Archive for January, 2017

The big swing in the book of Isaiah, the big hinge upon which it turns, is the movement between judgement and mercy.

More particularly, the book delivers to the reader this big swing—if I may continue to call it that—as a function of YHWH’s very personal striking and then his having mercy upon Israel/Judah. The language becomes proximate, then intimate, then parental.

A glimpse comes in chapter 60’s effusive anticipation of Zion’s beautification at the hands of foreigners and via the luxury of their finest economic and cultural product.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. (Isaiah 60:10 ESV)

The striking in question is the time-delimited exile of Judah to Babylon. In contrast, the mercy-driven restoration is open-ended. Thus, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the one and the other. Wrath and striking are temporary. Favor and mercy are meant to endure.

Isaiah’s almost fugal approach to topics like this one—where a theme is stated and then restated in variations here, there, and then again—develops the theme of asymmetry still further by deploying the language of the brief moment.

‘For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7–8 ESV)

We are told that YHWH’s harsh treatment of Judah is quite unlike his return to them in mercy in at least two ways.

  • First, the former is short and the latter is long.
  • Second, Isaiah seems to present judgement as necessary but rather unlike YHWH. Restorative mercy, in contrast, flows fiercely from his very heart.

At the risk of losing our way, this glance at asymmetry may or may not help us to understand a striking and obscure word regarding judgement in Jerusalem/Zion that occurs earlier in the book:

For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work! (Isaiah 28:21 ESV)

Whether or not this is the case, the book provides further insight into divine pathos in the tenderly maternal soliloquy it allows itself in chapter 49.

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’

Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:14–16 ESV)

Isaiah is fully convinced that the path to Judah’s redemption must pass through the furnace of judgmental fire. Yet the prophet cannot allow that this affliction lies anywhere near to the center of YHWH’s purposes for his people. At the risk of diminishing the experience of those who never came home from Babylon, the exile figures here as a necessary, regrettable, and brief moment. It is but the anteroom to Jerusalem resplendent.

Judah’s well-earned suffering surfaces here in the text as a brief moment of desertion, a momentary flare of righteous anger before a merciful God has his longed-for opportunity to love again with that love that defines love itself.

The reader might ask how important the prophet and his traditioners must have considered this reality to be, that they should risk utilizing this deeply human imagery to characterize the God who remains unseen.

Just so.


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Contra todas las protestaciones de la vergüenza, tu pasado no te define.

Lo que has sido no coincide con quién eres. O lo que llegarás a ser.

Esta es al menos, la promesa de YHWH a sus abatidos exiliados en Babilonia.

«Tú, mujer estéril que nunca has dado a luz, ¡grita de alegría! Tú, que nunca tuviste dolores de parto, ¡prorrumpe en canciones y grita con júbilo! Porque más hijos que la casada tendrá la desamparada—dice el Señor— (Isaías 54:1 N.V.I.).

La falta de hijos en el Antiguo Testamento era una gran vergüenza. Quizás tener un hijo y luego perderlo, fue peor que nunca haberlos tenido. Este es un ejemplo del alcance cultural  que subyace en la literatura bíblica.

En la cosmovisión radical de Isaías, YHWH no quiere nada que ver con las  pretensiones arrogantes de la vergüenza. Al contrario, aquella que no ha cortado el aire con gritos en la labor de parto, después encontrará recompensa con gritos de alegría cuando nuevos hijos e hijas invadirán su hogar.

La experiencia humana sostiene que solamente aquello que ya ha pasado, podrá ser. Una vez más, para YHWH esta lógica no le representa. Él es el Creador de cosas nuevas, cosas no habladas, cosas inimaginables, anhelos profundos, demasiado salvajes y poderosos para las palabras. Él encuentra esos anhelos, los satisface, los crea, los respalda. Luego libera a los suyos para que lleguen a ser lo que han anhelado.

La religión que la Biblia  asume y representa no es ningún credo domesticado.

La fe que halla expresión en estos rollos es salvaje, contraintuitiva, imposible y—en un instante—real. La vida con YHWH no conoce límites, con excepción de aquellos que la providencia de su amor ha establecido.

La mujer estéril en un momento queda restaurada a la fecundidad, descubriendo hijos e hijas que ella no trajo a luz, fluyendo a su lado como ríos de agua. De igual manera, el futuro de YHWH llega espontáneamente desde ángulos y fuentes nunca previstos. No obstante, estos hijos son suyos, son de ella y no de otros. Son regalo de YHWH, fortuna sobreabundante.

A ella se le olvida extrañar los hijos biológicos de esos sueños desechos. No tiene tiempo para echarlos de menos, tan ocupada está con esta cosecha imprevista, riendo, dando volteretas. Ellos se ríen bulliciosamente. Sólo el deleite de ella resuena más.

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Sometimes a prophet just rears up on his rhetorical hind legs and roars. I suppose that in the prophetic locker room, this is called ‘being in the zone’. For this I have absolutely no evidence.

In any case, the Book of Isaiah‘s seven rhetorical questions in its fifty-eight chapter seem to qualify as placing the prophet smack in the zone.


A rhetorical question is asked just for effect or to lay emphasis on some point discussed when no real answer is expected. A rhetorical question may have an obvious answer but the questioner asks rhetorical questions to lay emphasis to the point. In literature, a rhetorical question is self-evident and used for style as an impressive persuasive device. Broadly speaking, a rhetorical question is asked when the questioner himself knows the answer already or an answer is not actually demanded. So, an answer is not expected from the audience. Such a question is used to emphasize a point or draw the audience’s attention. See here for more.

Placed in the mouth of YHWH himself, this assertive line of questioning all but undresses the pretensions of liturgy in the absence of ethics. This recurring feature of the Bible’s prophetic witness is best not read as a dismissal of liturgy per se. Rather, it views religious activity as vain and even counter-productive when not enmeshed in a life of self-denying service to the human beings who surround.

Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:1–7 ESV)

This passage requires some plodding if we are to capture it well. So let us plod …

First, the turn towards renewed critique of YHWH’s people that initiates in chapter 56, after florid promises of restoration and renewal from chapter 40 onwards, has led to the common designation of chapters 56-66 as ‘Third Isaiah’ or ‘Trito-Isaiah’.

Some new circumstance seems to justify this old-new tone of denunciation. It is frequent that students of Isaiah identify this new situation as the disappointment and frustration that emerged among the community of the Return. That is, Jewish exiles in Babylon were encouraged by the prophets of the exile to rise up and return to Jerusalem/Zion when YHWH provided them the stupendously unforeseen opportunity to do so. When they did so, buoyed by extravagant prophetic promises of new life and vigor in their own land, they found YHWH equal to his promise as they made their way home.

Then the gravitational force of communal dissension and human frailty sets in, luring the restored community to old habits, fracturing its unity, and provoking YHWH and his prophets to a too familiar sternness of tone.

These paragraphs describe a consensus approach that undergirds much writing on Isaiah by students who seek the historical underpinnings of its stirring rhetoric. There are of course alternatives to making sense of the texts we have in hand.

Second, Isaiah is arguably the Old Testament master at diagnosing and dissecting religious hypocrisy. Having dared to suggest that such behavior in the name of YHWH actually provokes, wearies, and sickens YHWH, he returns in this chapter to his shrewd deconstruction of it.

I use such superlatives with regard to Isaiah’s diagnostic skills largely because of the way the prophet turns ‘positive’ language to satirical ends.

Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:1–2 ESV)

Two things cry out for mention here. The first is the text’s co-opting of the language of announcement that served so beautifully to presage Judah’s redemption. The commands to cry outnot to hold back, to lift up your voice like a trumpet, to declare to my people are lifted, as it were, from the gorgeous imagery of the herald(s) of redemption that flourishes from chapter 40 onward.

Here, the import of this prophetic clamor shifts from encouragement to rebuke. If it is impossible to say with certainty which of these tones is the original one and which is a redeployment of it, the order of the text as we have it places rebuke first, encouragement second, and then confronts us with this further return to the language of a national dressing-down from chapter 56 on. Everywhere, there is Isaianic artistry, placed in the service of a people’s journey towards what has been called ‘Zion’s final destiny’.

And then we must take account of the prophet’s low-key satire in the chapter’s second verse.

Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2 ESV)

Among others, two features stand out. I have attempted to signal where they lie by italicizing the language that enfleshes them. The text has YHWH re-deploying two rich and beautiful verbs that are redolent of the intimate communion that bonds Israel’s God to his people and vice versa in the best of times.

The first of these involves the language of seeking YHWH (דרש את־יהוה). To seek him, in the biblical literature and even within the boundaries of Isaiah itself, is to place YHWH as one’s principal point of reference and to dedicate one’s energy to pursuing that very personal reference point. It is to find in YHWH one’s purpose, one’s orientation, to long actively for YHWH’s worshipful and life-giving presence. Here, the prophet has the people seeking YHWH every day without really seeking at all. It is a pungent reversal of the language’s normal meaning and shines a light on the empty pantomime of religious Karaoke.

The second is the language of delight and delighting in. It is a word that focuses spiritual passion and practice upon the affection of the heart. In Isaiah, YHWH wants his people to delight in him and his ways. He expresses his abhorrence when they delight in alternative object of their religious affection, things which he calls ‘abomination’.

Here, YHWH’s errant people appear to delight in his ways and also to delight to draw near to him. Yet it’s all a charade.

In truth, they want nothing of the sort because it would cost them status, wealth, and self-determination.

(to be continued …)

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El Libro de Isaías en reiteradas ocasiones aborda los temas del cansancio y el descanso.

YHWH es visto como quien ofrece descanso y reposo al abatido, más típicamente en el contexto de aquellos que regresan del exilio y del reposo que se experimenta en el espacio propio de uno. El subtexto trata con un pueblo obstinadamente agitado que se rehúsa a recibir lo que YHWH en su misericordia le ofrece. Ellos aparentan preferir la agotadora experiencia de ser sacados de su lugar y quedarse  dispersos entre las naciones, donde nadie tendrá piedad de un pueblito sin techo y sin reposo.

Incluso, la colocación de los que regresaban de la cautividad en la tierra que una vez les había extraviado, regularmente se expresa con un verbo que resuena como  ‘causar para descansar’ (hebreo: נוח).

Los ídolos que Israel/Judá eligió, son vistos como cargas para llevar; es decir, ellos causan cansancio en lugar de aliviarlo.

No obstante, YHWH hace regresar a sus hijos, o permite que sean llevados por otros, de regreso a su tierra, de tal forma que el cansancio quedará tan solo como un recuerdo que con el tiempo se desvanecerá. De hecho, tales personas ‘se levantarán como alas como águilas, correrán y no se cansarán, caminarán y no desmayarán’.

Qué extraño es entonces encontrar que en  medio de un terrible juicio de Isaías, hay un oráculo que presenta la terrible situación del pueblo de YHWH en el exilio como su rechazo del descanso, una preferencia para permanecer sordos ante esta oferta  de reposo. El profeta insinúa que solo los captores foráneos de Judá les harán comprender a los hijos rebeldes de YHWH, aún si éste lo hace pidiendo prestado el lenguaje indescifrable de los babilonios  para lograrlo.

Pues bien, Dios hablará a este pueblo con labios burlones y lenguas extrañas, pueblo al que dijo: «Este es el lugar de descanso; que descanse el fatigado»; y también: «Este es el lugar de reposo». ¡Pero no quisieron escuchar! (Isaías 28:11-12 N.V.I.).

Puesto que el libro de Isaías y el canon en el que se erige como pilar, permiten extender esta dinámica más allá de sus históricos orígenes y hasta los márgenes de nuestra lucha constante con Dios y el mundo en el que nos ha colocado, uno podría preguntar:

¿Cómo es posible que nos hayamos vuelto tan nerviosos, tan destrozados, tan fatigados y tan distantes de casa?

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El capítulo 35 del libro de Isaías, inicia tejiendo un puente entre la gran sección del libro que le precede y las siguientes secciones. Este breve capítulo es intensamente lírico, profundamente exuberante y atrevidamente esperanzador.

Como cualquier gran elemento que forma enlaces, presenta temas que nos son familiares a partir de los retazos  que hemos disfrutado en la más oscura primera sección, temas que se desarrollan con amplitud y en ocasiones prodígamente en los siguientes capítulos.

Consistiendo en tan solo diez versos, del  capítulo 35,  exige citarlos  en su totalidad.

Se alegrarán el desierto y el sequedal; se regocijará el desierto y florecerá como el azafrán. Florecerá y se regocijará: ¡gritará de alegría! Se le dará la gloria del Líbano, y el esplendor del Carmelo y de Sarón. Ellos verán la gloria del Señor, el esplendor de nuestro Dios. Fortalezcan las manos débiles, afirmen las rodillas temblorosas;  digan a los de corazón apresurado: «Sean fuertes, no tengan miedo. Su Dios vendrá, vendrá con venganza; con retribución divina vendrá a salvarlos».  Se abrirán entonces los ojos de los ciegos  y se destaparán los oídos de los sordos;  saltará el cojo como un ciervo,  y gritará de alegría la lengua del mudo. Porque aguas brotarán en el desierto, y torrentes en el sequedal. La arena ardiente se convertirá en estanque, la tierra sedienta en manantiales burbujeantes. Las guaridas donde se tendían los chacales serán morada de juncos y papiros.  Habrá allí una calzada  que será llamada Camino de santidad. No viajarán por ella los impuros, ni transitarán por ella los necios; será solo para los que siguen el camino. No habrá allí ningún león, ni bestia feroz que por él pase; ¡Allí no se les encontrará! ¡Por allí pasarán solamente los redimidos!  Y volverán los rescatados por el Señor, y entrarán en Sion con cantos de alegría, coronados de una alegría eterna. Los alcanzarán la alegría y el regocijo,  y se alejarán la tristeza y el gemido (Isaías 35:1-10 N.V.I., ligeramente modificado).

El capítulo es un himno que muestra el regreso de la comunidad exiliada a casa que por consecuencia debió haber perecido en el cautiverio. Además, se esperaba que los pueblos exiliados de la época iban a cooperar para esta realización. Capítulo 35 retoma y se deleita en temas que han llegado a ser los más conocidos para los lectores de Isaías. De esta manera, este puente literario insinúa que esos primeros vistazos de la promesa pronto llegarán a ser preeminentes.

Al riesgo de mencionar tan solo un par de estos temas, el capítulo transforma la frontera mortal que divide el lugar de los exiliados, por un lado, y su nuevo destino, por otro. Es decir, convierte ese espacio temeroso de desierto en sendas que conduce a casa.

Todo aquello que estaba muerto y seco, ahora se vuelve fresco y floreciente.  Todo lo que asesinaba al inocente por su salvaje calor, ahora embellece su sendero e hidrata la  lengua reseca.

No obstante, quiero destacar una pequeña expresión que es particularmente tierna:

Fortalezcan las manos débiles, afirmen las rodillas temblorosas;  digan a los de corazón apresurado: «Sean fuertes, no tengan miedo. Su Dios vendrá, vendrá con venganza; con retribución divina vendrá a salvarlos».  

Esta declaración muestra que la noticia del retorno—brillante y catalizadora tal como parece desde nuestra distancia—no fue necesariamente para ser acogida por aquellos que habían hecho su desalentada paz con el exilio. Esas personas, que merecen nuestra simpatía, poseen ‘manos débiles’ y ‘rodillas temblorosas que requerirán un cierto refuerzo, si el retorno  va a convertirse en algo más que una canción prometedora.

Pero las manos y las rodillas no son las únicas partes deficientes del cuerpo cautivo de Judá. El texto tiende la mano a quienes tienen un corazón ansioso. Una lectura literal podría traducirse así:

Digan a los apresurados de corazón (alternativamente, ‘los acelerados de corazón’;  hebreo: נמהרי-לב), ‘Sean fuertes; ¡no tengan miedo!’

Para algunos lectores, este diagnóstico un tanto poético, sonará al instante familiar.

La promesa de YHWH llega a los cautivos—ansiosos y apresurados de corazón. Se convierte en buenas nuevas para los que están saturados de adrenalina, los pequeños tan familiarizados con el pánico, los encogidos y los auto-abrigados. Les reta reconsiderar los términos que ellos han negociado con su mundo aterrador y aceptar un nuevo nombre  bastante bullicioso, un nombre un poco desafiante en la faz de los chacales y bandidos que solían patrullar este camino.

¿Ese nombre?: los redimidos.

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Si un libro de la Biblia como Isaías puede ser considerado una fuente inagotable, es en parte porque dicha afirmación descansa en el matiz poético de su lenguaje.

El tercer capítulo del libro, denuncia ferozmente un pueblo sin dirigentes. Los que no han abdicado totalmente de su liderazgo, gobiernan como niños. De hecho, línea tras línea de disección severa del cuerpo político de Judá, cae con un peso casi insoportable ante una temporada electoral caricaturesca cuando el infantilismo se convirtió en una virtud política.

Sin embargo y en contraste, el mismo profeta  sostiene un dominio muy adulto de su lenguaje.

Dos verbos convencionales entran en juego en el versículo doce. He subrayado en cursiva las palabras que inmediatamente rodean estas.

Los opresores de mi pueblo son muchachos, y mujeres se enseñorearon de él. ¡Pueblo mío, los que te guían te engañan y tuercen el curso de tus caminos!” (Isaías 3:12 RVR95)

Cuando los traductores bíblicos notan este  juego lírico de palabras, a veces se ven forzados por el idioma para el cual están elaborando su traducción, a dejar caer lo que tienen en manos. Más una breve incursión en el idioma hebreo del texto, actúa como herramienta para rescatar el sentido.

El verbo traducido por guía se presenta como un sustantivo. Se trata de la palabra hebrea אשר, que sin duda significa guiar. Pero este es un significado derivado. En su esencia, el verbo significa hacer recto, enderezar, mantener fiel.

Esto es precisamente lo que hace un guía. Estos están a cargo de conducir a sus seguidores por un sendero que los llevará  a un destino que, sin la ayuda de expertos,  jamás lograrían llegar. Ante todo, un guía es un ‘enderezador de sendas’. Isaías nota la presencia de tales personas aquí, entre un matorral circundante de líderes desventurados.

El problema es que, estos ‘guías’ hacen precisamente el contrario de los que sus clientes necesitan: Hacer que Judá yerre. Ubicándolas en un curso equivocado y conducirlas por un camino errado.

La palabra en hebreo תעה es un vocablo convencional y por tanto familiar cuando se está describiendo semejante actividad desnaturalizada. Engañar a los guiados es algo que podría esperarse de un tramposo, de un bandido que busca emboscar a otros, incluso de un enemigo astuto. Pero nunca de un guía.

Nunca de un enderezador de caminos.

Isaías regresará a este mismo tema en el capítulo nueve.

Porque los que guían a este pueblo lo extravían; y los guiados por ellos son tragados (Isaías 9:16 L.B.L.A.).

En estas quietas yuxtaposiciones de dos palabras ordinarias, la retórica de Isaías logra una fuerza incomparable que perdurará.

Se presume que aquí también un remanente en Judá, oyendo una voz persuasiva, optaría por arrepentirse, por cambiar de sentido, por volver a un camino que le prometía un futuro en vez de cenizas.

Es aquí en el leve giro de una frase, en la astuta yuxtaposición de dos palabras comunes para expresar una verdad poco común, es que este libro manifiesta una belleza que justifica su  supervivencia, y sus recursos inagotables.

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Los profetas tienen poca paciencia con aquella religiosidad que asume que la bendición material es respaldo de YHWH. La gente fácilmente se resbala en estas creencias, pensando que ser rico es ser sinónimo de bueno. Isaías no quiere ser parte de esa falsa moral.

Has abandonado a tu pueblo, a los descendientes de Jacob, porque están llenos de astrólogos de Oriente,  de adivinos como los filisteos,  y hacen tratos con extranjeros.  Su tierra está llena de oro y plata,  y sus tesoros son incalculables. En su tierra está llena de caballos,  y sus carros de guerra son incontables.  Su país está lleno de ídolos;  el pueblo adora la obra de sus manos,  lo que han hecho con sus propios dedos. (Isaías 2:6-8 N.V.I., ligeramente editado)

La ironía—con Isaías siempre hay ironía—gira sobre la palabra en hebreo מלא, que significa ‘estar lleno’. El profeta hace una denuncia picante sobre la falsa religión con este verbo, repitiendo el concepto como si no existiera un mañana.

La primera y la última de las frases indicadas en cursiva emplean מלא, señalando la amplitud vaga de su religión. Su misma piedad es un hecho errante, su religiosidad es un rechazo al Dios israelita tan excluyente, quien declara que no hay otro que se compare con él.

La segunda y la tercera frases en cursiva refieren a su riqueza. Ellos no son buenos por ser ricos. Ellos son, al mismo tiempo, muy malos y muy prósperos.

La idolatría, para los profetas, no es jugando. No es mantener la mente abierta, no es el perfume de los sofisticados, ni una preferencia estética entre multitudes de opciones.

Al contrario, la idolatría es traición, rebelión, es el equivalente espiritual de estar estúpidamente caliente, excitado y hambriento con la esposa del vecino. No hay nada bueno en eso.

Es posible maquillar la idolatría con un baño de oro y decorarla con plata. Sin embargo, sigue siendo el camino que conduce a la destrucción.

Las riquezas, declara el texto, no son el respaldo de Dios. A veces la riqueza es sólo la riqueza, son sencillamente las baratijas brillantes de los condenados.



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The book of Isaiah works its way forward on a decidedly non-linear path to its ‘new heavens and new earth’, its recreated Zion. As it travels, its text provides us glimpses of doors thrown scandalously wide open.

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

‘And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’ (Isaiah 56:3–8 ESV)

Two groups often excluded from the Israelite ideal are now warmly welcomed. Their core fear is abated. They are invited to belong.

The foreigner who has hung out with YHWH’s people, who has aspired—though without much real hope of it working out—truly to belong to this peculiar race, sees his despondency dismissed.

His half-spoken fear is interestingly put:

The LORD will surely separate me (הבדיל יבדילני) from his people …

Students of biblical Hebrew will recognize the enchainment of the same verb, first as an infinitive absolute and then as a finite verb. The English Standard Version (ESV) joins itself to a tradition of translating this verse when it provides the word ‘surely’, as in ‘will surely separate me’. So does the normal emphasis that is implicit in the infinitive absolute find expression in the degree of sad certainty this foreigner feels: YHWH would never have one of my kind at the hearth of the Israelite home.

It is possible that we should read a plaintive note in the foreigner’s stress. The text identifies this foreigner not as any foreigner, but as one who has joined or bound himself to YHWH. The language of conversion, for lack of a better descriptor, already attaches itself to this man or to this woman. Loyalty has already been transferred. The big decisions have already been made. He is an insider-outsider, the part after the hyphen being the cause of his sleepless nights.

His sense of second-class status lingers. Surely, the foreigner muses in quiet moments, this will not end well. I am not genuinely one of them.

The text sees YHWH adding a few more evidences of the genuine, covenantal joining that mark this foreigner as a man or the woman on the path to becoming a true, adoptive Israelite. Then, astonishingly, the prophet turns his back both on centuries of definition of the Israelite ideal and on vast investment in ink and scroll to declare that the foreigner’s anxiety is no longer justified:

These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

To his surprise, the foreigner is welcomed into the holiest of places and the most intimate of activities, those that place the son or daughter of Israel in that proximity to YHWH that is both dangerous and joyful. Indeed, the promise of levity in this ‘house of prayer’ is explicit, for the building’s intended clientele—the prophet argues—is not or shall no longer be ethnic but universal.

The eunuch, beside the foreigner, finds himself similarly brought in from the cold.

And let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’

Here the emphasis falls not so much on the eunuch’s off-putting physical deformity, but rather on the children he will never have. The problem to be resolved by YHWH’s newly announced welcome is not so much a missing body part as the ache of an absent legacy.

Again the text insists that there are conditions to the welcome it is about to extend. It opens doors specifically to those eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant. The text offers to foreigner and eunuch not some cheap shift in policy down at city hall, but rather a sober opportunity to belong and to endure as they never imagined possible.

Just as personified and barren Zion in chapter 54 is comforted by the news that ‘the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married’, so here the eunuch who shows himself determined acquires a legacy that is better than sons and daughters.

The poor man will not be forgotten after all! His name will be ever after glimpsed by worshippers in a most holy place. Children will ask, ‘Mommy, who was that man?’ The eunuch’s name shall be everlasting, never cut off from the memory-rich reflection of YHWH’s people.

It is instructive that neither the foreigner nor the eunuch in the prophet’s promise becomes something he is not. The former becomes not an ex-foreigner, but rather a foreigner who truly belongs. The latter becomes not a fully sexed vir, but a eunuch tenaciously remembered.

It would seem that Isaiah’s announcement that ‘YHWH makes all things new’ speaks more to the fresh and vigorous re-positioning of the hopeless than to the imposition of bland conformity.

Over by that wall, a foreigner prays to YHWH in his odd Egyptian accent. Here in this corridor, a man who never married is revered like one’s dearest grandpa.

The God of Jacob has been here.

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Arguably, Isaiah shows a deeper insight into a woman’s experience than does any other author’s voice in the Hebrew Bible. Not until Jesus’ uncanny empathy with women, especially marginalized women, do we find in the Bible an empathic touch that is similar to this prophet’s ability to speak from within feminine metaphor.

‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.’ (Isaiah 54:1–2 ESV)

In our time, to speak of a woman in terms of her function vis-à-vis men invites a scolding. For the moment, let’s read this ancient literature for what it is rather than imposing upon it the ‘obvious’ standards of post-modernity.

To be a childless woman was to find oneself in an unenviable state. If this seems inconceivable, we are likely viewing the world in the company of a privileged and tiny subsection of its people. Isaiah without apology plays on the tropes of childlessness/barrenness, abandonment/divorce, and widowhood/bereavement in order to press home the table-turning revolution that return from Babylonian exile will be.

The children that personified Jerusalem never had will now come pouring over the property line, ebullient and in need of somewhere to sleep.

Such will be the tumbling lot of them that this mother’s tent will not only have to be widened but also strengthened. Isaiah serves up a reversal of the deep ache of childlessness that quickly runs beyond imagining.

On the suddenness of redemption in the book of Isaiah we shall have more to say.

As the liquid metaphors flow from barrenness to widowhood to abandonment, the removal of shame comes to the fore. It is a phenomenon that must be read against the way in which the exile of an ancient nation served as a cosmic pulling out from under that people of a rug that had been presumed immoveable. Exile was the failure of human rulers and of a nation’s god or gods. It brought the utter loss of both national identity and national pride. All that is now put right.

For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. (Isaiah 54:3–6 ESV)

The prophet’s rhetoric surges now, nearly bullying the language in order to derive from it its full repetitive potential:

You will not be ashamed!

You will not be disgraced!

You will forget the shame of your youth!

The reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.

The features of this oracle that I have underscored reach to the heart of Jerusalem’s experience as personified woman. The passage also sketches YHWH’s experience as husband, father, maker, and redeemer, but that consideration must await another moment.

Exile is the loss of everything but breath and, eventually, even of that. Isaiah, from within the experience of a woman of his day, envisages  the captives’ redemption as the sudden recuperation of virtually everything that matters.

Zion’s disappointment, her grief, and her shame are gone in a moment. It becomes clear why the language of the terrible past becoming forgotten begins naturally to emerge as a stock image in the Isaian repertoire.

For you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.

Everything is new, everything is now.

With all these children running about, who has time to think about yesterday?

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A funny thing it is, that a prophet should have his own habits of speech. We think of old, dead men (white ones or, say, ancient Mediterranean ones) as unfeatured, as a little disembodied, as very much unlike us.

We are unique, detectable by our speech, our pose, our way of thinking. Not them.

In fact we are with those ancient figures just one flesh. What we feel so intensely, they must have felt. Some of their nights, like too many of ours, must have seen sleep flee them. They must have laughed uproariously, must have known the surge both of adrenaline and joy. Each must have been a little unique, as we—can one speak of uniqueness across a class of human beings—are individuals, each with a characteristic nod here, a verbal tic there, a point of view.

Isaiah and the traditioners of his words have a penchant for the repeated imperative. The same word, doubled back on itself, daring the banality of repetition in order to harvest the fruit of urgency. This was Isaiah’s way. In time, it would be abstracted from his warm flesh, his loosened tongue, perhaps his way with a pen. It would be called Isaianic when he was no longer around to agree or disagree.

Astonish yourselves and be astonished (התמהמהו ותמהו); blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! (Isaiah 29:9 ESV)

Comfort, comfort (נחמו נחמו) my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1 ESV)

Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? (Isaiah 51:9 ESV)

Wake yourself, wake yourself (התעוררי התעוררי), stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering. (Isaiah 51:17 ESV)

Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. (Isaiah 52:1 ESV)

Depart, depart (סורו סורו), go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. (Isaiah 52:11 ESV)

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy (לכו שברו … לכו שברו) wine and milk without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1 ESV)

And it shall be said, ‘Build up, build up (סלו סלו), prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’ (Isaiah 57:14 ESV)

Go through, go through (עברו עברו) the gates; prepare the way for the people; build up, build up (סלו סלו) the highway; clear it of stones; lift up a signal over the peoples. (Isaiah 62:10 ESV)

Why this personal dialect?

Emphasis, no doubt. A ‘speaking to the heart’ of Jerusalem and—occasionally—to others as well. A poetic tenacity of appeal, rendered more rather than less true by its poetry.

The short oracle directed to Zion/Jerusalem at the outset of the book’s fifty-second chapter digs deep in order to activate the personified city’s engagement with YHWH’s purpose.

Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. (Isaiah 52:1–2 ESV)

So much of the prophet’s rhetoric is guided by this singular intent: to wake a captive and passive people to urgent, faithful strength.

Verbs so kinetic as almost to form their own verbal whirlwind line up, one after another, almost without pause.

Awake, awake! … Put on strength! … Put on your beautiful garments! … Shake yourself! … Arise! … Be seated! … Loose bonds!

The experience of salvation, here in Isaiah and throughout the biblical witness, is always responsive. It never initiates. Grace happens and people, sometimes, find a way to answer it, to long so much for it as to lean into it. Yet, always, we respond. YHWH breaks though some impassible wall, shatters the cement of our safe room, shows up just when we’ve given him up for long lost. Then we answer.

The experience of salvation is never to initiate.

And yet, paradoxically, salvation is always, ever active engagement.

We awake. We flex long flaccid muscles for the first time in years. We throw on party clothes. We sing and we shout. We dance. We loose bonds that have for too long passed as immoveable facts on the ground. We pry open the door of a cell.

We arise.

Salvation, in Isaiah as everywhere, responds with active engagement.

Failing this, it’s just a pious tale not really worth the hearing.

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