Q: #507. Did Isaiah really walk "naked" for 3 years (Isa 20:2-3)?
A: Nearly every commentary that I have read on these two verses (over 20) agrees that Isaiah was not “literally” naked, but rather “partially” naked. However, while there is good evidence for this, I am still not completely convinced. Let’s begin with the evidence that he was not totally naked.
Most scholars believe that when God said to Isaiah in (Isa 20:2), “Go, and remove the sackcloth from your body,” sackcloth meant an “outer” garment. Underneath the sackcloth was usually an undergarment, somewhat like what we might call underwear. Therefore, Isaiah was not walking around naked, but rather, in his underwear. Obviously, this would have been attention getting enough, without him being “totally” naked.
Perhaps the best proof for this is found with King David in (2 Sam 6:14-20), where it says in verse 14, “And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.” Then, in verse 20, Michal says to David, “How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!” In other words, David was dancing in a “linen ephod,” but Michal called him “uncovered.” Most believe this was simply a case of David laying aside his royal garments, and he was dancing before the Lord in his undergarment. Similarly, in (1 Sam 19:24) it is said of King Saul, “And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.” Most scholars believe that just as with David, Saul was not “totally naked,” but rather he had laid aside his royal garments.
Another argument that is used by some is that God told Isaiah in (Isa 20:4) to do this as a “sign and wonder” to Egypt and Ethiopia that “the king of Assyria shall lead away the Egyptians as prisoners and the Ethiopians as captives.” As such, the comparison is made between how Isaiah was to dress, and how slaves were likely dressed. While we cannot know with certainty how they were dressed, it seems very unlikely that they were totally naked.
Finally, the Hebrew word for “naked” in (Isa 20:2,3,4) is arom, which Strong’s defines as: “(in its orig.sense); nude, either partially or totally.” This is also the word used for Saul being “naked” in (1 Sam 19:24).
NOW, having said these things, I must explain why I still feel fairly certain that Isaiah may have been “totally naked.” I begin with the sentence above. The Hebrew word “arom” is used in 11 other places, and they all seem to point to “total nudity.” For example, Adam and Eve were both naked (“arom“) (Gen 2:25), and a baby is born naked (“arom“) (Job 1:21)(Ecc 5:15). (Other uses: Job 22:6, Job 24:7,10, Job 26:6, Isa 58:7, Hos 2:3, Amos 2:16, Mic 1:8) Therefore, why would “arom” mean “totally naked,” except when it is used for Isaiah and Saul? It seems unlikely to me…
Secondly, we need to address the first “proof” above that sackcloth was an “outer” garment, and an undergarment was worn with it (somewhat like underwear). This does not always seem to be the case, as it appears that at least sometimes (or maybe almost all of the time) nothing was worn under sackcloth (Isa 32:11)(1 Kin 21:27)(2 Kin 6:30)(Jonah 3:4-8 – did the beasts have an undergarment?)(Mt 3:4 – I don’t picture John the Baptist wearing an undergarment while wearing the equivalent of sackcloth). Often, part of the point of wearing sackcloth was that it was supposed to be uncomfortable (i.e. for repentance or contrition). Wearing an undergarment would in big part negate this. (More on sackcloth here.)
Thirdly, we need to look again at (Isa 20:2), and notice what God says to Isaiah, “Go, and remove the sackcloth from your LOINS.” There are several Hebrew words that are used for “loins.” The one used here is “mothen,” and it means “the waist or small of the back” (Strong’s). In some places, the Hebrew word “chalats” is used for loins, and is clearly connected with a man’s reproductive organs (i.e. Gen 35:11, 1 Kin 8:19, 2 Chr 6:9). However, whatever word is used, “removing the sackcloth from one’s loins” clearly seems to refer to removing what is covering the area around the waist (including one’s private parts). In other words, it sounds like Isaiah was naked.
Finally, we need to look at the rest of (Isa 20:4). The “sign and wonder” that Isaiah was performing (walking naked for 3 years) was done because God wanted the Egyptians and Ethiopians to know that they would be captured by the Assyrians “naked and barefoot, WITH THEIR BUTTOCKS UNCOVERED.” This seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?
When I put all of this together, I find the evidence that Isaiah was “totally naked” more compelling than the evidence that he was only “partially naked.” Obviously, we cannot know with certainty which view is correct, but I am going to go against the scholarly flow here and stay with the “totally naked” view.