Promises concerning Israel’s future are about restoring a past that never was, but likely should have been. Readers familiar with the story of Israel certainly know of the tension and the strife that have traveled with the faithful, from the grumbling in the wilderness to Saul’s inability to draw the tribes together with anything but threats of violence. David’s own reign saw the brutal and heart-rending war between the usurper, backed by the people of Israel, and the rightful ruler, with only an army of foreign mercenaries to resist. When Israel goes into exile, generations after the exodus, one honest reading of the matter would be of an experiment that has failed: ages of antagonism simply give way to a more powerful enemy.
But the word that comes through Isaiah tells a different tale. When YHWH promises to gather the people from the corners of the earth, it’s not so that they can have another go at rape and murder and civil war and idolatry; it’s not with a view to the corrupt Second Temple or the xenophobia of the Qumran writers. Instead, it’s a restoration that looks back not at what the past lacks but at the promises inherent in what was. Israel was never an unadulterated nation of faithfulness, but the promise inherent even in its halting attempts is powerful when YHWH speaks oracles of restoration and regathering, of a future in Jerusalem where all the faithful come together.
In Isaiah’s exilic moment, that coming-together must have been nearly impossible to imagine. After all, the Diaspora was under way, and even with Cyrus on the horizon, there was little sense believing that those who had fled to Egypt would re-unite with those carried to Chaldea, much less that the newly-minted Samaritans, intermarried and entrenched in Palestine, would at any point be part of the great story of Israel again. YHWH’s grand promises of a restored Israel in chapters 40-55 must have hit the ears of those in Babylon as the dreams of a madman, promises that were beyond the Jews’ capacity to hope for, even as they confessed that it was YHWH indeed who set forth the hope.
That kind of radical hope, rooted in the promise of the past without being bound by the sins of the fathers, is what makes this passage from Isaiah especially appropriate for a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus. At the Jordan river, where the ancient Yeshua began a campaign of conquest that could not imagine a place for Israel except with the destruction of the nations whose laws made Torah-observance impossible, the latter-day Yeshua does not part the waters but enters into them, setting forth a symbol of the new means of advancing God’s kingdom. The new Yeshua would not blast aside nations, including the occupied nation of Israel, but enter into them, be buried by them, rise forth from them, transform them into places of redemption. Where the old Yeshua had killed men and women, children and livestock, the new would invite all of the same to become part of the new Israel, to enter in by means of faithfulness. Where the old Yeshua made space for Israel by ordering destruction, the new would himself be destroyed, yet YHWH would vindicate the new way of being-salvation, raising the new Yeshua from the dead and and elevating him to the right hand of the Father. What came before Yeshua of Nazareth was not itself adequate to the Reign of God, yet the potential there in the old, old story animates and drives ahead the new.
Christians must always remember that allegory is not merely decoration or literary cleverness but a way to hold in tension the inadequacies of what came before and the promise that never arises except in the imperfect past. Baptism is always a death to the world that rules by fear of death, and baptism is always baptism in the waters of the Jordan, with all the bloody history that goes with it.
May our gratitude and our hope live together in this time between the times, and may our prayers always be those of the humble sinner, reaching forth towards Paradise.