Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Imagine Whirled Peas… Get it? Whirled peas… If you say it fast, it sounds like world peace. It’s a clever bumper sticker; but there is no peace, is there?
They may not have had a clever bumper sticker about it but the exiles addressed in this morning’s reading from Isaiah weren’t living in peace either. But they did imagine a land of peace called Jerusalem. If you listen carefully you can almost hear peace in the very word Jerusalem: Salam, as we say here in Saudi Arabia, Shlamaa is what my friend in Baghdad says, it’s essalama in Algeria, ancient Mesopotamians said salmu… Shalom in Hebrew. Say the words out loud. Then say Jerusalem. Can you hear it? There really is something in a name, isn’t there?
Here’s the thing: There was no peace in Jerusalem. That rascal Nebuchadnezzar had ransacked the place and left it desolate for a hundred years or more. But, for the exiles, many of whom had never even set foot in Jerusalem, Jerusalem was more than a memory. It was a touchstone, a dream, it was their hope, their future.
What you hope for, though, and what actually happens are sometimes not quite the same. The returning exiles found that out the hard way. When they finally got to Jerusalem — to the place of peace they’d dreamed of — it was a wreck. The temple was in ruins and all its great treasures were still in Babylon, the palace had been destroyed too, a lot of people had given up the old ways and married pagans. You could hardly live there, even if you’d wanted to. What a kick in the gut to realize that the place you’d heard about, dreamed about, and hoped to be a part of was just a fairy tale. It’s very name, Jerusalem… with the word for peace right in it… must have seemed like a cruel joke.
Jerusalem’s new names were Forsaken and Desolate… nothing at all about peace.
And that, of course, is where the story starts to get real. It is a very easy literary jump into allegory because we have all been forsaken and desolate. If you live long enough it will happen. When all the walls have been torn down, all laid bare and destroyed… That’s desolation.
This is not an everyday kind of tribulation. We all have a story of everyday tribulation from last week, right? What I am talking about is the death of all that went before. It’s when the well runs dry and you discover that it’s been dry for a hundred years. When all the life has gone out of the clay pot and the pot is cracked. Maybe you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. That’s desolation.
Desolation and forsakenness are not easily fixed. It wouldn’t take long for me to churn out a book or two on the subject of how not to fix the utter desolation of… Well, I don’t want to talk about mine any more than you want to talk about yours. These things are deep. But, treasures were stolen, the sacred parts of myself were crashed and burned, and I still don’t know how to fix it. I suspect things are never really fixed, though I live in hope and you might be living in hope too.
We need a prophet!
God never sends a prophet when things are going good. Have you noticed that? It’s only when the kingdom is in peril, when all is about to be lost. To us, in the moment of desolation it may seem as if all is already lost. It may seem that way for a long time. But, if God sends a prophet then there is hope. Prophets are God’s way of saying that She has not given up, even if we have.
That brings us to Isaiah 62:1-5. It’s today’s reading. Keeping with our allegory, God says that there is hope, and that She won’t take a break from talking about it either. God talks about vindication and salvation, and glory. And God says that we will be given that most powerful of curatives, a new name.
Until very recent times, a person’s name was not just something for them to be called by, it was their biography. A name was powerful. That is why when Jacob wrestled with the man at Pineal, the man would not give him a blessing until Jacob told him his name. And the blessing Jacob received was a new name: Israel. The new name was a blessing because – at least for Jacob, for Isaiah, and for most of history – a name was an identity.
In this reading, Jerusalem got a new name. They won’t be known as desolate and forsaken anymore. Do you want to know what the new name is?
It means, my delight is in her.
Hephzibah only appears twice in the canonical scriptures of Christians, once it is given as the name of Hezekiah’s wife, and again here. It’s a female name. Non-canonical texts portray Hephzibah as the mother of the messiah, a warrior who will return with the messiah. She is not a delicate flower, not at all. She’s a fighter. And that is the name God chose to give to a restored Jerusalem, and, following our allegory, to us too.
I don’t know if you’ve fought your battles or if they might still be raging, but I do know that you have a new name, a new identity, and it recognizes you as a fierce fighter and God delights in it. Take your new name. It’s powerful. It is your blessing for having fought and not given up until you received a blessing: A new name.
Linda McMillan lives in al Qassim, Saudi Arabia.
Image: Irrawaddy Girl, Linda McMillan, Central Burma, 2008
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You may not agree with reading this passage allegorically, but that is what I am doing this year. We can read it another way when it comes up again in three years.
Nebuchadnezzar ransacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE. When Cyrus the Great took over he let the Israelites go home, and even helped them. A lot of them stayed, though, because exile was all they had ever known and they had built lives for themselves. Some had married. This is what happens when masses of people get moved about. Some move willingly, some are moved against their will. There are always those who assimilate. In about 480, more or less, nobody seems to know, Ezra returned to Jerusalem with some exiles and helped Jerusalem finally start to get things back on track. Other exiles followed. King Artaxerxes eventually returned the temple treasures and made a stab at restitution by ordering that the returning exiles be given food and water when they needed it and supplies to rebuild the temple. They didn’t have to pay taxes either. It’s not much to make up for — of exile, but it’s better than what the USA did for freed slaves!
Traditionally Ezra gets the credit for establishing a great council, helping the people to return to God’s law, and putting Jerusalem back on its feet. It’s really hard to tell exactly when Ezra got back to Jerusalem, though. He wasn’t in this first-wave. Ezra 7:8 says that he went back in the 7th year of Artaxerxes. But, was that Artaxerxes I or Artaxerxes II? It complicates things. Nehemiah might have even gotten there before Ezra. I tried to make sense of it through the power of the internet, but it’s just not clear.
God will not take a break from talking about Her hope for us. Isaiah 62:1… I will not keep silent and I will not rest.
You can read the story about Jacob wrestling with the man at Pineal in Genesis 32.
Proverbs 22:1… A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Isaiah 49:16… See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Zechariah 2:5… And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within.’
Both the Zohar and Sefer Zerubbel mention Hephzibah as the mother of the messiah who is to come. She’s a fighter.
There is precedent for thinking of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a warrior goddess too. When the Byzantines fought the Persians they took icons of Mary into battle with them and Sergius used to walk around on the city wall of Constantinople with his icon of her too. So, there a fighting Mary history in Christianity. Also, see Sefer Zerubbabel, which did not make it into the canon.
Not all stories are equal, and there’s a reason that Christians don’t consider The Zohar to be particularly sacred: It’s not our tradition. But, this is a good story:
“Then Michael said to me: ‘This is the Messiah of the Lord: (he has) been hidden in this place until the appointed time (for his manifestation). This is the Messiah of the lineage of David, and his name is Menahem ben ‘Amiel [Comforter Son of God’s People]. He was born of the Kingship of David, king of Israel, and a wind bore him up and concealed him in this place, waiting for the time of the end.’ Then I, Zerubbabel, posed a question to Metatron, the leader of the host of the Lord. He said to me: ‘The Lord will give a rod (for accomplishing) these salvific acts to Hephzibah, the mother of Menahem ben ‘Amiel. A great star will shine before her, and all the stars will wander aimlessly from their paths. Hephzibah, the mother of Menahem ben ‘Amiel, will go forth…The rod which the Lord will give to Hephzibah, the mother of Menahem [ben] ‘Amiel, is made of almond-wood; it is hidden in Raqqat, a city in (the territory of) Naphtali. It is the same rod which the Lord previously gave to Adam, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and King David. It is the same rod which sprouted buds and flowered in the Tent (of Meeting) for the sake of Aaron. Elijah ben Eleazar concealed it in Raqqat, a city of Naphtali, which is Tiberias… Hephzibah—the woman (Isha) of Nathan’s [lineage]- the prophetess mother of Menahem ben ‘Amiel—will go out with the rod which the Lord God of Israel will give to her, and the Lord will place “a spirit of dizziness” upon them (i.e., the Persian army), and they will kill one another, each (slaying) his companion or his countryman. There the wicked one (Šērōy) will die.’… In the fifth (year) of the week Nehemiah b. Hushiel will come and gather together all Israel. In the sixth (year) of the week Hephzibah, the woman of Nathan- the prophetess, she who was born in Hebron, will come and slay the two kings Nōph and ’Esrōgan. That same year the ‘shoot of Jesse’ (Isa 11:10), Menahem b. ‘Amiel, will spring up.