Derek Leman’s Daily Portion today comments on Isaiah 1:27-31. Here are his comments:
27 Zion will be ransomed because of justice,
her penitents by righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners will be ruined together,
and those who forsake Adonai will come to an end.
29 For they will be ashamed of the terebinth trees you have desired;
You will be embarrassed of the gardens you preferred.
30 For you will be like a terebinth tree, its leaf withering,
like a garden which has no water.
31 And the strong person will be like tinder from the flax,
and his handiwork a spark.
Both of them will burn together with no one to quench it.
An important new theological idea is introduced in this section, one that is not an emphasis in the writings of First Isaiah (the eighth century prophet who authored much of the material in Isaiah 1-39). That idea is the separate destinies of the righteous and the rebellious. This emphasis bears the imprint of Third Isaiah (the author of Isaiah 56-66), who has been convincingly identified as the final editor of the book of Isaiah and the creator of Isaiah chapter 1 (Jacob Stromberg, Isaiah After Exile).
Connections between Isaiah 1:27-31 and Third Isaiah are easy to detect. The clause “those who forsake Adonai” in vs. 28 shows up again in 65:11. Condemnation of worship under terebinth trees is seen again in 57:5. The practice of worshipping in sacred groves or gardens only shows up again in 65:3 and 66:17. The mention of judgment by fire and people worshiping in groves and gardens forms a literary inclusio for the entire collection of Isaiah. Inclusio is a literary device in which the beginning and end of a literary work refer to the same or similar images and topics, like bookends. The specific bookends in the book of Isaiah are judgment by fire and idolatry in groves and gardens.
In 1:27-31 we read of Adonai’s forsakers coming to an end, being burned with no quenching. In 66:24 the terrible image of dead bodies burning without quenching concludes the entire book. The terebinths and gardens of 1:27-31 find their counterpart in 66:17 (also in 57:5 and 65:3) concerning “those who enter the gardens” and who perform sanctification rituals and eat unclean meat there.
First Isaiah expresses more of a concern for social justice whereas Third Isaiah focuses more on condemning disloyal worship practices. This last section of Isaiah chapter 1 reflects a difference in outlook from earlier sections, not only concerning the notion of separate destinies for the two groups but also in its primary complaint against the city.
The final and undeniable parallel is the horrific image of burning. “Both of them will burn together with no one to quench it,” says Isaiah 1:31. How similar this is to the end of the book of Isaiah: “They shall go out and gaze on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me . . . their worm shall not die nor their fire be quenched” (Isaiah 66:24).
How has Isaiah chapter 1 altered the outlook from that of the original Isaiah to the viewpoint of the anonymous writer after the exile we know as Third Isaiah? The truth is more complicated even than a two-step editorial process. In between First and Third Isaiah was, of course, Second Isaiah, a hopeful prophet in Babylon who gave words of assurance to the exiles from Judah and promised a glorious return and renewal for ruined Jerusalem. But Isaiah chapter 1 seems to be the edited product of First Isaiah’s words and Third Isaiah’s arrangement and additions. The final editor of the book has assembled words of the ancient prophet and given them a new meaning by means of insertions and additions.
The message of Isaiah 1:27-31 is that God will avenge himself on the leaders of Jerusalem in order to save and restore the holy city. Only some will be saved from this coming conflagration, those who live by justice and righteousness. Others who live by rebelliousness and iniquity will meet their final doom. Those living in the holy city now are encouraged to join the faithful and to know that God will differentiate in the coming judgment. The words of Isaiah of Jerusalem have been re-preached by Third Isaiah as an introduction to a whole new way of reading the book of Isaiah. The book began as words to Jerusalem in the eighth century, morphed into a book for Judeans in exile during the time of Second Isaiah, and now is read as an all-encompassing revelation for the small-but-restored Jerusalem risen from the ashes two hundred years after Isaiah.
EXCURSUS ON TREES AND GARDENS IN WORSHIP
Ancient temples sometimes had gardens attached to them. The produce of these gardens represented the power of the gods over fertility of crops (John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament). In a scene in Assur (capital of Assyria) a carving shows a god with four streams (like the streams of Eden in Genesis 2) flowing from him and he is between two sacred trees. According to Walton, groves and gardens have been found near temples in Egypt and Mesopotamia. These sometimes featured pools and fountains, exotic plants, and crop plantings. Because of the linkage with Isaiah 65-66, it seems likely the references in Isaiah 1 also have to do with returnees from Babylon bringing some of these practices with them to Jerusalem.
Descriptions of worship amid terebinths and oaks (Isa 57:5; Hos 4:13; Jer 2:20-27; 3:6) often use imagery of sex and adultery. Some think that there were literal fertility rites practiced under the trees (cultic sex acts), but the sexual imagery may simply be a metaphor for the betrayal of God by preferring idols. Trees could function as a kind of Asherah pole, a practice alluded to many time in the Bible but whose exact details are unknown. Worshiping deities of fertility was common in the ancient world since humanity’s greatest problems (survival, progeny, fertility of soil) all revolved around ability to conceive. Israelites fell into idolatry, thinking offerings and other rites performed in groves would bring prosperity, but instead they brought total calamity.