Working with Isaiah 9:2–7

November 15, 2022
A black and white photo of the top of a newborn's head resting in an adult's palms

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

These words of Isaiah are part of Christmas Eve services, Christmas carols, cantatas, and prayers everywhere at this time of year. They are beloved words of scripture, and they are a problem. They have been manipulated by colonizers and empires to support the idea that White people are superior to Black people and people of other skin colours. So how do we deal with this? Consider first that light is not white, though it has been equated with white by White colonizers. Light is energy and appears as yellow and orange, with streaks of blue, green, and red dancing within it.

Consider also that darkness is not evil, though it has been made shorthand for saying something is bad.

So, what do we do with this passage?

“The shadow of death” is a fair translation of the Hebrew, so instead of “darkness,” we might use “shadows” or “the shadow of death.” We might also use “despair” or “anguish” when we consider the full context of the passage. For example:

The people who walked in shadows
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep despair—
on them light has shined.

For those who are worried about changing the words of scripture, remember that we are already reading from a translation in which someone has made the choice to use the word “darkness.” Other words can also be used to catch the original author’s intent, words that move us away from racism.

Susan Lukey, Editor