Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6
Large transitions disorient us. Moving, changing jobs, personal transitions…all of these mix up our lives by taking us out of our patterns.
Such transitions are all the more disorienting when they are forced upon us. When we have no say in the sudden disruptions that life can bring, disorientation is worsened by loss, remorse, confusion, or anger. The Israelite exile is a forced change. Forced mass migration to Babylon brought disorientation.
Second Isaiah’s Sermon for Disorientation
Isaiah 51 falls within Second Isaiah’s powerful pastoral sermon to bring comfort and hope to a community struggling to recover from mass exile (chapters 40-55). The prophet’s job is to heal the wounds of unwanted disorientation. Strikingly, his is no pulpit sermon to a bunch of passive listeners. Instead, his poetry is filled with voices, urging listeners to emerge from the invisible edges of social and theological ruin, encouraging listeners to become speakers.
Some scholars have even compared Second Isaiah to a dramatic liturgical performance. This innovative way of understanding the preaching of Second Isaiah invites reflection on the role of performance and drama in communal healing. With his pastoral sermon, the disoriented become active; the exiles give voice to their experiences.
Not only do the exiles give voice, but they are also challenged to open their eyes and ears again. The prophet demands imagination and new perspective. Startling imperatives: “listen!” and “look!” pepper the lectionary passage, (51:1-6). Those who seek are rewarded (51:1-3). All of these features of Second Isaiah’s sermon activate the disoriented.
Disorientation Specifically from the Loss of Zion
Second Isaiah’s sermon deals with Israel’s specific disorientation at the loss of Zion. Zion is God’s dwelling in Jerusalem. Zion is a physical place, a material temple, an Israelite mountain. But Zion is also a sacred space that marks the heartbeat of Yahwism. Zion is God’s presence with Israel. The destruction of the temple destroyed this sacred space and eradicated the presence of God. For the exiles living in Babylon, the ruined Zion must have seemed worthless.
It represented a fading past made irrelevant by thousands of miles of distance and the conditions of forced migration. Israel held only fragments of Zion in its memory. These fragments were of no use to anyone. Indeed, the fragmented memory of Zion may have only caused more pain and disorientation as exiles sought to rebuild their lives under new conditions.
Second Isaiah does not let Israel forget Zion. Isaiah chapters 49-52 are known as the Zion poems. While the Zion of Israel’s memory is broken and failed, Second Isaiah brings renewal to Zion’s power. Indeed, Zion comes to hold trans-historical meaning as a powerful visionary homeland.
Poetry with the Fragments of Zion
How does Second Isaiah renew the power of Zion for the disoriented? At least in 51:1-6, the prophet makes poetry of Israel’s fragmented traditions. In six short verses, a barrage of specific Israelite traditions is referenced: Exodus, the ancestral traditions, Eden, Mosaic instruction, and creation. The preacher is hardly presenting a sustained and well-developed argument.
Rather, the prophet shapes these fragments of Zion with poetic urgency. The end result is a poem of rapidly successive fragments meant to overwhelm grief and disorientation. Hence, as a whole, the poem in Isaiah 51 is about overpowering Israel with her emotional ties to Zion.
Any one of the traditions could be a sermon unto itself. Each fragment really is its own image with its own meaning. Fragments of Zion come across as broken shards, with little thematic glue. Nevertheless, each is worth some time.
First Fragment of Zion: Look to the Rock (verses 1 and 2)
“Look to the rock, …to the quarry, …to Abraham, …and to Sarah.” These directives focus on Israel’s original call to follow God. Sarah and Abraham remind the Israelites of the lonely position of being called from the known to the unknown (cf. Genesis 12:1). Abraham’s “Patriarchal narrative” achieved new significance in the exile. Abraham’s call models the confidence to follow God even in the midst of disorientation.
Sarah is the wife of Abraham, of course. But her appearance in the poem is not simply an afterthought. Sarah’s story offers another angle on disorientation. In Genesis, the story of Sarah focuses on her experiences of barrenness. Hence, her womb becomes a powerful symbol. Even though her body was tired and aged, Sarah gave birth to the seed of Israel. In a sense, her aged body sprung forth the Israelite people. Second Isaiah directs Sarah’s exiled children to remember the wandering, powerless, and barren womb that sprung them forth.
The metaphors of the rock and the quarry offer a parallel reflection on Israel’s origins. Like Abraham’s call, the rock emphasizes the power of Israel’s origin. God called Abraham with a solid and sure promise, just as the rock is solid and sure. Indeed, the “rock” is frequently nomenclature for God (especially Psalms and Deuteronomy 32). Hence, Israel’s origin in the rock provides the basis for her confidence.
The second metaphor, “the quarry” literally means “the hole of the pit.” Like Sarah’s barren womb, this image is empty. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the “pit” refers to a place of suffering and distance from God. For example, Psalm 28 places the “rock” and the “pit” in juxtaposition, showing that the pit is the place to which one descends during periods of divine silence.
Hence the rock and the pit recall both the firm presence and the empty absence of God in Israel’s past. God’s power is to be trusted, like a rock and like Abraham’s call. However, God’s absence, like Sarah’s barren womb and like the hole in the pit, is an impossible chasm. But the hole is not the end of the story. From the impossible, from the disoriented, from suffering…a great people can be born.
Second Fragment of Zion: A Future Eden (verse 3)
In this fragment, Second Isaiah plays with time. The prophet folds time back upon itself to create a supra-temporal reality. Notice that the verbs in these six verses seamlessly move between past and future. In verse 3, a past Eden is summoned as a future place. Second Isaiah interrupts Israel’s story of destruction, desertification, and forced migration with the supra-temporal. In doing so, the poet slays the tyranny of a tragic narrative that ends in exile. The poet defies the seeming inevitability of tragic time by pushing the past into the future.
Drawing on the theme from verses 1-2, an impossible waste-place becomes the setting for new growth. Eden is possible once again.
One startling detail must be noted. While the phrase “garden of God” is used, Eden is not a garden of plants. Instead of vegetative growth, this Eden is vocal — it is filled with “the voice of song.” Instead of trees of life, this waste-place will be filled with blooms of joy and buds of thanksgiving. Voices of expression will comprise Zion’s new Eden.
Third Fragment of Zion: The Light of Mosaic Teaching (verses 4 and 5)
Moses’ teaching is the third fragment of the poem. Indeed, Mosaic teaching saturates the immediate literary context of 51:1-6. Chapter 50 describes the servant who teaches like Moses. Isaiah 51:7 speaks of those who have “my teaching in your hearts,” characteristic of Mosaic instruction. Isaiah 51:1-3 sets up Moses’ understanding of God as a rock. Indeed, God is called the “rock” in Deuteronomy 32, Moses drew water from the “rock of Horeb” that the people would have water to drink (Exodus 17:6), and God provided the wandering people oil from flinty rock (Deuteronomy 32:13).
Mosaic teaching distinguished Israel as an ideal community. In Moses’ teaching, the community lived righteously, morally, and justly. However, the Israelite state could not achieve the Mosaic community. With the loss of Zion, Mosaic teaching lost her community.
Defying logic, verses 4-5 extends Moses’ teachings to the far-reaches of the world. Instead of the shrinking of the Mosaic community, Isaiah claims that it grows! Just as verse 3 forged a supra-temporal power, verses 4-5 forge a supra-spatial sphere with the Mosaic community at the heart of Zion’s power.