Liberation and Empowerment
Isaiah 61:1-11 (Second Sunday of Advent, Year B)
The immediate occasion of this poem is a social crisis that followed the end of the Babylonian captivity (587-538 B.C.E). The wealthy returnees used their status and power to grab land and income from both their deported brothers and sisters and those who had been left behind. They were able to influence the application of the tax and finance laws of the emerging nation, causing increases in their own wealth and poverty in others. For example, they would make agricultural start-up loans during droughts at exorbitant rates--which violated the Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, but 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, with a doubling of the interest. After two or three years of rolling and doubling, the poor farmer was effectively bankrupt and had to give up his farm—and often his freedom—to the loaner. See Nehemiah 5:1-5 for a description of the crisis.
For Second Isaiah, captivity in Babylon was God’s punishment for this kind of oppression of the poor, and their release was now due to God’s forgiveness (Isaiah 40:2). In return for their redemption, Israel was to become a model to the rest of the nations. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). But that conversion did not happen. To the dismay of this 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. “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 this passage, the prophet envisions himself as receiving an “anointing” from the Spirit of God to go to those who are poor and oppressed and to bring them “good news” of the “year of God’s favor.” He is going to those who were pushed to the sidelines 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 (61:4).
But what might be most interesting to your Bible study conversation is that the “they” of this passage, who will be doing the rebuilding (and receiving the glory), will not be the prophet 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 spirit...is upon me...to 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 new society. The people will be empowered to be the agents of change within the new society. And that is the good news.
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 in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Israel, the vast majority of the population was poor. Therefore, 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 caused by economic oppression. That means that this word has a clear political tone to it.
“Liberty to the captives” is also politically charged. In this context it refers not to criminal prisoners (and not political prisoners, because they had not been back from Babylonia long enough to acquire any), 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 which called for a “release” from debts, slavery, stolen property, and a restoration of the world as God intended it in the original creation (Lev. 25:8-10).
In addition, many scholars believe that the phrases, “year of the Lord’s favor,” and “the day of vengeance” (or, better, “day of rescue”) also refer to the Jubilee. They both point to an age to come when Yahweh’s original intention would be realized. The ancient and equitable system of communal land 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.
This is an 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.
- Given what you may already know about Jesus, and the Jubilee, what could have driven Jesus to use this passage as his “Inaugural Address” in Luke 4?
- This prophesy was written shortly after the Israelites were freed by Cyrus the Great of Persia. It is full of comfort and encouragement. One task might be for you to e-write this passage in the form of a letter to contemporary refugees, displaced (New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish? Haiti, after hurricane and earth quake?) Will they feel forgiven, released, liberated, or patronized?
- Why do you think that
this writer is called Cyrus the Great of Persia, the Messiah.? Based on your own reading and learning, what constitutes
a messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures?
Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1966, Eng. tr. 1977).
 Mšah, from which we get the term “messiah.” Cf. 1 Sam 10:1.
 Bäsar, used also in the Advent 2, Year B reading, Isaiah 40:9.
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.
Naqam, “requital,” or “rescue” are better than “Vengeance.” It follows a Ugaritic root which means to avenge someone 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’” (Westermann, op.cit., p. 367.