Two extraordinary facets of Isaiah’s discourse show their face in this brief oracle.
For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the peoples will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess them in the Lord’s land as male and female slaves. They will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them. (Isaiah 14:1–2 ESV)
Yet it would be useless to appreciate them without first taking into account a very large fact on the ground: Peoples were not meant to survive the Ancient Near Eastern experience of exile.
On the contrary, exile meant the erasure of a nation from the face of the earth, from the future, indeed from memory. By murder and mayhem, by assimilation both forced and unforced, an ethnic group had no reasonable hope of emerging from the experience of exile at, say, the hands of the biblical Babylonians.
Against this dismal backdrop, YHWH in the book of Isaiah repeatedly promises to have compassion upon and to choose again his captive people Israel/Judah. It is a claim that spits in the face of all historical probability to say nothing of the might of Babylon itself.
Only a lord who stands outside of and over history could make this claim without being laughed out of court. And even then, YHWH would need to show his stuff in sweaty space and time before such a promise would be taken seriously by all but the most desperate of Zion’s captives.
This divine turning towards captive Judah is the first of the two extraordinary feats of the Isaianic message to which I’ve alluded. This merciful turning stands behind and gives credibility to the prophet’s call that Judah should both turn (in repentance) and re-turn (physically to Zion). Without YHWH’s prior turning towards this people, there is no sense in any such heroic measures on their part. It would be a simple historical insanity, a brief burst of enthusiasm that history would fail to record.
Second, the ‘nations’ find an ambiguous place in this rhetoric. The text claims that sojourners ‘will join’ Judah and ‘will attach themselves to’ the house of Jacob, expressions with a strong whiff of conversion and engrafting clinging to them.
Further, ‘the peoples’—reprehensible pagans, in the main—will themselves bring Judah/Israel back to her land and then become the nation’s servants and slaves within it. Again, Isaiah is trafficking in impossibilities, unless YHWH is credible.
The place of the nations in Isaiah’s vision is a much discussed problem. At moments, the book permits us a glimpse of non-Israelites as virtual equals of Judahites themselves in the company of their redeeming Lord. More commonly, the doors are opened generously to non-Jews even as the text maintains a kind of subordination of ‘gentiles’ (the people of the non-Jewish nations) to the returning Judahites themselves. That is certainly the case in this passage. The reader remains uninformed about just how comfortable the nations will become as Israel’s domestic servants. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot.
When these features of the text are taken into account, it becomes clear that this is anything but a prosaic and naive optimism that things will turn out OK in the end.
To the contrary, Isaiah would have us gasp—perhaps even to cuss just a little in disbelief—before a known world undone. And a new one just beginning.