March 17: Isaiah 61:2-3

Isaiah 61:2b-3ab

In the previous two notes, we looked at the first two pairs of verbal phrases (infinitives) which summarize and describe the Anointed Herald’s mission in Isa 61:1-3. The third (and final) pair occurs here in the remainder of verse 2 and the first part of verse 3 (3ab). The Herald is sent by YHWH

“to breathe deep (with) all (the one)s mourning,
to set for (the) mourners of ‚iyyôn
beauty under [i.e. in place of] ashes,
oil of joy under a (look of) mourning,
a covering of praise under a dim spirit.”

Here the message is directed at those who are in mourning (root lba). The idea of mourning can be understood on several different levels. First, it may be related to the general experience of suffering and oppression within Judean society. Second, there is the context of the Exile, with the fresh memory of the destruction of the land (and the Temple) that gives occasion for continued mourning; according to v. 4, much of the territory remains in ruins, and a mid-5th century setting, prior to Nehemiah’s rebuilding work, seems likely. Third, within this post-exilic setting, an habitual practice of fasting and lamentation (mourning) came to typify a certain kind of religious devotion among Israelites and Jews.

All of these strands were beginning to come together in the early post-exilic period, and we find evidence for this in a number of writings of this time. In addition to passages in the Trito-Isaian poems (e.g., 57:18; 58:1-12; 66:10), we may note, for example, certain established practices of mourning and fasting in Zech 7:1-7ff; 8:18-19 (cf. also Mal 3:14; Blenkinsopp, p. 225). There is an underlying sense that the mourning relates not only to past tragedy, but also in hope of the glorious future that has yet to be realized for God’s people.

The verb <j^n` fundamentally means “breathe deep, sigh”, often in the sense of finding relief. The message is thus similar to that which opens the Deutero-Isaian poems (in 40:1ff), where the same verb is used. The Prophet tells the people to “breathe deep”, for they are about to find relief from their suffering and misfortune. It was not enough for the people of Judah to be allowed to return to their land; the current conditions of poverty and oppression must be eliminated, so that a New Age may truly dawn for Judah and Jerusalem.

Here the force of the infinitive <j@n~l= may be understood either as “to cause [them] to breathe deep” or “to breathe deep [with them]”. I tend to prefer the latter, emphasizing the relationship of the Herald to the people; it is comparable to his healing work among them in “binding/wrapping” the ‘wounds’ of their broken hearts.

The first line is comprehensive (“all the mourners”), while the second focuses on the central place (and symbolic location) of the city of Jerusalem. The term ‚iyyôn (Zion) can refer to the city as a whole, but more properly to the ancient hilltop site that served as the location for the Temple complex. Verse 4 suggests that much of Jerusalem is still in ruins, and the reality of the early post-exilic period remains far removed from the promise of Jerusalem’s future glory in the New Age of Israel’s restoration (cf. verses 5-7, 10-11, and the great poems in chapters 60 and 62).

There are many Judeans (and Jews in the subsequent centuries) who mourn for what has been lost, in the hope of what is yet to come. As time passed, the eschatological orientation of this hope became increasingly more prominent, and the Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems exercised a tremendous influence on Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The idea of “comfort”, expressed here (and in 40:1ff, etc), was understood in terms of the end-time appearance of God’s Anointed (Messiah), as the expressions in Luke 2:25 and 38, for example, make clear.

The second infinitive is <wcl* (“to set/put”), indicating that the Herald is to establish something for the “mourners of Zion”. There is evidence of (possible) textual corruption here, since the same basic action is repeated with an additional infinitive (<h#l* tt@l*, “to give to them”). I have tentatively followed Blenkinsopp (p. 219) and other scholars who omit this phrase; however, it may well be original.

In any case, what the Herald is to “set/put” (or “give”) for the mourners follows in verse 3, in a sequence of prepositional phrases. Each phrase involves the preposition tj^T^, literally “under, beneath”, but often used in the more abstract sense of “in place of” or “in exchange for”. Let us briefly consider each of these three exchanges:

    1. Instead of ashes (rp#a@) scattered on the head (as a gesture of mourning), there will be something beautiful (ra@P=)—probably to be understood as a grand ornamental head-covering (turban, etc).
    2. Instead of the overall look and appearance of a mourner (lb#a@), dark and disheveled, their faces and bodies will be treated with fine oil, and will shine bright and cheerful.
    3. Instead of an appearance that reflects the dimness/darkness of their spirit (within), they will be given a new garment (covering/wrapping) that reflects a new spirit—one that will utter a shout of praise (hL*h!T=) rather than a cry of mourning.

The detail of this imagery may be a bit obscure (to us), but the overall idea is clear enough. The people will be transformed, from mourners into joyful worshipers. The only way such a transformation can take place is if conditions change. At the same time, the very promise of this coming change (embodied in the Herald’s message) may be sufficient to completely alter the outlook of God’s people.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 19B (2003).

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