The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“I’m gonna tell your parents!” The shout rang in my ears as I ran to hide. I had been playing football with some neighborhood kids and was pretty angry at losing so I started calling them some names I had learned from some dubious sources. These were not very nice names and in fact were so upsetting that the game was ending and the threat of my parents finding out caused me to turn and hide.
My parents were not angry parents by any stretch of the imagination but the idea of corporate punishment was still enough for me to lose my confidence and go into hiding. My friends never told my parents and so I never had to deal with the consequences, but my fear of anger and retribution was enough to keep me in line most of the time and afraid whenever I was not in line.
So what do we do when we encounter an angry God in the Bible?
If you are like me, perhaps you want to bury your head in the sand or skip forward to the nice utopian bits from the prophet. Or maybe these passages are traumatic because of the way a parent or lover has been in your relationship, angry and abusive. It can be very hard to hear these seeming threats of violence spewing from the mouth of an angry God. We are so conditioned to hear this passage as an angry parent storming down the hall to give us a whooping.
But what if there is another way to read this passage?
Pastor and theologian, Nichola Torbett, this week opened my eyes to another possible reading of this passage. (Nichola Torbett, “Liturgy that Matters – August 7, 2022: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20”, enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.) What if God is not the angry parent that we so often associate with God, but is in fact the voice of the oppressed rising up? Throughout scripture, we see God taking the side of the oppressed, hearing their cries, and providing liberation. So is it that far fetched to think that God may be echoing the call of the oppressed in this passage?
How might that change our understanding? Isaiah tells us the voices we need to heed: the oppressed, the orphans, the widows. The people who feel the brunt of oppression most from the society at that time. If it were their voices crying out against the concentrated power of the elite, would we have more compassion? What if in our context we heard this cry as coming from people of color, refugees, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, the elderly and the younger?
This reading gains further clarity when we see that Isaiah says God is calling the elite of the nation, Sodom and Gomorrah. Woah! Not a flattering call out. And this is not about sexuality as some think of that story, but is explained properly by the prophet Ezekiel. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). We see the same thing being called out by the prophet Isaiah. The wealthy are providing all of the “right” sacrifices, spending lots of money and effort to have the appearance of being good but are neglecting the welfare of actual people. God says that they have blood on their hands, and it is not from their extravagant animal sacrifices.
This requires us to reconsider who God is. God is not the angry parent waiting to punish us when we step out of line. God is the voice of the fed-up and oppressed demanding justice. God is the voice of truth that points out the social ills and inequities in our world and demands we do better. And God’s voice will sometimes be uncomfortable for our respectability and politeness.
So instead of me blabbering for another few minutes, I wanted to share the voice of one activist and author whose voice reminds me of God’s call in Isaiah today. Kimberly Jones had a viral video in June of 2020 while she was out in the streets protesting police brutality. You may have seen this video and I will link it in the online version. I have heard a lot of conversation the last few years about black lives matter, about defund the police, and about being in the streets and being disruptive. Sadly a lot of those conversations focus on the how instead of the why. Are they saying it nicely? Are they going through the “right” channels? Are they causing me discomfort? Are they using the appropriate words? But the why asks, why are they in the streets? Why do they not trust the police? What are the root causes of pain and crime and what would actually address those issues?
If this is feeling uncomfortable to you, that is okay. A little discomfort can help open us up to new ways of thinking. If this is uncomfortable, thank you for staying with me, and I ask that you keep an open mind.
She goes on in a passionate speech that I quote here. Before I go farther, she uses some language that we might not find respectable. But I want to push back on that instinct to dismiss it because of the tone. Listen and let her outraged words, which I can not do justice to, remind you of the anger and pain that is real. And instead of saying, “She should not say it that way.” Let us say, “Why is she so angry and how can we change the systems that keep her oppressed?” Kimberley Jones says:
When they say, why do you burn down the community? Why do you burn down your own neighborhood? It’s not ours! We don’t own anything. We don’t own anything. Trevor Noah said it so beautifully last night, ‘There is a social contract that we all have. That if you steal or I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation.’ But the person who fixes the situation is killing us. So the social contract is broken. And if the social contract is broken why do I give a shit about burning a fucking Target?Kimberly Jones, Activist and Author
What voices are we listening to? Is it the elite or the oppressed? We as a community are drawn to social justice. So what steps will we take to follow the voice of God in our city and country and world? Will we listen to voices that know oppression and follow their lead? “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This is God’s voice. Will we listen?