“For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon; to do his deed – strange is his deed! and to work his work – alien is his work!” (Isaiah 28:21).
The Historical Context
Isaiah 28:21 speaks of the work of Yahweh as “strange” and “alien.” Scholars are divided on the meaning of Isaiah’s words because his statement is not very clear since he does not provide a definition of what he means by “strange” and “alien.” One way of understanding what the prophet meant by these words is by studying the context of his oracle.
Isaiah 28 is an oracle in which Isaiah emphatically declares Yahweh’s judgment upon both Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) because of their many violations of the covenant. Scholars agree that this oracle is dated to the time of Hezekiah as he prepared to revolt against Sennacherib, king of Assyria (705-701 B.C.). Isaiah 28:1-6 is an indictment against the Northern Kingdom, probably a reference to the fall of Samaria and the end of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.
Isaiah 28:7-22 is an indictment against the Southern Kingdom and an announcement of the imminent judgment against the nation. In verse 7, Isaiah accuses the priests and the prophets of being drunk with strong drink and blames them for the spiritual condition of the people. In 28:15 the prophet accuses the priests and prophets of making a “covenant with Death” and “an agreement with Sheol.” The covenant with Death probably refers to Judah’s alliance with Egypt as Judah prepared to face the Assyrian threat: “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD” (Isaiah 31:1).
Greg Boyd on the Alien Work of God
In his book Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Greg Boyd quotes Isaiah 28:21 four times to speak about the judgment of God and the violent acts that God brings upon people. On page 7 Boyd writes: “Having spelled out in general terms the view of Scripture that will be assumed throughout this work, I turn now to the legitimacy, and even the necessity, of honestly questioning this very Scripture when it depicts God in ways that seem ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ to the way he has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ (Isa 28:21).”
On page 10 Boyd writes,
Many of the heroes of the faith throughout the OT lived up to this name. Like Jacob, they had the courage and the integrity to challenge God when his behavior seemed ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ (Isa 28:21). Abraham, for example, was forthright in pushing back on the Almighty when he shared with him his plan to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:23-33). Moses had enough faith to protest God’s plan to annihilate his covenant people (Exod 32:10-14). A short while later, he challenged Yahweh’s expressed plan to send the Israelites into the promised land without Yahweh (Exod 33:12-16). Significantly enough, far from being offended at the audacity of these challenges, God responded positively to all three, with the latter two resulting in a merciful alteration of the divine plan. When God’s people wrestle with him, it seems, it affects God as well as humans.
On page 13 Boyd writes: “When Yahweh’s covenant partners voice their questions and objections to his apparently ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ behavior, they are manifesting their confidence that their covenant relationship with God is solid enough to handle their expressed complaints, confusions, and even occasional accusations.”
In every place where Boyd speaks about the “strange” and “alien” work of God, Boyd refers to violent acts of God in judging people. In the case of Abraham, the “strange” and “alien” work of God is God’s plan to “to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah.” In Moses’ case, the “strange” and “alien” work of God is God’s plan to annihilate his covenant people.
Interpreting Isaiah 28:21
Scholars differ of the meaning of the “strange” and “alien” work of God. John Bright (1981: 295) believes that the alien work of God is that God was fighting against Israel. Bright wrote: “Yahweh was himself fighting against Jerusalem as David once did.”
Albertz sees the alien work of God as a devastating judgment upon the nation and a rejection of what has been called “Zion theology,” the view that God would protect Jerusalem from its enemies because the city was the location of God’s temple. Albertz (1994: 168-69) writes:
Isaiah makes a similar correction to the Zion theology: the guarantee of salvation promised in it is only to the helpless who deliberately dispense with the safeguards of power politics, . . . not for the well armed city. The cultic presence of the God who is enthroned on Zion will even be dangerous for the present capital. . . . Thus in Isaiah’s view Yahweh liberates himself from the ideological entanglements in which the Jerusalem theology of king and temple had involved him. In the onrush of historical events Isaiah sees a divine plan at work according to which Yahweh demonstrates his compelling majesty precisely by systematically shattering any hybrid human political or military attempt at finding security.
Halpern (1986: 118) identifies the “strange” and “alien” work of God with God’s wrath. He writes,
not even the underworld is sturdy and wide enough to save Jerusalem’s ‘rulers’ from exposure to Yhwh’s wrath. Though sepultured comfortably, in the very bosom of the earth, they will remain vulnerable. As in the valley of Gibeon (v. 21; Josh 10:11), Yhwh’s hail will irresistibly demolish all their shelters. The “sweeping scourge” (cf. 2 Sam 5:20; Isa 28:21, “Mt. Perazim”) will carry those hidden in the shelters to the ground-sweeping the fugitives from their beds-and they will be trampled.
It is true that the statement about God’s “strange” and “alien” work appears in an oracle of judgment, but the “strange” and “alien” work of God is a reference to something else besides judgment and wrath. Isaiah is saying that the judgment of Jerusalem is alien to God’s nature. God’s character and nature was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai:
The LORD passed before [Moses], and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
Or, as the New Jerusalem Bible, using the divine name, translates:
Then Yahweh passed before him and called out, Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin (Exodus 34:6-7 NJB).
This declaration of the nature and character of God appears in several sections of the Old Testament (in a future post I will discuss the nature and character of God in more detail, including the second half of v. 7 which I have omitted in the quote above). The frequency with which this aspect of God’s nature appears throughout the Old Testament indicates that the people of Israel knew their God as a compassionate and gracious God.
When Isaiah spoke about the “strange” and “alien” work of God, he was announcing the judgment of God upon Judah, but Isaiah also said that God did not want to punish Judah, he did not want to bring his judgment upon the nation. Rather, God wanted to save Judah from the brutal consequences of the Assyrian invasion.
Seeking Military Help
Isaiah said that the leaders of Judah went to Egypt seeking military help against the coming Assyrian invasion:
Oh, rebellious children, says the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt; Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation (Isaiah 30:1-3).
According to Isaiah, the leaders of Judah “carry out a plan,” but it was not God’s plan for the nation. They made an alliance with Egypt against God’s will. They went to Egypt for advice but they never asked for God’s word. They sought protection from Pharaoh instead of depending on God to deliver them. As a result of their political decision, they will be ashamed and humiliated by the Assyrians.
God wanted to help Judah in their struggle against Assyria, but the people refused: God said to them: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you refused and said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’” (Isaiah 30:15-16).
The people refused, but God wanted to be gracious to Israel. Isaiah said: “Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). The words “gracious” and “mercy” are two words that are integral aspects of the character of God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:6).
Again, Isaiah said that the people would rather trust in the horses of Egypt than in God’s power to save. He said: “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD” (Isaiah 31:1).
Isaiah said that God wanted to save the nation: “Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it. Turn back to him whom you have deeply betrayed, O people of Israel” (Isaiah 31:5-6).
The salvation of Jerusalem depended on the repentance of the people: “Turn back to him.” The Hebrew word for “turn back” is sārāh, a word that means turning from apostasy. Isaiah is saying that the people have abandoned God and have decided to depend on military might for their deliverance.
Thus, Isaiah said that what God was about to do to Jerusalem was alien to his nature, because God is a merciful and gracious God and had been so throughout Israel’s history. Many times and in many ways God had expressed his merciful nature to the people and on several occasions God has been “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” to Israel.
In that same revelation at Sinai in which God revealed his nature, God said to Moses, “all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10). The use of the word “work” in Exodus 34:10 and in Isaiah 28:21 and Isaiah’s use of the words “gracious” and “mercy” in Isaiah 30:18 clearly indicate that Isaiah is referring to what Israel believed and confessed about Yahweh’s character and nature.
In conclusion, Isaiah is saying that God will bring judgment upon Jerusalem, but that is not what he wants to do. God’s desire is to save his people, but because of their rebellion and because of their refusal to repent, God has to bring judgment upon the city, even though judgment is alien to his nature as a God who is merciful and gracious. God wants to save Judah because he is a God who is slow to anger, and is a God who is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. God does not want to bring judgment upon Judah because he is a God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and because he is a God who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.
Isaiah says that the judgment of Jerusalem was the “strange” and “alien” work of God because divine judgment was contrary to the merciful and gracious nature of Yahweh. The gracious and merciful nature of Yahweh is the reason the people of Israel were not destroyed in the wilderness. The gracious and merciful nature of Yahweh is the reason Judah would not suffer the indignities of an Assyria invasion, if they only repented and turned back to Yahweh.
God did not want to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah. His dialogue with Abraham clearly shows he wanted to spare the city. After the people of Israel made the Golden Calf, God practically asked Moses to intercede on behalf of Israel. Moses did and God spared the people. God did not want to bring judgment on Judah. Rather, he wanted to be gracious and spare the people from the atrocities of an Assyrian invasion. The Lord is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18). Those who wait upon him will be saved because God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked:
As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11).
Oh, that Judah had turned back from their evil ways in the same way that the Ninevites did.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.
Halpern, Baruch. “‘The Excremental Vision’: The Doomed Priests of Doom in Isaiah 28.” Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986): 109-121.
Mariottini, Claude. “Greg Boyd and the Genocidal God.”