Second Sunday after Pentecost

The ugliness of intra-religious conflict

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June 19, 2022

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9

Isaiah 65:1–9 bears witness to the ugliness of intra-religious conflict. Along with other texts in Isaiah 56–66 (“Third Isaiah”), it was written in the centuries after the return of Judean exiles from Babylon in 538 BCE. During this period, divisions emerged within the post-exilic worshiping community in Jerusalem. Many texts in Isaiah 56–66 reflect the perspective of one of these groups, who refer to themselves as God’s “servants” (Isaiah 65:8, 13–15). In Isaiah 65:1–9, this group expresses frustration and hostility toward their rivals.  

This is not an easy text on which to preach! But with attention to its likely historical and social context, it offers resources for reflection on theological, liturgical, or political disagreements among believers. And the tension between divine anger and mercy is an important feature of the biblical portrayal of God.

Intra-religious conflict

The text makes several lurid accusations against the rival religious community. They have rejected God’s ways, making them “a rebellious people” (verse 2). Of course, they would likely say the same of the speaker’s community! 

Their primary offense is illicit worship practices (compare Isaiah 57:4–13; 66:17): 

    • They worship in unacceptable places: “gardens” (verse 3), “mountains,” and “hills” (verse 7). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, such outdoor shrines are associated with false deities (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23; Isaiah 17:10–11; Ezekiel 6:13). 
    • They perform rituals in “tombs” (verse 4). In the Hebrew Bible, contact with graves makes a person ritually impure (Numbers 19:13–22). The reference to tombs also suggests the practice of necromancy or ancestor veneration, which was strictly forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:11; Leviticus 20:6; Isaiah 8:19–21). 
    • They violate acceptable food practices by “eat[ing] swine’s flesh” and drinking “broth of abominable things” (verse 4). Consumption of meat from pigs is forbidden in Leviticus 11:7. 

The extreme nature of these charges suggests they are exaggerated. Rather than an accurate account of the disagreement between the rival groups, this text is a polemical caricature of the opponents. 

Despite these harsh criticisms, the conflict depicted in the text is likely between two groups who worshiped the same God and shared many beliefs and practices. Intra-religious schisms often prove more bitter than those between different religious traditions. In our era of extreme divisiveness, in which denominations split over views of sexual ethics and churches are polarized over political affiliation, it’s important to think carefully about how we describe other believers with whom we disagree. There may be occasions where the kind of hyperbole used in this text may be appropriate. At the same time, other biblical texts—not least the commandment against false witness (Exodus 20:16)—caution against wholesale adoption of the rhetorical strategies of Isaiah 65.

Humility and self-critique

Along with accusations of illicit religious practices, verse 5 depicts the rival group saying, “Keep to yourself; do not come near to me, for I am too holy for you.” They have deemed anyone who disagrees with them to be religiously inferior, and they will no longer associate with them. This experience of being excluded would have been painful for the group who produced this text, which may partly explain their bitterness toward their rivals.

As religious conflicts escalate, one or both sides may claim to be the only true believers. Those who disagree are not only wrong, but dangerous. Different viewpoints on biblical interpretation may lead to accusations of rejecting biblical authority altogether. People on opposite sides of a disputed ethical question may write off their challengers as depraved. This is not to say that theological or ethical differences are unimportant. Far from it—such differences may have significant impact. But it is rarely helpful to believe that one side alone has a monopoly on truth, or to refuse to accept that the other side is acting in good faith. This attitude destroys community and prevents the growth that can come through open expression of disagreement.

In particular, an exclusive belief in our own correctness discourages introspection and self-critique. Alongside their blistering critiques of their rivals, the community behind Third Isaiah retained the capacity to recognize their own shortcomings. In Isaiah 58:2–14, God addresses worshipers whose ritual practices are correct, but are not accompanied by concern for the vulnerable and oppressed. This text is a model for critical self-examination. Prophetic critique that only addresses others’ moral failings, and never one’s own, is highly suspect.

Judgment and mercy

At the beginning of the text, God goes to great lengths to establish a relationship with the rival group, despite their rejection: “I said, ‘Here I am, here I am.’… I held out my hands all day long” (verses 1-2). In verses 6–7, that openness gives way to threats of punishment: “I will not keep silent, but I will repay.” Then that declaration is tempered in verses 8–9, when God resolves “for my servants’ sake … not [to] destroy them all.” This movement between mercy and judgment threatens to leave the reader with whiplash, but this tension lies at the very heart of the portrayal of God in the Bible (For example, Exodus 34:6–7; Hosea 11:8–9; Isaiah 54:8).

In verse 8, God explains the change of mind by comparing the post-exilic community to a cluster of grapes. Some grapes may be rotten, but destroying the cluster would mean losing the wine that the good grapes could yet produce. It’s similar logic to Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds in Matthew 13:24–30. This rejection of vengeance, even if only temporary, suggests a better way for dealing with intra-religious disagreement. Putting aside escalating rhetoric and exclusionary practices, we should accept that we’re all part of the same community. However much we may wish it, God isn’t likely to vindicate us by punishing our rivals. We may never know who is right or wrong on this side of heaven. In the meantime, we should recommit ourselves to the hard work of living together, and never give up hope for the possibility of reconciliation.