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Let Us Reason Together

October 6, 2014
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I have been reading through the book of Isaiah with my Bible Study recently and an interesting line caught my eye. It’s a well-known line, Isaiah 1:18 – “Come, let us reason together. Even though your sins are as crimson they will be white like snow. Though they are red as [some kind of bright red worm, apparently] they will be like wool.” While the bright red worm is sort of fascinating in its own way what caught my attention was “let us reason together”. When I think of reasoning together with someone I generally think of figuring out some sort of problem with them that affects us both. For instance, I might sit down with a collaborator and reason together about the correct way to fix a piece of lab equipment. This does not make a great deal of sense out of this verse, though.

Hebrew is notoriously vague with some words. Some Hebrew words have a huge range of meanings and some have large ranges of meaning that still don’t line up with any English meaning clearly. The verb in question is יכח (yakach) and it’s a reasonably common verb root[1]. Interestingly it is not normally translated as “reason”. Instead, it gets translated as “decide”, “condemn” (or “reprove”), and various words for arguing. It actually shows up six times in the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 1:18 (under discussion), 2:4, 11:3, 11:4, 29:21, and 37:4. In these instances the NIV renders יכח as “settle disputes”, “decide”, “give decisions”, “defender in court” (the root has been transformed into a noun here), and “rebuke”. In all but the last instance the context is clearly judicial (and it is merely unclear in the last instance, rather than being clearly not true). Isaiah is mostly Hebrew poetry which makes extensive use of parallelism (again, Isaiah 37:4 is not in poetry) and in most of these instances the parallel explicitly references a legal court. (The list of parallels is, in order, “judge between the nations”, “judge by what his eyes see” which is followed immediately by the next pair which includes “judge the poor”, and finally “cause a person to be indicted”.)

This may clear up this odd verse a bit. The Lord is not offering to sit down over coffee to work out a vexing issue of mutual interest but to settle out of court. (Indeed, the NIV renders the key word here “settle the matter”.) I say that the Lord is offering to settle out of court because what comes next is a description of two options. If Israel opts to settle then they will eat the good food of the land. If they do not settle they will be eaten by the sword (most translations opt for something like “devoured by the sword” which makes more English sense but loses the parallel a bit more).

Indeed, this ongoing idea of a court case against Israel crops up again and again in early Isaiah, at least as far as the break at Isaiah 6 where Isaiah describes his vision of the Lord in the Temple. Parts of this case are explicit: in Isaiah 3:13 doom is announced as the Lord takes his seat in court to condemn the leaders of Israel. In 4:4 a spirit of “judgment and fire” will cleanse Israel specifically of some of the sins mentioned in the previous judgment passage. In 5:3 the Lord invites the people to judge in a case between Him and His vine in a story where the vine stands for Israel. In 5:16 the Lord will be glorified by His justice and lifted up by His righteous acts (righteousness is also a judicial term denoting either the rendering of correct verdicts or of being found on the right side of the law). However, these explicit sections are interwoven with pronouncements that seem more like Old Testament wrath and doom. It probably makes most sense to see these as the pronouncements of the court: you have been found guilty and this is your punishment. Indeed, some law-court features appear in these places too. Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:23, 5:7, and 5:23 all discuss how Israel either must do justice or has been found to be full of injustice. In Isaiah 3:10-11 a short interjection assures us that the coming doom will be just – the righteous (again, those found to be innocent or the victim by the court who require acquittal or redress) will be fine but the wicked will receive all the doom that fills up the rest of the chapter.

Other features probably make sense within this court-case context. In several places God lays out His vision for what Israel should be or will be and contrasts it to what Israel is. Viewed from within the context of a legal case this makes sense – Israel is required by law to do X and is instead doing the exact opposite. In Isaiah 2:11-18 there is a great reversal – the Lord strikes down everything that is lifted up and He alone remains exalted. (Hints of this also appear in Isaiah 1:31 and 5:15.) This is also classical judgment language in the Old Testament – God comes and ruins those who have risen because of their crimes and exalts those who were their victims. This is the work of the law-court, to demand penalties of the wicked and to restore to the victims what was taken.

Not all of Isaiah 1-5 is a court case, of course. I don’t see much point in trying to shoehorn God’s diatribe against Israel’s religious rituals (1:10-15) into a court case. Instead, it seems to be a reasonable lead-up to the case: despite Israel’s religious observances God is still angry with them and their religious observances mean nothing while these larger problems are going on. However, despite some exceptions I think the larger idea of a court case against Israel is a good frame to read Isaiah 1-5.

If my claim is correct who exactly is God in the court? Is He the judge, the plaintiff, or the prosecutor? I think the answer probably goes back to the important role of a king in ensuring justice for his people (and the fact that these modern roles aren’t really correct to bring to the Old Testament). A king served as a judge (some of which I discussed when I discussed the judges of the book of Judges) and often legitimatized his reign by referencing his role in bringing about justice. However, kings are not passive judges who wait for cases to be brought to them but are also engaged in actively prosecuting cases. Part of the role of a king in bringing about justice is to seek out and remove injustice (or other legal transgressions – see the responsibility that the books of Kings assign to kings in removing places of idol worship). In this case I believe that God is acting in His role as King of Israel. In fact, I believe He is more specifically acting as a great king (or emperor) under whom serve other kings including Israel’s king.

This, I believe, is where all of this notion of law-courts begins to be directly applicable to us. God’s complaint against Israel is that He charged it with creating a particular sort of society. This society was supposed to be just (especially towards those who lack power and are easy to oppress), it was supposed to be free of idols, and it was clearly supposed to be less focused on money than it ended up being. Indeed, a lot of Isaiah 1-5 focused on the fact that the upper levels of society have become rich by impoverishing the poor. While the rich drink and “join house to house” (which is probably tied to taking land and other essentials from the poor ) the poor are denied justice. While the Law demanded a year of Jubilee in which society would be reset and everyone gets to start over with some land of their own the society has become one of rich people and the generationally poor. Some of this involves direct commission of sin on Israel’s part – like taking bribes. Other parts of this appear to involve a failing to do what is right without any direct embrace of what is wrong. For instance, the indolent rich don’t necessarily do anything directly wrong but they do get condemned apparently for not fixing things.

This is a more active concept of good than the one we tend to have. We tend to think of being innocent as simply not engaging in evil (which can give us theological trouble as we seek to convince others that they engage in active and deliberate evil on a frequent basis [which people do but it’s a hard sell]). Instead, the book of Isaiah paints a picture where the innocent actively engage in doing God’s will and the guilty are those who don’t. Evil is presented as potentially passive – the Lord told you to set things right and you sat around drinking instead. Good is active.

The other part of this that I think is valuable is that it places God’s uncomfortable Old-Testament wrath in a very understandable context. God’s wrath isn’t God getting angry and flying off the handle but is the sentence of the divine court passed down on a wicked society that has actually refused a previous offer to settle the matter out of court. Part of the purpose of the prophet Isaiah is to ask Israel to deal with this issue before it lands in court and delivers a crushing verdict. Yes, God as judge does deliver a harsh sentence to Israel but God as plaintiff also entreats Israel not to let the matter get that far out of control.

[1] Hebrew works (mostly) on a system of triliteral (three-consonant) verb roots which convey a base meaning. These meanings can be modified by the verb form and can often be turned into nouns as well, either as participles (which are sort of like present tense versions of the verb that indicate “the one who ____”) or as real nouns. Looking at roots can be very useful but also sometimes misleading as some verb forms can wander relatively far afield from the base meaning. For instance, an architectural column and “to have faith” come from the same root because both deal with support. However, the column doesn’t tell you much about faith.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2014 9:29 am

    Very interesting… will reread later in more depth.

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  1. The Grand Recap | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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