Rachel and Todd talk about Flannery O’Connor. We discuss the unusual way that O’Connor developed Christian themes in her stories making use of violence and the grotesque. We look closely at four of her stories in particular, at her Southern regional style and humor as well as common themes like intergenerational conflict, urban and rural culture clashes, and racial tension as well as religious themes like depravity, redemption, grace, revelation, and the Holy Spirit.
Mike and Todd discuss the Book of Mormon. The place of the Book of Mormon as a text that holds its own among the sacred texts of the great world religions. Some classic and recent work in Book of Mormon scholarship and devotional readings. Grant Hardy and his study of the major Book of Mormon narrators – Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni – and their narrative interests and approaches. The inexhaustibility of the Book of Mormon as a source of inspiration and insight, from multiple and even competing perspectives; for example, its availability to both theologically conservative and liberal readings. The Book of Mormon as epic tragedy and a voice of warning of the mistakes of past societies that have led to collapse; in many ways a book about what not to do. Why the Book of Mormon is so important to us personally and why we continue to read it again and again.
Some resources on the Book of Mormon:
The Book of Mormon for the Least of These
Fatimah Salleh and Margret Olsen Hemming
The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions (12 book series)
Joseph M. Spencer, Terryl L. Givens, Deidre Nicole Green, Deidre Green, Sharron J. Harris, James E. Faulconer, Kylie Nielson Turley, Mark A. Wrathall, Kimberly Matheson Berkey, Daniel Becerra, Adam S. Miller, Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, David F. Holland
The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record
Joseph M. Spencer
Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book
John L. Sorenson
Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics
Blair G. Van Dyke, Daniel C. Peterson, Neal Rappleye, Michael R. Ash, Benjamin E. Park, Ralph C. Hancock, Brian D. Birch, Juliann Reynolds, Julie M. Smith, Fiona Givens, David Knowlton, Loyd Isao Ericson, David Bokovoy, Joseph M. Spencer, Seth Payne
Nephi and His Asherah
Daniel C. Peterson
Sacred Texts of the World
The Great Courses
In two competing accounts the origin of human rights has been framed as a product of Christian moral teachings or as a process of rejecting and overcoming oppressive religious superstitions. Where do human rights come from? The Christian origins are significant but a more complete account should also address additional historical factors that helped to activate and further shape our conception of human rights in modern times.
In a previous episode on the Nature of Divine Law I talked about Christine Hayes’s historical study of the biblical tradition and Greek thought and her comparison of their conceptions of the nature of divine law, along with some comments on my own perspective in response to both of these conceptions. As a recap, the difference as she framed it, was that in Greek thought “divine law is divine ‘because it expresses the profound structures of a permanent natural order’… Divine law is an element operating within the physical world and our natures, rather than something imposed upon the world by a god from without.” Whereas in the biblical tradition “the law is divine ‘because it emanates from a god who is master of history’… It is the expression of a personal divine being’s will, which can take the form of detailed written instruction and legislation.” Another way of saying this is that in the Greek conception divine law is internally justified. It is self-contained and right in virtue of itself, much like a logical or mathematical proof. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is justified because it is declared from the mouth of God. It is right because God says it is right. Personally I’ve found a synthesis of these two positions most tenable, as I talked about in that earlier episode. But I’d like to pick up on these ideas and look at them with another set of questions.
One of the issues I’ve been considering a lot recently is the problem of fitting together two highly contestable ideas that both seem right to me but that don’t fit very well with each other. The first idea is that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights. The second idea is that the our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. So what took so long? That’s the big question for me. If Christianity is foundational to human rights why didn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerge in the first century rather than in the twentieth century?
I mentioned that both of these ideas are highly contestable. So it’s worth addressing the matter of whether they’re even true in the first place. First then, does the biblical tradition actually form the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?
There was a debate over this question between Tom Holland and A.C. Grayling in 2019, with Holland arguing that Christianity historically gave us our human values and Grayling arguing that it did not. Tom Holland actually wrote a book on the subject called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, in which he made a detailed case for this. Steven Pinker by contrast, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is very dismissive of religion as a force for peace and human rights. In his view the decline in violence and rise of respect for human rights has occurred apart from and even in spite of religion and in spite of Christianity in particular. In fact he argues that it’s often been a process of overcoming and rejecting Christianity’s illiberal tendencies. I’ve read both Holland’s and Pinker’s books and recently watched the Holland-Grayling debate. I actually think both sides make some good points. Neither side is completely wrong. But neither side is completely right either. So I think the fuller picture is more complex.
What about the second idea, that the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history? This idea is also contested by defenders of Christianity. And much of this may be as a reaction to the excesses of anti-religious and anti-Christian polemics that have distorted the historical narrative, particularly in popular consciousness. The historical distortion is not new. Even going back to Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, Renaissance figures tried to contrast what they considered their enlightened and open perspective to what they portrayed as the medieval “Dark Ages”. And this narrative has persisted and been repurposed through the Enlightenment and into the present day. And a counter-reaction has been warranted. The negative portrayal of the middle ages isn’t fair. They weren’t the bleak dystopian nightmares they’ve been made out to be. Many of the purported anti-intellectual offenses of Christianity, destroying libraries and burning classical texts, are either distortions or fictions. Tom Holland as well as David Bentley Hart, in his contentiously titled book Atheist Delusions, address many of these popular misunderstandings.
Something both Holland and Hart address as well is that it’s really just not the case that no change in values took place in the first century. One of the important features of the preceding classical moral outlook is the different value it placed on the lives of different classes of people, ranging from nobles to slaves. It wasn’t the case that all human lives were of the same value or equal dignity. The highest value was for “the best”, the ἄριστος (áristos) in Greek, from which we get the word “aristocracy”. That was just natural. But then Jesus came along and taught, in quite a revolution of values, that what matters is how we treat “the least”, the ἐλάχιστος (eláchistos). A complete reversal and a conceptual revolution. So that was a big change that indeed started in the first century. So it’s not like nothing happened for the first seventeen hundred years.
Still, I think the biggest changes have come about in the last two or three hundred years. What’s interesting to me as a Christian is that I think we’re closer now to living consistently with the teachings of Jesus than at any other time in history. We still have a long way to go. But we’re closer. Closer than at any other time in the centuries leading up to modern times, at least at the scale of large states. I think modern critics of Christianity like Grayling and Pinker have a point when they say that Christianity has indeed coexisted with and even encouraged a lot of cultural values and practices that have been illiberal and offensive to our modern ideas of human rights. But when I look at the ideas of Jesus, at just a conceptual level, as in the Sermon on the Mount, they seem not only consistent with human rights but even surpass our modern notions of human rights. So what might that imply?
In general, what are a few ways we could say that one thing has caused another, like Christianity leading to human rights? Say A causes B. Just as abstract variables for a moment. Say we have B. B occurs. Consider three ways of looking at the relationship of A to B, given that B occurs:
1. B would not have occurred if A had not occurred.
2. B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred.
3. B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred.
Those are abstract so let’s apply it to the issue at hand. What does it mean to say that Christianity led to the development of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?
Let’s take case 1, where B would not have occurred if A had not occured. The application here would be that without Christianity human rights would not have developed; we wouldn’t believe in human rights and there would be no such thing. I think we really need to entertain that possibility. One of the things Tom Holland said a few times in his debate with A.C. Grayling is that it’s important to recognize that our values of human rights are contingent. We could easily not believe in human rights in the way we do. And I think that’s true. We might imagine that we would just inevitably deduce human rights naturally through reason, but I find that highly unlikely. Moral philosophy through the Enlightenment has basically been a process of trying to back-calculate and rationally justify the values that we had already inherited through tradition. And even having a cheat sheet, knowing the “right answer” that we were supposed to arrive at, none of these efforts has been especially convincing. Some of them have been internally consistent and viable by their own standards. But they fail to conclusively ground the human rights we want them to ground. In other words, these rational systems don’t exclude the kinds of actions we would want to consider unjustifiable, to be violations of human rights. Utilitarianism, for example, can rationally justify many violations of human rights of individuals for the benefit of a larger number of people. Which is fine if you don’t care about human rights. But it’s a problem if you do. Alasdair MacIntyre gives an extensive overview of this in his book After Virtue in his chapters on “The Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality” and “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail”. This is one reason I think we wouldn’t just rationally deduce our notions of human rights if we didn’t already have them.
Another reason I think we would not, out of necessity, just arrive at human rights without some kind of traditional basis for them is that many cultures in the past and even today just don’t believe in human rights in the way we do. So it’s definitely a human possibility. Not only a possibility but a human reality. It might be hard for us to imagine our own culture not believing in human rights because we are so embedded in it as a culture that it just seems normal. Everything that shapes our imagination, including our ability to imagine our culture being other than it is, is also influenced by the culture itself. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to think outside our cultural horizon. But it’s a challenge. So I think Holland is right to say that human rights are contingent. And maybe without the historical heritage of Christianity we wouldn’t believe in them.
Let’s take case 2, where B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred. In other words, if A does not occur B might still occur, but for some other reason, such as if C occurs. The application here would be that even without Christianity, something else might have inspired our belief in human rights. Maybe some other tradition. A.C. Grayling noted that Christian ideas like the Golden Rule have been expressed in other traditions and that many religions of the Axial Age (8th to 3rd century B.C.) had ideas that could lead to human rights. I think that’s a fair point. I’m a Christian but I know that many of the same insights of Christianity are found in other traditions. And I think that’s a good thing. And I certainly think it’s possible for human rights to be grounded in other cultures through these traditions. That’s actually important to think about as we try to generalize human rights worldwide. Still, I think it is the case that in the West it was Christianity that was the traditional vehicle for these ideas, even if it might have been otherwise.
And now, let’s take case 3, where B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred. The application here would be that Christianity is one factor that leads to the development of human rights, but it’s not the only one and it’s not enough by itself. Other factors are needed to contribute to this development. I want to focus on this case from here on out because it’s the one I find most convincing. Recall my two ideas that are in tension with each other: that Christianity forms the basis for human rights in the West and that human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. Why? This third case gives a possible explanation. Christianity was one vital component, but the human rights revolution, in which societies made dramatic shifts toward actually putting the ideals of Jesus’s teachings into practice, required additional circumstances that did not come about before the eighteenth century.
This is basically the position of German sociologist Hans Joas in his book The Sacredness of Persons: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Joas gives a historical account and philosophical explanation of the “genealogy” or historical origin of human rights by way of a process he calls the “sacralization of the person”, a process in which every human being comes to be viewed as sacred. In his book Joas sets up the same problem I’ve proposed for understanding the Christian foundations of human rights:
“Traditions do not perpetuate themselves but are sustained through the actions of individuals. Even if we concede, at least retrospectively, that human rights may to some extent be considered a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos, we must be able to explain why it took seventeen hundred years for the Gospel to be translated into legally codified form in this regard.”
For Joas a proper historical explanation must refer to changes in values, institutions, and practices, as well as their historical precursors such as demographic changes, movements of populations, economic and political developments, etc. It’s not that human rights aren’t a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos. He believes they are. But it’s a question of what caused this modern rearticulation when it happened.
Joas sets up a contrast between two perspectives on human rights that I find similar to the two perspectives on divine law that Christine Hayes identifies in the biblical tradition and in Greek thought. For Joas the two perspectives on human rights are those typified by two great German philosophers: Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. For the Greeks, according to Hayes, divine law is rational and beyond historical contingencies. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is given by God acting in history, to particular groups of people, at particular times and places. Joas similarly contrasts rational and historical bases for human rights in the Kantian and Nietzschean schools of thought. By pursuing a “new genealogy” Joas is following the Nietzschean school of thought. But unlike Nietzsche his genealogical project is affirmative rather than destructive. He doesn’t wish to undermine human rights, but rather to show how they have emerged historically, so that we can better understand them.
In contrast to the Kantian position Joas says he does “not believe in the possibility of a purely rational justification for ultimate values.” But he also says that “unlike Nietzsche, [he does] not assume that discovering the genesis of values removes the scales from our eyes to reveal the false gods and idols we have believed in.” That’s why his genealogy of human rights is affirmative. He says: “As a narrative, such an account makes us aware that our commitment to values and our notion of what is valuable emerge from experiences and our processing of them; this shows them to be contingent rather than necessary. Values no longer appear as something pregiven that we merely have to discover or perhaps reestablish.”
This kind of contingency of morality and rights, that they might have been otherwise or might not have been at all, is another thing I’ve thought a lot about recently both in philosophy and in theology. Philosophically my primary resource on the subject of contingency is Richard Rorty. And theologically my resource on contingency is James K.A. Smith. Smith is quite interesting because he also gives insightful commentary on Rorty. And I think both have ideas that cohere well with Joas’s points about the contingent, but still valid nature of human rights.
Rorty addresses contingency and its implications for liberalism quite directly in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In spite of the contingent, non-essential nature of human rights we are not prevented from standing in solidarity with each other and affirming those ideas anyway. We can still make that choice. James K.A. Smith, in his book Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood takes this idea of contingency, appropriating many ideas from Rorty directly, and applies them to Christian ideas of creaturehood and community. Smith affirms the theological notion of our contingent existence, as opposed to God’s necessity. God exists of necessity. He cannot not be, by his very nature as the one who is: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We however, do not exist necessarily. We are created. And so we are contingent. We could not exist. But we do exist because God created us. Much like human rights, I think. Human rights could not exist. They don’t exist out of necessity. Even morality, or “The Law”, as in certain expressions of the biblical tradition, is created. But from this we don’t need to despair that morality and human rights are merely arbitrary. In the biblical tradition The Law is covenantal, but it is not lesser for that fact. From a certain perspective that gives us the benefit of being invested in it by taking the direct action to enter into that covenant. Whether by covenant, in the biblical view, or by solidarity, in Rorty’s secular view, the contingency of morality and human rights can be just as compelling as ever.
So if human rights are contingent and have historical origins what are those historical factors that have contributed to their development into the form we hold them today? I’m more convinced of the idea that there are such historical factors than I am about any particular set of factors. But I have some ideas. And I’ll share the ones put forward by Hans Joas in his book that I find most convincing. I’ll mention four: the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, American slavery, and the two World Wars.
I’ll start with the American Revolution and work my way back chronologically to the Reformation because the two are closely connected in Joas’s account. And actually Joas is basing his ideas off the work of another German scholar, Georg Jellinek (1851-1911). In his book The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History, Jellinek had argued that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, was significantly influenced by and modeled on the American Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence and American Bill of Rights. This is interesting, not just as a matter of patriotism (yeah, I’m a proud American but Joas and Jellinek are German), but it’s interesting as it relates to the question of why certain ideas of human rights took off as they did in Europe after the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century rather than, say, five hundred years earlier, or one thousand years earlier. France and the Ancien Régime, the “Old Regime”, had, as the name implies, been around for a long time. But the situation in America was comparatively novel. Obviously the continent itself wasn’t new. It had very ancient peoples and civilizations. But there was a radically different and new demographic situation on the ground in which large populations from Europe were colonizing the continent, bringing ideas and beliefs from Europe into these regions that were geographically separated from Europe. There were just a lot of new factors at play.
Jellinek’s thesis was that one important feature that characterized the American colonies was how highly they valued being able to practice their own religious denominations. Some communities had been organized specifically for that purpose. And this related to an idea that carried over from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was many things. It involved several issues of doctrine that are very interesting and important. But for the purposes of the issue at hand the most significant is the issue of authority. All these denominations continued to have ideas of ecclesiology, the theological study of a church organization. But the critical move was separating the authority of God from the authority of Rome. It wasn’t the eradication of authority. But by separating from Rome the Reformation passed over earthly authorities and looked to transcendent authority in God. And once you have that you’re moving toward something that looks like human rights.
For example, Martin Luther is reported to have said at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Note his appeal to reason. That almost sounds like the Enlightenment. Luther is claiming a freedom of conscience above and beyond anything codified by earthly authorities. And that is a challenge not only to the proper exercise of authority but also to the legitimate extent of authority itself, at least apart from God. That’s starting to look a lot like human rights that neither illegal nor legal authority can violate.
Here’s a passage from Joas on this point: “[Jellinek] was also correct to point out that there is a difference between theories of natural law and the legal codification of specific individual rights intended to hold for all people and removed from legislative authority. ‘The assertion of objective moral and legal limits to all worldly powers,’ writes Hasso Hofmann, agreeing with Jellinek, does not itself equate with ‘a theory of subjective rights. The idea of constitutional freedom and security against illegal tyranny is not equivalent to the human rights idea of basic, individual freedoms and protection against legal tyranny.’”
Once you bypass that earthly seat of authority, as in Rome, you place your source of authority above earthly powers, not only in theory, as it always had been, but also in practice. After the Reformation we’re in an era where people can actually disobey the papacy and its authority, get away with it, and truly believe that they’re authorized in doing so. That’s a new experience. And of course that all started and happened in Europe but in America it gets intensified. People are not only living under cuius regio, eius religio, the system in which you could have different religions in different kingdoms, depending on the religion of the ruler: “whose realm, their religion”. In America we get smaller, purposefully created communities with localized religious authority.
On this point Joas also refers to the work of German theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) who “recognized the transformative effects that Enlightenment thought exerted on Protestant Christianity in North America.” This unique situation in the American colonies also produced a curious synergy with religious thought and Enlightenment thought. I can see from Luther’s appeal to reason how this would come about. In the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the doctrine that Christian scriptures are the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the new necessity was for individual Christians to read the Bible and to understand it for themselves. And it is in this reading and interpretation of the Bible that we find the ultimate source of authority, rather than in Popes and priests. That is substantial breakthrough for independent thinking. And this is how the American colonists learn to think, as independent readers and thinkers. “In a well-known phrase, Americans in the eighteenth century learned their Enlightenment from the pulpit.”
So we could point out two things here. One, and this was more the point that Jellinek was making, is that the Enlightenment in America was highly religious in nature. But another point that I think addresses my question, is that religion in America was also highly Enlightened, it had a strong Enlightenment flavor that was new in Christian history. Christianity in America was wrapped up in supporting notions of independence from earthly authorities and independent, rational verification of the meaning of Christian doctrines through the actual reading and study of scripture. Something that literacy and the availability of printed Bibles no doubt also enabled. So you’ve got a whole set of new historical developments: technological developments, movements of large populations, major shifts in the balance of political powers. And these things are producing novel situations that influence the way Christianity is practiced and thought about. And that feeds back into the way Christianity influences the culture, so that Christian ideas that had been dormant before will start to exercise more live influence.
So we have the Reformation and the American Revolution, which influences the French Revolution, which shakes up all of Europe. Another factor Joas touches on is American slavery. He talks about this in a chapter titled “Violence and Human Dignity: How Experiences Become Rights”. This is the same chapter in which he address the two World Wars and the Shoah (or Holocaust), which we’ll get to next. The idea he proposes in the chapter is that our conception of human rights is also contingent on particular historical experiences of atrocity, or trauma. We respond to these atrocities in the way we develop our ideas about human rights. And the implication of this contingency is that if certain atrocities that happened in history and that appalled people in certain ways had not occurred or if different atrocities had occurred, that our conceptions of human rights would be different than they are. So what are some of the great atrocities that had these significant effects? American slavery is an important one.
Joas lists three components for his explanation as to why conceptions of human rights moved decisively against the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century. It might seem obvious that any notion of human rights should oppose slavery. But this was clearly not the case since, significantly, slavery was countenanced and even defended in America, in many cases by the same people who so forcefully defended what they understood to be the rights of men. The French Revolutionaries went a little further, at least in theory, in their pronouncements against slavery. But when it came to actually ceasing to think of human beings as property, as in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue, today Haiti, they fell far short. So what set this particular advance of the “sacralization of the person” in motion? The three components Joas lists are:
1. “Intensification of the motivation to put into practice a universalist morality that already exists in principle.”
2. “A sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility.”
3. “The practical transnational organization of moral universalism.”
As in the case with the Reformation, trans-Atlantic colonization, etc., we’re looking for factors that make something happen that didn’t happen before. In this case an expansion of conceptions of human rights against slavery. And these three factors are the ones Joas identifies as the novel circumstances that produced that new development.
Joas acknowledges that a universalist morality already existed in principle in Christianity. For example, we see a universalist message in Acts 10 with Peter’s vision of a sheet with unclean animals on it, descending from heaven. Peter is told to eat the unclean animals and he resists because it goes against his traditional dietary laws. But he is told: “What God has cleansed, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). There is no longer to be that kind of separation. Peter was instructed to open the ministry to all people, regardless of ethnicity, to Jew and Gentile alike. We also see a strong universalism in Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. For Paul the Gospel was for παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι (pantí to pisteúonti), “everyone who believes”, he says to the Jew and to the Greek, i.e. everyone (Romans 1:16). In the Epistle to the Ephesians it is said: “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, [ξένοι καὶ πάροικοι (ksénoi kai pároikoi)] but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Such distinctions are being broken down. So the universalist ideas are there. That morality already exists in principle. But Joas claims there’s an intensification of the motivation to put this into practice.
He attributes this intensification in the nineteenth century United States to the particular revivalist form of religious practice taking place there:
“Slavery was declared a sin, while resistance to it signaled that individuals meant to live a life that truly reflected Christ’s moral demands. They tended to be particularly outraged when slaveholders and their supporters opposed the evangelization of the slaves and thus Christ’s Great Commission. The antislavery movement became part of the intermittent revivalist movements. These movements cannot be described simply in terms of their religious content; above all we must consider their specific dynamics. Here prophetic speakers castigated misdeeds as sinful and interpreted them as an occasion for repentance. Such discourse may set in motion major collective processes of moral reorientation that we cannot trace back to the interests of those involved. Indeed, through such processes they learn to completely redefine their interests. Here the adoption of religiously practiced forms of the public confession of sins and assurances of a moral rebirth helped politicize moral objectives.”
Joas sees this revivalist form of religious practice working hand in hand along with the second factor, the sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility, i.e. awareness of increased global interconnectedness. With slavery being part of the domestic and global economy it was impossible not to be a participant in it.
“Our conception of our own moral responsibility depends on cognitive preconditions. If we are to feel responsible, we must make empirical assumptions about the connection between our actions and misdeeds elsewhere. Does what we consume really come from a country in which slaves or forced laborers are involved in production? Also lying on the cognitive level is how we assess our possible intervention… All of our moral positions are embedded in a context of empirical and thus fallible assumptions about the conditions, means, and consequences of our action and that of others and about causal connections between our action and that of others. On the basis of these insights, American historian Thomas Haskell has ingeniously connected the rise of industrial capitalism and the concurrent advance of a ‘humanitarian sensibility’… From this perspective, increasing global interlinkage of social relations, on economic grounds, is a precondition for a movement such as abolitionism. The same process that, for example, allows businesspeople to expand their utility-oriented action across the world, in the slave trade itself but also other activities, enables others to relate a formerly consequence-free moral repudiation of abuses in other places causally to their own conduct. They thus experience a sense of responsibility for putting a stop to these abuses–as a realistic option for action and de facto moral obligation. So with the expansion of market relations, the space for moral responsibility becomes larger, and this is relevant to our actions.”
So here’s another novel situation. The economies of the world are becoming more complex and interconnected. That’s a new material situation on the ground that has implications for the ways that people live and think about their actions. So you can take the same Christian preconditions that were always there and by putting them in this new situation certain issues become much more salient and live issues.
Joas’s third factor for why conceptions of human rights moved against slavery is the practical transnational organization of moral universalism. This is related to the economic factor but there’s also feedback. Once these antislavery ideas start to intensify other nations start looking at each other. Britain ends its slave trade but still depends on it economically through U.S. cotton imports. Then during the Civil War Britain has to decide if it will give military aid to the Confederacy. Well, the whole world is watching now. So they end up rejecting that idea. Slavery is becoming more internationally unacceptable and that accelerates the development of public opinion in other individual nations.
When I think about the historical contingency of slavery and the abolitionist movement one of the things that stands out to me is the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1868, shortly after the Civil War and the end of American slavery. The Equal Protection Clause of this Amendment has been one of the most significant Constitutional passages in the history of U.S. Supreme Court cases and the American history of civil rights:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This text is part of our identity as a people now and it’s been a model around the world. And it was created in response to the atrocity of American slavery and subsequent, often successful efforts to curtail the rights of former slaves. Certainly it would have been better for slavery never to have happened. But just as a way of looking at the history of the way human rights developed, it’s noteworthy that it had a major impact on the kinds of things we consider central to the nature of human rights today.
This kind of historical memory embedded into our morality reminds me of the refrain in the Torah, כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם (ki gerim hayitem be-aretz mitzraim), “for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.
“You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
“Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
The memory of Egypt and their slavery in it is ever present in the Torah. The Lord repeatedly reminds the people of it. Far from something ahistorical, the Law given by the Lord is given explicit rationale in the events of history. Certain commandments are given in the form that they are, explicitly and self-consciously because of certain events in the past, even great catastrophes, like intergenerational slavery. In this respect I think many of the forms our modern values of human rights take are not so different.
The last events and atrocities of historical significance that I’ll mention in the development of our modern notions of human rights are the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Memory of these events was also explicitly mentioned in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another canonical text today in our modern understanding of human rights and what we consider to be rights. The Shoah, also known as the Holocaust, certainly stands out as especially significant in our memory and conscience. And that’s definitely a major influence. But there were also many other atrocities even prior to that during these decades that got people thinking about what kinds of rights human beings should have, extending all the way from the rude awakening of World War I to the horrendous events of the Shoah. The influence is mentioned explicitly in the preamble of the Declaration:
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…”
The articles of the declaration are clear responses to these outrages. Here’s an overview of antecedents to various articles in the declaration from Joas:
“The emphasis on the unity of the human race in Article 1 is consciously intended to counter the destruction of universalism in racial theories. The emphasis on the ‘right to life’ in Article 3 was just as consciously inspired by the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled. Article 4 opposes slavery and ‘servitude’ in part as a means of denouncing the forced labor among citizens of conquered countries of the kind that occurred during the Second World War in Germany. Article 5 not only declares a ban on torture, but also ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment’ in order to preclude crimes such as the medical experiments carried out by National Socialist doctors on death-camp inmates and disabled people. The declaration of the right to asylum in Article 14 (‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’) can be traced back directly to the mass expatriations of the Third Reich… Article 21 declares the right to political participation. This was aimed directly at the fascist doctrine that the true will of the people should be embodied in a leader with unchecked power… Article 30 provides the beginnings of an ‘internationalist’ interpretation of human rights that makes the international community collectively responsible for policies and envisages a legal system consonant with human rights in individual states. This is bound up with the fact that the struggle against National Socialism in Germany before the war was by no means regarded as the responsibility of other states.”
Again we might ask, how would we think about human rights today if history had been different? If the World Wars and the mass scale of carnage had not taken place? Certainly it would have been better if these things had never happened. But it’s another case where we can consider the way particular historical events have shaped our values and how they might have been otherwise. It’s interesting how the ideas of racial sciences and eugenics, which had been very intellectually fashionable in the early decades of the twentieth century, dramatically fell out of fashion to become not only unfashionable but even reprehensible. And we have these strong, visceral reactions to euthanasia of the disabled, medical experiments, and any kind of compulsory “camp” because of the experience and memory of seeing these things being done. For instance, I imagine the internment camps of Japanese and Japanese-American persons during World War II, look a lot different after Auschwitz than before Auschwitz. And we probably react more strongly to the re-education camps of the Uyghurs currently operating in China because of association with the camps of Nazi Germany, though I’d say our reaction is still not strong enough in that particular and ongoing case. We can’t really know these kinds of counterfactuals. But it’s instructive and useful to understand these historical antecedents to our modern ideas of human rights.
So getting back to the issues at the beginning of all this – that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights and that these ideas of human rights only really took off in their present form after seventeen hundred years of Christian history – I still think both are true and that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual emergence. Like I said, I’m more convinced that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual realization of human rights from their latent form in Christianity than I am about the particular historical accounts I’ve shared here, borrowing from Hans Joas. But I do find his ideas plausible. I still think Christianity is conceptually foundational to the emergence of human rights, even if a number of features were dormant for a very long time. So I don’t think the accounts of human rights that attribute their origin to exclusively Christian or secular ideas are going to be accurate. I find a more complex story more convincing. And as a Christian I appreciate the genius of Christianity in both its realized and its potential forms. And I believe many aspects of Christianity have yet to be realized still. In fact that’s pretty much an assumption of eschatology, the theological study of future and end times. I also appreciate, as a Christian, that God acts in history. Christian morality doesn’t have to be ahistorical. Much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to particular “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” I can appreciate how the Torah hearkens back to when “you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. That’s the nature of all this. And I believe thinking about the history of our values can enrich our commitment to them.
Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. I’d like to suggest that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand, as long as we read him in historical and prophetic context. Putting Isaiah in context includes understanding the events that he was responding to and prophesying about. These include the imperial activities of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As prophet to Judah’s kings, Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of Assyria and neighboring kingdoms. At the same time Isaiah was prophesying against his own people in Judah for their sins, especially their pride and oppression of the poor. These two prongs of prophecy, of the threat of surrounding nations and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of enemy nations to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered, while he also promised eventual gathering and reconciliation.
There’s a joke among Latter-day Saints that there was once a man who always carried around a pocket-sized Book of Mormon in his jacket. One day he was mugged in the street and shot in the chest. Fortunately, the bullet hit the Book of Mormon, which saved his life. As he examined the book later he found that the bullet had made it through First Nephi and the first few chapters of Second Nephi. But stopped there. Amused, he thought to himself, “Even a bullet can’t make it through the Isaiah chapters!”
For those not familiar with the Book of Mormon, there are several chapters from Isaiah quoted in full within its first hundred pages. Readers cruising along with the narrative sections preceding often find the Isaiah chapters intimidating and impenetrable. It’s a common enough experience among my co-religionists that this joke hits home. And it also makes for a useful introduction to my subject, putting Isaiah in context.
Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. What I’d like to suggest is that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand but it often is difficult to understand in the way it’s read. The way it’s often read is without the historical context that gives that background for what is going on in the book, what Isaiah is responding to and talking about. The Book of Mormon even points this out. Nephi says Isaiah isn’t difficult for him to understand because he knew “concerning the regions round about” Jerusalem (2 Nephi 25:6). That’s actually a very helpful place to start. What are the regions round about? The main regions to know about are:
And it also helps to know something of the rulers involved in the geopolitics of Isaiah’s time. This will make many of the apparently difficult passages in Isaiah much more comprehensible.
Over the course of hundreds of years, from the time of Isaiah to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the superpowers that dominated Mesopotamia were, in succeeding order: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was in existence from 911 – 609 BC. It was then conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire which lasted from 626 – 539 BC. It was then conquered by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which lasted from 550 – 330 BC, with the conquest of Alexander the Great. In this succession of empires the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were relatively minor powers that were tossed around, besieged, conquered, and deported. Although Israel and Judah were minor powers in comparison to the other kingdoms, the Bible has a much more prominent place in our culture today than the records of any of these empires. And so we see much of this history through the eyes of Israel and Judah. Isaiah is one of these observers who was also very prolific and expressive.
The Geopolitical Landscape
Judah and Israel
Judah and Israel are the two Hebrew-speaking nations that (usually) worship the LORD God, YHWH. I say “usually” because both, Israel especially, tend to worship other gods, either instead of or along with the LORD God. And that’s why the LORD’s bulldog prophets Elijah and Elisha were out there railing against idol worship. These kingdoms had been united under Saul, David, and Solomon. But they split after Solomon’s death. Judah is the southern kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem. Israel is the northern kingdom with its capital in Samaria.
Isaiah lived in Judah, the southern kingdom, from the 8th to 7th century BC. He was active during the reigns of four kings of Judah:
The kings to the north in Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime were:
Pekah, the son of Remaliah (737–732 BC)
Hoshea (732–722 BC)
In the early books of Isaiah Pekah is often referred to as “the son of Remaliah”. And he was involved in some alliances with other Kingdoms against the Kingdom of Judah.
By far the dominant power in the region during this time was the Assyrian Empire, sometimes called the Neo-Assyrian Empire by historians to distinguish it from an earlier empire. The Assyrian Empire lasted from 911 to 609 BC. Isaiah’s lifetime coincides with some of its most historically significant rulers. These include:
Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC)
Shalmaneser V (727–722 BC)
Sargon II (722–705 BC)
Sennacherib (705-681 BC)
Shalmaneser V was very important in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel because he conquered it and scattered its people. For Isaiah and Judah the two major Assyrian rulers will be Tiglath-Pilesar and Sennacherib.
Aram and Egypt
Two other important kingdoms worth remembering are Aram and Egypt. Egypt should be quite familiar to everyone. It was no longer as dominant a power at this time but it was still significant. Aram, also known as Aram-Damascus, is sometimes called just “Syria”, as it is in the King James Version. This can be a little confusing since the KJV translation talks about Syria and Assyria. So it’s important to keep track of these and remember that they are separate kingdoms. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah it is אֲרָם (aram). And it’s where the name for the Aramaic language comes from. To avoid confusion with Assyria I like to call it Aram or Aram-Damascus. Aram, or Syria, was centered around the city of Damascus. The most important Aramean ruler mentioned in Isaiah is:
Rezin (754 BC–732 BC)
Rezin was also, as we shall see, the last king of Aram.
Egypt is also important in the geopolitical scene because they entered an alliance with Aram-Damascus and Israel and later with Judah.
The Geopolitical History
The first important geopolitical event to know about in Isaiah is the alliance between Aram and Israel against Judah. At this time Judah was ruled by Ahaz, Israel was ruled by Pekah, son of Remaliah, and Aram (or Syria) was ruled by Rezin. Aram and Israel formed an alliance to take over Judah and install a new ruler to replace Ahaz. The reason they wanted to do this was to compel Judah to join them in opposing the Assyrian Empire, which at this time was ruled by Tiglath-Pilesar. This failed however. Ahaz actually entered an alliance with Tiglath-Pilesar of Assyria. And it didn’t work out too well for Aram and Israel. Tiglath-Pileser marched on Damascus, annexed it into his empire, and killed Rezin. He also took portions of Israel and deported portions of its population. Pekah was assassinated shortly after, his rule usurped by Hoshea.
These events are described in Isaiah chapter 7. This is the same chapter that talks about Immanuel and a young girl or “virgin” conceiving (more on that shortly). I’ll read Isaiah 7:1-16 and insert some comments on the history mentioned above. If you’ve struggled painfully through this passage before hopefully it will be a little easier with the above in mind. I think most listeners will be most familiar with the King James Version so I’ll use that translation.
“And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim.”
So that’s just a description of the situation we’ve described. Note here that “Ephraim” is another way of referring to the Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim being one of twelve tribes of Israel that was dominant in the north.
“And his [Ahaz’s] heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind. Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field; And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal: Thus saith the Lord God, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.”
So here Isaiah is going to the king of Judah, Ahaz, to tell him not to fear this alliance against him, that it’s not going to prevail. We read here that Pekah and Rezin were planning to install their own puppet, “the son of Tabeal”, as king in Ahaz’s place.
“For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.”
So these names should all be familiar now. The capital of Aram (or Syria) is Damascus and it’s headed by Rezin. The capital of Israel is Samaria and it’s headed by Pekah, Remaliah’s son. And Isaiah is prophesying that they’re not going to last.
“If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established. Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”
The LORD tells Ahaz, through Isaiah, to ask for a sign to convince him of all this.
“But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”
Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for a sign, presumably out of piety. But Isaiah and the LORD aren’t buying it.
“And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign.”
So Ahaz is going to get a sign whether he likes it or not. And what is the sign?
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”
So the sign is that a child is going to be conceived and born and before the child is grown Rezin and Pekah will be gone. In other words, this is going to happen soon. So it’s meant to be reassuring for Ahaz.
Who is this child in the prophecy? Well, if you’ve heard this verse quoted around Christmas you know it’s certainly used theologically by Christians to refer to Jesus. I will make the case in a minute that this is actually a valid theological reading. But, it seems not to be the primary meaning in the original context. The primary meaning of the prophecy is referring to a child who would be born very soon, who would still be a child by the time Rezin and Pekah fell from power. So that couldn’t be Jesus. We don’t know for sure who the child referred to is. It could just be a random, nameless child. But this is often thought to be referring to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, the next king of Judah.
So what of Christ? And doesn’t the prophecy refer to conception and birth by a virgin? What other virgin has conceived and given birth than Mary the mother of Jesus? First it’s important to note that “virgin” is probably not the best English translation of the Hebrew word used here. In Hebrew the one conceiving is an עַלְמָ֗ה (almah), a “young woman”, not necessarily a virgin; which would be בְּתוּלָה (betulah). An almah could be a virgin and maybe this woman even was at the time of the prophecy. But that also doesn’t necessarily mean she was a virgin when she gave birth or that she conceived as a virgin. That probably wouldn’t occur to a reader prior to the virgin birth of Christ. The primary reading it would seem here is that the miraculous sign is not a virgin birth but the rapidity of the downfall of Rezin and Pekah, that it will occur before the child matures.
Why is this so often translated as “virgin” rather than simply “young woman”. One reason is that in early Christianity the most common version of Isaiah that Christians would have been familiar with was the Greek translation, the Septuagint. And in the Septuagint almah is translated as παρθένος (parthénos), which to the readers in the time of early Christianity was understood to mean, more particularly, a virgin.
But can this prophecy also refer to Christ? I think it certainly can and the New Testament uses it in that way, in Matthew 1:21-23.
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
In our postmodern age we aren’t unacquainted with the idea that texts can have multiple meanings that can extend far beyond the intent of the author. And maybe Isaiah even had a double meaning in mind. Either way we as Christians can certainly read Isaiah with a cristological lens. I’m actually quite partial to finding cristological types all over the place, even in the natural world and in daily life. In Latter-day Saint scripture, in the Book of Moses, there’s a wonderful passage in Moses 6:63 that says:
“And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.”
I think that is fantastic theology. And I think finding a typology of Christ in this prophecy in Isaiah is completely legitimate theologically. So I’m something of a non-partisan, liberal-conservative hybrid in my interpretation of this scripture.
One other point of interest in this scripture is that the title given to the child, “Immanuel” means “God is with us”. That’s:
im, “with” + anu, “us”, a first person plural pronominal suffix + el, “God” or “a god”.
Kings were thought to be representatives of the LORD God so this could be applicable to Hezekiah. But applying it to Christ, as the incarnation of God in human form among other human beings on earth, certainly makes sense for Christian theology.
Another scripture that becomes much clearer with the geopolitical history in mind is Isaiah 8:5-10.
“The Lord spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks: And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel. Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God is with us.”
Worth noting here that that last line, “for God is with us” in Hebrew is: כִּ֥י עִמָּ֖נוּ אֵֽל, ki immanu el. And that’s the message that Isaiah wants to drive home here. God is with us so we don’t need to associate ourselves with Aram and Israel. We ought to take in the waters of Shiloah rather than rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son, the kings of Aram and Israel respectively. Here the humble and unassuming House of David is metaphorically compared to the gently flowing waters of the Shiloah, a relatively small stream that supplies water to Jerusalem. But the LORD is going to bring in Assyria, like the waters of the Euphrates. Assyria will wipe out Aram and subdue Israel. It will also come up against Judah and “reach even to the neck”. More on that later. But none of these powers will prevail. “Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces.”
What is this about Assyria passing through Judah, overflowing and going over, reaching even to the neck, and stretching out his wings to fill the breadth of the land? This is a prophecy of the siege on Jerusalem by Assyria in 701 BC. This is a fascinating episode in biblical history because it’s also recorded in extra-biblical sources. Both the Bible and Assyrian sources record the events of this siege. By this time the king of Assyria was Sennacharib. Hezekiah entered an alliance with the kingdoms of Sidon, Ascalon, Ekron, and Egypt against Assyria. Sennacherib attacked the rebels, conquering Ascalon, Sidon and Ekron and defeating the Egyptians and driving them from the region. He marched toward Jerusalem, destroying 46 towns and villages in his path. Assyria finally besieged Jerusalem. Both the Bible and Assyrian records concur that Jerusalem was not conquered. They differ on the reason. According to Sennacharib’s account Judah paid him tribute so he left. But according to the Bible an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers at Jerusalem after Hezekiah prayed in the temple (2 Kings 18-19). In the end Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “It shall not stand: for God is with us.”
The LORD’s Chastisement of Judah
Although Judah is ultimately spared from Assyria it is clear that the LORD is in many ways displeased with what he is seeing in Judah. And though Judah, unlike Israel, is not conquered by Assyria, it is eventually conquered by Babylon. Since Judah is under the covenantal protection of the LORD God this defeat is justified by Judah’s disobedience to the terms of the covenant. Because of this much of Isaiah lists Judah’s offenses and expresses the LORD’s displeasure.
We should note here that modern biblical scholarship theorizes that while the first half of the book, chapters 1-39, is the work of the historical Isaiah, the remainder is thought to be the work of one or more authors writing as Isaiah, but after the conquest by Babylon a couple centuries later. This is often called “Second Isaiah”. These later books are much more consoling and forgiving in their tone, more to the effect of forgiving an already chastened and conquered people than of condemning a sinful and as-yet-unpunished people. In both cases Judah’s offenses are a recurring topic. Let’s look at some examples.
“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.”
So it’s quite clear here that the LORD is not pleased with what he’s seeing. And there’ll be a lot more where that comes from. There’s plenty of divine displeasure to spare in Isaiah. Later in the book Isaiah will repeat the warning, “his hand is stretched out still”, וְעֹ֖וד יָדֹ֥ו נְטוּיָֽה ve-od yad-o netuyah (Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). Sometimes people interpret the English translation as a message of comfort, the LORD extending his hand in forgiveness. A nice thought, but no. The intended message is that the LORD’s hand is still stretched out to smite. “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” Nevertheless, Isaiah also has plenty of messages of comfort. For example, another verse from this first chapter:
“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
So we see the forgiving side of the LORD as well.
Let’s look at a few more examples of the condemnation, not to dwell on that but because they might be a little confusing and it’s helpful to review them so that they make more sense the next time you read them.
“And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly: None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”
There are a few places where, in the KJV, Isaiah refers to and “ensign”, נֵ֤ס (nes), which is a flag or banner. Sometimes it’s a good thing. And sometimes it’s definitely not. This is one of those verses where it’s not. Here Isaiah is saying that the LORD is putting up an ensign or banner for nations like Assyria and Babylon to come in and invade. And they’re going to attack hard. “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken.” This isn’t going to be a casual march. They’re coming in ready to fight. And it’s a well-outfitted, well-trained military machine. “Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.” I’ve heard this passage sometimes interpreted as Isaiah’s vision of a steam locomotive, like he was trying his best to describe a nineteenth century technology in his 8th century BC terms. That’s a creative take, but unnecessary. In context, a literal interpretation makes plenty of sense here already. The Assyrians’s arrows are sharp, their bows are bent and ready to fire, their horses hoofs are kicking up sparks like flint, and their chariot wheels are spinning like a whirlwind. They’re coming in fast. So watch out! I’ll share a positive example of the “ensign” in a bit. But a few more verses of condemnation.
“Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, The rings, and nose jewels, The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, The glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.”
There are a lot of strange and unfamiliar words used here, especially in the KJV. I’m not sure when I last used “wimples” or “crisping pins”. So what’s happening here? The gist is that the LORD is condemning the people, particularly the women among the people here, for their pride, materialism, and ostentatious display of wealth. All those funny words for their jewelry listed off here; these people are basically blinged out to the max. That’s the takeaway here. And the LORD is going to put a stop to that in a big way. All this fine apparel is going to be taken away and they’ll be stripped naked. They’re hair that was all done up is going to fall out to the point of baldness and instead of being perfumed they’re going to reek. So a dramatic shift from pride to utter shame.
“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! In mine ears said the Lord of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant. Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them. And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.”
This is another verse of condemnation that might be a little confusing, with its terms like “homer” and “ephah”. The important thing to know here is that these are units of measure and the gist is that in spite of all their landed wealth they’re not going to get much harvest out of it. Similar to the condemnation of haughtiness in the previously quoted passage, the LORD here is condemning the materialism of the wealthy. By joining house to house and field to field “till there be no place” the wealthy are taking up all the land and dispossessing the poor. Under normal circumstances having all the land would mean that you’ll have abundant harvest and food. But the LORD says no such thing will happen. In spite of all their land, the wealthy will get hardly any harvest from it.
Enough of the condemnation. Now for something positive. Although Isaiah prophesies that the LORD will smite and scatter his people by the might of other nations, like Assyria, he also prophesies that the LORD will gather them again.
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.”
Here the ensign for the nations is set up not to bring in enemy nations to invade the LORD’s people, but rather to gather the LORD’s people from among the nations to which they were scattered: from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from the islands of the sea. That, and the LORD’s people will no longer be divided, between Judah and Ephraim. Instead they will be reconciled.
This message of forgiveness, of gathering the scattered people, is amplified in the later passages that are sometimes called “Second Isaiah”.
“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.”
These exultant phrases from the later chapters of Isaiah are especially resonant and, in my opinion, some of the greatest in all scripture.
Like Nephi in the Book of Mormon, we can understand Isaiah better with some acquaintance with the “regions round about”, understanding the events occurring during Isaiah’s lifetime that he was responding to and prophesying about. Most significantly these include the imperial ambitions of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As a counselor to Judah’s kings — including Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah — Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of neighboring kingdoms as they jockeyed and attempted to shift the balance of power from the massive Assyrian bulk to their northeast. At this same time Isaiah was prophesying against his own people in Judah for their sins, especially their pride and oppression of the poor. These two prongs of prophecy, of the threat of Assyria and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of Assyria, and later of Babylon, to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered. But the Book of Isaiah also contains promises of reconciliation and restoration. As the title page of the Book of Mormon puts it, “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel.. that they are not cast off forever.” Isaiah prophesied that the LORD and his people could come and reason together and that after their chastisement his kindness would return and not depart. These are the broad themes of the remarkable Book of Isaiah.