The Book of Isaiah opens (1:1) in such a way as to indicate its genre—it is a book of visions, révélations reçues. Isaiah, to whom these revelations are given, is the “son of Amoz.” What he sees concerns “Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah”. All of this indicates that these pronouncements were given to the prophet Isaiah by God in a particular setting: the onset of Israel’s defeat, exile, and captivity. To fully grasp the significance of this setting demands an attentive familiarity with the story and symbols of Israel more generally. In this case we can look to 2 Kings 17:5-19, where we learn that the people of God have been divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been taken into captivity by the Assyrians. This is the concrete “intertextual” setting of Isaiah’s judgments on behalf of Yahweh. There Isaiah delivers a relatively simple message, one which has been uttered in Israelite tradition before and will be uttered again: Israel and Judah have forsaken Yahweh. They have turned their back on the one who had “brought them up out of the land of Egypt” (2 Kings 17:7). In keeping with the logic of retribution, a logic found in various places throughout the scriptures, forgetting God’s action and his commandments is tantamount to ignoring the basis of their salvation, their liberation, their freedom. Both Isaiah and 2 Kings draw on the already-existing story of Israel’s captivity and exodus. It’s a trajectory that shuttles between bondage and liberty and back again.
One of the first things that the oracle of Yahweh records is the depth of Israel’s rebellion (Isaiah 1:2). Israel/Judah have once again committed the primordial Edenic sin. Employing the metaphorical language of parenthood, Isaiah presents God as a father who has raised Israel. But the children have disobeyed: ils sont revolté. Such language hearkens back not just to the Garden, of course, it draws hortatory force from the Decalogue (Exodus 20:12’s “Honour your father and mother”). From the get-go those who hear the prophet Isaiah’s judgment are thrust into the heart of Israel’s communal covenantal relationship to Yahweh, its symbolic cosmos, and its attendant narratives. Additionally, the backdrop against which the first verses of the first chapter of Isaiah make sense is, among other things, Torah, the customary “legal” teaching which binds the community to God and to one another in justice and freedom. It is a teaching inseparable from the story of rescue, ransom, and liberation. The general implication is that Israel has been divided in two because they have “forsaken Yahweh.” As 2 Kings makes clear, disobedience leads to destruction.
2 Kings and Isaiah are linked by more than the oracular judgment of Isaiah, son of Amoz. They inhabit the an overlapping imaginative world; they make use of the same linguistic-symbolic repertoire. At 2 Kings 19:22 and Isaiah 1:4, for instance, God is identified as “the Holy One of Israel.” In both cases Isaiah communicates a revelation. In 2 Kings he is speaking directly to the “good” King Hezekiah of Judah, who has prayed to Yahweh for deliverance from the Assyrian King Sennacherib. Consider Isaiah’s speech in 2 Kings 19:20-28. As in the opening verses of the Book of Isaiah, he lambastes Israel for mocking, reviling, and pridefully disdaining the “Holy One of Israel.” Presumably Isaiah is condemning Judah’s political leadership more so than the peasantry at large since he is speaking directly to King Hezekiah. This would make sense of the fact that Judah is condemned by Isaiah for foolishly trusting in its own military strength.
To the link between 2 Kings and Isaiah we can add a slightly less obvious one to the Book of Job. To me there are parallels between the pride of the kings of Israel/Judah and that of Job, who is presented in the prologue as a kind of priest-king. These men all think they can tame the forces of the cosmos and use them to rule over their rivals and enemies. In 2 Kings the prophet Isaiah condemns the kings for relying on their chariots, on their ability to scale the mountains and fell the strong trees of Lebanon, and even on their control of the chaotic-cosmic powers of the waters. According to the Book of Job, however, such feats of power ultimately belong to Yahweh alone (As-tu un bras tel que celui de Dieu? Ta voix peut-elle égaler mon tonnerre? 40:9). Although the implication in Job is that human beings are given a sort of royal role on earth, a stewardship with origins in the Genesis account that God now shouts from the whirlwind, this should not be confused with independence from God. The inferred message in Isaiah is similar: without God all of Israel/Judah’s best laid plans will come to naught. Moreover, in 2 Kings 19:28 Yahweh subdues the kings of Israel with hook and bit. Precisely the same language is found in Job at 41:1-2, where Yahweh challenges Job’s presumption—is he powerful enough to catch and subdue Leviathan and Behemonth, the two chaos monsters extraordinaire? At Isaiah 1:6 Israel is even depicted like Job, covered from head to toe in “bruises and sores”.
We have not advanced very far into Isaiah’s prophetic pronouncements and yet we are plunged into a veritable echo-chamber of textual resonances. Thinking with the Bible on the deepest level calls for dialectical skill and a keen sensitivity to its rich plurivocity. The scope of referential significance in Isaiah encompasses all three of the traditional sections of scripture (Pentateuch, Prophets, Writings), including the Book of Psalms. Take Psalm 78, where the titular phrase “Holy One of Israel” is also found. First and foremost, this psalm makes explicit acknowledgement of the patriarchal covenantal tradition. However, here the emphasis is not on Israel’s failures so much as it is a song of the great deeds of God and a declaration of his providential protection. In its performance—a communal song of liturgical praise—it remembers God and it encourages Israel to pass on the remembered tradition to the next generation. This is not only a question of what God has done, but the reasons for which he has done it. It is an illustration of God’s mighty deeds and the basis for an exhortation. Do “not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (78:7). The psalm recounts the story of God’s majestic acts and it records the times when he judged Israel and punished them for their waywardness. Thus, God leads Israel out from Egypt by parting the Red Sea, guiding them by a cloud in the desert and providing water and manna for them to drink and eat. Somehow or other they then forget God, who was their literal guiding light and provider. In the desert during their wanderings, between bondage of freedom, and then again in the promised land itself, Israel tests God. The straightforward outcome in most instances is disaster. When Israel “forgets” God, God “forgets” Israel. Lacking his protection, they fall to their enemies. Psalm 78 concludes with a partisan judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel for exactly this reason, claiming that Yahweh has abandoned them: God “did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but he chose the tribe of Judah” (78:67-8).
The failure to pay proper attention to God is a long-running biblical theme. It is a major component of Isaiah 1, Psalm 78, Job (where it is contested), and 2 Kings. At Isaiah 1:3 we read that the ox and the donkey know very well to whom they belong, but Israel ne veut rien savoir. The comparison is a judgment:Israel has forgotten themselves, their own story, their covenantal traditions, their teachings, and their law. To forget in this way is more or less to forsake, even to rebel against God, repeating Adam’s primordial sin. Atheism was understood for millennia not so much as the direct, explicit, philosophical denial of God, which was virtually unimaginable, but as a kind of practical or lived indifference towards him. When the words “atheist” and “atheism” entered the vernacular languages of early modern Europe, they were often accompanied by adjectives such as “practical” or “philosophical.” Contrary to what one might expect, practical atheists were even more disconcerting than “direct” or “open” atheists (i.e. atheists in our sense today) because in their indifference they provoked God to remove his providential protection from Christian society. The prophetic language used by Isaiah indicates just how seriously this deviant threat was taken. Israel was in a state of alienation or “estrangement” from God; vous lui avez tourné le dos(Isaiah 1:4).
Indeed a little later (Isaiah 1:10) Isaiah speaks to Judah and its rulers as if they deserved the same judgment as Sodom and Gomorrah. Which brings me to another literary aspect of the Bible: that it contains traditions and testimonies with countervailing tendencies. A well-known example is found here. In the name of Yahweh, Isaiah queries the entire sacrificial system, declaring that God takes no pleasure in it (v. 11:Je ne prends pas plaisir aux sacrifices de taureaux, d’agneaux comme de boucs). Sacrifices apart from righteousness serve no purpose, he intones (v. 13: Cessez de m’apportez d’inutiles offrandes). Perhaps in a critique of the ruling authorities, who almost certainly ran the sacrificial system in an alliance between temple and crown, Isaiah calls Judah’s rulers back to covenantal obedience. This is the “prophetic imagination” of which Walter Brueggemann speaks.1 Isaiah demands that Israel turn its attention away from temple ritual towards justice: take care of orphans, sustain widows, assist the oppressed (v. 17:assistez l’opprimé, et défendez le droit de l’orphelin, plaidez la cause de la veuve!). With such social solidarity as its contrast, he compares the holy city of Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah: it is corrupt; bribery is common; the downtrodden are completely neglected. Those who behave in this way are rebels and sinners—ceux qui transgressent la Loi (v. 28). This is indicative of a major strand of scripture which equates fairness, freedom, and justice with Torah and the created order as God instituted it. Isaiah does not condemn everyone, but rather the leadership of God’s people; he does not think Jerusalem will be totally destroyed. In his steadfast faithfulness, God himself will be the people’s salvation (v. 27 le salut)—a link that the Gospel of Mark invokes in the person of Jesus (Car le Fils de l’homme n’est pas venu pour se faire servir, mais pour servir et donner sa vie en rançon pour beaucoup. Mark 10:45). Isaiah looks forward to the day when Zion will be firmly established with justice and the penitent will be made righteous.
With spectacular range, setting off radically religious reverberations by means of its imaginative allusions, the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah weaves a profound prophetic tapestry. Virtually every aspect of the Israelite tradition is present in this first bloc: primordial myth, covenant, Torah, narrative history, liturgical song, ethical-oracular judgment.
This post and others like it are based on my devotional reading of the Bible in French. Taking their cue from the fascinating philosophical-exigetical interchange between Paul Ricoeur and André LeCoque in Penser la Bible (La Seuil, 1998), these written reflections are less devotional and evidently make use of a re-reading of the relevant texts in English.
Toutes les citations sont tirées de La Bible du Semeur 2015.
All English citations are from either the New Revised Standard Version or the most recent New International Version.
- The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001.