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I’m accustomed to the ESV Isaiah 1:18 (defining my own a/b/c clauses for the sake of discussion):

(a): “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
(b): though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
(c): though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

"Let us reason together" (a) has always confused me because what follows (b, c) seems particularly unreasonable.

I noticed a footnote in the ESV on "reason": or dispute. That’s...different. The Hebrew (BHS):

לְכוּ־נָ֛א וְנִוָּֽכְחָ֖ה יֹאמַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה אִם־יִֽהְי֨וּ חֲטָאֵיכֶ֤ם כַּשָּׁנִים֙ כַּשֶּׁ֣לֶג יַלְבִּ֔ינוּ אִם־יַאְדִּ֥ימוּ כַתֹּולָ֖ע כַּצֶּ֥מֶר יִהְיֽוּ׃

The HALOT entry for the word in question, from root ‬‏ יכח‎‬:1

nifil

“Arguing (in a lawsuit)” has a different sense than “reasoning (together).” Neither concept strikes me as very likely to result in though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow. The Anchor Bible translation (Joseph Blenkinsopp) also uses “reason together” but adds an interesting twist by understanding (b, c) as questions:

(b) If your sins are colored scarlet, can they become white like snow?
(c) If dyed crimson red, can they become like pure wool?

I haven’t run across a standard translation that makes that decision, but it’s appealing to me as a (sarcastic?) elaboration of the “reasoning” introduced in (a) and consistent with the conditionals that come next in v 19-20. (If you are willing...but if you refuse... (vv. 19-20) after [Your sins] shall be white as snow seems like a non sequitur to me.)

  • What is the sense of יכח in this context?
  • Are these possibly questions (a la Blenkinsopp)?
  • Is there a better way to understand how (b) and (c) follow from (a)?

1. Included here is the nifil excerpt only; note that the cross indicates that these three instances comprise a complete listing of the usages (of this stem) in the Hebrew bible.

  • 2
    Excellent question(s)! It's hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of Isa 1:18-20 than the 16 (!) tightly packed pages in H.G.M. Williamson's Isaiah 1-5. He devotes 1 1/2 pages to the meaning of יכח (see pp. 111-12), and the consideration of whether v. 18 contains rhetorical questions is on pp. 115-16. Hope you can see this - he's among the most acute and perceptive of commentators! – Dɑvïd Nov 8 '14 at 11:32
1

Reasonable (and legal)

Let me offer a quick answer, since at present I don't have time for a more detailed one. However, I do believe it is a rather complete answer to your main question about the "reasonableness" of statement, while giving some solutions to the other two questions as well.

The key is looking at the previous context, not just the statement itself.

Isaiah 1:2-8 outlines the sins of Israel and the calamities they are facing because of those. It it had not been for the LORD's grace to leave any alive, there would be no one left (v.9). Therefore Israel needs to heed "the word of the LORD" (v.10), for they have been trying to resolve their sin problem by many animal sacrifices, which the LORD is fed up with (v.11-13a), and their assembling for worship He is fed up with (v.13b-15).

So what is Israel to do instead? Verses 16-17 answer (ESV; emphasis added):

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

So when one comes to v.18, God is continuing His argument. Israel can only do one thing to correct the problem, be cleansed (and after that, continue to be clean). Thus the call to "reason together" (or the legal argument they are to come in agreement with God about—it is the idea of coming "together" with God on the matter that is critical, however one perceives the translation), is that sins (cf. "hands ... full of blood") can be made white as snow by this washing, and though red like crimson, can become [white] like wool ("white" being implied) by this washing.1

This is both "reasonable" and "legal" because God has said it will be so. The passage here does not give any clue as to exactly what "washing" is needed to be sought by Israel, but Isaiah 4:4 is the only other mention of the same term in Isaiah, which indicates it is a washing done by the LORD, which washes away Israel's "filth" and "bloodstains ... by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning" (and is set in an eschatological setting).


NOTES

1 If these are questions, they are rhetorical ones in which God is expecting a "yes" answer, since He just declared that they needed to be washed to correct their sin problem. However, I think they are statements, clearly affirming what He just noted, that the washing can take care of their sin because He said so.

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