Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Mark Gray, Rhetoric and Social Justice in Isaiah (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 432; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2006).  Pp. x + 306.  Hardcover, US$120.00. ISBN 567-02761-9.

            YHWH in Isaiah is not the same deity as the God of the Ecumenical Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries ce or of the reformers in the 16th century ce.  Gray does not make this claim in such stark terms, but he infers as much as his study provides a through-going protest against the prescriptive commentaries, which read the text through the lens of Calvinist theology.  His is more a work of biblical theology than of exegesis.  It is informed by variety of influences, including Gray’s involvement in education, pastoral care in social justice in Africa, his reading of Jacques Derrida and postmodern thinkers, his exposure to post-colonial commentators in both Africa and the world of the north, and his deliberations over a theology of mission within the context of religious pluralism in the contemporary world.

            Gray’s examination consists of six parts: (1) an introduction to rhetorical criticism; (2) a description of the links between Isa 1:16-17 and Isaiah 58, the Isaian cries for social justice; (3) an exposition of social justice in Isa 58:6-10; (4) a listing of God’s punishments of the poor as contradiction to justice in Isaiah; (5) an inquiry into the legitimacy of Isaiah’s call to trust YHWH; and (6) a conclusion, which emphasizes the human commitment to justice, even in the absence of God’s reliability as a participant in the cause.

            Gray views the book of Isaiah as a narrative whole.  Nevertheless, he begins his rhetorical examination with a review of commentaries, which acknowledge the distinctions between First, Second and Third Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39; 40-55; and 56-66).  Gray draws upon the findings of redactional critics who highlight thematic similarities between Isaiah 1 and 58, including the desolating circumstances of the people, YHWH’s criticism of ritual observance by people who practice treachery, and YHWH’s call for social justice as the expression of authentic worship.  He proposes that these two texts, which are the rallying cry for an end to oppression and rights for the poor, constitute the ends of an arc spanning the complete book of Isaiah. 

However, Gray points out that, between Isaiah 1 and 58, the book contains a variety of disturbing contrasts to the presentation of YHWH as the defender of the poor and the advocate of justice.  He examines in detail texts that give lie to the thesis that God is innocent of his people’s blood.  Isa 9:16 (Eng. v.17) reports YHWH’s retributive attack on Israel’s young people, widows and orphans, neglecting to distinguish them from the powerful who had turned from covenant loyalty.  This action is consistent with his determination to destroy Jerusalem in order to make it a righteous city (1:24-26).  (This may resonate with the American military officer’s rationale for the 1969 Mai Lai massacre: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”) Even texts that speak of YHWH’s condemnation of Judah’s leaders for their injustice do not demonstrate his innocence, in view of his punishing the whole people for the wrongdoings of the princes (5:13-15 cf. 3:13-15).  YHWH extends his destructive intent to the world by voicing a determination to ravage the earth (24:17-20).  Toward the end of the book, YHWH takes on the profile of a warrior bent on destroying all his adversaries on account of their lack of justice (59:15b-19).  The reader must now ask, “What kind of justice is possible if God uses violence and practices genocide in order to bring about righteousness?” 

Gray is passionate about the question because he is a minister, a person of faith, whose life-blood is the biblical Word of God.  Perhaps for this reason, he protests against exegetes and biblical theologians, specialists in Isaiah, who attempt to excuse the violence of YHWH.  He suggests these professionals are modern incarnations of Job’s friends, who attempt to defend the suffering of the destitute by declaring that somehow they deserve their plight (cf. Job 2:11).  Gray rejects every attempt to use a doctrine of innate human corruption to justify YHWH’s retributive violence against Israel and Judah.

Gray proposes that, by situating YHWH’s clarion demands for social justice at the beginning and end, the authors of the final version Isaiah, were suggesting how to live in a world in which even God may not be seen as a reliable source of justice.  In such eras when human suffering bespeaks divine indifference or hostility, every person must practice justice, live in solidarity with the oppressed, share what they have with the destitute and count the most marginalized person as a member of one’s own family.  This is the divine work that God calls forth from within human beings. 

            Rhetoric and Social Justice in Isaiah validates any suspicion that perhaps the God of the Bible is not a trustworthy partner for the faithful who labor in the cause of justice and human rights. Nevertheless, it is not cynical.  In fact, it calls for fearless and honest exegetical work, which validates doubt and protest against predetermined readings.  Gray testifies to the precept that honest scholarly examination of the Bible will contribute to justice in the world by challenging religious institutions and animating them to labor on behalf of all marginalized people.  This book is an appropriate resource for missionary institutes, seminaries and undergraduate programs in biblical studies.

            Gray could have enhanced his study by providing an outline of Isaiah according to themes of justice, ethnicity, retribution, and community, which are the foci of his attention.  He provides insightful and sometimes provocative comments on contemporary issues of human rights, including American foreign policy, the Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and political dramas in post-colonial Africa. 

Michael Duggan
St. Mary’s University College
Calgary, Alberta