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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 19’

The culminating oracle of blessing pronounced over Egypt now widens to include what might have seemed to a Judahite hearer or reader of Isaiah the three most important nations in the world. The oracle is in this sense a global vision.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’

Isaiah 19:24-25 (NRSV)

This simple declaration culminates the carefully constructed crescendo of the five sequenced oracles not only because of it stunning reconstruction of Israel’s place in the world. It also claims first-among-equals status as the chain’s supreme statement because for the first time YHWH speaks in his own voice, without a prophet’s mediation.

Clearly, this oracle—manifestly one of five—towers over and completes the work of its peers.

Interpretive difficulties cling to to details. First, what is the antecedent of ברכה, a blessing? The referenced blessing might be Israel herself. Or it might be the composite trio of the three named peoples.

Second, how should we understand the antecedent to the relative particle אשׁר and indeed to the pronominal suffix of ברכו? The latter feature is omitted in the rendering of NRSV that I’ve quoted above, probably wisely.

Reconstructions of sense and syntax abound and the matter is indeed complex. With ברכו, we may indeed have a slightly corrupt text.

With regard to the first question, it must be noted that the Hebrew relative particle אשׁר is undeclinable. Morphology therefore gives us no clues as to its antecedent. The full interpretive burden falls upon syntax.

NRSV’s representation of אשׁר with ‘whom’ indicates that it understands ‘whom the Lord has blessed’ to refer back to Israel, Egypt, and Assyria. Although this trio of nations is not the nearest possible antecedent to אשׁר, they are picked up again in the spoken blessing that the clause introduces. This is a very viable understanding and quite possibly reflects the intentionality woven into the Hebrew text.

A second and equally viable understanding of the matter sees the antecedent of אשׁר not in personal terms that can be represented in English by ‘whom’ but rather as an impersonal antecedent best glossed by ‘which’. In this case, the antecedent is the land. This reading has the benefit of linking אשׁר to its nearest antecedent in the flow of the sentence. As well, it evokes a land that now receives the blessing of its human denizens’ reconciliation. It is not difficult to hear Abrahamic resonances in this reading, to say nothing of potential harmonies with the ironic biblical motif of the land resting after its iniquitous possessors have finally been expelled.

With regard to the remaining details, the 3rd person singular pronominal suffix of ברכו in the Massoretic text, a reconstruction of the text may be in order. I favor an explanation that considers the possibility that the final waw of ברכו is extraneous and results from confusion with one or more of the initial letters of the following יהוה. The Septuagint seems to have arrived at a similar understanding, if indeed its Vorlage corresponds to our MT.

Laying these matters to rest for the moment, YHWH’s concluding declaration is a radical return to Abrahamic convictions, where YHWH’s purpose through Israel is blessing for the nations rather than the mere elevation of Israel’s prospects.

Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.

YHWH’s direct discourse sustains the claim that Israel is now ‘third in the land’ by placing her in exactly that position after Egypt and Assyria. Yet her dignity in that place resonates as loudly as ever.

Now, however, Israel is seen as one component of a vastly broader commitment on YHWH’s part. His determination, according to the Isaianic affirmation so gorgeously unfurled in this sequence of blessing oracles, it to bless, to fashion, and to preserve. The objects of those divine activities are plural rather than singular. Arguably these objects represent all the peoples of the earth, humanity itself. Indisputably, YHWH’s intentions bend towards the three most important nations in Israel’s world.

The careful reader hears in the background the second affirmation of the Seraphims’ song in the book’s generative vision (chapter 6):

The fulness of the earth is his glory!

One detects as well reverberations of the Vision of Visions in chapter 4, where the reader is invited to imagine a world in which swords have been beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Nations, reconciled there in Zion as they become students of YHWH’s instruction, indeed become a blessing in the land rather than the soil’s most stubborn curse.

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The fourth of the carefully sequenced oracles regarding the blessing of Egypt is the shortest. Yet in terms of the breadth of vision that these visions unfold before the readers eyes, it is the widest to date. This observation hinges on this verse’s inclusion of the other threatening empire that it now brings into the embrace of YHWH’s purposeful blessing: Assyria, the loathed and the feared.

Indeed, the brevity masks remarkable poignance, the illumination of which will require some historical comment.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

Isaiah 19:23 (NRSV)

Egypt and Assyria serve in the Israelite imagination as the opposing poles of imperial menace. When one casts its menacing shadow over the Levant, the other becomes a sought-after ally in an attempt to manage the moment’s Realpolitik. As human beings travel, though not as birds fly, Egypt and Assyria stand spatially at those same two poles. Mobility imitates politics, or the reverse.

Indeed, more must be said to that point. This diminutive oracle punches above its weight via an unstated assumption: A highway from Egypt to Assyria and the promised passage of one empire’s emissaries to the other will necessary lead such travelers through Israel. Judah will by no means be a bystander to the imagined circumstances.

Seen in this light, the oracle contains stirring assumptions about a pacified political and natural geography. Only a world at peace could see the kinds of transit in both directions that is in view.

So far, the two elements that verse 23 envisage political, commercial, and cultural exchange. The to-ing-and-fro-ing of these hitherto adversarial empires conjures a new world, one never glimpsed by human eyes, one that imitates the counter-experiential promise in the Vision of Visions (chapter 4) that nations shall flow like a river up hill to Zion, in that vision the world’s highest promontory.

Yet there is more, and it is stated in the syllables of classic Isaianic paradox.

…and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

The clause just quoted represents an ambiguous Hebrew expression, one that is once again placed in a kind of emphatic position as the oracle’s summary declaration.

ועבדו מצרים את־אשׁור

In the normal discourse of imperial politics, this declaration would most naturally be read as a description of Egypt’s subjugation to Assyria. That is to say, the verb עבד would denote the Egyptians’ service of Assyria as the latter empire’s underlings. The particle את would serve as the direct object marker of the verb. The entire expression would then be represented in English as ‘…and the Egyptians will serve Assyria’.

Yet in context two transformations of this ‘obvious’ reading are almost certainly placed before the reader’s eyes. First עבד seems to intend religious service rather than political subservience, this in keeping with the cultic altar and pillar as well as the sacrifice and burnt offering that Egyptians find themselves rendering to YHWH in the oracle just prior to this one.

Second, את appears to be placed quite ironically to represent not the familiar direct object marker but rather the preposition that means ‘with’. The two words are homographs and were presumably also homophones. The direct object marker occurs far more frequently than the preposition, though both are standard components of biblical Hebrew discourse.

Here the meaning must be, as most modern translations suggest, that…

…the Egyptians will worship (YHWH) alongside Assyria.

The forty syllables of this fourth and almost miniature oracle of blessing have stood the known world on its head. Much like the fourth chapter’s Vision of Visions, they portray an impossible world, one that is almost inconceivable to the Ancient Near Eastern mind, as to ours.

The nations have experienced a complete religious transformation; the word ‘conversion’ falls far short of what is here described. Additionally, their relationships with each other have moved from enmity and competition to cooperative interaction of the most existentially profound kind.

Although the vocabulary and imagery could hardly be more different that those of the Vision of Visions, the nations have indeed streamed to and now through Zion with YHWH’s instruction and the worship of him as features of those peoples’ engagement with Jacob’s God. Swords have indeed been beaten into plowshares, spears become pruning hooks.

It is all quite impossible. Unless, the prophet urges his readers to conjecture, it is not.

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When the reader arrives at the third of five oracles, all of which develop the image of an Egypt that has somehow found its way to service of the God of Jacob, the evocative ambiguity of the first two visions has faded almost to the vanishing point.

On that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the LORD on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

Isaiah 19:19–22 (NRSV)

One might read the first two of the four verses as standard, quasi-imperial boasting on Israel’s part. The liturgy in such a reading is carried out by Judahite occupiers cum conquerors of Egypt. If we had no context, it might even be ventured that such an interpretation fits more naturally than any other. The unspecified ‘they’ and ‘them’ of the latter clauses would need to be read as Hebrew ancestors in a reprise of the Exodus events. The latter is the only detail in such a reading that might stretch credulity if indeed we are dealing with occupiers.

On that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.

Isaiah 19:19–20 (NRSV)

But the final verses of this vignette rule out such a reading. Here the language of mutual knowledge between YHWH and the Egyptians clearly identifies the worshipers as both authentic rather than forced and as Egyptian rather than Judahite. So does the transparent evocation of Egyptians worshiping YHWH ‘with sacrifice and burnt offering’ and their taking and performance of vows to YHWH.

We are now far clear of what I have argued is the studied ambiguity of the first two oracles of Egyptian’s turning. We have even moved beyond the vestigial allusiveness of this oracle’s first two verses into a spectacular scene of Egyptian worship of YHWH that can scarcely be imagined from the perspective of Jewish nationalism.

Yet it is the final verse that anchors this extraordinary oracle in the established rhythm of striking and healing that is a signature feature of the Isaianic burden.

The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

Isaiah 19:22 (NRSV)

By any measure that makes the biblical canon its point of departure, this is a breathtaking declaration. It alludes, in my view, to a pattern inherent in the relationship of YHWH vis-à-vis Israel that is apparent from as early as the book’s introductory chapter. There, no thought of Egypt or any other alien nation is in view. In the text of that first chapter and in its context, YHWH’s enmity is directed against Jerusalem and Judah and only against them. An extended quote is necessary.

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers!

Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.  

Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!

I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.

And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.

Isaiah 1:21-26 (NRSV)

This remarkable feature of an introductory chapter that establishes multiple themes that will be developed throughout the sixty-five ensuing chapters presents the same kind of redemptive ‘striking’ that we glimpse in Isaiah chapter 19. YHWH executes his wrath and vengeance on his own people, understood to be Judah and Jerusalem. Yet when he turns his hand against them, the result is not lethal but rather remedial. They are not exterminated. Instead, they are purified. The city is restored to the righteousness and faithfulness that were her purported beginning.

The third restoration oracle of Isaiah 19 deploys this same divine penchant to Egypt’s fate. There, YHWH’s enmity strikes in order to heal. The process is accompanied by promised divine attentiveness to the cry of Egyptian hearts. The oracle’s brief and summary declaration is simple but hardly one that is easily to be anticipated of the nation whose erstwhile Pharaonic ruler is recalled in Jewish homes and hearts as the iconic oppressor of the people’s mothers and fathers:

… and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

The Isaianic vision of Egypt’s turning in the two remaining blessing oracles will broaden still further the fate of Israel’s proverbial oppressor on the Nile. It will embrace even Assyria, that other great evil empire, in its redemptive grasp. Yet it would be a shame to rush on too quickly from what the prophet has invited us to imagine while Egypt still holds our gaze.

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We’ve considered the sudden turning in Isaiah’s nineteenth chapter from a bleak oracle of judgement against Egypt to a declaration about her healing and indeed her unlikely integration into Yahwistic faith. Some would categorize the ambiguous vignette at verses 16-17 with the preceding doom oracle against that nation. I’ve argued on the basis of the overwhelming note of blessing in the five oracles and the precisely repeated introductory clause ביום ההוא (‘In that day…’) that those two verses are best understood as a first of five oracles of blessing rather than a dismal prelude to them.

When we come to the chapter’s second declaration of good fortune for Egypt, the sunnier disposition of the oracle occasions relatively less doubt. I understand it to be the second of five parallel oracles of blessing.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

Isaiah 19:18 (NRSV)

Curiously, there is a crescendoing of the element of blessing from the first of the five oracles—where it is seen only through the prism of the happier declarations that follow it—to the fifth and culminating vision. In that culminating version of events, not only Egypt but also Assyria will be placed before Israel as nations that are the beneficiaries of YHWH’s blessing.

When verse 18 is seen in this wider context, it makes its own contribution to the gradual clarifying of Egypt’s enviable plight. Taken by itself, this second oracle of blessing might be read as conventional imperial rhetoric of an Israelite type. Those ‘five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and wear allegiance to the YHWH Sebaoth’ could quite naturally be understood as settlements of occupying Israelites within Egypt.

It is only as we continue to read on into the third oracle and then the fourth and fifth that such an understand loses its viability. In the third, a deep rapprochement between Egypt and YHWH himself will become evident. If we read the oracles together—as the ביום הוא mechanism seems to suggest that we must—then these five cities are Egyptian cities peopled by Egyptian inhabitants living on Egyptian land. Yet they speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to Israel’s deity. Whether this vow is understood as an initial feature of faith by conversion or as an ongoing Yahwistic piety is almost immaterial. In either case, we view Egyptians worshiping YHWH and participating in the ongoing identity that is represented by dialect.

Elsewhere, the book called Isaiah will traffic in the language and concept of a new name and of re-naming. Here we have all of that in a different key that does not depend upon the mention of a new name but rather by reference to two activities: swearing of allegiance and language. Indeed, as we shall see, these Egyptians manifestly remain Egyptians.

Still, upon looking below the surface, one thing becomes clear: everything has changed.

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Arguably the most stunning redemptive turning in Isaiah’s oracles against the nations involves the Egyptians. That the prophet can imagine these historical oppressors of Israel turning to YHWH and finding his welcome extended to them says something powerful about the Isaianic tradition. It ought to unsettle any reader who expects to find here garden-variety denunciation of an ancient adversary in tones of triumph.

Isaiah gives us something far different than that, remote from convention, alien to religious nationalism of any ordinary kind.

After the Schadenfreude of Egypt’s imagined downfall has run its course, the nineteenth chapter’s verses 16 through 25 serve up no fewer than five short tales of Egypt’s redemptive turning. Each is introduced by the familiar but indeterminate expression ביום ההוא (‘On that day…’).

Within the prophetic rhetoric, the imagined moment of Egypt’s new and greater glory—this in contrast to the faux wisdom that is ridiculed in the chapter’s first seventeen verses—is no less certain for being difficult to date. The prophet speaks of something that will happen even as he makes no effort to ascertain just when these things might occur.

The first of the five restoration oracles is in modern editions of the Bible often grouped with the oracle against Egypt that precedes it, no doubt because its tone appears to fit better with that dismal litany than with the brilliant promises that follow.

This seems to me to be mistaken. I prefer to allow the formula ביום ההיא perform its natural work of anchoring verses 16-17 as a first of five oracles of blessing, although this immediately requires us to explain how words of terror can speak of good fortune.

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the LORD of hosts is planning against them.

Isaiah 19:16–17 (NRSV)

Indeed, this apparently damning oracle twice refers to YHWH moving against Egypt, first by means of the hand he raises against them and then again by way of the counsel or plan that YHWH has planned/counseled against them.

Is it not absurd to find blessing in such fury?

In ordinary circumstances, it would certainly be so. But this book’s conception of redemption is not ordinary. We have already seen that the recurring vocabulary of what are manifestly five oracles begins here and continues verbatim in the remaining four. Since the latter four declarations are stunningly positive in terms of their outcome, we might suspect that the first is not an entire outlier in this regard.

Such a hermeneutical suspicion that better things lurk here finds corroboration in the summary statement of the third of five oracles, where verse 22 renders a stunning verdict:

The LORD will strike (ונגף) Egypt, striking and healing (נגף ורפוא); they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them (ורפאם).

Isaiah 19:22 (NRSV)

My presentation of the text just above intends to illustrate the stirring deployment of two Isaianic verbs of wide and resonant import: נגף, to strike; and רפא, to heal. The careful reader will have encountered from the book’s first chapter onward that YHWH’s striking of his people is with redemptive intent. Jacob shall know no healing and there is no restoration without the fire of affliction, without passing through the Great Calamity of exile that is YHWH’s own doing.

Yet here the same dynamic is extended to Israel’s pagan neighbor, with redemptive adumbrations no weaker for the detail that the object of YHWH’s strange ministrations are the oft-loathed Egyptians rather than YHWH’s own Jacob/Israel/Judah.

If we allow the architecture of Isaiah 19 to speak as loudly as its words, then we are in my view obligated to read the strange work of striking-in-order-to-heal back into verses 16-17. In doing so, the raising of both divine hand and divine plan against Egypt is in fact penultimate, a step on the way to her greater and YHWH-inclined glory. Isaiah 19.16-17 is indeed an oracle of blessing, a strange word in which dark terror births an eventual brilliant light.

So does the עצת יהוה—Isaiah’s notorious counsel of YHWH—slip the hands of conventional management. YHWH is not to be administered or managed, the prophet seems to suggest. His ways defy comprehension.

He is passing strange. You would never imagine.

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