Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Ki Tetze (‘When you go out . . .’)

Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19. Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1–10

It’s complicated

Romantic comedies are popular fare in Hollywood. From the bits and pieces I’ve seen, they seem to follow a standard boy-meets-girl scenario, followed by a series of complex twists and turns, at the end of which the young couple live together happily ever after. In 2009, the film It’s Complicated added a new twist to the standard rom-com plot. It featured a middle-aged divorced couple almost getting together again following an unexpected one-night stand. It’s funny (pardon the pun) though not unexpected in today’s moral and spiritual climate that a movie plot many people found hilarious is abhorrent to God.


A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house; she leaves his household and becomes the wife of another man; then this latter man rejects her, writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house; or the man who married her last dies. Then the first husband who divorced her shall not take her to wife again, since she has been defiled [that is: disqualified for him]—for that would be abhorrent to the LORD. You must not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage. (Dt 24:1-4, Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text)

 

You couldn’t get a clearer than that and yet, in the Haftarah, God does something similar with regard to his people Israel:


The LORD has called you back as a wife forlorn and forsaken. Can one cast off the wife of his youth?—said your God. For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love. (Is. 54:6-8 Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures)


God comforts Israel with the news that although he sent her away (which a man does when he divorces his wife) into exile, he had not cast her away forever or divorced her. Although men in Israel were forbidden to take back the wives they sent away, Yahweh would take his bride back. Unlike a human ketuvah, his covenant with Israel is written on stone and cannot be torn up. Even though Moses broke the stone ketuvah after Israel committed spiritual adultery with the golden calf in Exodus 32, God inscribed the Ten Commandments on a second set of tablets (Ex. 34:1-4), declaring to Moses that he was ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. . .’ (Ex. 34:6,7 Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures).


The eleventh chapter of the Letter to Roman Christians in the New Testament reiterates God’s covenant faithfulness to the Jewish people: ‘I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!’


Now here’s where things get really complicated. In Isaiah 54, Yahweh declares himself to be a husband who will take back his wife after finding something obnoxious in her. But in the same breath, God portrays Israel as a barren woman whose husband has died and he, as her Go’el, her Redeemer, will raise up so many children for her that she will have to enlarge her tent.


In ancient Israel, the Redeemer was usually the firstborn in the family. On his shoulders fell the responsibility of avenging family blood. When a member of the family was murdered it was the redeemer’s duty to exact blood vengeance on the guilty party.
Secondly, the redeemer was also responsible for securing property that had been lost to the family through debt (this was probably why the firstborn inherited a double portion of the family wealth).


Thirdly, the redeemer has duty bound to fulfil the law of the levirate and to act as the protector of widows in the family. If a woman was widowed and childless, it was the responsibility of the nearest kinsman to take her as his wife and raise up a family on behalf of his deceased brother (probably another reason why the firstborn was granted a double portion in the father’s will). In Isaiah 54, Yahweh promises to save Jerusalem from her widowhood and to raise up children for her.


Jerusalem is not only a rejected wife whose angry husband takes her back again in love but also a widow redeemed by Yahweh. Not only is God going to give his marriage to Israel a second chance, he is also going to take Zion as a childless widow and give her children. But how is it possible to reconcile two apparently mixed metaphors? How could Jerusalem become a widow? How could her divine Husband die? Call it a metaphor if you like but metaphors mean something. Rashi, in his comments on Isaiah 54, simply ignores verses 4 and 5.


The answer is found in the prophecies regarding the Righteous Servant who is sent to restore the tribes of Jacob to Yahweh:


And now the LORD has resolved—He who formed me in the womb to be His servant—to bring back Jacob to Himself, that Israel may be restored to Him. And I have been honoured in the sight of the LORD, my God has been my strength. For He has said: It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Is. 49:5,6)


When God brings Israel back to himself through his servant, it will result in God’s salvation reaching the ends of the earth. The servant in this passage is the righteous servant of chapter 53 who, like the goat for Azazel on Yom Kippur, bears the sins of Israel for the nation’s shalom. His sufferings at the hand of Yahweh as an ‘offering for guilt (v. 10) set the context for the redemption of widowed Israel in chapter 54.


The righteous servant in chapter 53 is the Messiah, who is called ‘Immanuel’ (God With Us) in chapter seven verse fourteen, and ‘Mighty God’ in 9:6. Israel’s Husband, the Mighty God, was going to be among his people as a Righteous Servant and would suffer and die for their sins. Having done that, he would rise from the dead and espouse them to himself in a way that would result in the salvation of the nations.


Saul of Tarsus, one of twelve followers of Jesus set apart to testify to Israel that Jesus was the Messiah, the Righteous Servant of the book of Isaiah, quotes extensively from the book of Isaiah to explain his mission to proclaim God’s salvation to the Gentiles. His eleven fellow apostles preached Jesus as the Redeemer of Israel almost exclusively to the Jews while Saul proclaimed him not only as Israel’s Redeemer but also the Saviour of the world.


Today, 2,000 years on, there are more Jews than ever who can testify to having been restored to their Husband-God, while the number of Gentiles who have experienced salvation from their sins through Jesus continues to grow by the day. There is not one way to God for Jews and another for Gentiles. Yahweh is the God of both Israel and the nations. All that is required of those who hear the message is that they repent and believe, and they will be saved.

 


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