This past Sunday, I reflected on the beautiful words of Isaiah 43.1, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” The theme of that post was on the interplay of specificity and generality of God’s call, how God calls all of us (generally), but all of us by name (specifically). And certainly, when put into the bigger context of Christian faith, I think we do well to interpret these texts in this way. But, that may not be the most obvious interpretation of the whole of Isaiah’s oracle in 43.1-7 itself. In fact, the second half of that reading contains some rather ethically troubling language that is important not to ignore.
The problem is that the text plays on God’s special relationship with Israel at the expense of other nations. From the point where I left off in Sundays’ reflection, the oracle reads:
…. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. …
So, within this beautiful oracle of salvation is an understanding that God will barter Israel’s freedom in exchange for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba’s. While the identity of Seba is a bit murky, Egypt and Ethiopia were both great, ancient, and wealthy nations. So it would seem the prophet is saying that the freedom of the few (the small countries of Israel and Judah) is worth the enslavement of the many. What are we to make of this?
I’d like to tackle this from a few different directions.
First, let’s look at how the reference to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba functions within the broader narrative of the Hebrew Bible. While there are definitely passages in the Hebrew Bible that point to a broad and universal vision (see Amos 9.7, for example, and my post on election in my Setting our Stories Straight series for a fuller discussion), for the most part, it tells an intentionally narrow story: It is the story of God’s interactions with the descendants of Israel written by the descendants of Israel for the instruction, edification, and correction of the descendants of Israel. This means that the questions we might rightly ask about what God’s election of Israel has to say about other peoples are largely out of scope for the Scriptures themselves. As such, in the internal argument of the text, the exchange of these three large, wealthy nations for Israel’s freedom is less a statement about how little God cares for those countries than it is a way of saying that Israel is precious and important to God. (By way of a rough analogy, it’s a bit like how a story today in which a man might give his fiancée a diamond ring shouldn’t necessarily be read as an endorsement of the violence associated with the diamond industry: Irrespective of the ethical sourcing of diamonds, the ring functions as a symbol of the fiancee’s importance and preciousness in her fiancé’s eyes.)
We also have here a classic working of the trope of the ‘great reversal’, in which God’s actions see the downfall of the powerful and rich and the lifting up of the enslaved and poor in their place. This is a common theme not only in the prophets, but also in apocalyptic literature, and especially in the New Testament. This recently came up at the end of Advent in the Magnificat (“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1.52f)) and it’s a common theme in Jesus’ teaching as well: e.g., “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20.16). In the case of Isaiah’s oracle, the fall of the great nations of Egypt and Ethiopia functions within the great reversal trope as a symbol of God’s work on behalf of the downtrodden of the world.
And, I think, it’s here where we finally get a window into how we might resolve some of our discomfort surrounding texts like this. There’s no doubt that the great reversal trope is in and of itself violent; however, because it insists that God is on the side of the world’s victims, it also carries within it the seeds of its own end. Left to its own devices, the great reversal will only create a new world order that is just as oppressive as the old had been, only with different groups playing the roles of ‘first’ and ‘last’. The principle of the great reversal would then require another act of God on behalf of the oppressed, and then another, and another, in a never-ending cycle. So, if we really believe that God has a heart for the oppressed, true great reversal involves the end of oppression itself. Put into more contemporary terminology, we might say that premise behind the ‘great reversal’ exposes the whole system that creates ‘firsts’ and ‘lasts’ as sinful. And this creates a kind of proto-Gospel, which points to Jesus and the cross. There, God identifies fully with the victims of the world’s powers, first in the death of Jesus, but most importantly in vindicating Jesus through the resurrection. The power of this vindication and resurrection life is available to everyone, irrespective of boundaries of ethnicity, citizenship, gender, or social status.
All of this may not make these verses in Isaiah’s oracle any less uncomfortable for us, but I hope it does show how in their own way, they point to the ultimate truth that God is on the side of the oppressed, no matter who they may be, and that it is oppression itself that is the real enemy.