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Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Eight: Judge the Fatherless

We are nearing the end; at sundown tomorrow the gates of mercy close and the Book of Life is sealed. But there is yet time for 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.

The verb there is pretty clearly judge, but is (interestingly) used as the opposite of either kill (Psalms 94:6) or rob (Isaiah 10:2). But the choice is still judge—if Isaiah had wanted to say have mercy on or help or provide for, he could have, but he said judge. And on the object, it’s interesting that the word yatom is derived from a root word for loneliness, rather than taking its root from a word for a parent. The KJV translates it as fatherless, of course, which seems to be more correct than orphan, except that the English word contains the missing thing and the Hebrew word does not. It’s a poetic problem. See Lamentations 5:3: y’tomim hayinu, ain av, where the KJV switches to orphan to avoid saying we are fatherless without a father, which frankly, I think is great, but there you are. Also, the Divine is a father to the fatherless (Psalms 68:5), which is lovely, but again uses the English -less construction, which is not present in the Hebrew poetry.

Anyway, what I have been musing on today, in thinking about orphans/fatherless, is that we don’t come across so many of those in the US these days. Oh, there are some, and I don’t know the stats but I would guess that they are concentrated in parts of the US I don’t come across that often. Still, in comparison with Isaiah’s time or the nineteenth century, the condition of orphan-ness is rare. This is, of course, a Good Thing, but it does mean that people like YHB, comfortable middle-aged middle-class people that is, don’t have a visceral reaction to the orphan that I believe Isaiah is counting on. In particular, the repetition of this sentiment seems to imply that of course the fatherless are ill-judged. I’ve been seeing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote a lot recently that says “people who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”; it’s pretty obviously true and equally obviously important for judges and justices to remember. What Isaiah is implying, though, is that we are all judges in life, and if we aren’t dealing the death penalty, we are making lots of judgments—in hiring, in smooching, in tutoring, in electing, in feeding, in providing shelter, in including, in excluding, in all the ways we interact with people—and if we are not constantly reminded or reminding ourselves, we are very likely to fall into the trap of perverting our judgments on the ill-represented, the orphans.

None of this, of course, is to reduce our responsibility for actual orphans, as are here (usually out of our sight, as I say) and around the world (not a few of whom were orphaned by the direct action of US policies). We must still judge them, and (as I think is also implied) judge ourselves by our treatment of them. But there are lots of people who are functionally orphans without our system, because they have no-one to represent them in the way Isaiah assumes fathers stand for their children.

Politically, what I’m thinking of is the treatment of the children of undocumented immigrants, whether those children are citizens by birthright or not. But as individuals, I’m thinking of the job applicant who clearly has no work experience or even the advice about workplace norms to prepare for the interview. I’m thinking about the kids in my kid’s school who eat up the school’s time and resources to do the things that my kids get at home. Whether these people have fathers or not, it’s very easy for me to judge them harshly and unfairly in part because they don’t have good representation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


What if another thing is to think not just of fathers in the sense of orphans and children but to think of the ways in which we claim intellectual family? Perhaps we have a responsibility to judge those ideas that come without context, without nurturing, without representation of their family/history, bastard ideas or ideas that are perverted through the twisting of their intellectual parent. Perhaps Isaiah would like us to judge these ideas--to weigh them with thought and consideration--for where they come from. We can take that metaphor of fathers who nurture and fathers who ignore and fathers who pervert into that idea of where our ideas (and our responsibilities for those ideas) come from.

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