The land of Israel is teeming with life. Visitors and residents enjoy a broad ecological system. From the lush greenery in the north, to the forests in the center all the way down to breathtaking beauty of the southern desert with its wide streams and oases.
However, this has not always been the case. At one point in time Israel was more of a wasteland. When Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867 he described its terrain as “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds ... a silent mournful expanse ... a desolation ... we never saw a human being on the whole route ... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country” (The Innocents Abroad, 361-362).
Modern readers would be forgiven for finding Twains description of Israel off the mark. Yet, in a mere 148 years, the land of Israel has transformed from desolation into a living oasis.
How did this change occur? What about the land gave it this amazing ability to change in such a miraculous manner? From a materialistic perspective the growing number of settlers who worked the centuries-long dormant land is one reason; anytime you introduce humans into an uninhabited region they will have a huge impact on the environment. Frequently, this impact is largely negative. However, the settlers of Zion had a largely positive impact on Israel. They turned the desert green, caused rivers to flow once again, and established farms where agriculture was once thought impossible.
Yet, there is also a spiritual side to this remarkable transformation. Isaiah described Israel in her state of exile in a remarkably similar fashion to Mark Twain’s description of Palestine in 1867:
Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. (Isaiah 1:7-8)
However, unlike Mark Twain, Isaiah was able to foresee through prophetic vision the restoration of Zion. This restoration of Zion is spelled out in a series of prophetic oracles know in Judaism as the “seven readings of consolation.” These seven readings are read after the three weeks of mourning the destruction of the Temple and exile of Israel. After these difficult three weeks we are comforted week after week until Rosh HaShanah by verses of hope, consolation, life, restoration, and peace.
These readings build upon each other. They move from the first stirrings of redemption to the full realization of the redeemed Jerusalem. These prophetic oracles found in the seven readings of consolation are addressed to the city of Jerusalem and the barren landscape of Judah. These readings also represent the tension between God and Israel during her transition from an exiled to a ransomed people.
In the first consolation God tells the prophet to “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1). To which Israel replies to the prophet’s attempt at comforting, “The Lord has abounded me and God has forsaken me” (Isaiah 49:14).
The prophet then takes this back to God and explains that since Zion is “storm tossed and without comfort” (Isaiah 54:11) she is unable to accept the prophet’s consolation. Therefore, God steps in and assures Israel that “Only I will be your comforter” (Isaiah 51:12). God then begins to comfort Israel by telling her “Rejoice O Barren woman” (Isaiah 54:1) and “Arise and shine for the glory of the LORD shines upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). Once Israel is comforted by God and no other she responds, “I will indeed rejoice in God” (Isaiah 61:10).
Throughout this back-and-forth, the landscape of Zion was slowly being restored by the returning exiles and God’s presence. God, through the prophet, encourages Zion to note the amazing return of her children:
Lift up your eyes around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, declares the LORD, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does. Surely your waste and your desolate place and your devastated land surely now you will be too narrow for your inhabitants, and those who swallowed you up will be far away. (Isaiah 49:18-19)
Throughout this time, as Israel’s children were coming home, the desolate ruins of Judah were being transformed. Streams were once again flowing in the Negev:
I, the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together. (Isaiah 41:18-19)
These verses show the correlation between the restoration of Zion’s children and the transformation of her landscape. Without her children Zion is desolate and her landscape barren. When the exiled children of Israel come back they not only bring themselves but they also restore God’s presence to Zion. The Talmud teaches that God’s Dwelling Presence dwells in exile with his people (b. Megillah 29b).
Therefore, when the exiles return they also return God’s presence to Israel. God is by nature the opposite of death, sickness, and waste; so as more of his children return to the land it cannot help but react to his nature by transforming itself to his nature, from death to life.