< August 11, 2019 >

Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

 

“Leaders of Sodom ... People of Gomorrah!” (Isaiah 1:10): For a moment, the audience might convince themselves that Isaiah is talking to someone else.

It sounds like the prophet has flashed back to an era long past, to cities buried in ash before Sarah had given birth to her first child (Genesis 19:24-27). But Isaiah’s imagined interlocutors are people in the present moment who have used Sodom and Gomorrah as a collective consolation. We have been battered (Isaiah 1:5-6), but not obliterated. Our earth has been scorched (Isaiah 1:7), but life still takes root here. When God brought judgment on those ancient cities, none survived. But some of us are still standing, so at least we are not like them (Isaiah 1:9).

The prophet-poet cuts through a rationalizing self-assurance that has failed to reckon with the seriousness of the crimes of Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:1, 4, 15-16, 18). Isaiah counters their self-deceptive logic with an unexpected appellation: you can stop consoling yourselves. You are Sodom. You are Gomorrah.

Sodom and Gomorrah were a byword for Isaiah’s implied audience (Isaiah 3:9; 13:19; see also Ezekiel 16:56). The names “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” evoked for biblical writers complete and utter destruction (Amos 4:11), “a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever” (Zephaniah 2:9 NRSV) with no inhabitant (Isaiah 13:20; Jeremiah 49:18; 50:40). The destruction of these cities and their inhabitants was viewed as an act of God (Isaiah 13:19; Amos 4:11) and as punishment (Genesis 19; Lamentations 4:6). But contrary to a prominent stream of medieval and modern Christian biblical interpretation, the prophets of Israel did not identify the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah with sexual activity, and preachers today would do well to resist interpretations that would twist Isaiah’s oracle into a tirade directed at sexual minorities.1

Instead, Isaiah focuses on matters of justice, and contrasts the people’s failure to advocate for marginalized members of their community with their enthusiasm for costly sacrifices: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16d-17). Isaiah’s implicit critique of Judah and Jerusalem in 1:17 closely matches the summation of the crimes of Sodom in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel declares: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). For Ezekiel, prosperity numbs the elites among God’s people to the demands of justice. Isaiah’s critique unfolds along similar lines, with a vivid twist.

Like the people of Sodom described by Ezekiel, Isaiah’s implied audience seems to have access to substantial resources. Sacrificial offerings of rams, bulls, lambs, and goats (Isaiah 1:11) were costly; to fatten animals prior to slaughter was more costly still. But to provide costly resources for the sacrificial cult without correcting systemic injustice means the community cherishes the appearance of righteousness over the reality. Worship has become for them an iterative self-deception that reinforces what the people want to believe and requires no uncomfortable change.

In this sense, for the people Isaiah addresses, animal sacrifice was not costly at all. The blood of bulls was too cheap. The life it held was a means to an end. For the prophet-poet Isaiah, the blood of sacrifice accuses God’s people of a different slaughter, namely their violence toward fellow humans. Blood clings to hands now spread in supplication, and no amount of prayer will dispose God to ignore the evidence of systemic violence, injustice, and oppression (1:15).

Israel’s sacrificial system was not in itself opposed to the demands of justice, but rather had a strong orientation toward reparation of wrongs, including restitution for damages from economic crimes such as fraud and theft (Leviticus 6:1-7). Moreover, not only was the temple the centrally designated locus for such sacrificial worship, but it had a wider role in relation to economic and social justice. The sanctuary was an important depository and distribution center for tithes, offerings from the bounty of the land that would feed temple personnel as well as widows and orphans throughout the land (Deuteronomy 14:29; Nehemiah 10:39; 12:44; 2 Chronicles 31:5-6; such tithes could also be collected and distributed locally: Deuteronomy 26:12-13; Nehemiah 10:37). In Deuteronomy, Moses promised that, when the people faithfully distributed the tithe, the Lord would look down from heaven and bless not only the people but also the land (Deuteronomy 26:15), ensuring that the land would yield further bounty.

Isaiah’s logic is similar to the Deuteronomist’s. If the people will learn and commit to shared ways of living that promote the welfare and safeguard the rights of all members of society, including the widow and orphan (Isaiah 1:17; see 1:23), then they will “eat the good of the land” (1:19; see also 3:10). And if not, in another startling twist, those who have refused the demands of justice will themselves become food, to be devoured by a conqueror’s sword (1:20; see 1:7).

In preparing to preach this passage, it would be helpful to ask, what are the ways this community vaunts its faithfulness, prosperity, or piety? How has worship propped up the status quo? Does the display of virtue mask complicity in systemic violence and injustice? For Isaiah, the antidote to complicity is threefold: “leading oppressors,” that is, confronting powerful perpetrators of systemic violence; enacting justice for children who are not one’s own; and advocating for women whose social and economic status makes them vulnerable to poverty and abuse (Isaiah 1:17). These are not vague ideas but concrete actions necessary for achieving systemic change.


Notes:

  1. On the history of interpretation that conflated the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah with forms of male same-sex intercourse, see Michael Carden, Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (London: Routledge, 2004).