YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between August 7 and August 13)
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
First, some background to the Book of Isaiah. We are probably used to hearing about the Book of Isaiah really being three books (First Isaiah: chs 1-39; Second Isaiah: chs. 40-55; and Third Isaiah: chs. 56-66). It is clear from evidence in the book itself that these sections come from different periods in the history of Judah and Jerusalem (late 8th century BCE; mid-6th century, and possibly late 6th century respectively). The themes vary in the three sections, and the prophet speaks from a different location in each (Jerusalem – Babylon – Jerusalem). We would find the situation even more complicated if we were to explore it further. While this is true, there is still a sense in which the Book of Isaiah is a ‘unity’. Many phrases and themes keep coming back, there are links across the major sections of the book and later in the book we find many quotes or allusions to earlier passages. The terrain in Isaiah is not always even and can even present seemingly impassable breaks, but in the end the sign posts we encounter let us know we are traversing the same country.
Chapter 1 of Isaiah is one of those major signposts. It is something of a précis for the rest of the book. Some scholars even see it as paralleling chapters 65-66 at the very end. Isaiah 1 is made up of a series of small oracles, possibly coming from the prophet we have come to know as Isaiah who prophesied in the last third of the 8th century BCE in and around Jerusalem. At that time, the Assyrian empire, centred on the Tigris River far to the north east, was on the rise and presented a major threat to the peace and stability of small countries on the Mediterranean coast like Judah and Israel. Early in Isaiah’s career, about 734 BCE, he had advised the then king of Jerusalem, Ahaz, on this political problem. Judah’s neighbours to the north, Israel and Aram, wanted to resist the Assyrians. Ahaz weighed up this risky strategy with the equally risky one of submitting to the Assyrians. Either strategy could cost his land dearly. On the one hand he could find himself in conflict with his neighbours, and on the other, with the mighty Assyria. This is all set out in Isaiah 7-10.
The oracles in Isaiah 1 would seem, however, to come from the very last years of Isaiah’s prophetic work, around 701 BCE, when a more faithful king, Hezekiah, is on the throne. Assyria is attacking Jerusalem, having defeated the northern neighbours 20-30 years before. The image of Jerusalem in a desolate land, ‘like a booth in a vineyard’ (v. 8) suggests this. Later editors, however, have set the chapter out to summarise one of the main themes in First Isaiah, a theme which returns in chs. 56-66. The theme is one of judgment on a recalcitrant people. Verses 2-3 set the scene. The Lord has reared his people like children (cf. the scene in Hosea 11:1-11 from last week). However, unlike even ‘dumb’ animals Israel does not ‘know’. The covenant people (‘my people’) do not ‘understand’. Isaiah is not referring here to general knowledge or even what we might call ‘insight’. The contrast with the animals is not about intellectual capacity but about loyalty, knowing to whom they belong, and in whom they can trust. But Judah (referred to as Israel) is laden with iniquity (picking up again the comparison with the ox and donkey of v. 3 as beasts of burden).
The rest of the chapter develops the theme of indictment
on the people, of judgment and punishment, but always in sharp juxtaposition
to hope (vv. 9a, 16-17, 18-20, 26, 27). That is a message that echoes right
through Isaiah – judgment and hope are inextricably bound together. You
cannot talk about one without the other. Often we see them as opposites,
one to be sought, the other avoided. But it is not so in Isaiah. A word
of judgment is hope for the people; hope grows out of judgment.
Today’s passage is only the central portion of this précis at the beginning of the book. Verses 10-15 address both the leaders of Judah and its people. They are described as ‘rulers of Sodom’ and ‘people of Gomorrah’. In v. 9 a more hopeful word had been uttered. If the Lord had not left a remnant they might have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. They thought they were almost like Sodom etc., a step away from destruction but not yet there. However, one verse later they are those people. Hope can seem short lived indeed, or does it only come through judgment? Does v. 10, therefore, mock those who will take a theology of remnant, of their own personal salvation, too quickly as their hope?
Isaiah calls them to hear the word of the Lord, the teaching (torah) of their God. This is connected with worship in vv. 11-15. It almost sounds as though the Lord is figuratively ‘dismantling’ the religious activity of Judah one element at a time: sacrifices, pilgrimages, offerings, festivals and even personal prayer (v. 15; cf. Amos 5:21ff; Jer 6:20; and Isa 15:32-33). But the point of this ‘dismantling’ is not simply to argue for the removal of bad practices, but rather to draw attention to what is needful. It is also to undercut any sense of automatism in faith, i.e. faith without commitment, especially in terms of a just and moral life. This is not a rejection of the old sacrificial system of the temple. All the activities mentioned are voluntary sacrifices. Isaiah is engaging in overstatement. Religious practices can themselves become excessive and represent ‘misplaced devotion’ as one writer says.
In v. 15 a further reversal takes place. The Lord rejects the outstretched hands of prayer because they are covered in blood. Probably the blood of sacrifices is first to mind. But that is quickly reversed by v. 15 where the blood is taken to be the blood of injustice (the plural form in the Hebrew usually indicates blood of violence).
Verses 16-17 then offer mercy if the people repent. The image of washing quickly takes on a metaphorical sense. While washing can be a ritual practice indicating ritual purity, here the prophet uses it to speak of ‘ethical purity’. Wash your hands, he says; clean up your act. The call in v. 17 then envisages a reversal of some of the indictments of v. 4. Note each of the two sections, vv. 4-9 and vv. 16-17, ends with a sense of hope: experienced or possible.
In vv. 18-20 the prophet offers to argue the case out on the Lord’s behalf. The verses continue the scene with a display of graciousness by the Lord and hope for the people. But that graciousness can, again, be two-sided. The Lord offers a settlement. He is willing to regard the scarlet and crimson sins (picking up the image of the blood from v. 15) as white wool and snow. The condition is Israel’s willingness to be obedient. There can be no salvation without responsibility. Verses 18 etc. with their statements (NRSV) ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow’ etc., can be read in a number of ways. They can be words of possibility, or of command (they shall be), or they can be read in Hebrew as questions, ‘can they be like snow?’ The openness of the people’s response to the invitation is anticipated in the statement. Only if they do respond, then shall they eat the good of the land, a reference back to the vineyard and cucumber fields (v. 8), both of which are unable to be enjoyed in a state of siege. If the people refuse they will be destroyed by violence.
This may sound harsh, but the offer of a future is always there and always made by the Lord. The Lord’s gracious offer of life, even in the face of his people’s disloyalty, is the surprise element. But no view of this offer should ever be taken that lessens the requirement of reorientation on Israel’s part. There is no cheap grace, either for God’s people, or for God.
The passage ends with a statement that the mouth of the Lord has spoken. If there is certainty here, it is at least on the Lord’s side. The ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar, however, underscores the uncertainty of the people’s response.
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