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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

The Hebrew Bible’s first verb rumbles with creative energy.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

Genesis 1:1 (NRSV)

By virtue of its privilege of place and of the fact that what goes down here can never happen again—Israelite monotheism will allow only one all-creating deity—the verb ברא quickly acquires a particular resonance. In fact, the Hebrew Bible displays a deep reticence to deploying ברא with anyone other than YHWH as its subject and with anything other than a creation out of nothing as its effect. Strictly speaking, the subject of ברא in Genesis 1.1 is אלהים, but in context ‘God’ can be no other than YHWH.

Scholars debate whether this kind of creation discourse first takes shape in the earliest chapters of Genesis, in the second part of Isaiah, or elsewhere. For now, it is enough to observe the manner in which the verb ברא is all but reserved for spectacular and unanticipated acts of creation by YHWH himself.

In this light, it is not short of remarkable that ברא flourishes unreservedly in Isaiah 43, where a kind of creation ex nihilo is presaged. Here, YHWH is emphatically its subject. He is a Creator lifted above the capacity of all other deities, if it can even be imagined that these might exist. The object or effect of YHWH’s creative artistry is the rebirth of Israel out of the inert nothingness of Exile.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

For nearly the length of this chapter, its author weaves ברא into a rich tapestry of which the other components of creative production are יצר (commonly, to shape or mold) and עשׂה (to make). That this is not technically creation ex nihilo but rather ‘creativity with a history’ is betrayed in the verbal threads that bring in גאל (to redeem) and קרא (to call, name, or even re-name). The notion of redemption (גאל) in particular assumes a preexisting deficient state from which one is rescued.

This is redemption cum creation. The vocabulary places Israel’s rescue at YHWH’s hands in the category of creation in a stunning metaphorical dance that is sustained for verse after lyrical verse without a hint of tedium. The first tranche of this composition is delivered up with a resounding conclusion at verse 7.

I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name (כל הנקרא בשׁמי), whom I created for my glory (ולכבודי בראתיו), whom I formed (יצרתיו) and made (אף עשִֹיתיו).

Isaiah 43:6-7 (NRSV)

The whole enterprise is reinforced in the chapter’s nineteenth verse by the divine declaration of a new thing, albeit now having built allusions to a New Exodus upon the foundation of a New Creation:

I am about to do a new thing (הנה עשׂה חדשׁח); now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV)

After this, no careful student of the book called Isaiah can conceive of redemption across the trajectory of the entire biblical canon without viewing it against the backdrop of YHWH’s spectacular and unanticipated creative artistry. Yet his sovereign creative mastery somehow honors the unpromising clay which he now chooses to shape, remold, and name after himself.

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The first words of Isaiah’s forty-first chapter convene the nations in the interest of justice.

Rarely in the book called Isaiah is it more difficult to ascertain precisely the tone of the invitation and the nuance of the Hebrew word משׁפט, usually rendered ‘justice’ but sometimes ‘judgement’. I underscore the pertinent phrase:

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

Two features of this summons link it to similar passages involving Israel/Jacob/Judah rather than, as here, ‘coastlands’ and ‘nations’. The first, weaker than its successor, is the faint similarity between ‘let us together draw near for judgement’ and the more famous expression that precedes YHWH’s sentencing of Judah and Jerusalem in the book’s introductory chapter:

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

Although the contexts of the two passages are strikingly similar and the language somewhat so, it must be admitted that the key verbs are not the same. It is possible the similarity is merely superficial. However, in the light of the Isaianic tradition’s irrepressible desire to play and to tease with intertextual allusion, it is likely not. Probably, the convocation of Judah for a deliberative moment of sentencing is here echoed by the summons of the nations for a somewhat different objective that nevertheless pivots on the matter of justice.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41.1 (NRSV)

This possibility is arguably corroborated by a second ironic feature of this passage, this one also a matter of intertextual allusiveness but now with a textual partner that lies close at hand.

Once again, the matter involves an Isaiah text that can only be considered as famous:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 (NRSV)

We must remind ourselves that these words occurs immediately prior to Isaiah 41. A certain culminating conclusiveness and of course modern versification marks them off from our text, but that is all.

In 40.28-31, those sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel who complain that their way has been lost to the eyes of an inattentive YHWH are reassured that if they wait on YHWH, they shall renew their strength. The Hebrew expression that generates the italicized English just above is יחליפו כח. This is precisely the expression that is used of the ‘coastlands’ and by contextual implication also ‘the peoples’ in 41.1 In 40.31, the expression is taken to be imperfective with a future reference; that is, it describes. In 41.1, the same words are rightly understood as jussive, a detail I shall attempt to illuminate by once again quoting, italicizing, and inserting the corresponding Hebrew text.

Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength (יחליפו כח); let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment.

Isaiah 41:1 (NRSV)

Such subtle ironies must certainly represent more than wordplay carried out for a purely aesthetic purpose. I am increasingly persuaded that the Isaianic voice is drawing the nations into the plight and the prospects of Israel/Jacob itself. YHWH’s purposes in redeeming his Israel increasingly seem include the nations without ever blurring the distinctions between the two nor across the ranges of the latter.

It seems every more likely that in summoning the nations for judgement, his intentions are—as with Israel—not finally lethal but rather restorative.

When you receive an invitation like this one with all its Isaianic tonalities, you are never sure exactly what for.

But, peace. The news is good.

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The biblical witness generally treasures Hezekiah’s legacy. He is remembered as a good king in the midst of many bad ones. He is honored by what looks from our distance as genuine friendship with the prophet Isaiah, who seems to have enjoyed deep access to Hezekiah’s royal court.

Yet biblical realism is a tenacious thing, clawing when it must even at the polished reputation of its protagonists. Hezekiah will be remembered warts and all.

The thirty-ninth chapter of the book called Isaiah is as ominous as they come. It is only a matter of time before the Babylonians will be hooting drunkenly atop Jerusalem’s ruins alongside their Edomite mercenaries. Yet here we find their emissaries enjoying a tour of the temple precincts during the tour that the recently recovered Hezekiah has giddily arranged for them. The text allows no hint that Hezekiah has a clue of the dark foreshadowing that stalks his clueless extravagance.

But the prophet does.

Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” Hezekiah answered, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:3-4 (NRSV)

One might anticipate at this point the surging forth of royal remorse, a grim determination to batten down the hatches in order to gainsay the subterfuge of Hezekiah’s Babylonian guests and the storm that must surely soon break upon Jerusalem.

Nothing like this occurs.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

A great sadness pervades this pathetic vignette. Its sorrow is all the more poignant for being the final word of the book’s first half. The next words, just across the boundary and into what is for us its fortieth chapter, are words about Zion’s consolation after the Babylonian exile—yes, these Babylonians—has wreaked its havoc.

Hezekiah’s error forever tarnishes his memory.

It is registered here in two shocking responses to the comeuppance he receives from the prophet Isaiah. First, there is a glibness about his response to Isaiah’s query regarding the fatal error he has just committed.

(Isaiah) said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Isaiah 39:4 (NRSV)

Second, Hezekiah’s clay feet are monstrously visible in the chapter’s conclusion, which as we have seen serves as well as the final words of the book’s entire first half. It is not a pretty sight.

Here again, that passage, with Hezekiah’s moral blundering italicized:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah 39:5-8 (NRSV)

There is in fact nothing good in Isaiah’s grim warning, except that Hezekiah himself will be buried in peace at a time when the storm clouds have not yet broken over his people. Only the worst of narcissists—the kind of king he manifestly has not been—could find comfort in that.

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The good life is sometimes, for a moment, the pleasant lot of slaves.

The persuasive powers of Assyria’s king are in full bloom as his emissary, the Rabshakeh, argues with besieged Jerusalem. The Rabshakeh’s discourse is an extraordinary astute and full-bodied rebuttal of everything Jerusalem’s unfortunate citizens have been schooled to believe by king and prophet.

In the midst of the Rabshakeh’s apology for Assyrian might and beneficence comes this little gem.

Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.’

Isaiah 36:16-17 NRSV

What we know of Assyrian politics of exile throws the transparence of the king’s promise in doubt, to say the least. A tyrant who lacks omnipotence nearly always resorts to bullying. Usually, his modest but highly effective end game is simply to sow sufficient doubt that things can be any worse over there than they already are right here. Here amidst these streets whose dust we have year after year carefully tamped down, these houses we’ve scratched out of the desert, this mothy grain, these hoaky community meetings when it takes forever to get anything done, here where father and mother lie buried.

Maybe he’s not so bad…

Yet the prophet knows that slavery makes every quiet street a prison, every morsel of the tyrant’s bread a kernel of undying resentment, every comely daughter a magnet for his lust.

The biblical ethic is clear that the good life can sometimes be the experience of slaves. Its eyes-open realism was clear back in Isaiah chapter 2, where the prophet’s ironic parallelism shattered any perceived link between wealth and true religion:

Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.

 Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.

Isaiah 2:7-8 NRSV)

There in chapter two, the people’s abjectly miserable slavery is both fueled and veiled by their prosperity. There is no true abundance there, only enslavement.

Fast forward to the book’s thirty-sixth chapter.

There is no abundance here, either, in the empty words of the Assyrian king’s lying Rabshekah.

Even if the Assyrian despot were to make good on his offer of your own vine … and fig tree after Jerusalem’s besieged daughters and sons consent to being carried away as exiles—though any well-weathered observer of imperial Realpolitik could predict he would not—shackles would still encumber Jewish hearts and minds.

One can almost hear the whispered passion in the plea of a wife to a her husband home after a bad day at Hezekah’s court, the curtains drawn, the children put to bed: ‘Honey, it won’t happen. We’ll be slaves there until history forgets we ever existed. They’ll make us sing Zion songs in that awful place. Here we’re free and we get by. And I know you can’t believe it any more, but YHWH might still be with us…’

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The book called Isaiah weaves motifs of leaning and of trusting throughout the disparate textures of its many pages, though seldom more eloquently than in the first verses of chapter 31.

Leaning is of course a metaphorical representation of reliance upon a defender or savior, so it pairs naturally with the non-metaphorical concept of trusting. Two of the most commonly deployed Hebrew verbs for this are שׁען for leaning and בטח for trusting.

They occur here in uneasy juxtaposition with two actions that are understood to represent their opposite: looking (to the Holy one of Israel, שׁעה) and seeking or consulting (YHWH, דרשׁ). This touch of parallelism is made more elegant by the assonance of שׁען (sha-AN, to lean) and שׁעה (sha-AH, to look, usually intently).

Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!

Isaiah 31:1 (NRSV)

The point is not a mere nicety about where loyalties ought to lie. It is pragmatic, for the Egyptians are considered unreliable protectors for Judah as it faces threats from other quarters. Two verses later, we encounter Egypt’s alleged deficiency for those who would depend on that nation.

The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together.

Isaiah 31:3 (NRSV)

Leaning upon unreliable strength simply expands the tragedy, Judah is urged to comprehend.

If Judah’s rebellion manifests in the form of wrong activity, it also includes sins of omission. By choosing Egypt as her defender, Judah fails to look intently at God and to seek or consult YHWH. Reliance is portrayed as a zero-sum game. Choose your object, but you cannot choose both.

The stupidity that is embedded in Judah’s conduct—for Isaiah, in rebellion against YHWH there is always stupidity—is that Egypt in spite of her strength and numbers is simply not that impressive. The Egyptians are ‘human and not God’, Egypt is ‘flesh and not spirit’.

Behind every syllable of these declarations lies the Isaianic insistence that YHWH-granted powers of perception are the only reliable methodology for penetrating and living within reality. All else is fantasy of the disfiguring and murderous kind.

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It appears that chapter 29 emerges from the white heat of Jerusalem’s crisis under Assyrian pressure.

It is a swirling, chaotic, difficult piece of prophetic literature and therefore a challenge to any interpreter. Among its most confusing verses figure these:

The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot, for it is sealed.’ And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot read.’ 

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.  

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?

Isaiah 29:11-16 (NRSV)

If the chapter is one coherent unit, then ‘the vision of all this’ which introduces this passage likely refers back to preceding woe pronounced over ‘Ariel’ or Lion of God. There, YHWH appears to encamp against Jerusalem, the likely referent of ‘Ariel’. Is it possible that the prophet uses ‘Ariel’, ‘Lion of God’ sarcastically, alluding to self-elevating nickname with which Jerusalemites in better times might have flattered themselves? In the verses just prior to our passage, YHWH’s activity vis-à-vis Ariel is described as follows.

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from strong drink!

For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers.

Isaiah 29:9-10 NRSV

It appears that, amid what Jerusalem’s anxiety-ridden citizens experience as impending doom, the prophet is doing battle with what might be considered a religion of remoteness. Apparently rejected as a source of intelligence regarding what YHWH is actually up to, the prophet critiques religion that is learned by rote and reliant upon esoterica.

Both approaches and perhaps their blending into anxious religious activism seems to distance Isaiah’s population from the message he purports to bring to their moment from YHWH himself.

One of YHWH’s quoted lines traffics in the language of the Davidic child-king called ‘Wonderful Counselor’ (פלא יועץ) at Isaiah 9.8.

(S)o I will again do amazing things (להפליא) with this people, shocking and amazing (הפלא ופלא). The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

Isaiah 29:14 (NRSV)

We can identify several features of this text that are clear.

First, the prophet has been rejected as a spokesperson for YHWH and for pertinent reality.

Second, YHWH has not finally rejected Zion in its current depravity. But his future engagement will take the form of unexpected and novel moves that cannot be captured or comprehended by Zion’s ordinary and official stewards of truth.

Third, if the link back to the child ruler of chapter 9 is more than casually lexical—in my opinion it must go far deeper than that—then ‘Ariel’s’ rescue will depend upon attentiveness to that development.

What the book of Isaiah presents here—chaotically, somewhat impenetrably—is not a moment for old wineskins, as another prophet might have put things.

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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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In a book as saturated with the concept of justice as this book called Isaiah, it is challenging to reconcile that commitment with a harsh passage like this:

On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Isaiah 27:1 (NRSV)

It is essential at the first to recognize that this oracle occurs just before two more extended declarations of Jacob/Israel’s restoration, the first of which is a resounding reversal of an earlier parable of the vineyard that was painted in much darker hues. Arguably, the verse before us clears a space for those two agriculturally-imaged visions that await their moment.

Additionally, two considerations may at least place us in a position to engage verse 1 of this twenty-seventh chapter with a measure of methodological sympathy.

The first is the Isaianic conviction that enmity with YHWH’s purpose is both real and enduring. In a world less intoxicated by comfortable relativism than our own, this hardly requires expression. But in our day, it can be a truth we glimpse only dimly and from a distance. Nonetheless, the persistence of iniquitous rebellion is a conviction of deep rooting in the text before us. Little sympathy is expended on YHWH’s most insistent foes, even when there is muscular mercies available to those who find it in themselves to ‘return’ to YHWH and to his governance.

Second, judgement in Isaiah and even the wider biblical purview is not in my view primarily punitive. It is rather a necessary precursor to shalom, wherever this breaks out or is installed or becomes the object of divine or human cultivation. Judgement is itself a space-clearing exercise, taken in hand when those who resist YHWH’s determination to create communities of shalom become so recalcitrant that the project requires their removal.

This, in the context of Isaiah’s vision, is true of Leviathan, the fleeing and twisting serpent.

Leviathan stands in for all those nations, all those people, who will not have Jacob’s restoration except over their dead bodies, as the dismal expression runs.

Then does YHWH unsheath his ‘cruel and great and strong sword’. Then does YHWH of Armies—YHWH Seba’ot—gird on the full armor of that title.

Tragically, Leviathan will have it no other way. And there is a vineyard that needs tending.

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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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