43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia* and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’
I’m reading the Old Testament lesson for this week. It’s Isaiah 43:1-7, a passage replete with water imagery thus paired with Peter and John’s baptismal mission to Samaria and Luke’s baptism of Jesus. On one hand, these verses seem quite comforting. “Don’t fear,” God says, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” As a people, we are afraid. The global fear index (my term) has escalated dramatically since Saturday’s execution of a Shiite cleric by Saudi Arabia. Isaiah and God seem to sense this. Fear transcends time and place. The antidote to our fear, God acknowledges, is redemption. We have been redeemed. What does it mean to be redeemed from fear? God is telling the people of Isaiah’s day they have been redeemed. What does it mean to experience the reality of redemption before Jesus’ birth, death, or resurrection? Verse one is such a complete statement of God’s action in our lives. Would we do well to hear these words? I’m not certain. Because when I read on, I become more uncomfortable.
In images that remind the reader of the Exodus story, God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through fire, you won’t be scorched.” Hundreds of years after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, I wonder how these words resonated with Isaiah’s readers. Isaiah 43, probably written around the 6th century BC, was over fifteen hundred years removed from the events described in the Book of Exodus. Did anyone then believe oceans divided or fires wouldn’t scorch? Almost two thousand years on from Moses, when miracles like the ones in Exodus were sparse on the ground, how many people had trouble putting faith the veracity of the word of God? Yes, God redeemed and called us. But this God also claims we won’t get burned in fire or drown in water. Did they have a highly developed sense of metaphor or did they attempt to burn themselves or drown to see how much God love them? God’s bipolar declarations of affection make me uncomfortable.
I’m afraid it gets worse. The further I read, the more this passage sounds like a standoff in Oregon. There are land disputes throughout the Bible. In Isaiah 43:3-4, we’ve got the language of kidnapping, ransom, hostage taking, and a land grab all wrapped up into a couple of verses. “I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush (Ethiopia) and Seba in your place,” says God. Was God holding these peoples hostage? Are we being held hostage? If so, by whom? I thought we were redeemed with the stroke of a pen. Or so it appeared. God spoke it. Wasn’t it done? It was a divine Executive Order, no need to involve anyone else. Now I’m told ransom payments are being made with the lives of whole nations, and countries. I didn’t ask for this. The people living in Cush and Seba certainly didn’t want this. Whose idea was it to pay a ransom in multiple human lives? This sounds horrible. God, I’m uncomfortable with what you’re doing. I don’t like it. Cush and Seba have been given in place of what? Will they drown and be burned to death in my place? That’s not what I want but that’s what you seem to be saying. This is not what I signed up for. Why does my redemption and your love for me need to be dependent on someone else suffering? Is it not possible for me to be precious in your eyes and loved without “giving” innocent countries over to death and suffering? May I not live without others dying? Why do you insist on killing people on my behalf? What’s to say you won’t change your mind one day and decide to give me over as a ransom payment when you love someone new? Your words make me uncomfortable.
The “see how much I love you by looking at who I’ve killed for you today” thing isn’t working on me like it used to. In fact, it’s not working at all. Stick with the executive orders on redemption. Redeem me without bloodshed, lavish gifts, or divine power trips. Redeem me and love me. I don’t want to walk through water or fire. I want to live. Redeem life. Redeem this junk in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Oregon, Chicago, and all over the world. Redeem these things. Do something meaningful. Please.