Isaiah 18 – “A Message for Ethiopia”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
A group of Ethiopians are told that God will reduce Israel’s population and accept an Ethiopian tribute in Jerusalem.

II. Photo
The Ethiopians are given an order: “Go, swift messengers, to a nation far and remote… whose land is cut off by streams.” (v. 2a)

III. Important Verses
1-2: Ah, land in the deep shadow of wings, Beyond the rivers of Nubia! Go, swift messengers, To a nation far and remote, To a people thrust forth and away — A nation of gibber and chatter — Whose land is cut off by streams; Which sends out envoys by sea, In papyrus vessels upon the water!
5-6: For before the harvest, yet after the budding, When the blossom has hardened into berries, He will trim away the twigs with pruning hooks, And lop off the trailing branches. They shall all be left To the kites of the hills And to the beasts of the earth; The kites shall summer on them And all the beasts of the earth shall winter on them.
7: In that time, Tribute shall be brought to the LORD of Hosts [From] a people far and remote, From a people thrust forth and away — A nation of gibber and chatter, Whose land is cut off by streams — At the place where the name of the LORD of Hosts abides, At Mount Zion.

IV. Outline

1. Introduction regarding Ethiopia
2. Directive to send messengers
3-6. The message
    3. Take note
    4. God is secure
    5-6. Pruning metaphor
7. The Ethiopians will pay tribute on Mt. Zion

V. Comment
Isaiah 18, which is directed towards a group of Ethiopian messengers, begins as follows: “Go, swift messengers, To a nation far and remote, To a people thrust forth and away — A nation of gibber and chatter — Whose land is cut off by streams; Which sends out envoys by sea, In papyrus vessels upon the water!” (v. 2) This verse is enigmatic: to whom is the message being directed (i.e. what is the land baze’u neharim “divided by rivers”)? Two views regarding the identity of this land will now be presented.

Scholars such as Watts believe that a message is being given to an Ethiopian envoy on its way to Assyria. Watts explains that Ethiopia and Assyria were allies at the time: “Cush is the land of Ethiopia or Nubia, which at this time had its capital at Napata above the fourth cataract… In 716 B.C.E., Shabaka succeeded his brother to the Ethiopian throne and began immediately to consolidate Ethiopian control of Lower Egypt. An initial success was achieved by 715 B.C.E. This period, 716–715 B.C.E., was one of feverish political activity as he sought allies for his attempt to gain control of the Nile delta. This activity apparently reached as far as Jerusalem… At this time (716 B.C.E.) Cush (Ethiopia) and Egypt are not one and the same. There is evidence that after the Ethiopian dynasty gained control they were on friendly terms with the Assyrians. When in 712 B.C.E. Sargon attacked Ashdod, its ruler Iamani fled to Egypt, now under Ethiopian rule. There Shabaka, ‘the Pharaoh of Egypt,’ ‘which land now belongs to Cush,’ obligingly extradited the fugitive Iamani to the Assyrian’s satisfaction. If this is true, the vision of friendly relations between Egypt under an Ethiopian ruler and Assyria (Isa 19:23–25) finds its basis in historical fact. So the best interpretation appears to be that the envoys from Shabaka are sent on to Assyria to try to arrange for support or at least a promise not to interfere, as he presses his claims to authority over all Egypt.” (303) Thus, Isaiah is sending a message to the Assyrians by way of their allies, the Ethiopians. The phrase “a land divided by rivers” is referencing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There is, however, another way to understand this chapter. Scholars such as Sweeney view the message to be directed toward Ethiopia itself. Sweeney writes: “Although these messengers are frequently identified as Ethiopian messengers received in the Judean court, the use of the imperative leku ‘go,’ indicates that these messengers are sent, not received. As Judah undoubtedly carried on diplomatic relations with Egypt, ruled by an Ethiopian dynasty in this period, the overall concern of 17:1-18:7 with Israel suggests that this statement refers to the embassy sent by King Hoshea of Israel to King So of Egypt in preparation for the revolt against Assyria in 724 B.C.E. (2 Kgs 17:4).” (257) Indeed, Hakham explains how Ethiopia could be described as a “land divided by rivers.” First off, the “rivers of Ethiopia” are mentioned in v. 1: “Ah, land in the deep shadow of wings, Beyond the rivers of Nubia!” Second, he describes the lands geography (translation my own): “The rivers of Ethiopia – these are the the great rivers in the land of Ethiopia such as the Atbarah, the Blue Nile, and the White Nile.” (190)

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “Isaiah 1-39” The Anchor Bible vol. 19 (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

Collins, John J. “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

Hakham, Amos. “Sefer Yeshayahu” vol. I, Daat Miqra (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1984).

Sweeney, Marvin A. “Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature” The Forms of Old Testament Literature vol. 16 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996).
Watts, John D. W. “Isaiah 1-33 (Revised Edition)” Word Biblical Commentary (Wordbooks, 2005).

Photo taken from http://timetravelafrica.com/images/okavango-delta1-720.jpg

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