Exegetical Exercise (Isaiah 6:1-8)

pen on paper drawing of six-winged seraph

A six-winged seraph, burning – incense

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 9 is Isaiah 6:1-8, “the call of Isaiah.” Here’s the text (version: Inclusive Bible) and my notes on it:

1/In the year of the death of Uzziah, ruler of Judah, I saw YHWH seated on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the temple. 2/ Seraphs were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
3/ They would cry out to one another, “Holy! Holy! Holy is YHWH Omnipotent! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorposts and thresholds quaked at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple kept filling with smoke.
4/Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips! And my eyes have seen the Ruler, YHWH Omnipotent!”
5/ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding an ember which it had taken with tongs from the altar. 7/ The seraph touched my mouth with the ember. “See,” it said, “now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed, and your sin is pardoned.”
8/ Then I heard the voice of the Holy One saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
“Here I am,” I said, “send me!”

Notes/ First reading: Would we want to experience this vision ourselves? Hard to say. It’s overwhelming; God is so much higher and greater than the Temple (which is itself great) that a fragment of God’s apparel fills the Temple. Would I want my lips touched with an ember (though the prophet doesn’t register any pain … does this mean there wasn’t any?) – if it made the difference between being doomed and not being doomed?

“the year of the death of Uzziah” (v.1): might simply be a convenient time-marker, but it might have some additional significance; see 2 Kings 15:1-7, 2 Chronicles 26:1-22 for Uzziah (aka Azariah); Chronicles describes Uzziah’s effort to burn incense on the altar, which Rashi links to Isaiah’s vision [this happens in the year Uzziah is stricken with leprosy, equivalent to death; God is present in the Temple to act as judge of Uzziah; the quaking of the doorposts in v. 3 is a response to the earthquake – mentioned in Zechariah 14:5 – which was a cosmic response to Uzziah’s arrogance, but God neither allowed U. to be swallowed up by the earth or burned, but struck him with leprosy]. In that case, the year of Uzziah’s death (or, “death”) could be substantively significant.

background chronology/timeline: 2 Kings 15 describes Azariah (Uzziah) as doing what was pleasing in God’s view – which seems to be a statement about not worshiping alternative gods – but Isaiah 1-5 contains strong condemnations of excessive, meaningless ritual worship (1:10-15) and injustice – inequality, the oppression of the poor, etc., and less about not worshiping idols or pagan deities (Isaiah 2:5-21) –  (If we think Isaiah 6:1-10 marks a shift in Isaiah’s prophetic career, to a new/different message characterized by no longer calling for repentance – which is one view – then we might infer that 1-5 are prophetic messages delivered during Uzziah’s tenure. At a minimum, then, Uzziah presided over a system characterized (in Isaiah) by economic injustice accompanied by or amounting to violence; this is the crime for which the nation is about to be punished.

the seraphs: We usually think of seraphim as angels, and these creatures are described as having wings, but elsewhere the term used here, literally “burning” or “fiery,” refers to serpents; [maybe angels and serpents are less distinct than we think]; Targum Jonathan says they cover their faces so as not to see God, and their feet/legs so as not to be seen; Rashi adds that their feet look like calves’ feet, so they cover them because they don’t want to remind anyone of the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf.
Whatever they look like, they are the most active agents in the text: the subjects of the most verbs, if we include the single seraph who touches Isaiah’s lips with the ember, and count the activity of procuring it from the altar in the first place. Their active, noticeable fearsomeness orients us toward God’s essentially undescribed and undisclosed fearsomeness; everything the seraphs do seems to have the purpose of calling attention to and to maintaining the boundaries of God’s holiness.
They are loud; if the doorposts of the Temple aren’t quaking because of the earthquake, they are quaking because of the seraphs’ voices; so it’s remarkable, when we think of it, that no one sees or hears all of this going on … “full, the whole earth, with God’s glory,” but people don’t seem to notice it; it is as if Isaiah has been given an opportunity to see something normally hidden from human perception.
Possibly related: God is the subject of almost no verbs. God is seated. And then, eventually, God (or rather, God’s voice) speaks. We can’t read this as the seraphs being more important than God, clearly; somehow, just the opposite. God’s mere (glorious) presence is at the center of everything …

Why does the Temple keep filling with smoke? Nothing tells us explicitly. Maybe because of incense or some other artifact of worship, e.g. sacrifice? Maybe because there is a lot of fire in the text, embodied by the seraphs, and possibly also by God?

“doomed … unclean lips”: Isaiah’s exclamation about not being able to survive seeing God, especially in an impure state, echoes Hagar’s amazement (Genesis 16:13), Moses’ caution (Exodus 3:6), Gideon (Judges 6:22-23) & Manoah (Judges 13:22) … and there is plenty of evidence that it’s dangerous even to be in close quarters with God without taking the appropriate precautions (see Leviticus 10:1-3; 1 Samuel 5; 2 Samuel 6:6-7); so Isaiah’s exclamation seems completely precedented. He identifies the core problem as “unclean lips” – which could also be translated “unclean speech.” The “unclean” part of that is the same word used to describe all kinds of purity violations in Leviticus, ritual uncleanness; is there any good reason to assume that it doesn’t refer to ritual uncleanness here? In the context of Isaiah 1:10-17 that might be taken to mean something more inclusive, demanding more substantive righteous/just practice. Midrash has it that Isaiah’s saying “I live among a people of unclean lips” drew God’s rebuke and some subsequent punishment. “Lips” (or speech) is called out as unclean, but it’s Isaiah’s eyes that see God; do the lips infect the whole being, therefore affecting the eyes? Are the eyes also unclean?

purification by ember: One of the seraphs solves the problem by applying an ember “from the altar” to Isaiah’s lips; presumably the ember is left over from sacrificial worship; it’s sanctifying. If it hurts, the prophet doesn’t say so. Targum Jonathan says the seraph puts a word into the prophet’s mouth, rather than an ember. Whether it’s an ember or a word, its effect is to “turn aside” one form of wrongdoing (avon, often translated “iniquity”) and to “cover” (literally; in many contexts, translated as “make atonement for”; I’m inclined to think atonement in these contexts is a form of metaphorical “covering” something, hiding it from view so it no longer exerts influence on regard …) another. (The other form is chattat, often translated “sin,” the kind we are often told means falling short in some way.)

“Then I heard …”: The prophet’s hearing clears as soon as he undergoes purification; as if his impure condition was a barrier to perception, which in this case would also be communication; the “hearing” is the same kind of hearing people have to do to obey God’s commands (e.g, Dtr. 6:4); God seems to be addressing an audience other than the prophet, perhaps the members of the heavenly council, although the prophet is able to hear and respond.

“Here I am!”: Unlike all the other call stories we’ve looked at this summer, Isaiah doesn’t hesitate at all. His hand is up, like the kid in class who always knows the answer … (“Me, me, Teach, pick me!”)

There is so much emphasis on the holiness of God in this text, everything – the vision itself, God’s immensity, the activity and speech of the seraphim, the purification ritual – works together to underscore that. God’s holiness is fearsome and awe-inspiring; at first the prophet thinks he’s doomed – and yet, paradoxically (?), in this text in which God’s holiness is stressed more than any other of the call narratives we’ve studied in the past weeks, the person called – and he isn’t even directly called, he overhears that someone is needed to “go for us” – is the only one who doesn’t hesitate for an instant. Is this coincidental? Does it have to do with Isaiah’s superior character and preparedness, which might be suggested by the fact that he has this vision in the first place? Is it a consequence of the purification he receives, or the seraph’s assurance that it has been effective? Is it a consequence of this particular perception of God? Some other explanation? It just seems possibly significant.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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