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.Isaiah 1:1, 10–20 NRSV
The book of Isaiah begins with a bang, with a searing indictment of the nation of Judah. Their land now lies desolate, their cities burned with fire with only a few survivors left (verses 7-9). Had YHWH not mercifully spared them utter destruction, they would have been as devastated as the ancient cities of the plain, which the prophet proceeds to characterize. Chief among the five cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah were the paradigmatic people of the land, destroyed by YHWH for their cruelty, wickedness, and perversity, for which the Canaanites would later be vomited out of the land (Leviticus 18:24-30).
In Genesis, the text juxtaposes the hospitality of Abraham in chapter 18 with the failed hospitality of Lot and wicked inhospitality of the Sodomites in chapter 19. The story of the hospitality of Abraham culminates in the barren Sarah being made fruitful, while YHWH rains sulfur and fire down on Sodom and, unable to leave the ways of Sodom behind them, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt and his daughters have incestuous relations with their father. The ‘pruned’ sexuality and generous hospitality of the recently circumcised Abraham is contrasted with the wild and perverse sexual behavior and the violent inhospitality of the Sodomites, with one being made fruitful and blessed and the other barren and cursed.
The literary context and framing of the story of Sodom in Genesis foregrounds its significance for the subsequent memory of Israel. Immediately after the deep formative event of the gift of circumcision as the sign of the covenant with Abraham, the visitation of the angels, and the annunciation of the birth of the promised seed, Isaac, Sodom and its ways were directly and sharply contrasted with the ways that should characterize Israel. Sodom’s destruction was a great historical landmark, a signal example of that which Israel was to reject and a warning of what would befall them if they failed to do so. One of the darkest moments in Israel’s history occurred in Judges 19, as the city of Gibeah behaved in a manner reminiscent of Sodom.
Israel would probably have been accustomed to telling its history in a way that presented the city of Sodom as a prominent foil of their identity as the descendants of Abraham. Isaiah’s recollection of Sodom is an explosive deployment of the foundational narratives of Judah’s history; rather than associating Judah with the one they considered their father—Abraham—Isaiah highlights their resemblance to the wicked former peoples of the land whom YHWH dispossessed.
Not only does Judah’s likeness to the Sodomites invite YHWH’s destructive judgment and their cutting off from the land, it also provokes a sacrificial crisis. When they are behaving like Sodomites, far from being received with divine pleasure, even Judah’s multitudinous sacrifices and prayers become an ‘abomination’, a persistent stink in the nose of YHWH (verses 11-15).
Moshe Halbertal observes that sacrifice as ‘offering’ always involves the potential of rejection [On Sacrifice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) 9]. Ritual was intended to provide a ‘shield’ and assurance to the offerer:
The fatal possibility of rejection gives rise to an important function of “ritual”: successful transfer. Ritual is a prescribed procedure meant to guarantee the transfer’s success. Adherence to detail routine makes the passage from laying down to acceptance less fraught. Ritual is thus a protocol that protects from the risk of rejection.[On Sacrifice, 15. Emphasis original.]
Isaiah’s challenge to Judah reopens the sacrificial crisis that the rituals of the Levitical system were presumed to resolve: far from pacifying YHWH, the religious rituals of a wicked people incite his wrath and intense displeasure, serving as memorials of their cruel and perverse conduct. What Judah regarded as its holy service, YHWH regarded as the ‘trampling’ of his courts by an occupying people, a wearying burden, and an abomination.
Under such conditions, instead of relieving the divine displeasure at their sin, Judah’s religious ceremonies and rituals markedly intensified it. Were it not for the dam of YHWH’s merciful forbearance, the divine wrath they incessantly incited would long since have wiped the land clean of their memory.
A challenge to the fetishization of the sacrificial cult is a recurring theme in the prophets: ritual cannot be abstracted from the broader behavior of those performing it, nor offering from the conduct and the hearts of the offerer (cf. Jeremiah 6:20; Amos 5:21-23; Malachi 1:10). Ritual is not hermetically sealed from or exculpatory for the rest of life, as if it could shield the vicious conduct of an oppressive and impenitent people from the eyes and judgment of YHWH.
The entire fabric of Judah’s society is rotten, riddled through with the vilest oppression and injustice. YHWH is the one who hears the cries of the widow and fatherless, but exhibiting the cruelty and inhospitality that characterized the degenerate Sodomites before them, Judah’s corrupt leaders exploit the poor and pervert justice for the perpetuation of their decadent ease. Rather than exposing its true character, the cult of YHWH itself had been rendered subservient to this perverse system, a means of dissembling corruption and oppression and dulling the conscience of Judah to its enormities.
Along with his condemnation, Isaiah’s message offers Judah hope: if they will only repent of their evil deeds, cleanse their ways, pursue justice, and plead the cause of the needy, YHWH will heed their voices when they cry to him for aid and they will be spared catastrophic judgment. If they fail to do so, however, the God who heeds the cries of the poor will devour them with the sword.
The temptation to put faith in religiosity, to employ religious ceremonies and rituals as akin to compensatory ‘moral offsets’ for our godless, oppressive, and unjust behavior is a perennial one. Treated in such a manner, what we suppose to be our worship of God can be made an integral element of our oppressive and perverse societies, as if it were a valve designed to release the discomfiting pressure of uneasy consciences.
Like the people of Judah Isaiah excoriates, we can come before God with gifts rank with the stench of exploitative economic practices from which we have grown rich and hands bloodied from unjust wars. We can ignore the needy and the stranger in our neighborhoods, while expecting to receive God’s welcome when we visit his house. We can pollute our lives with all sorts of immorality and fornication, while feigning to be the spotless Bride of Christ.
Isaiah mercilessly attacks hypocritical religiosity, stripping evildoers of excuses with which they sear consciences and shields with which they disguise their wickedness. Far from serving to minimize their exposure to judgment, the religiosity of an unjust, oppressive, and perverse people places it in the greatest peril. Lightly invoking the name and blessing of God upon our nations is the most dangerous folly when our societies are filled with injustice, cruelty, and wickedness. Political theology that is not alert to and resolutely opposed to the ways our nations’ performative religiosity functions to deceive ourselves and—so we may fancy—God concerning our social injustice is hardly worthy of the name.
True ritual, by contrast, is a searching indictment of all injustice, a corrective for it, and a model for righteous behavior. Presenting ourselves before God in our ceremonies, we invite his inspection of the entirety of our lives; recognizing this fact, we must comport ourselves accordingly in all that we do. Civil religion and cultural religiosity will betray all those who put their hope in them.
Unless we are coming to God for cleansing, repenting of our sins, to learn to do good, to seek justice, and to correct oppression, our presence before him will not be met with his pleasure and our richest ceremonies will merely incite his wrath. To those who come in humility and repentance, however, the promise of God is as wonderful as it was in the day of Isaiah:
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.