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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Isaiah 35:1-10

Isaiah 35:1-10 is a hopeful final statement to First Isaiah. Bringing together images of nature leading the way into a new world and release from political oppression, it continues to resonate in our contemporary situation.

Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.

3 Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees. 
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert; 
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
   but it shall be for God’s people;
   no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 
9 No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there. 
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

This text is often treated as an eschatological prophecy. In it, the prophet envisions and describes a new world order, the future of Judah as secure, prosperous, and joyful. The vision culminates in God’s people coming back to the land. They can come directly across the desert, as the typical dangers of travel (wild animals, lack of water, hostile enemies) will not threaten them. It is reminiscent of the exodus, in which the people travel through the desert to their promised land. The future is now imagined as a new exodus, of God’s people returning. The Gospel passage for this day (Matthew 11:2-11) echoes this passage’s elements of a road in the wilderness and the blind, lame, and deaf being healed.

Scholars observe that the language and imagery of this chapter reflect that of Second Isaiah (chaps. 40–55) more than the previous earlier material of First Isaiah (chaps. 1–39). And its images of abundant streams, a blooming wilderness, and a broad highway are especially reminiscent of chaps. 40-41. In that the next few chapters (chaps. 36–39) are not prophecy but prose historiographical narratives derived from 1–2 Kings, chapter 35 acts as a hopeful final statement to the first Isaianic collection of prophecies (chaps. 1–34).

This passage is exceptionally rich; it opens up numerous theological, poetical and interpretational issues. For our purposes of contemporary political and cultural matters, however, I wish to highlight two general observations. First is the prophet’s inclusion of natural imagery, and particularly plant imagery. The entire Book of Isaiah tends to incorporate plant and agricultural language. Sometimes these references to and descriptions of vegetation are used literally, and sometimes metaphorically. Therefore, in the first two verses we are not surprised to find, right off, references to wilderness, dry land, and desert; crocuses and the lush forests of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.

This passage, though, goes beyond conventional theological ideas regarding the natural world. A surprisingly high role is given to nature. We typically envision humans as being at the top of the environmental triangle. Biblically, we speak of the responsibility, even dominance, that defines the relationship of human beings to the Earth, established from the very beginning of creation (Genesis 1:26-30). Scientifically, we know how human activities in the First World over the past many decades are having disastrous effects on our environment. This poem, however, inverts our common ideas of the human–environment relationship. It is the natural world, not the human, which acts first and brings about the new world order. Plants and land rejoice and sing (vv. 1-2). They lead the way. The humans then copy their actions only at the very end of the passage as they (finally) also take up the singing and rejoicing (v. 10). It is the plants and land—not the people—who will be the first to recognize God’s character in the ideal scenario the passage depicts (v. 3). Even more radical is the prophet’s attribution of divine character to the natural world. The forests of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon are given “glory” and “majesty”—the very same “glory” and “majesty” of God (v. 3)! Theologically, we uphold the tenet of imago dei, of human beings reflecting, to some degree, the image of God. Here, in contrast, it is nature that shares in the characteristics and identity of God. This passage challenges us to think of the Earth as having its own autonomy. In our contemporary discussions of environmental concerns, is there room to think that—in any way—the Earth itself can lead the way in ushering us all into a new realm, a new way of being, with all its attendant joy and song?

Second, we must be careful not to spiritualize the references to the real-life political and economic situations of the persons in this poem. This interpretive tendency is especially heightened when this text stands as it does during the season of Advent and the anticipation of Jesus Christ, the one understood in much traditional theology as being sent to atone humanity’s sinfulness. The terminology of redemption and ransom (g’l and pdh; vv. 9-10) refer not to spiritual redemption but to concrete economic realities. To redeem persons is to buy them back from indebtedness or slavery, and to ransom an animal is a financial cultic obligation for sacrifice. Similarly, we must avoid spiritualizing the references to those who are blind, deaf, and lame (vv. 5-6). Although at other places in the book, most memorably Isaiah’s famous call (6:9-10), the point of blindness/deafness is theological incomprehension of the prophet’s message and what Yhwh is doing, here the healing is of actual physical disability.

The original audience for this prophecy was those living under the oppression of foreign (Babylonian, then Persian, then Hellenistic) rule. Redemption in this context is freedom from political captivity, an actual physical release so that the people can imagine journeying back to Jerusalem. We should also note the inclusivity of those who will travel, joyfully, to Zion. This group is not just Israel, the Jews who were taken in exile, but everyone who wants to come. Even the simpleminded—or as we might say today, the “directionally challenged”—will not get lost! This passage presses on its contemporary readers the need to imagine how God’s activity can bring physical release and healing to those who suffer political oppression and real-life suffering in our modern world.

Linda Day received her PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is a teacher and the author of a commentary on the book of Esther.

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