Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 58’

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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The anti-idolatry polemic that is sustained throughout whole chapters of the book of Isaiah plays repeatedly on an ironic theme: that idols, made by human hands are heavy. Those who pray to them also have to carry them (נשׂא) around, often wearying themselves (יגע) in the process. Meanwhile, YHWH carries (again, נשׁא, the verbal repetition underscoring the ironic contrast) his worshippers over hill and dale.

Isaiah 57 nods in the direction of this sustained and ironic polemic, particularly with its religion-sexual parody in the chapters’s early lines.

Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol; for, in deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a bargain for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have gazed on their nakedness. 

You journeyed to Molech with oil, and multiplied your perfumes; you sent your envoys far away, and sent down even to Sheol.

You grew weary from your many wanderings, but you did not say, ‘It is useless.’ You found your desire rekindled, and so you did not weaken.

Isaiah 57:8-10)

Then it adds a fresh feature to the picture.

When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off (ישׂא־רוח), a breath will take them away. But whoever takes refuge in me shall possess the land and inherit my holy mountain.

Isaiah 57:13 (NRSV)

It happens that Isaiah’s beleaguered, sweating idolaters who schlep their religious artifacts from one resting place to another will see them blown away like all but weightless chaff before a puff of wind.

Hand-made idols, in the Isaianic discourse, are heavy when you need them to be portable. Then weightless when you need them to hold still.

YHWH, meanwhile, welcomes home those who seek sturdy refuge in him.

This too, somewhat comically, is חזון ישעיהו—the vision of Isaiah.

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