The Book of Isaiah is arguably the most popular of the prophetic writings in the Bible. Many well-known poems, hymns, and songs (including Handel’s Messiah) in both the Jewish and Christian traditions contain verses from Isaiah. Nineteen of the weekly haftarot read each Shabbat come from Isaiah. The themes of Isaiah, broadly speaking, are suffering and healing, exile and return, sin and redemption, and The World to Come. One of the interesting features of Isaiah is that most rabbis and scholars agree that the book was written by at least three different authors (more on that later).
This week, in synagogues around the world, we will read Isaiah 54:1-55-5 following the Torah portion, Noach. In this section Isaiah prophesizes the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. In the first eight verses, Isaiah utilizes a marital metaphor for the relationship between G-d and Zion. Husband/G-d speaks to the Estranged Wife/Zion, reassuring her that, though momentarily angry, G-d’s love is everlasting:
בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף הִסְתַּ֨רְתִּי פָנַ֥י רֶ֙גַע֙ מִמֵּ֔ךְ וּבְחֶ֥סֶד עוֹלָ֖ם רִֽחַמְתִּ֑יךְ אָמַ֥ר גֹּאֲלֵ֖ךְ יְהוָֽה׃
In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love —said the LORD your Redeemer. (54:8)
Isaiah then invokes Noah and the flood (the connection to this week’s parsha) to again reaffirm the everlasting nature of G-d’s covenant:
כִּ֤י הֶֽהָרִים֙ יָמ֔וּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָע֖וֹת תְּמוּטֶ֑נָה וְחַסְדִּ֞י מֵאִתֵּ֣ךְ לֹֽא־יָמ֗וּשׁ וּבְרִ֤ית שְׁלוֹמִי֙ לֹ֣א תָמ֔וּט אָמַ֥ר מְרַחֲמֵ֖ךְ יְהוָֽה׃
For the mountains may move And the hills be shaken, But my loyalty shall never move from you, Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken —said the LORD, who takes you back in love. (54:10)
The prophet ends this section with G-d’s invitation and an allusion to G-d’s covenant with David:
הַטּ֤וּ אָזְנְכֶם֙ וּלְכ֣וּ אֵלַ֔י שִׁמְע֖וּ וּתְחִ֣י נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וְאֶכְרְתָ֤ה לָכֶם֙ בְּרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֔ם חַֽסְדֵ֥י דָוִ֖ד הַנֶּאֱמָנִֽים׃
Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, The enduring loyalty promised to David. (55:3)
Let’s return for a moment to the authorship of The Book of Isaiah. Biblical scholars have identified at least three distinct voices in Isaiah. The first third of the book, chapters one to thirty-nine, are attributed to Proto-Isaiah; the middle third, chapters 40-55, to Deutero-Isaiah; and the final third, chapters 56-66, to Trito-Isaiah. As our reading this week is from the middle section of Isaiah, let’s take a moment and look at who might be Deutero-Isaiah. Based on the imagery and themes (particularly return from exile), scholars believe Deutero-Isaiah wrote during the end of and early return from the Babylonian exile. There is also speculation (and some consensus) that Deutero-Isaiah was a woman. No big deal as there are several women, such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, who served as prophets in Ancient Israel. Deutero-Isaiah’s gender, however, does add an important dimension to understanding the metaphor of covenant central to this reading.
Three different covenants are invoked in this Haftarah: G-d’s covenant with David of an enduring dynasty, G-d’s covenant with Noah to never again destroy the world, and the covenant of marriage between a husband and wife. (Of course, all three of these covenants are allusions to G-d’s covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people.) The principal covenantal metaphor in this week’s reading is the one of marriage. It is tempting to use this imagery to make a case for the rule of the husband over the wife. However, according to rabbinic law, a marriage is sanctified by a legally binding contract between equal partners that protects the personal and property rights of both parties. The basis for this legalistic view of the covenant of marriage is based on the foundation that G-d’s covenant with Israel, one which delineates the duties and responsibilities of both parties, is the model for all covenants and contracts between people. Therefore, the representation of G-d as Husband and Zion as Wife has little to nothing to do with gender roles. In other words, Deutero-Isaiah does not cast herself and Zion as the wife in the metaphor because she is a woman.
Deutero-Isaiah’s gender is more a likely a factor when we take a less literal and more of a literary look at the metaphor. After all, a metaphor is a poetic, literary device and not to be taken literally. As part of the reconciliation, G-d/Husband offers Zion/Wife reparations for her suffering, specifically – children: a metaphor for the return of the exiles. What is interesting here is the language of the next verse:
הַרְחִ֣יבִי ׀ מְק֣וֹם אָהֳלֵ֗ךְ וִירִיע֧וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַ֛יִךְ יַטּ֖וּ אַל־תַּחְשֹׂ֑כִי הַאֲרִ֙יכִי֙ מֵֽיתָרַ֔יִךְ וִיתֵדֹתַ֖יִךְ חַזֵּֽקִי׃
Enlarge the site of your tent, Extend the size of your dwelling, Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm. (54:2)
Enlarging the tent, enlarging the dwelling is a decidedly feminine image, one which connotes inclusion and protection.
So what is the lesson of Deutero-Isaiah 54:1-55:5? We are exiled but will redeemed; we are estranged but will be reconciled; we are razed but will be rebuilt; G-d’s love, like G-d’s covenant, is everlasting; and G-d’s tent is large enough for everyone.