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Politics of Scripture

Looking for Seeds amid Stumps

The political message of the ambiguous reference to a stump in Isaiah 6 might lie not in the text itself but rather in the history of its redaction.

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘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 eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph* touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
   and stop their ears,
   and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
   and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
   without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
   and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
   it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
   whose stump remains standing
   when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:1–13

If you visit the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington, you’ll see exhibits featuring numerous pictures like the one above: trees snapped like toothpicks by the catastrophic 1980 blast, leaving only lowly stumps still rooted in the ground. Yet when you leave the indoor exhibits and walk outside to look at the volcano itself, you’re greeted by quite a different sight: a lush, green landscape bearing surprisingly few obvious scars from the violent eruption (excluding, of course, the gaping hole where the peak of the mountain used to be). This transition is one of the major themes that the thoughtfully curated monument tries to drive home. For all their destructiveness, volcanic eruptions are actually one of the crucial motors of ecological renewal. Dead stumps are destined once again to become thriving trees.

This duality of the stump as both remnant of death and cradle of life is a crucial image in the famous yet shocking prophecy in Isaiah 6. The prophet describes his stand before the divine throne, where God commissions him as a messenger. Unlike Moses at the burning bush or Jeremiah at the beginning of his book, Isaiah is eager for the job. “Here I am,” he cries, “send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). Be careful what you wish for, Isaiah: God proceeds to tell him that his task is essentially to be an anti-prophet, preventing wayward Israel from changing course—so that God may have a pretense for destroying them. “How long, O Lord?” asks the terrified prophet (Isaiah 6:11). The answer: until there is nothing left. The Israelite polity is beyond the point of no return.

It’s here that we encounter the image of the stump, in the closing verse of the chapter, which the NRSV renders as follows: “‘Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again (veshava vehayta leva‘er), like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump” (Isaiah 6:13). This fits well enough with the grim outlook that we’ve seen so far. God is relentless and will not rest until the rebellious brood has been eliminated. On this interpretation, the stump represents the culmination of devastation. A once-mighty tree has been reduced to nothing, as the landscape around Mount St. Helens appeared right after the 1980 eruption.

However, if someone were to read this passage in the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation instead, they’d get a totally different impression: “But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged (veshava vehayta leva‘er) like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed.” In the selfsame Hebrew phrase that the NRSV reads as an assurance of complete destruction, the NJPS finds the narrow aversion of complete destruction. On this interpretation, the stump represents the hopeful potential for renewal amid devastation. A once-mighty tree has been reduced to almost nothing, but even from this modest stature it will again engender life—as the landscape around Mount St. Helens attests today.

The political stakes of this translational disagreement could not be higher: the very life of the nation hangs in the balance. In order to think through these big-picture stakes, however, we need to get into the weeds of exegesis. I’d like to suggest that the meaning of this passage is not stable. It’s a moving target, and its richest political significance may be found in that movement.

Let’s start with the Hebrew. The ambiguity hinges on the word veshava, from shuv, which has a basic meaning of “turn back” but may also mean, by extension, “repent” (i.e., a “turning back” to proper conduct). The NRSV reads shuv adverbially, meaning “again,” in coordination (or hendiadys) with the burning (vehayta leva‘er) that follows. This is also how the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, understands it. By contrast, the NJPS takes shuv to refer to its own discrete action: an act of repentance that takes place in addition to, and in spite of, the promised burning. This reading finds a precedent in Rashi (11th-century France), whom Jews traditionally regard as the most authoritative medieval rabbinic commentator.

In terms of classical Hebrew grammar, the NRSV makes somewhat more sense than the NJPS. In terms of literary context, however, the NRSV seems at first to make much more sense. Nothing about God’s preceding pronouncement suggests the possibility of averting the severe decree through repentance. On the contrary, God outright tells Isaiah that the reason he is to stymie the people’s comprehension is so that they don’t “turn (vashav, from shuv) and be healed.” On what possible basis, then, does the NJPS read the final verse directly against the grain of everything that comes before it?

That basis, it turns out, is the final phrase of both the verse and the chapter: “the holy seed is its stump” in the NRSV, “its stump shall be a holy seed” in the NJPS. What does it mean to say that the lowly stump is (or will be) a holy seed? The phrase appears only once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: Ezra 9:2, with reference to the restored exiles who, much to Ezra’s consternation, have started intermingling with the Gentiles in the land. In Ezra, the “holy seed” is the national integrity of God’s people—specifically, a small remnant of the people who withstood exile and now face a demographic threat (from Ezra’s perspective, at least). The NJPS is therefore not entirely wrong to detect a note of survival in this grim coda. In light of Ezra, the idea of the “holy seed” would appear strongly to imply it.

Based on this and other evidence, many scholars (myself included) believe that the phrase “the holy seed is its stump” is a late addition to the original oracle. It’s what we call a “gloss”: a small addendum that clarifies the meaning of an obscure or ambiguous phrase. A scribe at some point in the Second Temple period—perhaps one of the scribes who wrote other late material in the book of Isaiah—wanted to ensure that the phrase “like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled” would be understood correctly. That stump, he tells his postexilic Jewish audience, is you.

If the final phrase is indeed a gloss, it means that, in fact, both the NRSV and the NJPS are correct—just with reference to different moments in the history of the text. In keeping with the rest of the chapter, the final verse was originally a straightforward oracle of national destruction, aligning with the NRSV reading. The stump symbolized death. Centuries later, a Jewish scribe realized that this no longer made sense: it was an empirical fact that the people had indeed survived. In light of this reality, he deftly noted that the reference to repeated burning could, with a little grammatical straining, mean what the NJPS says it means: repentance and survival despite near-total destruction. He reimagined it this way and then clarified that the stump that would remain following this conflagration was the “holy seed.” In this combination of two botanical images, the seemingly dead stump came to symbolize the stubborn persistence of life.

The story of Mount St. Helens is found neither in the volcanic wasteland of 1980 nor the lush forests of the present. Rather, it’s found in the movement between these two. The same, I would suggest, is true about Isaiah 6. It’s a mistake to assume that the received or canonical form of the biblical text must always be the ultimate horizon of political-theological meaning. Sometimes, the most profound political meaning of a text is the history of how that text was formed. We shouldn’t settle on the NRSV or the NJPS but instead should think together with the scribe who, to put it anachronistically, moved from the one to the other. He managed to find some good in what seemed like an impossibly grim condemnation of his entire people. In so doing, he affirmed that even societies that seem clearly beyond the point of no return may still make concrete changes to avert disaster. Read this way, Isaiah 6 is a study in hope—in the political possibilities that come from looking for seeds amid stumps.

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