This is the first reflection in our Advent Series, "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years," by biblical scholars and preachers John C. Holbert and Alyce McKenzie. For an overview of the series with links to all the reflections, click here.
First Sunday in Advent:
Thomas Wolfe famously said, "You can't go home again," but the Bible suggests otherwise. It could be said that going home, going to the right home, is the Bible's central theme. And Advent is the quintessential time for going home. Of course, in the 21st-century culture of America, Advent registers hardly a blip on the radar; there is no shopping money to be spent on Advent. Christmas is the ticket, and Christmas is about home and family and goodies, both wrapped and cooked. "I'll be home for Christmas," "Home for the Holidays," and other cozy tunes of the hearth pour from mall speakers, IPods, and car radios beginning several hours after Halloween, and do not cease until the big day itself. The near-two month homey blitz leaves many feeling anxious for the relative peace of the New Year.
But if the Bible focuses huge attention on going home, how is it different from the nostalgic call to go on home, to hug your parents, to eat some rich food, to sit about the fire and sing happy songs of your youth? Isaiah 2 does have a rather different take on the hope of homecoming. A careful look at the text will demonstrate just how different this Israelite, this world, homecoming will be.
The difference begins immediately in the introductory verse; this word that comes from God to Isaiah, son of Amoz, is not heard by the prophet, but is rather "seen" by him (2:1). The Hebrew verb means "to envision," as if the word has come in the form of a new way of seeing. If we are to understand a new way of going home, we must see differently, we must change our angle of vision. In fact, the vision of the prophet is to occur in "after days" (NRSV "days to come"). Rather than thinking about this as some future time, it is helpful to imagine this as a vision always available to those whose eyes have been opened to the newer reality of God. You can always go to this home, if you can see it, envision it -- and in the power of God you can.
And here is what the prophet sees; the mountain of YHWH's house established as the highest (or the "chief" or "paramount") of the mountains, lifted higher, better than all the hills there ever were (2:2b). The temple in Jerusalem may be the physical reference, resting on the hill of Zion, but visions are not merely about geography. The prophet sees in the vision that YHWH is the center of the universe and all that YHWH represents. What that is we shall soon see.
"All the nations are streaming (flowing)" to this mountain (2:2c). "The nations" (goyim) are those non-Israelite peoples who stand over against Israel. Their numbers are legion: Egyptians, Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Arameans, Canaanites (remnants of old antagonists), and countless smaller groups who over the centuries have warred and struggled with those who live in the tiny land of Israel. There is no agreement when this oracle was composed; it sits in the middle of a book that enshrines prophetic work done in the 8th century B.C.E. But its vision could have come at any time to a people always on the lookout for God's new thing, always ready to find out new meanings of their home.
"Many people" (perhaps better "vast numbers") from all the world's nations flow toward the great mountain of YHWH, and they say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that God may instruct us in God's ways, that we may walk in God's paths" (3:2bc). The vast human stream flows toward God's mountain to learn what God uniquely has to teach. And what that is now becomes clear. "From Zion Torah goes forth, the word of YHWH from Jerusalem" (2:3d). What YHWH has to impart to the world is Torah (‘instruction" in the NRSV). This word is too often translated "law," severely limiting its broad and expansive meaning. It means "instruction," "teaching," the very ways and paths of YHWH. But the famous verse 4 will pinpoint more exactly what this vision's Torah more centrally means.
As the nations approach the sacred mountain, God appears as judge, chief arbiter between and among the huge throng of peoples arrayed on the hill of Zion. The grammar of the sentence is important. God is judge and arbitrates between the peoples "in order that they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation does not lift up sword against nation; they no longer learn war." And there is the home to which this vision calls Israel and us. I repeat that visions are not merely future hopes and dreams; visions are present potential realities.