Isaiah 20

Another example of shame in the Old Testament world the use of shaming is the formal sanction of political shaming. Lyn Bechtel points this out: “One of the characteristics of warfare in the ancient Near East (and especially Assyria) was the use of psychological warfare. It was within this area of psychological warfare that shaming was employed. … A captured vassal was not just vindictively tortured; he was made a public example for all to see, so that he served as warning by demonstration of what happened to delinquents. It was publicity, not necessarily pain, that was the primary motive for shameful and inhumane treatment of captives. The Assyrians openly boasted of their shaming and violence because a reputation for shame and violence was the main means of softening up and incapacitating an enemy population in advance” (Bechtel: p63). It was as though it was better to die than be shamed in this way.

Prisoners were marched naked and bound, exposing them to the heat, but also exposing their private parts to mockery. The captives nakedness was symbolic of the defencelessness of their nation and demonstrative of its failure to attain victory. “Shaming made it possible to dominate and control defeated warriors because shame was restrictive and psychologically repressive. The victors would not have to worry about a counter-offensive if the enemy warriors were psychologically demoralised and rendered physically ineffective and defenceless” (Bechtel: p64). Their shame was total, they had been destroyed, they had no honour, they were effectively dead. They were no threat!

“Captive warriors or kings were made to walk naked, to grovel in the dust abjectly, or to feel helpless and defenceless in order to ‘put them down’ into … Conversely, putting others down had the effect of strengthening the confidence and sense of superiority of the victors.” (Bechtel: p64.)

So, Isaiah is asked by God in Isaiah 20 to walk naked and barefoot throughout Jerusalem as a graphic image of prophecy. He is called on to make clear to Israel the consequences of an alliance with Egypt and Cush. It will only result in shame. “Walking naked involved double shame: the shame that Isaiah experienced from being naked in the presence of his community, and the shame the people of Jerusalem would have experienced when they saw the shameful sight. … It was unpleasant to see because the public shame of one member of the community reflected shame on the entire community.” (Bechtel: p66.)

Isaiah is shamed himself, and those who see his graphic demonstration of prophecy feel the strength of the message because they can understand Isaiah’s shame, and because they are shamed themselves by his uncovered naked presence.


Lyn M. Bechtel; “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming;” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Issue 49, 1991; p47-76.

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