Reading Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114 in an Easter Season Marked by COVID-19

Think about the phrase ‘marking time.’ In common usage, it denotes waiting idly, nothing much happening, or even soldiers marching in place. But both Jews and Christians mark time according to the story of our faith. Last week Jews kept Passover, and Christians in the west passed through Holy Week into the great 50 days of Easter. We mark time by what we remember and what we anticipate in the stories, prophecy, and poetry of our faith. The fourth virtual #TheologyTownHall, held Wednesday, April 15, 2020, marked time with a performance (by Dr. Radosevich) of the story of three strangers walking to Emmaus , and interpretation (by Dr. Hancock) of Isaiah’s imaginative hope that death—the swallower—will be swallowed instead, and the psalmist’s confident assurance—despite apparent scarcity—of divine presence and provision. The following is taken from Dr. Rebecca Hancock’s presentation. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

Grocery store aisle with empty shelvesI imagine that the feasting imagery of Isaiah 25 may sound a bit incongruous in a time when the Coronavirus pandemic has led to problems with supply chains, empty shelves, and long wait times for grocery delivery service.

For some, this is more than simply a question of whether food and other products are available, but whether or not they have the financial resources for necessities. We are faced daily with our communal lack of resources: lack of protective equipment; ventilator shortages; not enough tests; and the absence of a vaccine to name just a few. As we hear daily reports of death tolls—in the world, in the country, in our state, and in even in our own zip codes—the image of death’s destruction may also seem far removed from our everyday experience and worries.

But the prophet’s words in Isaiah 25 are not meant to be heard as descriptive of the contemporary reality, but rather as a hopeful proclamation of a future dramatic reversal. This text is situated in the midst of several chapters in Isaiah that take a cosmic focus and emphasize YHWH’s universal kingship. Often called a “little apocalypse,” these chapters point beyond the immediate experience of the community toward a realm of divine activity that has both spatial and temporal dimensions.

In the verses here, the text describes a celebration following divine deliverance from oppressive forces. In the first verse, wine is mentioned twice. Throughout Isaiah, wine and vineyards often served a metonym, a stand-in for a wide variety of food sources. Here, wine and the rich foods listed recognize God’s provision of sustenance while also emphasizing that the food here is no paltry offering, but a lavish banquet. In an interesting contrast, the image of feasting also has a figurative counterpart—the swallowing up of death.

A few textual details stand out:

  • First is that God is the central actor throughout. In a series of diverse images, it is God who hosts an elaborate feast; God who destroys mourning and even death itself; and God who gently wipes away all tears.
  • The second thing to note is the use of repetition, the most notable repetition of which is the word “all,” used five different times: “a feast for all peoples;” “the shroud cast over all peoples;” “the sheet that is spread over all nations;” “tears from all faces;” and “the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” God’s actions are comprehensive and on behalf of the whole world.

The prophet also uses highly symbolic language to underscore the ultimate power of God over death. In the background, we hear echoes of ancient myths, now transformed. The Canaanite god of death and the underworld, Mot, is often described as having an insatiable appetite—a mouth that stretches open to devour, lips stretching open to consume. It is Mot’s mouth that swallows the Canaanite god Baal “like a dried olive.”

In the Old Testament, death is also often personified. Very frequently, the Bible depicts death and Sheol, the place of death, as “swallowing up” its victims. For example, in Isaiah 5:14 (NRSV) we hear:

“Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure.”

In a surprising reversal, it is not death who swallows in Isaiah 25, but God who consumes. Death—so often personified as hungry, insatiable, and active—is here the passive recipient of God’s final action. Immediately preceding Isaiah 25:6-9, the prophet recounts God’s action on behalf of the poor and needy, providing a shelter and refuge to those in distress. The destruction of death in this text, then, is closely connected to the establishment of God’s justice and the celebration of God’s kingship.

The other text before, us, Psalm 114, is a hymn celebrating God’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s provision in the wilderness. The opening verses focus on God’s past action on behalf of Israel, juxtaposing two images of Israel’s crossing a body of water: first crossing the sea as they fled Egypt; and second crossing the Jordan River as they entered the promised land. In this psalm, we encounter highly symbolic language as the physical world is personified: the sea looks back and flees; the Jordan turns back; the mountains skip like rams; and the hills skip like lambs.

Like Isaiah 25, there are allusions to ancient mythological traditions, once again transformed. In both Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths, the sea is a deity with which the chief god does battle. In the psalms, the sea, and water in general, are often personified, serving as a frequent metaphor for any chaotic or destructive force, both human and cosmic.

In Psalm 114, those forces that represent opposition to God are portrayed as cowed by God’s mere presence. No battle is waged between YHWH and sea; the sight of the divine warrior is enough to cause the water to retreat. The rest of the physical landscape also reacts viscerally, leading the psalmist to call for a communal response to this theophany: “Tremble, o earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” The psalm’s final verse reprises the theme of God’s mastery of water, here not as a conqueror, but as a provider: God provides water where there was none. God’s presence transforms the physical world in ways that are both awe-inspiring and a life-giving.

In both Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114, two central themes are important for us to hear in this particular Easter season:

  • In the first place, God’s generous provision is emphasized. God provides a lavish and extravagant feast for all, and God provides water from a rock in the wilderness. Scarcity is overcome with gracious divine provision.
  • Paired with this imagery of abundance is an unequivocal assertion of God’s victory against death and destructive forces. Death, the swallower, is swallowed up and destructive forces, symbolized by water, tremble in God’s presence. In a season where fear of death and scarcity dominate news stories and conversation, these texts stand in stark contrast, reminding us what it means to live into the hope of Easter resurrection.

Both of these central foci are manifestations of a root metaphor—that of divine kingship. Employing ancient myths in texts about divine rule makes a polemical claim: God’s rule is universal and neither imperial powers nor destructive natural forces pose any threat. The establishment of God’s reign results in death’s destruction and the provision of generous, life-giving abundance for all.