We have seen that Israel and Judah were vassals of Assyria, and that rebellious actions on the part of Israel's king Hoshea led to destruction and exile at the hands of the Assyrians. King Hezekiah will court disaster at the hands of the Assyrians as well, but Isaiah's career began before then. The book of Isaiah was written by authors in the southern kingdom of Judah, and scholars generally think it was composed during three different periods. The first portion of the book may have been written by an actual prophet named Isaiah, or it may simply have been attributed to a figure that held a prominent place in the public eye as a spokesman for Yahweh. The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah address events during the 8th century BCE, and even within this span of the book there is evidence of editorial activity. We'll make mention of that as we go.
Isaiah 1 starts off with a bang, as the author pours invective upon Judah. He describes a situation in which the wealthy and powerful practice corruption and ignore the poor and destitute. He predicts a future time of destruction, in which the land is laid to waste because of the attitudes and actions of the people. Of course, as an Israelite, the author attributes any success or failure to Yahweh, but he is especially concerned that people are ignoring the cultural expectations regarding the treatment of other human beings. These expectations are thought to have come from Yahweh, and yet certain expectations about religious activity -- sacrifices, ceremonies, and holy days -- were also thought to come from Yahweh. The religious activities seemed to be easy for the people to pay attention to, but the care for fellow human beings was a tougher thing to accomplish. The author of Isaiah thus denounces the piety of the people who think they are doing what their god wants just because they participate in required ceremonies; in the eyes of the author, Yahweh expects more of them.
Reference is made to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were supposedly destroyed by Yahweh because of their unwillingness to exercise hospitality and care for the strangers in their midst. Judah is no better, according to the writer, because they are trampling the orphan and widow, the poor and oppressed, for the sake of personal gain. There is still hope, however, because the people can change their behavior. If they start practicing justice -- treating people equally and humanely -- they can turn things around. The author places the illusion of power in Yahweh's hands, but it is clearly the actions of the people that will determine the outcome of their land.
Some people in the twenty-first century still believe that God is in control of all sorts of events, and they believe that the Bible indicates a certain supremacy of a supernatural divine. This is certainly the case, but it isn't the only thing the Bible says. The ultimate authority of a biblical depiction of God is balanced with ultimate responsibility of people for their own actions. If the words of this chapter of Isaiah are valid, all is not carved in stone for the people addressed. Their default future, if they maintain their current course, is destruction. By seeking justice, they can change their future. The important thing is not that they go to church more, or pray more or better, or sacrifice more or better; the important thing is that they care for people. The important thing is justice.
History is a tricky when it comes to these sorts of writings. Assyria didn't wind up conquering Judah, but a century and a half after the fall of Israel, Judah fell to the Babylonians, with prophets of the time saying a lot of the same things about the need for justice. One thing is clear from the historical record. Every time there has been a civil war or a rebellion throughout human history, it is because one group of people perceived that intolerable injustice was being perpetrated by another group of people. The people who rebel are not always victorious, but the motivation for rebellion is nearly always the perception of injustice.
Whether one believes in God or not, the need for justice is written into the fabric of our beings. Human beings throughout time have tended toward freedom in some form or another, and inequality has consistently caused strife in human communities. The admonitions of Isaiah 1 ring as true today as they did in the 8th century BCE; our religious practices don't mean a hill of beans if we aren't tending to our society. Prayer and piety is actually offensive and blasphemous if our actions don't reflect certain values. For the ancient Israelites and for many believers today, human beings are thought to have been created in the image of God. What does it mean to mistreat someone created in the image of the divine? What must one think of the divine in order to mistreat another human being?
From a perspective that doesn't recognize supernaturalism, one can perhaps even more clearly see the value of people. There aren't a lot of religious trappings to get in the way; remove the sacrifices, prayers, and ceremonies, and you are still left with a world full of people. By now, you know that my personal perspective is that whatever we call the divine is an inherent human quality, or collection of qualities. All people have a deep self that understands truth, embodies beauty, and expresses creativity, even though they often act out of irrational fear. The humanist position is not to approve of every action a person takes under the guise of acceptance; the goal is to recognize that even people who act unjustly or discompassionately or even violently are still human beings with inherent value. Their actions have consequences, but they don't have less value as people. This isn't an easy position, but in wrestling with difficult principles, we get better at living with integrity.
It's tempting to live by a set of principles in my own personal life and let other people do as they will. I can feel good about seeking justice, treating people equally, and responding with compassion to the people I encounter, even if I don't stretch beyond the borders of my own life. I can even say that I try to model behavior for others, which suggests that I am inviting a broader impact than just the confines of my own life. Yet, people will rarely know what I am modeling if I don't tell them. I shouldn't assume that any random onlooker will know why I make the choices I make or why they might get something out of emulating the behavior I'm modeling. At some point, seeking justice draws me out from the confines of my own life.
This often seems counter-cultural for a society in which people are supposed to mind their own business and avoid offending anyone. We can complain about injustice or inequality to like-minded individuals, but it's often frowned upon to make any sort of public statement regarding unjust systems or practices. When we do take a stand, it's often couched in the form of blasting one political party or the other in an angry rant that actually does nothing to help any oppressed people, even though it may make us feel righteous. Our deepest selves call us to more than that. Whether we believe that it is God's will or we just recognize our innate connection to other human beings, there is truth to Martin Luther King Jr's statement that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Isaiah was not written as a call to the poor and destitute to rise up and claim justice for themselves. It was written as an admonition for the wealthy and privileged to exercise greater awareness and love for the human beings they tended to overlook or discount. Isaiah was not talking about being kind and just only to respectable people. This chapter is about treating the oppressed and overlooked with dignity and compassion.
For us, this means ensuring that women are not treated as second class citizens, that women are respected as equal participants in the world, that girls are not sold into slavery and treated as animals or playthings. While we tolerate sex trafficking and forced underage prostitution anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).
For us, this means listening to the interests of the homosexual, bisexual, and transgender communities, not discounting their interest in marriage and families as an affront to society, and welcoming human beings with different ways of loving and being without feeling threatened in our own ways of loving and being. While we tolerate the criminalization or persecution of homosexual, bisexual, or transgender human beings anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).
For us, this means acknowledging the persistence of racism and legitimately working to see beyond skin color, language, religion, and cultural idiosyncrasies to the actual people who share our world. It means recognizing the desire for people to make a livable wage and live in safety. It means finding ways for cooperation and partnership, so that people are empowered to be personally responsible, and it means being honest about the inequities of wealth and consumption that damage the entire world for a few to maintain an illusion of entitlement and superiority. While we tolerate hostility toward the Other anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).
This doesn't mean picketing or sending thousands of dollars overseas or marching on Washington (although it could, and there's nothing wrong with it if that's what you do). Sometimes justice is honestly a matter of how we treat people and how we speak up for people. Justice might mean letting our friends know that we won't participate in ethnic slurs or activities that demean women. Justice might mean educating ourselves about service organizations that could benefit from a few hours of our time every month or every week. Justice might mean doing everything in our power not to freak out when a friend or loved one or child comes out -- and it might mean finding a way to celebrate that person even when his or her identity becomes scarily unfamiliar to us -- to embrace people even when we don't quite understand them.
None of this is easy, but it seems to be the most honest interpretation of Isaiah 1 in the realities of global economics and communication. I believe in these words, and yet I still find myself judging other people or preferring not to get involved or speak out. I am learning and growing even as I continue to engage my beliefs thoughtfully and purposefully. None of this admonition is intended as a guilt trip; it's simply a point blank statement of the work that we have yet to do if it is important to us to create a just, equitable, and compassionate reality. We do not need the threat of destruction from on high to convince us
that this is a good and noble thing, but in case that sort of threat is
motivating, we see that in Isaiah as well. Rather than act nobly out of fear, though, we can act nobly because we are noble. We can act justly because we are just people. We show compassion because we are compassionate. When we act with integrity to our deepest principles, we state clearly that we are people of integrity. Our authentic identities are the only reason we need to seek justice, to treat all people with respect, and to see whatever we call divine in the face of every person.