Isaiah 1:10-20; 2:1-4

A single stop in the book of Isaiah should not presume a complete picture of the narrative texture of the book.

November 20, 2011

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Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-20; 2:1-4

A single stop in the book of Isaiah should not presume a complete picture of the narrative texture of the book.

If one seeks to build a historical narrative through the use of a narrative lectionary, the book of Isaiah will confound any simplistic attempt. Whatever other label one might give to the book of Isaiah, a historical retelling of the preaching of Isaiah is not the label one would choose.

The book is a layered book, giving evidence of the preached word for more than one era in the history of Israel. To say the book is layered may be too simplistic; the book is not simply three parts stacked one upon another. Even if the preacher has learned to fragment the book into three parts, namely, 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66, the sections are interconnected editorially in a way that precludes merely speaking of three Isaiahs: one from the late 700’s to early 600’s, another from the later period of the exile and finally one from the post-exilic period. First Isaiah was not a book to which two discreet additions (so-called Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah) were subsequently attached. Whatever adding took place was accompanied by reworking or re-editing of received material. The book of Isaiah was a work in progress extending over a long period of time.

Consequently, we can perceive new meanings for old words when they are heard in new contexts. The words of prophetic condemnation which have no conditions attached to them can in a later time function as a call to repentance in which the future is condition on the response of the hearers. For example, the declaration that God will hide from Judah’s prayers and will not listen to their words (1:15) — that is a flat out announcement of judgment. But fifty or a hundred years latter, does that word only become a record of Isaiah’s past preaching, or does it preach again? If it is a living word, what once was a non-contingent announcement of judgment could function as a summons to repentance for a latter period.

And now, many centuries later both functions may be concurrent in a single audience. Some are summoned to repent; others have been declared guilt and are brought before a sentencing judge. As the sentence is being served, the faithful word might be a word of hope or announcement of a future where none is imaginable. Placing an unconditional word of hope in front of judgment so as to declare an exemption from the judgment is to engage in false prophecy. False prophesy is as often a matter of offering hope in the wrong context, not a matter of incorrect words. The words of the doctrine are “right,” but the context is wrong. “God is a God of deliverance” — it is a refrain in the Psalms, but ca. 750 BCE Amos would have termed that false prophesy if that refrain were used to avoid confronting the dark day of the Lord which he was commissioned to announce.

Sorting out when each section of Isaiah 1 and 2 was first put into words may not be possible and, if possible, it might not be the most useful thing to do on the way to re-hearing these words in our context. Rather, I suggest, we would be better served by keeping alive the tension created by assembling words from multiple time periods. The tensions are not contradiction to be resolved.

Rather, they attest to the diverse contexts in which the people of God live and to the multiple ways we resist and thirst for the Word of God. If not in our own individual lives, then surely in our communal lives we live over time in pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic contexts. There are moments when a call to repent is the apt and faithful word. There are moments when only condemnation is appropriate; some conduct must be brought to an end. There are moments when words of hope are the compelled words that stand against all reasonableness. In the mere thirty-five verses that span Isaiah 1:1 to 2:4 we see each type of speech and thus we need to interpret our own context to discern what the interplay is between repentance, judgment and hope. In the remainder of my comments I will only work one possibility. It might not fit your context.

You are Sodom and Gomorrah. How should we react to being called these two names (1:10)? A likely reaction is to regard them as a threat: You are in danger of becoming Sodom and Gomorrah. The subsequent verses would provide instruction in how to escape the storyline inherent in being called Sodom and Gomorrah. First, the questions in verses 11 and 12 have obvious answers. God is not impressed with the flurry of religious activity and God did not ask for it. God is weary of it all; more than that, God hates it. We are accustomed to regard ourselves as the weary and heavy-laden who are invited to come to God who grants us a light burden; here, however, God is the one who is weary and heavy-laden by our religious “comings.” The switch is striking. The net result is devastating. God’s eyes turn away; God’s ears are closed. (Note the variation on sight and hearing in the call of Isaiah 6:10 — and its citation in Matthew 10:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 9:10).

But, perhaps, there is a different escape route: Wash yourselves…cease to do evil…seek justice…defend the orphan and plead for the widow. We could follow this pathway into the subsequent conditional, alternative futures sketched in verses 19-20: If willing, then good; if not willing, then bad. Looking back to 1:4-9, however, it is clear that the second alternative has already been chosen. The hearers are the rebellious children (1:2-3) and their heads are battered. Devouring by the sword is not merely a future threat; it is the present reality.

Reading forward (1:21ff.), the portrait is the same. The community is characterized by murder, thievery, bribes, and no regard for the orphan and the widow. The only reasonable future will be no better than the present. In fact, it might be worse. If, in the present, there is at least a remnant, in the future that remnant will be burned again (6:13a) with no one to quench the fire (1:31).
But, we could protest — in fact we likely will protest that there is a promise in 1:18. Or, isn’t there a chance to change the future if we become the repentant who exercise justice and righteousness (1:27)?

Given the surrounding verses, we need to reconsider how we have traditionally interpreted 1:18 as promise. Try this paraphrase: Your sins are like scarlet and crimson because there is blood on your hands (see 1:15); how on earth do you think they will become like snow and wool? Yah, yah, if you are obedient/if you rebel — but we have been through all that. Your/our rebellion is persistent. You/we are a faithless city. You/we are Sodom and Gomorrah! And the same goes for 1:27. Whatever good possibilities inhered in the words of that verse, the possibilities are over because Israel does not know or understand (1:3); it has become a persistent rebel and sinner (1:28).

The chapter ends where it began; cities (1:7) and their works (1:31) burned with no one to quench. The community has worked itself into a deathly, terminal condition. God’s eyes are turned away and God is no longer listening. It is no longer a matter of we could have been Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9); we are Sodom and Gomorrah (1:10). The presumption that we have been spared (1:9) is over. To repeat, we are Sodom and Gomorrah and we know where that story is headed.

Precisely at that point we might start to explore the possibility that we are not merely headed toward Sodom and Gomorrah with no way to reverse course. We may, in fact, already be living in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The threats in calls to repentance and the irreversible conditions in announcements of judgment may be descriptions of our present conditions. Perhaps we are not threated with exile; rather, we are in exilic destruction already (1:7). God’s eyes are averted and God is not listening (1:15).

In that location — with no exit at hand, no formula for escape — the promise of 2:1-4 is the water that quenches the burning, destructive force of God’s judgment in chapter 1. Isaiah 2:1-4 is not a way to avoid exile and death; it is God’s deed and creation for those in exile and death. God will instruct those who do not know (1:3) and are suffering the consequences of their lack of knowledge (1:4-9 and 1:28-31). This is God’s “afterword” (1:26) — after the fire which has no one to quench it. God quenches God’s own fire.

I would, of course, hear these same words differently if I were an orphan or widow battered by those with bloody hands. Our context for reading/hearing Isaiah matters. The layered composition of the book is evidence that that the same was true for the early generations of hearers/readers of “visions of Isaiah, son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (1:1).