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Politics of Scripture

Redemption as Creation in the Cosmic Empire

In casting the return from exile as a new exodus, Second Isaiah activates an ambiguity in an ancient poem in light of new political realities.

Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Isaiah 43:16–21

Isaiah 40–55 contains prophecies that most scholars attribute to “Second Isaiah,” an anonymous prophet in the late sixth century BCE—a couple hundred years after Isaiah himself. This was a time of momentous political upheaval. Achaemenid Persia, led by Cyrus the Great, had vanquished the Neo-Babylonian empire, which half a century earlier had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled Judah. Cyrus initiated the process of restoring the Judahites to their land. Second Isaiah’s optimistic prophecies (chapters 40–48) reflect the excitement and promise attending to Cyrus’s proclamation. According to the prophet, the God who inexplicably let his own people be exiled by one world empire was now working through another in order to redeem them.

Second Isaiah’s visions of imminent redemption feature some of the most powerful poetry in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps his boldest image is his presentation of the return from Babylonia as a new exodus. The parallel is intuitive enough: the God who took Israel out of slavery will now take them out of exile. The passage excerpted in this week’s lectionary points us in that direction by referring to God as the one “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16)—a reference to the miraculous crossing of the sea (Exodus 14–15).

However, things take a surprising turn. Second Isaiah clarifies that the restoration from Babylonia is not simply a new exodus. It is, to wit, a new and improved exodus: “Do not remember the former things,” God urges, “or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18–19). God’s latter-day act of redemption will so put its historical model to shame that, paradoxically, the model itself will no longer be worth recalling at all. The national identity of God’s “chosen people” (Isaiah 43:20)—whom God calls “the people whom I formed for myself” (Isaiah 43:21)—will forevermore be rooted in this new redemptive event.

This passage raises questions about memory and history that are deeply political, for there is always a political dimension in how communities understand their present in terms of their past. As an entryway into these questions, I’d like to focus on the political stakes of a single phrase: God’s reference to Israel as “the people whom I formed (‘am zu yatsarti).” The word yatsar (“form”) recalls creation: in the story of the Garden of Eden, God “formed” (vayyitser) Adam and, by extension, humanity as a whole (Genesis 2:7). What should we make of this integration of creational language into the exodus motif that dominates this prophecy? What does it mean for Second Isaiah to apply this language to a redeemed people (‘am) as opposed to an individual or humanity?

Like the divine epithet at the beginning of the passage, the phrase “the people whom I formed” is an allusion to a pivotal moment in the exodus: the crossing of the sea—and specifically, the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sing after the crossing (Exodus 15:1–18). The Song depicts the exodus as God’s military triumph over Egypt, culminating in the establishment of a sanctuary upon a patrimonial mountain. “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” Israel famously (and rhetorically) asks. “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). The language and structure of the Song are archaic, recalling other ancient Near Eastern mythological poetry. For this reason, scholars widely regard the Song as among the oldest texts in the entire Bible—one that eventually assumed an architectonic role, shaping and undergirding numerous later biblical texts.

When Second Isaiah has God refer to Israel as “the people whom I formed” (‘am zu yatsarti), he is echoing Israel’s self-identification in the Song as “the people whom you [i.e., God] acquired (‘am zu qanita)” (Exodus 15:16). While this might seem iffy as far as allusions go, the word zu is a smoking gun. This archaic relative particle (“that,” “which”—in this case, “whom”) fits naturally with the other archaic features of Exodus 15 but is linguistically out of place in the sixth-century Hebrew of Second Isaiah. His usage of the word in conjunction with “people” (‘am) suggests an effort to call the Song and this specific phrase to mind by means of unusual diction—like how the word “score” in conjunction with any measure of time and any number immediately directs contemporary Americans’ ears to the Gettysburg Address. The broader exodus framing of the prophetic passage sets the allusion beyond doubt.

Second Isaiah’s allusion configures a parallel between God’s “formation” (yatsar) and “acquisition” (qanah) of Israel. While this is puzzling in English, it’s evocative in Hebrew. The word qanah can indeed mean “acquire” (or “redeem”), especially by purchase, as in the notice, “the field that Abraham purchased (qanah) from the Hittites” (Genesis 25:10). Yet it can also mean “create,” as when Melchizedek declares, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker (qoneh) of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19).

It might seem obvious that “acquire” is the operative meaning in the Song of the Sea, since it fits squarely with the theme: God liberates Israel from their enslavement to Egypt by acquiring them as God’s own “slaves,” as it were (cf. Leviticus 25:55). Indeed, earlier in the poem, the Israelites call themselves “the people whom you redeemed (‘am zu ga’alta)” (Exodus 15:12)—a direct parallel to the phrase in question. By contrast, the creational valence of qanah seems considerably less relevant—even if it’s semantically possible. We might therefore justifiably assume that when Second Isaiah has God say “the people whom I formed,” he is ingeniously seizing upon an ambiguity in the Song that is ultimately incidental in its original context.

However, the mythological background of the Song complicates this picture. The ancient Near Eastern analogues tell of how a strapping young storm-god won the divine throne by defeating the sea-god in mortal combat. These poems combine political and creational motifs, intertwining the establishment of a new political order with the ordering of the cosmos itself. This is clearest in the Babylonian Enuma Elish: Marduk literally fashions the earth out of the slain body of the defeated sea-goddess, Tiamat. The language and structure of the Song of the Sea are firmly set within this creational frame. God appears as a storm-god whose mighty winds blast the water. The enemy whom God defeats, Pharaoh, assumes the sea’s violent, chaotic features (cf. Ezekiel 29:3–5); interestingly, the sea itself becomes God’s weapon for doing so.

The creational overtones in the Song of the Sea suggest that the duality of qanah is intentional. God’s establishment of political dominance over Pharaoh by acquiring Israel is coextensive with God’s (re)establishment of cosmic order by creating Israel. Second Isaiah intuits and activates this duality.

In the era in which the Song of the Sea emerged, the prevailing political paradigm was a plurality of local kingships. The Song conceives the heavenly realm on this model. God has a unique claim to one people and one land but is one of many gods, with whom Israel favorably compares their own: “Who is like you among the gods?” By the time of Second Isaiah, this localized paradigm was ancient history. Judah had come under the dominion of true empires whose rule encompassed the whole known world. There was now only one king: the emperor—first an Assyrian one, then a Babylonian one, and now a Persian one.

In this brave new world, figuring God as a local king was neither impressive nor even coherent. Second Isaiah took the logical step: he made God an emperor. “I am the LORD, and there is no other,” God tells Cyrus, putting the earthly emperor in his place. “Besides me there is no god … So that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:5–6). Attempts to pinpoint this as the advent of “monotheism” often misguidedly efface its fundamental politicalness. Isaiah takes typical imperial coordinates—east to west, i.e., the known world—and arrogates them to God. In the process, he cosmologizes them: the world becomes the universe. God’s claim to this world is established not through conquest (as is Cyrus’s) but through creation: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:8). God is the true emperor, the cosmos itself the true empire.

We may now appreciate how and why Second Isaiah’s activation of the creation motif in the Song of the Sea coheres with his assertion of a new, utterly unprecedented exodus. The political background has changed the stakes: whereas the original exodus was a triumph over one local (if still powerful) king, the new restoration-qua-exodus is a triumph over the purported ruler of the whole world. In this way, it is indeed more impressive and consequential. God’s reconstitution of the covenant people amounts to the improbable achievement of “do[ing] a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) amid imperial stasis and totality. This is why Second Isaiah, drawing on ancient tradition, presents it as the ultimate, paradigmatic “new thing”: creation.

Today, our world is awash with anticipation—some eager, some wary—of a shift in the global political order. How does one do political theology amid such a shift? Second Isaiah’s reimagination of the exodus provides one compelling model. The fact that our own political realities do not align with those of our traditions does not mean that those traditions are irrelevant. On the contrary, careful and critical engagement with them may yield insights that are generative precisely because they emerged from a different political context. In this relief, Second Isaiah’s conception of redemption as creation is fitting: it mirrors the act of renewal inherent in his own interpretation of the tradition. His prophecies may continue to inspire hope not only in their uplifting content but also in their promise that creative acts of interpretation remain possible and redemptive in a changing, challenging world.

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