Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

John Barton on Ethics in Isaiah

In his article titled Ethics in the Book of Isaiah John Barton [Oriel and Laing Professor of the interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford]  traces the shift that has taken place in last few decades towards the final form of Isaiah.  He sees this as both a trend and reasonably justified move based on recent redactional analysis.  Barton argues that, “In practice theories about the book’s growth tend to be strongly correlated with theories about what will make an appropriate style of exegesis, and there is often a certain circularity about this.”  Yet this is not just a fad.  In Williamson’s “brilliant study” he finds a historical justification for a final-form approach.  Barton’s approach is worth quoting at length, “I would not want to go so far as to say that the book of Isaiah is a literary and theological unity: I do not find I can ignore what seem to me obvious dislocations, and signs of complex growth.  But what has been presented here, even if only some of it is correct, seems to be enough to dismiss any idea of the book as a purely adventitious grouping of unrelated oracles.  Just as there is a “deuteronomic/deuteronomistic” flavour to some books, which we can learn to recognize, so there is an “Isaianic” flavour in this collection which transcends probably multiple authorship of its various sections.”

Barton’s inquiry into the “Isaianic flavour” is centered around the issue of ethics in the book of Isaiah.  He builds on his previous research by identifying three distinct areas of Isaiah of Jerusalem and then correlates them with the rest of the text.  First, Barton identifies the issue of “social justice.”  Oppression of the poor and miscarriage of justice are “strongly concentrated in Isaiah and presented as a single and outrageous whole.”  Closely linked with this issue is the condemnation of the political leadership that is chastised for fostering there social evils and wrongheaded attitudes in the realm of international politics.  Barton’s analysis of the rest of the corpus finds little evidence of the Isaianic influence in the realm of social oppression as this theme is prevalent in most of the prophets.  The situation is different with Isaiah’s political message.  He finds striking echoes of Isaiah’s message of trust and quietness in Deutero-Isaiah.

Second, Barton traces Isaiah’s interest in the attitudes of his audience.  He focuses on the themes of human pride and humility coupled with the issue of human folly that give Isaiah’s overarching vision of society.  He writes, “Isaiah’s vision of society is one of a stable, aristocratic state, in which the poor are protected by an attitude of noblesse oblige on the part of the ruling classes, and property-owning males are given their “rightful” pre-eminence.  Humility towards God goes hand in hand with respect for the long-established orders of society.”

Third, Barton explores the belief in a moral order built into the fabric of the world that in many ways resembles the modern notion of “natural law.”  He sees the supremacy of YHWH as Isaiah’s most cherished belief.  Isaiah is guided by the notion that YHWH is the de jure ruler who possesses absolute power and demands supreme reverence.  Exploring this ethical point in non-Isaiah portions Barton concludes, “The distinctly Isaianic approach to ethics involves tracing ethical obligation to its highest source, which lies in the supremacy of God, from whom all good and all power derives, and doing, saying, and thinking nothing which might derogate from that supremacy.  No other part of the Old testament quite captures this vision, but every part of the book of Isaiah does.”