Hierarchy and Oppression

To punish Israel’s sins, Yahweh threatens to remove “the whole supply of bread and the whole supply of water” (Isaiah 3:1). It sounds like a drought and famine, but as the passage goes on, the drought is a drought of leadership. Yahweh will remove bread and water insofar as he removes the mighty man and warrior, the judge and prophet, the diviner and elder, the captain and the honorable man, the counselor and the artisan (vv. 2-3). These roles are as necessary to the health of society as bread and water are to physical survival.

The connection is not merely metaphorical: Isaiah isn’t merely saying that mighty men, judges, prophets and elders are to the social body as bread and water are to the physical body. In the absence of warriors to guard the fields, and judges to enforce rights, and artisans to design and make, Judah will be devastated by marauders and invaders. It is a prophecy of drought and famine, but the drought and famine come indirectly because Yahweh has removed the walls that protect the vineyard of Judah.

It is not merely a removal of leaders; it’s an inversion. In place of seasoned judges and elders, Yahweh will give Judah capricious children to rule them (v. 4). Instead of the elders guiding and ruling the young, the young will lead the old. In Isaiah’s view, this inversion of natural hierarchy leads to “oppression.” In the absence of leadership, oppression will infect the people, as each is oppressed by his neighbor (v. 5). The inversion of natural hierarchy is itself oppressive, as the “youth will storm against the elder, and the inferior against the honorable” (v. 5).

It’s natural for moderns to think of hierarchy itself as oppressive, Isaiah makes it clear that the high do prey on the low. He begins his prophecy with a searing rebuke of the ruthless to take advantage of helpless orphans and widows (1:16-17). We often miss the opposite, that destruction of hierarchy can be equally oppressive. We miss this, though the oppression of the old by the young, the cruelty of the low to the high, is one of the common threads of modern politics (think Paris 1792, think Russia 1917, think of all the toddler-kings of the past few centuries). 

Hierarchies can be abusive, but we should fear the desolation of order as much as its abuse. Untune that string, and behold what discord follows.

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