Blessing and Warning
God’s warnings of judgment were (and are) designed to turn people back to the Lord in something of the same way a wise parent warns of repercussions for choosing to ignore instruction that will not come if counsel is heeded.
God’s word to the Israelites tribes as they camped with Moses on the border of Canaan explained the Lord’s method.
“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.”God to the people of Israel, through the prophet Moses, Deuteronomy 28:1-2 (NRSV)
Blessing in every place was promised, both in the city and in the field. Fruitfulness and bounty would surround them, families would flourish, there would be harmony between the people and the land, no one would go hungry, creature and human alike would be well-cared for.
Protection was also promised, guaranteeing victory in the battle field, good seasons for their crops and festivals, success for all their undertakings, and establishment in the land God was giving them.
But if God’s people turned away, God would send increasingly uncomfortable and unsettling reminders of their covenant promise to heed the Lord and God’s word. Each of their blessings would begin to roll back, until—if they continued in their transgression—they would finally lose even their inheritance, with the survivors sold into slavery.
Each of Isaiah’s oracles was acting as warnings not simply to the nations he was directing them towards, but also to Judah.
Cush and Judah
Cush was not a part of God’s covenant with the Hebrews, but the Cushite ambassadors in King Hezekiah’s court still enjoyed a familial connection with God’s people.
The first mention of Cush in the Bible comes, surprisingly enough, in the description of the Garden of Eden.
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
Genesis 2:10-14 (NRSV, numbering and emphases mine)
- The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
- The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush.
- The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.
- And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Later in Genesis, Noah’s descendants are enumerated, and among them are his grandson Cush through Ham. Josephus connected the founding of Cush (land covering what is now Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Somalia) with Noah’s grandson.
“For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites“Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.6
Early in Hebrew history, Moses seems to have married a Cushite woman, causing jealousy in both his sister and brother. Centuries later, it was a Cushite warrior who brought the news of Absalom’s death to King David.
By King Hezekiah’s day, there was a strong political tie between the land of Cush and the land of Judah.
Warning to Cush
So, from the Northern Kingdom and its alliance with Damascus, Isaiah now turned southward again to Judah and its alliance with Cush.
Woe, land of buzzing wingsIsaiah 18:1 (NRSV)
beyond the rivers of Cush,
Isaiah called it a land of buzzing, or whirring wings, not just because of the insects there, but more as a metaphor for the whirring of frantic diplomatic activity as they sought out alliances to protect themselves against Assyria.
… sending ambassadors by the NileIsaiah 18:2 (NRSV)
in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
a nation mighty and conquering,
whose land the rivers divide.
Ambassadors from Cush would set sail to go to other nations for help, but through the prophet Isaiah, God told them to go home. The Lord would deal with the Assyrians without the help of any army.
In contrast to their fear on earth, God is calmly patient in heaven
All you inhabitants of the world,Isaiah 18:3-4 (NRSV)
you who live on the earth,
when a signal is raised on the mountains, look!
When a trumpet is blown, listen!
For thus the Lord said to me:
“I will quietly look from my dwelling
like clear heat in sunshine,
like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”
The Lord is the gardener, looking on from God’s quiet place. At the right time God would reap the harvest of judgement on Assyria, the ripening vine. The Lord would prune the shoots and branches spreading out from Assyria, seeking empire …
For before the harvest, when the blossom is overIsaiah 18:5 (NRSV)
and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he will cut off the shoots with pruning hooks,
and the spreading branches he will hew away.
… leaving it all for the rest of the nations and city-states to feast upon. Assyria’s downfall was written.
They shall all be leftIsaiah 18:6 (NRSV)
to the birds of prey of the mountains
and to the animals of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
and all the animals of the earth will winter on them.
God would a preserve a place for the Cushite people among God’s own.
In a fascinating turn of events, it seems Cushite armies did become a part of God’s miraculous intervention in the Assyrian assault on Jerusalem, for Sennacherib was marching relentlessly through Judah.
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.2 Kings 18:13 (NRSV)
Finally, they arrived to Jerusalem and laid siege, demanding the people’s surrender.
When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz.
They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah: This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace …
Isaiah said to them,
“Say to your master: Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. I myself will put a spirit in him so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”
The Rabshakeh returned and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, for he had heard that the king had left Lachish.
When the king[of Assyria] heard concerning King Tirhakah of Cush, “See, he has set out to fight against you,” …2 Kings 19:1-13 (NRSV, brackets and emphases mine)
The rest of the story comes later, and it is a corker.
Look Only To God
Isaiah had now gone through all four compass points—Philistia to the west, Damascus to the north, Moab to the east and now Cush to south. In no quarter could Judah make a military alliance.
They could only look up to the Lord.