Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 58 6-14

In our last of three lessons from the book of Isaiah, we are studying Isaiah 58, with a focus on verses 6-14. It’s an eloquent denunciation of religious practice that’s divorced from its substance, namely the sharing of God’s priorities, and the practice of love for the least. Along with a promise that practicing social care is inexorably tied to the promise of God’s good. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve moved into the final chapters of the book of Isaiah. So: still dealing with prophetic speech; direct discourse by God, expressed in poetry, with all its imagery.

Commentators tell us that these last chapters, 56-66, were also the last to be written. We think they are a product of the early days of the end of the exile, and may have been addressed to the returnees in the land of Judah.

Evidently, this was a time of material hardship. And the burdens of that hardship seem to have been borne unequally by the returnees. (Nehemiah 5 is probably a later text, but gives us some idea …) That inequality is the object of the prophet’s (God’s) displeasure.

Technically, there were no capitalists in the ancient world. Capitalism, as I understand it, requires corporations, stock, and stock markets. Technically, too, the ancients had the idea that land could not be privately owned. God “owned” all the land. (See Leviticus 25:23.) People used it.

On the other hand, other Biblical stories give us the impression that people treated the land as “theirs,” as land they owned. We might wonder how seriously people ever took that idea that the land belonged to God.

Or that idea that people owe something to one another. “The poor,” “the hungry,” etc.

We – that is, Americans in the 21st century – have our own problems thinking and talking about what we owe one another, in language that we can count on to have some common meaning. All our words for talking about this subject have been dragged through the mud, and are nearly useless for ordinary conversation. We’ll have to see what that means for reading this text.

Most of these verses are coming up in the lectionary for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany this year. We might already have heard them in church, in years past.

CLOSER READING: The chapter opens with verses that authorize the prophet to speak boldly, and that describe the people’s religious practice – in disparaging terms. [One question for us readers seems to be: what’s our sense of the sincerity of the voice of the people in v3, or the sincerity of the religious practices being described. There seems to be a range of ideas on this.]

We pick up the text with vv6-7, arguably the most eloquent social justice text in the Bible.

V6 repeats the word yoke. A yoke doesn’t get onto someone’s neck by accident. Someone has to put it there. A person can’t put a yoke on their neck by themselves. Someone else has to put it there. The use of the term yoke is probably significant here.

Lest we think that the “bonds of wickedness” in v6 have something to do with the personal wickedness of the crushed / oppressed, v7 clarifies who we’re talking about: “the hungry,” “the outcast – homeless – wretched poor,” “the naked,” “your flesh.” It is very common for contemporary readers to read v7, usually translated “your kin,” as meaning “members of your family.” I’m inclined to think, however, that “your kin” – literally, “your flesh,” means something more like “your kin – that is, other people – other human beings.”

[Don’t turn left at 9th and Chestnut when you know that homeless guy is always standing on the corner of 9th and Broadway. Heather.]

V6 equates untying the yoke and sharing bread, lodging, and covering with “a fast.” There are a couple of ways we can see that equation working. A fast usually involves abstaining from food. Giving the food to someone else might be one way to think of that abstinence. Or, we might think the “fast” involves giving up something other than food – “possessiveness,” “anxiety,” etc.

The direct consequence of the fast God desires or chooses, v8, is light and healing. The “springing” that healing does in v8 is the kind done by sprouting plants, not the kind done by jumping up from a chair. So, these are organic developments. And “your” (singular, as throughout) “vindicator” or “vindication” – literally, your righteousness/justice – will walk “before your face” and “the glory of the Holy One shall be your rear guard” (as in NRSV).

Everyone (NRSV, JPS, Robert Alter) reads that image at the end of v8 as a kind of march, led and concluded by the presence of God.*

The image is completed in v9: then God will answer your “calling” and “crying.”

The second part of v9, together with v10 and the first part of v11, then repeats or reiterates the statement made in vv6-9a. As a conditional: “if … then …”

So, if you choose the fast Adonai chooses, then comes the light. So the yoke and the hunger repeat. In v10, in Hebrew, there’s a striking doubling-up of the word nefesh, usually translated “soul,” sometimes “life,” here literally “if you offer the hungry your soul, and the soul afflicted you satisfy …” It works to underscore the sense that the suffering people and the people in a position to help are connected, are fundamentally the same – people.

The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Proverbs 22:2

The specific charge in v9, “the pointing the finger, the speaking of evil” to me sounds like “blaming the victim.”

In v11, the imagery changes from light to water: you will be like a garden, like a spring.

V12 gives us a possible double reading. Concretely, the text is probably addressed to people who have some literal rebuilding work to do – on the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. (Again, see Nehemiah.) But figuratively, rebuilding the foundations of society – really on justice and righteousness this time, that is to say, on practical care for one another – also needs doing. That repair work may be repairing damage that goes back even farther. Or, laying foundations that are even more ancient …

V13 brings in the sabbath. Most immediately, this takes us back to vv2-5, and religious practice, and its corruption. It brings to [my] mind the [completely anachronistic] image of talking business in the church parking lot. “Call my office on Monday, we’ll sort out the paperwork.” But we might also need to remember Leviticus 25 and those sabbatical and Jubilee years. Especially since the consequence of this honoring of the sabbath is the “heights of the earth” and the food of the “heritage of Jacob.” That is, the consequence is described in images of the land.

This is one of those texts that echo down through the centuries, I fear. There are people in our world for whom “social justice warrior” is a term of derision. I’m guessing those folks don’t know they’re deriding God, the original social justice warrior.

Also guessing those folks haven’t read Isaiah 58. [No kidding. In all that memory work we did at Lake Avenue, Isaiah 58 never came up.]

* I really wanted the language here to support reading it more like “your Right would walk right up to you and gather you up.” Like, in a hug. That would be at least as consistent with the way those verbs and that figure of speech are used in other places. And that would fit with the images in the first part of the verse, too, the greeting being done by the sun and the plants. Because if/when you do that, you’d really be coming back to God. And with the image of the attentive God of the next verse. But no, it really doesn’t, because I checked with my Hebrew teacher, and I am not paying enough attention to the verb being in the Piel … so I was just making things up …

Image: Image of the Prophet Isaiah, Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

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