The Isaiah Project: Chapter 20, or, Naked Prophet, Suffering God
Hello there -- a short chapter this week, but a harrowing and beautiful one. Essay is below as usual, with recordings available for purchse here.
The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 20
The town of Ashdod rebels against the mighty Assyrian empire; when they are crushed, God calls Isaiah to strip naked as a sign that all humanity is weak and vulnerable.
1. In the year when the Tartan came to Ashdod on a mission from Sargon, king of Assyria; when he waged war on Ashdod and conquered it,
2. In that time God proclaimed a thing by the hand of Isaiah son of Amoz. He said, ‘go, strip the burlap from off your crotch, and unstrap the sandals from your feet. And so he did, going naked and barefoot.
3. And God said, ‘the way my servant Isaiah walked, naked and barefoot — a sign and an omen for three years upon Egypt and Kush,
4. That’s how Assyria’s king will force his Egyptian captives and his exiles from Kush to march, young and old, naked and barefoot, their backsides stripped bare: Egypt’s humiliation.
5. They’ll be scared and ashamed — of Kush, their great white hope; of Egypt, their crown jewel.
6. Anyone who lives on that coast on that day will say, ‘look what’s become of our great white hope, where we fled for help, to be rescued from Assyria’s king. How can we escape?’
When the king of Egypt offered help, Ashdod thought it had a chance at freedom. This beleaguered town on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean had belonged to the Philistines, the Jews' sworn enemies, before King Uzziah of Jerusalem claimed it for southern Israel in the 8th century BC. Not long after that, though, the Assyrian Empire began expanding and claimed Ashdod for its own. When King Piankhi of Kush united Egypt and stood against Assyria, he offered military aid to any city that defied Assyrian rule. Desperate to be liberated, Ashdod took the offer and was in rebellion against Assyria by 713 BC.
Then in 711, the ambitious King Sargon II of Assyria (son of Tiglath-Pileser III, whom we met in Chapter 15) sent a high-level military official (a 'Tartan') to bring Ashdod back in line (verse 1). The message this sent was clear: Kush cannot help you, Egypt is nothing, Assyria is the master of the world.
But God's message to Isaiah was somewhat different. Strip naked, said God, and walk through the streets. Expose your weakness and tell them all -- Ashdod, Kush, and Egypt -- that they are defenseless against Assyrian enslavement. God called Isaiah to humiliate himself in public so that the world could see the state of all human flesh: frail, lowly, suffering. Even those who now seemed mighty, God proclaimed, would be brought low. Those who trusted in the protection of Egypt and Kush would find themselves 'scared and ashamed' when Assyria enslaved them, marching them naked through the streets as Isaiah now walked naked through Jerusalem (verse 5).
Isaiah was not the only one whom God asked to abase himself in this way. Hosea, Isaiah's slightly older contemporary, was commanded to marry a prostitute as a way of acting out God's commitment to a people that routinely whored themselves to other gods. The prophet's fidelity to his wife Gomer became a symbol of God's fidelity to his beloved but spiritually promiscuous Israelites. Hosea's private life was visibly disfigured and so co-opted in service of a public declaration that God would never give up. Prophecy isn't always pretty.
Isaiah, too, sacrifices his own dignity here in order to become a symbol of higher truths. His public nudity is a radical gesture which shocks everyone who sees it to attention, reminding them that even when they feel strong they are vulnerable creatures of flesh and blood. Even though the Assyrians will be victorious in the immediate future, they are by no means exempt from Isaiah's warning: the prophet has already predicted that they too will be overcome by the Babylonians in due course (see Chapter 14). Ashdod's conquest by Assyria is the immediate occasion for a much more universal message: every human power falls. We are flesh, and flesh dies.
To me, the most remarkable feature of this quite disturbing act is the one least often remarked upon. That is: God does not remind us of our weakness by giving a display of his own power. He was certainly capable of doing so; he could have raised Isaiah up into a chariot of fire and made him proclaim the might of a sovereign deity in the face of whom all human kings are mere ants. Instead, God demanded that his prophet identify himself with the oppressed. Here is the chosen messenger of God, honoured and selected by the almighty to proclaim divine truth and enact the divine character -- one might expect him to do so with thunder and glory. But instead he takes on nakedness and shame. He makes himself look like one of the many victims who will soon be captured and subjugated.
Ultimately then, the message here is not that God will degrade us so that we can cower in the face of his might. Instead, I think, God calls Isaiah to strip naked so we can recognise ourselves in him and see what humanity really is. It was and is crucial that we know ourselves as weak and naked, because God has chosen to identify himself with us on this essential level. Only once we know what it is to be human will we recognise God when he comes to us in human form. Isaiah made himself look like a slave so that, when the Jewish people found themselves enslaved, they would not find themselves dehumanised. Just the opposite: under Babylon's persecution, Israel would recognise themselves as the fragile, needy beings Isaiah declared them to be.
And having come to know their need -- having suffered just as God's prophet did -- they would at last be ready to meet a naked, suffering God. Here in the streets of Jerusalem, for all those who would listen, Isaiah showed his naked body and made known the naked truth of humankind: that we are broken, that we need healing, and that for all this God will not leave us. He will in fact be with us, show his own wounded flesh and make himself like one of us in solidarity with our nakedness. Isaiah here does in part what God would one day do in full through Christ: he becomes what we are so we can see ourselves in him.