Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
“The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” and “eunuchs who keep my [the Lord’s] Sabbaths…and hold fast my covenants” are the particular marks of the salvation and deliverance that God will perform and reveal.
The salvation and deliverance of God are near (NRSV translates “soon” and the NIV “close at hand.”) and the inclusion of eunuchs and foreigners are a constitutive part of God’s gathering of the outcasts of Israel. God, the primary agent in this lectionary unit, is characterized as a gatherer. God overcomes outcast-ness in whatever form it takes.
Despite recent renewed emphasis on reading the book of Isaiah as a whole, it is still common to distinguish chapters 56-66 from 40-55 and those in turn from 1-39. On the one hand, the interconnections within the book as a whole do not necessarily imply a single historical author. If there were multiple “original” authors, it does not mean, on the other hand, that editorial work was haphazard. In antiquity, the production of textual material extended into the period of editorial work and the initial transmission of texts. Texts were not merely copied. Editorial work had “authorial” impact on the works being shaped and transmitted.
One example, Isaiah 48:18-19, points out how the exile could have been avoided by paying attention to the God’s commandments. Israel’s offspring and descendents would have been numerous (an intra-biblical echo of the promises made in Genesis); “their name would never be cut off (48:19).” This alludes back to the time before the cutting off that exile entailed and which only the restraint of God kept from being total and final (compare 9:14 with 48:9). The return from exile announced throughout chapters 40-55 is termed a “memorial [name]…an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” in 55:13. A mere four verses later the Lord announces that eunuch will be given a “name…an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” “Name” and “not cutting off” reverberate across preexilic, exilic, and postexilic contexts, and the exilic promise and its postexilic extension are linked by the word “everlasting.”
That foreigners would join Israel had been envisioned earlier in the book of Isaiah although not with the specific Hebrew word used in 56:3 and 6. According to the vision in 2:2-4, all the nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house to receive instruction (repeated in Micah 4). Torah will go forth from Zion (2:3). Chapter 56 acknowledges that there are foreigners who are compliant with the Torah. (The opposite within Israel is stated in the extreme in 56:9-12.) Not every depiction of the future in Isaiah embraces the foreigner as fully as here. At times they are joined, but subservient (e.g., 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:5 and 61:5). The counter strain grows out of the vocation announced in the exile to be a light to the nations (49:6).
In the exile, Israel was an outcast among nations, but God gathered the exilic outcasts. Exilic Israel had imagined that there was no future beyond their judgment (see 40:27 and 49:14). They were like children abandoned by a nursing mother (49:15ff), like prey in the hands of the mighty (49:24ff), like ones abandoned in divorce (50:1ff). Their self-perception was that of outcasts in every respect. Israel should hear its own alienated pleas in the words of the foreigner: “The Lord will surely separate me from his people” (56:3). But gathering outcasts is characteristic of God and that characteristic created new life for Israel when it was exiled for its deathly disobedience. Compare St. Paul depiction of our condition in Romans 5:10 (“While we were enemies…”).
The “gathering” that was the return from exile was a deep and unexpected future for exilic Israel. When God’s grace breaks in, there is no limit. Boundaries, even once necessary boundaries, explode. Isaiah 56 is the Old Testament equivalent of Galatians 3:27-29: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ…there is no longer Jew or Greek….”
In an election year like 2008, it is hard to avoid the questions of immigration that form a part of our context for reading Isaiah 56. Preachers will have to find ways to address the particular shape of the immigration question among their listeners. Facile parallels should be avoided. The foreigners of Isaiah 56 are not immigrants in general. They:
- Are joined to the Lord
- Minister to the Lord
- Love the name of the Lord
- Are servants of the Lord
- Keep the Sabbath
- Do not profane the Sabbath
- Hold fast God’s covenant
The latter three items are what typifies a “happy” mortal (56:2). Isaiah 56 is first about the inclusiveness God has created in the community of faith. God promises to bring the foreigner to the holy mountain, make them joyful in the house of prayer and deem their offerings and sacrifices as acceptable (56:7). The inclusiveness of this text has a degree of particularity as well. Any parallels to contemporary politics will need to be nuanced. The text is not a simple prooftext for contemporary agendas.
Yet, maintaining justice and doing right are not to be evaded. The text opens with imperatives to do both. Why? Because God is bringing salvation and deliverance. The eunuchs and foreigners are coming. God has promised. So, maintain justice and do right. Doing so anticipates the future God has promised.