The Book of Isaiah opens with what is called the Book of Judgment – a scathing indictment of the people of Israel, who have turned their backs on God. God calls the people of Israel a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness,” an “evil race” who “have forsaken the Lord.” He calls them Sons who have disowned him and tells them: “Your incense is loathsome to me….I close my eyes to you.” God seems to condemn completely the entirety of his people, accusing that “From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot.”
But as harsh as the indictments are, God cannot sustain them consistently. Even in the first chapter, God also invites with words that always touch me to the core: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing.” (Isaiah 1:18)
Those words have such power, conveying to us the incredible reality that God constantly invites us back; is constantly there with arms out saying, I’m here and we can be together….We can be reconciled. You have the choice to come back to me.
When I talked about his line from Isaiah in my talk at the first session of the UST Advent Retreat on Monday, my friend Tom pointed out that the King James Bible translates the first line of Isaiah 1:18 as “Come now, and let us reason together.” The “let us set things right” language I quoted in my talk comes from the New American Bible. Tom wrote to me later that evening saying he had checked out some other Bibles and the line is variously translated as “let us set things right,” “let us reason together,” “let us settle the matter” and “let us settle this dispute.” I then contacted Rabbi Norman Cohen, who I’ve referenced before in posts, who told me that the Jewish Publication Society translation is closer to “let us reach an understanding.”
The different translations evoke very different feelings in me. As I said when the issue arose during the session, “Come, let us set things right” is language that soothes my soul. It brings me back to my early days of returning to Christianity, during which I had great insecurity of where things were between me and God…and the joy when I finally felt that things were “right” between us. So, to me, “let us set things right,” expresses God’s desire for exactly that joyful state with His people.
“Let us reason together” and “let us reach an understanding” are compelling in a different way. They feel less like God scolding us like misbehaving children than inviting us into dialogue, into a collaborative process of healing the relationship, and not letting disagreements stand between us.
“Settle the dispute,” as Tom pointed out to me in our discussion puts one in mind of God’s “legal” case against Israel for breaking the covenant between God and His people.
I am no Biblical scholar and have no ability to judge which of those is the “right” translation. (Indeed, Rabbi Cohen suggested when we spoke that the differences go to prove that whenever we are engaged in translation, by definition there is interpretation involved.) But we don’t really have to come to a firm view on that. I think there is value in praying with the different translations side-by-side to come to a fuller sense of what God is conveying to us. God’s fidelity. God’s desire to see the covenant restored. God’s amazing love for us. And, on our side, our need to accept what God offers, to open our hearts to reconciliation with God.