Isaiah's Riddle

Isaiah 55.png

Third Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 54:11–55:5

David Wein, Tikvat Israel, Richmond, VA

Question: How many bagels can you eat on an empty stomach?

Response: One. After that, your stomach is no longer empty.

This, of course, is a riddle; it’s an old rabbinic one, designed to invite the talmidim (followers) to think differently, and perhaps groan or roll their eyes. Riddles force us to slow down and examine our own assumptions: “Is there a double meaning that I’m missing here?” “Is there another way to think about this everyday idea?” 

This week’s haftarah portion contains a kind of riddle, which the prophet inserted perhaps to invite us, his future talmidim, into the text. Chapter 55 of Isaiah opens with:

All you who are thirsty, come to the water!

You without money, come, buy, and eat!

Yes, come! Buy wine and milk

without money — it’s free!

Why spend money for what isn’t food,

your wages for what doesn’t satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and you will eat well,

you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1–2 CJB)

This is designed to get the proverbial hamster in our brain back on the wheel:

“And here I thought there was no such thing as a free lunch.”

“How can you possibly ‘buy’ something for free?”

“If what I’ve been buying to eat isn’t real food, then what is this real food, and how can I get some of it?” 

As for the word “buy” (Hebrew: shivru), the root first finds its use in the narrative of Joseph, in the book of Genesis. In order to survive, Joseph’s brothers need to buy food, which they can only do from their brother, whom they rejected. Of course, they do not have anything that Joseph really needs in exchange, so when they do buy grain to survive, we get the sense that Joseph is providing for them, and gifting them even beyond what they deserve. Indeed, Joseph is providing for all the surrounding nations as well in this kind of way, but especially for his brothers, the sons of Jacob. 

Our first sense of what salvation means comes from this very narrative. Salvation in Joseph’s story is abundant, packed to the full with forgiveness and restoration, and entirely orchestrated by the Savior himself. The ones who are being rescued pay nothing much, except perhaps their very selves. 

Salvation and restoration may be one answer to the riddle. Isaiah alludes to this earlier:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land

and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my Spirit on your descendants,

my blessing on your offspring.

They will spring up among the grass

like willows on the riverbanks.

One will say, “I belong to Adonai.”

Another will be called by the name of Ya‘akov.

Yet another will write that he belongs to Adonai

and adopt the surname Isra’el. (Isa 44:3–5 CJB)

We imagine water on the thirsty ground bringing life and the presence of God, the fullness of restoration to Israel like lush flora, even to the point of affirming the very identity of Israel as belonging to Hashem. 

The medieval commentator, Rashi, links the water of Isaiah’s riddle to the Torah. In the apostolic witness, the authors link the water of restoration and salvation to the Messiah. We think of Yeshua’s exchange with the Samaritan woman in John 4:14: “Whoever drinks the water I will give him will never be thirsty again! On the contrary, the water I give him will become a spring of water inside him, welling up into eternal life!” Or the very last page of Scripture, in Revelation 22:17: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ Let anyone who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let anyone who is thirsty come — let anyone who wishes, take the water of life free of charge.” The prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures points to Hashem himself as the wellspring of life, the waters of salvation:

For my people have committed two evils: they have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water! (Jer 2:13) 

Here we get a sense of meaning for that other sustenance which does not sustain: idolatry. Anything else besides God does not truly fill us, and is not really food. So why are we buying it, and eating it and drinking it up? Idolatry has a true cost to it, and in the end leaves us empty. Worshiping God, however, brings something we don’t need to purchase: salvation, restoration, and wholeness. 

So, the water and food, what do they represent in Isaiah’s riddle? Rescuing and restoration? Messiah? Torah? God? Since Isaiah himself does not answer the riddle, perhaps we are meant to hold all these possibilities in our mind, and to think them through. Perhaps we are meant to pause and re-examine something we think we already know. 

Do we thirst for Torah, for Messiah? Do we guard our hearts for Hashem, or do we spend our efforts trying to fill our lives with meaningless idols? The remainder of the riddle puts wine and milk in the analogy. Wine typically represents joy, and milk typically represents basic sustenance or provision, as for a baby. So, are we pursuing God in such a way that we are filled with joy, that we are nurtured by God and rely on Him like milk for an infant? 

The Haftarot of Comfort in the latter part of Isaiah point us to this truth: the redemption of Israel, and of all things, is at hand. So let us press into Isaiah’s riddle during this season of hope. For our hope comes from Yeshua, who is the fullest measure of salvation, restoration, Torah, the Messiah, and the visible image of the invisible God. Let us drink freely from the waters of life.

Russ Resnik