Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7 NRSV).
The preacher receives a place of honor during worship. Some of us sit on a special chair, on a raised platform, and when we stand to proclaim the word we step up higher still. We wear special garments that mark and separate us, some richly decorated with quilting, lace, or embroidery. And when we preach, despite our fears to the contrary, people listen, and their eyes look up at us in wonder and admiration. The more confidently we declaim, the more they praise our skill. Preachers are wealthy stakeholders in the economy of honor and shame.
Shame is not simply a personal response to feelings of guilt or impropriety. It is a cultural phenomenon. It is a mechanism of social control that shapes behaviors and inculcates values.
“I gave my back to those who struck me” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).
Beating someone’s back in public is a performance of domination. The audience sees the face of the one beating and the face of the one beaten. They see one person standing, head up, legs wide and steady, arm raised in power, beating. They see another person bent, restrained, body contracting and shivering, beaten. An act of public beating claims power, high status, and honor for the one who can inflict such pain, who can force another person to feel what they never want to feel, and to feel it publicly, irrefutably. It assigns low status to the one being beaten, aiming through public shame to deter this person and anyone who views the humiliation and pain from defying the will of those in power.
Sometimes acts of shaming are not so physically brutal. Physical pain is not the only form of power. Every community knows ways to attack a person without leaving visible scars on their bodies.
“… my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).
In a culture where the currency of honor is closely tied to gender, such that masculinity is associated with honor and femininity with shame and dishonor, it is common to assail a man’s honor by denying or questioning his manhood (cf. Nahum 3:13: “look at your troops, they are women” NRSV). This can be accomplished by removing or marring visible signs that distinguish a man from a woman. One such sign is a beard.
Second Samuel relates a story in which David sent messengers to offer condolences to Hanun, a neighboring king, at the death of his father. Hanun doubted David’s sincerity; Hanun’s advisers suggested that the messengers were really spies. Hanun shamed David’s messengers by shaving off one side of their beards and cutting their garments at the hips before sending them back on the road to Jerusalem. They were disgraced (niklamim). When David learned of it, he told his messengers to get off the road and stay in Jericho until their beards had grown back (2 Samuel 10:1-5).
“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).
Most in the community will not have license to beat the back or pull the beard of one who has violated their norms or challenged their values. But they can open their mouths and let fly words and spit. These forms of shaming are easy to perform and easy to get away with. They direct verbal and physical expressions of rejection and disgust to the person who has violated social norms and values. Spit sticks. So do words. Being assaulted by these expressions of disgust and rejection can trigger the desire to hide, to become invisible.1
Beating, pulling the beard, insulting, and spitting cause shame when the person to whom these things are being done accepts that she or he has violated shared values and norms. But they are not the only values, and not the only norms. The prophet insists, “I have not been disgraced (niklamti)” (Isaiah 50:7 NRSV).
Many of us will never be beaten or spit at for preaching the gospel. But all of us inhabit a social economy of honor and shame. And not only shame but also honor can be a mechanism of social control.
In the court of honor and shame, those who are shamed are silenced or silence themselves.2 Those who receive honor appear to speak freely but do not — honor is a prize for conformity. Isaiah’s prophet stands and speaks in a different courtroom where the prophet is neither honored nor shamed. The prophet does not accept the values of the community or conform to social norms, not for the sake of status and not even for the sake of safety and health.
And so Isaiah’s prophet does not assume the high status of a teacher in the community (pace NRSV, 50:4). Instead God gives the prophet the tongue of students (limmudîm) and opens the prophet’s ear to listen like students (limmudîm) do. There is neither honor nor shame in possessing the faculties of a student. Instead, students know that they are still learning. They know that the mysteries of heaven and earth, our life with one another, and our life with God are still unfolding before them.
What will it mean for us to preach the word of God with the tongue of students, listen like students do, and still stand up to testify confident in God’s help? What would it mean for us to perceive, examine, and refuse the economy of honor and shame that operates even in our churches? Let us stand up together (50:8) and make the case.
1Michael Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 2.
2Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 41.