I was an alto before I was a Jew. I first sang Handel’s “Messiah” in my high school choir. Now, 27 years after my conversion, I still enjoy Handel’s music, and I still do not take the words seriously. But when you sing words, you remember them.
This week I read the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and then turned to the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets/Neviyim that is traditionally chanted after the Torah portion. I glanced at the first line of this week’s haftarah in Hebrew, and I immediately sang:
This King James Bible translation accurately captures one possible meaning of the Hebrew. But the “Messiah” uses the line for an entirely different purpose than the book of Isaiah. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, who provided the libretto for the oratorio, was a devout Anglican who wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ life in terms of direct divine intervention in human affairs. So he cut and pasted verses from all over the King James Bible and the Common Book of Prayer to make his point.
Jennens took many lines out of context from the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of the “Messiah”, after setting the scene, he put in a line from the King James version of Isaiah: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: God with us.
This line is now notorious as a bad Hebrew translation. A more accurate translation would be: Behold (or Hey!), the young woman is pregnant and is giving birth to a son; may she call his name Immanu-El (with us God). (Isaiah 7:14)
There is no virgin birth in the original Hebrew, and the young woman is already pregnant. There is no indication here or in the rest of Isaiah that this line has anything to do with the birth of someone called Jesus about 700 years later.
But by using this quote from the King James Bible, Jennens established that the “Messiah” was going to be about Jesus. He proceeded with another out-of-context quote from Isaiah: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion …say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40:9)
Then Jennens goes directly to the verse at the beginning of this week’s haftarah. The King James translation is: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
Here is my own translation:
Arise! Shine! For your light ba,
And the kavod of God dawns over you. (Isaiah 60:1)
ba = come, has come, is coming
kavod = glory, honor, dazzling splendor, awesome presence
In the “Messiah”, Jennens uncharacteristically chose to follow up Isaiah 60:1 with the next two verses, Isaiah 60:2-3. A solo bass sings the King James version: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Here is my translation from the Hebrew:
For hey! the darkness will cover the earth
And the gloom the peoples;
But God will dawn upon you
And Its kavod will appear over you.
And the nations will walk to your light
And kings to a gleam of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:2-3)
What is the light that either came or is coming? And who is “you”?
These three verses connect “light” with God’s glory. In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, the Israelites who live in exile in Babylonia have been groping in the darkness of ignorance, wondering how to find their god. So “light” may mean both enlightenment and God’s close approach.
The “you” (and all the verbs) in the verses above are in the feminine singular, but no female human is mentioned. “The people” and “God” (and “Jesus”!) would all take the masculine form. However, most place-names in the Torah are feminine. The subject whose light will attract the tribute of many nations is finally named in 60:14: And they will call you City of God, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Zion (pronounced Tziyon in Hebrew) is a synonym for Jerusalem. Scholars date the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) to about 550-515 B.C.E., around the time when the Persian king Cyrus gave the Jews in exile permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The poet in Isaiah chapter 60 apparently rejoiced that Zion’s people and religion were rising again, and hoped that the religion would spread as more and more nations “saw the light”.
So in the 6th century B.C.E., the book of Isaiah saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the dawn of an era in which belief in the god of Israel would become universal. In the 18th century C.E., the librettist of Handel’s “Messiah” connected the dawning of God’s light with the birth of Jesus, heralding the new religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, for the last 2,000 years or so, Isaiah 60:1-22 has been the “sixth haftarah of consolation” of Jews; we read it during the sixth week after Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the fall of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.
Can this haftarah from Isaiah, which is so hopeful about the rebuilding of the temple, still console us for the fall of both temples in Jerusalem? Personally, I am glad that for the last 2,000 years we have been seeking God through prayer instead of through animal offerings at a temple. But I am still waiting for enlightenment to dawn over Zion.
Meanwhile, I can use a message of hope during this introspective month of Elul, when Jews are asked to prepare for Yom Kippur by reviewing the past year and acknowledging their misdeeds. As Rabbi Shoshana Dworsky pointed out, it is easy for a woman to take the first few verses of this haftarah personally, since all the language is in the feminine singular! What if the poem is addressing me, as I wonder how I will ever outgrow the shortcomings in my character that I am pondering this month?
Maybe my light is coming, and soon I will arise and shine.