Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 18’

The book of Isaiah’s oracles against the nations can be quite savage in their predicted debasement of those peoples who have been cruel to Israel/Judah. Their envisaged downfall is met with Schadenfreude of the first order.

Six of the seven verses of chapter 18 give themselves to this kind of vengeful celebration at the expense of Cush, or Nubia/Ethiopia. If enigmatic in its allusive details, the oracle is perfectly clear in its thirst for the downfall of a distant nation, one whose storied mobility perhaps makes it easy to understand as not quite distant enough!

The sixth verse brings the oracle to a close with a blood-curdling sneer. What could be more pathetic than to fall from quasi-imperial grace and become the soil under the talons and feet of mere animals?

They shall all be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the animals of the earth. And the birds of prey will summer on them, and all the animals of the earth will winter on them.

Isaiah 18:6 (NRSV)

Yet these savage oracles tend to swing abruptly upon a redemptive hinge. When they do so, we discover a temporal phrase that points to a moment of restoration beyond the destruction for which the prophet so passionately hopes.

In this chapter, the vision of posterior blessing occupies a single verse.

At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah 18:7 (NRSV)

The Hebrew clause בעת ההיא generates English ‘(a)t that time’ and locates Cush’s reversed circumstances in the unspecified future. Indeed, the book employs a handful of synonymous expressions that do the same. Usually, they provide no information regarding the ways and means of the radical turn of events they introduce. They simply indicate that there is more to the story. Then, quickly, the prophet tells it.

In my view, a declaration like that of Isaiah 18.7 cannot be dismissed as simple imperial subjection of an enemy with its parade of tribute-bearing slaves. There is too much of a pattern of doom-to-blessing in these oracles against the nations with which interpretation of a verse like this must reckon. There is as well a vocabulary of hope-fulfillment that frequently appears in the midst of such turns of fortune.

There is more here than simply subjugation. There is, as well, fulfillment.

Taken as a whole, this oracle promises a terrible future to Cush. And then a beautiful one.

Interpreters of the book called Isaiah have often failed to resist an effort simply to assign the two phenomena—separated and joined as they are by a brief, temporal hinge—to two hands. The first can imagine only woe for Israel’s perceived enemies. The second brings a radically different corrective to the conversation, while allowing the woe oracle itself to stand.

There must be more to the canonical arrangement that this. In a way that within the constraints of this book rather defies penetration, the Isaianic vision embraces a deeper purpose on YHWH’s part vis-à-vis the nations. This secondary and arguably deeper divine commitment roughly parallels the expectation of a devastating purification that Israel herself must undergo on the way to her Zion-centric rehabilitation.

If we can summon the courage and the patience to step inside the Isaianic world view, we are drawn to conclude that YHWH is not simply against the nations. Indeed, he is for them in somewhat analogous terms to his passionate goodwill towards Israel.

Yet the road to his restorative mercies is—here too—long, dark, and blood-spattered.

So does this enigmatic scroll lurk restlessly in the hearts and minds of attentive readers, becoming—somehow and alongside Deuteronomy and the Psalms—Israel’s and the early Christian church’s most treasured documentary legacy.

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