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Politics of Scripture

Whose past? Which memories? A counter-reading of Isaiah 65

The promise of a new world, all memories of suffering erased, seems like a gift. But for

17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Isaiah 65:17-25

The final holiday of the fall Jewish “holiday season” is Simchat Torah, “Joy of the Torah,” and it marks an ending and a beginning. Simchat Torah celebrates the end of the yearly cycle of communal Torah readings, when the last words of Deuteronomy are chanted – and then, almost immediately, followed by the first chapter of Genesis. Like Moses, the reader and congregation stand poised to enter the promised land: “The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’” (Deut 34:4a). And every year, it is denied to him, and us. Moses’ strange and lonely death is followed not by the opening words of the book of Joshua – “Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” – but by the cosmic chaos of Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

The post-biblical Jewish customs of Simchat Torah suggest that nothing is exempt from memory: even the very creation of the universe is read with the story of Moses’ death still ringing in our ears, lest, perhaps, we imagine that the beginning of the Torah is a communal blank slate as opposed to another episode in a long, ongoing story. And I introduce my reflection this way in hopes of communicating how truly radical, and rather bizarre, I find Isaiah’s famous prophecy in chapter 65: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). 

Not be remembered? Not come to mind? Since when has Isaiah’s God thought it possible, let alone valuable, to forget what has come before? The Israelites’ God rarely misses an opportunity to remind his people where they have gone wrong, and how devastating these sins are: “Remember; do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place” (Deut 9:7). And yet the flight from Egypt was also made by memory, as when the enslaved Israelites cry out for help: “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24). The inability or unwillingness of this God to allow forgetting – his own, or the Israelites,’ – seems to be constitutive of the covenant, both blessing and curse. 

Reflecting on Isaiah 65 this way, we are already speaking of what theorists now might call the “politics of memory,” even before we step outside the biblical text. How communal memories are undermined or sustained; who is permitted to remember what; who has the power to set agendas of remembrance; how, or if, we honor some historical past–these are eminently political questions suggested by the passage. 

I take it to be uncontroversial that disputes about memory are always political. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where disputes about the past–whose past, which memories–came violently to life in disputes over the prominently displayed statues of Confederate Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Advocates for the maintenance of the statues as important purveyors of southern historical memory also suggested, with no irony, that citizens clamoring for the “right to remember” the atrocities of slavery and its enduring legacy should move on from the past. I live in the United States, whose carefully curated founding myths preserve and shape some accounts of the nation’s colonial past while utterly rejecting the collective memory of the indigenous peoples virtually annihilated by white settlement on the continent. And I belong to a people whose collective modern remembrances–of the Holocaust and the destruction of most European Jews, the violent founding of the State of Israel, and the relationship between the two–emphatically make claims about whose memories are legitimate and which catastrophes matter. And, of course, my description of these three instances itself reflects my own political conclusions!

In the case of Isaiah 65, the vision of newness we read is emphatically not a neutral picture of either past or future. We are told that sounds of rejoicing will replace the sounds of pain and weeping; we read that life will be very long, and joyfully so; we see the image of those famous animal antagonists, the wolf and the lamb, eating together. And we read these beautiful and evocative words: 

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat,
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

Isaiah 65:21-23

Isaiah is a prophet of the exile, and no doubt the immediate context of this late chapter in Isaiah’s prophecy is to console the Israelites in their exilic suffering, to assure them that restoration is at hand. But this is not the first time this promise has appeared in the Bible. The difference in the following two contexts brings the politics of memory into sharp relief.

In Deuteronomy 28, as Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the promised land, they hear in great detail the curses that will befall them if (when) they depart from God’s commands, in terms that the reader of Isaiah 65 will find quite familiar: “You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard but not enjoy its fruit. Your ox shall be butchered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it. Your donkey shall be stolen in front of you and shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies without anyone to help you” (Deut 28:30-31). This is precisely the language of Isaiah 65, only inverted. Deuteronomy warns the Israelites of their displacement, their homes, fields, and most intimate relationships interrupted and exploited by others; Isaiah serves as a triumphant conclusion, reassuring them that such a fate will never befall them again. Indeed, the disaster of displacement may be forgotten altogether in this radical and hopeful vision.

But another invocation of this same fate, also from Deuteronomy, is strikingly different. Note the essential shift here, as Moses instructs the Israelites how they should know God: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build,  houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut 6:10-12).

The language of displacement and dispossession is precisely the same, but here, the Israelites will be doing it to others. It is some other people who will watch as their houses are occupied, and their vineyards and wells become food and drink for others. There is a catastrophe described here, but it is not the Israelites who will suffer. Will the Israelites, promised “new heavens and a new earth” by Isaiah, recall this moment too? Do Isaiah’s words evoke any memories of their triumphant conquest of the land, when to dwell in homes built by others was a sign of God’s favor, not his rage?

It is one thing to be told that your new life will be awash in joy, that even a God obsessed with remembering will allow you to forget what you have suffered. It is quite another to be permitted, or encouraged, to forget what pain you have inflicted upon others, or to remember it only in terms of your own gain and not another’s loss. In these latter circumstances, the promise that “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” could seem rather less joyful for those who cannot, or do not wish to, forget what has befallen them. To be presented with a new world, memories of suffering erased, is not necessarily a gift.

This pessimistic reading, skeptical of the vision Isaiah offers, is surely not the only way to read the passage, nor must it necessarily last beyond any given moment of biblical reading or hearing. But the reading at least invites us to consider some possible difficulties with the promise of “new heavens and a new earth,” where the suffering of the past “shall not be remembered or come to mind.” In this biblical text, who eagerly embraces the chance to put away memories – and who might demand to hold fast to their memories of suffering? To that end, we might consider the pointed questions of Robert Allen Warrior, professor of American literature and member of the Osage Nation, in his essay on biblical conquests and Native American theology: “Is there a god, a spirit, who will hear us and stand with us in the Amazon, Osage County, and Wounded Knee? Is there a god, a spirit, able to move among the pain and anger of Nablus, Gaza, and Soweto?” For them to be included in Isaiah’s vision for the Israelites might require far more remembering, not less. 

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