Memory is supposed to encourage and ignite hope. In Isaiah 63, however, the people of Israel remember the old days of Moses and despair: “Where is he?” they ask - the one who brought His people through the sea, put His Spirit in their midst, divided the waters and led them through the depths (63:11). Memory reminds them that this God of wonders is now absent.

What they remember is the exodus, and Isaiah describes the exodus in a peculiar way: Where is he who from the sea caused-to-ascend shepherds and flocks. The verb is ‘alah, to go up. Isaiah highlights the fact that the waters are down and Yahweh’s rescue of Israel from the waters was the beginning of Israel’s ascent, which eventually led them to a high place at Sinai.

That suggests several thoughts. First, it links the event of the exodus to the “ascension” offering (Leviticus 1; ‘olah). Leviticus 1 prescribes that the entrails and legs of an ascension be washed before they are placed on the altar: The parts of the animal “ascend” through the water to the fiery mountaintop of the altar.

And that, second, hints at allegories and tropologies. Jesus is the shepherd who ascends from the water of His baptism to endure temptations in the wilderness; in His resurrection, He ascends through the watery sea of the firmament into the presence of the Father, as the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Baptism is also an ascent, a descent under the water and an ascent as a member of the flock.

And all that, finally, may help to justify the traditional interpretation of Song of Songs 4:2 and 6:6 (“your teeth are like a flock of ewes come up from their washing”; the verb “come up” translates ‘alah). Yahweh causes Israel to ascend from the sea as a Bride washed and spotless, gleaming white, a Bride prepared for her husband. And that ascent was reenacted at each sacrifice, re-performed at each baptism.

“Where is he?” who made Israel to ascend. Check the font. He’s probably there.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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