10 Hear what the Lord says,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to God’s Torah,
you people of ‘Gomorrah!
11 “Why are all those sacrifices
offered to me?” asks the Lord.
“I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood
of bulls, lambs and goats!
12 Yes, you come to appear in my presence;
but who asked you to do this,
to trample through my courtyards?
13 Stop bringing worthless grain offerings!
Your incense is an abomination to me!
New Moon Festivals, Shabbat, solemn assembly —
I can’t stand sin plus solemn assembly!
14 Everything in me hates your New Moons
and your festivals;
they are a burden to me —
I’m tired of putting up with them!
15 “When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
no matter how much you pray,
I won’t be listening;
because your hands are covered with blood.
16 “Wash yourselves clean!
Get your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing evil, 17 learn to do good!
Seek justice, oppose the oppressor,
defend orphans, plead for the widow.
18 “Come now,” says the Lord,
“let’s talk this over together.
Even if your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow;
even if they are red as crimson,
they will be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you will be eaten by the sword”;
for the mouth of The Lord has spoken.
I wrote in my previous blog about the creation by the prophet of a credible voice of God, a voice that had to be simultaneously from beyond the world and relevant to it. It is no mere literary creation, but the result of the prophet making himself, body mind and spirit, available to the God of his people.
This passage gives the heart of God’s message to his people which will be repeated with variations throughout the the prophet’s utterances. It reminds the people that even enthusiastic observance of religious ceremonies is insufficient for the true God, who demands justice and generosity. In the ancient world, with its traditional reliance on sacrifice to the Gods, this reminder would have seemed strange, even impious. But it was already part of the Torah, the Teaching of Israel’s God, with its specific moral and social commandments, and its demand for holiness that went beyond ritual.
All the creative skill of Isaiah is displayed in this passage.
The Lord begins by cheerfully addressing the leading citizens as rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah the fabled cities of sin which were annihilated in volcanic fire. This ironical abuse serves to put them in their place and warn them about consequences. Then he states that he is fed up with sacrfices! No belief was more central to near- eastern religion than the conviction that Gods loved sacrifices; they were alerted by the smell rising from the burning animals and honoured amongst the Gods by the size, frequency and value of these sacrifices. Now Isaiah makes God say that he’s not pleased with this menu ; in fact it is so distasteful that he describes it as an abomination, like worshipping an idol or having illicit sex. The use of such language is no accident. isaiah wants his audience to remember the association of incense and abomination, so that they will not be easily tempted to think that God is satisfied by sacrifices.
The languuage of God’s critique is earthy: the abstract notion of sacrifice is made concrete by references to blood, cattle sheep goats and fat; prayer is represented by the spreading of hands, which are impure because covered with the blood of human victims of injustice. The Lord’s response is described as being weighed down by the volume of ritual, and as disgust at “sin plus solemn assembly” – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the type of religion that Isaiah is attacking in the name of Israel’s God.
If Isaiah made this prophecy in the street, the atmosphere must have been electric as the anger of God raved and crackled in the public ear, denouncing the most powerful people in the land. The Lord promises that he will not listen to pious prayers while his commands are disobeyed. Indeed he issues some commands especially for his present day people: they are to wash the blood from their hands. How?
By ceasing to do evil and learning how to do good, meaning working for “mishpat” social justice, opposing rich and powerful oppressors, standing for the welfare of orphans and widows, that is, the most vulnerable in the land. The people should not imagine they are defined by the sins of their society, nor that these can be forgiven through ritual alone.
The sins of the society are described as scarlet and crimson, both terms referring to the pigment derived from tree insects whose dead bodies were collected for their vivid colour. It was of course, the colour of blood and rich clothing. Terrible as they are these sins can be washed out by obedience to God’s Teaching. If the people choose obedience they will EAT the good of the land, but if they refuse, the swords of the enemy will EAT them. The image of the God who eats/ does not eat animal sacrifices, surfaces again here to express the consequences of the people’s choice.
God”s speech is vigorous, witty, savage and passionate. Those who listened to Isaiah’s ventriloquism would not easily forget it.