Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-Etchannan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26.
Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, razed its temple, and deported all its leading citizens to Babylonia in 597-596 B.C.E. Then each family in exile faced a decision.
Should they give up on their own religion, their own identity, and assimilate? Or should they have faith that their god had the power and the desire to eventually return them to their own land?
Nachamu, nachamu My people!
Says your god. (Isaiah 40:1)
nachamu (נַחַמוּ) = Comfort! Reassure! (This imperative verb has the plural suffix u (וּ), meaning the speaker—God—is urging more than one person—or divine being—to reassure God’s people.)
This call for reassurance (and enlightenment) opens this week’s haftarah and what is really the second book of Isaiah.
(Isaiah 1-39, considered the first book of Isaiah, is set in the 8th century B.C.E., and warns that God will send an army against the people of Jerusalem if they do not reform. (See my post last week, Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.) The rest of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, is set in the 6th century B.C.E., near the end of the Babylonian exile and shortly before the Persian emperor Cyrus II took Babylon in 539 B.C.E. , This second book of Isaiah shares a new vision of God: that God is both the protector of the Israelites and the only god in the universe, powerful beyond imagining.)
The haftarah at the beginning of the second book of Isaiah promises that God has forgiven the exiles in Babylonia and will soon gather them home.
Speak (dabru) to the heart of Jerusalem
And call out (kire-u) to her
That she has worked off her debt,
That her wrongdoing has been accepted,
That she has received from the hand of God
Double the amount of all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)
The Hebrew words for both “Speak!” and “Call out!” above also have the plural suffix u (וּ). But who is God addressing? As the poem continues, it seems that God is giving orders to two disembodied voices.
Clear (panu) in the wilderness
A path for God!
Level (yasheru) in the desert
A highway for our god! (Isaiah 40:3)
kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound; speech.
And the glory of God shall be revealed
And all flesh shall see (ra-u) it together… (Isaiah 40:5)
Again, the verbs are in the plural, with the suffix u (וּ). The kol is not addressing a work crew; it seems to be urging multiple persons to open the minds of the Jerusalemites in Babylon, so they can experience God.
…A[nother] kol says: Call out! (kera!)
And he says: What shall I call out? (Isaiah 40:6)
The second kol uses the singular form, commanding one unidentified male person to call out. But “he” seems to be depressed about the transience of human life, and eight lines later, the kol recruits a second person:
Climb up (aliy) on a high mountain,
Mevaseret of Zion!
Lift up (harimiy) your voice with strength,
Mevaseret of Jerusalem!
Lift up (harimiy), do not be afraid (tiyra-iy)!
Say (imriy) to the cities of Judah:
Here is your god! (Isaiah 40:9)
mevaseret (מְבַשֶֹּרֶת) = herald, bringer of news. (Mevaseret is the feminine form of mevaseir (מְבַשֵֹּר) = a (male) herald.)
The voice addresses the mevaseret using imperative verbs with a singular feminine suffix, iy (יִ), telling her to speak so as to lift the spirits and hopes of the Jewish exiles.
As Sheryl Noson-Blank points out in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, early commentators could not imagine the mevaseret as a woman; Targum Yonatan (~50 B.C.E.) translated mevaseret into Aramaic as plural male prophets, while David Kimchi (1160-1235 C.E.) decided the mevaseret was the land of Zion herself.
The second book of Isaiah never tells us the identity of the man or the woman recruited by the kol. Maybe they are the prophet-poets who wrote the book. Or maybe they represent all inspired men and women among the exiles in Babylon.
Nor does the book clarify what the two voices are. The first statement, that the people of Jerusalem have been sufficiently punished and should now be reassured that God will redeem them, is definitely attributed to God.
But how will God’s order be achieved? The first kol says all impediments to beholding God must be cleared away. The second kol says the news must be called out by heralds, man and woman.
What are these voices that interpret God’s original thought?
Some commentators view the voices as members of a divine council. In other religions of the ancient Near East, the gods assembled under the chairmanship of the chief god to discuss earthly affairs. The Hebrew Bible also mentions a divine council or assembly, whose members are variously described as:
elohim (אֱלֺֹהִים) = gods; a god with various aspects; God.
beney ha-elohim (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים) = offspring of the gods; offspring of God.
kedoshim (ֹקְדֹשִׁים) = holy ones, holy places.
ruchot (רוּחוֹת) = spirits, winds, motivating forces.
In Psalm 82 the members of God’s assembly are called simply elohim, gods.
God takes a stand in the assembly of El,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
El is the high god in Canaanite mythology, equated with the God of Israel in this psalm. God/El criticizes the elohim in God’s assembly for ignorantly favoring the wicked rather than the poor in their judgments, and decrees that henceforth these lesser gods will die like human beings.
Psalm 89 calls the members of the divine assembly beney elohim (“offspring of gods” or “offspring of God”) and kedoshim (“holy ones”), but they still appear to be lesser gods:
Because who in the sky can measure up to God,
Can compare to God, among beney elohim?
El is greatly dreaded in the council of kedoshim
And held in awe above everyone around Him. (Psalm 89:7-8)
In the book of Genesis, beney ha-elohim (offspring of “the gods” or God) resemble the gods in Greek myths.
The beney ha-elohim saw that the daughters of humankind were good, and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose. …when the beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of humankind, they bore children to them, heroes that were famous forever. (Genesis 6:2, 6:4)
Many scholars consider this fragment a piece of an ancient Canaanite text that was included in Genesis as a result of clumsy editing. However, the book of Job also refers to beney ha-elohim in its first two chapters.
One day the beney ha-elohim came to stand before God, and even the satan came among them. (Job 1:6)
satan (שָׂטָן) = accuser, adversary, one who feels animosity.
The satan persuades God to test Job to find out if he serves God only because he is fortunate, and God commissions this particular “offspring of the gods” to kill Job’s children and destroy his wealth. The heavenly council meets again, and the satan persuades God to commission him to afflict Job with diseases. Then most of the book is a long discussion of the problem of how God can be omnipotent and good, yet permit evil in the world.
Is the divine council of beney ha-elohim, including God’s satan, merely an engaging way of setting up the problem by using a Canaanite mythological theme? Or do the beney ha-elohim represent different aspects of the mind of God, like the different and sometimes conflicting inclinations in each human mind?
In the first book of Kings, the prophet Mikhayehu describes his vision of a divine council whose members appear to include stars, which are often called “the army of the heavens” in the Bible.
I saw God sitting on His throne, and all the army of the heavens was standing in attendance on Him to His right and to His left. And God said: “Who will fool Ahab so he will go up and fall at Ramot of Gilad?” And this one said thus, and this one said thus. Then the ruach went and stood before God and said: “I, I will fool him.” And God said to him: “How?” And he said: “I will go and be a ruach of falsehood in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:19-22)
ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, or motivating psychological force (singular of ruchot).
One or more ruchot are also at the council meeting, advising God. Just as God commissions the satan to carry out his suggestion about testing Job, in the first book of Kings God commissions the ruach to carry out his suggestion for bringing down Ahab. Elsewhere in the Bible, God sends a ruach elohim (a spirit of God) or a ruach hakodesh (a holy spirit) to individuals to overwhelm them with a mood or inspire them to become prophets. Here, the ruach that volunteers to makes Ahab’s prophets speak falsehoods is an aspect of God.
Back to this week’s haftarah in second Isaiah. I think the “voices” that respond to God’s initial order to nachamu, nachamu the people of Israel are like a divine council—but it is a council consisting of different aspects of one God. As God considers how to reassure the exiled Israelites, ideas arise, each with its own kol or voice.
The unnamed man and the mevaseret hear these divine voices inside their own heads, and they must respond.
Perhaps their response is the second book of Isaiah.