Saturday 04 February 2012

Bible Book:

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

Isaiah 56:1-8 Saturday 4 February 2012


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

This seems to have triggered a major disagreement. Some of thosewho wrote after the exile apparently thought that the Jews neededto keep themselves to themselves (Ezra4:3, 9; 9:10). This part of the book of Isaiah takes theopposite view. Chapters 56-66, probably written after the exile butbuilding on themes from earlier in Isaiah's tradition, state veryclearly that now, there is to be a place in Israel for those whohave always been excluded - eunuchs and foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:1-6). If they live by God'scommands, they belong forever (verse 5) among the community thatworships 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 thename of the Lord and ... be his servant" (v. 6) - these are themesthat have been part of Israel's prophetic tradition for ever. ButIsaiah focuses specifically on two things - holding fast to God'scovenant and keeping the Sabbath (verses 4, 6).

Both sides of the argument seem to have stressed that obedience tothe Torah (the Jewish law, as contained in the first five books ofthe Old Testament) was central to renewed Jewish identity (Nehemiah 8:1-12), and it is clear from manystrands of Jewish tradition that this obedience was the joyfulresponse to God's covenant love for God's own people. Isaiahasserts that outsiders are able to have a part in this covenantrelationship as part of these people. For Isaiah, keeping theSabbath was a key sign of belonging (eg Isaiah58:13-14), which rapidly became a distinctive mark of seriousJewish practice after the exile.

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

To Ponder

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

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

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