The Book of Isaiah is some crazy shit.
We start with the reality that there are no fewer than three distinct sections of the text we call Isaiah and that within each of these sections we can detect editing that attempts to provide a little theological coherence for what is otherwise a collection of writings documenting centuries’ worth of experiences. It’s God’s hodgepodge.
To be sure, there was a historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, who began his ministry in the 730s BCE. There are specific references to historical kings—Uzziah, Hezekiah, Ahaz—that places us within a specific time period, but the biblical chronology sometimes conflicts with nonbiblical records, which, of course, were themselves written with heroes in mind, even when the historical events themselves showed otherwise. All of this to say, we are dealing with history but a history that has many versions, sometimes within the very same text. We should not get lost looking for facts in a field of truth.
We know that Isaiah was attached to the Temple in Jerusalem. Up north, in the kingdom that broke away from Judah after the death of Solomon—owed to a forced labor practice that highlighted the failures of a royal theology that didn’t serve anyone except those at the top—they had their own traditions, sacred places, theology, and sense of community. Owed to their geographical position, they faced an ongoing threat of Assyria, the superpower of the moment and a testimony to the capacity for human brutality. The north, sometimes referred to as Ephraim, was forging an alliance with Syria, who wished to develop a coalition to stop the Assyrian menace. They were asking Judah, the south, to join.
Enter Isaiah 6. Now, I used to pay good quality money for substances that would make me see trippy shit. God has the primo hallucinogenics. The Temple, which itself is an axis mundi, a place where the divine and human meet, suddenly becomes a portal to the heavenly court. Seraphim, which, according to Robert Alter in his definitive, beautifully-written The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary, are possibly made of fire (but then why do they need the tongs?) or (start screaming now) are FLYING SNAKES. These six-winged beasts hover around God, singing “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah can see the hem of God’s garment.
Shit is wild, yo.
But it is the content of the transaction between Isaiah and God that continues to beckon, challenge, befuddle, and inspire those who wrestle with the Word. Isaiah speaks:
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
The winged, flying snakes of fire with motherfucking feet go into action.
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
The theology here is potent. Isaiah, like Abraham and Moses before him, felt unworthy of God’s anointing. Most clergy I know wrestles with both the arrogance and humility that comes with claiming to work for God. Do I really believe that God has chosen me? How COULD God choose me, fucked up as I am? Here, God forgoes the usual methods of affecting ritual cleanliness; it is performed in the Temple, yes, but there are no priests or ritual sacrifices. God directly purifies Isaiah. The Law is circumvented.
I believe that Christians should be very careful in passing judgment on Jewish Temple practices because doing so can quickly descend into antisemitic tropes (whether consciously or not). In my reading, the critique transcends the specific Temple example used by God: Isaiah’s experience represents what should happen in God’s house: human beings knowing that no sin or defect of character is powerful enough to keep us from God.
To use an overused expression: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.
But that call can be a bitch. God asks the heavenly council whom he should send to represent them. Isaiah responds with words uttered by Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Saul before him: “Here am I, Lord” Then he adds: “Send me.” God drops the hammer.
And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Remember that history we discussed above? How the north, Ephraim, was aligning with Syria to ward off and defeat Assyria, the great superpower? That’s key to understand what is going on here. God is charging Isaiah with a fool’s errand, at least when measured by typical metrics. Isaiah is to go to the people with a simple message: trust in God, not in Syria. Do not make alliances with people who are hostile to our God and our values.
This is another area in which Evangelical fundamentalism has so fucked up the common understandings of prophets and politics, it seems that the only way to interpret this passage is that God promotes a xenophobic, nationalist theocracy. Such is not the case.
Being a person of faith in any serious way means knowing what God requires of you and who you are in God. If you claim to follow a God who calls for you to be a person of compassion, generosity, understanding, justice, and love—as almost every spiritual and religious tradition does, in wonderfully varying ways—yet you are selfish, greedy, oppressive, and murderous while living and supporting societies and cultures that are equally rapacious, don’t expect human beings to be your salvation. If you know God calls you to be different than the world, but you choose to chase earthly things, can you really be surprised that things go to shit?
This is a tough concept and I can understand why some people think it is malarkey. But please bear with me. I think a major problem throughout the history of religion is that it has been and is used to control, manipulate, subjugate, and enslave people while those in power prosper and play pious. What God is saying to Isaiah is: tell the people the harsh truth that if they really did what I tell them to do, none of this bad shit would be happening. But they won’t want to hear it. Your success will be measured in how few people listen to you. But don’t shy away from the message that God cares about how we treat one another. God’s call to Isaiah was to preach how compassion, mercy, justice, and love will save us, not plans for war made with people who kill us given the opportunity.
To be fair, things get a bit more fucked up.
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”[c
The holy seed is its stump.
Let’s start with how beautifully human Isaiah’s question is: How long will I be grinding, God? How long is this gig? God does not use a clock to answer but rather lets Isaiah know of the logical consequences of what happens when the people do not heed the words of the prophet. Cities will fall, houses without families will emptily stand, and those who survive will be sent far away. And of those, more will be burnt until only a remnant will remain. The holy seed. *
Isaiah was to deliver this message to a people who did not want to hear it. He came without the cultural credentials, but he was certain in his charge. We can have conversations about whether Isaiah’s vision should be understood literally, metaphorically, or a combination of the two; we can have conversations about the content of Isaiah’s message, but it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that Isaiah, like the social justice prophets before him, understood Israel and Judah’s corporate sin to be evident in the conditions of oppressed and marginalized peoples throughout the land. Isaiah is not screaming at women trying to access affordable gynecological care. He is not attacking LGBTQ people or immigrants. That’s not prophecy. That’s being a fundamentalist asshole.
The only theology that matters to me is a theology that meets us on the streets, that helps us traverse a violent, oppressive world without giving in to desires for vengeance and destruction. I believe deeply that if we were to concentrate on the things God does require—not a judgment of others but the cultivation of a community that affirms the blessedness of all—we would live in a better world.
Sadly, too many people feel this is the real crazy shit.
*My Hebrew Bible scholar friends will forgive me for not going as deep into the history and context as we might otherwise but I try to write things accessible to interested readers. However, it is important to note that the material generally associated with the historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1-39, was also edited, perhaps by what is known as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, found in chapters 40-55. So there are questions as to whether the historical Isaiah was specific about the Diaspora, the scattering, that happened when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and all other comers, laying waste Jerusalem and razing the First Jewish Temple in 587/6 BCE. The prophet Jeremiah, who I will write about in next week’s blog, is an important source regarding this time and the people who did return under Cyrus the Persian in the first decade of the sixth century BCE.