Feast upon the Word Blog

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Lost Sheep or Dumb Asses?

Posted by BrianJ on October 3, 2014

The Book of Isaiah opens by properly sharing its theme, but I don’t know in what tone it was meant to be delivered. It starts out clearly enough, “The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw…,” but should we read what follows as a rebuke or a beckon?

Dumb Asses

Focus on verse 3. Every time I’ve heard this verse discussed, commenters interpret Jehovah/Isaiah mocking his audience:

The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

In other words: “Israel, you are dumber than dumb,” right?

Lost Sheep

Well, maybe. But is there another way to read that verse? Could Jehovah/Isaiah juxtapose Israel with ox and donkeys not to embarrass or belittle his people, but rather to awaken them to a sense of their lost state? As rough as my life might get, I hope that I’m always better off than domestic beasts.

In other words: “Israel, you are lost and don’t know where to turn.”

The Rest of the Chapter (and Book)

I like my second reading better, but what I like isn’t the point. What matters is how Jehovah/Isaiah meant it to be heard and read. The more common reading aligns better with a jealous, wrathful God who threatens to punish Israel with destruction. My reading suggests a sympathetic, patient God who hopes to steer Israel off its own destructive course. Is there more support for one reading over the other? Let’s see….

I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me. (Verse 2)

The relationship of parent-child seems rather intimate (lost sheep), but “rebellion” sounds more like fightin’ words (dumb doomed asses).

Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him. (Verse 4)

Sure sounds like people who have it coming—whatever “it” may be. Incidentally, the NET translation replaces “Woe to the sinful nation” with “the sinful nation is as good as dead.” Is that a threat or a warning? I guess that all depends on whether Jehovah is behind whatever is about to befall—or is already befalling—Israel or not.

Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted. (Verse 5)

Here’s where Jehovah’s feelings of sorrow really seem to form, continuing on through Verse 9. Still, most discussions I’ve heard, working from a sarcastic reading of Verse 2, read the two questions in Verse 5 as rhetorical impatience: “Ugh, seriously, why are you sooooo stupid?! Look at you: you’re a mess.”

Can those questions be read as genuine? If so, then how could Israel answer? Really, why should Israel be beaten anymore? Why does it persist in rebellion? If Jehovah/Isaiah meant for those questions to be answered then—well, first, then there should be a BIG PAUSE mid-way or just after Verse 5 while the reader/listener answer the questions. But second, then it changes the tone of the following verses. They’re no longer designed to admonish Israel for being a mess, but rather are meant to acknowledge that the Lord sees how sorely Israel hurts.

From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.

Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege. (Verses 6-8)

Verse 9 switches from quoting Jehovah to quoting Israel’s response (kind of like Israel answering those questions from Verse 5):

Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah. (Verse 9)

This doesn’t sound like God upbraiding his people and his people spitting back at him. This sounds like a doctor-to-patient conversation—or perhaps, a FEMA-to-disaster victim.

“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord….
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!” (Verses 11-15)

It’s kind of a strange message, because it sounds a lot like, “Remember all that stuff I told you to do in Leviticus and that I would destroy you if you didn’t? Yeah, don’t do that.” So, what’s the prescription? What’s the Lord’s Marshall Plan?

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Verses 16-17)

That doesn’t seem to harsh. I mean, if the Lord is really angry and the people’s hands are covered in blood, then the Lord could have issued a far harsher punishment than, “Stop it and be nice!” I’m just not feeling the anger here. The next verses only add to the sense of calm:

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land…. (Verses 18-19)

Well, that does it. I’m convinced: The Book of Isaiah is from a kind and loving God who gently beckons his lost sheep to return and shelter under his tender care.

Except the Angry Parts

Verse 20 starts the warning:

…but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.” (Verse 20)

The following verses read like Isaiah, having just delivered God’s decree, now rendering his evaluation:

See how the faithful city
has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice….
but now murderers!
Your rulers are rebels,
partners with thieves…. (Verses 21-23)

Oh, drat! because I thought the earlier message was an invitation to change my ways and return to the Lord. Now it sounds like just a reading of the rules I broke, the blessings I forfeited, and the final verdict issued in my case. It gets worse. Much worse:

Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
the Mighty One of Israel*, declares:
“Ah! I** will vent my wrath on my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies.
I will turn my hand against you;
You will be ashamed…
You will be disgraced…
You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
like a garden without water.
The mighty man will become tinder
and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
with no one to quench the fire.” (Verses 24-31)

Taken as a whole, this chapter reads like a Jehovah was once patient and merciful, but reached a point where his patience wore thin. Israel is doomed and there is nothing the people can do anymore to change it.

I think this…pessimistic reading highlights one of the common questions/heresies of the Old Testament: is this the same God we meet in the New Testament?


* “the Lord, the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel.” Three titles for the guy about to declare—and not one of them is “father,” “friend,” or “redeemer.” Make no mistake: those last two are military titles.

** “I.” Regardless of how the destruction comes, the Lord will take credit. This isn’t a warning about what could happen (“watch out for that tree!”), it’s a warning of what the Lord will do (“I will clobber you.”).

Note: Bible verses are from the NIV.

3 Responses to “Lost Sheep or Dumb Asses?”

  1. NathanG said

    One of my favorite religion teachers from college said Isaiah has a typical theme of beginning with a really harsh message, but always ending with the source of hope an salvation. I’ve never really tried to explore other ways of reading it because it sets well with me (although I like your question as to how it was intended to be read).

    I don’t know how effective it really is, but it seems the more rebellious a people get the harsher the accusation of wickedness needs to be to get their attention. On a similar note, the Book of Mormon narrative notes a few times when people are so wicked that the Spirit ceases to strive with them. I think when I hear people casually talk about “strives” they would think about losing the companionship of the Holy Ghost and numerous talks that the Spirit is easily offended. However, when that phrase is used in context, the people are usually quite wicked and probably lost the “companionship” of the Holy Ghost long before. “Strive” seems more like a conflict word than a companionship or partnership word. The Holy Ghost will strive to the very last point, until a heart is hardened beyond any hearing, to get someone to turn back. I wonder if Isaiah is just in a similar role at this point. Maybe instead of a jealous God of the Old Testament we need to think of a God showing tough love.

  2. Robert C. said

    Nice post, Brian (sorry I’m just getting to it). I have two thoughts in response.

    1. A lot of your questions remind me of the different ways that God’s outstretched arm can or should be interpreted. It seems that most contemporary Old Testament scholars take this as a uniformly menacing gesture, but Nephi seems to radically reinterpret this as a welcoming(/hugging) gesture. Even if the original intent of the scriptural phrases in Isaiah 1 were meant one way, I think it’s useful to think about alternative interpretations — there seems to be nice precedent in Mormonism for these kinds of reinterpretations (via Nephi and Joseph Smith).

    2. My sense is that you are picking up the tension between first and second Isaiah. I think first Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is written very much an Old Testament vein, but I think second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) gives us a much less pessimistic, more New Testament kind of God. (I highly recommend John Oswalt’s commentary on second Isaiah — I think he avoids twisting the text to serve Christian ends, and yet I think he does a nice, responsible job showing messianic themes in second Isaiah that have strong resonance with our New Testament sensibilities.)

    • BrianJ said

      1. I agree that it’s useful to think about alternative interpretations—I just think it is always important, whenever possible, to recognize and label them as alternative; i.e., not what the author intended. Otherwise, isn’t it just scripture wresting?

      2. You’re spot on about first/second Isaiah.

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