I just finished reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and I find myself more confused than anything else about what to make of the Atticus Finch and Scout characters we meet in the book. To me, I couldn’t tell if Watchman is meant to be read as a sequel / companion to To Kill a Mockingbird, or if it is meant to be read as a novel on its own, in which the author gave us quite different versions of the characters who also appear in Mockingbird.
In Watchman we read that Atticus once defended a black man (presumably the Tom Robinson character in Mockingbird?) against unjust charges, and that the man was acquitted. Of course, in Mockingbird Tom Robinson is found guilty and then shot to death by the police during an escape attempt. So given that the two novels present different versions of that key event, I lean towards reading Watchman as a book set in the same fictional world as Mockingbird, but in which the two central characters are different people. If you read Watchman that way, and then read Mockingbird alongside it, you end up with a body of work by Harper Lee that explores different possibilities and digs into the issues of race, the South, etc. in different ways.
As a rabbi, I’m curious about Lee’s use of a verse from Isaiah as the book’s title. The phrase “Go set a watchman” is part of Isaiah 21:6, and the entire verse reads like this:
I’m just messin’ with ya. In English translation:
“Because my Lord said this to me: ‘Go, set a watchman. Let him tell what he will see.'”
A little context for the not-so-biblically-inclined: Isaiah is a prophet to the people of Judah, warning them to change their evil ways or face their upcoming destruction by the Assyrian empire (roughly 2,700 years ago). At the time Isaiah lived, the Israelites were living in s divided kingdom – in the north, the kingdom of Israel consisted of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, and in the south, the kingdom of Judah consisted of the remaining two. Isaiah witnessed the Assyrian empire’s destruction of the northern kingdom, followed by its wholesale deportation of the 10 tribes (yes, as in the “10 lost tribes of Israel.”) He also witnessed the Assyrians surrounding of Jerusalem and siege of the city. They ultimately failed to take Jerusalem, and withdrew.
The Jewish audience he speaks to fails to rise to the moral challenge he warns that God demands, and this may spell their doom. But Isaiah is not all doom and gloom. It’s also a book that describes the future redemption and restoration of the Jews, along with the ultimate redemption of all the nations of the world. In the course of these future events, Isaiah predicts that God will destroy some of the mighty empires that brutalized or threatened the Jews, including the Babylonians.
Historically, a century or so after Isaiah lived, the Babylonians did end up conquering Judah, destroying Jerusalem, razing the holy Temple that stood there, and deporting part of the Jewish population to Babylon (around 587 B.C.E.). Then, about 70 years later, the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, and their king, Cyrus, decided to send the Jewish leaders in exile back to Judah with permission to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, so long as they promised to be a well-behaved province in the Persian empire.
The passage that Lee has quoted for the title of her book is from a part of Isaiah in which the prophet is foretelling the future downfall of mighty Babylon. He is telling his Jewish audience what God has told him: that in the future the great empire of their time, Babylon, will be attacked and overrun and utterly crushed. It’s an oracle of doom, and the metaphor Isaiah uses is that of a watchman who is stationed in a watchtower. This watchman for the Babylonians then goes on to describe what he sees: the approach of horses, chariots, and troops, and then the devastation of Babylon.
In the verse Lee has used, 21:6, Isaiah says that God has told him to set a watchman who will report what he sees happening to Babylon. Three verses later, in 21:9, the watchman tells us: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon. And all of the statues of her gods have been shattered into the ground!” For those who do the Hebrew, it’s especially poetic:
Right now I have three questions in mind:
- Is the Jim Crow South Lee’s Babylon?
- Is Scout, or Atticus, the watchman?
- What are the idols that are going ultimately to be smashed? The rationalizations of the Jim Crow order that Atticus so shockingly makes?
I’ll have more to share, but I have to sign off for the moment…