Sometimes a prophet just rears up on his rhetorical hind legs and roars. I suppose that in the prophetic locker room, this is called ‘being in the zone’. For this I have absolutely no evidence.
In any case, the Book of Isaiah‘s seven rhetorical questions in its fifty-eight chapter seem to qualify as placing the prophet smack in the zone.
TIME OUT: WHAT IS A RHETORICAL QUESTION:
A rhetorical question is asked just for effect or to lay emphasis on some point discussed when no real answer is expected. A rhetorical question may have an obvious answer but the questioner asks rhetorical questions to lay emphasis to the point. In literature, a rhetorical question is self-evident and used for style as an impressive persuasive device. Broadly speaking, a rhetorical question is asked when the questioner himself knows the answer already or an answer is not actually demanded. So, an answer is not expected from the audience. Such a question is used to emphasize a point or draw the audience’s attention. See here for more.
Placed in the mouth of YHWH himself, this assertive line of questioning all but undresses the pretensions of liturgy in the absence of ethics. This recurring feature of the Bible’s prophetic witness is best not read as a dismissal of liturgy per se. Rather, it views religious activity as vain and even counter-productive when not enmeshed in a life of self-denying service to the human beings who surround.
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:1–7 ESV)
This passage requires some plodding if we are to capture it well. So let us plod …
First, the turn towards renewed critique of YHWH’s people that initiates in chapter 56, after florid promises of restoration and renewal from chapter 40 onwards, has led to the common designation of chapters 56-66 as ‘Third Isaiah’ or ‘Trito-Isaiah’.
Some new circumstance seems to justify this old-new tone of denunciation. It is frequent that students of Isaiah identify this new situation as the disappointment and frustration that emerged among the community of the Return. That is, Jewish exiles in Babylon were encouraged by the prophets of the exile to rise up and return to Jerusalem/Zion when YHWH provided them the stupendously unforeseen opportunity to do so. When they did so, buoyed by extravagant prophetic promises of new life and vigor in their own land, they found YHWH equal to his promise as they made their way home.
Then the gravity force of communal dissension and human frailty set in, luring the restored community to old habits, fracturing its unity, and provoking YHWH and his prophets to a too familiar sternness of tone.
These paragraphs describe a consensus approach that undergirds much writing on Isaiah by students who seek the historical underpinnings of its stirring rhetoric. There are of course alternatives to making sense of the texts we have in hand.
Second, Isaiah is arguably the Old Testament master at diagnosing and dissecting religious hypocrisy. Having dared to suggest that such behavior in the name of YHWH actually provokes, wearies, and sickens YHWH, he returns in this chapter to his shrewd deconstruction of it.
I use such superlatives with regard to Isaiah’s diagnostic skills largely because of the way the prophet turns ‘positive’ language to satirical ends.
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:1–2 ESV)
Two things cry out for mention here. The first is the text’s coopting of the language of announcement that served so beautifully to presage Judah’s redemption. The commands to cry out, not to hold back, to lift up your voice like a trumpet, to declare to my people are lifted, as it were, from the gorgeous imagery of the herald(s) of redemption that flourishes from chapter 40 onward.
Here, the import of this prophetic clamor shifts from encouragement to rebuke. If it is impossible to say with certainty which of these tones is the original one and which is a redeployment of it, the order of the text as we have it places rebuke first, encouragement second, and then confronts us with this further return to the language of a national dressing-down from chapter 56 on. Everywhere, there is Isaianic artistry, placed in the service of a people’s journey towards what has been called ‘Zion’s final destiny’.
And then we must take account of the prophet’s low-key satire in the chapter’s second verse.
Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2 ESV)
Among others, two features stand out. I have attempted to signal where they lie by italicizing the language that enfleshes them. The text has YHWH re-deploying two rich and beautiful verbs that are redolent of the intimate communion that bonds Israel’s God to his people and vice versa in the best of times.
The first of these involves the language of seeking YHWH (דרש את־יהוה). To seek him, in the biblical literature and even within the boundaries of Isaiah itself, is to place YHWH as one’s principal point of reference and to dedicate one’s energy to pursuing that very personal reference point. It is to find in YHWH one’s purpose, one’s orientation, to long actively for YHWH’s worshipful and life-giving presence. Here, the prophet has the people seeking YHWH every day without really seeking at all. It is a pungent reversal of the language’s normal meaning and shines a light on the empty pantomime of religious Karaoke.
The second is the language of delight and delighting in. It is a word that focuses spiritual passion and practice upon the affection of the heart. In Isaiah, YHWH wants his people to delight in him and his ways. He expresses his abhorrence when they delight in alternative object of their religious affection, things which he calls ‘abomination’.
Here, YHWH’s errant people appear to delight in his ways and also to delight to draw near to him. Yet it’s all a charade.
In truth, they want nothing of the sort because it would cost them status, wealth, and self-determination.
(to be continued …)
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