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Posts Tagged ‘righteousness’

In classical Isaiah criticism, the third section of the book begins with chapter 56. Labeled Trito-Isaiah—the ‘Third Isaiah’—the section is assigned to the period of Persian domination. Chapters 56-66 do in fact seem to have much to say to the circumstances and indeed the disappointment associated with the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the struggle to establish a Jewish Commonwealth in the land they had been forced to abandon two generations earlier.

The argument has much to say for itself, though recent decades have not been kind to overly neat dissection of books like this one. In any case, chapter 56 hurries on to one of the book’s most lyrical exclamatory passages, one that is warmly welcomed by modern and post-modern readers with our appetite for the widest possible embrace. Indeed, foreigners and eunuchs are there welcomed into robust inclusion in the liturgy and the identify of Israel on the basis of their attitude towards YHWH rather than their ancestry or their anatomy.

So strong is the magnetic pull of such an invitation that the reader hops over the chapter’s first two verses as though they had little or nothing to add up front. Yet have something they do.

Verses 1-2 embody the delicate sequence that one might call ethics before theophany.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Isaiah 56:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The sequence that exhorts believers to act now in a certain way because the deity will soon act in a corresponding manner is part and parcel of biblical ethics. The most familiar prayer to be found on Christian lips turns it into words addressed to God himself:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (NRSV)

Although the verse cited refers explicitly only to divine activity, the context of the prayer—with its reference to human need and the very this-worldly matter of forgiving others the offenses they have committed against us—alludes to the matter of human behavior in a world where God’s rule has not yet been completely established.

In this light, Isaiah 56.1-2 hardly make a unique contribution to the matter under discussion. But their voice does make itself heard, particularly in the book’s third section in which qualities like משפט (justice) and צדקה (NRSV, what is right) that are typically representative of divine action become exhortations toward appropriate human behavior.

This little oracle is not complex. It offers a straight-forward explanatory clause that clarifies why משפט and צדקה are commanded:

…for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

כי־קרובה ישועתי לבוא וצדקתי להגלות

NRSV’s rendering of צדקה as ‘what is right’ in the first line of 56.1 when it refers to human conduct and as ‘my deliverance’ in the second line when it is YHWH’s work parallel to his ‘salvation’ exemplifies the difficulty faced by the translators when appropriate human and divine activity are represented by the same word. Arguably, the NRSV translators might have been better served—and we with them—if they had allowed the continuity to remain clear in English. The ESV manages to accomplish this without undue rigidity:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.’

Isaiah 56:1 (ESV, emphasis added)

In any case, Israel is here exhorted to do work like YHWH’s work because he will soon be doing it undeniably on his own. The expansive embrace of the ensuing verses should no doubt be read in the spirit of this divine-human collaboration.

‘Do this now’, runs the prophetic summons to ethics in a critical moment, ‘because YHWH will soon be upon us, and it’s what he’ll be up to when he comes’.

Ethics before theophany.

Righteousness now as one can. A greater righteousness soon.

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