Great Balls of Fire: Parshat Yitro, Haftarah
Great Balls of Fire!
There is a single piece of text that directly connects Jewish and Christian liturgy:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, is the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3 is not only part of weekly Shabbat and Sunday liturgies in addition to festivals, but it also comes up in the assigned reading of each tradition. In Judaism, Isaiah 6 is the haftarah for Parshat Yitro. In Christianity, it is the First Lesson for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Christian Pentecost, just over 40 days past Easter. Isaiah, Yeshayahu, whom I call Yeshua’s, Jesus’s, patron saint had an experience that was…well…let me put it this way:
It was a set-up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple not of this world – although it was the original reflected in the one below. He couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the veil and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. And it seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.
Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because רַגְלָיִם, (the Hebrew word for “legs,”) includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.
I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that MyIkDaVlAm, (messengers in Hebrew) includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact, הִנֵּה, (usually translated as “lo” or “behold”) – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”
And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species not to be interchanged. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Surely only Moshe got to see God – It’s not entirely clear that Yeshayahu or his community had a copy of the Torah; they knew many of it’s stories and traditions but may not have had the Torah we have. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? More recently, the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar with his eyes screwed shut as though his life depended on it. But then he peeks…
So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה (They say to one another):
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like thunder and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!
And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוֹי־לִי, Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sovereign of all the Worlds, the Commander of heaven’s armies!
And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.
The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is “e” going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.
The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year: וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר, “your sin has been covered, atoned for.” Then God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.
God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.
In Christian teaching, prophetic commissions become paradigms for clergy vocations; we are called by God and some of those calls have supernatural components. But how do Jews, liberal, progressive, not necessarily theistic Jews, understand Isaiah’s call? How do we understand Isaiah’s heavenly visit? What moral, ethical or socially just teaching does it inspire? And our society – including highly educated clergy, seminarians and rabbits – does not always take folk who have visions of God seriously, even as we celebrate our holy ancestors who have done so. Mystics and visionaries are often executed first and canonized later. Yet in New Age and Renewal iterations of our traditions many seek visions and mystical experiences of God. What are the lessons of this text for rational, modern peoples? And has anybody had a vision of God that they’d be willing to share?
Adapting the Apostle Paul: 2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a woman in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
I know a woman who has seen visions of God and saints in heaven. And I know from the ordination boards on which I have served and with which I have worked that this would have rendered her unfit for ordination in the eyes of many. In the eyes of some, psychological evaluation and medication may have been deemed essential.
But the dreams, ah the visions!
A waterfall of molten metal, flashing gold and silver and reflecting a light dazzling and warm as far as the eye could see, straight up and to each side. The sound of thunder and crashing waves. She knew it was speech yet could not understand the words. And behind the curtain of undulating metal there was… The dizzying assaults of visual and auditory stimuli stilled just enough to interpret them. Not a curtain, but a hem. And above and behind the hem…
I saw the Living God sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's gown filled the temple of my sight. Shabbat shalom.