(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
January 1, 2005
The second prophecy, found in this week’s haftarah (chapter 28) criticizes the aristocracy of the northern kingdom of Israel for its drunken misdirected leadership and then predicts its demise: “Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is but wilted flowers on the heads of men bloated with rich food, who are overcome by wine.” (Isaiah 28:1) Several verses later, a similar plaint is cast at the leaders of the southern kingdom, Judah: “But these [the leaders of Judah] are also muddled by wine and dazed by liquor: priest and prophet are muddled by liquor…” (verse 7) In between these two verses, we learn the fate of the righteous remnant: “In that day, the Lord of Hosts shall become a crown of beauty and a diadem of glory for the remnant of His people…” (verse 5)
The description of God’s relationship with the righteous remnant as “a crown of beauty and a diadem of glory” is obviously meant to be contrasted with “the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim” but still the metaphor used to describe this bond is astonishing. God is portrayed as a “garment” which adorns the righteous. This image is by no means unique. In any number of places in the Tanach, God has been described as one of Israel’s garments. In fact, as Professor Y. Muffs points out, Israel has also been described as one of God’s garments as well. (See Jeremiah 13:11.) In Isaiah, Israel has also been described as a cap that God holds in His hand to be worn if desired. (See Isaiah 62:3.)
Muffs notes that this particular symbolic representation of divine-human interaction, is familiar in the ancient Near East. The hat symbol often refers to a partnership between the human entity and the Deity. The importance of the clothing metaphor, according to Muffs, is not found necessarily in the detail of which party is symbolically represented by an article of clothing, rather it is the notion that the garment cleaves to the body of the other inferring a sense of intimacy.
This attitude is reflected in the following midrash, found in I. Ziegler’s famous 19th century compilation of ing parables: Rabbi Abin said: “There was once a king who had a set of royal purple garments, and he would command his servant saying: ‘Shake them out and fold them well, and pay close attention to these garments.’ The servant said to the king: ‘My lord, why is it that of all of the royal garments that you have, you only seem to be worried about this set?’ Said the king: ‘It is because this is the set of clothes I wore the first time I was crowned king.’ So said Moses before the Holy One blessed be He, ‘Master of the Universe, of the seventy original nations of the world, why are You concerned only with Israel?’ Said the Lord to Moses, ‘Because I first appeared as King when I split the Red Sea for them.’
This king parable captures God’s paradoxical love and tenderness for the people of Israel even though they are subject to His Divine justice. (Muffs, Love and Joy, ch. 2) This same idea might explain why this symbolic representation of God as Israel’s crown is sandwiched between such harsh prophecies. God, in His love for us, wants nothing less than our love and intimacy in return.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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