Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mother Jerusalem and mother God

July 3, 2022

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 66:10-14

Isaiah 66:10-14 is framed by the word “rejoice,” which appears in both the first and last verses. This heart-stirring text offers hope to a disillusioned audience, centered on a powerful pair of images depicting Jerusalem and God as mothers.

Along with other texts in Isaiah 56–66 (“Third Isaiah”), these verses were written in the years following the return of Judean exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 BCE. It was a difficult homecoming. The rebuilding of the temple was delayed, and the city’s walls remained in ruins for nearly a century, as depicted in Ezra and Nehemiah. Now subject to the Persian Empire, the former capital of Judah regained only a fraction of its prior glory. The text does not deny these painful realities, even as it powerfully declares that a brighter future lies ahead.

Mother Jerusalem and mother God

The second half of Isaiah traces Jerusalem’s fortunes through its destruction by Babylon, the exile of its population, and its resettlement and partial reconstruction. Throughout these chapters, the city—often referred to as “Zion”—is personified as a wife and/or mother. During the exile, she was abandoned by her husband (God) and bereaved of her children (the city’s inhabitants), as depicted in Isaiah 50:1, 49:20, and 62:4. She laments, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (49:14). Her distress is only temporary, however. Following the exile, God remarries her (54:5; 62:24-5) and her children return to her (49:20-21; 60:4). 

In the verses immediately preceding today’s passage, Jerusalem remarkably gives birth without even experiencing labor pains (Isaiah 66:8). This maternal imagery extends to verse 11, in which the text’s addresses are invited to “nurse” at Jerusalem’s “consoling breast.” Note the language of abundance: “be satisfied,” “drink deeply with delight,” “glorious.” Verse 12 unfolds the tender image of Jerusalem’s children being “carried on her arm and bounced on her knees.” Having been restored, Jerusalem once again becomes a place of refuge and delight for God’s people.

Isaiah 40-55 also uses maternal metaphors for God. In fact, more feminine images for the deity appear in Isaiah than anywhere else in the Bible. In Isaiah 42:14, God’s strength is like that of a woman in labor. Isaiah 46:3 and 49:15 compare God’s compassion to a mother’s. Earlier in chapter 66, God acts as a midwife while Jerusalem gives birth, “open[ing] the womb” and “deliver[ing]” (verse 9). Then, in verse 13, the image of Jerusalem as mother merges with that of God as mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”

These feminine metaphors assume patriarchal gender roles. At the same time, they value and affirm the work of motherhood in its myriad forms. They also take seriously the real-life experiences of women in a context of war and exile. When reflecting on today’s text, we should remember the disproportionate suffering of women and children in such contexts today. Even as we claim its words of comfort for our own lives, how might we act to extend that comfort to, say, bereaved mothers in Ukraine or child refugees at the U.S. southern border?

The wealth of nations

Verse 12 attributes Jerusalem’s restoration to a miraculous influx of economic resources: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream.” Similar language appears in Isaiah 18:7, 45:14, 60:4-17, and 61:5-6. These texts imagine a redistribution of wealth, with larger and more prosperous nations providing resources and labor to rebuild Jerusalem. In some cases, they freely bring their riches to Jerusalem. Isaiah 2:2-4 even depicts them submitting to God’s rule and receiving divine instruction. In other cases, God forces the nations to give up their wealth under threat of divine destruction.

Contemporary readers might be tempted to dismiss these texts as crassly materialistic. The title of Adam Smith’s influential treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, even comes from this passage (verse 12; compare 61:6). We should remember, however, that many of these same nations were responsible for Jerusalem’s destruction and suffering. We might think of this envisioned economic support as a form of reparations. It would have marked a radical reversal of the political realities when this text was written. As part of the Persian empire, Jerusalem’s own resources were depleted by exorbitant tribute payments to its imperial oppressors, as described in Nehemiah 9:36-37. 

Understood this way, the text resonates with contemporary questions about restorative economic justice. What kinds of support do former colonial powers owe to their one-time subject nations? Should museums repatriate looted objects to the countries where they were discovered? What would constitute just compensation to the descendants of enslaved persons, who never received full benefit from the wealth their ancestors created under duress?

God’s enemies

Given the overwhelmingly comforting tone of today’s passage, the reference to divine wrath in the final line of verse 14 seems jarring: “The power of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.” The verses that follow, which are omitted from the lectionary reading, graphically describe God’s judgment against these enemies.

This verse likely reflects the bitter divisions that emerged in the post-exilic worshiping community in the Jerusalem temple. One group of worshipers, who called themselves God’s “servants,” believed they had been disempowered and mistreated by their rival group. Several texts in Isaiah 55-56 reflect their perspective, including Isaiah 65:1-9 as well as this one. Even as it offers them hope, the text testifies to the reality of their pain. Attempts to comfort an oppressed community ring hollow if they do not acknowledge their suffering.

Many contemporary readers may be uncomfortable with biblical language about vengeance or enemies, especially in such an otherwise uplifting text. In a fallen world, however, evil is a persistent reality. We should certainly desire and pray for the redemption of individuals who commit evil, but there can be no truly hopeful future until their capacity to harm others has been taken away.