4 February 2012

Isaiah 56:1-8

"Maintain justice, and do what is right." (v. 1)


What happens when your dreams come true? The Israelites who had been exiled in Babylon for 70 years had dreamed of coming home - and then there was a change in power at the top, and suddenly they found themselves free to do just that. Not all of them opted for home, but some made the long journey back to Jerusalem. They found the city, and the temple, still in ruins, but their attempts at rebuilding were frustrated by opposition from local people, both Jews who had stayed put and foreign residents of the land.

This seems to have triggered a major disagreement. Some of those who wrote after the exile apparently thought that the Jews needed to keep themselves to themselves (Ezra 4:3, 99:10). This part of the book of Isaiah takes the opposite view. Chapters 56-66, probably written after the exile but building on themes from earlier in Isaiah's tradition, state very clearly that now, there is to be a place in Israel for those who have always been excluded - eunuchs and foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:1-6). If they live by God's commands, they belong forever (verse 5) among the community that worships God.

What are these commands? Isaiah scatters them in his prophecy: "maintain justice, and do what is right"; do good, and not evil (verse 2); "choose the things that please [God]" (v. 4); "love the name of the Lord and ... be his servant" (v. 6) - these are themes that have been part of Israel's prophetic tradition for ever. But Isaiah focuses specifically on two things - holding fast to God's covenant and keeping the Sabbath (verses 4, 6).

Both sides of the argument seem to have stressed that obedience to the Torah (the Jewish law, as contained in the first five books of the Old Testament) was central to renewed Jewish identity (Nehemiah 8:1-12), and it is clear from many strands of Jewish tradition that this obedience was the joyful response to God's covenant love for God's own people. Isaiah asserts that outsiders are able to have a part in this covenant relationship as part of these people. For Isaiah, keeping the Sabbath was a key sign of belonging (eg Isaiah 58:13-14), which rapidly became a distinctive mark of serious Jewish practice after the exile.

God's promise balances the demand, though this does not emerge in the translations. Do what is right (tsedaqah) and my deliverance (tsedaqti) will be revealed - God's actions and the people's actions will interlock, and God's future will begin, a future characterised especially by the growth of a community including all who do what is right and signal this by carefully keeping the Sabbath.

To Ponder

What might an inclusive community centred on obedience to God's covenant love look like today?

How might the focus on keeping the Sabbath as a marker of covenant community work out in your life?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.