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Isaiah 49:14-18 – Can a Woman Forget?

Summary

Contrary to the exiles' fear, God has not forsaken them. God could no more do that than a mother could forsake her child--indeed, even less so.

Analysis

Here we hear Zion lament that God has forsaken the people. The prayer sounds exactly like the voice of Psalm 22:1. In this case, however, God responds with a counterclaim. No, says God, I have not forgotten, and I will not forget. In Second Isaiah, God often responds to Israel's laments positively and tenderly; but sometimes, when needed, God calls the lament into question, disputing its validity (see also 40:27).

The prophet uses the image of the nursing mother to describe God's compassion for Israel. How could a mother possibly forget the child at her breast? Yet, even if she could, God could not. God is a mother and more than a mother, just as God, in other texts, is a father and more than a father (Hosea 11:9). Parental images are used often in the Bible to describe God's relation to Israel, because they work well to speak both of the constant love and occasional discipline that a parent must exercise. Still, the human images are never perfect. Humans may fail; God will not.

In one of the book's pictures of surprising intimacy, God claims to have "inscribed" Israel "on the palms of my hands." Elsewhere the reverse is true: Israel writes on its hand God's name (44:5). God and Israel are like two teenage lovers who have written each other's names on their hands--all the more surprising since such tattoos were forbidden in Israel (Leviticus 19:28). Here, love breaks the constraints of law.

Isaiah 49:14-18


14 But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
   my Lord has forgotten me.’
15 Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
   or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
   your walls are continually before me.
17 Your builders outdo your destroyers,*
   and those who laid you waste go away from you.
18 Lift up your eyes all around and see;
   they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, says the Lord,
   you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
   and like a bride you shall bind them on.

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10 February 2011

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