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Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Three: Put Away

It’s the Fourth Day of Awe, and we are at the end of the first triple in Isaiah 1:16-17:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

This is an odd one, I think, as instead of maintaining the parallel, Isaiah chooses to add onto it immensely. Not put away evil, not put away the evil of your doings, but put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes. It’s particularly strange in Hebrew, as insofar as I can tell (my grammar is essentially nonexistent) instead of using the usual noun form for the word evil, Isaiah has taken the verb form and then backformed a noun from it. Then he takes the a verb for acting/doing to make a noun form for the noun-of-evil-doing to link to, making a noun phrase out of two verbs (one of which is a verbing of a noun). It seems like an odd phrase. On the other hand, Jeremiah uses it in 4:4, 21:12, 23:2, 25:5 and 44:22, (and I think 26:3 with a variant spelling), and other variants are used a few other places. So perhaps it’s a Jeremiah thing that Isaiah is picking up here (yes, generations earlier, we are talking about Scripture here) in order to reference the doomsaying that is connoted with Jeremiah. Hm. Still, even if it is a stock phrase the-evil-of-your-doings, there’s presumably some point here in saying that we are not just to remove it, but to remove it from before the eyes of the Divine.

Which are, presumably, everywhere. The Divine being omniscient. Perhaps that’s the point—in order to put away the-evil-of-your-doings from before the eyes of the Divine, you have to put them pretty far away indeed. Put them completely out of the world, in fact. Just a roundabout way of saying don’t do the-evils-of-your-doings at all, with a reminder of the power of the Divine. Awfully roundabout, though, and not really fitting the rhythm of the first words of the verse, although the New International Version has Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Which gives a kind of urgency and point to the verse, except that (a) it comes off very scoldy, and (2) it’s not actually the end of the verse, and makes the next bit sound very clunky. Ah, well.

I do wonder, now that I think about it, whether the put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes bit smacks of concealing evidence, of cleaning the crime scene, or more positively of tidying up the house before the parents come home. The wrongdoer surrounded by the detritus of sin, having washed himself and made himself clean, now putting himself to the task of sweeping up the cigarette butts and mopping up the beer spills, emptying the overfull wastebaskets of our failures. You can’t stand there in the middle of the heap of the-evil-of-your-doings and really start doing right.

Which brings us back to the notion that the apologies we hear during these Days of Awe are not enough, that they must come with recompense as well as the commitment to improve. The way to put away the-evil-of-your-doings is to make them right, to do something active and affirmative to redress the wrong. It’s very difficult, though, when much of the-evil-of-your-doings is hurt feelings, distrust and sadness. If you have stolen a thing, you might be able to return the thing or pay for it, but if you have stolen somebody’s cheerful mood (by grumping at them or heaping work on them or making their life a misery), it’s harder to put that away from the eyes of the Divine. We do what we can, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,