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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 1’

If in fact the first chapter of the book called Isaiah is a preliminary summons to attentive reading, then the book itself begins at 2:1, as has been argued elsewhere. Further, if chapter 1 is that kind of convocation to well-postured reading, then we should expect attacks throughout the book on a certain kind of piety.

What other conclusion could one derive from this savage debasement of the liturgy of the bloodstained in the book’s first chapter?

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah 1:10-15 (NRSV)

Yet even there, the text offers a path to healing of the breach. It involves a conscious and determined turn towards the kind of practical justice that cleans the bloodied hand.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (NRSV)

In the light of the entire context, this prophetic denunciation is probably not a wholesale rejection of cult in favor of ethics. Indeed, the liturgy briefly sketched here appears not to be formally aberrant. Rather, it is likely the contradictory ethics of its practitioners that is under fire.

The nuance is instructive, not least when we encounter similar deconstruction of liturgy in chapter 58. It is necessary to take the entirety of the chapter’s first twelve verses into account, sarcasm directed at the the people’s apparent piety included.

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)

Just as is true of the discourse of Isaiah 1—representative as it is in my view of the entire Vision of Isaiah—it is possible to read the first installment of this prophetic screed against the liturgy as a dismissal of cult itself and an option for a countervailing ethics that has no place for formal, enacted religion. Tempting as this option is, it is belied by the concluding verses of the oracle.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV)

Clearly, the concluding words of this oracle are preoccupied with ‘the sabbath’ (לשבת ,משבת) and ‘my holy day’/’the holy day of the Lord’ (לקדש יהוה ,ביום קדשי). One might argue that Sabbath has been entire reconfigured here in terms of the justice activities of the early part of the oracle. However, the emphasis on ceasing certain activities—‘not going your own way, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs’—makes such a radical assessment unlikely.

Rather, the anti-liturgy jeremiads of chapters 1 and 58 seem to conserve an estimable place for the cult. However, they surround that sacred space with deeply ethical demand that expects of YHWH’s worshippers the same משפת and צדקה that the Vision of Isaiah insists are among the God of Jacob’s most prominent qualities.

Then bring those sacrifices. Then lift this prayerful hands.

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Isaiah’s enigmatically betitled ‘Oracle concerning the valley of vision’ appears to depict Jerusalem in panic as enemy forces advance upon it. Yet it is not a mindless and ineffective panic, at least not on pragmatic terms alone. The city is much occupied with sound preparation for the city’s admittedly long-shot defenses.

Still, the prophet perceives an existential cluelessness even as busy hands are at work.

On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.

Isaiah 28:8-11 (NRSV)

The burgers of a besieged city would be fools not to undertake these preparatory moves, notwithstanding the tactical sacrifice of those whose homes were demolished for the greater good of a city’s defensive walls.

Yet, from the prophet’s perspective, the citizens of Jerusalem did all this and were still fools.

On what grounds could such diligent patriots be faulted?

But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.

The feminine singular objects of the Hebrew verbs that generate ‘did’ (עשׂה) and ‘planned’ (יצר, somewhat demetaphorised by the NRSV away from its more standard rending as ‘shaped’ or ‘molded’) are not entirely transparent. Probably, the feminine represents an abstract object. Most likely, the referent of the object is the entire impending calamity that is about to dash itself upon the city.

Busy with defensive strategy and tactics, it seems, Jerusalem does not contemplate the possibility that YHWH is in this; worse, that their soon destruction is YHWH’s own work.

It is a terrible and unpopular rendering of events.

Yet the book suggests that, if it is accurate, then besieged Jerusalem’s busywork is not only in vain. It is fighting against its divine Sovereign’s awful handiwork.

Jerusalem, in Isaianic perspective, shall be redeemed by justice (1.27a).

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The litany of accusations hurled against Judah in the name of YHWH Enraged in Isaiah’s introductory montage is white-hot denunciation at its least yielding.

Yet when YHWH and his prophet have at last had their say, this programmatic chapter takes a stunning turn.

Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!

I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.

And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.  

Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

Isaiah 1:24-27 (NRSV)

This passage follows immediately upon declaration of the core ethical failure that is brought to the imagined court:

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Isaiah 1:23 (NRSV)

Placed here, its initial word (לכן, Therefore…) leads the reader’s mind without wobble into the presumed verdict that will now be delivered.

This readerly intuition is supported by the bellicose names assigned to the speaker at this critical juncture, which are followed upon by the standard language of judicial sentencing.

Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!

 I will turn my hand against you…

Isaiah 1:24-25a (NRSV)

Syntax, vocabulary, and context unite in a turn that reeks of no future, oozing as it does with penal fury.

Yet here is where we begin to see that this passage has the form of judgement but the content of restoration. What begins as a sentence becomes a promise. The criminal in the dock, head bowed in abject hopelessness, learns of a glorious future. Already these verses set the course for this long book. They establish that YHWH’s judgement of his people—eventually this will flavor as well his anger against ‘the nations’—will restore rather than exterminate, will kindle rather than extinguish, will open up a future rather than merely shutting down a past.

Here is the Isaianic burden, here the חזון ישעיהו in its kernel.

A crack opens between form and function in verse 25, though—craftily—not at its outset. In keeping with prior accusation of Zion’s hypocritically alloyed ethics, the ‘sentencing’ traffics in the language of smelting, which in the nature of the case separates and purifies metals:

I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.

Isaiah 1:25 (NRSV)

In its ominous context, this declaration might just dare to awaken hope. Yet the image of smelting might just as well conjure the heat and metaphorized pain of judgement without alluding to a valuable product. The sentence is ambiguous in this respect. In my view its potential for polyvalence is intentional and forms a bridge between the standardized logic of sentencing and the extraordinary surprise soon to be unveiled.

Conventional expectation soon falls away in the face of promissory language that picks up prior lament over a once beautiful city that has become unspeakably degraded.

And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.

Isaiah 1:26 (NRSV)

It is now clear that YHWH’s sentencing language of smelting does not refer exclusively to the trauma a metal suffers in the process, but also to the much purified result that is the ambition of the enterprise when humans hands light the purifying fire. The metaphor is deployed comprehensively rather than partially, taking up both the process and the product and applying them to this faithful city now become a whore, once full of justice and righteous citizens but now of murderers (v. 21). In the smelter’s fire, recreation will follow deconstruction.

Verse 27 then caps the remarkable drama of restorative justice in YHWH’s hands that has employed a familiar form to deliver a most unfamiliar message.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

Isaiah 1:27 (NRSV)

In YHWH’s hands and for the moment in Jerusalem-facing terms, משׁפט (commonly, justice) and צדקה (conventionally, righteousness) are instrumental rather than final. Indeed, each is prefixed with the instrumental and inseparable preposition בְּ in a manner that all but precludes the application of both terms in more final terms.

Although in my view this first chapter of the book called Isaiah is an orienting montage that borrows from the subsequent text in order to lay out its program, it is not a haphazard collage nor is it intended to be read atomistically as a mere string of favorite quotes.

Rather, the text expertly leads its reader to anticipate a much-deserved sentencing upon a city and a people that has become silly, then stupid, then half-dead. Yet form and function do not kiss, for if the form is that of a sentence the function is to deliver to Judah a great promise.

YHWH shall indeed judge. Then, faithfulness and glory.

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