Burn My Lips to Turn on Visions
Isaiah 6 4-7
“Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”
Martin Buber’s quote brought age-old Jewish mysticism into contemporary existential thought, with some seekers replacing ‘God’ with ‘Love’ or ‘Presence’.
In today’s chapter, we get a glimpse of what it was like for Isaiah to meet the divine mystery with the fullness of his being - and to bring back to his listeners and readers a vision so powerful it made it into the liturgies of both Jews and Christians - a revered recipe for revelation.
Isaiah, like Moses, became a prototype of how humans are sometimes called into this encounter with the eternal - reluctantly. The two of them share this trait - they were both hesitant to respond to the call, and in both their stories this hesitation is expressed through the way their lips and mouths are physically - and metaphysically - hurt, burned by burning coals, perhaps as a form of prophetic initiation.
Tonight, Moses meets Isaiah, as the Jewish calendar once again winks at this Bible Belt journey, and revelations converge. Many in the Jewish community will stay up all night tonight to celebrate Shavuot, the Holy Night of Revelation, marking the mythic moment on which the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. And on our biblical journey - today we read of Isaiah’s first and famous revelation.
Why is it that these two super prophets experience difficulties using their lips and mouths before becoming mouthpieces of God? What does this tell us about our own search for the sacred?
Moses, according to the Midrash, was burned by coals as a baby in the Egyptian King’s court, on trial for whether he’s a threat to the Pharaoh. Offered the choice of either shining gold coins or burning coals he goes for the coals, tastes them, and that’s how he becomes ‘one of heavy mouth and lips’ when he resists God’s commission to become the liberator. This legend was introduced by the sages to explain his reluctance as a physical disability - he simply was not able to be a public speaker. But he overcame that, obviously, to become The Prophet who was able to deliver salvation and revelation precisely because of his wound, opening him up to empathy and deep understanding of human suffering.
A similar situation happens with Isaiah - and it may actually have been the inspiration for the rabbinic imagination that created that story about baby Moses.
Chapter 6 begins with a historical timestamp - this revelation, perhaps Isaiahs’ first official one, happened during the year that King Uzziah died. Since the first chapter of Isaiah mentioned that he lived and began to prophesy during Uzziah’s life and those of the next three kings - most scholars assume that what this means is not that this is when Uzziah died - but rather that this was the year on which the king became a leper and in effect removed from the palace - good as dead, although he’ll still rule for many years with his son Yotam acting as co-regent.
Isaiah, a privileged nobleman related to the royal house, somehow opens his eyes to mystery at this time, perhaps politically disillusioned, and his lips begin to utter poetry and protest. We will never know the backstory of his biography and what got him to become a prophet but today’s chapter is usually seen as the official dedication chapter in which Isaiah’s call to prophecy is described in detail - including the painful moment that initiated his calling and burned his lips.
Buber’s I & Thou philosophy suggests that we encounter the divine mystery as we fully face each other, encounter all beings, human and not, as sacred. It is when we open to such encounters that revelation happens. Perhaps that also includes the need to experience vulnerability, to embody pain and the terror of the inability to express in words what the mind has experienced during the divine vision?
In Isaiah’s vision he sees God - seated on the Throne of Glory, in the middle of the temple - smoke all around, Seraphim - serpentine creatures made of fire fly around, each with six wings. They sing in unison: Sacred! Sacred! Sacred! What God looks like is not mentioned but the soundscape fills Isaiah with terror, and he can’t find the words to name the vision - words just won’t do:
וָאֹמַ֞ר אֽוֹי־לִ֣י כִֽי־נִדְמֵ֗יתִי כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ טְמֵֽא־שְׂפָתַ֙יִם֙ אָנֹ֔כִי וּבְתוֹךְ֙ עַם־טְמֵ֣א שְׂפָתַ֔יִם אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֑ב כִּ֗י אֶת־הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת רָא֥וּ עֵינָֽי׃
“Woe is me; I am lost!
For I am a man of impure lips
And I live among a people
Of impure lips;
Yet my own eyes have beheld
The Sovereign GOD of Hosts.”
And then this happens:
וַיָּ֣עׇף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃
וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר
Then one of the seraphs—who had taken a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs—flew over to me,
touched it to my lips, and declared
“Now that this has touched your lips,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin be purged away.”
Isaiah 6 4-7
Perhaps Isaiah’s sin here is his reluctance?
In his book, ‘The God of Old,’ Professor James Kugel writes that Moses and Isaiah are two of the prophets who experience an initiation that he calls a ‘prophetic call narrative.’ This includes their initial reluctance to serve as God’s spokesman – Moses’ difficulty with speech is one of his reasons for refusal and Isaiah initially because of what he names as his ‘impure lips’.
Whoever spoke/wrote the legend of baby Moses and the coals knew Isaiah’s narrative and links the two as if to tell us or to ask: what will it take for any of us to follow in their frightening footsteps and be open to the revelation suggested by Buber:
“God speaks to humans in the things and beings God sends us in life. The human answers through dealings with these things and beings.”
Isaiah’s vision promoted him to step up, rebuke his city, deliver warnings and consolations, threats and pleas. He won’t be popular, perhaps he’ll bite his lips in regret after delivering the messages he hears and sees - but he’s committed.
The last image of this chapter is what happens after the destruction will annihilate Jerusalem - the tree will be on fire, but the trunk will survive, the essence, though charred, like the prophet’s lips, will live on, like hope, like the elusive and eternal.
May tonight bring revelations to our hearts and minds, mouths and ears, bodies and souls.
Image: Marc Chagall, Isaiah the Prophet
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