Light from the Sidra

Vaetchanan (And I pleaded...)

Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Haftarah: Isaiah: 40:1-26

Gods Big Book of Comfort

Seven-and-a-half years ago our beautiful, talented 27 year old daughter died of a brain tumour. People tried to comfort me and my wife with nice thoughts and advice and with books and with clippings from magazines. We knew they were trying their best to be helpful but when you’ve lost a child nothing can really comfort you. I’m glad, however, no one gave us a copy of A Little Book of Comfort, written in 1995 by A G Guest. Little books are no use to you when you’ve had a part of your life ripped away from you. Some grief is so deep that a God-sized book of comfort is what you need. And Isaiah provides that very book for Israel.

Last week was Shabbat Chazon; this week it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, when Isaiah 40 is read in shul. And what a contrast to last week’s reading it is! Isaiah 40 is the opening chapter of the second part of Isaiah and it is so different in content from the first 39 chapters that critical scholars believe it was written by another Isaiah after the exile. The critics are wrong in their judgement but there is a contrast between the content of chapters 1 to 39 and chapters 40 to 66. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah focus generally on the sins of Israel and the coming judgement God, while the last 27 chapters are largely full of, well, comfort. They comprise Gods Big Book of Comfort.

The second part of Isaiah begins with a call to no one in particular and everyone in general to comfort God's people. That, in itself, is a comfort; in spite of all her failings and sins the Jewish people remain God's people. But, more than that, when we turn to chapter 40, we find God announcing that the sins God denounced from the very first chapter and for which he would punish Israel, have been forgiven. Since God literally keeps saying to whoever hears the call to comfort his people, I’m trying in this article to comfort Jewish people by unpacking the very message of comfort pronounced by God.

What could possibly be said that could comfort a people who have seen their capital city burned to the ground, the cream of Judea’s population deported and the place where earth and heaven met and where atonement for sins was to be found, razed to the ground? And how could the nation’s sins be atoned for when the place of sacrifice had been taken away? What comfort could be given to such a people? What comfort can be given?

The answer is to be found in the first two verses of Isaiah 40.

First, Israel’s God says his peoples hard service, is over. Those words are a prophetic declaration to a future generation, the generation in exile because of their sins. But even after the decree of the Persian king Cyrus in a sense liberated the Jews from their captivity, most of them continued to live in Babylon. According to the thinking of many Orthodox Jews, therefore, the exile, the Galut, will not be over until Messiah comes and restores the Jews to their own land. I once read that many slaves in the southern states of America refused to believe the news of their liberation and continued to work on their plantations. Most Jews today continue to live in spiritual servitude because they don’t realise that their freedom has come; that their hard service is over.

Second, the hard service of God's people is over because her iniquity has been paid off. How could the iniquity of an entire nation be paid off? When Isaiah received this revelation from God the first temple was still standing and it was in that temple that every year on Yom Kippur two goats were taken, one for YHWH and the other for Azazel, as the means of atonement for the nation. But those two sacrifices could never pay off Israel’s sin, which is why the entire atonement ritual had to be repeated annually. Isaiah was foretelling a time when a final sacrifice would be offered to clear Israel’s debt finally, fully and for ever. Because the last 27 chapters of Isaiah are all interrelated, chapter 53 is crucial for understanding how Israel’s debt to God was paid. Chapter 53 introduces us to a righteous servant of YHWH. The servant is not Israel because although Israel is God's servant, in chapter 46:12, the nation is stubborn of heart and far from righteousness. But the servant in Isaiah 53 is a high priest who carries the sins of Israel and makes intercession for transgressors; he like the goat for Azazel that symbolically carried Israel’s sins into the wilderness on Yom Kippur. The servant does that not symbolically but actually.

Third, the debt of Israel has been paid off because she has received the double for her sins. The three words of comfort have to be taken together. The hard service of Israel is over because her debt has been paid, and her debt has been paid because she has received the double. Or you can see it, if you like, as the same thing being said in three different ways. What the verse does not mean, as some English translations of the Bible suggest, is that Israel was punished twice as much as her sins merited. If that were the case, there could be no talk of justice and forgiveness. God does not forgive by making us suffer for our sins. Punishment is designed to bring us to a place of repentance so he can freely forgive but suffering itself does not achieve forgiveness.

The Hebrew word translated double is not mishneh – double – but kephel – meaning fold over. In the ancient world of the Bible, when a debt was paid the outstanding bill was folded over to indicate that such was the case. The door of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was folded double and the priests could enter it only after they had atoned for their sins; after they had, as it were, paid off their debts to God.

But who would pay off the debt of Israel? Who could pay off the debt a whole nation owed to God? And with what do you pay of a debt of obedience and a debt of love? Disobedience can’t be paid off with obedience because we owe God obedience any way. It’s funny the way people think that all God requires of us is to do good things. A marriage can’t be based on doing good things: Yes darling, I admit I had a bit of a fling with the blonde from Accounts but yesterday I rescued a cat from a tree. Surely that counts for something.

But that was how Israel in the time of Isaiah reasoned. Do what you like so long as you offer the required sacrifices and say the right prayers. And that is still the way most people think about the relationship between themselves and their Creator.

The debt Israel owed God was infinite and only God could pay it off. In Genesis 3 we saw that the penalty for disobedience to God is death, which is why we all die. Only a death of infinite value could satisfy God and no human could ever offer to God a life of infinite value (and let’s not try to kid ourselves that every human life has infinite value). Just suppose God could become human (after all, he is God and nothing is impossible for God) and let’s suppose he did that for the purpose of living a perfect life of love and obedience on behalf of his people. And suppose he then offered up his life voluntarily as a substitute for those whose deserve death because of their sins. If that happened, God could forgive us freely and restore us to himself because his pure, holy and perfect blood would have been spilt on behalf of his enemies. Having lived a life perfect in every detail, keeping the Torah not only in letter but also in spirit, a perfect life of love to both God and man, he could then take on himself the responsibility for our sins and die in our place.

What’s that? God wouldn’t do that? He wouldn’t become one of us? He wouldn’t love us enough to do that? Then how great and mighty is your God? How loving is he? If he can’t or won’t do that for us, how different is he to the idols worshipped by the nations?

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