The Prologue to Deutero-Isaiah
Sandwiching Tisha B’Av Between the Isaiahs
The seven Sabbaths following Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temple, are known as שבעה/שב דנחמתא “the seven [Sabbaths] of Consolation.” All the haftarot are taken from Isaiah 40-66, the work of an anonymous exilic prophet (or prophets), who expresses hope for the future rebuilding of Judea and repatriation of its people.
The first Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu after the opening words of the haftarah (Isa 40:1), נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי “Comfort, oh comfort My people.” The choice of reading forms a contrast with that of the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av, from the opening chapter of Isaiah, which begins with חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן אָמוֹץ, “The vision (chazon) of Isaiah son of Amoz” (Isa 1:1), and gives that Shabbat the name Shabbat Chazon.
This reading is the third in the series of three Sabbaths before Tisha b’Av (Jer. 1:1-2:3; 2:4-28; Isa 1:1-27), collectively known as תלתא דפורענותא “the three [Sabbaths] of misfortune.” The Shabbat Chazon haftarah is chosen because of its message of תוכחה, “rebuke,” thus leading naturally to Tisha B’Av, the inverse of the haftarah of Shabbat Nachamu, with its message of return and consolation.
Two Back-to-Back Introductions
The book of Isaiah as we have it consists of two disconnected parts. The first (chs. 1–39) is set in the eighth century B.C.E., when Judah was an independent kingdom. This section ends in chapter 39, with the prediction that Hezekiah’s descendants will be eunuchs in the court of the king of Babylon (39:7). The second part (chs. 40–66) begins 150 years later, in the sixth/fifth centuries B.C.E., after the destruction of Judah and the exile of its many of its people to Babylon. There is thus a giant caesura in the midst of the book, passed over without a word.
Unlike contemporary critical scholarship, the rabbis did not think of the book of Isaiah as reflecting the work of more than one author. Nevertheless, they were certainly aware of the very different themes of the first and second halves of Isaiah, and by placing the opening of the first and the opening of the second back-to-back, as bookends for Tisha B’Av, they were picking up on a key aspect of how the book of Isaiah is structured.
Deutero-Isaiah focuses on the theme of return to Judah, and its opening builds on Isaiah’s call narrative in chapter 6. This opening is a renewed call, out of the depths of despair of exile, and its parallels to Isaiah’s call offer a strong contrast: Isaiah has a vision of YHWH on his throne, surrounded by his seraphim courtiers, in the Temple, earthly and celestial; in Deutero-Isaiah’s call, there are only disembodied voices: no throne, no Temple, no vision; the glory that fills the earth in 6:3 is only a distant prospect in 40:5.
Isaiah 40:1–11 is a prologue to Deutero-Isaiah, leading to the tremendous evocation of creation with which the main argument of Isaiah starts in 40:12. Many scholars think it was constructed as a prologue, and was introduced in the later stages of composition. In this sense, it corresponds to the first chapter of Isaiah, which likewise was a later addition, anticipating the entire trajectory of the book.
The Opening of Deutero-Isaiah’s Prologue (v. 1-2)
Isaiah 40:1–11 contains four speech fragments, communicated by mysterious voices that pass from one speaker to the other. The difficulty of determining who the speaker may be in any given line is already present in the opening verse:
ישעיה מ:א נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Isa 40:1 “Comfort, oh comfort My people,” says your God.
Who is speaking? It may be the prophet quoting God, or it may be God speaking through the prophet, quoting himself. And who comforts? Again it may be God, but at one remove, and likewise the prophet. Many interpreters think that the comforters are the heavenly court, echoing chapter 6, but the unnamed individuals could refer to other prophets, or Temple singers, or ordinary people.
The message of comfort is repeated, as if there could never enough of the comforting. The word נחם (nacham) is, however, ambiguous. Primarily it refers to a change of mind or mood. For example, in the flood story, when YHWH finds the humanity has become evil, the text says:
בראשית ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ...
Gen 6:6 And YHWH regretted having made humanity on earth…
Whether God can change his mind is at issue throughout the Hebrew Bible, with Balaam and later Samuel claiming that God is not a human who changes His mind (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). Here, in this passage, God can and does change his mind; the punitive God becomes the consolatory one. The comfort is knowing that God has changed.
This change is illustrated by a subtle contrast with Isaiah 6: Whereas in the earlier passage (Isa 6:9), the people are called disparagingly לָעָם הַזֶּה “this people,” here they are acknowledged by God as עַמִּי “my people,” and God has become אֱלֹהֵיכֶם “your God.”
Speak to the Heart of Jerusalem
The passage continues with its message of comfort:
מ:ב דַּבְּרוּ עַל לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ,
40:2 Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call unto her,
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ,
For she has completed her service, for her punishment/iniquity has been accepted
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְ־הוָה כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.
For she has received from the hand of YHWH twicefold for all her sins.
Who is “Jerusalem” in this passage? Jerusalem may be the ruined city, or it may be the surviving inhabitants, or more likely, both. To “speak to the heart” is a biblical idiom for courtship; God renews his love for Jerusalem, but also evokes her love, her heart.
The message of love here is fraught, however. On one hand, it recalls the marriage metaphor for the relationship of God and Israel throughout the prophets, and especially Isaiah. On the other hand, the comforters speak to Jerusalem about her suffering and loss, a punishment inflicted by YHWH, her ostensible lover.
In describing the sins, the text echoes Isaiah’s call narrative:
- In 6:3, the seraphim proclaim that the whole earth is full (מלא) of the glory of YHWH of Hosts (ה׳ צבאות); here the service (צבא) has been completed (מלא), using identical words.
- In 6:7, after his initiation, Isaiah is told that “your sin (חטאתך) has turned aside and your iniquity (עונך) is atoned for”; here, Jerusalem’s “iniquity” (עונה) has been accepted, and her sins (חטאתיה) paid for. Thus the city follows the prophet’s path.
The fullness of the divine glory in 6.3 is paradoxically reflected in the desolation of Jerusalem in 40.2. This is, however, not the end of the story.
The term צבא, “service,” suggests debt-slavery or corvée labour, which is for a limited duration. Job 7:1, is exceptional: it views life is a servitude (צבא), from which one seeks relief in death,
איוב ז:א הֲלֹא צָבָא לֶאֱנוֹשׁ (על) [עֲלֵי] אָרֶץ וְכִימֵי שָׂכִיר יָמָיו.
Job 7:1 Truly man has a term of service on earth; his days are like those of a hireling.
In Deutero-Isaiah’s usage the end of captivity might open to a brighter future, as the conditions of Babylonian captivity are, like corvée labor, of limited duration.
The acceptance of Jerusalem’s iniquity/punishment gives it a sacrificial quality, since the same word (נרצה) is used for the acceptance of sin offerings. Likewise, the doubling of the punishment recalls the requirement of paying double for the thief (שְׁנַיִם יְשַׁלֵּם, Exod 22:3, 6–7).
This imagery of completed punishment implies that restoration is now possible, but at what expense? What is the appropriate penalty for all her sins? According to First Isaiah, it is death or deportation. What is double that? And what is the reparation that can equal or surpass it?
Speech 2: The Calling Voice
If the speaker was unclear until now, things only get more complicated in the next section, in which the speaker is literally a disembodied voice:
ישעיה מ:ג קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ. מ:ד כָּל גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכָל הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. מ:ה וְנִגְלָה כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה וְרָאוּ כָל בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו כִּי פִּי יְ־הוָה דִּבֵּר.
Isa 40:3 A voice calling, “In the wilderness open up the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a paved road for our God. 40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill laid low; the crooked shall be straight, and the rough places a dale. 40:5 And the glory of YHWH shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see together, for the mouth of YHWH has spoken.”
The voice of comfort pauses, a pause marked in the Masoretic text and in the great Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) by a setumah paragraph marker, and then resumes, and reports another voice, proclaiming God’s way in the wilderness. In contrast to v.1, where it speaks of “your God,” this voice identifies with the people, since it says “our God.”
While the journey is that of the exiles returning to Jerusalem, the voice presents it as also being God’s journey, from his own exile. If the exiles are identified with Jerusalem, Jerusalem is returning to itself, just as God is returning to himself.
Here, as throughout Deutero-Isaiah, are intimations of the exodus, the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Return is recollection of the primary intimacy of God and Israel, a passage through the desert from death to life, from the silence represented by the gap between chapters 39 and 40 to the renewed poetic voice. The message is that we can start again.
Pave the Road, Flatten the Mountains
In explain the image of vv. 3–4, some scholars point to the paved processional routes of Ancient Near Eastern deities, but “the way of YHWH” may have ethical as well as geographical implications. “A paved road” introduces a motif of Deutero-Isaiah, whose climax is in ch. 62:
ישעיה סב:י עִבְרוּ עִבְרוּ בַּשְּׁעָרִים פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ הָעָם סֹלּוּ סֹלּוּ הַמְסִלָּה סַקְּלוּ מֵאֶבֶן הָרִימוּ נֵס עַל הָעַמִּים. סב:יא הִנֵּה יְ־הוָה הִשְׁמִיעַ אֶל קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ אִמְרוּ לְבַת צִיּוֹן הִנֵּה יִשְׁעֵךְ בָּא הִנֵּה שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ וּפְעֻלָּתוֹ לְפָנָיו.
Isa 62:10 Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for the people. Pave, pave the highway, remove the rocks! Raise an ensign over the peoples! 62:11 See, YHWH has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Announce to the daughter of Zion, your deliverance is coming! See, his reward is with Him, his recompense before Him.
Preparing the road is our responsibility, the voice tells us. And yet, the description contains elements of the miraculous: The valleys are raised, and the mountains are laid low to make the road straight and easy. This reflects a transformation of nature, corresponding to that of the geopolitical world. It further evokes traditional images of the mountains responding to the divine presence. It may also imply a social transformation, whereby the humble are exalted and the proud are laid low.
The mountains and the valleys are complemented by the crooked and the straight, the rough places and the dale, in a perfect poetic parallelism, always a sign of cosmic order. Another sign of order built into the verse is how we come full circle from the “valley” at the beginning to the “dale” at the end. An even subtler sign is how the letters of הֶעָקֹב, “crooked,” are inverted in בִקְעָה “dale.”
The poet may also be hinting at an historical trajectory, since עקב “crooked,” recalls the name יעקב Jacob, the trickster, while מישור, “plain, straight” echoes Jeshurun, “the straight one,” a poetic name for Israel, found also a few chapters later:
ישעיה מד:א וְעַתָּה שְׁמַע יַעֲקֹב עַבְדִּי וְיִשְׂרָאֵל בָּחַרְתִּי בוֹ. מד:ב כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה עֹשֶׂךָ וְיֹצֶרְךָ מִבֶּטֶן יַעְזְרֶךָּ אַל תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב וִישֻׁרוּן בָּחַרְתִּי בוֹ.... מד:ה זֶה יֹאמַר לַי־הוָה אָנִי וְזֶה יִקְרָא בְשֵׁם יַעֲקֹב וְזֶה יִכְתֹּב יָדוֹ לַי־הוָה וּבְשֵׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל יְכַנֶּה.
Isa 44:1 But hear, now, O Jacob My servant, Israel whom I have chosen! 44:2 Thus said YHWH, your Maker, Your Creator who has helped you since birth: Fear not, My servant Jacob, Jeshurun whom I have chosen… 44:5 One shall say, “I am YHWH’s,” another shall use the name of “Jacob,” another shall mark his arm “of YHWH” and adopt the name of “Israel.”
The crooked becomes straight, Jacob, the trickster, becomes Jeshurun, the straight one.
The Glory of YHWH is Revealed to All
The end of the journey is also the unification of humanity in the divine vision. But what do they see? Is it the glory of YHWH or that “the mouth of YHWH has spoken?” The latter phrase may be simply a sign of authentication, rounding off the passage with a return to the voice with which it started.
What humanity sees, however, is that YHWH’s predictions have been fulfilled in the return to Zion, where his glory will become manifest. Thus, the verse anticipates the whole story of Deutero-Isaiah and the return of Judah from exile.
At the same time, the text also recalls the beginning of the book, where Isaiah’s first speech is framed by YHWH’s speech:
ישעיה א:ב שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמַיִם וְהַאֲזִינִי אֶרֶץ כִּי יְ־הוָה דִּבֵּר בָּנִים גִּדַּלְתִּי וְרוֹמַמְתִּי וְהֵם פָּשְׁעוּ בִי.
Isa 1:2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, For YHWH has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, and they have rebelled against Me!”
ישעיה א:יט אִם תֹּאבוּ וּשְׁמַעְתֶּם טוּב הָאָרֶץ תֹּאכֵלוּ. א:כ וְאִם תְּמָאֲנוּ וּמְרִיתֶם חֶרֶב תְּאֻכְּלוּ כִּי פִּי יְ־הוָה דִּבֵּר.
Isa 1:19 If, then, you agree and give heed, You will eat the good things of the earth; 1:20 But if you refuse and disobey, You will be devoured by the sword—For the mouth of YHWH has spoken.
There, Isaiah offers a choice of good and evil. Here, however, the prophet claims that all will see the glory of YHWH. Thus we have the same words, but framing a very different message.
Seeing the glory of God is another theme that connects this text to Isaiah’s call narrative:
ישעיה ו:ה וָאֹמַר אוֹי לִי כִי נִדְמֵיתִי כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי וּבְתוֹךְ עַם טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב כִּי אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת רָאוּ עֵינָי.
Isa 6:5 I cried, “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my own eyes have beheld the king YHWH of Hosts.”
The glory may be dazzling to human sight, and witnessing it makes Isaiah fear death. Now all humanity, in its frailty and mortality, perceives the divine aura. The theophany imparts transformation, an enlightening of the eyes, beyond that of ordinary light and the conditions of our world.
Speech 3: The Crying Voice
From the prospect of triumphant return, we go to despair:
ישעיה מ:ו קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא (וְאָמַר) [ואומרה] מָה אֶקְרָא כָּל הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר וְכָל חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. מ:ז יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ כִּי רוּחַ יְ־הוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ אָכֵן חָצִיר הָעָם. מ:ח יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ וּדְבַר אֱלֹהֵינוּ יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.
Isa 40:6 A voice says, “Cry.” And I said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all its love/loyalty as the flower of the field. 40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the wind/spirit of YHWH blows upon it; surely the people is grass. 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades, and the word of our God lasts forever!
Is this the same voice or a different one? What is the addressee to cry or proclaim? Is it the message of the previous verses, or something different, entirely open?
All Flesh is Grass
The prophet speaks on behalf of “all flesh,” of indigent humanity. Prophetic resistance to the divine call is a recurrent motif in the Hebrew Bible; here it is grounded in human finitude.
The incapacity and transience of flesh, the pointlessness of existence, contrasts with the experience of the divine glory by “all flesh” in v.5. The prophet despairs of the possibility of a future, of a return, of there being anything to say. “All flesh is grass” may be the response, leading to the climactic affirmation in v.8 that “the word of our God lasts forever,” or it may be a continuation of the prophet’s speech, the reason why he says, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is grass” is a cliché, which evokes millennia of lament over human mortality. It is, however, expanded by “and all its chesed like the flower of the field.” Chesed is untranslatable; it combines connotations of loyalty with affection. It is the opposite of the lack of social solidarity for which Israel is condemned in First Isaiah.
The pathos is that even human goodness is evanescent. The comparison with the flower of the field suggests beauty as well as transience. The lament has a long erotic history. What is truly beautiful in human beings is then ethical; aesthetics is correlated with ethics.
Wind/Spirit of YHWH
The two phrases, רוּחַ יְ־הוָה “the wind/spirit of YHWH” and דְבַר אֱלֹהֵינוּ “the word of our God” are clearly parallel, but are they the same or contrasted? The “wind/spirit of YHWH” recalls the divine wind/spirit at the beginning of the creation story.
בראשית א:ב ...וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
Gen 1:2 …And the wind/spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.
Here, however, the wind is destructive, desiccating the grass. So the God of creation is also the God of death, of uncreation. The ambiguity of ruaḥ supports this: it is both the drying wind and lethal spirit which blows or breathes (נשבה) upon humanity. Again, the point is made through metathesis: יבש, “dry,” is transformed into נשבה, “blows,” suggesting possible reversal. That which brings death can also bring life.
In a beautiful reading, John Goldingay of Fuller Theological Seminary comments that the word “is the most ephemeral of substances.” It survives in writing, but it also points to a never-ending process of thought and interpretation. Here, the repetition, especially of vv.7 and 8, evokes the seasons and the rhythms of life and death, in other words something that transcends the immediate human disaster. It connects with what Deutero-Isaiah says later about God’s word:
ישעיה נה:י כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵרֵד הַגֶּשֶׁם וְהַשֶּׁלֶג מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וְשָׁמָּה לֹא יָשׁוּב כִּי אִם הִרְוָה אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהוֹלִידָהּ וְהִצְמִיחָהּ וְנָתַן זֶרַע לַזֹּרֵעַ וְלֶחֶם לָאֹכֵל. נה:יא כֵּן יִהְיֶה דְבָרִי אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִפִּי לֹא יָשׁוּב אֵלַי רֵיקָם כִּי אִם עָשָׂה אֶת אֲשֶׁר חָפַצְתִּי וְהִצְלִיחַ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתִּיו.
Isa 55:10 For as the rain or snow drops from heaven And returns not there, But soaks the earth And makes it bring forth vegetation, Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating, 55:11 So is the word that issues from My mouth: It does not come back to Me unfulfilled, But performs what I purpose, Achieves what I sent it to do.
Like the rain and the snow, God’s word does not return empty and, unlike grass that withers, it lasts forever.
Speech 4: The Heraldic Voice
Finally, the message of comfort in v.1 is completed in the announcement of the herald:
ישעיה מ:ט עַל הַר גָּבֹהַ עֲלִי לָךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת צִיּוֹן הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. מ:י הִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה בְּחָזָק יָבוֹא וּזְרֹעוֹ מֹשְׁלָה לוֹ הִנֵּה שְׂכָרוֹ אִתּוֹ וּפְעֻלָּתוֹ לְפָנָיו. מ:יא כְּרֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ יִרְעֶה בִּזְרֹעוֹ יְקַבֵּץ טְלָאִים וּבְחֵיקוֹ יִשָּׂא עָלוֹת יְנַהֵל.
Isa 40:9 On a high mountain go up, O herald of Zion; lift up your voice in strength, O herald of Jerusalem; lift up, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, behold your God. 40:10 Behold, my Lord YHWH comes in power, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, his recompense before him. 40:11 As a shepherd grazes his flock, with his arm he gathers the lambs, and in his bosom he carries, he leads the nursing ewes.
In this fourth and final speech, the various disembodied voices have come home to roost. The herald is feminine (מבשרת), a counterpart to the male herald (מבשר) that appears later in the book:
ישעיה נב:ז מַה נָּאווּ עַל הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר מַשְׁמִיעַ שָׁלוֹם מְבַשֵּׂר טוֹב מַשְׁמִיעַ יְשׁוּעָה אֹמֵר לְצִיּוֹן מָלַךְ אֱלֹהָיִךְ.
Isa 52:7 How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of the herald announcing happiness, heralding good fortune, announcing victory, telling Zion, “Your God is King!”
The herald may be a personification of Zion in exile, like בת ציון “daughter (of) Zion,” and also of the prophet, who still speaks in disguise, at one remove. Nevertheless, it is human; the flesh (בשר), whose frailty is lamented in v. 6, proclaims (מבשרת) “Behold your God.”
The end of the journey is the reunification of God, Zion and prophet; the herald disappears into the message, and the message itself is absorbed in the divine presence. The distance between God and Zion, the tale of love and longing on which the book of Isaiah depends, is about to collapse.
The collapse, however, is deferred, because two figures intervene: the warrior and the shepherd. Both are highly conventional; their reassurance is precisely because they evoke the tradition. The latter part of the passage derives from the divine warrior tradition, hence the context of YHWH’s paradigmatic victories over Canaan and chaos. The return of the divine warrior in victory is evocative of Psalm 24, for instance:
תהלים כד:ז שְׂאוּ שְׁעָרִים רָאשֵׁיכֶם וְהִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם וְיָבוֹא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד. כד:ח מִי זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד יְ־הוָה עִזּוּז וְגִבּוֹר יְ־הוָה גִּבּוֹר מִלְחָמָה.
Ps 24:7 O gates, lift up your heads! Up high, you everlasting doors, so the King of glory may come in! 24:8 Who is the King of glory? YHWH, mighty and valiant, YHWH, valiant in battle.
The metaphor of the divine and royal shepherd likewise draws on ancient liturgical resources, such as Psalm 23:
תהלים כג:א ...יְ־הוָה רֹעִי לֹא אֶחְסָר. כג:ב בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵנִי עַל מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי.
Ps 23:1 …YHWH is my shepherd; I lack nothing. 23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose.
We are returning to a poetic as well as ancestral home. Nostalgia risks disappointment since home is not as it used to be. The return will be to an impoverished and devastated land. The divine warrior returns, presumably from Babylon; his victory is the obverse of his apparent defeat and eclipse, since in the ancient world, the defeat of a political entity often meant the demise of its deity.
From being Jerusalem’s adversary, as in v.2, YHWH has become its champion; his punitive hand turns into his vindicating arm. He has changed his mind, evoking the other meaning of נחם.
The shepherd, in contrast, presides over a proliferating maternal economy, full of nursing ewes and lambs. Several scholars note a recollection of Jacob's return from Laban. The word for “nursing” (עלות), moreover, is a pun on עֹלות, those who “go up” on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The passage ends with a remarkable alliterative sequence, which is paraphrased in the High Holiday Netaneh Toqef prayer: כְּרֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ יִרְעֶה בִּזְרֹעוֹ, ke-roʿeh ʿedro yirʿeh bizroʿo, “As a shepherd grazes his flock, with his arm...” The shepherd identifies with the flock, enfolding it in his arm. The arm (זרוע) changes from an image of power to one of care. The alliteration brings with it the comfort of music, of euphony, the sense of a world at peace.
A Hopeful Prophet Haunted by the Past
Isaiah 40:1–11 is haunted by the past: by chapters from First Isaiah, such as chapters 1 and 6, by archetypal narratives, like the Creation, Flood and Jacob stories, by traditional poetic imagery, like the warrior and the shepherd, and, above all, by trauma, the destruction of Jerusalem, the devastation of Judah, the demise of the Davidic dynasty.
At the same time, it promises something new: a new creation, a new exodus, culminating in the recognition by all flesh of the truth of the divine vision, when history will be fulfilled. Homecoming will be to a place that is both familiar and unfamiliar, reminiscent of the Freudian Uncanny.
What is striking about the passage is its fragmentariness. We do not know whether its various voices compose a sequence, what is the prophetic and imaginative experience behind it. What is evident, however, is that it reflects a world that has fallen to pieces, without Temple or king, without the entire cultic paraphernalia that gave meaning to life in the past. Both prophet and God are in exile, and both undertake the long journey home.
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July 31, 2020
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Prof. Francis Landy is Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. He holds a D.Phil in Comparative Literature from the University of Sussex and is the author of Beauty and the Enigma and Other Essays in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield), Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs (Sheffield Phoenix), and Hosea: a Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix).
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