Light from the Sidra

Va'etchanan ('And I implored') 9 August 2014. 13 Av 5774.

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Four years ago, Sir Tom Jones surprised his fans by releasing Praise and Blame, a ‘gospel’ album. In a radio interview he spoke of the inspiration for the record. It had recently dawned on him, Sir Tom said, that the hymns he sang as a child in the chapels of the valleys of South Wales were actually ‘gospel’ songs. The Welsh chapels, it seems, were ahead of their time!

The term ‘Gospel’ comes from ‘God-spell’, an old English word meaning Good News. This week’s Haftarah begins with God’s command to anyone and everyone to proclaim Good News to Jerusalem: ‘Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak consolingly of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her period [of exile] has been completed, that her iniquity has been forgiven; for she has received double for all her sins from the hand of HASHEM.’

The Good News is a message of comfort and consolation that begins with a declaration that Jerusalem’s ‘period of exile’ has ended. Tsava, the Hebrew word translated ‘period of exile’ in the Artscroll version of the Tanakh actually means ‘hard labour’. In the first 30 chapters of Isaiah, the visions and prophecies are of divine retribution for the sins of Israel. The people had served other gods, refusing to obey the voice HASHEM, and they were to suffer the consequences. Idolatry was an attractive proposition for the Jews because the gods of the nations didn’t care how their devotees lived so long as they brought the occasional sacrifice. Sex was also a prominent feature of many ancient religions.

The God of Israel, on the other hand, wanted his people to love him with their whole being and to love others as they loved themselves. He expected his people were to be holy because he, their God, was holy. Israel’s exile in Babylon would teach the Jewish people that life under the gods of the nations was hard labour and as Isaiah looked into the future he saw the time when Israel’s exile would come to an end. Through Isaiah, HASHEM calls out to everyone in general and no one in particular to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that Jerusalem’s period of hard service was over.

When we read 2 Chronicles 36 we can see why Israel’s God sent his people into exile:

All the officers among the Kohanim and the people were exceedingly treacherous, like all the abominations of the nations. And they contaminated the Temple of the HASHEM which he had sanctified in Jerusalem… they only insulted the messengers of God and scorned his words and taunted his prophets, until the wrath of the HASHEM rose up against his people without remedy.

God’s people were unfaithful to their God. There was no remedy for their sins but then, out of the blue, comes the consoling word that Jerusalem’s hard labour is over because her sins have been forgiven or, more accurately, ‘paid for’. But how could the sins of Israel be paid for if, according to Leviticus 17:11, HASHEM had assigned sacrificial blood to atone for Israel’s sins and the Temple had lain in ruins for seven decades?

Jerusalem’s sins were paid for because she had ‘received double for all her sins from the hand of HASHEM.’ This is a puzzling verse because it sounds as though God had punished Israel twice as much as her sins deserved. How could ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:25) be so unrighteous? It is unthinkable that HASHEM would inflict double punishment on anyone. A number of suggestions have been put forward by the Sages of Israel to explain the seeming incongruity. Rabbi David Kimchi, for example, suggested that Israel suffered two exiles; one for her own sins and another for the sins of her ancestors. The Targum, on the other hand, says God’s consolation was as great as if Israel had suffered double what she actually did suffer. Those explanations are unsatisfactory for the simple reason that the Hebrew word for ‘double’ is not mishneh but kephel, which means ‘to fold double’.

I once read that in Bible times if a man was unable to repay a debt, the one to whom he owed the money would post the record of his debt at the city gate. If someone was rich enough and kind enough to pay the poor man’s debt, the bill was doubled over and nailed in the city gate so all could see the debt had been paid. But if that is the explanation, with what did HASHEM pay off the sins of Jerusalem so the nation could receive the double?

Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah explain the way in which the iniquities of Israel had been paid for and Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 provides the basis for this Good News. Isaiah 40:2 states that ‘the hand of HASHEM’ accomplishes Israel’s forgiveness while chapter 53 speaks of ‘the arm of HASHEM’ bringing about Israel’s redemption. The arm of HASHEM in Isaiah 53 is God’s righteous servant who was ‘pained because of [Israel’s] rebellious sins and oppressed through [Israel’s] iniquities; the chastisement upon him was for [Israel’s] benefit that brought us peace, and through his wounds [Israel was] healed. [All Israel have] strayed like sheep, each of us turning to his own way; and HASHEM’ inflicted upon him the iniquity of us all... From his very own toil he will see and be satisfied. With his knowledge My servant, the righteous one, will make multitudes; it is their iniquities he will carry.’

In the Second Temple period a rabbi named Shaul wrote to a congregation of Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus the Messiah. They lived in the city of Colossae in western Turkey and in the letter Shaul appears to draw on the cultural background of the ‘double’ in Isaiah 40:2 when he speaks to the Gentile members of the congregation: ‘And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with [Jesus the Messiah], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.’

I find it astonishing that many Jewish people imagine ‘the Gospel’ is Gentile. Nothing could be more Jewish than the Good News that the Messiah took the guilt of the Jewish people on his own shoulders in order that Israel’s hard service might come to an end. Why do Jewish people take offence when Gentiles like me who have found forgiveness through their Messiah answer the call of God to declare his message of comfort to his people? Why do they feel threatened by Gentiles who announce the way of peace to them? It can only be because the Jewish people have been conditioned to believe they must atone for their own sins. But according to Isaiah sin is so serious that only the hand of God can ‘double’ their bill of debt; the guilt of iniquity is so heavy that only the ‘arm of the Lord’, the Messiah, is strong enough to bear it away.

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