Midrash on Isaiah 44:9-22
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
A guy named Gary G. Porton famously defined midrash as:
“a type of literature, oral or written, which stands in direct relationship to a fixed, canonical text, considered to be the authoritative and revealed word of God by the midrashist and his audience, and in which this canonical text is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to.”
I have written a midrash by this definition. Reading Isaiah 44, I was impressed by the level of detail Isaiah goes into in order to mock those who make idols. But as he described the process of crafting idols, I thought, “This almost sounds like a reasonable vocation.” Leveling things out with a plane, oh my! Idol makers are artists.
I wanted to portray a crew of idol makers as sympathetically as possible in order to show that genuine artistic tendencies can be the instruments of idolatry. The other thing I wanted to explore is the idea of inspiration and the images invented by the imaginer himself as idolatrous. In the context of idol makers, is this not the case? Is it not the case that the origin of their idolatry is in fact the images they develop in their own mind? They develop with their imagination the form of that which they will create and with their imagination, they are guided.
The idolatry is perhaps to mistake the imagination as coming from a divine source. At the end of the day, if it is from the imagination that the idol originates and if the idol is considered divine by those who make it, perhaps it is the imagination that is the real divine thing (according to idolaters).
I do happen to believe that the imagination is the most angelic—the least beastly—faculty we as humans have. But it is easy for those with visions of the supereal to mistake this attuning to the beautiful as divine in itself. The imagination is not divine in itself. It is a gift from the divine in order like reason to comprehend the divine when it is witnessed or encountered. Imagination is a translation device. When the wrong thing is translated, the imagination cashes out with a hollow product. Real art, art that is alive with the sublime and many layered coherence, can only be produced when the imaginer has been encountered by some sublimity or some divine coherence from outside the skin cask. You cannot encounter yourself.
This is the heart of idolatry. Those who encounter themselves, mistake themselves for god and in so doing seek to comprehend themselves with a translation device, be it reason or imagination. They are charged with visions of themselves—or maybe not visions of themselves, but visions stamped exclusively with the exact imprint of their own nature instead of being imprinted with the nature of God. Unfortunately, because humans have their own kind of inherited glory, there is a sense in which we mark whatever we make with divine imprints. Yet this is only partial and it would take a lot of senseless pondering to see the divine coherence in an Asherah pole.
I also wanted to ask what the nature of raw materials is. Isaiah 51:1 says, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord, look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” If the wood used by an idolater were sentient or living, what would it think of its use? Where would it rather be? Does it by the process of being used to make an idol get converted by the way the idolater treats it? Or, like the people of God, is there something inside the instrument of idolatry that still might long for home?
The people of God have throughout the eras of humanity been made the instruments of idolatry. Sometimes they were converted by proximity. Jezebel taking office is enough for people to bow the knee to Barbara. Other times, those who resisted had nothing left to them but mourning or running away.
Idol makers themselves, whether they believe their garbo about their product or not, are instruments of idolatry. Some of them might find themselves in this situation due to political coercion or simple reasons like not wanting to starve. This might seem like a random point, but I want to get across that often the people of God bow the knee to idols for reasons other than wavering in their conviction.
But by bowing the knee, it functions as though they have traded the truth for a lie. This is often not an intellectual decision. The Israelites did not all say, “After weighing the arguments, it is clear that the god Barbara is more real than Yahweh.” The generator of their idolatry was not intellectual denial, but the desire to stay alive and become more powerful. The people of God are still tempted by the false gods of comfort and coitus and coercion that age and get older with those who use them.
That does not mean that those who become idol makers stay wise to what they are doing. As time goes on, they forget what they are doing. The bowing confuses “real” believers and eventually even those who dipped extendedly into coitus come to intellectually assent to their denial. You get to a certain point where you cannot see that what you have come to depend on for permanence is literally used as fuel for a fire. But after our pleading with God has gone quiet, even the stones will cry out, “Bring us back home.”
Our valley is known for its trees. They are not like other trees. Their roots are as hard and heavy as stone. It takes a lot of strong men to get the big round roots in position to roll down the mountainside. If the roots are not at the right angle when they roll, there is tragedy. My father remembers when the old quarry master gave the okay for a tumble and the root tumbled right into town. An entire family died. The tree only stopped rolling once it hit the wall of our mill. The people that died happened to be my uncle’s wives and children. My uncle went and killed the old quarry master, becoming the quarry master himself. He made a better quarry master.
It is hard work at the quarry. You need an entire team of excavators to dig down around the base of the tree just to expose the prized roots. Once exposed, you need strong saws and iron muscles to excise them from the somnolent, black dirt. I have heard stories that the earth actually moans when you pull the roots out. They’re like infected teeth. If you dig down enough, you will see that the roots are not growing from this earth. They are growing from the stone that is the jawbone of the mountains.
You can only imagine how hard and heavy that forgotten stone is and how precious. The roots are hard and heavy and probably very old, but the trunks of the trees and everything you can see of them from town—their broad-shouldered branches and their sharp, green blades all cresting at a delicate, curled crown—is young. For the few of us who are curious, we have come to wonder if the specimens have been there since the beginning of time. It’s the roots we’re after. The mighty trees above ground we see everyday, they are just shoots. It’s almost like their majesty is something the roots want you to be satisfied with, like a safe-guard and distraction from the real treasure. But what have the roots been keeping us from? And what of the stones?
As for the trunks and the branches of the trees, they are good for building roofs and piling on top of each other to make the walls of our houses. The trunks and the branches are softer. You can make clothes out of the trunks if you slice them thinly. As for the branches, of course the lords living on the mountains have hundreds of archers with bows made from them. That is why they win in any battle.
For as long as anyone can remember, it has always been the lords with their archers on the high places leading us in the valley. They are our gate to the rest of the world through which the world receives the goods of our mysteries and the lords receive strange arts. The lords are wealthy. Not wealthy with goods only, but wealthy because they live on high places. From there they can see what is beyond the valley like they own the world. They can see everyone down in the valley, too. Meanwhile, we live with the constant reminder that we must climb, we must dig, we must work and move if we are to rise every day and rise for the rest of our lives.
My uncle had been the quarry master during my entire childhood until he came to work with me and my father in the mill. All the heavy lifting at the quarry for decades left him more or less crippled. His legs were bowed, his back twisted. My uncle knows a lot about the wood and how it must be handled. When my father encouraged my uncle to keep working not at the quarry but in the mill, my father had the good of the mill in mind. It was not a branch extended out of the goodness of his heart.
Of course, both my father and I knew that if he did not have a good reason to stay in the valley, he would find some way to break out. My uncle had an aggressive posture towards the valley that I have come to understand now. It poured out from the wellspring of his sadness. This valley had done him no good. I believe that at the end of the day, the valley has done all of us wrong and the most reasonable thing left to do is to wrong the valley right back.
Luckily, my uncle liked his work here. He was the one responsible for bringing the wood in once it had crashed down the mountainside from the quarry. From there, he directed a team of strong men to roll the root into the main room where the iron saw did its work. They guide the root on tracks and lift it with ropes. The iron saw does not need any human might to move, all it needs is water. When the root is put in position, the iron saw rises and falls through its midsection with the harnessed power of the falling water just outside.
My father thinks that anyone who knows how to build or move anything is a miracle worker. But my uncle thinks that if anyone is a miracle worker, it’s my father. Put a block of wood in front of him—raw, dense, brutish grain—and he turns what is jagged into curved hips. Crooked knots become full lips, and what was once there is not there any longer, leaving only sensuous fingers held out in delicate strength. His work as a sculptor is miraculous.
The lords seem to think so, as does the rest of the world. Anyone who sees his work craves them as they might crave human lovers. He does not deal only in women. My father makes all kinds of figures for anyone willing to immediately provide him with goods. When making full-sized statues, this is always the lords. Every now and then, someone from the village we live in or from a village nearby requests that a smaller sculpture be made. It is something like a status symbol for many people to own one of my father’s many sculptures. Families will save up, will wait years in advance, for him to personally dig his chisel into the ancient, dark waves of living stone that grows buds at the touch of air and sun.
You would think that my father was immune to this social pressure, but he was not. He sculpted and kept as many as he sold. I think he was simply overcome with passion for his finished sculptures. It was a deep passion, a deep hunger, motivated not by the forms of the sculptures but by the mystery of having created them. A similar passion had overcome anyone who had seen them. My father was the most talented sculptor anyone in the valley knew about. When people saw his sculptures, they felt they were seeing some mystery of craftsmanship beyond human hands.
For all his fame, my father was a poor man. A life lived under the shadow of gods is not glamorous. It does not mean you live in comfort or peace. We lived in squalor. What the lords paid him was just enough for him to trade goods with those who worked for him, just enough for the farmers to feed us, just enough to keep the quarries operational. At nights when it became cold and wind whistled through the valley like the windpipe of a reclining god, filling every crevice between the logs of the walls and around the doorposts, we threw the scraps of the ancient roots into the fire. This was how we used the waste. All that powdery sawdust and curled, citrus peels of lumber went into the fire to warm us. If not to warm us, then to roast the fish my uncle had caught from the river or bake bread loafs we’d received from farmers’ wives.
My uncle did what he could to provide. We did not like being dependent on the farmers, because harvests were inconsistent. When harvest was good, sometimes the wheat would be just as expensive as it had been during a bad year. The only thing that could have convinced the farmers of their unfairness was for my father to tell them that he would never make a sculpture for them. But unfortunately my father was burdened with the additional responsibilities of permissiveness. He did not avoid being abused, thrown around, or cut bad deals. He was not a stupid man, but few things could get him to confront someone. This is why I went and lost my virginity even before I knew I wanted to lose it.
When for the third time a girl came to the mill bearing my child and the third time I told them to never come see me again, my uncle threw me to the ground in front of the iron saw. The iron saw rose and fell towards my penis. My horrified father ran from his well-lit studio of sandy-wooded carpet and shrieked. I lost nothing, but I gained a fear of my uncle.
While my father lived under the burden of gods, rival artists lived under the burden of my father. Resentment in private was in public reluctant high praise. With such a resource as the wood, it is hard to imagine that my father would be the sole one exploiting it. Other sculptors competed with him, struggling to replicate a creative process that remained opaque even to himself. Their sculptures were not nearly as valued, but they were nevertheless in demand for those who could not afford better. The threat my father posed to these other sculptors was enough to make my father their enemy.
I remember vividly the day thieves broke into his workshop under cover of the river’s midnight noise. What they found was not just sculptures, but my father working in a dreamy delirium. Seizing the opportunity to ruin the man, they threw my father to the ground and dug his eyeballs out with a searing chisel. Now you have to know that once my uncle fell asleep, he fell asleep heavily. But I woke from the shrieking and first thought it might have been in my dream. When my scattered fears grew coherent, I shook my uncle awake.
He made it down the ladder just in time to find my father rolling on his back in the sawdust, his hands trembling over the bleeding gouges. Through the window and across the river, hooded heads splashed through the shallows. My uncle jumped out the window and with his crooked legs, spattered into the water after them. I knew what would happen to those men, so I focused my attention on my father. I brought a bucket of water and washed his wounds. I took some of the linen we use to veil the sculptures and wrapped it around his eyes. I calmed my father down like he was my own child.
The sky outside was pinkish now, the light on the horizon yellow.
“Where is he,” my sleepy father muttered, staring up at the ceiling with the soaked wrappings. “My brother, go look for him.”
I laid my father down in the corner of his workshop near the warm fire. I looked up and down the river. There was my uncle some thirty feet away, crouching on the bank and staring down the river back at me. I joined him at his side.
“What are you doing?”
“Where do you think this river goes?” he said. He dipped his hands that were caked with blood into the water.
“No. I think it would be.” He turned to me. His left cheek had the mottled scars left by fire. “We are not from here or from this valley. Not me, not your father. We don’t belong here.”
I said nothing.
“There was a girl. She got pregnant. If it was not for them, I would have left. She kept me here. My family.”
“Are we not keeping you here?”
He shook his head. I took his hand and helped this man of waning glory stand.
“No. We are going to get out of here.”
We walked back to the mill where my father waited for us between the doorposts. When we walked into the mill, he got onto his knees. He was in the sawdust shrieking and crying tears of blood. He pleaded with his brother never to leave the valley and leave us unprotected. His hands blindly clutched at where he thought his brother stood. Finally, some fingers found a hand hanging at a side. They wrapped around the wrists. These swollen wrists had strange bumps, as if they had been broken repeatedly. When my father settled down, when he let go of the warped wrists, my uncle took his big thumb and wiped away a bloody tear from my father’s cheek.
“I will be here,” he said, “until the day we leave together.”
“No, no we can’t leave!” my father said, “They would never let us! Never! They need me.”
“You know we do not belong here. I am getting weaker. I can’t protect you forever.”
“At least stay until the next unveiling! Please! That is all I ask! Help us carry it up the mountain!”
My father’s grip on the wrists slackened and my uncle lowered himself uneasily into a crouch. He pushed my father’s hair back from the wrappings with his twisted, big-knuckled fingers.
“I will go one last time. But this time, I will not be coming back down. And neither will you. We are getting out.”
So that was the agreement my uncle made with my father. I think in the mind of my father, it would not be the last unveiling nor would any of us try to leave through the gates of the lord’s palaces and out into the world.
After a farmer’s wife sewed his eyelids shut, my father went back to work. He wasted hours dragging his hand across that last sculpture as if looking for the final addition he had lost track of and had forgotten to make.
I said before that the form was not always of women. That is true. In fact, it would be truer to say that even the women he formed were not women. My father sculpted creatures that did not exist. Yes, yes, there might be portions of the familiar here and there. But the forms were so unreal that even my father’s own imagination had captivated him. The unreality of the forms was their mystery. None of this was true for that last sculpture. Looking at it, I was afraid because it simply did not look like anything at all. With the loss of his sight my father had lost everything.
“What gave you the idea for this one?” I asked.
“I saw it in a dream,” he said. This was always his answer. His eyes looked at the space where he thought I stood, as if the finished sculpture was there.
I knew he was telling the truth, but what disturbed everyone was the origin of these dreams. Did my father know gods or did gods know him by name? I have my doubts. Many people say that the strangeness of his sculptures revealed that there were gods in his mind. If gods did not live in his mind, they’d say, then at least they had visited once or twice. But gods did not make that last sculpture.
This was the life my father had to live. He was forced to carry the burden of inspiration. The fear of losing his balance in the worlds revealed by his mind kept him up at night. He was made feverish, almost tormented. Where did this come from? I still wonder, but the world had its answer in the sculptures he made. The root wood was prized because it was so sturdy and beautiful. It did not splinter, shatter, rot, weaken, change. Only fire and edges could alter it, turn it into ashes or mysteries. But the real export of our valley was not the wood. Our export was the same mystery that had overtaken my father, you understand.
One morning before the unveiling, my father descended into the bright room of his studio from the attic of the mill where we slept. He closed the door behind him, but opened the shutters of the windows. They let in the spray from the river’s fall and the glimmering of the sun-speckled ripples. He felt the warmth of the light on his dirty cheeks. He breathed deeply and resuscitated what he could of the low visions he had in the night.
Like many times before, my father stoked the fire and worked his chisel over the coals. He worked the red sharp edge of the chisel into the wood with the smack of a hammer and his strong arm. The wood softened from the heat like it had been frozen from lack of attention. With the low visions in his mind guiding him, my father stretched a line across the block and marked it out with a pencil. He shaped the block with planes, marking his future chisel movements with a compass.
My father forgot to eat or drink water that day. He fainted and collapsed into the carpet of sawdust. I found his limp corpse there under the amber powder of the dust sparkling in a shaft of light. When his corpse awoke, I dipped a cup to his lips and set bread crust on his tongue. With what little strength he had, the fool, he began to come back to me.
I looked at the sculpture my father had made again. The form had not improved or become any mystery at all, but my father rose and began smacking the chisel into a random spot on the chipped block of wood with stupid persistence.
“Father,” I said, “why are you still doing this?”
My father, whose blind face was in the sunlight, cried. He stopped hammering and turned to face me. With the brightness of the light behind him, I could only make out the two sewn lines above his obscured mouth.
“Because…imagine how they must feel!”
He pressed his hand against the statue, somewhere where eyes ought to be.
We had three days to ascend the mountain with the finished sculpture to the high place of the lords. The journey took about that long. The lords ordered the unveiling of the new mystery to happen on a certain day. Any time earlier or after would not have been acceptable. Our family had lived with this pressure for decades and we knew what it required. All work at the mill stopped.
My uncle was in charge of managing the strong men. You have to be firm when dealing with them. They had that sense of privilege people who work their bodies hard have. The disfigurement of my uncle’s body was the disfigurement their respect required. He shouted at the strong men in front to pull harder, he shouted at the strong men in back to work more quickly. He directed them when and how to be careful.
My father used his brother as the eyes he did not have to watch over his somber child. The men in the back were responsible for laying the tracks under the sculpture as the men in front groaned from the taut rope they tugged bled into their shoulders. Meanwhile, my father held onto the left side of the sculpture as I watched the right and also my father rising blindly up the mountain.
We had to climb through deep snow. The snow was as fine as sawdust. When a breeze puffed on the branches weighed down with clumps, we’d be splashed with sparkling flakes like spray from the river. Above me, with my gaze encircled by the crowns of trees, the blue unearthed sky rolled out of the valley on the white surface of the clouds. I thought I heard drums beating in the distant air as if in celebration of the blue sky’s ascension.
“Do you hear that?” my father said, “that is the sound lonely birds make.”
For a moment, my uncle stopped shouting and came to my side.
“That’s the sound you make when you can’t find a girl to ruin,” he whispered.
They pulled the last segment out from under the sculpture too soon. The unrevealed sculpture, wrapped in linen, lost its balance and fell towards me and my uncle. He threw me out of the way into the soft snow. His deformed arms pushed back and bowed weakly at the hinges of his elbows.
The sculpture silently crushed him.
Yelping and with tears in their eyes, the strong men hopped through the snow. They inserted their fingertips into the snow around the edges of the sculpture. Before my uncle had invented the idea of ropes and tracks, roots were handled with backs bent and snapped tendons. This was how the strong men lifted the sculpture off him. It was a privilege to see such might almost beyond human hands. I swear I heard their muscles tearing. When they lifted the sculpture to its rightful place on the tracks, I saw how it had left a depression of its outline in the mold of the snow. Within this hollow cast of a rough woman’s figure, the dead-eyed corpse stared up at empty air.
“We have to carry on,” my father said. He knew what happened. He wiped his sealed, stony eyeballs. No one cared what my father said, not even my father. Everyone else looked at the crumpled thing indented against the low-lying earth. My father stood ankle deep, facing the steep ascent ahead.
But the strong men knew the price we would pay if we did not carry on. We spent only a few minutes, that was all we could afford, wrapping the corpse into a linen and packing it with snow. We then used some of the rope and hung the corpse from a high branch in hopes that no animals would find it. No one planned to speak during the remainder of our ascension, it seemed. The birds drummed for our march and the sound of feet chomping into the snow followed us. My father was the first to hear the sound of feet doubling ahead.
“Ignore them,” he said to us. Above us, we saw a group of other strong men lifting a covered sculpture with ropes and tracks. Cautious sculptors trudged alongside, pressing paranoid hands against it in fear it might lose its place. The strong men with us shouted threats at this group to go faster. I felt proud and safe with them. The strong men above threw snowballs at us like children.
“We have just lost my brother, parasites!” my father shouted. The other sculptors laughed. I believe our strong men would have killed them if they did not have their responsibilities.
Two days later, we stood all tumbledown among our enemies, just as dirty and tired from the journey as us. This assembly of sculptors and hired strong men waited for the lords. Banners smacked in the high mountain winds. Servants ran out eleven carved benches for the eleven lords. The lords came out to us in their fitted clothes. As they took their seats, strangers with foreign faces gathered behind their backs. Never in past unveilings had they been there.
“Who do you have for us this time?” a lord said. He motioned for two servants to unwrap the two sculptures. One, of my father. The other, of our enemies. The unloosed linens flapped away from us along the courtyard ground like a couple of injured birds trying to escape.
As I had every time before, I bowed before the revealed figures. I expected our enemies to bow before my father’s god as well. Yet the only person who bowed was my father—the only person to whom the gods remained veiled. When we did not hear the expected chanting, we one by one lifted our heads. The lords were still sitting.
“What god is this!” A lord pointed to my father’s sculpture. A block of an unformed mass, barely a woman, covered over with the bark of chip marks and senseless carved contours.
“We have heard that the woods do not grow from the earth. That they grow from the mountains themselves,” a lord said to us. One of the servants came with a torch and lit my father’s sculpture. “We have long thought that what you have brought us is nothing but your own invention. Today you have proved this with this joke. You have made us worship what can be destroyed. What do you make us out to be? That we would worship the wrong god!”
A number of servants came around with swords. Slices of ancient wood went flying off the rough figures of the gods.
“Any one of you who makes it back alive will bring this request to the people of the valley: bring us the real god deep from the mountains. Bring us what cannot be burned or chopped.”
The lords stood and disappeared behind the foreigners. That was when I saw the packages in the hands of the foreigners. They held what looked like bound books wrapped in paper. As the gods burned, they lit the packages and threw them into our assembly.
To my sudden terror, the package that hit my father ripped him apart. There was a very loud sound. Bits popped off the burning corpse like embers out of a fire. I was thrust onto the ground. In the confusion, something hurled itself against my neck. Other packages fell down on us, instantly ripping apart with some internal force. The whole assembly tried running out, but many of the terrified sculptors burst like my father had.
Me and the rest of the sculptors half-tumbled down the mountain through the snow. The foreigners behind us kept throwing the packages down on us. The snow erupted where they fell. When we made it into town that night, we all hid in the mill. We were not enemies anymore.
We watched from the town as the forest fell apart above us. At the edges of the forest, trees rolled down of their own accord. Not just trees. Gigantic bits of root crashed into town, caving in the walls of our houses. I saw the stones of the mountain for the first time come down the mountainside. I saw stones rain down from the sky upon our valley like flung arrows. I saw the mountains come to us.
Only the buildings in the middle of town survived, like the mill. Then the rain of stones stopped. When me and some other sculptors rose to inspect the old quarry, we found a deep trench full of stones. They were like silenced corpses piled one over the other. The foreigners eventually came to explain to us what they had done to the mountain. They said how they could mine deeper into the quarry for the stones with their strange art.
I lost my voice the day my father died. I also lost my sense of hearing. They say they heard cracking, shattering, splintering. All I can hear now is a shrieking in my ears. That is why I write and that is why I have no other choice, but to take the job of my father. I carve sculptures from stones. They are hard and hearty. Like my father, I make no profit.
Unlike my father, I hate what I do. I hate my work, I hate my sculptures. If my father were alive, I am happy that he would not be able to see them. But I keep working. I keep chiseling sculptures from stone. I send others to bring them up to the high places of the lords. They are satisfied for now, but I know that someday the lords will doubt these figures, too.
But I do not hate the stone. I am sad for the stone. How must it feel to come back home to the mountains after it has lost its form in my mill? It would be better for all of us if we let the stones stay where they are. It would be better for me—why unearth what is covered? I don’t think the stones want to be unearthed. I don’t think the stones want to be carved. The stones would be right in wanting to go back to where they were hewn and to the quarry from which they were dug—slumbering, waiting.
I hate the lords. I hate what they have done to the mountain, what they have done to the village, what they have done to my family. The mountains have crumpled in, in, in. There are walls of stones now gathered around the village. I would love someday to take those packages of the foreigners and throw them at the lords themselves. If they can burst the bones of the mountain, they can burst the bones of the lords who have been there for as long as we can remember, keeping us down here in this valley, burying us with arrows first and stones second and death finally I am sure.
Of the three girls whose babies belonged to me, I married the prettiest. The baby died when she gave birth, so we are raising the two children of the other girls. We sleep in the attic of the mill. When I descend the ladder in the morning before anyone else has risen, I see the iron saw. It reminds me of my uncle, whose corpse remains unburied. My uncle who hung from a tree. The poor crippled man that saved my life, but did not save me from this valley. At the end of the day when I close my eyes and fall asleep, my dreams are not full of visions and gods, they are full of how I might get out of this valley, get far from these mountains, get away from these gods!