Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

Optimism, God’s Greatest Gift (Isaiah 54:1-10)

Since at least the time of the rabbinic sages, it has been a common practice to see the books of the Tanach (the Jewish Bible) as a unified whole. To make this worldview work, the sages often attempted to harmonize the different sources which make up the biblical text. Modern scholarship has sought a different approach to reading the biblical text. It seeks to uncover the different strands of thought found in the biblical whole; to uncover inter-biblical interpretation and even debate within the Bible. Professor Shalom Paul has uncovered a number of these seeming discussions, where the author of the later part of the book of Isaiah appears to be offering a response to certain religious ideas and attitudes expressed in earlier biblical works. He draws this conclusion from the fact that later biblical authors often conduct these debates using the very same vocabulary found in the sources that they are debating. In some sense this makes the later biblical sources “midrashim” or interpretations of the earlier texts.

This week’s haftarah utilizes this technique to respond to ideas expressed in Psalm 89. This psalm may be broken up into two parts. The first section portrays God’s merciful and faithful treatment of Israel in the past. This contrasts with the second section of the Psalm (from verse 39 on) which deals with the nation’s adversity during the Babylonian exile, a trial which apparently led some to suspect that perhaps God had abandoned His people. A religious chasm separates the two sections of this psalm. The prophecy in Isaiah seeks to bridge this gap.

The Psalmist shows great concern over the apparent abrogation of the covenant between the Davidic kings and God. In the first part of the psalm, God’s everlasting covenant is evoked: “I have made a covenant with My chosen one; I have sworn to My servant David” (89:4); “My faithfulness and My steadfast love shall be with him” (89:25); “But I will not take My steadfast love from him” (89:34). The second part of the psalm bemoans the broken covenant: “You (God) have repudiated Your covenant with your servant” (89:40); “O Lord, where is Your steadfast love of old which You swore to David in Your faithfulness (89:50)?” The prophecy in Isaiah responds to this despondency, in kind: “But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love said the Lord your Redeemer” (54:8); “For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, but My loyalty shall never move from you – said the Lord, who takes you back in love.” (54:10)

The Psalmist extends his discouraging picture to the kingdom as a whole: “All who pass by plunder him (the nation); he has become the butt of his neighbors” (89:42); “You (God) have cut short the days of his (the nation’s) youth; You have covered him with shame” (89:46); “You have breached all his defenses, shattered his strongholds” (89:41). Here, too, the prophet counters: “For you (the nation) shall forget the reproach of your youth” (54:4); “You (the nation) shall spread out to the right and to the left; your offspring shall dispossess nations and shall people the desolate towns” (42:3). (S. Paul, Isaiah 46-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 379) The people think that God will make the nation wither away. The prophet responds that exactly the opposite will prove true.

The prophet has responded to the fallen morale of the people. Unsurprisingly, the nation has interpreted the events that have overcome them as a statement of their having been abandoned by God. The prophet has gathered up the very words from their mouths and turned these words into a message of encouragement that would give them the courage to rebuild their lives and to realize that even in their darkest moments, God is with them and will not abandon them. He will give them the strength to turn tragedy into triumph and to overcome their tribulations. This message is eternally relevant.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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