These four passages are all expressions of abandonment. Brueggemann places them in the context of the exile. He notes that, for many interpreters, Isaiah 40-55 is an “intentional, salvific response to the complaint from the Abyss in the book of Lamentations.” (Brueggemann: p101; cf., Linafelt: pp62-79.)
This connection is exemplified by Isaiah 49:14-15 and Lamentations 5:20: “The complaint … in Lamentations 5:20 as well as in Psalm 22:1 is that YHWH is unfaithful and neglectful. It is YHWH’s failure to be faithfully present in Israel that results in the suffering and shame of the exile.” (Brueggemann: p101 – my emphasis.)
In Lamentations, there is no response to the assertion of abandonment, in Isaiah a response or challenge to the assertion is forthcoming. However, “in these texts, Israel’s claim of divine abandonment is taken at face value, without the characteristic hedges often proposed in the rationality of the church.” (Brueggemann: p103.)
In each of the first three of these passages we might be tempted to argue that the abandonment was perceived by Israel but not real, because God woud never abandon his own. In the fourth passage (Isaiah 54) we cannot escape the reality of the abandonment, at least fidelity to the text will not allow us to do so: “For a brief moment I abandonned you … in overflowing wrath, for a moment, I hid my face from you …” says YHWH (Isaiah 54:7-8). “No justification for divine abandonment is offered. The poetry leaves us with only the brute fact of divine abandonment,” (Brueggemann: p103) on the lips of God, no less.
It is true that these “two admissions whereby YHWH concedes that Israel has ben abandoned are promptly countered by two assurances: ‘… with great compassion … I will gather you; … with everlasting love (hesed olam) I will have compassion on you,’ (Isaiah 54:7-8). It is profoundly important that the two positives do not nullify the two previous negatives.” (Brueggemann: pp103-104.)
It is also important from my perspective to note the broader passage in which verses 7 and 8 have been included. The promise of YHWH is the removal of shame: “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. Younwill forget the shame of youyr youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.” (Isaiah 54:4.) However, in Isaiah 54, “there is no way around it. YHWH does, from time to time, ‘exit’ the drama of Israel’s life.” (Brueggemann: p104.)
We stay with Brueggemann a little longer. He asks us to abandon usual responses to these passages and others like them in Scripture. These responses include five different strategies for dealing with passages that talk of Israel’s abandonment by God: (1) disregard – we have ignored them; (2) justification – clearly Israel’s sin was grievous and provoked this response; (3) judgement that it only seems to Israel as though she has been abandoned, when she has not; (4) philosophical subtlety – presence in absence, or the idea that speculating on God’s absence is evidence of belief in God’s background presence; (5) evolution – the idea that the evolution of Israel’s religion also includes God becoming a better God. (Brueggemann: p105-109.)
Instead, Brueggemann asks us to consider the text as a drama. He suggests that usually we Christians approach any text with some preconceived notions about God, with a particular understanding of God’s nature. “Such a view may be plausible from some other perspective, but it is of little help in taking the specificity of the biblical text seriously.” (Brueggemann: p109.) Brueggemann proposes, rather, that we posit a ‘rhetorical man’ as opposed to a ‘serious man’. He draws on Richard Lanham’s ideas here:
“The serious man possesses a central self, an irreducable identity. These selves combine into single, homogeneously real society which constitutes a referent reality … This referent society is in turn contained in a physical nature itself referential, standing ‘out there’, independent of man.”(Lanham: p1.)
“Rhetorical man is an actor; his reality public, dramatic. His sense of identity, his self, depends on the reassurance of daily histrionic reenactment. He is thus centered in time and concrete local event. The lowest common denominator of his life is a social situation. And his motivations must be characteristically lucid, agonistic … He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather to prevailing in the game in hand.” (Lanham: p4.)
These ideas are of great signifcance for us as we consider these texts, and particularly so in the light of anthropological work by Bruce J. Malina and others which identifies: (a) the pivotal values of Old Testament cultures as honour and shame; (b) people in those cultures as being dyadic personalities – concerned how they were seen by others and living up to or through those perceptions; (c) group as more important then the individual; and (d) social life as being a game of competing for the ‘limited good’ of honour, and endeavouring to avoid being shamed. Lanham’s ‘rhetorical man’ seems to fit this cultural understanding very well.
Brueggemann further points out that “the world of rhetorical man is ‘teeming with roles, situations, interventions, but … no master role, no situation of situations, no strategy for outflanking all strategies … no neutral point of rationality from the vantage point of which the ‘merely rhetorical’ can be identified and held in check’.” (Brueggemann: p112, quoting Fish: p215.)
Brueggemann is not arguing for a particular understanding of the culture of the day. He is, rather, asking us to take the text seriously at face value. However, his proposal of the ‘rhetorical man’ looks and feels suspiciouly like the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ of the culture of the time. He or she was someone who would have read or heard the text in the way that Brueggemann suggests. The anthropological work of Malina and others supports Brueggemann’s proposal that we read the text dramatically. Or we could argue that Lanham/Brueggemann’s ‘rhetorical man’ is no mere hypothesis but rather the ‘man’, or ‘woman of the street’ in Old Testament times. Or we might go even further and say that the ‘rhetorical man’ demonstrates the model that anthropologists have proposed for understanding the cultures of the Scriptures, specifically that those cultures were dominated by the values of honour and shame, has validity!
Walter Brueggemann; “Redescribing Reality: What We Do When We Read the Bible;” SCM, London, 2009
Stanley Fish; “Rhetoric.” In Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, pp203-222. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.
Richard A. Lanham; “The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance;” Yale Univ. Press’ New Haven, 1976.
Tod Linafelt; “Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book;” Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000.
Bruce J. Malina; “The New Testament World – Insights from Cultural Anthropology;” Westminster John Knox, 1993. See also the work of other members of the Context Group of which Malina is a part.