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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 56’

In classical Isaiah criticism, the third section of the book begins with chapter 56. Labeled Trito-Isaiah—the ‘Third Isaiah’—the section is assigned to the period of Persian domination. Chapters 56-66 do in fact seem to have much to say to the circumstances and indeed the disappointment associated with the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the struggle to establish a Jewish Commonwealth in the land they had been forced to abandon two generations earlier.

The argument has much to say for itself, though recent decades have not been kind to overly neat dissection of books like this one. In any case, chapter 56 hurries on to one of the book’s most lyrical exclamatory passages, one that is warmly welcomed by modern and post-modern readers with our appetite for the widest possible embrace. Indeed, foreigners and eunuchs are there welcomed into robust inclusion in the liturgy and the identify of Israel on the basis of their attitude towards YHWH rather than their ancestry or their anatomy.

So strong is the magnetic pull of such an invitation that the reader hops over the chapter’s first two verses as though they had little or nothing to add up front. Yet have something they do.

Verses 1-2 embody the delicate sequence that one might call ethics before theophany.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Isaiah 56:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The sequence that exhorts believers to act now in a certain way because the deity will soon act in a corresponding manner is part and parcel of biblical ethics. The most familiar prayer to be found on Christian lips turns it into words addressed to God himself:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (NRSV)

Although the verse cited refers explicitly only to divine activity, the context of the prayer—with its reference to human need and the very this-worldly matter of forgiving others the offenses they have committed against us—alludes to the matter of human behavior in a world where God’s rule has not yet been completely established.

In this light, Isaiah 56.1-2 hardly make a unique contribution to the matter under discussion. But their voice does make itself heard, particularly in the book’s third section in which qualities like משפט (justice) and צדקה (NRSV, what is right) that are typically representative of divine action become exhortations toward appropriate human behavior.

This little oracle is not complex. It offers a straight-forward explanatory clause that clarifies why משפט and צדקה are commanded:

…for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

כי־קרובה ישועתי לבוא וצדקתי להגלות

NRSV’s rendering of צדקה as ‘what is right’ in the first line of 56.1 when it refers to human conduct and as ‘my deliverance’ in the second line when it is YHWH’s work parallel to his ‘salvation’ exemplifies the difficulty faced by the translators when appropriate human and divine activity are represented by the same word. Arguably, the NRSV translators might have been better served—and we with them—if they had allowed the continuity to remain clear in English. The ESV manages to accomplish this without undue rigidity:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.’

Isaiah 56:1 (ESV, emphasis added)

In any case, Israel is here exhorted to do work like YHWH’s work because he will soon be doing it undeniably on his own. The expansive embrace of the ensuing verses should no doubt be read in the spirit of this divine-human collaboration.

‘Do this now’, runs the prophetic summons to ethics in a critical moment, ‘because YHWH will soon be upon us, and it’s what he’ll be up to when he comes’.

Ethics before theophany.

Righteousness now as one can. A greater righteousness soon.

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The stirring presentation of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) in the famous Fourth Servant Song (52.13-53.12) comprises the most intense and personified individualization of the Servant motif that is to be encountered in this long book. It is not difficult to see why messianic interpretation of the passage has been considered such a natural interpretation and has persisted among Christian readings of the book of Isaiah since earliest times.

What is less obvious in the book’s stewardship of the servant motif is the immediate pluralization of the metaphor that ensues. Already, 54.17 can claim the following on behalf of plural servants of YHWH (עבדי יהוה), naming it ‘their vindication from me (YHWH)’ in a manner that may well link the passage to the famous Servant’s experience in the Fourth Song:

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, says the LORD.

Isaiah 54:17 (NRSV)

Isaiah 56:6 offers a passing glance, though no less poignant for its brevity, at ‘foreigners’ whose love for YHWH’s name makes them welcomed servants of his alongside ‘eunuchs’ who in return for similar fealty will be granted ‘a monument and a name better than sons and daughters’ (56:5). In 63.17, a plea that the heat of divine judgment might soon cool begs YHWH to ‘(t)urn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage’.

Each of these pluralizes the servant in a manner that hearkens back to the collective singular represented by ‘my servant Jacob’ prior to the Fourth Song’s intense individualization of the servant metaphor.

Now, in chapter 65, we encounter a new development. In the face of persistent idolatry on the part of practitioners of aberrant cult who appear to be members of the Community of the Return, YHWH laments the agile love that he has extended to them, unrequited. The result is a division of YHWH’s erstwhile people into a population whose unrelenting provocation of him will finally exhaust his patience, on the one hand, and a population of ‘servants’ who now become the recipients of his restorative mercies, on the other.

The chapter’s first seven verses profile the first of these two increasingly differentiated populations:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.

 See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they offered incense on the mountains and reviled me on the hills, I will measure into their laps full payment for their actions.

Isaiah 65:1-7 (NRSV)

It is important to observe that such a denunciation might well lead into the narrative of a failed restoration project and a severe judgement of the people in toto. Yet this is manifestly not what follows. Instead the passage pivots resolutely towards the existence of an obedient population of ‘servants’ in a fashion that binds the servant motif to the erstwhile theme of a remnant.

A subsequent oracle beginning at verse 8 drives the contrast between this freshly recruited band of ‘my servants’ and the doomed population from which they have been brought forth (‘from Jacob … from Judah’, v. 9) as deeply as can be imagined.

Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall settle there.

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.

But you who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;

 I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit.

You shall leave your name to my chosen to use as a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death; but to his servants he will give a different name.

Then whoever invokes a blessing in the land shall bless by the God of faithfulness, and whoever takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of faithfulness; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.

Isaiah 65:8-16 (NRSV)

It is rather arbitrary to pause consideration of this motif without venturing into the explanatory (כי־הנני בורא…) oracle that begins at verse 17. Yet its entirely new cluster of creational imagery perhaps justifies one in doing so here, if momentarily.

If we take stock of how this chapter and its suggestive precursors (54.17, 56.6, 63.17) have begun to develop the Servant motif after its white-hot personalization and individualization in the Fourth Song, we will observe the return—if this is not too tendentious a term—to a collective identity. However, this newly named community of servants is no longer merely ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’. Rather, these servants comprise an obedient population within a divinely threatened nation, now become a kind of stay on YHWH’s hand, which might otherwise have struck the nation hard in response to its provocative defiance.

In the unfolding Isaianic drama of YHWH’s servant(s), the future now lies with this new collective, bearers of a new and genuine penchant for both obedience and gratitude. The former troubles forgotten to both YHWH and humankind, this community that bears an as yet unrevealed ‘different name’.

One senses that the Isaianic trajectory one struggles to follow, though not without steadily crystallizing instruction, has still more to declare.

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These lines are scribbled by a father, indeed a grandfather. My sixty-odd years somehow crystallize in the lives of my kin.

I would do anything for them. As years of harvest and locust have come and gone, my family, my kin, my flesh and bone have become a kind of existential bottom line.

In this, as in so many other things in this small life that has been mine to live, I am not unusual. What privileges we steward are most intensely known in family. Not in all families, but in many. We become within their embrace a kind of absolute, a non-negotiable. They become so to us.

Take everything else. Don’t touch my children.

The prophet plays a redemptive melody in the key of this family truth.

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.’

Isaiah 56:3–5 (ESV)

In the prophetic imagination here spun into a temple story—the most sacred kind of story YHWH’s seer knows to tell—Jacob’s enigmatic deity speaks of his house and of his family and his family legacy. The divine Paterfamilias—half-hidden, half-known—makes vows in the dialect of what is most precious to him, that which is more his own than anything else.

The irony that pulsates through this speech is that YHWH speaks of those who by lineage and history are not his. Those who do not belong in any conventional sense the notion of kinship might conjure.

Curiously and potently, he makes promise that thrust his historical sons and daughters into second class.

YHWH’s declaration is absurd unless it is true. If it is true, it turns all that we thought we knew on its head.

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.

Isaiah 56.5

The generous teachings of Jesus will, centuries hence, pivot on this same upsetting truth. Salvation is of the Jews but for the whole wide world.

As those surprised by the invitation find their way to YHWH’s sacred house, the prophet dares to suggest, they will find themselves his favorites. The most privileged. The most richly endowed with unforgettable glories that shall endure for centuries, for millennia, until ‘never’ and ‘forever’ become exhausted of meaning at redemption’s glad destination.

Better, these castrated, pagan foreigners hear spoken of their fate from the spokesmen of this incomprehensible God of Jacob with his strange, ominous, promising name.

Better than sons and daughters.

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