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Reviving the Covenant

The Book of Isaiah

We have reached the midpoint of the Hebrew Bible, and we can notice a definite symmetry. Recall the structure of the Hebrew Bible: there are three major subdivisions, the Teaching, the Prophets, and the Writings. We are halfway through the middle part: the Early Prophets end with the book of Kings; Isaiah now begins the “Later Prophets.”

The first half of the Hebrew Bible describes revelation and subsequent deterioration. The lowest point is the Babylonian exile. The second half describes a spiritual renewal, culminating in the return from exile and reconstruction of the Temple. By the end of the first half Abraham’s legacy appears all but dead. In the second half it is revived.

The book of Isaiah is not one continuous narrative; it is rather a collection of fragments from different times and situations. At the very least it is two books: the first thirty-nine chapters are centered in Jerusalem before the exile, and from chapter 40 on we are in Babylon during the exile, listening to a prophet whose style and tone are very different. This distinction is clear from the text and universally accepted; while many scholars believe there are three or even more “Isaiah’s,” the evidence is not as conclusive. And so we may speak roughly of “Isaiah of Jerusalem” or “First Isaiah” (chapters 1 -39) and “Isaiah of Babylon” or “Second Isaiah” (the rest of the book).

Because of its discontinuous structure First Isaiah is difficult to read, but it has one overriding message: the fate of a nation depends upon its values. Every one of the great powers, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and all the rest, will not last; each will be destroyed by its own corruption. The same will be true of Jerusalem if its ways do not change. The calls for social justice found in the book are among the most stirring in all of literature. Forging political alliances to save the nation will accomplish nothing if the internal structure is not sound.

In First Isaiah, as also in Second Isaiah and in a number of the other prophets, a vision of universal peace begins to emerge. Not only Israel but all nations will come together to pray to the one God, and they “will beat their swords into plowshares.” Even “the wolf shall live with the lamb”: in the messianic age strife between nations will become a thing of the past.

Second Isaiah begins with the famous words “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Many beautiful chapters of consolation offer hope to an exiled people. The covenant is not dead; it is just waiting to be reaffirmed. Where is the bill of divorce between you and God? Isaiah asks. There never was one; the relationship still holds. Paradoxically, the time of exile is the occasion for rediscovering Abraham's legacy.

And just as important, the vision of universalism continues. God’s house will not be for Jews only, but “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The exile will end: not just the physical exile in a foreign land, but also the spiritual exile, the sense of separation from God’s presence.

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