Opening The Old Testament
Rivers in the Desert and Stinking Corpses: Reflections on Isaiah 35:1-10 (Advent 3)
Where was 6th-century Judah to find help? Could they expect massive aid packages from the pharaohs of Egypt? Did the Babylonian Red Cross mobilize its units and sweep into the land, offering care packages of food and water? Hardly! Judah was alone, confronting the armies of their enemies and/or witnessing their once-prized city now a heap of ruins. They had only the hope of their mysterious YHWH to stand with them. It is very easy for us to decry their references to vengeance against those who destroyed their hopes and their dreams. It is quite simple for us to express our disgust at their morbid images of corpses and blood and to prize their far more delightful notions of rivers in a desert now lined with crocuses. Of course, even in the middle of Isaiah 35 there rests this rather mordant note: "Say to those who are fearful of heart, 'Be strong! Do not be afraid! Look, here is your God who comes with vengeance! With a divine recompense God comes to save you" (Is. 35:4)! In a world overcome with evil and death a weak and hopeless people call out for power and help against enemies too strong for them to handle on their own.
And it is surely a similar world into which Jesus comes, a world of evil and death, a world chock full of enemies too strong for us to handle on our own. Little wonder, according to Matthew's telling of the tale, not long after the wondrous birth in Bethlehem in a house, according to Matthew (Mt. 2:11), that the wily Herod attempts to wheedle from the Wise Men the location of the prophesied child, hardly in order to "worship him," but rather to have him murdered. That plan having failed, the monstrous king decides on male genocide, hoping to sweep into his murderous net the child whom he fears as his usurper. Like the plan of the pharaoh, who hoped to stop the Israelites from their rapid growth by a child genocide in ancient Egypt (Ex.1-2), so too did Herod's plan go awry, allowing the child to escape and become in fact a king, though hardly a king as Herod had imagined.
Such death and blood are indeed troubling, unnerving, disturbing in the extreme. But we avoid these stories to our peril. In reality, we struggle today with more than personal trials, with broken homes, with broken lives of addiction, with obesity, with mental illness. Each of these is a serious, often deadly dilemma, not to be taken lightly. But we also struggle with "principalities and powers," that is with large international problems that need a God of power to address: climate change, nuclear standoffs, worldwide poverty amidst vast plenty, gigantic gulfs between rich and poor that should shame us all. Hence, those unpleasant portraits of vengeance and enemy destruction perhaps should not be jettisoned so quickly. We need a God with the power to work with us, not merely as our friendly and congenial aunt, but at times like a furious mother who is in the business of defending the right against those who would abuse what is right.
I readily admit that these genocidal pictures make me distinctly uncomfortable, too. But if we only see the rivers in the desert, promised from God, must we not also embrace the side of that God who can stand against evil and smite it down? I need that God, too, because I cannot face such vast enemies on my own.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.