Wibble Wednesday: A Man of Vision (Isaiah 6)

A short one, this time. No excuse for missing a few weeks.

Short snarky summary: Isaiah is tripping balls and seeing some crazy shit. This is what we demand of our prophets, and he delivers.

Isaiah has started to become something I more-or-less get; he’s got a strong social-justice vibe, couched in the language of piety, but with the worship of God as a secondary consideration. Isaiah’s logic is much less “God commanded this, and thus it is good” and more “This is a good thing, and thus it must be what God wants”. It’s a nice change, as I’ve said many times. It’s also fundamentally unlike what gets quoted a lot of Isaiah, which is eschatology. Messianism, both the continuing Jewish tradition thereof and the Judaism-framed gospel of Christianity, draws a lot from Isaiah and very little from other sources (eschatology above and beyond the Messianic is heavily inspired by Ezekiel, the weirder bits of Daniel, and, on the Christian side, the Revelation). And that’s more what I expected when I started this project, with more specific on-the-nose prophecies and less “be excellent to each other”.

So after five chapters, when I was just starting to get comfy with the social commentary, the text radically changes gears. This is not, as far as I can tell, due to a change in authorship; while Isaiah is typically thought of as the work of three different authors, no scholarly tradition suggests that chapters 5 and 6 were written by different people. And yet, chapter 6 is much, much stranger, with a different versification, and a different point of view. We start with a bit of chronology: the text is anchored in time to the death year of Uzziah. Uzziah was also called Azariah, and most chronologies put his reign in the early 8th century BCE. Azariah was one of a sequence of kings of Judah who, according to the text of 2 Kings, were pretty acceptable to God, but Azariah himself apparently was afflicted with leprosy and his son Jotham served as regent. None of this gives much context to Isaiah 6, I’m afraid, since the death of Azariah was ultimately merely a formalization of the already extant power structure, with the prince regent succeeding him. And what is it that happens in the fateful year of Azariah’s death that Isaiah finds worth mentioning? Turns out to be a mostly inscrutable vision.

Isaiah’s vision is of God on his celestial throne, attended by seraphim. One of the more delightful aspects of this vision is that Isaiah describes the seraphim as having six wings: two to cover their faces, two to cover their legs, and two to fly. Is covering faces and legs a notable and useful property of wings? I find this description bewilderingly charming, somehow.

God at this point is a background figure; the foreground figure is a seraph, who recites a poem of praise immortalized in the Jewish liturgy as the קדשה. The sound of his voice is apparently thunderous enough to shake thetemple to its foundations and cause the very air to smoke. Isaiah is dismayed, as even the most pious person might be faced with such raw destructive power,and he declares his misfortune to be observing God when both he, and the people Israel, are unworthy of his presence. In what appears to be a response to this protestation of unworthiness, the seraph then picks up a burning coal and pokes Isaiah in the mouth with it (ouch!), assuring him that the fire of the coal will burn away his sin.

Thus far the chapter’s been pure trip-imagery, and it’s hard to derive any sort of instruction, lesson, or even wild-eyed eschatological prediction from it. The bit about burning away sins one could maybe spin some sort of instruction out of, but it’s a reach. But now finally God speaks, and the text starts to have the flavor of a prediction. God calls for volunteers, and Isaiah puts his hand up eagerly. God then charges him with the mission to speak to Israel, but in a way they can’t understand, so that they close their eyes to the truth and are not in a position to repent of their sins. The morality of this mission isn’t entirely clear to me, but that’s been a constant refrain of mine since the beginning of this project, that God seems to honestly take altogether too much pleasure in having a good excuse to cause destruction. Instructing Isaiah to mislead the people into continuation of their sins and ultimately their own ruination doesn’t seem like a very moral plan, and it doesn’t speak well of Isaiah that he doesn’t question it.

Isaiah’s only objection, in fact, is not to the deceptiveness of the plan but to the indeterminate timeframe. he asks how long Judah must remain deceived, and God promises that they will see their error only when the land has been completely despoiled and its people exiled. If we read this as an actual document of a prophet in the days of King Uzziah, then, woo, this is a good prophecy, as the people of Judah and Israel were in fact exiled; but that’s a lot less impressive if it was eithr authored (as it may have been) or extensively massaged (as it certainly was) by post-exilic authors.

Now, you might see this plan as somewhat analogous to letting someone’s self-destructive behavior hit “rock bottom” instead of enabling or supporting them, the better to get them into a position to accept help. But God isn’t just asking Isaiah to sit idly by his heroin-addicted nation until they’re ready to ask for his help; no, he’s essentially asking Isaiah to take away all the pamphlets from the methadone clinics and addiction-treatment programs which are already in Judah’s house. (I, uh, may be stretching this metaphor to its breaking point)

In any case, the sequence is prophetic but morally perplexing, and closes with a ray of hope. The people and the land will not be wholly decimated, God foreordains, and from a small part (a “tenth” in the text, but I’ll read that as poetic license) they may both recover, growing like a tree from a seed. This feels like it should be a lead-in to a messianic promie, but that isn’t delivered, yet. First we get more fragments of post-Uzziah history, whose appearance in this book of prophecy and verse will remain out-of-place.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: A Man of Vision (Isaiah 6)

  1. gsanders says:

    Huh, the six wings was one I was familiar with, but the deception thing is deeply weird and seems like a reverse Jonah.

    On the other hand, if you’re a prophet, it does seem like a way to win at the expectations game. ‘I meant my teachings to be impenetrable, that’s why my student evals are so low’

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