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Marvin A. Sweeney





When the God of Justice Goes Rogue



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Marvin A. Sweeney





When the God of Justice Goes Rogue






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When the God of Justice Goes Rogue

YHWH commissions Isaiah to distract the people of Judah so that they continue to sin and then YHWH can punish them harshly. In contrast to other biblical figures such as Abraham and Moses, Isaiah is silent at this injustice.


When the God of Justice Goes Rogue

A scroll of the Book of Isaiah. Wikimedia

Sinai and Isaiah 6: Comparing Revelations

The Shabbat of Parashat Yitro combines two very challenging texts, the Torah portion in Exodus 18-20 and the haftarah portion in Isaiah 6:1-7:7; 9:5-6 according to the Ashkenazi tradition (Isaiah 6:1-13 in the Sephardi tradition). Both draw on imagery derived from the Jerusalem Temple to present the character of God. Exodus 18-20 presents God’s capacity for justice and mercy in the revelation of Torah at Sinai, but the haftarah portion in Isaiah 6:1-13 in particular raises difficult questions concerning God’s purposes in imposing judgment on the people of Israel.

Together, the Torah and haftarah portions point to Judaism’s capacity to ask challenging questions of God in the face of disaster, e.g., foreign invasion of the land of Israel in antiquity and the reality of the Shoah in modern times, while maintaining fidelity to our eternal covenant with God.

Temple Imagery in the Sinai Theophany

Modern interpreters have recognized that the account of YHWH’s theophany at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19 uses Sinai as a symbol for the Jerusalem Temple.[1]

  • The people must wash themselves (Exod 19:10) as they would prior to entering the Temple precincts.
  • They are barred from crossing into the holy areas (Exod 19:12-13), as the Israelites were from the Temple areas where only the priests could tread.
  • The cloud and lightning of YHWH’s theophany (Exod 19:16, 18) resemble the incense smoke and flickering lights of the Temple’s ten menorot (1 Kings 7:49) as YHWH’s divine presence was manifested in the Temple.

Exodus 19 combines E, J, P, and non-source elements.[2] The final form of this text develops this Temple-Sinai connection.

Temple Imagery in Isaiah’s Call Narrative

Isaiah’s initial call comes in the form of a vision of YHWH in the Temple,[3] a memorable scene, which has indelibly marked Jewish liturgy in the form of the Kedusha prayer:

ו:א בִּשְׁנַת מוֹת֙ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ עֻזִּיָּ֔הוּ וָאֶרְאֶ֧ה אֶת אֲדֹנָ֛י יֹשֵׁ֥ב עַל כִּסֵּ֖א רָ֣ם וְנִשָּׂ֑א וְשׁוּלָ֖יו מְלֵאִ֥ים אֶת הַהֵיכָֽל: ו:ב שְׂרָפִ֨ים עֹמְדִ֤ים׀ מִמַּ֙עַל֙ ל֔וֹ שֵׁ֧שׁ כְּנָפַ֛יִם שֵׁ֥שׁ כְּנָפַ֖יִם לְאֶחָ֑ד בִּשְׁתַּ֣יִם׀ יְכַסֶּ֣ה פָנָ֗יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֛יִם יְכַסֶּ֥ה רַגְלָ֖יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֥יִם יְעוֹפֵֽף:ו:ג וְקָרָ֨א זֶ֤ה אֶל זֶה֙ וְאָמַ֔ר קָד֧וֹשׁ׀ קָד֛וֹשׁ קָד֖וֹשׁ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מְלֹ֥א כָל הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבוֹדֽוֹ: ו:ד וַיָּנֻ֙עוּ֙ אַמּ֣וֹת הַסִּפִּ֔ים מִקּ֖וֹל הַקּוֹרֵ֑א וְהַבַּ֖יִת יִמָּלֵ֥א עָשָֽׁן:
6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died [ca. 642 B.C.E.],[4]I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the train of His robe filled the Temple. 6:2 Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. 6:3 And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! Yhwh Tzeva’ot! The whole earth is filled with His glory!” 6:4The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke.

Isaiah’s vision vividly employs Temple imagery to depict the presence of YHWH before the prophet:[5]

  • The verse explicitly locates the prophecy in the Heikhal, the main hall of the Temple.
  • The portrayal of YHWH’s train pouring out of the Temple is likely based on the imagery of the smoke from the incense altars that were burning in the Temple.
  • The Seraphim flying back and forth before the divine presence are likely based on the flickering lamps of the ten menorot that likewise burned in the Temple Heikhal during a Temple worship service.
  • The liturgical chant, “Holy, holy, holy is YHWH Tzeva’ot! The whole earth is filled with His glory!” presupposes the singing of the Temple choir.
  • The rumbling sound of the doorposts would likely result from opening the heavy wooden doors of the Temple at the beginning of the service that would begin at sunrise.

Altogether, the revelation of the divine presence is just as overwhelming as that at Mt. Sinai depicted in Parashat Yitro. And both transpire at a Temple, or in a Temple-like setting, making the Isaiah passage a suitable haftarah.

A Revelation at Sinai Surrounded by Courts and Justice

Although revelation is at the core of the parasha, it is sandwiched between texts that deal with courts and justice. The parasha begins in Exodus 18 (primarily an E text) with the account of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro’s visit, in which Jethro advises Moses to set up a court system of capable men who respected God and hated bribes. These men should serve as judges for the people and thereby assist Moses in hearing the court cases of all the people of Israel.[6]

The revelation itself includes the Decalogue, which states the basic principles of Israel’s legal system of justice, intended to provide the foundations for a just and holy society. This is followed up by Parashat Mishpatim, which goes into the basic rules expected of Israelite society in greater detail.

Modern interpreters have come to recognize that the Decalogue in Exodus 20, an E stratum text, is not law.[7] Indeed, the command, “thou shalt not murder,” is hardly adjudicable in a court of law; if someone did commit murder, the command provides no procedure for resolving the case. Rather, it must be recognized as a statement of the legal principles that underlie the Israelite law collections, particularly the so-called “Covenant Code” of Exodus 21-23 that follows and appears to be the foundational law code of northern Israel, modeled in large measure on the famous Laws of Hammurabi.[8]

The Mix of Courts and Revelation

The portrayal of the court system and the basic principles of Israelite law in Yitro andMishpatim is designed to present a smoothly-working human court system. In its final form, combined with the imagery of the Temple, it is meant to convey that the courts are backed by the authority of the Jerusalem Temple, in which the divine presence of YHWH dwells. In addition to its position as the place in which God was to be worshiped, the Temple also served as the institutional locus for the authority of the ancient Israelite and Judean court systems—and indeed for the very concept of justice in Israel and Judah, so this connection is hardly surprising.

Ultimately, God is the source of justice and holiness in ancient Israel and Judah. These themes also reverberate in the haftarah, which raises a most basic question: What happens when God behaves unjustly?

God’s Commission to Fool the People and Isaiah’s Failure to Challenge Him

Returning to the haftarah, having seen God and the angels, Isaiah is afraid:

ו:ה וָאֹמַ֞ר אֽוֹי לִ֣י כִֽי נִדְמֵ֗יתִי כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ טְמֵֽא שְׂפָתַ֙יִם֙ אָנֹ֕כִי וּבְתוֹךְ֙ עַם טְמֵ֣א שְׂפָתַ֔יִם אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֑ב כִּ֗י אֶת הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת רָא֥וּ עֵינָֽי: ו:ו וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ: ו:ז וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֹנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר:
6:5 “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Yhwh Tzva’ot.” 6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.6:7 He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.”

Isaiah’s lips are purified in a mouth purification ceremony typical of those employed by Mesopotamian bāru priests who would speak on behalf of their own deities.[9] This ceremony calms Isaiah and makes him feel ready for the task of speaking for God. Isaiah can then be called:

ו:ח וָאֶשְׁמַ֞ע אֶת ק֤וֹל אֲדֹנָי֙ אֹמֵ֔ר אֶת מִ֥י אֶשְׁלַ֖ח וּמִ֣י יֵֽלֶךְ לָ֑נוּ וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי:
6:8 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.”

God’s Surprising Commission: Fool the People

A fundamental part of all call narratives is the commission, where God notes the prophet’s specific job.[10] God commissions Isaiah not to preach God’s law or to convince them to turn to God, but rather to distract the people from turning to God, until God accomplishes his goal of bringing about horrific destruction against the people of Israel and Judah:

ו:ט וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֵ֥ךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה
שִׁמְע֤וּ שָׁמ֙וֹעַ֙ וְאַל תָּבִ֔ינוּ
וּרְא֥וּ רָא֖וֹ וְאַל תֵּדָֽעוּ:
ו:י הַשְׁמֵן֙ לֵב־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה
וְאָזְנָ֥יו הַכְבֵּ֖ד וְעֵינָ֣יו הָשַׁ֑ע
פֶּן־יִרְאֶ֨ה בְעֵינָ֜יו וּבְאָזְנָ֣יו יִשְׁמָ֗ע
וּלְבָב֥וֹ יָבִ֛ין וָשָׁ֖ב וְרָ֥פָא לֽוֹ:
6:9 And He said, “Go, say to that people:
‘Hear, indeed, but do not understand;
See, indeed, but do not grasp.’
6:10 Dull that people’s mind,
Stop its ears, And seal its eyes—
Lest, seeing with its eyes And hearing with its ears,
It also grasp with its mind, And repent and save itself.”

This text means what it says: God commissions Isaiah to ensure that the people remain blind, deaf, and dumb as to what God is doing in the world, lest the people realize and save themselves. This meaning is borne out by the following chapters in Isaiah, where calls for Israel’s repentance are absent. When Isaiah asks how long he must keep the people ignorant, God’s answer is even more shocking:

ו:יא וָאֹמַ֕ר עַד־מָתַ֖י אֲדֹנָ֑י
עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁר֩ אִם־שָׁא֨וּ עָרִ֜ים מֵאֵ֣ין יוֹשֵׁ֗ב
וּבָתִּים֙ מֵאֵ֣ין אָדָ֔ם
וְהָאֲדָמָ֖ה תִּשָּׁאֶ֥ה שְׁמָמָֽה:
ו:יב וְרִחַ֥ק יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֑ם
וְרַבָּ֥ה הָעֲזוּבָ֖ה בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ:
ו:יג וְע֥וֹד בָּהּ֙ עֲשִׂ֣רִיָּ֔ה
וְהָיְתָ֣ה לְבָעֵ֑ר
כָּאֵלָ֣ה וְכָאַלּ֗וֹן
אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּשַׁלֶּ֙כֶת֙ מַצֶּ֣בֶת בָּ֔ם
זֶ֥רַע קֹ֖דֶשׁ מַצַּבְתָּֽהּ:
6:11 I asked, “How long, my Lord?”
And He replied:
“Till towns lie waste without inhabitants
And houses without people,
And the ground lies waste and desolate—
6:12 For Yhwh will banish the population—
And deserted sites are many in the midst of the land.
6:13 But while a tenth part yet remains in it,
it shall repent.
It shall be ravaged
like the terebinth and the oak,
of which stumps are left even when they are felled:
Its stump shall be a holy seed.”

Such destruction did occur within Isaiah’s lifetime. This is described in the first chapter of the book, which functions as a type of retrospective introduction to the entire book. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken by Assyria in multiple campaign, ending with its destruction in 722 B.C.E. Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C.E., and his destruction of every city but Jerusalem, would have resulted in a very high casualty rate. Isaiah’s comment in v. 13 suggests that it would have approached ninety percent.

Why does YHWH want to bring such destruction (Hebrew, “Shoah”—see Isa 10:3) about? Why prevent the people from improving their behavior? Because if the people save themselves from destruction, the overall plan of the book of Isaiah to reveal YHWH’s divine glory to the entire world would not be realized. By removing the possibility of repentance, God consigns the people of Isaiah’s time to death and punishment. With that, the chapter ends.

Isaiah’s Insufficient Response

Isaiah’s response, “How long?” is much debated. Most think it to be an expression of sympathy on behalf of the people. I agree, but even so, his response was entirely inadequate. He does not respond at all, but willingly accepts the task. Silent acceptance after God announces that he plans on perpetrating a holocaust against Judah is more than just inadequate. In the face of evil emanating from the divine, Isaiah should have stood up to YHWH and said, “No! You can’t do it! Such an act is immoral and unworthy of Your justice and holiness!” At the very least, he should have refused to play any part in this divine travesty of justice, refusing to mislead Judah, lest they repent.

Biblical Figures Who Stand Up To God

Standing up to God has ample precedent in the Bible:

  • Abraham stood up to God to say that God could not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were fifty righteous people in the city—or even ten—and God relented (Gen 18:20-32).
  • Moses twice stood up to God to say that God could not destroy Israel and make a new nation from Moses at both the Golden Calf and Spy incidents—and YHWH relented—at least in part—in both instances (Exod 32:11-14, 34:9, Num 14:13-20).
  • When Job prays for the lives of his friends, despite the fact that they had angered YHWH (Job 42:7-8) and bad-mouthed Job at the same time, YHWH accepts Job’s prayer and spares the lives of Job’s friends (42:10).

Isaiah does no such thing here.

Dealing with an Unjust God

In the aftermath of the Shoah, questioning God’s justice should hardly come as a surprise, insofar as God did not intervene to save the Six Million who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their supporters. But this is not a modern problem. It would not have come as a surprise in the aftermath of the 586 B.C.E. destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, or the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent exile of Jews from Judea following the failed Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 C.E.

Indeed, Judaism worked hard in both cases—after the destruction of the First Temple, and again after the destruction of the Second Temple and the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt—to reconstruct itself in the aftermath of these catastrophes in order to hold the people together with God. In the former case, Ezra and Nehemiah reconstructed Judaism as a Temple- and Torah-based religious nation, and in the latter case, the Rabbis further reconstructed Judaism as purely a Torah-based nation. In both cases, the destruction of the Temples and the exiles were explained in part as due to the failure of the people to observe divine Torah, and the religious dimensions of Judaism were designed to overcome this fault by calling upon the people to live holy lives in accordance with divine expectations.

Leaving Room for Critique

But neither the Second Temple period Sages and Priests nor the post-Bar Kochba Rabbis were so one-sided in their assessment of what went wrong in the aftermath of their respective catastrophes. The former gave us the books of Job, Lamentations, and Esther to ponder the questions of divine righteousness and absence, and the latter gave us the Heikhalot literature, which posited God’s acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing in bringing about the divine decree of punishment upon Israel.[11] The haftarah for Parashat Yitro in Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6 also enables us to reflect on God’s character. But this is where the haftarah, and indeed Isaiah himself as portrayed in this text, falls short.[12]

The book of Isaiah shows a marked interest in punishment through its very end. This is remarkable, because the book is not all from one prophet but from three, and much of the message in the second part of the book, is highly positive and optimistic.[13] In fact, the very last verse of Isaiah (66:24) closes the book with the portrayal of the corpses of those who would be punished, prompting the Rabbis to call for the next to last verse of Isaiah 66 to be read again after the final verse when the passage was read as a haftarah, so that it would not end on such a horrific note.[14]

Haftarat Yitro shows further interest in presenting images of divine mercy. After reading chapter 6, the haftarah continues with the beginning of chapter 7 (vv. 1-6), omitting the lurid portrayal of punishment that follows in Isaiah 7:10-8:23, and concludes with 9:5-6, which contain images of divine mercy. Such skipping around in the haftarot portions is unusual, although not unknown (cf. haftarat Tzav, Jer 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23). The need to do this implies discomfort both with God’s desire to punish Judah at all costs, and Isaiah’s passive acquiescence to this divine plan.

What If Isaiah Had Stood Up to God?

And so as readers who commit ourselves to God and to Judaism, we must ask, “What would have happened if Isaiah had stood up to YHWH like Abraham, Moses, or Job?” Maybe the punishment would have been averted. Of course, we cannot really connect Isaiah’s call narrative with the Assyrian campaigns against Israel and Judah in a historical sense. Nevertheless, we must recognize that one of the reasons that the Shoah took place was because not enough Germans stood up to Hitler to say that Nazi policy was wrong. And not enough world leaders, such as Neville Chamberlain and Franklin Roosevelt stood up to say that Hitler was wrong even as he carved up Austria and Czechoslovakia for inclusion in the Third Reich.

Haftarat Yitro shows us what not to do. It shows us that despite the presumption of righteous justice and holiness in Parashat Yitro, sometimes God is not just, and that protest is not only possible, but necessary. We must remember Elie Wiesel’s observation that from within one’s tradition, we can say anything to God. We might add, not only can we, but we must in such situations talk back to God.[15]


January 26, 2016


Last Updated

April 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of sixteen volumes, such as Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish BibleReading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology; and Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today.