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Posts Tagged ‘nations’

Isaiah 60 must figure in anyone’s list of the most powerfully lyrical of this long book’s offerings. This chapter’s vision of Zion’s restoration is breathtakingly beautiful.

Along the way, it gathers up the components of the book’s multi-faceted view of ‘the nations’ and their destiny and presents a composite—a hopeful reader might dare say coherent—picture that is not reductive and therefore demands patient rather than dismissive reading or radical reconstruction.

In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to enumerate the pertinent allusions to those nations and to abbreviate the nature of the light that each casts on what I am persuaded is indeed a coherent if complex presentation.

First, restored Zion is brightly lit. By contrast, the nations live in darkness but are drawn (והלכו, shall come).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Second, the nations exercise important agency in transporting Zion’s sons and daughters back to their maternal city. The nations’ wealth accompanies them to Zion. Their animals (camels, young camels, flocks, rams) perform oddly anthropomorphic deeds: they ‘proclaim the praise of the Lord’ and ‘minister to you’. In spite of their alien provenance in nations near and far, those animals are also rendered acceptable on YHWH’s altar in a way that appears to connect with YHWH’s glorification of his ‘house’.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.

Isaiah 60:4-7 (NRSV)

The long section from verse 8 to verse 16 presents the most mixed picture of the lot. A posture of willing anticipation is likely signaled in the expression ‘the coastlands shall wait for me… to bring…’. Non-Jews are described in their complementary roles of transportation, construction, and urban enrichment. As counterpoise to the aforementioned anticipation, there appears to occur a less than comprehensive embrace of new realities on the part of the nations. For example, ‘kings shall be led in procession’, an image of military conquest by almost any light. Further, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’. And then, the ‘descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, all who despised you shall bow at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’.

This last, complex image clearly denotes subjugation. Does it also suggest conversion from one perspective to another that is wholly new and perhaps not the product of sudden persuasion alone? I suspect that it does.

Finally, a maternal-filial metaphor merits particular scrutiny: ‘You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings’. At the risk of pressing the metaphor too rudely, it appears in the light of other quite positive maternal imagery in this book that the nursing mother that is ‘nations’ and ‘kings’ executes her maternal labors with the tenderness and even fulfillment that are so often native to the experience.

The passage in full reads as follows:

Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest.

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:8-16 (NRSV)

How is one to assimilate the breadth of expression with regard to nations and kings that is gathered into this single chapter?

An interpretation that is consonant with the wider picture in the Vision of Isaiah of the peoples’ destiny and at the same time accomplishes an attentive reading of chapter sixty would seem to produce the follow conclusion: Zion’s restoration will turn the tables on the historic power relationships that have exalted some nations over Israel/Jacob. Some nations will welcome this revolution. Some will reject it. The preponderance of expression addresses the former group and suggests they will undertake their new role vis-à-vis Zion with some combination of anticipation, fulfillment, and tenderness. This vision is consonant with the Vision of Visions in Isaiah 2.1-5, though its imagery represents an alternative expression of that succinct description of the prophet’s imagined future.

Isaiah 60 is therefore a hopeful declaration for all peoples except those (few?) who will resolutely resist the divine purpose it propounds.

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The alt-right seeks an account of what we are meant to be and serve as a people, invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging. But race is a modern category, and lacks theological roots. Nation, however, is biblical. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul tells his Gentile listeners, ‘God has made all the nations [ethnos].’ The Bible speaks often of God’s creation, judgment, and redemption of the nations. In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, yet God calls us into his life not only as individuals but as members of communities for which we are responsible.

Today there are bespoke theologies for most every identity in American life. Meanwhile, we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation, not for the nation. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow. Young men like Dan need the gospel. But they also need an account of nationhood that teaches them about their past, without making them fear the future; an account of civic life that opens them to transcendence, rather than closing them to their neighbors. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II reflected movingly on the Christian meaning of our earthly homelands. He denied that Christians have no ‘native land’ in this life and defended the nation as a natural community. Against those seeking a post-national world, he urged Western nations to preserve their languages, histories, and religious traditions. The ‘spiritual  self-defense’ of our homelands, he wrote, is part of our moral obligation, commanded by God, to honor our fathers and mothers.

A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance. ‘The inheritance we received from Christ,’ the late pope argued, ‘orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures towards an eternal home land.’ The church midwifed many nations into existence, and it can renew their cultures still. For now it must suffice to say the alt-right cannot. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones. Its mistake is fundamental and tragic. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.

The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict. Although the struggle its intellectuals and activists envision is imaginary, it does not matter: Theirs is a sounder view of human needs. Human beings desire more than small pleasures in the routines of life. We also seek great challenges in the face of d death. And here Christianity speaks another, more necessary, and no less demanding language. ‘When Christ calls a man,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he bids him come and die,’ and in dying, to receive true life. For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals. We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified. Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.

— Matthew Rose, ‘The Anti-Christian Alt-Right’ in First Things (March 2018)

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