I need a Hebrew scholar to help me with a passage in Isaiah

If you are reading this blog and you are a scholar of Hebrew — or know someone who is — please get in touch (or have your friend get in touch) with me. I’m interested in the following passage, which I am going to present in three different English versions: first, a Jewish translation, then two Christian renderings. The passage in question is Isaiah 45:4-5.

For the sake of My servant Jacob,
Israel My chosen one,
I call you by name, I hail you by title,
though you have not known Me.
I am the LORD and there is none else;
Beside Me, there is no god.
I engird you, though you have not known Me…

— Jewish Publication Society Translation

For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me…

— New Revised Standard Version

For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me…

— New International Version

Here is my question: These three translations all suggest slightly different connotations of the breakdown of human knowledge of the Divine. Is God “not known,” “not knowable,” or “not acknowledged”? The implications for apophatic mysticism are fairly evident: does Isaiah’s prophecy point to God’s essential hiddenness, or merely to humanity’s stubborn failure to “acknowledge” God? What would the sense of the original Hebrew text suggest? Or is it sufficiently rich enough that each of these translations is “correct,” implying that Isaiah brilliantly zeroes in on the relationship between God’s hiddenness and humanity’s incapacity (or unwillingness) to know God?

Any insight that any Hebrew scholar could provide would be most appreciated. If you’d rather not leave a comment on the blog, please email me at mccolman <at> anamchara <dot> com. Thank you!

Addendum: My friend Linda, who has a Jewish studies degree, points out that in this passage, God is not addressing Israel, but rather Cyrus, king of the Persians. I came across the passage this morning because Isaiah 45:5-8 is the reading for morning prayer on the first Thursday of Advent in the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. Talk about a classic example of lifting a passage out of context.

My friend asked me, “I’m assuming you are saying that this verse is lifted out of context and used in Christian mysticism as a text relating to the relationship between God and humanity?” I can’t speak to its usage through the tradition as a whole, but certainly this “out of context” usage is what appears in the Liturgy for today. Mysticism, heaven knows, has a long history of using scriptural passages out of context. Be that as it may, I’m still curious to hear what other folks might have to say about Biblical ideas about the knowability/unknowability of God — in this passage, or elsewhere.

Given my interest in the relationship between the particularity of the community of believers, and the universality of God’s love and grace for all beings, I suppose even out of context this question remains interesting. What does God have to say to the “outsider”? The passage suggests that God can complete God’s purposes even through those who do not “know/acknowledge” God. But what causes that failure of knowing? Is it our sinfulness, or God’s hiddenness? Always seems to go back to that question.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://AttheBotanicalgardens Neil Thomsen

    I think that the key question is “How does God view humans?”

    In reference to the issue of sinfulness, Church convention would teach that the world is totally depraved and hopelessly corrupt. Church (and I speak from experience in the Protestant tradition) has vested interest in propagating this view because sin is often used as part of the repertoire that demarcates who is inside and who is outside their particular club. Sin in this sense does not refer to missing the mark of God. It refers to who is good and who is not good, in Church terms.

    However, I don’t think this is consistent with God’s view of us. God is actually searching for us like a lost sheep, a treasured coin or a much loved child (Luke 15). Focus on sin does not mirror Jesus Christ’s kind approach to sinners, to humans generally in the Gospels.

    In the same way that we naturally love our own children, God loves what he has made in his image. Despite the failings of our own children our love for them overshadows the darkness of their errors. Similarly, sin can be seen in the context of God’s power to overcome it. We are who God sees. And God sees us, his children, with unwavering love, since this is part of his very nature. Creation is God made and speaks God’s voice (Psalm 19.1-6). Truth is available in many other places too. The problem? God calls, we humans are not good at doing our part, which is seeking.

  • judith collier

    That comment about mysticism notoriously lifting passages out of scripture. Does God do it or do we? I am going to put this one on the Lord as He is the only One that can make a word alive. And the gospel as far as I know is never compromised. Didn’t he say, “Seek me diligently and you will find me”.

  • http://AttheBotanicalgardens Neil Thomsen

    Judith, with respect, I refer you to Julian of Norwich.
    She, like Jesus, seemed to have a view of sin that was different to the traditional religious/Church view of her time.
    “And this was the beginning of the teaching revealed to me at this same time, through which I might come to know God’s attitude to us in our sin. And then I saw that only suffering blames and punishes, and our kind Lord comforts and grieves; he always considers the soul cheerfully lovingly and longing to bring us to bliss”. (The Long Text, 51).
    This seems to confirm my original concept. For many years I saw my relationship with God framed in the context of separation and sin. Now I see my relationship with God in the context of love and mercy and union with God in contemplation. Sin is not the touchstone, God’s love is.
    However, the searching for that relationship must be very devoted, as all the mystics that I have read thus far seem to indicate.
    I agree with you “Seek diligently and you will find”.

  • Garry Matheny

    Dear Sir

    In Ex. 32:15 is the word “hand” (singular) from Strong’s # 3027,
    but in Ex. 32:19 is the word “hands” (plural) also Strong’s # 3027. So, how do they know if it is plural or singular is there a difference in the Hebrew or in the vowel pointing?
    Thank you!

  • Randall Hill

    to Garry,The first word in Hebrew is biyado [in his hand] the second word is meyadav [from his hands] this is congugated plural. Isaiah 45:4,5 Is God speaking through Isaiah to Cyrus about rebuilding the temple even though he does not know God. This is also referencing the HaMashiach [the Messiah] whom Israel will not recognize.This comes from the Tanach.

  • Randall Hill

    The Talmud goes on to explain that God commanded Cyrus to rebuild the temple.However, he instead comissioned others to do it. Rashi believed that if he would have been obedient, that the temple would have never again be destroyed, and the HaMashiach would have come then.