This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on March 13, 2016.
George Lakoff described the importance of linguistic framing in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. He describes an experiment. He recorded that when someone tells a listener not to think about an object, it frames the issue so that the listener now cannot avoid thinking about what you asked them not to think about. So whenever he asked people not to think of an elephant they were unable to not think about an elephant. Isaiah 43:16-21 invites the reader to disregard previous salvation history.
The passage (vv. 16-21) reframes the historical perception concerning the anticipated fall of the Babylonian Empire to Cyrus. The first section of this unit contains a description of God in history (vv. 16-17). The second section instructs and challenges the community to eschew remembrance of the past. The third section describes the “new age”(vv. 18-21).
The formula “thus says the LORD” introduces the unit. Like many traditional epitaphs, they begin with relative clauses, “the one who…”. In Isaiah 43:16, there are two relative clauses for who, “one giving” (from the Hebrew natan) and “one bringing”. The one who makes a way in the sea likely is a reference to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 14. The poem uses parallelism, “horse and chariot” and “mighty” and “warrior,” language that echoes Exodus 15. The theme of a new exodus occurs elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah (Isa 41:17-20; 42:16). The theme of the crossing the Sea of Reeds occurs in an earlier section of Isaiah 43 (see 1-2). The next line once again uses the participle form (a verbal adjective) to describe God as an actor in history. The verbs in play connect God with “giving” and “bringing”. This depiction of God as provider/giver has echoes elsewhere in the Old Testament (Ex 15:1ff; Josh 2:10; Pss 78; 89; 106; Neh 9:9ff). The action of God has consequences. The opponents will lie down unable to get up, “extinguished like a quenched wick.” The language of “wick” occurs also in the Suffering Servant tradition (Isa 42:3). However, here it is not the elect who are extinguished but the opponents.
The depiction of God as the one who gives and brings, destroys and extinguishes, now gives way to an invitation to not remember. The call not to remember is jarring. Now that it is established that this is the God of history – salvation history – the audience is told not to remember the former things. The Hebrew term (zacar) “remember” occurs often in the Hebrew Bible. Seldom will you find it as a negative commandment. In fact, in Isaiah 43:26, remembrance is valued (See also Isaiah 44:44:21). The call to not remember probably is an admonition against nostalgia.
Such an interpretation makes sense when we consider the “I am doing a new thing.” Memory is part of the basic rhetoric and reasoning of prophecy. The verb “sprout” characterizes salvation history in an interesting fashion. But one can fail to recognize the new thing. Hence the text poses the question, “Do you not know?” (Isa 43:19). The verbs “know,” “believe,” and “understand” in verse 10b set the stage for the question in verse 19. The function of salvation is recounting praise (43:21).
The language of “former things” (hari’sonot) often marks the author’s argument from a prophecy fulfillment (See Isa 41:22; 42:9; 43:9; 46:9; 48:3). In 43:18, the “former things” parallels the “things of old” (qadmoniyyot). Such a merging connects the salvation history to the primordial creation. In the process of salvation history, God guided the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan consistently giving the community life-giving water (Ex 15:22-27; 17:1-7; Num 20:2-13). Isaiah 55:1 begins with thirst, for the listeners in Jerusalem and Babylon knew thirst quite well.
In order to underline the “new thing,” the poem describes the living creatures of the field, that wild animals will honor God. The jackal, a member of the dog family, is a nocturnal carrion eater. They devour fruit, crops, and kill chickens and small animals. They hunt alone, in pairs and in packs. They are often associated with desert ruins. As a scavenger it carries uncleanness. The ostrich is a large bird that often symbolizes cruelty (Job 39:16). Its meat is unclean (Lev 11:16; Deut 14:15). The poem takes wild animals, jackals and ostriches in general, as dystopian images reminiscent of ecological degradation and the collapse of urban life and relegates them to the praise of God. The Isaiah tradition transgresses boundaries in order to point to a new era. It anticipates the Book of Acts.
If you know, then you are ready to invest. The challenge to invest in God’s new economy strikes the reader with the change in metaphors. The desert now has waters and rivers. The “water” and the “way” metaphors point the way to return to the homeland from everywhere, not just Mesopotamia (41:9; 43:5; 49:12 cf. 51:11; 55:12-13). The poem returns to the water and streams in the harsh context of the desert wasteland. The purpose of the water is for the people of God’s choosing. Here the writer uses language that conveys inheritance.
The powerful conclusion testifies that God formed this people for God’s own purpose. The verb “form” occurs also in the forming of the creature (ha’adam) in Genesis 2. The human creature accompanies the wild animals, jackals, and ostriches in praising God. Scholars such as Brevard Childs use the language of eschatology to describe the tone and texture of the passage. Another way to enter this issue would recognize that in Isaiah 40-66 there is a reframing of history.
The parallel lectionary texts are Psalm 126, one of the Psalms of Ascent that celebrates God’s restoration of the community, Philippians 3:4b-14 (“forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead”) and John 12:1-8, the anointing of Jesus as a new beginning. The themes of reframing history might be something that the passages have in common.
Dr. Stephen B. Reid
Professor of Christian Scriptures
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX
Tags: new thing, forgetting, worship, salvation history