God in Exile

Seventh Haftarah of Comfort, Isaiah 61:10–63:9

At the great turning-point of Moses’ life—which was also a great turning point for the entire nation of Israel languishing in Egyptian captivity—God chose to speak to Moses from out of a thorn-bush of all places. Why not from the wide blue sky, or the starry heavens at night, out there in the wilderness? Or why not from the mountain top, or at least from some big, impressive tree? But a thorn-bush?

The Midrash records a long discussion on this question and here’s my favorite response:

It says in the Prophets: In all their affliction he was afflicted (Isa. 63:9). God said to Moses: “Do you not realize that I live in trouble just as Israel live in trouble? Know from the place whence I speak unto you—from a thorn-bush—that I am a partner in their trouble.” (Exodus Rabbah 2.5)

The Midrash is citing the final verse in the Haftarot of Comfort, which we’ve been reading the past seven weeks. It’s the bottom line to Isaiah’s whole message of hope and consolation for Israel.

In all their affliction he was afflicted,

And the angel of his presence saved them;

In his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

And he bore them and carried them all the days of old.

Now, before we consider this bottom line in more detail, I should let you know that this translation—“in all their affliction he was afflicted”—is disputed and it may read differently in some of your Bibles. But we’re building on the traditional Jewish understanding as reflected in the midrash above, which goes back to the early centuries of this era. Still some readers have a hard time with this translation because it’s just hard to think of a God who suffers, who doesn’t always bail us out of the bad times, but instead goes through them with us. Still this translation is right for two big reasons:

  1. It’s consistent with the entire second half of Isaiah, which looks ahead to the Babylonian exile and God’s promise to return the exiles and restore Jerusalem. This section of Isaiah opens with the words, “Nachamu nachamu ami—comfort, yes, comfort my people!” because the time of restoration is at hand. Then Isaiah hears a voice crying out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isa. 40:3-5)

This highway through the desert leads back to Jerusalem, and what will be seen on it? Not people, but the Lord’s glory. Isaiah sees heralds stationed on the high places around Jerusalem, announcing God’s return on this highway (40:9-10). If God is returning, where has he been? In exile with his people! That’s an amazing idea and a great source of comfort. God goes with his people, even into exile: “In all their affliction he was afflicted.”

  1. This vision of God in exile is also true to the rest of this verse:

And the angel of his presence saved them;

In his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

And he bore them and carried them all the days of old.

The angel of his presence appears elsewhere as the “Angel of the Lord,” which brings us back to the burning bush story. There “the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush,” and then “God called to him from the midst of the bush” (Ex. 3:2ff). Is it the Angel or the Lord calling to Moses? It’s hard to distinguish between them, and that’s exactly the point. God is so involved in Israel’s redemption that he came to them as the angel or messenger of his very presence—and “bore them and carried them” himself.

What kind of God is this? He’s a God who won’t insure us against all possible disasters, who won’t provide an alternate route around all the possible setbacks and defeats. But he will go into the disaster ahead of us and carry us through. He’s a God who doesn’t keep his distance from his people, even if we’re headed in the wrong direction, a God-in-exile who sends a Messiah-in-exile to gather us back to himself.

So if Messiah Yeshua is exiled—unrecognized, cast out, a source of embarrassment among his people Israel—he’s still our Messiah, the key to our redemption. If we’re loyal to this exiled Messiah, we should be as loyal as he is to the people from whom he’s exiled. As followers of Messiah, we don’t separate ourselves from our Jewish people, but we remain in and among them to welcome Messiah back into our midst. We express our faith in Messiah, and invite other Jews to join us, in ways that honor and support the Jewish people and our tradition. And we’ll be there to join in welcoming Messiah back at his return, when we say, Baruch ha-ba b’shem Adonai, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 23:39).

So how exactly do we remain true to God-in-exile? Isaiah gave three directives to those who remained true in his day, which can help us remain true in ours:

  1. Stand firm. To claim this dual loyalty to Israel and to the Messiah who is currently in exile from Israel is not the most popular or polite option around. It requires us to stand firm against the social and religious currents pushing against us, the forces of assimilation and relativism, just as the faithful remnant in Isaiah stood firm against the social-religious tide of their day.
  2. Take the long view. Isaiah’s remnant wasn’t disheartened by the reversals and difficulties at hand, but looked far into the future to see the renewal that God would bring. So should we. We are still struggling to see a multi-generational Jewish people movement for Yeshua. We are living in times of great peril for Israel. We need to fight the good fight, but always with a vision of the promised restoration, which Isaiah repeats many times over.
  3. Find God’s joy. It’s striking how often Isaiah reminds the faithful remnant to rejoice in the midst of all their tzuris. They face all kinds of temptations and hardships, but in the Lord they have an endless source of all they need. So for us: don’t get sucked into the false joys of materialism and secularism, but also don’t get sucked into a joyless world-rejection. Joy is evidence of God’s presence amidst the gloom and doom of our times. Taking the long view doesn’t mean escape from such circumstances, but living amidst them with strength and positivity.

On that note, since we opened with the final verse of this week’s haftarah, let’s conclude with the opening words: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God! (Is. 61:10).

 

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