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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thoughts on Isaiah, ISIS, and the Peaceable Kingdom

A few things that jump out at me from reading Isaiah in Hebrew (I'm on chap. 11 now):

1. The word that the NRSV translates as "argue it out" in 1:18 (Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow) is the same word that the NRSV translates as "arbitrate for" in 2:4 (He shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, etc.). In other words, the process of divine judgment and "disputation" applies to Israel and the nations. In Israel's case it results in forgiveness; in the nations' case it results in peace. I think this really strengthens N. T. Wright's point that forgiveness is a condition for Israel to be the blessing for the nations that God intends it to be.

2. Similarly, the word translated as "stream" in 2:2 ("all nations shall stream to it") is a verb with the same root as the noun for "river," almost always used of either the Euphrates or the Nile. As far as I know, it is never used of the Jordan. In other words, the apocalyptic event described here involves Jerusalem taking center stage and replacing the classical imperial centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In the present situation, Israel doesn't have its own "river." It is dependent politically on Mesopotamia and Egypt. But in the day that is coming, the nations will "stream" as a great river to Jerusalem.

3. The famous passage in chap. 11 about the shoot from the stump of Jesse follows on language in chap. 10 about God's judgment felling great forests. This is, in other words, the same metaphor as Daniel 4: God will cut down the great tree of imperial/national power, but out of the stump that is left will flower a branch, and that branch will bring in the Peaceable Kingdom.

4. The word for "wolf" (as in "the wolf shall live with the lamb") in 11:6 is "ze'eb." Oreb and Ze'eb ("Raven" and "Wolf") were Midianite bandit chiefs killed by Gideon in the book of Judges. That's interesting because Oreb has just been mentioned in 10:26 ("The LORD of hosts will wield a whip against them [the Assyrians], as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb"). Judgment against the nations is followed by a kingdom in which bandit chiefs like Ze'eb live peaceably with their prey. Which leads me to the final point:

5. The word translated "live with" in 11:6 is "gur," which so far (as I've worked through the narrative and legal parts of the OT) pretty much always has meant "sojourn as a resident alien." The "ger," or "sojourner," or "stranger," is one of the basic categories of helpless people entitled to protection in the Torah. The word always seems to imply a state of powerlessness. The stranger is cut loose from his normal support networks, cast on the mercy of those among whom she lives (like Ruth). But here the wolf is pictured as a stranger, begging the lamb to take him in. It's a complete reversal of the normal power relationship.

It was helpful to read this passage this morning, right after being part of a live online discussion yesterday on the Patheos website discussing a new book about the rise of ISIS and the proper U.S. response to it. My discussion partners, David French (co-author of the book) and Keith Pavlischek, both argued for a strong military response to ISIS, and both admitted that their approach would require the U.S. to be committed to a long conflict with Islamic radicalism. (Dr. Pavlischek commented at one point, "our sons will be having this conversation in a generation about whatever the radical Islamic group is in their day.") I don't have good answers to the question of what should be done right now. (The book argues for giving the Kurds heavy weapons, for a start, and while I have misgivings about such an approach it may be the least bad option at this point.) But in the long term, the use of military power to protect Western interests (and even to protect innocent victims, which is a much more legitimate use of force) will only contribute to the cycle of violence.

Isaiah is no stranger to that cycle. The dominant theme in the early chapters of Isaiah is that God uses the Assyrians to punish Judah, and will in turn judge the Assyrians. But out of this comes the promise that God will raise up a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and that the sevenfold spirit of God will rest on this fragile branch, leading to a kingdom of justice and peace. As Christians, we must, above everything else, bear witness to the in-breaking of that kingdom.

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