Visions in the Daytime: Reflections on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Lectionary Reflections
August 11, 2013
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

We continue our survey of the prophets of Israel this summer by spending two weeks with 8th-century B.C.E. Isaiah. For many, two weeks with this guy is two weeks too long. It is perhaps a good thing that many in your congregation are on vacation this time of the year, since preaching from Isaiah is surely not designed to win friends and partners from those who hear. Is it an accident that the lectionary compilers put these prophets in the summer? I think not! Fewer ears may lead to increased harmony. However, in the end we will hear from one prophet or another right up until Advent. So, as YHWH said to Job, "Gird up your loins like a wrestler, because I will speak to you and you will answer me!" Ready?

This Isaiah (he is followed in the canonical book by a II-Isaiah 40-55 some two hundred years later and by a III-Isaiah and perhaps a IV and V after that in chapters 56-66 some years later) is a near contemporary with Amos, Hosea, and Micah, but his words are exclusively directed to Judah and Jerusalem as 1:1 makes plain. "A vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, that he envisioned against Judah and Jerusalem in the time of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, kings of Judah." This chronological introduction is common in the editing of Israel's prophetic words as the first verses of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel make clear. In fact, the first verse of Amos announces that the prophet "envisioned the words" during the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah. Here in Isaiah, he, too, "envisioned" his calling during the time of Uzziah. Later in the famous chapter 6, it will be said that Isaiah's great temple vision, his calling to prophecy, occurred in the same year that "King Uzziah died," in 742 B.C.E. by most reckonings. Hence, Isaiah faces a Judah that Amos, himself a Judean though his work was in the north, in Israel, knew well and spoke to with power and withering anger. It is doubtful that any of these four 8th-century oracles knew one another, but their words sound very similar at key points.

Isaiah 1:1 tells us that the prophet was a visionary; in short, he does not see the world as you and I see it. And that is important to remember in light of the times of his speaking. Here are the facts of Israel's and Judah's life during the time of Uzziah in the south and Jereboam II in the north. Both were kings of their respective countries for forty years, an extraordinarily long time in the ancient world when many hardly lived for forty years. Such long reigns suggest that the times were marked by relative peace and public prosperity. Kings in the north will come rather fast and furiously after Jereboam dies, suggesting that the community is breaking down. That breakdown will be hastened and finalized by the destruction of the Assyrian armies in 722 B.C.E. That same army will head south to make Judah its next victim, but a strange series of events at the end of the century will spare the south for over one hundred years until the appearance of an enraged Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians early in the 6th century B.C.E. So while Amos and Hosea were preaching, Israel in the north looked very comfortable and satisfied.

Comfortable and satisfied if you were at the top of the economic scale, that is. The archaeology of the middle of the 8th century tells a clear tale: a few large and opulent homes and palaces on the heights of the capital Samaria and myriad one-room hovels in the valley below. The gaps between rich and poor were wide and growing wider. Amos and Hosea rail against this gap and against the unseeing and unfeeling rich who care not a fig for their poor brothers and sisters who are below them, physically and metaphorically, as far as they are concerned. That comfort ended forever in 722 at the points of vast numbers of Assyrian swords. But Judah was spared all that for a time, as I just said.

Hence, the Judah to which Isaiah was called to speak remained similar to mid-8th-century northern Israel well into the rest of the 8th century and into the early parts of the 7th  century. Isaiah sounds like Amos and Hosea because the community of his preaching is much like the community to which they spoke. There are a few rich folk, who seem inordinately fond of the temple and its elaborate worship, and many poor whose access to the goods and services of Judah is minimal at best. In short, Isaiah, who himself apparently has full access to the temple and the royal court, is in the main speaking to those indifferent rich. Against that backdrop, we may now hear his stinging words.

Hear the word of YHWH, rulers of Sodom!
Give your ears to the Torah of your God, people of Gomorrah!
Why offer to me your glorious sacrifices, says YHWH?
I am satiated with your ram-fueled burnt offerings,
and with the fat of those fattened beasts!
With the blood of bulls and lambs and goats I find no delight at all!
When you come to gaze at my face, who asks this from your hands?
Stop trampling my courts; never again come with empty offerings;
incense is anathema to me!
New moon and Sabbath, calling a congregation to worship—
I can no longer stand evil assemblies!
(Is. 1:10-13)