Four Words

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The first four words of Isaiah 43:10 are etched in white capital letters into the black tile walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And, lest you have any doubt that the reference is indeed to that passage of scripture, ISAIAH 43:10 is also etched in centered white capital letters immediately below those four words.  

Someone somewhere wants every Holocaust Memorial Museum visitor to leave the building with the clear conviction of having been a witness — a personal witness — of the horrors, atrocities, and crimes to which the Jewish people were subjected during the 1930s and 40s in Europe.

“The passage is taken completely out of context and errantly misapplied.” And that would be an echo, the voice of one of my late college professors. Yet it is only the displaced memory of his voice. Had he personally visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum with me I suspect my professor would have respected the solemnity of the place by refraining to make such a comment there. But the echo of his old lecture had its intended impact on me. I realized that for all their weight those four etched words from Isaiah were taken completely out of context and misapplied in that setting.

Or were they?

To be sure, since only four words (of the approximately forty words in the verse) are found etched there, the passage has certainly been taken out of its immediate literary context.

Moreover, the Holocaust Memorial Museum applies those four words to its various visitors, who are definitely not the originally referenced witnesses of Isaiah 43:10.

So, yes, definitely — the passage has been taken completely out of context and errantly applied. But in another ironic and unintended way, those etched words are exactly perfect there, in that precise setting, because the passage, when considered in its broader context, actually does go a long way in explaining some of the hardest questions of the Holocaust.    

As for the verse itself, here it is, in its entirety:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”

Isaiah 43:10 New Internation Version

An immediate observation: If the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had put Isaiah 43:10 in its entirety upon the wall, museum visitors would have been perplexed at it. It would have seemed a brazen theological declaration, completely out of place for a museum and more appropriate for a synagogue or a church. So they settled on just four words: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And yet they decided to include the reference to Isaiah 43:10, thereby invoking the authority of God, at least in the consciousness of peoples of the Book.

As a person of the Book, I appeal to it. Go look at and contemplate that verse from Isaiah. But look beyond it as well. Consider its broader context. Ask the most academic questions of the text, such as:

Who are the LORD’s witnesses? And who is the Servant whom the LORD has chosen? Are the witnesses and the Servant one and the same entity? What exactly does the LORD want His witnesses to observe? What does the LORD want his witnesses to give testimony about? Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? Why that particular strange expression: “I am He”? Is that expression a reference to something else, something said earlier in Scripture? Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods, even throughout the entire scope of time? Why does the LORD subtly berate and negate gods that are “formed”?    

The Exodus. 1952/1966. Oil on linen canvas. Photo: Philippe Migeat.

These are called “leading questions”; and I do hope they will lead my readers as they think through the meaning of Isaiah 43:10.

Here are a few suggested answers:

In the original context of Isaiah, the LORD’s witnesses were God’s chosen people, the Jewish people. By extension, today the LORD’s witnesses may be God’s chosen people. In my estimation, we can cross out the words “may be” and replace them with “are.” God’s chosen people (past and present) are the witnesses mentioned in Isaiah 43:10. 

As for who the chosen Servant is, be aware that this is a very controversial question. Typically, this is precisely what divides Jews and Christians. Jews assert that the LORD’s chosen Servant must be the Jewish people as a whole. Christians reply that the chosen Servant of this passage is the Messiah, the Christ. To answer the question for yourself, you need to read beyond the immediate verse. You need to look at the surrounding passages. Please do.

What does the LORD want his witnesses to observe? According to the verses immediately preceding Isaiah 43:10, the LORD wants them to observe how He has gathered the Jewish people from every direction and from all the places they have been scattered.     

What does the LORD want his witnesses to testify to? He wants them to testify to his sole supremacy and power in regathering his chosen people.

Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? That exact expression is a reference to the appearance of the LORD to Moses at the burning bush, when and where the LORD revealed his name to Moses, a name which is a variation on “I am.” The LORD wants his chosen people to recognize Him as the same God who delivered them from the start of their nation. 

Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods? He does so because time and again the sin of idolatry resulted in the exile of the Jewish people. The LORD goes on to berate and negate those idolatrous, empty gods because they are not worthy of his chosen people.

That, then, is one informed contextual reading of Isaiah 43:10.

When the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum chose to etch Isaiah 43:10 on a wall, they actually (though unintentionally) chose to reference a very relevant history-unpacking verse, which speaks precisely to the historical predicament of the chosen people of God.    

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