Hell 11: Isaiah’s undying worm

Posted: April 2, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Uncle-Josh-WORM-e1394382476817Later in the life of Israel, the pattern and imagery of the early judgement-narratives is appropriated by the prophets to describe a future time. One example comes from Isaiah 66. Looking forward, the prophet Isaiah employs this stock of traditional picture-language to describe the eschatological judgement which Yahweh will bring for his persecuted, exiled people. The vision ends with this description:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.   Isaiah 66:24

Since this language and imagery will get picked up in the NT, it is worth considering it in its original location. Here’s part of the vision it comes from:

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
…and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants,
and his indignation is against his enemies. 
For the LORD will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury,
and his rebuke in flames of fire. 
For by fire will the LORD execute judgment,
and by his sword, on all flesh;
and those slain by the LORD shall be many. 
 
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the LORD;
so shall your descendants and your name remain. 

Isaiah 66:10-16, 22

Isaiah has drawn on many of the elements from the seminal judgement narratives: wrath that brings the joy and relief of deliverance to his people; the destruction of his enemies and theirs; burning fire; a new creation emerging from the uncreation of judgement, a new home for the faithful. This is the symbolic language of the Genesis and Exodus stories.

The vision ends with a reinterpretation of the Red Sea aftermath, where the Israelites looked at the dead bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the beaches:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.   Isaiah 66:24

Here the bodies of the slain are envisaged as residing in Tophet, the place for burning refuse outside Jerusalem in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. That was a place of continual fire and smoke. They are envisaged also as buried in the ground, forever eaten by worms.

What does this dual image mean? We have here combined material from a few different sources. We have the Red Sea image of the Israelites viewing the dead bodies on the beaches. And also the overwhelming fire imagery from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the previous chapter, Isaiah 65, God’s anger was ‘a fire that burns all day long’. So the fire here is likely an image of wrath and destruction.

The worm imagery seems to come from the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 28, where both worm and fire are threatened upon Israel. There also, the judgement will be neverending: “These curses will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever” (Deut 28:46). So the worm probably symbolises the curse of God.

The phrase ‘and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh’ is certainly drawn from the covenant curses, Deuteronomy 28:

You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.  Your corpses shall be food for every bird  (v.25-26)

You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you. (v.37)

By referencing Deuteronomy, Isaiah brings the destruction he is describing under the umbrella of the Mosaic covenant curses. These enemies are specifically Israelites who have turned away from God – the dead bodies belong to ‘the people who rebelled against me.’  Their fate will be exactly what Moses warned it would be.

Pulling all this together, Isaiah here uses traditional imagery – symbolic language if you like – to express the final curse and destruction which is the fate of those Israelites who have turned and become God’s enemies. The viewing of their dead bodies represents the reassurance God’s people will receive that salvation is complete at last – just like at the Red Sea. Those who oppress them are gone. The undying fire and worm express the permanent nature of the judgement. God’s attitude of anger towards these enemies will not relent. Their overthrow and destruction is irreversible. They are pictured as outside, excluded from God’s new creation. This is simply another way to express that they have been ‘blotted out from the earth’, ‘swept away’ (to use the traditional wrath language of Genesis). They won’t be coming back to trouble God’s creation, ever again. End of story. Literally! These seem to be the ideas encoded in the imagery Isaiah borrows.

There is no suggestion here of ongoing conscious torment as a punishment. Isaiah is talking about dead bodies. The idea of souls suffering after the death of the body is, of course, foreign to Isaiah, and should not be imported here.

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