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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 14’

When the book called Isaiah simultaneously addresses the future of Judah and of ‘the nations’, a persistent ambiguity attaches to its portrayal of the latter.

The nations quite often figure as something like forced laborers serving restored Judah and Jerusalem. Their lot seems neither happy nor chosen.

Yet with great frequency such depictions also include a hint at the choice of a volunteer who signs up for a difficult job that in some way improves his or her situation, even fulfills a deep longing.

The book’s fourteenth chapter, more famous for its notorious and highly sarcastic taunt of the fallen Babylonian king, actually kicks off with a two-verse vignette of the kind I’ve mentioned.

“But the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the nations will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the LORD’S land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them.”

Isaiah 14:1-2 (NRSV)

The initial declaration deploys three pieces of familiar promissory language, richly laden with denotations and connotations of YHWH’s stubborn commitment to restore his captive people. I refer to the words בחר, רחם, and נוח, here rendered in context as the verbal portions of will have compassion on Jacob, will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land.

It is not difficult to imagine this promise developed without reference to anyone except the beneficiaries of YHWH’s restorative mercies. Yet Jacob/Israel is in fact accompanied by ‘nations’ who serve as the porters of returning Israelite captives and are further identified as ‘male and female slaves’, as former captors now turned captives, and as Jacob’s former oppressors.

The picture fits nicely in a tables-turned narrative of poetic justice.

Yet there is more—squeezed in between the assertion of YHWH’s redemptive activity and the description of Israel’s unlikely servants—and it is in this additional detail that we glimpse an ambiguity that can only be described as studied:

…and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.

The language of this description is not that of bare captives. There is decision here. There is choice. Indeed there is inclusion and even what we moderns call conversion, mediated by the verbs ונלוה (will join) and ונספחו (and attach). It is virtually impossible to imagine this dual action as forced subservience. Indeed, it is the language of throwing in one’s lot, of a change of identity, of an existential joining an entity to which one has previously been alien.

Under such scrutiny, the promise of this brief oracle becomes clearer. Jacob/Israel is not the only beneficiary of YHWH’s fortune-turning, muscular mercy. The least likely, the formerly adversarial, the oppressor of rough-hewn speech somehow participates alongside YHWH’s immediate daughters and sons.

Yet he does not cease to be a subject and even a slave, does not merely find a place among the sweaty knots of rejoicing Jewish returnees to Zion, does not lose his identity as a son of ‘the nations’ and a former captor. The text is unfamiliar with the proverbial melting pot. Its treasured future is chunky, not blended.

The book called Isaiah, here as so often, turns on the intentional ambiguity that shrouds YHWH’s most coveted actions in the mystery that becomes him.

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