Tuesday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:1-9
The reading seems to describe mainly a historical situation but there is a lesson which is brought out at the end.

The incident refers to what is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War which probably took place in the years 735-34 BC.  Razon was king of Aram (Syria) and Pekah (752-732 BC) was king of Ephraim, another name for Israel or the Northern Kingdom.  Syria and Israel were trying to persuade King Ahaz of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, to join them in an alliance against the powerful king of Assyria who had eyes on land lying to the west of his empire.  Israel was afraid that Ahaz might go into a counter-alliance with Assyria which was not an unlikely possibility.

When the news reached “the house of David”, that is, King Ahaz, in Jerusalem that Syria and Israel-Ephraim were on his doorstep, he “and the hearts of the people shuddered as the trees of the forest shudder in front of the wind”.  Their fear was justified because Ahaz had earlier been soundly defeated by the Syrian-Israel alliance.

It is at this point that Isaiah is told by God to meet Ahaz at an aqueduct where the king was probably inspecting the city’s water supply (rather important if a siege was in the offing).  Its exact location is not now known.  The Washerman’s (or Fuller’s) Field refers to a place where the citizens did their laundry.  Clothes were cleaned by trampling on them in cold water and using a kind of soap (soda) or bleach called ‘fuller’.

With him Isaiah brings one of his sons, Shear-jashub.  Each of Isaiah’s sons was given a symbolic and prophetic name and this one means ‘A remnant will return’.  It indicates a prophecy that one day a small number of Jews would return to Israel and escape the punishment which most of the population has deserved.

Isaiah has words of comfort for Ahaz.  The two countries threatening him, powerful though they seem to be, are merely “smouldering stumps of firebrands”.  Their fire has gone out; only the smoke of dying embers remains.  And, in fact, Damascus, the capital of Syria (Aram) was overcome by Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC and Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was badly defeated in the same year.  Isaiah was issuing no empty threats.

Although the Syrian-Israel alliance intends to put the “son of Tabeel” (probably a courtier from Syria) on Ahaz’s throne, it will not happen, says Isaiah.  Tabeel is an Aramaic name sometimes linked with the “land of Tob”, on the east side of the Jordan.

Isaiah then proceeds to make a prophecy indicating that Syrian-Ephraim alliance will not succeed.  “This shall not stand, it shall not be!”

At this time, the capital or ‘head’ of Syria was Damascus and Razon head of Damascus; Samaria was the capital or ‘head’ of Ephraim (Israel) and the son of Remaliah the head of Samaria (Ephraim/Israel).  The irony of the words is that mere men head these territories while the real king of Judah-Jerusalem is not Ahaz but Yahweh the Lord God.

“Six or five years more” and Ephraim (Israel) will be no more, says God through his prophet.  And indeed in the year 722 BC the city of Samaria fell.  Later still, about 670 BC, the Assyrian king settled foreign colonies in Israel.  The intermarriage of these settlers with the Jewish remnant resulted in the “Samaritans”.  The northern kingdom was no longer a separate and distinct nation.

All of this is a warning to Ahaz that the same fate awaits Judah unless he stands firm.  “If you do not stand by me, you will not stand at all.”  The message is clear: Ahaz is to put his firm trust and confidence in the protection of Yahweh, who alone has the power to save him and his people. Unfortunately, the message will not be heeded.

In the prophets, faith is not so much a theoretical belief in the existence and uniqueness of God as an attitude of confidence based on God’s choice of Israel: he has chosen Israel, he is Israel’s God, he alone has the power to save his people.  This unconditional trust, a guarantee of salvation, excludes all reliance not only on human agency but still more on false gods.

We, too, cannot expect God to stand by us if we do not stand by him. This is not to be interpreted as saying that God is touchy and vindictive and that, if he feels insulted or ignored, he will abandon us or bring some terrible punishment on us.  It means that only when we are fully on his side, when his way is fully assimilated into our lives will we find the life he promises.  If we insist on going our own way, he will not stop us but he will not be able to help us either.  We will have shut ourselves off from his loving help.

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