Isaiah 61 and the Underground Anti-Debt Campaign

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126, or Luke 1:47-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8; 19-28
Gaudete (Joy) Sunday 

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11


This week's post is going to be awfully long and geeky. My apologies for that. I'm actually in the middle of a book on this topic, so every now and then when one of these posts begins to drag on and on, think to yourself, "aha! This is one of those places where Stan is writing a book chapter, but disguising it for us as a blog post." It'll read a whole lot better after that...:-) 
Isaiah 61 is a central passage in the development of Biblical theology. As we will see below, it is strongly influenced by the seminal Jubilee passage of Leviticus 25, and it is central to the self-consciousness of Jesus, as portrayed by Luke in the critically important sermon of Luke 4. There is also strong evidence that Jesus understood the notion of the “Kingdom (or realm) of God” that he heralded the coming of, as being based on the Jubilee.
The author of what we know as Third Isaiah is otherwise unknown to us. We call him by that name only because his writings are the third of the three writings in the book known as Isaiah, and because Bible scholars have never been terribly creative at book naming. The breakdown is generally believed to be like this: First Isaiah—Chapters 1-39; Second Isaiah—40-55; and Third Isaiah—56-66.
Second Isaiah wrote just before and just after the fall of Babylon (where thousands of Jews had been held captive)[a] to Cyrus the Great of Persia (Oct 29th 539 b.c.e.), and his works are filled with joyous anticipation of the re-establishment of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. Third Isaiah wrote the generation after that, when the cold reality of failed expectations took hold. His writing activity was probably between 537-521, and probably was active for only a few short years (Claus Westermann says it is possible that he was active for less than a year, but that seems unlikely). Chapters 60-62 form the nucleus of his writings. They form a literary unit.

This passage

The immediate occasion of the writing of this particular poem is an economic crisis brought about by the financial dealings of the wealthy returnees who used their status and wealth to grab more land and income from both their deported brothers and sisters and from those who had been left behind. They used their economic and class power to influence the application of tax and finance laws in the emerging nation to their advantage, which caused huge increases in their own incomes, but also tremendous poverty in others. For example, they would make agricultural start-up loans during times of drought at exorbitant rates, which violated the Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, but which was allowed legally because they could buy off courts and lawmakers in case anyone complained. If the poor borrower was not able to pay the entire amount in one year, the next year the unpaid portion would be rolled over into a second loan, thus doubling the interest rate. After two or three years of doubling and quadrupling the interests, the poor farmer was effectively bankrupt (though concept did not exist in the era) and had to give up his far--and often his freedom--to the loaner.
Nehemiah tells the story:
1Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin. 2For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.” 3There were also those who said, “We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.” 4And there were those who said, “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. 5Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others” (5:1-5).
For Second Isaiah and Israel’s other theologians, the period of captivity was God’s punishment for just this kind of oppression of the poor, and the eventual release—he believed—was God’s forgiveness.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
      that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
      that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2, the reading for Advent 2, Year B)
They had believed that God’s act of granting them release would bring about a spiritual change in attitude toward God and toward others. In return for their redemption through God, Israel was to become a model, a light of hope to the rest of the nations. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). “It was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:2b, the Psalmic response for today).
But that great conversion did not happen. To the dismay of this anonymous prophet (and others), many of the more powerful exiles returned to Israel to begin the same kind of oppressive practices that led to the exile fifty years earlier.
Isaiah, speaking for God, characterized them this way:
     The way of peace they do not know,
           and there is no justice in their paths.
      Their roads they have made crooked;
           no one who walks in them knows peace.
                                                            (Isaiah 59:8)
In the first section of today’s reading, the prophet envisions himself as receiving an “anointing”[b] from the Spirit of God to go to those who are poor and oppressed and to bring them “good news”[c] of the establishment of the “year of God’s favor.” He is going to all of those who were pushed to the sidelines and passed by in the euphoria over the booming economy. The “good news” he brings is that the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian army, will be rebuilt:
      They shall build up the ancient ruins,
           they shall raise up the former devastations;
           they shall repair the ruined cities,
      the devastations of former generations. (61:4) 
But what is most startling is that the “they” of this passage, the ones who will be doing the rebuilding (and receiving the glory) will not be the prophet nor the landowners, nor even God, but instead this particularly abused group within the larger Israelite community: the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives, the prisoners and the mourners. “The upon bring good news to the oppressed....and They shall build up the ancient ruins....” (vv. 1a, 4a emphasis added). Those who have been pushed to the margins will become the center in the newly created society.

A Few Words on Terminology:

In the prophet’s list of recipients of the good news, the word the nrsv translates as “oppressed” (Hebrew, anau) has two meanings. One is “weak” or “powerless,” and the other is “poor” or “economically oppressed,” and it is rendered both ways at different times in the Hebrew Scriptures. In ancient Israel, the vast majority of the population was poor. Whenever they are described as such, it is almost always to make the point that their poverty is not caused by fate or vocation, but by an abuse of power. Poverty that requires mention is poverty that is caused by economic oppression. Therefore, this word has a clear political tone to it. The kjv translates it “meek” which gets at the powerlessness, but doesn’t indicate its cause. The nrsv has “oppressed,” which gets at the political tone, but not the poverty. The rsv includes both, with “afflicted” which implies that the powerlessness came from others in power, and then adds “poor” in a footnote.
Liberty to the captives” is also politically charged. In this context it refers not to criminal prisoners (and probably not political prisoners, because they had not been back from Babylonia long enough to acquire many), but to poor people who have been enslaved for their inability to make payments on usurious debts. The phrase “proclaim liberty” (Hebrew: dêror) is a technical term from the Leviticus Jubilee provisions for the cancellation of debts, return of slaves and property stolen or acquired immorally by the rich, and a return to the world as God intended in the original creation.
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month--on the Day of Atonement--you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. (Lev. 25:8-10; cf. Jer. 34:8, 15, 17)
Also, most scholars believe that the phrases, “year of the Lord’s favor,” and “the day of vengeance” (better, “day of rescue”)[d] also refer to the biblical Jubilee. They point to an age to come when Yahweh’s original intention for the world would be realized and the ancient and equitable system of communal land and property ownership would be re-instated (cf. Jer. 34:8, 15, 17). The poor would finally get their economic rights and powers within the larger community and God’s peace would once again prevail.
However, the political/economic/religious powers never allowed an authentic enactment of the laws of Jubilee. That meant that prophets like Third Isaiah and others increasingly began to sprinkle their oracles with phrases that got at the sense of the Jubilee without actually using the dangerous and politically charged word. (Perhaps we could also say paraphrasing Reinhold Niebuhr that just because a cause is difficult, it doesn’t mean that it is something unworthy of giving our lives to.)
The upshot of all of this is that the mission, for which the prophet has been anointed, is to bring the “good news” to the oppressed and broken hearted, that a new age of Jubilee is coming, and that they will be the ones who will rebuild the new society which embodies it. They will be comforted, given the oil of gladness and mantles of praise and will be called oaks of righteousness. And they will also be the ones to recover the lost glory of Jerusalem. In the “world as God intended,” the homeless will be in the board rooms. This is a dramatic reversal of fortune for those who returned to Israel expecting to be treated like royalty.
Actually, there was a tradition of pronouncing sweeping debt cancellation that preceded Israel. It was a common practice in the Ancient Near East for a new king to declare a “release/liberty” for debts and slaves as a way of buying favor with his new subjects. King Hammurabi of Babylonia announced no fewer than four royal “releases” during his 42-year reign. However, as the economies of the region began to move from communal property ownership to wealthy private ownership, and be based more on trade and less on family values, it became increasingly difficult to actually enforce a “release.” By the time the priestly legislators of Leviticus added the concept to Israel’s legal statutes it had already become virtually impossible to implement. In the view of the wealthy elites, the “world as God intended,” could never be allowed to get in the way of a world of profits and gated communities, a view that has not changed measurably from their time to ours. Therefore, prophets like Third Isaiah increasingly sprinkled their oracles with phrases that got at the sense of the Jubilee without actually using the dangerous and politically charged word.
Verses 5-7 continue to shower accolades upon the restored outcasts of v. 1, but the lectionary reading skips them going on to vss. 8-9, where God begins to speak. God loves justice and hates wrongdoing, and will pay them for all of their years of unrewarded labor. Then, amazingly, God will make a special covenant with them which is so grand that “their descendants shall be know among the nations”! These people, poor and despised by the powers that be, have become the special chosen ones of God, the light to the nations which was envisioned originally for the nation itself. This is a radical reorientation of society’s values and hierarchy. Only a God of the poor and oppressed would think of such a thing. And only justice made flesh in the poor and oppressed can make it real.
In vs. 10-11, the prophet closes the passage by bursting into song, celebrating what God is doing through him. With his role as the anointed one to bring this news to the poor, his very clothes and robe become righteousness and garlands, which are as glorious as the clothes and jewelry worn by a bride and groom on their wedding day. With his message (and the people’s response) as sure as seeds grow in a garden, God’s plan for righteousness and praise will shine forth before all the nations.
This is an excellent Advent passage, because it offers authentic hope for those broken and excluded from proper society, and it is mixed with personal responsibility: if the prophet does not “bring” the good news, it won’t get shared, and if the renewed people do not claim their new role, it won’t get taken. It is with promise, expectation, and personal responsibility that we wait for the claims of the coming (and coming again) Christ.

Exegetical and Translation Notes:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The Good News of Deliverance
61 The spirit of the Lord[e] GOD is upon me,
          because the LORD[f] has anointed[g] me;
     he has sent me: to bring good news[h] to the oppressed,[i]
          to bind up the brokenhearted,[j]
     to proclaim liberty[k] to the captives,[l]
          and release to the prisoners;[m]
2   to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
          and the day of vengeance[n] of our God;[o]
          to comfort all who mourn;[p]
3   to provide for those who mourn in Zion
     to give them a garland instead of ashes,
          the oil of gladness[q] instead of mourning,
          the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
     They will be called oaks of righteousness,[r]
     the planting of the LORD,[s] to display his glory.
4   They shall build up the ancient ruins,
     they shall raise up the former devastations;[t]
     they shall repair the ruined cities,
     the devastations of many generations.
5   Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
     foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6   but you shall be called priests of the LORD,
     you shall be named ministers of our God;
     you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
     and in their riches you shall glory.
7   Because their[u] shame was double,[v]
     and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
     therefore they shall possess a double portion;
     everlasting joy shall be theirs.
8   For I the LORD love justice,
     I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[w]
     I will faithfully give them their recompense,
     and I will make an everlasting covenant[x] with them.
9   Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
     and their offspring among the peoples;
     all who see them shall acknowledge
     that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
     my whole being shall exult in my God;
     for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
     he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
     as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
     and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
     and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
     so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
     to spring up before all the nations.

[a] No one knows the number for sure, but Jeremiah 52:28-30 says that the total was 4,600, the total of two deportations in 586 and 582. However, it was at least three to four times that because in Jeremiah’s day, they didn’t count women and children. The number was probably closer to 20,000, a staggering number of people for the size of nation populations of the time.
[b] mashach, from which we get the term “messiah” [Hebrew: meshiach], cf. 1 Sam 10:1.
[c] bäsar, used also in the Advent 2, Year B reading, Isaiah 40:9.
[d] Nâqâm, “requital,” or “rescue” are better than “Vengeance.” It follows a Ugaritic root which means to avenge someone, but in the sense of rescuing them. “The word is to be taken in the sense of ‘for’ and not ‘against’ restoration; as it is also true of the original meaning of ‘revenge’ the days before Israel became a state: ‘the restoration of wholeness’” (West, p. 367. Cf. J. Morgenstern, “Jubilee, Year of,” IDB, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), p. 1002. “Day of restoration of wholeness.” Westermann, p. 347.
[e] “Lord” ('Adonai ) Proper title, “My Lord,” word spoken in place of saying the divine name, “Yahweh in Jewish display of reverence Combined with God. Should be read as “Yahweh God.”
[f]Lord” (Yahweh)
[g] “Anoint” (mashiach)  to rub with oil, i.e. anoint; consecrate; also to paint. Related to noun, Messiah, the “anointed one.”
[h] “Good news,” (bśr)  to be fresh, i.e. full (rosy, cheerful); to announce, preach, tell, good tidings. The term “Good News” (or “good tidings”) is found also in 40:9, 52:7, but only here does it refer to the poor, and only here is it the speaker (the prophet) who brings it. Bringing Good News is usually the task of a runner for a king or other dignitary, proclaiming the arrival of the dignitary. Also, importantly, in its biblical usage, it is usually “proclamation of an event which has already come about.” Here the prophet’s words themselves will bring about liberty to the captives (etc.). This is a critical distinction. (Westermann, p. 366).
[i] “Oppressed,” anaw, depressed in mind or circumstances, needy (especially saintly); humble, lowly, meek, poor.
[j] “Brokenhearted” From Shabar, break, destroy, break in pieces, break down, hurt, torn, crush.
[k] “Liberty,” derôr, from an unused root, to move rapidly; freedom; hence spontaneity of outflow—liberty. This is understood by commentators to not refer to Israel in the exile, but to debt prisoners. See Isaiah 58:6, “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free….”
[l]Liberty to the captives”; “does not mean the exiles (who have already been liberated by this time), but, as in 58:6, people put in prison for debts and the like” (Westermann, p. 366).
[m] “Release to the Prisoners” (peqaḥ-qôaḥ) “Masculine noun indicating an opening; a release from captivity. This phrase means literally, opening of vision as eyesight. In context it indicates the freeing of those who had been bound.” Spiros Zodhiates, Ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary (Chattanooga, TN: AMG International, 1992).
[n] “Day of vengeance” (cf. also, Isa. 34:8; 63:4; Jer. 46:10; and “day of Yahweh”: Isa. 2:12; 13:6; Joel 2:1ff.). Chris Haslam (and others) says that “rescue” is a better translation of the Hebrew (Nâqâm) than “Vengeance.” It follows a Ugaritic root which means to avenge someone, and can also be translated as “rescue.” In so doing, God offers vindication. Note that the meaning of the word doesn’t have the “sense of God’s taking vengeance on Israel’s foes....the word is to be taken in the sense of ‘for’ and not ‘against’ restoration; as it is also true of the original meaning of ‘revenge’ the days before Israel became a state: ‘the restoration of wholeness’” (West, p. 367. Cf. J. Morgenstern, “Jubilee, Year of,” IDB, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abington, 1962), p. 1002. “Day of restoration of wholeness.” Westermann, p. 347.
[o] Note the equal status of “year” and “day,” indicating that no particular event or time is in mind, but what is envisioned is a new era. The Jubilee has become unhooked from a specific fifty-year event, and has become a vision of what will be in God’s time. (Westermann, p. 367).
[p] “Comfort to all who mourn,” 2nd Isaiah particularized the mourners, as in 40:1. 3rd Isaiah generalizes them, universalizes them. This difference is common between the two writers.
[q] “Oil of gladness,” NET has “Oil of Joy.”
[r] “Oak of righteousness”: See 44:14 for becoming like an oak as a symbol for spiritual strengthening.
[s] “The planting of the Lord”: For this image, see also 60:21 and Jeremiah 17:8.
[t] “They shall raise up the former devastations”; NET has, “and the formerly desolate places they will raise up.”
[u] “Their shame,” Heb: Your shame.
[v] “Double,” see 40:2.
[w] “Wrongdoing” (‛ôlâh). Feminine active participle of the verb, ‛âlâh, “to ascend.” Could mean, a step (as in “step up,” or “ascend”). Used usually in reference to a holocaust (as in, going up in smoke), and therefore occasionally translated “burnt offering,” as the kjv translates it, with some justification. The nrsv puts that option in a note.
[x] “Everlasting covenant”: In Genesis 9:16, God tells Noah that the rainbow is a reminder of the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures. In Genesis 17:7, God makes such a covenant with Abraham and his offspring. In Genesis 17:19, God promises a covenant with Isaac and his progeny. David. In his death speech (2 Samuel 23:5) recalls the everlasting covenant God made with him when he wished to build a temple (2 Samuel 7:13, 16, 24-26, 29). See also 54:9-10; 55:3; 59:21; Jeremiah 32:40; 50:5; Psalm 105:10.