God and Israel’s hardening: Moral and theological reflections in response to Isaiah 6

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentationAcademic


‘Hardening’ is a theological designation for the phenomenon that humans can shut themselves off from God. Isaiah 6 attributes a role to God in this. God commissions Isaiah to block the healing of Israel, God’s own people. When Isaiah asks about the duration of his commission, he gets a harsh answer about devastation and destruction. Marvin Sweeney compares this answer to the Shoah and qualifies the commission Isaiah receives as morally and theologically unacceptable (“Post-Shoah Readings of Isaiah,” in: Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Isaiah, Oxford 2020, 542-558). If God is willing to sacrifice Judah and Jerusalem, who can ever trust his covenant? According to Sweeney, Isaiah himself also falls morally short and is to blame for Israel’s downfall because he does not stop God as Moses once did.
In this paper, I reflect on the moral and theological questions raised by Sweeney, engaging also the question posed in Isaiah 63:17 as to why Israel was hardened by God. Until recently, Isaiah 56-66 has received little attention in studies of the hardening motif. By making room for the why question, the editors of the book of Isaiah underscore the theological legitimacy of the lament. From a trauma perspective, this is indispensable. According to Sweeney, Isaiah 56-66 describes the failure of God’s plans. As an alternative, he suggests expecting less from God and more from humans. People should take responsibility by working as covenant partners with God for a more just world. This is really an important appeal, but the book of Isaiah makes it clear that the appeal to people to do good and seek justice is not enough to bring renewal. Auschwitz was followed by Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Today, Ukraine should also be mentioned. Humanity is part of the problem. As indispensable as the room the editors of the book of Isaiah make for lament is the attention the book gives to the coming of God’s righteousness and judgment precisely to uphold the vision of a world in which righteousness dwells.
Period17 Nov 2023
Event titleSBL Annual Meeting 2023
Event typeConference
LocationSan Antonio, United States, TexasShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Isaiah
  • Hardening