out of 2020, I'd like a canopy like that right now. David, man of God's own heart, was always calling God his shelter. He was a pretty active individual--warrior, musician, king that he was. Yet, in times of trouble, he never hesitated to reach out to God as his shelter. I wonder if too many of us try to go it on our own for too long and suffer unnecessarily as a consequence. The rugged individualism of the United States, with our cowboy mentality, has never been a truthful perspective. This is a central issue in our culture wars right now--how much of what one has was given to you and why is it shameful to admit it? David can still be a "manly-man" and openly acknowledge that God was the one that kept him safe, even though to his soldiers David looked pretty competent. Hence, being made king.
Back to a refuge and shelter--those in the contemplative tradition always remind us that prayer and meditation are never really about checking a box to be a good, religious person. It's a truthful stance to open the day with supplication--that is, asking for help. This is what this type of prayer is---an SOS. I love Anne Lamott's pithy summary of the three categories that all prayers essentially boil down to:
Acknowledging that we could use a refuge and hiding place right now is a very grown up thing to do. It takes wisdom to know that you shouldn't wander in the desert by oneself, that shelter is indeed needed, and sometimes it is much too much to do it all yourself. And it is unecessary. The Branch has already provided what is needed.
How do we get from the disastrous chaos of the preceding chapters to the blissful forest-garden of Isaiah 4? Well, uh...it's a process. We must be prepared to dwell in this place. There's a cleansing. And the images are the soapy, scrubbing kind of cleansing and also the burning, refiner's fire kind of cleansing.
For many conservative Christians in their pursuit of purity, there is a crucial ingredient missing. According to the Bible, only God can make someone pure. And one of the problems with trying to do it yourself, is we so rarely have an accurate view of our own failures (there's a whole literature base on this in social psychology). We may think we need to just scrub behind our ears, maybe exfoliate a little better. But, well, Isaiah doesn't mince words. Excrement. That's what he says needs to be cleaned up.
Now, I don't have much experience cleaning poop, aside from the cute little bottoms of my two babies. I once tried to help a friend muck out a horse stall, and evidently made everyone very aware of my very suburban background in the process. In Isaiah 4, it sounds like the filth is everywhere. Major, major cleaning needed. And, some metallurgy may also be needed to fully get the job done. As in, clean first and then completely melt down and re-form it.
That's the purification needed. Not a little ear-scrubbing. That's what we sign up for when we follow Christ. That is always what it has meant to follow Christ. Followers in the past sold their possessions and gave them away. Some moved to the desert to devote their lives to prayer. Pretty much every modern social support has a Jewish or Christian (often both) person for its founder, since service has always been core to these faiths. But, not all are called to the same path, and so we can't predict what our cleansing or re-forming will look like and what we will be asked to do. This is why we must entrust ourselves to the Branch fully and not interfere.
If the bathing and silversmith metaphors don't do it for us, C.S. Lewis helpfully provides a more fantastical scenario in his book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this scene, the boy Eustace has transformed into a dragon due to greed and selfishness. It is impossible for him to transform himself back into a little boy. Instead...
"Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away...
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”
The Branch is creating a beautiful place for us, and we need to be new people to exist there. This process will make us more fully ourselves than we can ever, ever imagine.