YEAR C: LENT 5
Just two weeks ago we heard the final joyous chapter from Second Isaiah (chs 40-55). Today’s passage is set a little earlier than that chapter coming from the latter part of the period of exile In Babylon. It speaks of the hope of return of the exiles to their homeland. In 587BCE the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and overran the countryside of Judah. The city of Jerusalem, with its temple, had been destroyed. The institution of kingship in Jerusalem, with its long line of descendants of King David, had come to an end. People had been removed from their homes and traditional lands. Everything that had constituted the world of the people of Jerusalem and Judea had been decimated. They even began to question whether the God they had worshipped for centuries had any efficacy at all. The unknown prophet known as Second Isaiah works hard to convince the people that they can still have hope in the God of their ancestors. An earlier part of this same chapter (vv. 1-7) was set for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus.
One way in which the prophet saw fit to discuss the question of the efficacy of the God of Israel was to put God ‘on trial’. Isa 43:16-21 is part of a larger trial scene (Isa 43:1-44:5) in which Yahweh’s sovereignty is at issue. The section is divided by a number of prophetic formulae, ‘Thus says Yahweh’ (43:1, 14, 16, and 44:2). Today’s passage takes up part of the third oracle in the section. It is a pity that the lectionary writers saw fit to stop at v. 21. In fact, today’s passage goes through to 43:28. Such an extension also seems important to note in this season of Lent as vv. 22-28 speak of repentance, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
In each of the oracles in the section Yahweh is identified in a different way: ‘your creator’ (v. 1), ‘your redeemer’ (v. 14), as one ‘who makes a way in the sea’ (v. 16) and as the one ‘who made you’ (44:2). At the end of the brief oracle in 43:14-15, several epithets for Yahweh are listed, almost in summary – ‘Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’ The point of the trial scenes in Second Isaiah is to argue that Yahweh, Israel’s God, is indeed the creator not only of Israel but of all the cosmos and clearly the one who then is able to both judge and redeem the people. It is a question for the Judeans in captivity in Babylon to know that their God is indeed more powerful than the gods of their captors. Without that knowledge there is little chance of giving them hope of return to Jerusalem and their homeland.
Like the opening oracle in Isaiah 43, today’s passage has the Exodus in view. Yahweh brought Israel through the sea and caused the demise of the Egyptian military (v. 17). These two longer oracles are concerned with the distant past, with Israel and Egypt (vv. 1-13 and 16-28). While they recall the past actions of Yahweh with his people, they in fact support the brief intervening oracle (vv. 14-15) which speaks of the power of Yahweh to release Israel from Babylon and the final oracle (44:1-5) which speaks of Yahweh giving new life to the people. The present circumstance (Babylon) with its debilitating effects on Yahweh’s people is addressed by remembering the past (their release from captivity in Egypt).
With a cleaver mixture of oracles relating to the past and the present, the prophet really directs the people’s thoughts to the future. But having just mentioned the exodus out of Egypt again in vv. 16-17, a curious thing is then said. Israel is urged to forget the former things and not even to consider things of old (v. 18). It is curious because the prophet has just used memories of former things to help encourage the people in the present. In fact the whole argument of the prophet toward giving his people hope for their future is to remember the past and especially the exodus. Part of the prophet’s point may well be that this ‘new thing’ Yahweh announces will be so tremendous that even past experiences, no matter how great, will fade in its light. The prophet aims to create anticipation and to reinforce a forward looking view. But more may be implied.
The ‘new’ is a recurring theme in Second Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42:9; 48:6-8) although each occurrence of the theme presents a mixture of material and topic, so that the meaning of the ‘new’ is not spelt out clearly. The ‘new thing’ described in Isaiah 43 is a way in the wilderness and ‘rivers in the desert’ (v. 19). The journey through the wilderness during the exodus and the provision of water from the rock (cf. Exodus 17) spring to mind. If the ‘new thing’ is a ‘new exodus’ (this time back to Jerusalem) and the prophet relies on the old exodus and its story to give the people hope, then it seems that the clause ‘do not remember the former things’ cannot mean forget them completely. After all, the prophet relies on past memories for the people to envisage a new exodus.
What the clause might mean in this context is not to dwell on the past as the past, i.e. not to think of it as a past act or possibly not to lament over it as a past that can no longer be experienced. The ‘new thing’ that Yahweh does is in fact the ‘old thing’ in a new time and place. The old thing (i.e. the first exodus) becomes a paradigm for present divine action. But the people’s attention needs to be on this ‘new’ expression of that same old thing. The prophet calls the people to live in expectation of a new event which is, in a way, a repeat of the past. So the past becomes an image of the future and, thus, generates hope. It brings with it the image of liberation and captures the experience of the sovereignty of Yahweh in releasing the people from captivity. It also captures the theme of distance and journey and makes hope concrete.
While this part of today’s reading picks up the theme of the ‘new exodus’, the second part not included in the lectionary selection (vv. 22-28) picks up the theme of forgiveness from elsewhere in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:2). In Isa 43:22-28 Israel has not called on Yahweh, and in not doing so wearied him. Yahweh has not demanded offerings; neither have the people brought them. What they have burdened him with is their sin. But Yahweh is the one who now blots out transgressions and does not remember past sin. This is precisely the purpose of offerings made to Yahweh – to seek forgiveness and oneness again. The significant thing here is that even without the sacrifice, Yahweh does not remember the sins of his people any more. They have paid the penalty for them (Isa 40:2). Just as the people are not to ‘remember’ things of the past in such a way that their focus and hope is distracted from the ‘new’ thing Yahweh is about to do, so Yahweh’s focus is not on remembering their sins of the past, but on his ‘new’ act of redemption.
Understood in this way, the promise of this oracle goes well beyond the previous experience of Israel, and even beyond their present experience, since it is not concerned solely with the corporate concern of freedom from captivity in Babylon (or Egypt), but also with Yahweh as life giver for his people. The life Yahweh offers is not just escape from the experience of captivity but nourishment for the people in the midst of their desert experiences. This is the nourishment that flows from an enduring relationship between God and God’s people, out of which flows their praise of God (v. 21).
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