Isaiah 56:1-8 – Gathering the Outcasts
SummaryForeigners and eunuchs, previously excluded, are gathered into Israel by God.
This text opens what has sometimes been called Third Isaiah--chapters 56-66, which seem to reflect the difficult situation back in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. The chapters contain promises similar to those of Second Isaiah and words of judgment similar to those of the preexilic prophets.
This opening passage is one of the most inclusive promises in Isaiah and in the entire Bible. The place of foreigners among the people of Israel had been ambiguous--according to the Torah, aliens were to be welcomed and protected (Leviticus 19:34), but other laws required separation between Israelites and outsiders (Ezra 9:1-4). In this text, foreigners who "join themselves to the LORD" (that is, proselytes) will be accepted as full members of God's people. More strikingly, this applies to eunuchs as well. Eunuchs were excluded from temple worship by Torah itself (Deuteronomy 23:1-3; Leviticus 21:18-20), not for moral or ethnic reasons but because they were understood to be "blemished," excluded by the purity laws in the same way that blemished lambs were not acceptable as sacrifices. This is a ritual exclusion that did not regard the "blemished" as morally or socially inferior, but there were real social and religious consequences. According to Leviticus, they could not serve as priests; for Deuteronomy, they could not be admitted to the assembly of God's people at all.
But now, says the Lord (through the prophet), all that is changed. Foreigners and eunuchs are welcomed in the same way as anyone else--that is, those who keep the sabbath and hold fast the covenant. Sabbath-keeping had taken on even greater importance during the exile because it was a religious observance and a sign of the covenant that people could do within the family even when there was no temple for sacrifice and festival worship.
The secret to the openness expressed in these verses seems to come at the end: God will gather these "outcast" (foreigners and eunuchs) to the "outcasts of Israel" already gathered. None are members of God's people by right; all are outcasts, brought in by grace (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Those who know themselves to be gathered outcasts will more easily welcome other outcasts into their midst.
This text finds one fulfillment in Acts 8:26-40, where Philip is sent to proclaim the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading Isaiah in his chariot. The man is an example in his own person of both the foreigners and the eunuchs who are welcomed here in this Isaiah text. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" asks the eunuch (Acts 8:29). One would have to answer, certainly not Isaiah 56!