Excerpt from the Book -- JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot
Haftarah for Lekh Lekha
ASHKENAZIM ISAIAH 40:27–41:16
SEPHARDIM ISAIAH 40:27–41:16
For a discussion of the prophecies and traditions in Isaiah 40–66 and a
consideration of their historical setting and theological concerns, see “The
Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66” in “Overview of Biblical Books Excerpted in the
Haftarot Cycle.” See also the remarks on the several haftarah readings taken
from this collection (listed in “Index of Biblical Passages”).
This haftarah is an appeal to the nation, seed of Abraham, to “trust in the
LORD” and return from exile to their homeland. The exhortations were delivered
in Babylon, sometime in themid-sixth century B.C.E. God’s power and providential
guidance are emphasized in order to assuage the nation’s fear that their “way”
is hidden from God. Through their faithful response, the people would thus renew
a redemptive journey undertaken by their ancestor Abraham a millenium earlier.
Isaiah 40:27–41:16 is composed of several passages of confidence and support.
Read as a sequence, there is an incremental progression from a divine word
encouraging the renewal of trust to bold promises of triumph against oppressors.
PART 1. DIVINE SUPPORT TO THE WEARY (Isaiah 40:27–31)
The divine word seeks to counter the people’s sense of despair and abandonment.
The nation is asked why they say, “My way is hid from the LORD.” This rhetorical
question is answered with a bold assertion that the LORD is the creator “from of
old”—great in wisdom, who “never grows faint [lo’ yi‘af] or weary.” Thus even
youths who “may grow faint [ve-yi‘afu] and weary” may be renewed through “trust
in the LORD”—and “not grow faint [ve-lo’ yi‘afu].”
PART 2. THE FEAR OF THE NATIONS (Isaiah 41:1–7)
a. Isaiah 41:1–4 This speech is addressed to all the nations, who are challenged
to state their case against God’s superior dominion. For indeed, He has
“delivered up nations” to a “victor from the East,” the one he has “summoned . .
. to His service [le-raglo]” proceeds “unscathed; no shackle is placed on his
feet [be-raglav].” The last verse recoups the theme of God’s universal power “He
who . . . was first and will be with the last.”
b. Isaiah 41:5–7 The nations respond with fear at the advent of God’s victor and
take courage through recourse to idols of their own making.
PART 3. GOD’S GUARANTEE (Isaiah 41:8–16)
a. Isaiah 41:8–13 The fear of the nations is countered by an oracle of
confidence to Israel. God promises the “Seed of Abraham My friend” His help and
support against its enemies. This promise of doom to Israel’s foes (v. 11–12) is
encased in God’s repeated word of protection (“Fear not” [v. 10]; “Have no fear”
b. Isaiah 41:14–16 A second oracle of confidence repeats the exhortation not to
fear and the promise of divine aid. Israel’s victory over her enemies is
pictured in images of threshing and winnowing. The haftarah concludes with the
promise of joyful celebration “in the LORD.”
CONTENT AND MEANING
Utilizing distinct styles and concerned with diverse themes, the oracles of the
haftarah were presumably uttered at different times. They were anthologized
together on the basis of external verbal links. For example, the language of
God’s proclamation to Israel in part 1, calling upon them to “renew their
strength” (yahalifu koah) through trust in the Lord (Isa. 40:31), is repeated
more ironically in part 2, where this call for renewal is part of a challenge to
the nations (41:1).1 Similarly, parts 2 and 3 are linked by references to God’s
“summons” or “call” (kara’) (41:2, 4, 9); by diverse uses of the verbs
“strengthen” (hazak) (41:6, 9, 13) and “help” (‘azar) (41:6, 10, 13, 14); and by
repetitions of the noun “victory” (tzedek) (41:2, 10). These two parts are also
characterized by the repeated self-reference of God as “I” (41:4, 10, 13–14).
Read as part of a larger whole, these verbal connections take on thematic
substance. Thus, the repetition of the term for “summons” brings into
association the themes of God as creator and redeemer—who “announces” the
generations from the beginning (Isa. 41:4), “summons” His victor from the East
(v. 2), and “calls” Israel from the ends of the earth (v. 9). Similarly, the
recurrence of the verb “strengthen” ironically contrasts the folly of the
idolators (41:7) and God’s support and restoration of Israel (v. 9, 13). And
finally, the repetition of the phrase ketzot ha-’aretz in parts 1–3,
alternatively describes God as creator “of the earth from end to end” (40:28);
the foreign nations themselves (“ends of earth”), who behold God’s victor in
fear and trembling (41:5); and God’s act of liberation of Israel from “the ends
of the earth,” to be His servant (41:9). In the repetition of this phrase all
the themes of the haftarah are encapsulated—God as creator, victor over the
nations, and redeemer of Israel.
A deeper psychological sequence can also be discerned among the parts.
Beginning with Israel’s statement of despair and the prophetic encouragement
that God will renew the nation’s strength, the speeches go on to announce how
God uses history for His own ends. Starting from the depths of impotence, hope
is emboldened by the promise that God will unilaterally initiate a triumph over
the nations. From there the stress is put on divine support for Israel in the
triumph over her enemies and her restoration to the homeland. The final vision
returns to the imagery of destruction and envisions Israel as a threshing board
that will winnow the mountains: “the wind shall carry them off; the whirlwind
shall scatter them” (Isa. 41:16).
The haftarah moves progressively from the realism of despair to a near
surreal vision of victory. In the process, Israel’s speech moves from lament to
exhilaration. Israel’s opening words, “My way is hid from the LORD” (Isa.
40:27), and the final divine promise, “but you shall rejoice in the LORD”
(41:16), mark these two poles. In between is formulated the proof: God will
arouse a victor (Cyrus the Mede, according to Ibn Ezra) who will destroy the
nations and thereby help prepare the fulfillment of the divine promises. The
initial cry of disbelief is countered with reasons for trust, offering
encouragement to the weary and forlorn among the exiles and promising that God
will help them and bring their enemies to ruin.
In an attempt to motivate the people, the prophet alludes to earlier moments
of divine support. In the opening oracle, the sense of being forgotten in exile
is countered by the promise that the faithful will renew their strength and soar
homeward like eagles (Isa. 40:31). This promise echoes the people’s redemption
from Egypt, when God first “bore you [the Israelites] on eagles’ wings” (Exod.
19:4). “Like an eagle . . . did He spread His wings and take [Israel], bear him
along on His pinions” (Deut. 32:11). An even earlier event of divine guidance is
alluded to in the reference to the nation as the “Seed of Abraham My friend” (Isa.
41:8). As this patriarch faithfully followed God and was promised the blessing
of the land for his “seed” (Gen. 15:5), so may Israel, “the Seed of Abraham”
confidently anticipate its own restoration to the homeland. The special status
of the na-tion is also underscored by its designation as God’s “servant” whom He
has “chosen” (41:8–9).
Isaiah 40:27. “My way is hid from the LORD” This is a quote from a communal
lament, bemoaning the lack of divine knowledge. Hence the prophet counters that
God’s “wisdom cannot be fathomed” (v. 28). This allegation of hiddenness is
different from the theological motif that God deliberately hides His face from
His creatures as an expression of anger or rejection (cf. Deut. 31:18; PS.
44:25). Rashi’s view—that God has hidden from His eyes how Israel has served
Him—blunts the force of the lament.
28. Do you not know? The questions introduce a glorification of God as
creator, and a subsequent section mocks idol making (Isa. 41:6–7). Note the
similar cluster of elements in 40:18–25 (anti-idolatry; the question “Do you not
know?”; God the creator). This is part of a pattern of rhetorical elements
characteristic of the prophet.
31. new plumes Alluding to a popular belief that eagles regain their youth
when they molt; compare Ps. 103:5: “your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” [Transl.].
Isaiah 41:2. Who has roused a victor from the East The syntax is difficult. The
cantillation notes divide the phrase so that the first words (mi he-‘ir mi-mizrah)
imply the arousal by God (“Who”) of a champion (“from the East”), and the word
tzedek refers to his deeds (i. e., “victory”). Rashi follows this reading.
Another interpretation construes the phrase to indicate God’s arousal of a
“victor” from the East who is “summoned” to divine service. The Targum follows
this approach, interpreting tzedek (victor) as an epithet of the “righteous one”
(tzaddik) aroused from the East. An ancient midrashic tradition identified this
individual as Abraham. The Targum, Kimhi, and Abravanel continue this tradition.
Ibn Ezra understood the passage to refer to Cyrus the Mede (conqueror of
Babylon), who is mentioned explicitly in Isa. 45:1. He who announced the
generations The prophet stresses God’s knowledge of all events “from the start”
(me-rosh). This is a common motif. Compare Isa. 41:25–26, where again God speaks
of rousing a victor to battle and asks, “Who foretold this from the start [me-rosh]?”6
Control of history and foreknowledge of events are crucial elements in Isaiah’s
theology. Israel’s history is living testimony to God’s prophetic power