Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7
Isaiah 43 is simultaneously a comforting passage describing God’s redemptive love for Israel, and a deeply troubling passage, possibly referencing God’s willingness to trade one people for the safety of another. Does God’s intimacy with Israel necessitate rejection or at least devaluing of other peoples, namely Egypt, Cush and Seba? As a seminary professor in Cairo, I want to proclaim a resounding, “No!”
We must note in Isaiah 43, the verbs of creation in verses 1 and 7 form an inclusio that helps the reader focus on the actions of the maker of the universe. Bara (create) and yetzer (form) are words used in Genesis 1:1 and 2:7, respectively, to describe phases of God’s creative work. But rather than talking about the universe as a whole or even just the earth, these words are personalized to the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. The God who made all that is, is the same God who made a people for Godself. And yet, this passage hinges on an even more intimate work than creation: redemption.
The notion of the goel, or kinsperson-redeemer is central to the poetry of Isaiah 43. The goel was a relative who was responsible for protecting, defending, avenging and redeeming the members of an extended family. If Christians know the concept of a goel, it is usually from how that role is conflated with that of yibbum [brother-in-law-child-bearer] within the book of Ruth. Boaz did not just provide for Ruth and Naomi in their poverty, but also raised up children for Ruth’s deceased first husband, Mahlon, after Ruth convinced him (Ruth 4:10). However, the main duties of a goel fell in two categories. The first duty was to provide a credible threat of vengeance that would prevent violence during times of decentralized power (Numbers 35:9-30). The second duty of the goel was to redeem relatives from economic destitution (Leviticus 25:48-49). If a person became impoverished, such that they had to sell property, or even their own freedom to pay for their debts, the duty of their goel was to pay a ransom so that the person’s property or liberty may be restored to them. It is this last role of redeemer that God speaks of in Isaiah 43.
God insists that Israel should not fear, because God has redeemed (the verb form of goel) them (Isaiah 43:1). And then God goes on to claim Israel as God’s own and calls them by name. I understand the calling by name as a marking of familiar intimacy. The person is no longer called “slave” or “Judahite,” but restored to their whole personhood by the use of their name. God is assuring Israel that God has already acted as a kinsperson redeemer to them, and will continue to do so. When they walk through mighty seas, small rivers, great fires or little flames, the God-who-redeems will accompany them and protect them. No matter in what direction they have been spirited away, God will redeem children from their bondage and captivity and restore them to their families (Isaiah 43:5-6). This is the duty of a goel and it is the promise of God: to free family members from bondage and to redeem those who have been taken away.
But what was the price of such redemption? Is God really willing to trade away Egyptians, Cushites and Sebans for Israel? Interpreters have long struggled with this passage. Particularly perniciously, this passage has been used to support dehumanization of folks from Africa, as interpreters argue that “the whole of Africa” is worth less to God than the tiny nation of Israel.1 Thankfully Rabbi David Kimhi rescues readers from such scandalous and baleful interpretations. As far back as the 13th century CE, Rabbi Kimhi noted that the list of three nations must not be read as a generality (about Africa or anything else). Rather the list of three nations had a specific meaning to Isaiah’s hearers that was not to be generalized. Just as the oracles against nations earlier in Isaiah referenced different nations’ actions vis-à-vis Israel and Judah during their conquest (Isaiah 13-23), Rabbi Kimhi argues that Isaiah 43:3-4 is a reference to the actions of nations during Judah’s redemption.
Rabbi Kimhi recalls that when Cyrus was allowing Jews to return to the Holy Land and to reconstitute worship of the LORD, lands further south, namely, Egypt, Cush and Seba, were fighting against the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Rabbi Kimhi argues, persuasively in my opinion, that it was precisely the looming military conflict with the countries to the south of the Persian province of Yehud that provoked Cyrus the Great to be so magnanimous to the Jews in allowing them to return and rebuild. In other words, Isaiah 43:3-4 is not about differential human worth to God, but specifically about how God worked for the good of Jewish non-combatants in the choices of countries to wage war among themselves. In this way, Persia paid bellicose attention to Egypt, Cush and Seba. These three countries were, figuratively, “ransom” for the gifts and benign neglect given by Persia to returning Jews. God was not trading peoples, but working through the events of international politics to provide relief to a displaced people while the nations raged.
The image of the opening verses of Isaiah 43 are of a God who redeems what and whom God has created. God gets intimately involved, and is willing to pay the price to set the captives free. If other nations choose to wage war, then so be it. God will work, in the meantime, to bring freedom and redemption to the downtrodden.
- Smart is particularly helpful in pointing out injurious interpretations and their destructive fruits. Smart, James D. 1965. History and Theology in Second Isaiah. (London: Epworth). 97.