Speaking the Language of Canaan
Hidden away in the middle of the Book of Isaiah is an astounding prophecy. Many people miss it, because it is part of a long section of oracles about the various nations of that day, and not knowing the geography of the ancient near east very well, they tend to get bored and skip on ahead to “the good stuff”. I mean, come on: where are Assyria, Philistia, Moab and Cush anyway? This is too bad, because these few verses, coming at the end of an oracle about Egypt and before the oracle about Babylon, contain some mind-blowing stuff—especially if the mind in question is a Jewish mind in the centuries before Christ.
The prophecy looks forward to the time when God would act on the world stage, and definitively save His people. That involved a lot of judgment on the other peoples surrounding Israel—that is, it involved beating up on Israel’s big and bullying neighbours, like those in Damascus and Moab and Philistia. This was welcome news to God’s People, and not totally unexpected. What was completely unexpected was what God said He would do with those neighbours next.
For God said, “In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt which speak the language of Canaan, and swear by the Lord of hosts…In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors He will send them a deliverer and will defend and deliver them. And the Lord will make Himself known to the Egyptians and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day, and worship with sacrifice and burnt offering…In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians with will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyrian the work of My hands, and Israel My heritage’” (Is. 19:18-25).
In this passage, it must have seemed as if God had lost His covenantal mind. Egypt was Israel’s ancient and inveterate enemy, and brutal Assyria, the super-power of Isaiah’s day, was THE major threat to everyone’s safety and prosperity, the international bully of the ancient world. What on earth was this talk about Egypt becoming cozy with Israel’s God? And the language used—all that talk about having an altar, and a memorial pillar commemorating God’s victories for them, and crying out to God for help and God actually hearing them. That was how God used to speak about Israel (see the Book of Judges.) And that stuff about Egypt and Assyria being allies, and both worshipping their God. And Israel was not even leading the way for them. You would think Israel would at least get some sort of bragging rights, and a spiritual “I told you so” or two when they started worshipping their God. Not at all. Israel didn’t come first, or even second. “In that day Israel will be the third”. It looks as if all the covenantal exclusivism and barriers that God had built up for so long and at such cost (all those prohibitions against intermarriage with pagans), were now being totally thrown out of the covenantal window. What could it mean?
We who live on this side of the day of Pentecost know what it means. It means, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28). It means, “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). In Christ God has fashioned a new nature for all who will repent and believe in Him, a new access to His presence through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18), a renewal of nature in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free”, but rather in which “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). Israel as a nation was never God’s final plan for the world, but rather was simply the arena in which He would act for the world’s salvation. In that salvation, Israel must die in order to be born again—dying as a Nation to be reborn as a Church. The salvation that they experienced in that rebirth was such that it could be offered to all the nations of the earth—to uncircumcised, to barbarians, to Scythians, to slaves and free alike—even to Egyptians and Assyrians. Even to you and me.
What then does this mean to us as Orthodox living today? It means that we cannot and dare not define our Orthodoxy ethnically. If Israel could no longer define itself in terms of nationhood, how much less can we. We are not Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, or American Orthodox. We are just Orthodox. Moreover, the term “Orthodox” is short-hand for “Orthodox Christian”—it is properly speaking an adjective, not a noun. What matters most is the “Christian” part of the label. It is a wonderful thing to a part of the ancient Chosen People. (Christian anti-semitism is not only oxymoronic, since Christianity is Jewish, but moronic as well.) It is also a wonderful thing to be a Greek, or a Russian, or a Serb, or an Arab. Or an American, or Canadian. Pride in cultural heritage is a good thing. But it is not a fruit of the Spirit, and it is possible sometimes for the good to become the enemy of the best. We define our faith not in terms of ethnic heritage, but in terms of discipleship to Jesus. What matters is not so much our birth, as our rebirth. That is why surnames are never a part of our Christian label, the name under which we are communed and confessed and given the sacraments. When I receive Holy Communion, the words are not, “The precious and holy body of Christ is given to the servant of God Lawrence Farley”, but rather, “The precious and holy body of Christ is given to the unworthy servant of God Lawrence”. Who cares if I’m a Farley? That is my old race and my old family. My new family is the family of God, and my brothers and sisters are not necessarily other Farleys, but anyone who loves and serves Christ our God. As St. Paul said over and over again, if anyone is in Christ, the old has passed away (2 Cor. 5:17)—including our old self-definitions in terms of ethnic origin. Our self-definition now is rooted in our new nature. That is the basis of our access to God. That is what it means to speak the language of Canaan.