We talk about Lent as a season when we prepare for the annual Easter celebrations. During this time of preparation, we are encouraged to pay attention to what is important in our faith. Through this season, as we pray, read scripture, and share with one another, we are able to grow in our faith, deepen in our understanding, and strengthen our discipleship.
During this time, it could be possible that we grow in understanding of God. The Hebrew Scripture passage for this coming Sunday invites us to consider exactly that process of growth. Isaiah 55:1-13 offers insights into this process of development.
Early in the times of Israel, the relationship God was understood in very material, tangible ways. God brought the rain and the sunshine that enabled the crops to grow—a key focus for an agricultural people living off the land. Eliphaz, the friend of Job, advised him that God “gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields” (Job 5:10).
The psalmist affirms this traditional understanding, affirming that “rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad” (Ps 68:9), and rejoicing, “sing to the Lord with thanksgiving … he covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills” (Ps 147:7–8). In like manner, this passage from Isaiah declares that, “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth” (Isa 55:10).
Jesus repeats this ancient agricultural belief about God: “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). It still held good for the largely agricultural society of his day. At that time, as for centuries past, there had been a clear understanding that God was intimately related to the land of Israel.
“I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy”, God is reported as saying (Lev 11:45). The holy God chose a holy people, who are then led into a holy place, the land of Canaan. In a story told about “once when Joshua was by Jericho”, Joshua encountered “a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand” who reveals himself as “a commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh 5:13–15).
The story indicates that God said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh 5:13–15). From this story, this verse, Israel becomes known, even to today, as The Holy Land. Holy God, holy people, holy land, all intimately linked with one another.
And in that holy land, King Solomon built “the most holy place” (1 Kings 7:50), and “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim” (1 Kings 8:6). The holy land had the most holy place at its heart.
Being sent into exile in Babylon after this period of consolidation and growth in their “holy land” was a shock to the people. Life in exile was quite different from life in the land. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”, the psalmist laments (Ps 137:4).
Life in Jerusalem was still what they yearned for, in exile (Ps 137:5–6); indeed, the intense anguish (and unhealthy hatred) expressed in the final verse of this psalm is striking: “happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9). It was not a happy time, at least for some.
However, it is not surprising that, after a period in exile, ideas about God were changing. The Israelites in exile in Babylon had maintained faith in God, even though they were no longer living off the land where God had placed them. The Exile had severed their connection with the land, and thus a loss of connection with God was feared. Surely God would not abandon them?
Indeed, the people developed an understanding that God had not abandoned them as they left the holy land; God had, in fact, travelled with them into Exile, and back into the land on their return. The passage from Isaiah 55 demonstrates this. Although it is in a book under the name of an 8th century prophet, is in a later section of that book, most likely put together with the earlier sections some time after the return from Exile in the 6th century. It reflects the changes in circumstances and understandings of the people who lived through those challenging circumstances, over a number of decades in Exile, before they returned to the land.
The covenant which they had entered into long ago (see last week’s passage, Gen 15), was still in force and to be honoured: “listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isa 55:3). Even in their exile, “the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, he has glorified you” (Isa 55:5).
As a result, how they understood God had changed. God was not tied to the land of Israel—and particularly, not to the Temple in Jerusalem. God had become “mobile” once again, just as he had been in the period of the wilderness wanderings, the Judges, and the early years of the monarchy, when the Ark was the place where God was to be found (and the Ark was, of course, quite logically travelling with the people during those decades).
Their belief developed to incorporate an understanding that God was not intimately bound to the land. People from Israel continued to live on in the lands of exile, even after they were able to return to their “holy land”. They had married, planted vineyards, established roots in those dispersed communities (Jer 29:4–7). God remained faithful to the covenant, but God’s ways were not the ways of tradition and convention. God was understood to be a dynamic entity, changing and developing as the situation required.
The people were invited into a different form of relationship with God, nourished by a different type of bread, which the post-exile prophet identifies in this oracle. From the Exile experience, it was the sense of God’s word that had become primary for the people: “listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (55:2).
And in being nourished by this new form of food, God’s word, the people will discover new things about God: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord; my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts [are higher] than your thoughts” (55:8–9). A new way of understanding God, and God’s ways, was opening up before the people.
Understandings of God develop and change—as then, in post-exilic Israel, so too, now, in the post-modern contemporary world. May this be our experience, this Lent, as we dig deep into the resources of scripture and tradition in this special time.