Today we come to the last of our Isaiah lessons. These chapters cover a variety of topics, and I’m going to jump between a few of them.
First, some setting of chapter 54. Isaiah addresses the empty city of Jerusalem as a childless mother, promising that its future inhabitants will be many.
54 Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.
2 Enlarge the site of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes. [This means, “drive the pegs firmly”]
3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will settle the desolate towns.
This is the source of our “enlarge your tent, and strengthen your stakes” rhetoric. It’s Isaiah’s equivalent of Jaws‘, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
In the next 7 verses, Isaiah shifts metaphors. Israel is like God’s wife. (Wait, what?) There was a falling out, a bad one, but Israel should not fear, because although it’s hit a rough patch, the marriage is not over. This, again, is important. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the whole Exile into Babylon, was an unimaginably large wrench thrown into the most fundamental gears of Israelite belief. Probably the same way Mormons wondered if it was over at the death of Joseph Smith, the same way the disciples went back to their fishing after the crucifixion, the Israelites wondered if it was over, if they were wrong or what terrible thing HAD gone wrong, and was God really with them. So Isaiah comforts with these verses.
9 This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.
10 For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
Chapter 55 focuses on invitations to redemption (with 8-9 being well-known verses, though we should continue reading through 11).
Chapter 56 continues the invitation to redemption, opening with the odd statement that God’s “righteousness will be revealed.” What is God’s righteousness? As our parents were fond of pointing out, life isn’t fair. Even once we set aside our immature teenage views, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that Things Are Not the Way They Should Be. And this is how the Israelites felt. As it turns out, the idea of God’s righteousness has to do with him remembering his covenants and setting things to right. Ultimately, this began to happen through Jesus and has not yet fully culminated. But part of it would include the gathering of Israel, quite literally in this case, returning back to the land of Israel from Babylon.
Chapter 54 opened talking about a childless woman. Here in 56, God’s blessings are extended to two groups who were on the outskirts of society, the foreigner and the eunuch. “Foreigner” is often found together with “the orphan and the widow” as a group that lacked social standing and support. “Eunuch” may either be a high court official or (more likely in this case) someone actually castrated, as may have happened in exile. Given the importance placed on children in the ancient Near East and especially in Israel, the inability to have children was seen as extremely negative. Hence the special outreach here.
4 For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 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.
Now, some LDS have focused on v. 5, because it says in Hebrew that in the temple, God will give the eunuchs yad va-shem, “a hand and a name” better than sons and daughters. Several LDS commentators have made mention of this. Avraham Gileadi, for example, gives a heavily-LDS translation “I will give a handclasp and a name within the walls of my house that is better than sons and daughters; I will endow them with an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” But the NRSV quoted above says “a monument and a name.” (Note in this connection, the name of the National Holocaust Memorial is yad va-shem.) On the basis of some other scriptures using this phrase, it seems to indicate that a hand-shaped monument would be set up in the eunuch’s name in the temple, to preserve his memory among the people in the stead of descendants.
Literally this is a “hand,” though “memorial” fits the context best. Excavations at Hazor in northern Israel have found a stone stele with hands carved on it, which, while not clearly understood, gives this verse a literal rather than a figurative meaning. –Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary
For some references on this, see here.
In chapters 65 and 66, Isaiah culminates in talking about all the Israelites returning from the far lands to which they had been cast. When read as a unit, from our perspective he mixes details of the return from Babylon (in the past for us) with an overturning of the natural order, which sounds to our ears like something yet to happen. He mixes the return to Jerusalem with millennial promises of unnatural long life, the wolf and lamb grazing together, the lion eating straw like the ox. The “natural” order will be overturned.
Another interesting point here is in 66:20-21, in which returning Israelites not of the tribe of Aaron will be chosen to function as priests and Levites.
20 They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations (Heb. goyīm, “nations” “peoples” “Gentiles”) as an offering to the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. 21 And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the LORD.
What exactly this says about the expansion of Israelite ideas of priesthood, I can’t say exactly, though it certainly opens it up beyond one lineage.
Whew. Coming soon, Jeremiah.