Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names

September 1, 2021 at 7:25 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Nitzavim | 1 Comment

Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Hey!  God has announced

            To the ends of the earth:

“Say to the daughter of Zion

            Hey!  Your rescue is coming!”  (Isaiah 62:11)           

The second prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah who were deported to Babylon when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  The verse appears in the haftarah reading which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim.  It is is the seventh and final “haftarah of consolation” after the annual fast of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temple.1  This week’s haftarah offers more than consolation; Isaiah predicts that God will return the exiles to Jerusalem in triumph.

Then, Isaiah says, instead of denigrating the deportees and their ruined city, everyone in the world will admire the Jews and Jerusalem.

And so my lord, God,

          Will make virtue and praise sprout up

          In front of all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)

Then nations will see your virtue,

            And every king your glory.

And you will be called by a new sheim

            That the mouth of God will pronounce.  (Isaiah 62:2)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation, fame.

In fact, after about 45 years in exile, a group of deportees and their families did return to Jerusalem.  The book of Ezra credits God with using Cyrus, the first king of the Persian Empire, as a tool for achieving the liberation of these Jews.2

Cyrus Cylinder, photo by Ferrell Jenkins

King Cyrus of Persia recorded his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. in a cuneiform record called the Cyrus Cylinder.  One ambiguous sentence on the cylinder could be interpreted as a decree that all peoples deported by the Babylonians, including the Jews from Judah, were now free to return to their homes and rebuild their temples.3

Cyrus could be called virtuous and praiseworthy for establishing freedom of movement and religious freedom for the subjects in his empire.  But how will God make the Jews who return to Jerusalem virtuous and praiseworthy?  How will God give them a new sheim?

The country the Israelites return to is no longer the independent kingdom of Judah (Yehudah, יְהוּדָה), but a Persian province called Judea (Yehud).  But this is not the kind of name change second Isaiah means.  Instead, the prophet says God will change the way other people describe the Jews and Jerusalem.

Never again will it be said of you: “Forsaken”

            And never again will it be said of your land: “Desolation”.

For you will be called: “I Delight in Her”

            And your land: “Betrothed”.

Because God delights in you,

            And your land is embraced.  (Isaiah 62:4)

Once the returning exiles rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, it makes sense that nobody would call the people “forsaken” or the city-state “desolation” any more.  Judea would become one thriving province among many.

But the governors of other provinces in the Persian Empire would not describe the people Israel as “I Delight in Her”, since the first person would only apply to God.   And the land is “betrothed” to God, not to Cyrus or the provincial governor.  “I Delight in Her” and “Betrothed” are the new names that “the mouth of God will pronounce”.

Later in the poem the Israelites and Jerusalem are assigned other positive descriptors.

And they will be called: “The Holy People”,

            “Redeemed by God”.

And you [Zion] will be called: “Sought Out”,

            “City Not Forsaken”.  (Isaiah 62:12)

Who will use those names to refer to the people and the land?  The phrase “Redeemed by God” could only be used by the redeemed exiles themselves.  They are also the most likely to use the other three names.  We learn in the book of Ezra that the Jews who returned from Babylon sought out Jerusalem/Zion instead of leaving the city forsaken because they believed it was their holy mission to rebuild the temple and reestablish their religion there.

In other words, first Isaiah announces the new names of praise that God will speak.  Then the people act, living up to those names by returning to their parents’ homeland and rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.  Once they have succeeded, they deserve the names.

*

Can we use the same technique?  For example, what if Americans started referring to the United States with the name “Mother of Exiles” from the 1893 Emma Lazarus poem for the Statue of Liberty?  Would we be more inclined to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who seek asylum in the United States?

What if we took seriously the final phrase from the American pledge of allegiance (1942), “with liberty and justice for all”?  If millions of yard signs said: “America: Liberty and Justice for All”, would more people work to make it true?

And on a personal level, what if we named ourselves according to our good qualities, however nascent?  For example, I realized I have been getting through a hard year with fortitude.  Calling myself “Fortitude” might help me to stay strong and calm until various health issues are resolved.

I can also call myself “Blessed”, because after all, I have good food to eat, I live in a good apartment with my beloved husband, I have good long-distance conversations with my friends and with my son and daughter-in-law, and I can still write.  I say “I am blessed” and I appreciate what I have.

  1. Traditionally, Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the summer month of Av) is a day for mourning the fall of both temples in Jerusalem—the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. Today most Jews who observe Tish B’Av mourn the destruction and suffering without any desire to return to the temple method of worship.
  2. Ezra 1:1-4, 3:7, 4:3-5, and 5:13-6:12.
  3. “[32]I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e. in Babylon] to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.” (translation of the Cyrus Cylinder in https://www.livius.org/sources/content/cyrus-cylinder/cyrus-cylinder-translation/).  The cylinder specifically mentions the return of the images of two Akkadian gods. The Israelites would have no “images” of their God, and the ark of the covenant is missing from the biblical and historical record after the fall of the first temple in 587 B.C.E.

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  1. Well done and wonderful good for thought.


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