Picture the scene. An imposing military force has invaded your town. Men (usually men but not always – sometimes kids, sometimes women) men carrying guns, driving tanks. They enter the town. From that moment everything you thought you knew changes. The corner shop, that place where you get milk and bread from – it’s gone. The people who ran it, who served you, who handed you your cigs or paracetamol – gone. They’ve been either shot or taken out into the street to be killed in front of everyone. A spectacle, sport. Sommat for the men with guns to do. They have their reasons, but their reasons aren’t reason enough to do what they are doing. Every death – it’s horrific, nightmare stuff. Someone’s husband, someone’s mother, someone’s child. Yours??
And when it all ends – you have new clothes to wear, a new job to do, a new place in a community you no longer recognise. All the men are dead, as are some of the women. Children are missing, caught in the fray or running scared. No one knows anything. The internet cannot help you. The dead are all buried together in a heap. You are not allowed to grieve. Your fellow women, the ones who survived (if you can call this surviving) hold onto each other, but only from a distance. You daren’t even make eye contact anymore.
The men with guns are still there, with their tanks, and their new clothes. With their ways of doing things. Ways which quite frankly terrify you. There seems to be no reason in what they are doing, no purpose you recognise. They seem to see the world in a different way than you do. In fact you wonder if you haven’t been taken to another planet, except for the mountains in the distance – you recognise those.
No, this is still earth.
The above scene could be anywhere, anytime in history, when one group imposes its will or way of life onto another. Sometimes this happens in subtle ways, but sometimes in not so subtle ways. Isaiah is a book in the Bible that writes theologically about people anticipating, living in, or recovering from EXILE – being forcibly removed from their country and unable to return. Some say written by Isaiah, some say Isaiah and a couple of his followers. The reason they think this may be the case is that although the style and theology is the same throughout, there are contextual differences in certain parts of the book. Isaiah 1-39 appears to be written by someone anticipating exile. Watching the Assyrian “tanks” getting closer. Isaiah 40 and onwards though appears to be written by people in different stages of exile – either second generation exile living in Babylonia or an exile that has returned “home” (see The Jewish Study Bible).
Isaiah 54 may have been written by a prophet who had moved back to Israel after the exile had ended. Someone trying to listen to God and make sense in what they were experiencing. (Bit like some of my blogs or your blogs but a whole lot holier and more worthwhile reading – certainly more worthwhile than my blogs anyway!)
Okay, so maybe the Assyrians and Babylonians didn’t have tanks, but they were a formidable force for their day. They would have had the equivalent for their time. And when Jerusalem was invaded, well, invasions look the same don’t they? The men are killed, the women raped or “taken as wives” (which is a polite way of saying raped repeatedly and over a long period of time. Remember the girls taken in Nigeria? Taken to be “wives”? I still weep for them.)
Isaiah 54 speaks to the women left behind. The women surviving. Offering them hope in a hopeless situation. Telling them to sing of all things (v1). Telling them to make room in their lives for children by making their tents bigger (v2). God promises them that these children will make things right again (v3). God says “Forget the shame you feel (probably from all the stuff what has happened to them – when I was in India working with sex workers, I was reminded that this shame in some cultures is very real). Your hope won’t be in vain. I won’t humiliate you.” (v4) God then promises to be the Husband, the redeemer, as He redeemed the Hebrew slaves in Egypt (v4-5).
Then the passage shifts, and you realise that God isn’t just talking to the desolate women, but He is talking to the entire city of Jerusalem. Everyone devastated by what happened. God is using an image that presumably the people are familiar with – the husband that abandons his wife, who in turn is left devestated at being abandoned. God says Jerusalem is like a young wife who was abandoned by her husband, but only briefly, as the Husband (God) is back. God abandoned them, but now He’s back. He was angry, and now He has compassion. It’s just like Noah, He says. “Though everything around you has changed, I’ve not changed,” God says (v10 paraphrase). The “afflicted city” will be rebuilt and adorned by precious jewels by God, as a bride is adorned by her husband. The children will be looked after and there will be peace. And the promise is “you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed.” (v14). Then God reminds them that he created the blacksmith who stokes the fires that makes the weapons. “It is I who have created the destroyer to wreak havoc” (v16). So don’t worry anymore.
I don’t know how that all makes you feel. But on one hand, I can read this as a loving promise that things will be put right again. An offering of hope from God to the people. A practical understanding that God knows that some of the children were born out of wedlock, born out of rape, but don’t worry, just love them and look after them. Raise them to know God. This passage leaves no doubt that God accepts all the children as His kids.
But on the other hand, God is confessing that he caused the destruction. That he created the blokes who make the weapons of mass destruction. And I wonder – what kind of loving God would do that?
I think of my time in the red-light districts of India. God created both male and female. Both the woman whose will is being broken and the man who is breaking her will were created by God. But does God sanction the action of breaking someone? Does God stand at the door watching approvingly? I don’t think so. That is not a god I would worship. In fact, that is no god at all. Any being who would do that is either a monster or so broken themselves that they don’t recognise themselves when they look in the mirror. Has God become like us? Broken unrecognisably so? Is that what happens in the red-light district or in a warzone? Or is that vision of “God” a reflection of our own fear?
Can God be creator of both innocent people and those who inflict harm? Can He love both the abused and the abuser? Both those commiting genocide and those being murdered?
I find comfort in knowing that these words in Isaiah 54 were written by a person with good intentions trying to express hope. Maybe Isaiah stumbled his words? Thinking he was saying one thing without realising he was also saying another?
Or maybe Isaiah knew exactly what he was saying? Maybe he meant to express hope, but also anguish that God let this happen? Maybe he intended both? Hebrew scriptures often will hold seemingly opposite ideas in tension. Letting both interpretations sit side by side. Is that what Isaiah is doing?
I may never know. Just as the Nigerian parents may never know where their daughters are. Just as the Syrian women may never see their husbands again.
Or maybe they will? Maybe those who survived will be reunited? I have to keep praying and working for that possibility, even the smallest of hope encourages life.
But what about Jesus? What would He do?
How do I reconcile Isaiah’s words with the life and actions of Jesus? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus wouldn’t just watch. He was moved with compassion with his guts wrenching, compelling him to act. He healed or turned over tables. Whatever God required.
The writer of Revelation looked at this image in Isaiah 54 of God being reunited with His Bride Jersusalem and adorning her with jewels and promising to look after her and found great hope that the Christians living under Roman occupation would reject the Empire’s ways that were not God-like and seek God’s ways. In Revelation 21, the imagery used resonates with Isaiah 54. Jerusalem is again made new, heavenly, like a bride. A voice proclaims “God’s home is now among His people! (Rev 21:3). The promise is the pain and suffering will end (v4).
When I read Isaiah 54 and Revelation 21 and I think about events happening around the world, I have to hope that things will change. That wars will cease. Cities will be rebuilt. Children will grow in peace.
Maybe I am just one woman? But, God, help me to be that one woman who is making room for others who need Your love, safety and protection!
It may seem foolish to some, but I have to stretch my tent.