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Isaiah and the Environment

One of Isaiah’s unifying themes is the recurring significance of nature for understanding God’s intentions for the world and its inhabitants.

John August Swanson, Peaceable Kingdom (detail), 1994, serigraph, 30 x 22.5 in. Courtesy the Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

With sixty-six chapters to its name, Isaiah is the longest prophetic book in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars agree that multiple authors and editors shaped the book we have today. Many posit the existence of two or three main authors, each of whom were writing in response to specific events in the history of ancient Israel, most notably the invasions of Judah by Assyria in the eighth century BCE and by Babylon in the sixth century BCE, as well as the resulting experiences of forced migration.

Even with such a complex origin story, one of the book’s unifying themes is the recurring significance of nature for understanding God’s intentions for the world and its inhabitants. Environmental hermeneutics, a way of reading that pays attention to portrayals of nature and nonhuman life, offers a helpful method for interpreting the book of Isaiah today.

How is God related to nature in the book of Isaiah?

The book of Isaiah teems with references to the natural world, what modern humans often call the environment. The opening verses call the heavens and the earth to serve as witnesses to the prophet’s speech (1:2); the final verses predict God’s creation of “a new heavens and a new earth” (66:22). Isaiah repeatedly invokes God’s role as the creator who “stretched out the heavens” (42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 51:13) and “laid the foundations” of the earth (51:13–16). Near the beginning of the book, the prophet calls people to gather at “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2). This recurring geographical feature depicts the mountain as God’s dwelling, the original holy place where luminaries like Abraham (Gen 22) and Moses (Exod 19–20; 34) met God.

How does nature communicate God’s intentions?

In Isaiah, the natural world’s behavior communicates God’s intentions to humankind, frequently in terms of reversal. In the face of current suffering, the prophet evokes hope by saying that God intends to level mountains (40:4) and make deserts into gardens (51:3). Such reversals usually symbolize God’s intent to topple unjust human institutions or to act favorably on behalf of the oppressed. However, nature’s reversals, engineered by God, do not always center the experience of human communities; sometimes, God’s other creatures benefit instead. The prophet portrays wild animals inhabiting deserted cities in Babylon (13:19–22) and Cush (18:1–6), poignant reminders that for the author(s) of Isaiah, God’s created order will endure long after the downfall of any human civilization. When depicting the hoped-for downfall of Israel’s foes, Isaiah says that, at God’s invitation, even the insects in enemy nations will flee their desolate cities and settle in the wilderness instead (7:18–19).

Like other prophetic books, Isaiah describes a future day of reckoning and judgment and anticipates events that will happen “on that day” (see 2:11; 31:7; 52:6)—many of which involve nature and the environment. For example, a condemnation of Assyria portrays briers and thorns replacing vines (7:23), while a word of blessing for Israel depicts plentiful rain, well-fed livestock, and an exceedingly bright moon and sun (30:23–26).

What role will nature play in Israel’s future?

Though written to address human suffering in light of political instability and forced migration, Isaiah contextualizes human concerns with reminders that God is the creator of all life and the whole cosmos. Isaiah’s expansive portrayal of the natural world insists that undomesticated wildlife—and wilderness itself—have divinely appointed roles to play, as do other nations, who are imagined as joining Israel in worship in an imagined ideal future (2:1–5; 66:17–23). In one of Isaiah’s most beloved texts, God’s peace-filled future is depicted as a nonviolent utopia where predators, snakes, and children will inhabit the same ecosystem without threat of bloodshed (11:6–9).

The book’s final promise for “a new heavens and a new earth” (66:22) leaves the reader wondering: What happened to the old heavens and earth? Is this new reality a renovation or a replacement? Isaiah’s rhetoric suggests the latter: a dramatic and divine reboot of the cosmos. It is not entirely clear what the new world will be like or when it will arrive, but one thing is certain: for the book of Isaiah, the natural world will endure as God’s esteemed creative partner in the world to come.

  • Jackie Wyse-Rhodes is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. She is the Hebrew Bible editor for the Studies in Peace and Scripture series, published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies.