We are studying Isaiah 61:8-62:4 for Sunday, April 26. This is a hopeful description of the future, redeemed state of Jerusalem, addressed to contemporaries who, it seems, have not yet seen its fulfillment. [Here are some study/discussion questions on this text.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is almost at the end of the book of Isaiah. Scholars think these last chapters of the book were likely written after the return from exile of small numbers of Judeans – many members of the exilic community having remained in Babylon – around the time of the rebuilding of the Temple. So, 520 – 500 BCE. That particular historical context was less a time of promise than of disappointment. The returned community was small, impoverished, and struggling with the depressing challenges of rebuilding from the ruins and restoring their way of life. Politically they were no longer independent, but a province of a larger empire. Socially, people still fell prey to inequality and injustice (see e.g. Nehemiah 5).
The text of this part of Isaiah alternates images of judgment and correction, and of promise. Overall the idea seems to be: try to learn the real lesson here, and then things will really be good.
Our text is one of the messages of promise, assuring the returnees – actual and potential, those still in Babylon – that Jerusalem/Zion’s future is one of restoration, to the beautiful reality of justice and the delightful reality of being God’s beloved.
We might want to remember that the larger historical context is the exile itself, and beyond that, in the past, the history of the nation of Israel. Into the future, the anticipation of this bright future, and the ways that anticipation will change under the pressure of the world-historical events to come (like the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires and the ultimate destruction of the Second Temple). Christians will eventually pick up the entire book of Isaiah and say to themselves “Oh, this is about Jesus!!” Their Jewish neighbors won’t read it the same way. We ourselves are the heirs to that difference of opinion about this larger text.
Churchgoers might be more familiar with the first few verses of Isaiah 61, because they are the text for Jesus’s sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (see Luke 4:14-21), which is a popular preaching text. Portions of this week’s text are also in the lectionary, in the Advent-Christmas season in years B and C. [We might want to notice how that positioning probably reinforces Christian churchgoers’ idea that this text is “really” all about Jesus. We might also notice that if that’s all we think this text is about, we will miss how expansive its horizon may actually be.]
CLOSER READING: Verses 8-9 appear as direct address by YHWH. It isn’t clear where God’s direct speech begins, whether here, or as early as verse 4 or 5.
God’s love of justice and hatred of robbery is presented as the ground of the future promise: it’s payback for the payback of the exile.
The prophet speaks in verses 10-11, in two vivid images, that amplify one another: the image of splendid wedding garments, and the image of fresh spring foliage. Both are presented as images of deliverance, righteousness and joyful praise. YHWH is positioned as the ground from which that rebirth of righteousness springs forth.
Who is speaking in 62:1? Who will not keep silent and rest? Our answer might depend on whether we think YHWH would ever refer to Godself in the third person, as in verse 2-4, and who will post sentinels, as in verse 6, to remind YHWH of the promises YHWH has made to Jerusalem, and to urge YHWH to see them to fulfillment.
[When I try reading it both ways, it makes most sense to me to read it as the prophet, who is proclaiming a promise from YHWH, but one which is yet to be experienced as an empirical reality. It’s still awaiting the fulfillment of some condition(s) – such as, perhaps, the arrival of all the people, the beneficiaries (see verse 10). That makes the prophet the one posting sentinels and urging YHWH on. At first, this seemed a little presumptuous to me. But the urging is in light of assurances directly from YHWH.]
The NRSV translates the new names for Jerusalem/Zion and puts their Hebrew equivalents in the footnotes: “My Delight is in Her” = Hephzibah, “Married” = Beulah.
Our world may have taken some of the awe-struck positivity out of the name “Married,” for several reasons. For one thing, we don’t regard UNmarried women with the same stigma, in part because UNmarried women are not doomed to the choice of slow death or a life of degrading crime, or at best abject dependence on resentful relatives, as they seem to have been in ancient times. [It’s hard for me to think of this as a bad thing about modern times.]
Also, while being slutty, or even a porn star, is still generally a bad thing in the modern world, it’s not the same kind of bad thing it was in the ancient world. So the idea that ANYONE would even THINK of marrying a woman who had been identified as a loathsome slut or a porn star [as Jerusalem had been, by the prophets, before the exile] is less breathtaking these days. In the ancient world, an unimaginable and wondrous transformation had taken place.
Also, while our world still generally thinks of marriage as a positive and pleasant state – at least, more or less – we may not read it as the pre-eminent symbol of completion and fulfillment that it seems to have been in the ancient world. Although, I could be wrong here – thinking of the prototypical Disney Princess Movie –
My point is that I think we have to work harder than the ancients did to recognize how incredible and overjoying the announcement in verses 4-5 really is.
I have a hard time coming up with a contemporary equivalent … maybe “you’re not a has-been porn star junkie living on the street and turning tricks any more, you’re legit an ingenue on the red carpet with your fiancé about to receive your Oscar”?