Exegetical Exercise Isaiah 1 10-20

Image - Chinese poster showing incense burning
According to the poster, burning incense can be an example of doing the wrong thing to address the presenting problem.

One of the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost is Isaiah 1:1, 10-20. A couple of things jump out from a first or second reading of that text.

First, v10 addresses the “rulers of Sodom!” and the “people of Gomorrah!” There are a couple of different ways to read this. One – I think the most common – is as a creepy equation of the worship of contemporary Judah and Jerusalem with the worship of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah. Creepy, because the listeners know full well what happened to those people. But two – not inconceivable – is as a prophecy from the past, a retelling of a story that has happened before: what God said to those people. Once again, of course, contemporaneous listeners know how those people took these words, and what happened. I think this variant suggests itself a little more strongly after having read the Qur’an, which retells the stories of past groups of people who ignored their warnings a lot.

Second, whoever is being addressed is being told to stop coming before God with a long set of ritual behaviors, without addressing the main source of impurity, the ethical impurity of the violence done by oppression. V15 ff “your hands are full of blood,” and what you need to do to clean that up is “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

So, within the long list of useless ritual behaviors, is “incense” which is an “abomination” (NRSV). The coincidence of this “abomination” with the more sensational one from Leviticus caught my attention, and I finally did a superficial word study on Hebrew to’evah by looking it up on Google and finding a review article by Jay Michaelson on Religion Dispatches, which makes me wonder whether something like “alien practice” or “untouchable thing” or something like that gets at the idea and the associated feeling better.

This reminds me of a story from when I was a little girl. We were getting ready for our annual 4th of July party, which was a giant deal and a family tradition. It had been instituted by my mother, who loved to throw parties, and it involved inviting all of my parents’ friends for a buffet in our backyard and fireworks after that – which was ok, since we lived in a part of town where we could have fireworks, and most of them didn’t. Pre-party protocol required all of us to be on deck and ready to work at least by early a.m. to get tables and chairs properly set up outside, food made, perfect serving dishes identified and set out, etc. etc.

That afternoon my mom made the comment that my grandmother, who lived with us, and who was in her apartment sewing something for my mom to wear for the party, “always does this, it never fails, she will show up just in time for this party and not lift a finger to help because she’s busy ‘doing something for me.’ But it’s not for me, really, it’s what she wants to do. I’d rather have the help than the dress.”

But I’m thinking … my mom wore dresses, a lot; she wore dresses that my grandmother had made for her a lot; there were plenty of times when she asked my grandmother to sew for her, and was delighted with it and with my grandmother for doing it; it was the context of what she wanted on that 4th of July afternoon that made that dress and the practice that produced it so annoying. Maybe if she had been speaking 8th century Hebrew she would even have said it was to’evah, “an abomination,” an unappreciated offering … in a different context, she would have called it something different. Just a thought.

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