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Monday, March 9, 2015

Isaiah 18, Part One: Paper Boats and Whirring Wings

Isaiah 18, Part One: Paper Boats and Whirring Wings

What's gone before...

In chapter 17 Isaiah described the end of Damascus, capitol city of Syria, Israel's ally and hope of glory in their fight against Judah. God would bring Damascus down because of their idolatry and pride.

In this passage the God's sovereign control over all nations was seen. God can raise entire kingdoms up, and he can bring them utterly low.

We could identify ourselves in this passage, people who easily forget the God of our salvation, the Creator and Sustainer of our life. We stand condemned by our sin in the same way as Damascus and Israel, and our only hope lies in the kindness of God.

Now, in chapter 18...

Isaiah greets ambassadors sent by a land "of whirring wings, beyond the rivers of Cush". He urges them to go to a nation "tall and smooth, to a people feared near and far". All the world is called to watch as God destroys the impending threat, clearing the mighty army away as a worker might lop all all the fruit-bearing branches of his vineyard. Then the people "tall and smooth, a people feared near and far" will bring tribute to Mount Zion, rather than swords and spears.

First, the ambassadors: from what land do they come?

Isaiah 18:1-2 (ESV) Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters!

Isaiah describes this land as loud and in motion, as if it were a large bird, or a large army, from beyond the rivers of Cush.

The earliest mention of "Cush" in the Bible is found in Genesis 2, implying that Cush was in eastern Asia, near present-day Iraq.

"Cush" originally was the name of one of the four sons of Ham, the son of Noah (Genesis 10).

The names of Ham's sons indicate where they settled. Cush and his sons probably lived near their homeland, "in the land of Shinar", in present-day Iraq.

There is however, evidence that there was a "Cush" located in Africa, near Egypt. Speaking of his promise to preserve Israel, God declared the land of Egypt, Cush and Seba (descendants of Cush's brother) as ransom:

Isaiah 43:3 (ESV) For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you.

According to Easton's Illustrated Dictionary, "Cush" generally applied to the countries south of the Israelites, beyond the southern border of Egypt, otherwise known as "Ethiopia", or the Sudan. Ezekiel supports this:

Ezekiel 29:9-10 (ESV) The land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the LORD. Because you said, "The Nile is mine, and I made it," therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush.

Evidently Cushite tribes had migrated from their homeland in eastern Asia, resettling south of Egypt. Thus, both regions were historically referred to as "Cush".

So, were the ambassadors from Assyria or from Ethiopia? The strongest evidence that the ambassadors were from Ethiopia is found in the account of Hezekiah, king of Judah.

The civil war between Judah and Israel was at its height, and Hezekiah feared invasion by Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, the ally-turned-conqueror of Israel. Hezekiah turned to Egypt for support (Isaiah 36). But God, through Isaiah, rebuked Hezekiah's dependence upon the foreign, idolatrous nation of Eqypt:

Isaiah 20:3-6 (ESV) As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Then they shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, "Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?"

Here, Isaiah connects Cush with Egypt, implying an alliance joining in war with Judah against a common enemy: Assyria. But the effort at resistance would fail.

Isaiah 30:1-5 (ESV) “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation. For though his officials are at Zoan and his envoys reach Hanes, everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace.”

Zoan was located in Egypt (Numbers 13:22). Hanes, or Chanes, was a contraction of Tahpanhes, located in Egypt as well (Jeremiah 43:7).

Isaiah's reference to the "land beyond the rivers of Cush" probably referred to ambassadors from the Egyptian-Cushite alliance. God's rebuke of Hezekiah, seen in Isaiah 30, makes Isaiah's opening greeting seem scornful. "Whirring wings" may describe much noise, but little force. "Vessels of papyrus" brings to mind the image of an armada of paper boats laying seige to an army of wood and metal.

What do you think?

Image of paper boat by Angela, on page, Creative Commons.

Image of map, screenshot from Google Maps, access January 26, 2015.