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.Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
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;
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 is part of the opening of the book of Isaiah, where it provides an introduction to some of the central themes of the book and of the prophetic literature as a whole. In some of the most stirring poetry in the entire Bible, the prophet—speaking in God’s own voice—condemns Israel for lavishing God with extravagant worship while failing to do what God truly wants: attending to the most vulnerable of society. “Take the resources that you’re using to worship me,” God effectively says, “and give it to the human beings who really need it. Once you’ve helped them, we can talk about worship.” When worship comes at the expense of justice, worship becomes blasphemy.
Isaiah’s powerful message has long been cherished by the diverse communities that regard his words as scripture. However, it’s also been a point of fierce contention between them. There’s a venerable Christian tradition of seeing this passage (and other prophetic passages like it) as a kind of “proto-Gospel”—a preliminary effort by God to show Israel what Jesus would one day hammer home: true service of God is not constituted by ritual observance. The flipside is that the vain worship that Isaiah condemns comes to represent “Judaism”—i.e., the stubborn insistence that ritual observance really is what religion is all about.
An early and especially clear example of this Christian tradition is found in the Epistle of Barnabas, a noncanonical Christian text roughly contemporaneous with some parts of the New Testament. Citing our passage from Isaiah, Barnabas explains,
For [God] has made it clear to us through all the prophets that he needs neither sacrifices nor whole burnt offerings nor general offerings[.] … Therefore he has abolished these things, in order that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is free from the yoke of compulsion, might have its offering, one not made by humans.
Barnabas reads Isaiah through a lens that he appears to have inherited from the most influential early Christian critic of Judaism: Paul. According to Paul, Jesus’s life and death underscored a contrast between two conceptions of the path to salvation: (1) faith, i.e., a personal relationship of trust in and love for God, as Abraham modeled; and (2) works, i.e., practical observance of the law, as Moses modeled. He explains,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us … in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.Galatians 3:13–14
Readers have long debated Paul’s exact definitions of “faith” and “works,” as well as whether he truly believed they were firmly opposed. Barnabas appears to map an especially stark understanding of the issue onto Isaiah: the prophet anticipates a rigid Pauline dichotomy, condemning worship—the most iconic manifestation of “works of the law”—in order to prepare the way for salvation through nothing other than faith in Christ. The contours of this reading of Isaiah appear throughout the history of Christianity.
Unsurprisingly, this Christian tradition long ago prompted a Jewish countertradition: Isaiah and the prophets were condemning corrupt ritual, not ritual altogether; they were preaching course correction, not revolution. Today, even some Christian interpreters—disturbed by the anti-Jewish animus of the classic Christian reading of the passage—have taken up this historically Jewish reading.
As a Jewish Bible scholar who teaches at a Christian university, I appreciate this sensitivity. However, I’d also caution against taking this off-ramp too quickly. Dismissing the faiths/works reading of Isaiah simply because it’s (often) anti-Jewish prevents us from engaging with it on its own terms. Such engagement is valuable—though not because the faith/works reading is a strong one; as I’ll explain, I don’t believe it is. Rather, the ways in which it’s a weak reading are instructive. Exploring them reveals how the dominance of the faith/works dichotomy has obscured the deeper political significance of the passage.
In order to examine this, I’d like to turn to an interpreter of Isaiah to whom my fellow Bible scholars don’t pay enough attention: Frederick Douglass, the great nineteenth-century Black abolitionist and public intellectual. Douglass’s most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852), is shot through with quotations of and allusions to biblical passages, including Isaiah 1. It can be easy to chalk this up to the oratorical coloring of a more religious age. This is a mistake. Isaiah’s message deeply informs the entire speech.
For instance, here again is Isaiah:
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.Isaiah 1:11–15
Now note the chill-inducing echoes in Douglass:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Douglass’s allusion to Isaiah bitingly casts the triumphalist celebrations of Independence Day as a nationalist equivalent of the ostentatious worship that incensed the ancient prophet. Americans’ activities on the Fourth of July, Douglass admonished, are just as lavish and, more to the point, just as grotesquely oblivious to the exploitation that undergirds and enables them.
Douglass thundered these words to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society—i.e., to an audience primed to agree with him. This is crucial. The speech is not just about slavery. More specifically, it’s about the Northerners who congratulate themselves for not being slaveowners while nevertheless enabling slavery in the South, especially through complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s about the hideous incongruence of slavery with the values of freedom and dignity that these Northerners celebrate on the Fourth of July and claim to champion themselves. To give voice to his wrath at this hypocrisy, Douglass channeled Isaiah’s condemnation of Israel’s hypocrisy millennia earlier.
Douglass develops this line of thought further when, later in the speech, he trains his critique on an especially fraught target: the white American church. He declares,
The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness.
On one side of this familiar equation are precisely the sorts of public worship that Isaiah condemns. The stark version of the Pauline framework would lead us to expect that opposite such shallow “works” stand true faith. However, this isn’t what we find. Douglass contrasts these “works” with “mercy,” “right doing,” and “practical righteousness.” This is hardly the Pauline notion of faith as an intangible, personal relationship with Christ. In fact, the word “faith” does not appear at all. Instead, Douglass gives us a set of concrete actions. The alternative to works is not “faith” but, in effect, a different sort of works: justice.
Douglass attunes our ear to a political dimension of religion that doesn’t line up along the regnant faith/works division. In so doing, he helps us to hear what Isaiah has been saying all along. It’s true that later in the opening chapter, Isaiah envisions the possible restoration of Jerusalem as “the faithful city” (Isaiah 1:26). However, in the social critique that forms the basis of this week’s lectionary, the prophet speaks of nothing even remotely anticipating an abstract, Pauline conception of faith. Instead, like Douglass, he contrasts vain worship with a series of concrete tasks: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Whether God wants works is never at issue. The question is what kind.
One might attempt to save the faith/works reading of Isaiah by arguing that “works” of justice are really the practical fruit of true faith, which remains primary. Paul, for his part, seemed to think so (see, e.g., Galatians 5:22–26). Yet while this is certainly a plausible reading of Paul, I would suggest that it sidesteps the radicalism of Isaiah’s and Douglass’s critiques. Their point is that one may profess, and even sincerely believe that they have, a true relationship of faith with God—all while not pursuing any of the tasks that that relationship obligates. “Faith,” in other words, may end up looking little different from the ceremonial “works” with which Paul contrasts it. As the Epistle of James, the greatest ancient critique of Paul, put it: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). Isaiah and Douglass (and James, too) therefore offer a different definition of faith: faith is constituted by works of justice for the oppressed and exploited. These aren’t the fruits of antecedent faith. They’re what it means to have faith in the first place.
When Frederick Douglass channeled Isaiah to condemn slavery in Rochester almost two centuries ago, he articulated and, in fact, embodied one of the most compelling and clarifying interpretations of that sublime prophecy. Douglass shows us that Isaiah’s target is not works as opposed to faith. Rather, his target is religion compartmentalized from politics—religion that tries to serve God without serving those about whom God cares most: the oppressed, the exploited, and the others whom society has failed. Both “works” and “faith”—both Judaism and Christianity, for that matter—are susceptible to this danger. Isaiah’s message, ultimately, is that what happens in the house of worship is inseparable from what happens in the streets. The temple is no sanctuary from political responsibility.