Did the Prophet Isaiah truly walk naked for three long years?

A close examination of Isaiah 20:2: Did he indeed have to walk absolutely naked according to the passage?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

   “at that time the LORD spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the LORD said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.” (English Standard Version, Isaiah 20:2-4) [emphasis added]

A reader or an observer without any bias or vested interest in the Bible or Christianity, would hesitate little to come to the plain meaning as conveyed by the above excerpt from Isaiah 20: that the Prophet Isaiah, however strange as it may be, received admonition from his God to strip himself naked to the point of baring his rear end (buttocks) and to also walk completely barefoot, essentially then stark naked, as a shocking display to warn the Egyptians and the Cushites of impending doom that shall befall them where they too shall have to be stripped completely naked from top to bottom.

The avid Christian or believer in the Bible on the other hand, in this day and age, would be utterly shocked at this passage and may well dismiss the apparent meaning of the excerpt and scramble to find an alternative explanation, so as to satisfy his faith in a God that would only give sane commandments to His people, most especially His specially chosen ones, the Prophets, and would not in His Loving Kindness damn them to shame and embarrassment. None can capture the above conservative or fundamentalist sentiment better than the Reverend Daniel Waterland, D.D., who served as the Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge, Canon of Windsor and Archdeacon of Middlesex. He writes:

Isaiah XX. 3, 4.

  AND THE LORD SAID, LIKE AS MY SERVANT ISAIAH HATH WALKED NAKED AND BAREFOOT THREE YEARS FOR A SIGN AND WONDER UPON EGYPT AND UPON ETHIOPIA; SO SHALL THE KING OF ASSYRIA,&c. The Objector hereupon says: “How many commands did God give his Prophets, which, if taken according to the letter, seem unworthy of God, as making them act like madmen, or idiots!” As for instance, “the Prophet Isaiah walked for three years together naked for a sign.” The Objector, to do him justice, is not singular in finding fault with this place of the Prophet, nor in his so construing it as if the Prophet went stark naked, and for three whole years together, if the literal interpretation is to be admitted: and upon that supposition, he has some colour for saying, that such a command “seems unworthy of God,” as making the Prophet act like a madman, or an idiot.” [1]

We may understand from the above, that the staunch Bible Thumper, the Christian conservative or the fundamentalist, may strongly wish to dismiss the meaning of the text as plainly conveyed by the words therein so as to avoid painting a picture of a deity that is prone to exhortations of lunacy upon his prophets, to have them perform acts of insanity. And to this effect, many apologists and interpreters have come up with clever interpretations simply to evade the plain meaning of the text as it stands. And there are typically three different excuses, to satisfy Christian sensibilities, that are posited as alternative meanings to what is scripturally evident:

1. The ‘nakedness’ is only partial, in that he was only commanded to make bare the upper part of his body, while the lower part remained clothed apart from the feet that were to be barren too. This view finds its place in such individuals as Joseph Benson in his commentary where he writes, “Not wholly naked, but without his upper garment, as slaves and prisoners used to do, whose condition he was to represent. This action was both agreeable to the mode of instruction made use of in those times, and, as it was intended to excite the attention of the Israelites, was like very well adapted to promote that intention.”

Others who share this view include Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, Joseph Addison Alexander, William Lowth and John Gill. But looking closer at Benson’s explanation, one will notice some rather serious difficulties and in fact major incoherence in his postulations. Firstly, it should be noted that the text does not in fact inform us or qualify this nakedness as a partial one involving only the stripping of the upper garment, but this is pretty obvious when one reads the text and this fact shall not be repeated again for the other reconciliatory attempts, even though it should be noted that it is 100% applicable to all the other amelioratory views offered. The difficulty, nay incoherence in what Benson says becomes rather evident when one reads his words closely after the first glance. He admits the reasoning behind the nudity as a means to create a kind of “shock and awe” effect that would attract the attention of the Egyptian and Cushite slave masses. He says that this partial nudity of baring the torso, but still covering the lower part of the body, as the slaves do, would successfully achieve that. Do you see the problem? Would you feel utterly shocked and completely in awe if your teacher, who in his capacity as your guide is expected to instill humility and humbleness in you, one day starts wearing the same kind of clothes like you? You might find it odd at first, but naturally, it would not create that “shock and awe” effect required to generate what Benson describes as “to excite the attention of the Israelites”. It would have done little to surprise them. They would temporarily find it strange that he  suddenly opted for a different wardrobe, but certainly the similarity in dress, that covers the extremities and maintains the traditional and cultural norms of men’s clothing, would not have offended their hardened sensibilities (as slaves and tortured men of labour) and create excitement of any kind in their hearts and mind. Thus there is a disconnect between the required “shock and awe” effect, that would have been necessary to “excite” the people’s attention, and the excuse of partial nudity. Finally, Benson says that Isaiah’s state of nudity (partial nakedness, the undressing of the upper garment, revealing the chest and torso, but covering the lower part of the body still) was to “represent the condition of the slaves” where they had to walk around without an upper garment. This is completely off the charts and against what is mentioned in the text and this too smacks of incoherence. How does it contradict the text and why is it incoherent? It is contradictory and incoherent because the text tells us that the act of nudity was to serve as a warning of a FUTURE impending doom. If what the Egyptians and Cushites were to experience in the FUTURE were exactly the same as that of the present, then that would hardly make a difference in their hearts and minds, having to endure what they are already enduring would hardly be news to them, and it would be completely irrelevant for God to ask His prophet to perform the act of nakedness, partial or otherwise, since they will be experiencing the same thing over again. His act of nudity, if anything, was to represent the future condition of the slaves, different and above all else, more terrible from what they were experiencing then, hence the horror and fright that they would feel upon the realisation of such catastrophe once they appreciate and understand Isaiah’s taboo-breaking performance.

2. The second reconciliatory effort involves the view that the undressing of the garment was full, but there remained some undergarments that would have covered at least Isaiah’s lower extremeties from exposure. This position is taken up by Jamiesson-Fausset-Brown. He gives some three references to back up this view i.e. 1 Samuel 19:24, Amos 2:16 and John 21:7. Let’s have a quick look at these verses.

And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 19:24)

and he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the LORD. (Amos 2:16)

That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. (John 21:7)

None of the two Old Testament texts above in any way strengthens Matthew-Fausset-Brown’s view as they simply identify the individuals as being “naked” and does not say in any way that they had an outer garment and an inner garment. They do not in any way say that the individuals were naked even when they had some alleged undergarments while stripped of the outer ones. Such a description simply does not exist in those two texts, hence they are not tenable as evidence for this view. Admittedly, John 21:7 uses the word naked (or nudity), when it uses the word γυμνός (gumnos), which is the same word used for the word ‘naked’ in the Septuagint version (Greek version) of Isaiah 20:2. However, in the case of the anonymous individual in John 21:7, the word ‘naked’ is qualified by the preceding words “διεζώσατο ἐπενδύτην’ (diezosato ependuten) which means that upon seeing the arrival of Jesus, “he put on his outer garment”, indicating that he had an undergarment previous to that and yet his state of being with an undergarment was described as ‘gumnos’ or naked. Granted that in a somewhat figurative sense, as some lexicons would say, as we shall see later, the word naked as is used in the Hebrew of Isaiah 20:2, may denote a nakedness that involves some form of covering with inner garments. But thus far, we have seen no evidence of this definition in any definitive form from any verses in the Hebrew Bible for the word “naked” when it is used therein. What we see is John 21:7 and it is rather anachronistic to interpret a rather old text of the Old Testament in light of a rather new text of the New Testament which is a completely different set of scriptures than the Old Testament, not only in terms of background, theology and culture, but most importantly, in terms of language. While, it is completely fine to understand John 21:7 cotextually, that is, in light of its own sentence, it is only fair to subscribe to the same method when it comes to Isaiah 20:2, that is, it ought to be seen, interpreted and understood in its own cotext and of course, in its relevant cultural, historical, religious, textual and language context. While the “nakedness” of “the beloved disciple” is qualified as that of a partial one in the text itself, within the same verse (cotextually), no such qualification coming near to it can be found in Isaiah 20:2, therefore, to say that John 21:7 explains Isaiah 20:2 is ad hoc to say the least.

3. Finally, we come to the third view that is offered by certain Rabbis including the prominent exegetes Kimchi, Maimonides and others. Some Christians may also find this view favourable, rather than accepting the plain meaning of the text that would result in what we have already mentioned above about God’s person and being. The Princeton biblical commentator Joseph Addison Alexander, whom we have already mentioned as one who favours the first option of reconciliation attempts, dismisses this view:

“This supposition is not altogether arbitrary, i.e. without any intimation in the text, but is rendered more improbable by the expression that he did so, as as by the statement in the next verse, that the act required was to be a sign or symbol to the spectators, which certainly implies that it was really exhibited.” [2]

From the above discussion, we may say in a nutshell that the attempts at reconciliation as offered by the above mentioned authors and the respective options given have no basis in the actual text of Isaiah 20, they are replete with non-scriptural assertions, that are merely opinions without good data to support them, and at times, in their zeal and perhaps even desperation to safeguard an acceptable view of God  and prophethood as enshrined in the bible, some biblical authors may actually fall into such great incoherence without even realising it.

So now, let’s have a look at the verse again, but this time, firstly, in its original language:

(Note: From this point on, any and all Hebrew words and citations will be cited in the consonantal format without the diacritical marks, unless required otherwise for better clarity in the reading and understanding. This is only to maintain brevity)

 בעת ההיא דבר יהוה ביד ישעיהו בן־אמוץ לאמר לך ופתחת השק מעל מתניך ונעלך תחלץ מעל רגליך ויעש כן הלך ערום ויחף׃ ס

(Isaiah 20:2)

The words that is made into a point of contention is of course ‘naked’ in English and it is the one underlined in the Hebrew text above. The word is ערום (‘ayn resh waw meem: ‘arowm). In many lexicons, you may find the word without the waw, but it is essentially the same and according to the great German Hebrew linguist, Heinrich Friendrich Wilhelm Gesenius, the word is associated with a similar word that denotes the same meaning i.e. ערוה (‘ayn resh waw he) which typically means shameful exposure. ערום (‘arowm) is the word used in Job 1:21 that speaks of the person coming out of the womb naked and also in Ecclesiastes 5:15, which also speaks of one coming out of the womb of the mother naked. In Job 24:10 it is used to describe a poor person compelled to go around naked and the next words qualifies the word ‘naked’ in it as “without clothing”, meaning absolutely naked. It is also the same word that is used in Genesis, though in the plural form ערומים but with the same root form, to speak of the nakedness of Adam and Even which has always been seen and depicted as being absolutely naked, after which they had to find leaves to cover their private parts due to the feeling of shame that suddenly appeared in their hearts that did not exist before. Therefore, from a scriptural perspective, in the context of the Old Testament, we may find at least four clear cut references that indicate that the word ‘arowm, as used in Isaiah 20:2, means absolute nakedness, while there remains no clear verse that would define within the Old Testament itself, the word as one that may denote partial, upper-body-part, nakedness.

Alexander Harkavy in his Students’ Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testamen defines ערו as simply naked without adding or suggesting that partial nakedness as a recognisable meaning of the word:

ערם a. ערום (pl. ערומים) adj. bared, naked Gen. 2,25; Jb. 1,21; 22,6; f. ערפּה Hos.2,5.” [3]

Gesenius himself, as it should be conceded,  in his Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures allows for ‘partial nakedness’ as one of the shades of meanings behind the word in question, although the references his offers, just as the references given by the others cited above, such as Isaiah 58:7 do not in fact show in any clear manner that the nakedness meant is partial and not total (See Wilhelm Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures as translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, published in London by Samuel Bagster & Sons, Limited, page DCLIII). However, interestingly enough, in another work, equally authoritative, as it is based on Gesenius’ Lexicon, his Thesaurus and the latest edition of Gesenius’ Handwörterbuch über das Alte Testament (or Massive Lexicon of the Old Testament):

“ערוה n.f. nakedness, pudenda…1. pudenda, of man ראהע׳ implying shameful exposure Gen 9:22-23… lit. תּכּלה ע׳ i.e. be exposed to view Ex 20:23 (Ginsb; van d. H. v:26; E), so, as shameful punishment, fig. of Egypt Is 20:4 (gloss acc. to Du Che Di-Kit)…” [4] (emphasis added)

In the above reference which is based solely on Gesenius’ work, the nakedness as mentioned in Isaiah 20 is identified as a shameful punishment and falling into the first primary definition as given in the lexicon, it means “shameful exposure” and of course having undergarments to cover oneself, in that day and age would hardly have been that shameful. And the word ‘pudenda’ which may seem unfamiliar to some is simply a fanciful term for genitals or private parts, therefore, the shameful exposure according to the above lexicon, as experienced by the Egyptians and Cushites and Isaiah as the forerunner to these two nations in the deed, involved shameful and disgraceful exhibition of the private parts.

Similarly, we find that The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon simply defines ערום as “naked” without admitting or allowing “partialness” of any kind to enter into the meaning of the word. Being a comprehensive lexicon of the analytical type, it would certainly not have left out this crucial information, if it recognised it as a tenable meaning for the word, and no doubt the author being a linguist would have been aware of the view of “partial nakedness” associated with the word as posited by others, yet he completely omits it from his definition of the word in question, indicative that he does not accept it or see it as relevant.

ערום  ערם masc. pl.  ערומים, fem. ערטּה  

(37. No. 3c) adj. naked, stripped.” [5]

An English and Hebrew Lexicon Composed after Johnson’s Dictionary defines the word as “stark naked”, that is, absolutely naked:

“Naked, bare, m. s. ערום * עֵרוּם (stark)…” [6]

The Anglo-Hebrew Modern Dictionary [7] defines it simply as:

“Naked a. עֵירוֹם; עֶרֹם, עֶרוֹם”

No doubt, there are many dictionaries and lexicons that would allow for the meaning of “partial nakedness” into ערום, but the above lexicons, apart from Gesenius’ own work, clearly do not.

And we hold that in order to determine which side has the soundest position, whether or not the word ‘naked’ that is mentioned in the verse actually means “stark naked” or “absolutely naked”, we should consider the text of Isaiah 20:2 and its immediate context closely and look at what is really being said.

“at that time the LORD spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the LORD said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.” (English Standard Version, Isaiah 20:2-4) [emphasis added]

In the plain wording of the text, Isaiah is commanded to remove his sackcloth and there are no undergarments mentioned here and typically there would be no undergarment beneath the sackcloth, which is something similar to what Jesus is typically depicted to have supposedly worn on the cross. Do you think he was wearing anything additional underneath? The answer should be no and the command was for it to be removed from Isaiah’s waist. The King James Version is even more lucid in its rendering as it says, “loose the sackcloth from off thy loins” which basically means in contemporary English, “take off the sackcloth from your private parts”. And the stark nakedness that is conveyed clearly by the text in its plain form is strengthened further by verse four, which specifically and essentially, without ambuguity, qualifies the nakedness as one that involves the uncovering of the rear end, the buttocks. And to this effect, a Christian author, Don Anderson, writes:

“God commanded Isaiah to take off his clothes and shoes and walk around naked. How naked? Isaiah was so naked that his buttocks were uncovered – for three years.” [8]

And, one might wonder, “How would this command that was adhered to by Isaiah have impacted his person?” Perhaps no better description can be given than Matthew Henry himself, even though he promotes the position that we disagree and have shown to be unsustainable, nevertheless his description of what Isaiah might have felt, had he in fact truly had to undergo what is described in Isaiah 20, remains useful and relevant to our discussion.

“This was a great hardship upon the prophet, it was a blemish to his reputation, and would expose him to contempt and ridicule; the boys in the streets would hoot at him, and they who sought occasion against him, would say, The prophet is indeed a fool, and the spiritual man is mad, Hos. 9. 7. It might likewise be a prejudice to his health, he was in danger of catching a cold, which might throw him into a fever, and cost him his life; but God bade him do it, that he might give a proof of his obedience to God in a most difficult command, and so shame the disobedience of his people to the most easy and reasonable precepts.” [9]

In the above, we see Henry lamenting the fate of Isaiah as he accepted such a difficult and odious of tasks, one that involved him walking for three long years, naked. Despite the fact that Henry favours the indefensible partial nudity view, his description of what Isaiah’s situation might have been as he undertook his new task of naked proportions remain cogent, and we should remember that he writes the above vivid description in lieu of his belief that the nakedness was only partial in extent, while we have shown that Isaiah was by virtue of the text, absolutely naked, so the description given is somewhat less damaging as to what he may truly have experienced, therefore, what is described above should be intensified and multiplied in its brevity in view of the data that show Isaiah to have, according to the passage, actually walked stark naked for 3 long years rather than simply being without covering in the upper section of his body while the lower part remained safely covered as suggested by Henry.

Finally, our view that the plain meaning of the text, that clearly conveys the meaning that Isaiah was commanded to walk naked from top to bottom, which he did according to the text in question, finds favour in the commentaries of many Patristic writers which may come as a surprise to many. These Patristic writers, in their evaluation of the text and final commentary, show little compunction in admitting the plain meaning of the text, no matter how ugly a position it may seem to fellow believers.

But before we proceed to Patristic sources, let’s provide a rather recent commentary that affirms the understanding that the nakedness was total in nature:

“20:2,3 Isaiah replaced wearing sackcloth, the garb of spiritual mourning, with walking naked and barefoot, signs of being exiled into captivity.” [10]

So according to the concise commentary above by the NKJV Study Bible, the sackcloth was completely removed and replaced by nakedness.

Let us now turn to the Patristic writers that we mentioned above and see exactly what their views were regarding this passage. Their views as it should be noted here for those who may not be aware, predate the modern commentaries that have thus far been cited by more than a thousand years. They represent the consciousness and understanding of Christians closer to the New Testament period and Old Testament times than those that are posited by modern Christian writers. Whether this means that they are more reliable in their views is to be determined by the merits of what and how they say what they do, while holding fast to the established facts that we have so far discussed and shown.

Esebius of Caesaria (AD 263) commented:

“And when the cities had been conquered, the prophet was commanded to go about in public without even one garment because of the heights to which philosophy had reached in them. And he was commanded to lay aside his garment, which had not been woven from wool but from goats’ hair, and this to present himself absolutely naked, since he did not have a second covering of animal skin. He was also commanded to remove his sandals, or, according to the other Greek translations, shoes.” [11] (emphasis added)

In the above, Eusebius, unabashedly, identifies Isaiah 20 as having the Prophet Isaiah absolutely naked at the behest of god (according to the passage, not according to what we believe), and he preempts the second reconciliatory option opted by Jamiesson-Fausset-Brown, that of having an undergarment, by saying “he did not have a second covering of animal skin”. Thus Eusebius, which is no pedestrian commentator nor a common scholar but a major source of historical Christian information, the bishop of Caesaria and regarded as the “Father of Church History”, with little hesitation propels the view that Isaiah 20 has the prophet totally naked.

And Saint Ambrose, or Aurelius Ambrosius (AD 397), bishop of Milan was even more emphatic as he writes:

“Someone perhaps will say, “Was it not disgraceful for a man to walk naked among the people since he must meet both men and women? Must not his appearance have shocked the gaze of all, but especially that of women? Do we not outselves generally abhor the sight of naked men? And are not men’s private parts covered with clothing that they may not offend the gaze of onlookers by their unsightliness?” I agree, but you must consider what this act represented and what was the reason for this outward show; it was that the young Jewish youths and maidens would be led away into exile and walk naked,”as my servant Isaiah walked,” he says, “naked and barefoot.” This might have been expressed in words, but God chose to enforce it by and example that the very sight might strike terror, and what they shrank from in the body of the prophet they might utterly dread for themselves. Wherein lay the greater abhorrence: in the body of the prophet of in the sins of the disbelievers? LETTER 28 (6.27.13).” [12]

And Jerome, the great Christian theologian who produced the infamous Catholic Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible writes:

“Isaiah goes naked without blushing as a type of captivity to come.” [13]

In the foregoing discussion, the preponderance of evidence indicate that the most reasonable interpretation of the text as it stands, even according to the above Patristic writers, inform that Isaiah was indeed commanded to walk for three years absolutely naked without any covering whatsoever, which would have truly shocked the sensibilities of his spectators, but not only that, it shocks even Christians today to the extent that they come up with such clever excuses just to avoid the embarrassing plain meaning of the text as it is.

Addendum:

Christian writers, whose writings indicate that they are strong believers in the faith, nevertheless accepts in a rather straight forward fashion the shocking reality of Isaiah 20.

“The great prophet Isaiah was instructed by God Himself to do something even crazier.

And that time the LORD spoke through Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go and loosen the sackcloth from your hips and take your shoes off your feet.” And he did so, going naked and barefoot. And the LORD said, “Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign and token against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

Isaiah 20:2-4, emphasis mine

Just imagine if today we saw a person walking around our streets completely naked for three and a half years! Certainly none of us would go to church he attended! Sometimes I like to quote this verse to critics and tell them that, even though I shake when I prophesy, at least I have always kept my clothes on! Pastors are always happy to hear that.” [14]

In the above, we see that this Christian believer, who believes she has the gift of prophesy, which is a belief that is greatly entrenched in many Christian individuals and circles even today, sees that this passage that comes in the book in which she strongly believes in truly depicts the Prophet Isaiah as doing “something totally crazy”, that is, to walk around for three years completely stark naked. This is not a Muslim writing conveying Muslim thoughts, but a Christian writer that strongly believes in scripture and has a sizable following among Christians. This is simply to show further that the idea of saying that Isaiah 20 has the prophet walking absolutely naked, inane or not, as an action for a man of God, is not a crazy Muslim idea, but it is something that is accepted, hard is it may be, by even the staunchest Christian believers, when they accept the plain meaning of the text as it stands.

Biblical scholar, Donald Gowan shows that despite disagreeable appearances, and dismissal of the plain meaning of the text with a more acceptable one by a great number of commentators of the text of Isaiah 20, there is good historical evidence to show that this act of complete nudity as a sign of great punishment and shame did exist at the time. This means that from a historical perspective, Isaiah’s move at the behest of God would not have been something without precedent. Yes, it was something expressly taboo, but the purpose was to create that ‘shock and awe’ effect that we discussed above of an impending doom that would result in the utter shame of the people involved.

“In 713 the Philistine city of Asdod rebelled against Assyria, with the promise of help from Egypt (Isaiah 20; ANET, 287-88). Edom, Moab, and Judah (now under king Hezekiah) were also involved, and this led to one of the more bizarre symbolic actions to be found in the prophetic books. God ordered Isaiah to “loose the sackcloth from young loins and take your sandals off your feet” (Isa. 20:2) and he is said to have walked naked and barefoot for three years, as a sign of the way the Egyptians would be taken away captive by the Assyrians. Scarcely and commentator will allow Isaiah to strip himself completely, in spite of what the text says, and they insist he must have worn something. We can scarcely imagine line without clothes for three years in Jerusalem, but the text confronts us with that shocking statement. Nakedness was considered extremely shameful in ancient Israel, but depictions of captives of war in Egyptian and Assyrian art show that it was frequently inflicted on them. Why should Isaiah have had to participate in the shame that Egyptians were expected to experience? It was, of course, primarily a message to Judag: Egypt will be no help to you. There was more to it, however, as will become clearer with reference to the symbolic acts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Yahweh’s prophet, the one who condemned the haughtiness of others, had to accept the lowest and most humiliating role for himself, and that was part of what it meant to be a prophet.” [15]

In the rather careful treatment of the subject above, we see that Gowan, though recognising that many commentaries may eschew the text as it stands and opt for a meaning that lies more comfortably with their faith concerning God, the text as it is does point to the fact that Isaiah had to literally walk absolutely naked, with buttocks portrayed and exhibited for all to see, for three consecutive years. He shows that historically, this was an act that would have been exacted upon conquered races as a form of great contempt and shame and it was of course seen by Israel as a great humiliation. Remember that this was a fate that was to be foretold by Isaiah at the behest of the biblical god in the form of graphic behaviour to “excite” as Benson would have it, the attention and sensibilities of the people rather than verbal admonitions that would have simply fallen on deaf ears. And according to Gowan, the prophet had to accept this “lowest and most humiliating role for himself, and that was part of what it meant to be a prophet”. So Gowan posits that if God so commands such a grave and shocking action upon his prophet to shake people up from their slumber, so be it, it is to be done by the letter as instructed.

Biblical scholar James E. Smith writes about the nakedness of the harlot in Nahum 3:5. He explains that according to the verse, her nakedness was utterly displayed for all the nations and kingdoms to see, and this involved the actual uncovering of the skirts of the harlot. The shamefulness of the act is captured by the word קלונך or “your shame” found in the verse which according to Smith, “indicates the Hebrew abhorrence for the public display of private parts (in contrast to the glorification of the nude body among the Greeks).” [16] It is in the context of Nahum’s harlot that Smith places Isaiah 20:2-4 as another biblical example of complete shameful nakedness that captives were to endure in total disgrace.

The harlot stripped (3:5b): I will uncover your skirts upon your face… Yahweh threatens to strip the wayward woman. Your skirts (sulayik)refers to the borders or the ends of long, flowing garments (cf. Exodus 28:33f). In this case skirts may be a euphemism for the female pudenda. Uncover (r. glh in Piel) indicates to reveal what the skirts conceal. Apparently such exposure was part of the customary public disgrace decreed for harlots. See Hosea 2:3 (Ephraim); Jeremiah 13:26 (Israel); Ezekiel 16:37ff (Jerusalem); Micah 1:11 (people of Saphir). Certainly captives were made to endure the disgrace of nakedness. See Isaiah 47:2-3 (of Babylon) and Isaiah 20:2-4) (Egypt and Ethiopia). Upon your face indicates a complete uncovering.” [17]

Having Isaiah 20:2-4 wedged right in there, gives little doubt to readers that the author is using it as an example of others (Isaiah, Egyptians and Cushites) who had to endure the same disgrace and shame of “a complete uncovering” that exposed the “pudenda”. And this is the view emanating from a biblical scholar of no little worth: Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Theology from Cincinnati Bible Seminary, Masters in Divinity from the same institution and a PhD from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He served as the Academic Dean at Florida Christian College and later became a Distinguished Professor of Bible while teaching at the establishment and he also serves as Chairman of the Division of Biblical Studies there. Above all else, he is an avid Christian with active participation in ministry for 17 years and still ongoing in many churches throughout the area of his locality in Central Florida. The reason behind listing all of the above academic and faith credentials above for this man is to show that he is not someone who is simply liberally giving his critical views on the Bible to make some bucks, but his view, as clearly elicited from the quotes cited above that Isaiah was shamefully and disgracefully given the task of walking absolutely naked just as the harlots of Nahum were absolutely Naked in their shame and disgrace, comes from a sincere deliberation and evaluation of the texts in question. It is an unbiased conclusion that comes from a person equipped with sound scholarship and strong Christian faith.

And his view finds a comfortable ally in yet another patristic writer of no mundane rank. In fact, he was Pope Gregory 1, or commonly referred to as Saint Gregory the Great (590 AD) whose writings made him rise to great prominence. In his comments on Isaiah 20:2, he does not shy from the obvious meaning that the text conveys and praises the Prophet for his act of great devotion despite the terrible hardship of enduring such shame and humiliation.

“In Isaiah she did not blush to be seen in the nakedness of the flesh as he went about preaching, and when the veil of the flesh was removed, he penetrated heavenly mysteries (6:1).” [18] 

And Origen of Alexandria (AD 185), the infamous theologian and scholar whose fame precedes him says of Isaiah that he successfully exceeded all ascetic practices by going naked and barefoot for three years. The most cogent understanding from this is that in Origen’s view Isaiah was completely naked as one of the trademarks of an ascetic life or practice, one of the primary and major observance is that of the adornment of the least of clothing in the cheapest of material. An ascetic individual observing an ascetic life would typically have worn only one layer of clothing and avoid layers upon layers, especially during winter as that would give comfort which would be contrary to their ascetic oaths of living in hardship where debasement of the self is of primary focus and concern. Therefore, the exceeding or surpassing of “every ascetic practice” according to Origen would necessarily mean the total stripping of all layers of clothing, leaving oneself completely bare to the elements, and that was in his mind Isaiah’s supreme sacrifice that led him to nobleness. Finally, we can easily confirm that Origen discerns and affirms only the plain meaning of the text of Isaiah 20 as the context of what he writes therein considers other biblical incidences and personalities, with their relevant references and citations, only in their plain and literal meaning.

“And there is the life of Isaiah, who surpassed every ascetic practice when he went naked and barefoot for three years (20:3).” [19]

Notes:

[1] Waterland, D. (n.d.). The Works of The Rev. Daniel Waterland, D.D. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. p. 223

[2] Alexander, J. A. (1874). Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah. Broadway, New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co. p. 367

[3] Harkavy, A. (1914). Students’ Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary to the Old Testament: With Supplement Neo-Hebrew Vocabulary. New York: Hebrew Publishing Co. p. 549

[4] Gesenius, W. (1939). A Hebrew And English Lexicon of the Old Testament With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (Edward Robinson, trans.). In Francis Brown, S. R. Driver & Charles A. Briggs (Eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 788-789

[5] Davidson, B. (n.d.). The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon: Consisting of an Alphabetical Arrangement of Every Word and Inflection Contained in the Old Testament Scriptures, Precisely as they occur in the Sacred Text, with a Grammatical Analysis of Each Word, and Lexicographical Illustration of the Meanings. London: S. Bagster and Sons, Limited. p. DCXV

[6] Newman, Selig (1832). An English and Hebrew Lexicon Composed after Johnson’s Dictionary, Containing Fifteen Thousand English Words, Rendered into Biblical, or Rabbinical Hebrew, or into Chaldee. London: Hatchard & Son. p. 243

[7] Raffalovitch, I. (n.d.). Anglo-Hebrew Modern Dictionary: English text, with grammatical indications, according to the best authorities. London: Shapiro, Vallentine & Co. p. 541

[8] Anderson, D. (2012). Power to Pray: God’s Immense Purposes for our Simple Prayers. Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press. p. 3

[9]Henry, M. (n.d.). An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments: Wherein Each Chapter is preceded by an Analysis of its Contents, the sense Given and Largely Illustrated with Practical Remarks and Observations. New York: Sleight & Van Norden. p. 654

[10] Anon. (2007). Isaiah. In Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen & H Wayne House (Eds.), NKJV Study Bible. Thomas Nelson. Inc. p. 1070

[11] Eusebius (2013). Commentary on Isaiah (Jonathan J. Armstrong, trans.).  In Joel C. Elowsky (Ed.), Ancient Christian Texts. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic. p. 105

[12] Anon. (n.d.). Isaiah. In Steven A. McKinion (Ed.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scipture: Old Testament X, Isaiah 1-39 . Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 146

[13] Ibid.

[14] Campbell, S. & Campbell, W. (2008). Ecstatic Prophecy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chose, Baker Publishing Group. p. 79

[15] Gowan, D. E. (1998). Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 70

[16] Smith, J. E. (2011). NAHUM HABAKKUK ZEPHANIAH: a Christian Interpretation. p. 84

[17] Ibid.

[18] Gregory (2007). Isaiah (Robert Louis Wilken, trans.). In Robert Louis Wilken, Angela Russell Christman & Michael J. Hollerich (Eds.), Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Mediecal Commentators. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 201

[19] Origen, Ibid.

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