FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
13 January 2013
To understand this prophetic verse by Second Isaiah, one must look at the previous chapter. God had allowed Babylon to conquer and enslave Israel as punishment for their failures to obey his laws.
Now he is calling them home, promising safe passage through waters and fire. He has redeemed them.
In this metaphor, God is spoken of as a man redeeming his kinsman from slavery by paying a price. The image includes the price paid, which is the vast areas of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba (Arabia). Speaking historically, at the time that Isaiah was writing, Persia had overcome Babylon and was freeing the Jews. Far to the southwest, Persia was also attacking Arabia and north Africa, continuing to build the great Persian empire. In the metaphor, God is giving up these nations to Persia as the price he is paying for the freedom of Israel.
The lines are metaphorical, but one may ask, what was the reality that Isaiah turned into a metaphor? I think he believed that the fall of Arabia and Africa to the Persians was God’s doing, that God was abandoning those peoples for their sins, giving them over to a conqueror, as he had once abandoned the Jews for their sins and given them over to the conquering Babylonians. That, I think, was Isaiah’s reality.
In my comment last Sunday on Ephesians, I spoke of the parallel careers of Paul and Peter in the establishment of the Church as an international institution. Today we see the beginning of their mission, the conversion of the Samaritans.
Samaritanism was a splinter Judaism developed by rural Jews left behind when the Babylonians and Chaldeans drove thousands of their kinsmen northward into slavery. Because the Babylonians needed skilled and educated workers, they took the priests and rabbis, the stone masons and tailors, leaving behind the laborers and farmers. Abandoned and leaderless, these illiterate working people formed their own version of Judaism, including their own priests and mountain temples. Then their relative returned from Babylon and set about rebuilding Jerusalem and establishing their new nation, Judea. Not only did they rebuild the Temple and re-establish the cult religion, but they also brought new learning, a new set of Scriptures and new traditions of study and worship in synagogues. These sophisticated and soon powerful Jews were contemptuous of the Samaritans, as we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Among these outcasts Peter and Paul made their first mass conversions to Christianity. They did not win over all of them. There are Samaritans living in Israel.