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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

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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