Isaiah Chapter 6 addresses Isaiah’s commission, and is a perfect example of the use of narrative structure, format, and style in the Hebrew Bible. A plethora of Tate’s literary elements pertain directly to Isaiah, and reading Isaiah with Tate’s elements in mind enhances understanding of the text. In particular, Isaiah 6 reflects Old Testament narratology: the method by which the story is being told. Hebrew narratology retains core elements, some of which are adhered to and some of which are subverted in Isaiah 6. Isaiah 6 is told from a first person point-of-view, evident from the first line: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple,” (Isaiah 6:1). The first person point-of-view establishes a literary, thematic, and semantic bond between implied reader and implied narrator. Moreover, the first person point-of-view engenders trust. Isaiah is speaking to the reader personally, encouraging a personal response. The reader may situate himself or herself within the text. Finally, the narrative structure of Isaiah 6 differs from those in other sections of the Pentateuch precisely because of the point-of-view. The narrator is clearly defined, and speaks directly to the reader. In other Biblical passages, especially in the Old Testament, the narrator is less clearly defined.
Although Isaiah is the first person implied narrator, the passage of Isaiah 6 also uses the characteristic omniscient narrator employed throughout the Hebrew Bible, as Tate points out. Isaiah himself is not the omniscient narrator; rather, he is the implied author. The omniscient narrator that Tate refers to seems notably absent in Isaiah 6, which is told from a more personal point-of-view. Yet God fills the role of omniscience, as it is God who tells Isaiah what to do next, and Isaiah obeys. An intratextual and intertextual analysis reveals that there is an overarching agenda to the entire book and to the Pentateuch. This would be the Hebrew narrative structure that Tate refers to, and which provides underlying meaning and focus for the entire Bible. Yet Isaiah 6 also has what Tate calls organic unity: in which the form and content are sufficient in providing meaning.
Thus, Isaiah provides a complex narrative world. He offers narrative elements that extend beyond that of other books in the Pentateuch. For example, there is a distinct setting, plot, and structure in the exposition of what Isaiah is telling the reader. Isaiah starts out by establishing the narrative chronologically, situating it in space and time. The story begins with the death of King Uzziah, and it is implied that there is a power vacuum. Isaiah therefore foreshadows his being chosen by God to be a prophet. The inclusion of flying seraphim, “each with six wings,” offers almost a caricature or stereotype of a moment of glory (Isaiah 6:2). Seraphim are angelic creatures, and they symbolize the spiritual power that Isaiah is ready to possess and wield in the world. Isaiah offers the implied reader narrative dialogue rather than relying solely on his own narrative voice.
Isaiah is not a static character with a single dominant trait, but a dynamic character whose life and perspective changes through the experiences described in his narrative. In Chapter 6, Isaiah experiences a violent paranormal shaking of the temple structure, which “was filled with smoke” as God manifests to him (Isaiah 6:4). In line 5, Isaiah assumes the stance of a humble human being, who trembles in the face of the Lord as he has been taught to do. Isaiah states, “Woe to me!…I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty,” (Isaiah 6:5). This is an example of Isaiah’s interiorization, as Tate would point out. The reader is privy to what Isaiah is thinking and feeling, even though the other characters in the narrative (such as the seraphim and God) are not aware of how Isaiah feels at this moment. The interior monologue the reader understands is integral to the narrative structure; yet it is presumed that God as an omniscient would have known Isaiah’s thoughts regardless.
Then, one of the seraphim approaches Isaiah with a piece of coal, touches it to his lips, and thereby purifies him. After this stock gesture, the Lord appears again and speaks to Isaiah. God asks for a volunteer, and Isaiah willingly volunteers himself to be a prophet. His volunteering himself becomes the climax of Chapter 6. Following this climax is the denouement, in which God tells Isaiah what to tell the people in a series of poetic tropes. God seems to be telling Isaiah first to harden the hearts of the people, to close their eyes and seal their ears: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused,” (Isaiah 6:9-10). As strange as the request may seem to the reader, the Lord then clarifies his intent by suggesting that by doing this, Isaiah can help the people to “turn and be healed,” (Isaiah 6:10).
God’s words provide both the implied author Isaiah, and the implied reader, with an added complication providing extra tension during the denouement. In essence, God seems to be asking Isaiah to deliberately harden the hearts of his followers. Creating a crisis in order to resolve that crisis provides Isaiah with a spiritual challenge as an agent of God. Isaiah affirms that he is up for the challenge, underscoring the fact that he is a dynamic and rounded character, as well as an agent of God.
The nature of rhetorical analysis and criticism, especially as they apply to the Hebrew Bible, is such that imagery and symbolism must also be taken into account along with narration, plot, tone, and structure. The setting within a traditional temple structure anchors Isaiah within the established religious traditions of is Jewish milieu, and also underscores his allegiance to the God that appears to him. Isaiah does volunteer himself, but the seraphim and God would not have chosen him or appeared to him during this episode if they did not believe that Isaiah was uniquely gifted as a future leader and prophet of the Jewish people. Interestingly, the other characters in Isaiah’s narrative are non-human. Except for his brief mentioning of King Uzziah in the first line of the chapter, Isaiah has no competing human characters that could have also volunteered themselves when God asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). It is also important to note that Isaiah believed himself to be sinful and unworthy of God’s commission, or even God’s direct communication with him until the seraphim cleansed his lips symbolically with a piece of coal. Isaiah is the dominant character in his chapter, which is ironic given that he speaks with God. Yet Isaiah offers the bulk of textual space for God’s verses at the end of Chapter 6.
Chapter 6 in Isaiah does not encompass several generations or even hundreds of years as some other Biblical passages do. The passage is not didactic either, but is purely narrative in tone, style, and structure. Isaiah tells a story about how he was first purified, then allowed to volunteer his service to God as a prophet of his people. God instructs Isaiah to hearken to the spiritual ineptitude of the masses, in order to deliver spiritual gifts to the people. Through their despair, Isaiah can help the people find God. The theme of Chapter 6 is broad, and includes the omnipotence of God, the role of the prophet in mediating between God and the impure people, and the necessity of human suffering as a precursor to receiving religious truth.
Tate, W.R. (2012). Handbook for Biblical Interpretation. Baker.
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