2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.Isaiah 2:1–5
2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
The Christ came, the Christ comes, and the Christ will come again. These are the three affirmations of the advent season. Each one implies the presence of God while simultaneously highlighting the liminality of the season. Afterall, Advent is the season between the comings, the space of absence in which we await the Divine visitation. As we wait, we turn our attention backward and read again the ancient texts of promise, holding our waiting together with the waiting of those peoples of God who went before us.
Such a mode of reading ought to mean we tune our ears to hear the voices of the past communities to whom the texts spoke first. And yet, the very framework of Advent waiting—the Christ came, the Christ comes, and the Christ will come again—has often meant that Christian readers collapse the past into a new worldview, a worldview centered on Jesus, the Christ of Nazareth. Thus, Sunday’s Old Testament reading of Isaiah 2:1–5 is reread through the lens of Christian eschatology—and the ancient community’s witness is lost. But what happens if this de-historicizing impulse is resisted? Might a new word be spoken for a season in-between?
These questions are especially interesting given the future orientation of these verses. Indeed, on first reading, one may imagine that they are rightly read eschatologically, even if such a term is not employed to speak of the end of time (a view foreign to the Hebrew texts). Their vision speaks of a radical reorientation of the social order, one in which the administration of God eliminates the need for weaponry or for learning the art of warfare. Such a reality is far removed from the world of the ancient community—and the world we know now. Thus, together with other such texts in Isaiah (for example, Isaiah 60 or 65), this passage is often considered, at least, ahistorical.
However, such a view has now been robustly challenged by Brent A. Strawn’s work on Isaiah 60. Strawn argues that the literary depiction of the people walking in the light of Yhwh, the nations streaming to Zion with tribute, and the vision of what Strawn calls the “pax Jerusalem” are all a response to the imperial ideology of the Persian Empire. His essay compares the Isaiah text to the Apadana reliefs from Persepolis, which offer a visual representation of the peoples of the known world traveling by Persian escort toward the king, placed at the center, who is seated under the winged sun-disk of Ahuramazda, patron deity of Persia. He concludes that, in Isaiah 60, “the timelessness, the stateliness, the endurance of Persian imperial propaganda is thus being co-opted and reapplied to Jerusalem” (page 115)—and that Isaiah’s vision is anything but ahistorical.
Although Isaiah 2:1–5 is substantially shorter, its shared themes with Isaiah 60 are readily apparent. Verse two describes the exaltation of God’s mountain abode, most certainly a reference to Mount Zion and the political center at Jerusalem. This is the location of God’s administrative rule, but Isaiah’s vision extends beyond Judah. Thus, “all the nations stream to it,” likely to pay tribute (as in Isaiah 60) and to receive justice through the arbitration of disputes. The voices of these peoples are even represented in the text, where the cohortative verbal forms communicate collective intention and exhortation (verse 3).
Further, verse 4 contains one of the most enduring visions of peace in the Hebrew Bible (see also, Micah 4:1–5), wherein the nations transform their weapons of war into farming tools. What motivates this radical reorientation of the social order? It is the right ordering of the known world according to the judgement and arbitration of God. There can be no mistaking the decidedly political orientation of the text, which claims that where other human sovereigns have failed to bring peace by mediating among the people, God will succeed in bringing a new pax Jerusalem and God’s people, Jacob, will walk “in the light of the Lord” (verse 5).
Each of these parallels suggests that Isaiah 2:1–5 may be a late addition to the book as a whole, one that reflects what Marc Brett, in his new book, Locations of God, has called Isaiah’s mimicry of the Persian empire. Such mimicry may also be read as resistance. Thus, Isaiah presents an alternative articulation of reality that reiterates the Persian Empire’s claim to the subjugated nations’ grateful participation in the pax Persia, but replaces Persia with Judah, Persepolis with Jerusalem, and the emperor with Yhwh (91).
Given this, we ought to hear in the text the ancient Yehudite community’s (those repatriated descendants of the Judean exiles) negotiation of life and identity under imperial dominion. The community resists the narrative of empire and asserts their identity as the people of God by subverting Persia’s definition of the social and political realities of the conquered and subjugated nations. Of course, such negotiation is not unfamiliar to the people of Yehud, whose heritage is that of exile and sojourn in Babylon.
Importantly, the generation of repatriates under the Persian administration did not live in the kind of reality described in Isaiah 2:1–5. Although they had returned to the homeland of their ancestors, they continued to live in a space between—at home, but not politically autonomous, occupying the ancestral land, but not in control of the social order. In this in-betweenness, the community asserts an alternate vision of reality and, thus, creates space wherein alternative responses to the imperial dominion might be enacted. The people may live as though God’s administration had been established—and await such a reality in the future. They might live in the absence and simultaneously claim the presence of God’s sovereign justice in the present, historical moment.
So too, today, it is possible to live the in-betweenness of the Advent season as resistance. Most of us in the West do not live under the kind of hegemonic political power that the ancient Yehudite community did, which we must remember. Still, dominant social and political narratives make claims on our individual and corporate identities. Here, we might consider the promise of capital, the force of consumerism, or the divisiveness of partisan polemics. Each distorts our capacity to live into human flourishing and each might be resisted in a season of waiting, a season wherein the ancient texts—and their ancient communities—offer us articulations of an alternative narrative. We too might reimagine our identities, within structures of power, and perhaps even become the kind of presence in the world we so desire.