In the Habitation of Dragons

By Geoffrey Kurtz

No one has charted the experience of waiting like the prophet Isaiah. In the Biblical readings traditional during the Christian season of Advent, Isaiah’s poetry overshadows everything else, even the Gospel texts, which often seem merely Isaiah’s echo. This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, Christians in many churches will hear this text:

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them;
and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose…
Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees.
Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not:
behold, your God will come with vengeance,
even God with a recompence; he will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing:
for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water:
in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads:
they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah’s words are moving. The desert blooms, the blind see, the deaf hear, the ransomed return, sorrow flees: yes! These are hopes worth hoping. But after being moved, what comes next? How are we to think about a claim like “God…will come and save you.” What are we to do? Or, better: What are we to do?

One answer to questions like these, an answer familiar to many on the religious left, is that God’s work is to be done by our hands. When Isaiah says that God will heal those who need healing and free those who lack freedom, perhaps this means that those who hear this message are being summoned to participate in that great project of healing and liberation. To hear Isaiah’s words this way is challenge enough; I don’t mean to belittle this mode of interpretation. It is not wrong, exactly. But I want to suggest that it is incomplete and may even be missing Isaiah’s most important teaching.

What I want to say is this: Wait. Do not hurry past the first and most obvious things that Isaiah is saying. Here is what Isaiah says: The wilderness is not yet glad. The solitary place is not yet rejoicing. The blind are really blind; the deaf are deaf; the lame cannot leap; the dumb cannot sing; the parched ground is parched; the captives and exiles remain far from home, sorrowing and sighing, not yet ransomed.

That is the world we know, and the world Isaiah knew. Karl Barth—that dear old curmudgeon, who was both a socialist and a Christian but who scolded people like me who want to link the two—said we should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Read the day’s news, whatever day it may be, and tell me: Can you doubt that we are living “in the habitation of dragons”?

Isaiah is asking us—calling us, commanding us—to see the dragons, to see the desert, and to wait. We on the left are good at naming the dragons around us: market tyranny, mass society, the warfare state, racism. We are not wrong, I think, to say that we ought to think penetratingly and act resolutely, faced with those dragons. But I suspect that too often we allow our capacity to think and to act, our willful quest to subdue the dragons, to serve as a balm for our spirits. We think: we can change all this!—and so the desert seems less dry, the ills of our society less real. But the desert is still dry; the ills are still there. The dragons still seethe. We haven’t won yet. Maybe we will. But it would be a mistake to let that possibility console us, as if our “weak hands” and “feeble knees” could be strengthened by the mere idea of their own strength. A courage that depends on the prospect of success is an unreliable courage.

How can Isaiah insist that we open our eyes to the desert and the dragons, how can he refuse to let us be consoled by the promise of our own power, and still say: “Be strong, fear not”? It won’t do to answer that he says this because he believes “God will come.” That would be to put things backwards. “God” is the most resonant and many-sided name that Isaiah can give to that-for-which-we-wait. God is for Isaiah the riddle, not the answer. God is the name of Isaiah’s desire.

Isaiah says: Be strong, fear not, even though you live in the habitation of dragons. Not because you know how or when or by whom the dragons will be driven away, but, simply: Be strong, fear not.

Reading Isaiah, I want a way of doing politics, a way of being a neighbor and a citizen—in the midst of market tyranny, mass society, the warfare state, racism, dragons, deserts—that begins from his “Fear not.” Maybe by next Advent I will have found it. In any case, I am waiting. Wait with me.

Geoffrey Kurtz is the author of Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy (2014). A number of his recent essays have been published at Public Seminar.

(Image: Facundus, detail from La Femme et le dragon. Via