Haftarat Va-ethchanan—Isaiah: How to Comfort Yourself

How can people find consolation after a national disaster?

Flight of the Prisoners (from Jerusalem in 586 BCE) by James J.J. Tissot, 1896

“There are none menacheim me!” wails Jerusalem, imagined as a widow, in Lamentations 1:21.

menacheim (מְנַחֵם= comforting, consoling; one who comforts or consoles. (A piel form of the verb nacham,  נָחַם, which in the nifil form means a change of heart: either regret or consolation.)

Jerusalem is crying because the Babylonian army besieged and destroyed the city and its temple in 586 B.C.E. (See last week’s post: Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.) The leading families of the kingdom of Judah and its capital were exiled to Babylon, and the rest of the Israelites of Judah became serfs to the Babylonian conquerors.

Jews customarily read the book of Lamentations on the annual fast day of Tisha Be-Av. On the following Shabbat, called Shabbat Nachamu, we read the Torah portion Va-Etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy, and its accompanying haftarah reading from second Isaiah1, which begins:

Nachamu, nachamu my people!”

            Said your God.  (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort! Console! (A plural imperative of the verb nacham in its piel form.)

Here God is the speaker, telling someone to comfort God’s people. These people (referred to later in the haftarah as “Jerusalem” or “Zion”) include both the exiles in Babylon and those who remained in Judah.

But who should do the comforting?

Decree by Cyrus (British Museum, photo by Ferrell Jenkins)

One candidate could be King Cyrus, whose Persian Empire swallowed the Babylonian Empire in 538 B.C.E.. Cyrus did, in fact, comfort the exiles from Judah living in Babylon, since he decreed that exiles throughout his empire could return to their own lands and enjoy modified independence.

Yet in the rest of the haftarah God never mentions Cyrus or the good news that the next generation among the exiles could go home after the Persians take over.

Instead God recommends four possible attitudes the Judahites  could adopt to console themselves:

  1. that they deserved their punishment, and it is ending;
  2. that their lives and their troubles are ephemeral, impermanent; and
  3. that God moves in mysterious ways.

An unnamed prophetess is called to deliver God’s messages of possible consolation.2

1. Just deserts

The first message begins by telling the people of Judah that have been punished enough.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem

            And call out to her

That she has completed her term of service,

            That her crime has been expiated … (Isaiah 40:2)

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is considered responsible for the outcome of any war. When God wants the Israelites to win, they do. When God wants to punish the Israelites for worshiping other gods or behaving unethically, then their enemy wins.

Lamentations, Jeremiah, and second Isaiah all assume that God let the Babylonians capture the kingdom of Judah and destroy Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites.

The Judahites would certainly be reassured if they believed that their sentence of punishment was now over. Many people also find comfort in the belief that there is a reason for their suffering. If God is punishing them for their own misdeeds, they have a reason that does not shake their faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God.

However, verse 40:2 continues with a potentially faith-shaking statement.

            … That her crime has been expiated,

Since she took from the hand of God

            A double [punishment] for all her misdeeds. (Isaiah 40:2)

Why tell the people that they have endured twice as much punishment as they deserved?

Rashi3 pointed out that Isaiah 40:2 echoes Jeremiah 16:18: “I shall fully repay double for their crime and their misdeeds, because they profaned my land …”

Contemporary commentator Benjamin Sommer reasoned that if people believed that Jeremiah’s prophecy had come true, they were more likely to believe that second Isaiah’s would also come true.4

But the reference to a double punishment could also reflect a feeling among the exiles in Babylon or the serfs in the former land of Judah that they had not really sinned enough to warrant what happened to them.

Job, by Ivan Mestrovic, 1943 (photo by M.C.)

In the book of Job, the title character suddenly loses his wealth, his health, and all his children. Three of his friends come to the ash-heap where he sits scratching his boils.

And they agreed to meet together to come to condole with him ulenachamo. (Job 2:11)

ulenachamo (וּלְנַחֲמוֹ) = and to comfort him, and to console him. (From the same root as menacheim and nachamu.)

They take turns telling Job that all his suffering is a punishment from God, and if he would only recognize what sin he had committed and apologize to God, God might heal him. These would-be comforters utterly fail to comfort their friend, because Job knows he did nothing wrong.

Unlike Job, the Judahites in this week’s haftarah know that the people as a whole have committed some misdeeds—but they believe they are being punished twice as much as they deserve. People in this position would not be comfortable with the argument that they deserved their suffering and now it is ending. Their faith that God is just would be shaken.

Perhaps that is why God tells the prophetess:

Say unto the cities of Judah:

            Behold your God! (Isaiah 40:9)5

A description of God’s power to punish and reward follows. Then God is described as a gentle, caring shepherd.6 Anyone who believes they belong to this shepherd’s flock might be comforted.

Nevertheless, the people of Judah might be hesitant to trust God to care for them tenderly so soon after God delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians.

2. Impermanence

For a second approach at consolation, God says:

“All flesh is grass

            And all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.

Grass dries up, and flowers wither and fall

            When the breath of God has blown on them.” (Isaiah 40:6-7)

The prophetess replies:

“Truly, the people are grass!

            Grass dries up, and flowers wither and fall.

            But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:7-8)

The impermanence of human life is also compared to grass or wildflowers in Psalm 90:5-6, Psalm 103:15, and Job 14:1-2. Pondering the ephemeral nature of human life might be depressing to people who are eager to have more deeds and experiences. But people who are helplessly suffering might be consoled by the reflection that their suffering is ephemeral and will soon disappear.

Later in the haftarah the metaphor of grass returns, along with a veiled reference to government dignitaries.7 This iteration points out that the Babylonian Empire is ephemeral too, not a permanent evil.

3. Mysterious ways

William Cowper wrote the Christian hymn that begins “God moves in a mysterious way” in 1773. His line became an adage, “God moves in mysterious ways”, reflecting the idea that even when we cannot explain events, God knows that God is doing. For all we know, Cowper had been studying the book of Job, where God finally answers by pointing out that God knows things Job could not even imagine.8

Or he was studying Isaiah 40, which says:

Who measured the waters in the hollow of his palm,

            And plumbed the skies with a handspan? (Isaiah 40:12)

No human being, obviously, but only God. Then the haftarah mocks humans who think they could understand God:

Who has plumbed the spirit of God?

            And [what] man informs [God] of his plan?

With whom did [God] consult, and who discerned 

            And taught [God] the measure of justice,

And taught [God] knowledge

            And informed [God] about the path of discernment? (Isaiah 40:13-14)

Obviously, according to this approach, God’s wisdom and justice are so far beyond human comprehension that for all we know, our suffering is necessary for some mysterious good result. We can console ourselves by trusting that the pain God inflicts on us is worthwhile.

*

A reader with a theological bent will have noticed that just deserts, impermanence, and trust in God’s mysterious ways are all theodicies: attempts to explain why an omnipotent, omniscient, and good God permits evil in the world. (See my post Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen.)

Some theologians excuse God from responsibility for war, on the grounds that wars are begun and conducted by human beings, and God gave humans free will because without it we could not make ethical choices at all. But the biblical assumption is that God permits war in order to punish peoples who have disobeyed or misbehaved.

Those whose worldview depends on a God who rewards and punishes desperately need to trust God to do the right thing. Then they could not only be comforted, but could also consider the evils of war acceptable, because

  1. the losers deserved their punishment, and ends when justice has been done; or
  2. both lives and their troubles are ephemeral, impermanent anyway; or
  3. God moves in mysterious ways and brings about the best possible world in the long run.

But what about people who believe that human beings, not God, are to blame for wars and other national disasters?

Perhaps we can find consolation in the thought that at least our suffering is not the will of God.

  1. Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.. It includes prophecies that the Babylonian exile would end and the Judahites would return to Jerusalem.
  2. In Isaiah 40:9, God addresses the one who answers the call as “mevaseret of Zion”. Mevaseret (מְבַשֶּׂרֶת) = (fem.) herald, bringer of news. (The masculine form is mevaseir, מְבַשֵּׂר.)
  3. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  4. Benjamin D. Sommer, “Deutero-Isaiah Reworks Past Prophecies to Comfort Israel”, thetorah.com.
  5. I used the King James translation of this couplet from Isaiah 40:9 because it is captures the meaning of the Hebrew and it is well-known from the libretto in George Friderick Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah”.
  6. Isaiah 40:11. The King James translation contains some inaccuracies, but Charles Jennens used this verse as well in his libretto for Handel’s Messiah. For more, see my post Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.
  7. Isaiah 40:23.
  8. Job 38:1-39:4.

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