Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hear, O heavens ...

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken.
     (Isaiah 1:2)

From time to time, the heavens are invoked to listen to someone's testimony:  against a sinner (Isaiah 1:2 and Psalm 50:4; compare Job 20:27, Jer. 2:11-12, and 51:48) or, on one occasion, in praise of YHWH (Psalm 32:1-3).

Let's take a closer look at Isaiah 1:2-3 —
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
     for the Lord has spoken:
"Children have I reared and brought up,
     but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
     and the donkey its master's crib,
but Israel does not know,
     my people do not understand."1
The part about the ox and the donkey is clear enough — I get the point of that! But what's this "Hear, O heavens" business? Walter Brueggemann comments:
The call to heaven and earth is a rhetorical assertion of indignation on Yahweh's part. Yahweh summons cosmic witnesses to observe the mess that has become of the relationship with "my people." Because Yahwism is monotheistic, Yahweh cannot summon other gods to observe, and so instead summons the most formidable of creatures, heaven and earth. Israel's failure in its response to Yahweh is a matter of cosmic concern, now made evident to the whole known world.2
Note Brueggemann's use of the word "rhetorical". Clearly we're in the realm of metaphor here. Indeed, the prophets often express their message in poetry:  hence modern translations break Isaiah 1:2-3 into eight short lines, instead of a single paragraph. And note the parallelism (so characteristic of Hebrew poetry) between lines 5 and 6, and again between lines 7 and 8.

If I'm not mistaken, the text is a rudimentary depiction of a courtroom scene. The heavens and the earth are called in to hear YHWH's testimony against "my people", that they might testify to the rightness of YHWH's verdict against Israel. This appeal to a "court" is a recurrent rhetorical device in the prophets, and I expect we will encounter it again.

Brueggemann says, "Israel's failure in its response to Yahweh is a matter of cosmic concern, now made evident to the whole known world." Indeed! That last phrase, "the whole known world," interprets the heavens and the earth in its standard sense, "the entirety of the cosmos".

In my opinion, the opening chapter of Isaiah is one of the most powerful, and terrible, texts in all of scripture. It reduces me alternately to terror and to tears.

God have mercy on the Church when inevitably we follow Israel down her backsliding path!


1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, ad loc.


Jamie said...

Why does the appeal to the heavens have to be rhetorical? Why should it not be referring to the inhabitants of the heavens, given that there are other inhabitants besides God described in the Bible?

Actually, now that I read it again, maybe that's what you were saying. I couldn't tell exactly what you meant with the reference to the "heavens" being rhetorical.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

That's what I get for tossing a post out there without exercising my usual rigor!

You're right; the reference to the heavens could be understood as an appeal to angelic beings. (No, that's not what I meant in the post.)

Here's the broader "history of religions" background. Pagan nations often used the image of a heavenly council. That is, the deity at the head of the pantheon was surrounded by lesser gods, who functioned as his advisers. Those advisers constituted the "host" of heaven.

We find the same language in the Hebrew scriptures: YHWH of hosts. Genesis 1 provides a well-known instance of the heavenly council imagery: God says "Let us make man in our image".

What does that mean? Human beings are created in the image of angels? Is it a hint at the much-later Christian doctrine of the Trinity? Is it a plural of majesty? Or maybe it's a holdover from an ancient era when the patriarchs were not strictly monotheistic, but saw YHWH as the head of a pantheon.

There's at least one Old Testament passage where "the host of heaven" means "stars" — again, an attempt to avoid a reference to polytheism.

I suppose we could take the text literally, in which case "heavens" would refer to angels and "earth" would refer to human beings. But I suspect the language would still be rhetorical, unless we imagine every person on earth stopping whatever they were doing at the time to listen to YHWH's indictment of Israel.

The structure of the verse is poetical; the language is borrowed from polytheists, but presumably isn't meant in that sense here; and Brueggemann's rhetorical interpretation makes perfect sense to me.

You would rather see it as signifying an audience of angels, listening raptly to YHWH while he brings his charges against Israel?