(Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6)
February 14, 2004
Isaiah’s commission as a prophet was not uncomplicated. Even after his grand vision of the divine throne room in all of its celestial majesty, Isaiah felt himself inadequate for God’s appointed role: “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips and I live among a people of impure lips; Yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah’s refusal to accept his charge led God to take radical measures to insure his participation: “Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt share depart and your sin shall be purged away.” (verses 6-7)
The nature of this divine palliative is the source of debate. The rabbinic approach takes this confrontation between Isaiah and the seraph literally. In order to purify Isaiah of his sins so that he might qualify as a prophet, an angel literally takes a live coal from the altar on high and places it in Isaiah’s mouth. The angel, of course, must pick up the coal with tongs lest the coal burn it. It does not burn Isaiah’s mouth because of his exceptional nature as God’s chosen prophet. (see Tanchuma Beshallach 2) This particular midrash emphasizes the need for Isaiah’s atonement from sin before he can take on his role as God’s messenger. The necessary purification can only be accomplished by divine means. Consequently the entire event requires “physical” divine intervention. (see Rashi)
Rabbi Isaac Abrabenel, the 15th century Spanish exegete, philosopher and statesman, presents an intermediate stance. He suggests that Isaiah’s interaction with the angel was a vision. The vision of this coal being placed in his mouth was meant as a punishment, again, in order to purify him for his appointed task as a prophet.
The most radical interpretation among the classical commentators is also one of the earliest. Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophets, contains a tradition which relates this entire prophecy as a metaphorical vision: “And after I [Isaiah] shuddered [from seeing the vision of the divine throne room], one of the divine servants, who had in his mouth words which he had received from the Divine Presence (the Shechina) located on the divine throne, derived from the altar. He placed these words in my mouth and said: ‘I have placed these prophetic words in your mouth and removed your sins and they are now atoned for’”. (adapted translation) This interpretative translation was disquieted by the imagery of the “burning coal” and made the entire prophetic message figurative.
What flows from these different interpretations is that both the prophetic spirit and the interpretive process are subject to the interaction between the message and the party who receives it. The meaning of the message will be born of this meeting and in some sense this meaning will always bear the sense of something personal. In this way God speaks to each of us as individuals.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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