YHWH Commissions Isaiah to Speak So That People Do Not Understand
Isaiah’s commission (ch. 6) is key to understanding—or failing to understand—the book. A normal prophetic message condemns the ills of society, exhorts to repentance, predicts disaster or a utopian future. Indeed, this is what we find in the visions of Isaiah described in the previous five chapters.
In chapter 6, however, YHWH instructs Isaiah as follows:
ישׁעיה ו:ט וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ לָעָם הַזֶּה שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ וְאַל תָּבִינוּ וּרְאוּ רָאוֹ וְאַל תֵּדָעוּ.
Isa 6:9 Go and say to this people: “Hear intently, but do not comprehend; look closely, but do not perceive.”
The audience must look and listen, but not understand what they’ve seen and heard. The command traps them in a contradiction. If they do understand Isaiah’s message, then they have either not understood this divine command, or they have disobeyed it. Conversely, if they faithfully do not understand, then they have understood Isaiah’s message, precisely through not understanding it.
The next verse, however, puts the responsibility squarely on Isaiah to prevent the Judeans from understanding YHWH’s message, and explains that this is in order to prevent their repentance:
ישׁעיה ו:י הַשְׁמֵן לֵב הָעָם הַזֶּה וְאָזְנָיו הַכְבֵּד וְעֵינָיו הָשַׁע פֶּן יִרְאֶה בְעֵינָיו וּבְאָזְנָיו יִשְׁמָע וּלְבָבוֹ יָבִין וָשָׁב וְרָפָא לוֹ.
Isa 6:10 Make fat the heart of this people; weigh down its ears; glaze its eyes; lest it see with its eyes, and hear with its ears, and its heart understands, and it returns and is healed.
The verse makes use of word plays that connect to the broader context:
The verb to make fat, from the root שׁ.מ.ן in the causative hiphʿil form, is applied metaphorically to the people’s ears, implying Isaiah should block them up with his confusing prophecies so they cannot hear. The verb is related to the noun שֶׁמֶן “oil,” which often carries positive connotations of blessing (e.g., Deut 32:13, 33:24), and would likely call to mind the vineyard which YHWH planted in Qeren-ben-Shamen, literally “horn, son of oil,” in the parable of Isaiah 5:1, only one chapter before.
The root כ.ב.ד in “weigh down (הַכְבֵּד) its ears” echoes the divine כָּבוֹד “glory” that irradiates the entire earth, in the proclamation of the seraphim earlier in this chapter (v. 3). This divine glory will be transmuted into obtuseness in the ears of the people; the glory of YHWH may be manifested in the heaviness of the people’s ears, in their inability to recognize it.
The term “glaze its eyes” from the root ש.ע.ע, “to be blind,” may refer to the obstruction of vision, but it is practically indistinguishable from ש.ע.ה, “to look, gaze.” Thus, the term הָשַׁע can refer to making the people blind and making them see at the same time.
The double meanings of the verbs are intrinsic to the message, which is self-contradictory. There are several problems here:
Pointless Prophecy—What is the status of a God, and a prophet, who speaks so as to prevent repentance? It would render the entire prophetic mission pointless.
Giving Away the Secret—Verse 10 is a private communication between YHWH and the prophet. Yet in revealing it, Isaiah makes it public. The audience then knows there is a secret, and is challenged to discover it, but at the same time is forbidden to do so. By communicating it, is Isaiah disobeying the divine command?
Is Isaiah Understandable?—The mystery may be unknown and incommunicable, as with all mystical experience, or else it is known, in which case it is no mystery at all. The message of Isaiah may be that which appears on the surface: the fall of the two kingdoms, the call to justice and righteousness, the glorious return. Or it may be something else entirely.
An Impossible Command—There is a double “double bind.” One is that the people are commanded to look and not to look at the same time; the other is that it is revealed to them that they have no choice in the matter, that they have no autonomy.
Explaining YHWH’s Incomprehensible Commission to Isaiah
The most common approach to making sense of the baffling commission, and the most unsatisfactory in my view, is biographical: The commission to obstruct the people’s understanding was invented, either by the prophet himself at some later stage, his followers, or some later scribes, in order to account for the failure of Isaiah to bring about repentance. But this approach doesn’t explain why God should act in such a paradoxical way.
A more sophisticated understanding is suggested by Jörg Barthel of the Reutlingen School of Theology. Barthel points out, in connection with chapter 6, that all experience, especially visionary experience, can only be communicated through language, and language inevitably involves interpretation. The very writing down of the scene is an attempt to make sense of it. This attempt will reverberate through history, in many different contexts. This does not, however, make it the less mysterious.
Oona Ajzenstat of Pomona College, in her commentary on the Jewish sources underlying the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), midrashically interprets our passage as communicating a negative theology, i.e., the inability to really understand God. Thus, the command not to understand means not to accommodate the message to any pre-established theological scheme.
Her reading builds on Levinas’ observation that Isaiah, uniquely among the prophets, volunteers to be God’s emissary:
ישׁעיה ו:ח וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל אֲדֹנָי אֹמֵר אֶת מִי אֶשְׁלַח וּמִי יֵלֶךְ לָנוּ וָאֹמַר הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי.
Isa 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.”
In responding as he does, Isaiah opens himself to whatever YHWH has to tell him. For Levinas, the essence of prophecy is ethics, by which Levinas means the ability to respond to whatever the Other—the other person or God—demands of us. This openness Levinas calls Le Dire, (“The Saying”), by which he means an entirely unconditioned, unexpected future, as opposed to Le Dit (“The Said”), which refers to the totality of what has been said, of all conventional language.
Similarly, Hanna Liss of the University of Heidelberg proposes that chapter 6 introduces a “theopolitical revolution” that challenges the audience to an entirely different way of thinking. YHWH is like nothing the people imagine. YHWH is not simply a national God, like Asshur, whose power is correlated with the rise and fall of nations.
The transition from the vision of the divine glory in the first part of the chapter to the incomprehensible message in the second is that from a theology of creation, in which the glory of YHWH fills the entire earth, to one in which God is manifest in apparent absence, and in a transformation of the people’s consciousness. The people must grapple with this contradiction between immanence and absence, and this is part of Isaiah’s message that they must hear/see but not understand.
While fruitful, these approaches do not address the fundamental problem of the commission: a God who is unethical, who wills his people’s destruction and obfuscates their repentance.
Purifying Isaiah’s Lips
We can gain more clarity by looking at the lead up to Isaiah’s commission. In the year of the death of King Uzziah—a reign characterized both by its longevity and by its prosperity—Isaiah has a vision of YHWH sitting on a high and uplifted throne, the hems of his robes filling the temple. Seraphim—fiery, winged serpents—surround him, celebrating his transcendence and immanence. The jambs of the Temple shake, and it is filled with smoke (vv. 1–4). Isaiah is terrified, because he is of impure lips, dwelling amidst a people of impure lips:
ישׁעיה ו:ה וָאֹמַר אוֹי לִי כִי נִדְמֵיתִי כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי וּבְתוֹךְ עַם טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב כִּי אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת רָאוּ עֵינָי.
Isa 6:5 I cried, “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 of Hosts.”
The lips are a synecdoche for the whole person, but also symbolize language, as when Moses declares that he is of עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם “uncircumcised lips” (Exod 6:12), arguing that he can’t speak properly.
“Impurity” imposes a barrier between humans and God; a person in a state of impurity cannot approach the sacred place or touch sacred things. To have impure lips, therefore, means that communication with God is impossible.
To purify his lips, a seraph touches them with a coal taken from the altar:
ישׁעיה ו:ו וַיָּעָף אֵלַי אֶחָד מִן הַשְּׂרָפִים וּבְיָדוֹ רִצְפָּה בְּמֶלְקַחַיִם לָקַח מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. ו:ז וַיַּגַּע עַל פִּי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה נָגַע זֶה עַל שְׂפָתֶיךָ וְסָר עֲוֹנֶךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר.
Isa 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.”
As with any initiation, the act is transformative. Henceforth Isaiah speaks with purified lips, and, by implication, in a new language.
The Paradox and Challenge of Isaiah’s Enlightenment
The purification of his lips creates an incommensurable gap between Isaiah and the people. He is already an inhabitant of a new age. Nevertheless, he has no other language with which to speak to “this people,” except theirs. Every word of his then carries an implicit rider: this does not mean what it says.
Seeing the world as it appears to human eyes means being blind to YHWH’s reality and vice versa. The future ideal Davidic king in Isaiah judges “not according to the appearance of the eyes”:
ישׁעיה יא:ג וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת יְ־הוָה וְלֹא לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אָזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ.
Isa 11:3 He shall sense the truth by his reverence for YHWH: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what his ears perceive.
Knowledge of YHWH means undoing the structures of knowledge and power with which the human world is constructed. For that reason, the first part of Isaiah is full of images of children, who are harbingers of the new age. For example,
ישעיה יא:ח וְשִׁעֲשַׁע יוֹנֵק עַל חֻר פָּתֶן וְעַל מְאוּרַת צִפְעוֹנִי גָּמוּל יָדוֹ הָדָה. יא:ט לֹא יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתוּ בְּכָל הַר קָדְשִׁי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת יְ־הוָה כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.
Isa 11:8 A babe shall play over a viper’s hole, and an infant pat his hand over an adder’s den. 11:9 In all of my sacred mount they shall not do evil or destroy, for the land shall be filled with knowledge of YHWH as water covers the sea.
These points may give us some insight into YHWH’s strange command. It is a model of reading and interpretation. It is a process of being baffled and trying to make sense. If something seems simple, it is not. This is especially the case with Isaiah, which alternates passages of great clarity with ones of the utmost obscurity. Either Isaiah disobeys the divine command, or every act of communication is misleading, including the hope of ultimate salvation.
The Blind Will See
As the book progresses, the message is reworked, reversed, and restated. For example, in Deutero-Isaiah (chs. 40–55), the blindest of people, who may be the prophet or Israel, is charged with bringing illumination to the world:
ישׁעיה מב:יח הַחֵרְשִׁים שְׁמָעוּ וְהַעִוְרִים הַבִּיטוּ לִרְאוֹת. מב:יט מִי עִוֵּר כִּי אִם עַבְדִּי וְחֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח מִי עִוֵּר כִּמְשֻׁלָּם וְעִוֵּר כְּעֶבֶד יְ־הוָה.
Isa 42:18 Listen, you who are deaf; you blind ones, look up and see! 42:19 Who is so blind as My servant, so deaf as the messenger I send? Who is so blind as the chosen one, so blind as the servant of YHWH?
Yet even at the very end of the book the community that produces the lament of 63:7–64:11 complains that YHWH is still deliberately leading them astray:
ישׁעיה סג:יז לָמָּה תַתְעֵנוּ יְ־הוָה מִדְּרָכֶיךָ תַּקְשִׁיחַ לִבֵּנוּ מִיִּרְאָתֶךָ שׁוּב לְמַעַן עֲבָדֶיךָ שִׁבְטֵי נַחֲלָתֶךָ.
Isa 63:17 Why, YHWH, do You make us stray from Your ways, and turn our hearts away from revering You? Relent for the sake of Your servants, the tribes that are Your very own!
As it was in the commission, redemption remains beyond the horizon.
Two Aspects of God, Two Voices in Isaiah
The background for the book of Isaiah is the catastrophes of the 8th–6th centuries B.C.E., the destruction of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and therewith YHWH’s hopes for the world. The violence that destroys them, and whose ultimate author is YHWH, conflicts with YHWH’s desire to bring about an era of universal peace and justice.
The book of Isaiah stages a dialogue between two aspects of YHWH, as well as of the human voice that articulates it. Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895–1975) concept of “double-voicedness” might be useful here. One voice of the book, the official one, says that there is a story, leading through the abyss of exile to the glorious return. The other voice is sceptical, sometimes satirical, and speaks for the hopelessness of Israel as well as Isaiah.
Robert P. Carroll (1941–2000) of the University of Glasgow writes of Isaiah: “This the most visionary of texts calls for the most visionary of readings ... reading a book such as Isaiah calls for profoundly imaginative acts of interpretation.” Carroll uses the metaphor of blindsight for the work of the critic, that it requires an obfuscation of the senses to see that which is not obvious, which is just beyond the horizon. The commission, with its double meaning of שעע/שעה, gaze/glaze, is thus a challenge to the imagination.
An Unresolvable Problem
The ethical problem at the heart of the commission cannot be resolved. YHWH wills to destroy his people, as much as YHWH desires to deliver them. The book stages a conflict within God, as well as within the prophet. On one hand, there is the comforting story, that passes through catastrophe to ultimate salvation. On the other hand, there is the indefinite postponement of the end of the story, the recurrence of disaster, and the despairing voice that says, עַד מָתַי אֲדֹנָי “How long, O Lord.”
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Prof. Francis Landy is Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. He holds a D.Phil in Comparative Literature from the University of Sussex and is the author of Beauty and the Enigma and Other Essays in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield), Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs (Sheffield Phoenix), and Hosea: a Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix).
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