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Introduction, Workshop 7: Isaiah - Exile and Hope

In "Wisdom from the Hebrew Scriptures," a Tapestry of Faith program

Despair? Did someone say despair was a question in the world? Well, then listen to the sons of those who have known little else if you wish to know the resiliency of this thing you would so quickly resign to mythhood, this thing called the human spirit. — Lorraine Hansberry (1930 — 1965), African American playwright and essayist, author of A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway in 1973

This workshop presents a different kind of story from the Hebrew scriptures. It is not a story in the strict sense of the word, but poetic writings from the book of Isaiah. Often referred to as the "suffering servant" passage, these words comforted a desolate and despairing people during a terrible time in exile. After 600 years of relative autonomy under King David, King Solomon, and their heirs, political tides in the region had led to the Babylonian conquest of first the northern kingdom of Israel, then the southern kingdom of Judah. In 587 BCE, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem and with it the Temple of Solomon, the seat of Jewish worship life and what they understood to be the home for Yahweh, their God. In three waves, Hebrew political, religious, and cultural leaders were exiled to Babylon, leaving behind a ruined land and a depleted people.

The exile in Babylon (587 — 539 BCE) was a painful time for the Jewish people, but also a watershed time. They needed to reconstitute their faith without a state of their own, without a homeland, without their seat of worship. And they needed to make sense of their humiliation in light of their covenant with Yahweh.

The "suffering servant" passages speak of the hope for eventual redemption, when the despised and humiliated people would be redeemed, and would be restored to their homeland and their nation. In the text, the suffering person represents the nation of Israel itself, and its hope and expectation that despair and humiliation will give way to a triumphant return home.

Although this passage was composed long ago and in circumstances we no longer fully understand, the theme resonates in Western culture. It appears in beloved fairy tales like The Ugly Duckling and Cinderella, and in acclaimed children's literature, including Harry Potter. The despised one, the vilified one, the one in exile comes in the end to triumph.

This workshop asks: Who is the God of Isaiah and of the exiled Jewish people? What did a hoped for redemption look and feel like to them?

This workshop also invites participants to consider their own experiences of exile, hope, and redemption. How do we move beyond suffering and exile?

To explore this story in a multigenerational group setting requires good preparation. Participants of all ages are explicitly invited to recall stories of triumph after rejection, both in popular culture and in their own lives, before engaging with the text. The activity options explore images and feelings of exile and hope, and invite participants to think about hope in their own lives and world.

This workshop continues a pattern of activities that frame all of the workshops in this program. Congregations may wish to establish their own patterns for this series of workshops, perhaps arranging for refreshments or a meal to precede or follow each workshop.

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction and make any accommodations necessary for your group.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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