Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 59:1-8) transports me to conversational Hebrew class, senior year of college, where I was working hard to learn phrases that would come in handy in my trip to the Holy Land. I don’t remember any of the pick-up lines my buddy Darrell and I learned (which we tried out, to no success). I do remember, though, what I think is the most important phrase to learn in any language when you’re traveling. Eifo efshar lir‘otz et ha yadayim? (I don’t know if I’m spelling it right). In Spanish it would be ¿donde esta el baño? Which, of course, in English, is where’s the bathroom? In Hebrew, you are literally asking where you can find a place to wash your hands. That phrase did, in fact, come in “handy” on my trip.
Where can I wash my hands? The question would have been an important one for Isaiah’s audience, for he blasts them in today’s Passage for having blood on their hands, something that is keeping them from walking hand in hand with God. Their hands are defiled with iniquity. Now there’s another interesting Hebrew word to me, translated iniquity, which is an English word we don’t bandy around a lot in everyday conversation. The Hebrew is wonderful – avon. The people of Isaiah’s time had avon on their hands. Makes me think of my mom’s Moisture Therapy Intensive Hand Cream, although in Isaiah’s case the moisture was not soothing or aloe-based, but was was blood-based. Our English word for avon, iniquity, actually comes from the old Latin word that means not equal, (in-iquity = in-equity). The people were defiled by inequality and the violence that erupted from that inequality. It was the inevitable state of affairs for an empire, predicted by Samuel way back when the people decided they didn’t trust God and wanted to be like the other nations, with a human king on the throne. From the get-go, God said that would bring trouble, warning the people that if they wanted to copy the nations, then they could expect avon to come calling, bringing militarism and economic oppression. Four times in the Isaiah passage the prophet bemoans the presence of iniquity/inequity, coupled with the bloodshed, the violence, the destruction, that it put in people’s hands.
For the prophet, such iniquity separated the people from the hand of God. The violence, the evil, the destruction, all those ingredients of avon, were barriers to their being sheltered in the hands of God. As Christians, when we place our hands in the nail-scarred hand, it gives us hope that these barriers can be overcome. We can sing hand in hand together, we shall overcome as we work together to overcome the violence, the destruction, the inequality of our world. We can do this because of something else the prophet understood, that God has laid on the Suffering Servant the iniquity of us all. We can look to the cross and see all the iniquity, all the inequity, all the violence and destruction and hostility of humanity, laid on Jesus, already overcome. His hands were covered with avon, so that we might be free to live a different life, free from the imperial power that naturally leads to violence and destruction. We are free to promote non-violence in our relations with enemies and equality in our economic systems. When they ring those golden bells now, it isn’t Avon calling, but it’s mercy calling.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.