Isaiah 19 is one of the most scandalous (and therefore obscure?) passages in the Bible. Do you remember the story of the Exodus? Remember how in Egypt, the people of Israel (descendents of the sons of Jacob-renamed “Israel” – the God wrestler) were brutally enslaved? The Egyptians tried to throw all the Israelites baby boys in the Nile? The Israelites cried out to God and then God smote the Egyptians so Israel could go free?
Change scenes: hundreds of years later, after Israel is a well-established kingdom, the story goes on to say (2 Kings/Jeremiah) that God uses Assyria to discipline Israel for its idolatry and treatment of the poor and vulnerable. Assyria had the reputation as the most brutal empire on earth, which is why Jonah wanted them destroyed, if you also remember that story. In this latter context, Egypt is a weak and ineffective ally for Israel; an ally that fails her.
Well, most of Isaiah 19, written hundreds of years later, is about how God wants to save and redeem Egypt, basically doing the same thing for Egypt that was done for Israel and then... this. The section closes with this crazy passage in v.23-25:
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance."
Isaiah proclaims that God's will is a joint worship-service and blessings upon these nations, while calling Israel “the third, along with...” them. That would have made some people really mad. Exceptionalism is not a new idea (most nations experience it) and Isaiah isn’t the only prophet that messes with this idea in the biblical context.
7 "Are not you Israelites
the same to me as the Cushites?"
declares the LORD .
"Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt,
the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir?”
Huh? What was God doing with the Cushites, Philistines and the Arameans? The biblical narrative doesn't have much more to say about it, but one of the things I love about the confusing and mysterious God revealed in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures (the Bible) is that God seems partial, but then is revealed as radically impartial.
I wonder what kind of prophetic word God might have for Americans. Let's do an experiment. Try this:
1) Muster up your most patriotic sentiments.
2) Next, think of the groups of people (and/or their countries) that your kind of Americans most despise or look down upon, or feel threatened by. Then, fill in the blanks below with the name/s of those people and/or their countries. Go ahead.
“In that day there will be a highway from ____________ to ____________. The ____________s will go to ________ and the ______________s to ___________. The _______________s and _____________s will worship together. In that day America will be the third, along with _____________ and _____________, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, Blessed be _____________ my people, _____________ my handiwork, and America my inheritance.
"Are not you Americans
the same to me as the _____________s?"
declares the LORD .
"Did I not bring Americans up from (WHEREVER YOU CAME FROM),**
the _____________s from _____________
and the _____________s from _____________?”
3) Now imagine God saying this to us as Americans (or whatever group of Americans you identify with). Reflect on that a bit.
I really believe that this is the kind of God who is really out there. I believe that God’s will is the reconciliation of all people. If we encounter this God, we might just find that the people we despise end up blessed, while we learn FROM THEM what it is to repent and worship (once again, see Jonah, or Luke 4). More to come...
* Note: I’m afraid that some people will accuse me here of being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I won’t try to credential myself as a non-bigot. Let me just say that my reflections on this have led me to believe that 1) Israel was indeed special as the vessel for so much of God’s wisdom, God's story, God's self-revelation and God's us-revelation. I continue to learn a lot from Jews and Judaism. By the way "Semitic" refers to the (theoretical) descendants of Noah's son Shem, and so also includes Arabs and others. 2) biblical Israel was the vessel of nurture for God-incarnate when Jesus of Nazareth brought salve to all that ails us, the damaged images of God that we are and, 3) beyond that, I think Israel, Israelis and Jews (religious or not) are as deeply beloved of God and as deeply deserving of honor and respect as the rest of God’s children.
** Note 2: This one is problematic because many large-scale movements of human beings are caught up with various evils. Although I believe in God’s overall sovereignty, I don’t think God was the immediate orchestrator of every human migration (ex. the trans-Atlantic slave trade). I hope you don't think so either.
Stunning Painting of the African American Experience of America