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Though Your Sins be Made White as Snow, You Still Might Goof Isaiah 1:18: Part 2—Nasty Grammar Questions

grammarIn part 1 of this series, I focused on the tendency to make too many assumptions about color terms in the Bible. The dilemma is that while we have no instance in Scripture in which “scarlet” garments, or scarlet in general is set against white in terms of a passage from bad to good, dirty to clean, and while we are presented with a wide range of possible meanings for both “scarlet” and “white” in Scripture, those who quote Isaiah 1:18 frequently assume this the absolute meaning of Isaiah’s remark, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

The second dilemma that we face in trying to understand this passage is that the Grammar of the Hebrew here, given that we are considering a passage of Hebrew poetry, leaves room for a handful of different senses for the statement beyond the assumptions often made about RED to WHITE imagery.

Given that Hebrew has no punctuation, some have suggested that Isaiah 1:18 is a question. While it is common both in Hebrew and English to ask questions with question words, it is also common to ask questions with nothing more than lilt, or pitch, distinguishing the words in writing with a question mark… a mark wholly absent from ancient Hebrew. While this idea will demand a more reasonable consideration when we focus on Isaiah 1:18 in context, I would like to run it up the flag pole now and see whose ready to salute in Part 3. So we confront a very real possibility that Isaiah poses the question… “Let us reason together, If your sins are as scarlet, shall they be made white as snow?” If the color shift is a bad to good transformation, then, we have a challenge to the dirty sinners as to whether they imagine that their sin is going to lead somewhere good, whether their sin is going to remedy itself as part of some natural course. It won’t, of course. They need to make a change, to chose a different road, because the one they are on leads from bad to worse. (Isaiah 1:19)

One writer has even suggested that the verse be read with “sarcasm,” which is dependent on inflection to pick up most of the time. He suggests that Isaiah mocks the perceptions of the Jews over their sins. Though they are like scarlet (bad) they make them out to be white like snow (nothin’ but a thing… mere trifles.).

Another grammar issue involves the nature of Hebrew verbs. All verbs have tense, voice & mood.

Tense concerns the type of action envisioned (be it a single point in time act, like “She shot him,” or an ongoing act, “She kept shooting him,” or a habitual act, “She shot him from time to time, just to see the expression on his face.” There are others, of course, like an action caused by another, “She had him shot,” or an act performed in reciprocation, “They shot each other,” or an act performed in regard to one’s self, “They each shot themselves.” The cool thing about Hebrew, unlike English, is that all these ideas are found not in additional terms around the verb, but in the verb itself.

Tense also concerns the timing of action. This part is boring. He did it in the past, is doing it in the present, will do it in the future. If, however, we say, “By this time tomorrow, Chad will have been dancing for three hours,” then time gets a little more exciting, and not just in anticipation of all that dancing.

Voice merely deals with the relationship between an action and the subject—The subject did it, had it done to him, or one other called middle voice which you don’t want me to try to explain today… maybe not ever, but I can’t promise that.

Finally, the wunderkind grammar truth you’ve all been waiting for… Mood! Mood represents the relationship between the verb and reality. Not everyone is rooted to reality like you and I, and mood in a verb is ready for that… there are lots of ways of relating to reality.

We call verbs stating that something did, is, or will actually happen “the indicative.” Most translations use the indicative to describe Isaiah 1:18. Though your sins be as scarlet, they will be/shall be white as snow. It’s as good as done. It’s a promise. It is actually going to happen.

Sometimes, however, we don’t say it actually will/is/did happen; we merely state that it CAN happen, SHOULD happen, MUST happen, MIGHT happen, OUGHT to happen, MAY happen, COULD happen. We might merely WISH or HOPE that it will or would happen. The problem is that while in English we use special verbs, called helping verbs or modal verbs, to create these alternate relationships with reality, in Hebrew they don’t have to use anything but the “imperfect” verb… the same verb form used in Isaiah 1:18 to say, “become white” and “become like wool.”

Thus, the passage has been posited as an offer not a promise. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they can be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they can become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

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