How do you respond when you hear the word ‘inclusive’? Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you find yourself mentally putting up your defences? We may know people in Christian circles who are fond of words like ‘accepting’, ‘welcoming’, ‘loving’, and, not least, ‘inclusive’. On closer examination, it may turn out that their aim in using such language is to push the envelope: they want the church to modify its teaching in particular areas (for example, the uniqueness of Christ or sexual morality). In effect, they use the language of inclusiveness to undermine the church’s traditional teaching. Is it surprising that we are wary when we hear the word ‘inclusive’?
But then we come to a text like Isa. 56:1-8.
The last section of the book of Isaiah, cc. 56–66, addresses the historical context of the late 6th century BC. Isaiah 40–55 was addressed to God’s people in exile in Babylon, promising a return from exile. God kept that promise. In 539 BC, the Persian king Cyrus broke the power of Babylon and issued a decree permitting the Israelites in Babylon to return to their former territories, rebuild a temple, and once more offer worship there. Many Israelites did indeed return to Judah (see the Book of Ezra). Isaiah 56–66 addresses a period after the first returns from exile had taken place.
The situation in Isa. 56:1-8, then, is that Israelites are back in the land. The very fact that they are there is a powerful testimony to the surrounding nations. But what kind of testimony should they bear to these nations? It is natural that at this point the prophet sets a vision before the returned exiles (v. 1, NRSV): ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.’ In other words: you have heard God’s call; you have made the journey from Babylon to Judah; you have seen God’s power to restore his people. Here is what you must do as you wait for further acts of restoration: look to the character of your lives; consider particularly how you behave towards others. ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right.’
And again (v. 2): ‘Happy is the mortal who does this… who keeps the Sabbath… and refrains from doing any evil.’ If you trust God’s promises of salvation, demonstrate this fact in concrete and visible ways: honour God by keeping the Sabbath, the day you set aside to worship God and remember his goodness; and on the other days of the week conduct yourselves justly and uprightly. That is how to live as you await the fulfilment of God’s purposes.
So far, so familiar. Isa. 56:1-2 restates teaching already given in the Pentateuch (e.g., Exod. 20:8-11; 22:21-27). But there is more to come: vv. 3-8 set out a vision of a community whose core is made up of Israelites returned from exile, but which also includes ‘outsiders’. The text makes these points forcefully. Foreigners, non-Israelites who commit themselves to the God of Israel, may join the returned exiles (v. 3): ‘Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people.”’ Eunuchs, those who are physically unable to father children, have a lasting place among God’s people – a ‘monument and a name’ – if they will keep God’s covenant: “Let not the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.”’
Now in previous periods of Israel’s history these two groups (foreigners, eunuchs) were excluded from Israel’s worship (Deut. 23:1-3). We can debate the reasons for this, and also speculate about how Deuteronomy’s teaching was applied in Israel. But clearly in Isaiah 56 these restrictions are removed. It no longer matters that you are not of Israelite descent or that you are unable to father children. Provided you are committed to the LORD, you have a place among his people. You are welcome to worship with them (v. 7): ‘These will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.’ The very doors of the rebuilt temple will be thrown open (v. 7): ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’
It is true that Israelites who have returned from Babylon still form the core of the community described in these verses. That is the point of v. 8, which describes God as the one ‘who gathers the outcasts of Israel’. The post-exilic community is still mainly made up of returned Israelites. But from now on others will also have a place among them. The community is to welcome outsiders, even those previously excluded from Israel’s worship.
None of this should be surprising, in the light of earlier Old Testament texts. When God called Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), among the things he promised him was that his descendants would bring blessing to all nations. When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the first temple, he envisaged non-Israelites praying in the temple, and God answering their prayers (1 Ki. 8:41-43). Centuries later, when Jesus entered the Jerusalem temple, he was angered that what was going on there seemed to exclude certain groups from worship. He drove the money-changers out of the temple and, famously, quoted Isaiah 56:7 to explain his actions (Mk. 11:15-17). Other parts of the New Testament teach that with the coming of Christ, God has brought together Jews and Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel to create one single people of God (Acts 10 – 11; Eph. 2:11-22).
Inclusiveness, then, is a persistent part of the biblical vision. How that might work out in the modern church is a question that requires careful reflection, particularly in a world where people use the language of ‘exclusion’ and ‘marginalisation’ to reinforce demands for greater social influence and political power. In Isaiah 56 membership of God’s people is not offered to all without restriction, but to those who commit themselves to serve God and walk in his ways. God’s call for righteous and holy living in 56:1-8 was (and is) seriously meant. This is clear from the following chapters (Isaiah 57–59), which are largely taken up with fierce attacks on idolatry and injustice among the returned community.
How then, can the church both be welcoming to outsider and firm in its commitment to God and to God’s requirements? That is a difficult balance to maintain. But we must not forget the positive side of Isaiah’s vision. One of the things that God’s people should be saying to the outside world is the simple word: ‘Welcome! Welcome, whoever you are!’ There should be a genuine, honest welcome to outsiders, particularly to those who, for various reasons and in various ways, find themselves on society’s margins. Where else should such people find a home, if not in the church? What better place for them to be than in a Christian community?
This was almost certainly not an easy message for the prophet’s first hearers, and it remains a challenging teaching today. But it is part of our calling as Christians. After all, do we not know our Heavenly Father as the one who sought us out and, when we were far from him, actively hostile to him even, sought our friendship with the simple word ‘Welcome’?
Dr Philip Satterthwaite is the Principal Emeritus of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST). He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.