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Isaiah's Vision for Human Security

Next in our series on the OT and public life . . . Isaiah interpreted world politics through his theology of international relations, voicing a radical form of wellbeing not brought about by the tools of statecraft.

Editor's Note: The Old Testament is full of much which is confusing, violent, and ambiguous. This Comment series, curated by Ryan O'Dowd (lecturer at Cornell University and author of Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction) explores how and why we should read the Old Testament for public life today.


A longer version of this article appeared in the
Review for Faith and International Affairs Vol. 4. No. 3 (Winter 2006), found here. This version appears by permission of the author.

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It is sobering to realize that all of the enormous ideals of international politics can be summarized in the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah—on "nations hammering their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles," words now emblazoned on the granite, curved wall, called the Isaiah Wall, in the plaza in front of the United Nations in New York. What we vividly confront in the Book of Isaiah is the meaning of trust and faithfulness to Yahweh in foreign policy and international relations. Isaiah's prophesying took place amidst a series of actual crises in foreign policy, but his visions illustrate the perennial problems of power, justice, and security in the world of nations, and this is also what gives the Book of Isaiah a timeless quality.

Isaiah's prophetic ministry was overshadowed by Assyria's plans for world empire and the threat that this posed to the security of small or weak states on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, such as Israel, Judah, and Syria (Aram). In a few years, Assyria conquered the whole of the Near East up to the borders of Egypt. Its local vassals paid tribute, forming a suzerain international system (a type of international system in which a powerful state dominates and subordinates its neighbours without directly taking them over). An unstable or negative peace came into being, an order enforced and maintained by the realist's this-worldly tools of power politics and statecraft. Military force, alliances, arms races, the balance of power, and spheres of influence generated a structure of stability underpinned by fear, uncertainty, and insecurity.

The major prophesies in Isaiah 1-39 associated with the lifetime of the prophet relate to the attempt by Judah to resolve its security dilemma in balance of power terms. King Ahaz is depicted as preferring an alliance with Assyria over a coalition of small states, led by Syria and Israel, directed against that power (2 Kings 16-18; Isaiah 7-8). Some thirty years later, under King Hezekiah, there was another foreign policy debate over whether Judah should form an opposing alliance, siding this time with Egypt against Assyria (Isaiah 28-31, 36-38; 2 Kings 18-20). The switch illustrates the realist maxim of statecraft: that states have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

So why does the Isaiah tradition depict Ahaz, based on his decisions in foreign policy, as the "bad king," the faithless ruler who did not trust in Yahweh for Judah's security, and Hezekiah as the "good king" who did trust Yahweh? Most troubling for the realists among us, Ahaz and Hezekiah seem to be judged on the basis of whether or not they relied on power politics to maintain Judah's security rather than on quiet confidence in the actions of Yahweh.

In 733-734 Israel and Syria (Aram) tried to persuade Ahaz to bring Judah into an anti-Assyrian alliance (2 Kings 16:5-9). In balance of power diplomacy, this was a classic attempt to form an alignment against a great power—in this case, Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they attacked him in order to overthrow him and put a more pliant candidate on the throne (Isaiah 7:6). Ahaz, against the warnings of Isaiah, appealed to Assyria for assistance (Isaiah 7:4-7). In other words, Isaiah's famous counsel for Ahaz to trust in Yahweh, "be firm and calm," (Isaiah 7:4), and his strong opposition to Ahaz's advisors who backed the anti-Assyrian coalition (Isaiah 8: 6, 12) were evoked by a concrete foreign policy dilemma. Ahaz's refusal to join the anti-Assyrian alliance resulted in the Syro-Ephraimite War in 733 fought by Judah against Syria (Aram) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, symbolized by "Ephraim," its dominant tribe (Isaiah 7-8). The use of the term "Ephraim" to designate the Northern Kingdom rather than "Israel" suggests that the country had already begun to lose territory to Assyria and, in desperation aligned with a non-brother to the northeast (Aram) against a brother to the south (Judah). Crucially, the identity of Judah, and not only state survival, is what concerned the prophet Isaiah.

Assyria ended up annexing the northern and eastern provinces of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while Judah became a vassal state (2 Kings 16:10-18), paying tribute to Assyria, and adopting some of its religious practices, such as acknowledging the deities of Assyria's state religion (Isaiah 7:2). In Isaiah, in the aftermath of the Syro-Ephraimite War, we can see the almost inevitable spread of Assyria's cultural and religious hegemony throughout its suzerain international system.

Isaiah does not look at discrete foreign policy decisions as if they were simply puzzles. He is not just interested in what the ruler should do in a particular situation, such as whether to go to war as part of an anti-Assyrian coalition or promote regional stability by joining with Assyria as the great regional power. Isaiah looked at decision-making in foreign policy from a broader narrative approach to understanding Judah's identity and foreign policy acts. This means that for Isaiah—unlike for Ahaz—identity, culture, and the national interest go together. The primary question for ethics as well as foreign policy is what kind of community the Israelites were meant to become in the international society of the ancient Near East, given that they were a chosen people covenanted to bless the nations of the world.

Isaiah calls Ahaz not only by his name, but also formally as "The House of David" (Isaiah 7:2), suggesting that this narrative is concerned not only with this specific military crisis, but also with the long-term reality of the Davidic dynasty. More than Judah's survival as a geographic entity or independent state was involved, given that Israel was already occupied. At stake, too, was its identity as the royal house of David, and Yahweh's covenant going back to the prophet Nathan. These promises, which were recalled at the coronation of the kings of Judah and at the annual harvest festivals, declared that the house and throne of David would endure forever (1 Samuel 25:28; 2 Samuel 7:11-16; 2 Samuel 23:5; Ps. 132:11). Isaiah envisions a far more radical approach to national security than either submission to a great power or a fight for national liberation.

Thus, for King Ahaz, what seemed to be politically astute, an effective use of balance of power diplomacy was not thereby justified in the eyes of faith. A faithful foreign policy for Isaiah flies in the face of balance of power diplomacy. Isaiah interpreted world politics through his theology of international relations. Seen in this light, the king stood in total antithesis to the radical form of wellbeing voiced and offered by the prophet, a form of wellbeing that could not be brought about by the realist's tools of statecraft. Isaiah's vision of human security encompassed this radical form of wellbeing, cultural authenticity, and economic development.

Isaiah argues that Judah's rulers (and hence the people of Judah) cannot grasp what is going on in the social world of international relations because they have not been trained to interpret the world in a particular way. (Actually, they have rebelled against understanding the world in this way.) It is not by chance that for Isaiah one of the key issues in his irenic prophecy is proper instruction in the word of the Lord so that one can see clearly what is going on in domestic society and in international relations. The nations come to learn from Yahweh, and the form of instruction is the Torah and the word of the Lord, which comes forth from Jerusalem.

Torah encompasses a wide range of meanings including law, teaching, and instruction, and can be associated with the revealed Law of Moses in the Pentateuch. This is why the Book of Isaiah was interpreted in the Jewish tradition as a commentary on the Mosaic Torah. However, this perspective should not relegate to a secondary position either prophetic teaching or the prophetic polemic against legalism. Both law and prophetic proclamation were expounded in terms of a deepening grasp of God's reality.

In Isaiah, positive peace is part of the true worship of God, Torah obedience, and faithfulness to Yahweh in the world. In Yahweh's new dispensation the cult and rituals are constitutive of the faith community, meant to train its members in Torah, so as to build the kind of society that interprets the world in a particular way (1:10-17). Such a society is concerned with what happens to the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the oppressed, and accordingly acts with justice, righteousness, and peace both at home and toward the neighbouring nations.

This begins to put us in touch with what Isaiah's vision for human security was. Isaiah argues that Jerusalem was a fortress for justice at the beginning of Yahweh's dealings with his people, in which the covenant's ordinances were genuinely in force. But the city lost its noble title under the rule of unfaithful judges, and fell into wrong ways. The prophet is not deceived by outward appearances—sacrifices and offerings. What is decisive in passing judgment on Jerusalem, the city of God, is not its apparent sense of national security or level of economic development. It is not only arms and strong defences that provide security, for any ruler and his national security advisors can boast, "We have a strong city, whose walls and ramparts are our deliverance" (Isaiah 26: 1; cf. 7:3-9; 22:8-14; 28:14-18). What is decisive is the attitude of its inhabitants, especially the ruling elite or social class, toward Yahweh's demand for justice and righteousness, since prosperity spawned moral, economic, and political corruption (Isaiah 1:21-28).

The problem is that the very people who should be concerned about keeping law and order in their capacity as royal officials, the judges and princes, seek only their own advantage (1:23), and sell their support to the highest bidder. Many political scientists now argue that in the West the pluralist, interest-group conception of liberal democracy has paralyzed the best-intentioned public officials, stifling attempts to cut or improve government programs, and distorting policy outcomes. The greatest goodies (in Robert Putnam's words) go to the rich, the well-connected, or the best-organized. Isaiah said very much the same thing (Isaiah 1:17; 10:2, 3:121-15). What concerns Isaiah is, amidst the religious rituals, the easy way in which the ruling and property-owning classes accept the practical acts of unfaithfulness, which are evident in their daily life.

Another aspect of human security is what writers in peace studies call "positive peace," "stable peace," or "sustainable peace." Sustainable peace is defined as not just the absence of war or its expectation. It requires more than a cease-fire, the laying down of arms, or a peace treaty. The idea of stable peace is an inherent part of the Hebrew concept of peace or shalom, signifying wellbeing and wholeness: restoring or reuniting what has been divided. It is synonymous with prosperity and security (Psalm 122:6-7), both of which are the product of justice (Psalm 122:5). Shalom designates a state of affairs or a relationship in which things are balanced out, where rightful claims are satisfied. This can only happen in a society governed by justice. Thus, the modern concept of positive or sustainable peace involves a return to the original, more holistic concept of peace with justice and safety implicit in the original Hebrew. Injustice and oppression lead inevitably to anxiety and turmoil, with little chance of wellbeing (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21).

Once we stop reading Greco-Roman or Western presuppositions about justice as legal equity into the Hebrew Bible, a more holistic concept of justice emerges in Isaiah, one consistent with the concept of positive peace. The Western concept of justice as a person's proper conduct over against an absolute ethic of justice can be contrasted with the Hebrew notion of justice as the divine order by which all things are rightly governed. We have to recognize that in ancient Israel and in the Hebrew Bible justice was always a more inclusive concept, concerning people and relationships rather than abstract ideas or norms. We can see now that the Hebrew concept of justice or Isaiah's more radical understanding of it came closer to the concept of positive or stable peace now prevalent in peace studies. In other words, shalom and the Hebrew conception of justice represent in a partial, provisional way what we have now come to call human security and sustainable human development.

Sustainable peace also requires what we now call "good governance," political accountability, respect for human rights, public safety, and the protection of civilians. Something far more difficult to achieve is also necessary for sustainable peace. The vocabulary used for stable peace is rich with repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation between states, social groups, communities, and individuals. We can see this exemplified in a variety of "truth commissions," committed to truth, justice, and reconciliation, not only in South Africa, but also after civil wars, with their related atrocities, in a wide array of countries, including Bolivia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone.

However, what makes the concern for peace and social justice, as part of the countervailing narrative of a more holistic concept of positive peace, different in Isaiah from similar concerns expressed in the peace studies literature, is that it is embedded in an explicitly religious narrative. Isaiah calls Judah the "house of Jacob" (2:5-6), referring to the country's covenant with Yahweh, its requirements and promises, in the Genesis narratives. Isaiah is effectively saying that Judah's security and wellbeing depend on cultural and religious authenticity—its linkage to Yahweh.

Thus, Isaiah's famous oracle (Isaiah 2:4-6) is embedded in a religious narrative that expresses Isaiah's theology of international relations. This theology shows how cultural and religious authenticity is related to peace, security, and economic development. Isaiah's narrative is about the decay of Israel's religious life, not the absence of a religious life as in a modern secular society. Isaiah is concerned about the decay, corruption, and distortion of genuine religion by a people who think they are being faithful or religious, and are already fulfilling the demands of true worship and Torah obedience (Isaiah 1:2-6; 2:6-22; 3:1-4:1; 5:1-7, 8-30). Yahweh's judgment of their disobedience through Isaiah's oracles focuses on the paradox of how an outwardly "religious" nation in terms of ritual and public worship can be, from Yahweh's perspective, a godless nation. Dramatically, Isaiah asks, how can a people truly worship Yahweh when they have blood on their hands? They lack knowledge, discernment, or understanding of what is really going on in domestic and international politics because they are no longer trained by the Torah to interpret the world in this way (Isaiah 1:16; cf. 10:6; 29:13-14).

What is Judah or Israel (for)? This is the question underlying Isaiah's prophesying. What is Canada or the United States? These are questions of identity and significance. A state has to have a national self before it can have a national interest. What kind of polity does a people seek for itself in the world? Questions of meaning, identity, and foreign policy are inextricably bound up with this question. Would it be going too far to say that Isaiah was aware of this, too? Isaiah's criticism of Judah's foreign policy occurs because its rulers have a narrow conception of national security that underplays the importance of cultural authenticity for genuine human development. They sell out their birthright as David's dynasty, settling for the immediate gratification of idolatry, political stability, and material prosperity. All this, eerily, occurs in a society that while it claims to be living by the Torah, and truly worshipping Yahweh, is really based on injustice and economic oppression.

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Scott Thomas Scott Thomas
Dr. Scott M. Thomas lectures in International Relations at the University of Bath, U.K. ... read more »
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