Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, February 19, 1998. This article is a commentary to the Haftarah for the weekly Torah portion “Yitro,” Isaiah 6:1-7:6 and 9:5-6.
The time had much in common with ours: When Isaiah was called to prophesy in the eighth century BCE, there’d been relative prosperity under King Uzziah, including territorial expansion. But Judea faced constant threats from without; and newfound comfort and luxury led to decadence and immorality from within. Isaiah describes abuses from political corruption to ignoring the underprivileged to exploitation of dwindling land resources by rich estate owners: “Ah, those who add house to house, and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land!” (Isaiah 5:8).
Against this background, Isaiah has the remarkable vision that initiates his mission: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne…” (6:1). In a rare example of visual human-divine contact, Isaiah sees God. And he sees the seraphim in attendance, proclaiming God’s holiness in words that have become a centerpiece of Jewish liturgy. The verse (6:3) has been rendered: “Holy, holy holy, is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory” (old JPS translation) or: “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (new JPS version). Those translations and their like bolster mainstream transcendental theology that sees God’s glory as something separate from the world, that comes “down” from God to fill the earthly vessel, inspiring awe in the creatures below.
No Dichotomy of God and World
But the simple Hebrew points in another direction. The key phrase, melo kol ha’aretz, is better read not as an adjective – “the whole earth is full of” God’s glory – but rather as a noun: “the fullness of the whole earth” – that is God’s glory! This suggests a very different theology, one more immanental, which does not draw a dichotomy between God and the world. God’s glory does not descend from on high to suffuse the otherwise purely physical created world. The earth and the fullness thereof are the stuff of the divine presence; the material is spiritual. God’s glory and presence don’t fill the world – they are the world!