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Isaiah 49:1-7

Every lectionary text contains much more than we can note in these postings, or in any sermon we could preach from it. From this text, we’ll note briefly the geography of Isaiah’s “coastlands” and “peoples from far away” (v 1), then consider three issues, the first at some length, the second and third only briefly.

Other than their Philistine and Phoenician neighbors, the nearest “foreign” coastlands/isles to Israel lay west and northwest–Cyprus, the astounding irregularities of the north Mediterranean coast, the multiplicity of Aegean islands, and beyond to the pillars of Hercules/Gibraltar at the Mediterranean’s western end. Into the Atlantic and northward, the Phoenicians knew the coast as far as Cornwall (today’s southwestern England); whether Israel did or not, we cannot say. North of their nearer neighbors, Aram/Syria and the old Hittite lands of present-day Turkey, Israel knew of the Cimmerians, Scythians, and others, up to the Caucasus, at least. Eastward across Asia, Israel’s elites knew of products from China, but probably no Israelite had gone that far. South of Egypt, Israel also knew of Nubia (probably today’s Sudan), Punt (Somalia?), and Ethiopia.

Who Is “My Servant”?

Among Old Testament readers across the centuries, the identity of the servant in Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” has evoked lively discussion. Is Israel the servant, or is this an individual (whom Christians usually identify as Jesus)? Speaking as a Christian, I answer this question, “Yes.” As in other areas, so also sometimes in biblical studies, either-or/binary thinking can be a straitjacket; to avoid false, misleading, or incomplete conclusions, one must avoid or escape the straitjacket.

Verse 3 is unequivocal, “You are my servant, Israel,” and nothing suggests “Israel” is a late insertion into the text. So how did Israel’s service to God extend to the coastlands/isles and to faraway peoples–even to those about whom ancient Israel could not have known? God’s invitation to Abr(ah)am (Gen 12:3) includes the crucial promise, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We could translate, “shall bless themselves,” and here again we see a non-binary option. Both these renderings of the niphal verb are valid, and we may (I think, should) choose both-and, not either-or.

God’s reiteration of this unexpected, astounding promise (22:18) confirms the reflexive nature of the prediction: “In your seed all the peoples/nations of the earth shall bless themselves” (my translation); the verb here is hitpael, which only can be reflexive. Its major difference from the first version of 12:3 also extends God’s promise significantly. On one level, “your seed” is an assurance that Abraham’s significance to and for all peoples would not die with him; it would extend through his progeny as well. On that level, Israel’s influences for good have been incalculable; we could write volumes and still not have a comprehensive listing. To anyone disposed to