Dr. Joseph Coleson
Professor of Old Testament
Director, Master of Arts (Theological Studies) Degree Program
I’ve been a professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament for a while now, so when we begin to approach the Advent season, my thoughts naturally turn to several well-known Old Testament passages. I counsel students that we are to attend to these texts in their own times and circumstances, first; but I also know the biblical writers sometimes spoke more largely than they knew, partly because I take seriously Jesus’ statement that the Scriptures “bear witness of Me” (John 5:39, NASB).
One such passage is Isaiah 9:1-7. Most are familiar with Handel’s musical setting of 9:6, “For unto Us a Child Is Born.” We recognize 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Less commonly understood is 9:1 (8:23, Hebrew), “Previously, he caused the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali to be scorned, but in the future he will make glorious the Way of the Sea, Beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Nations” (my translations). What was Isaiah saying?
It is reasonable to think that, in Isaiah’s poem, Zebulun and Naphtali represent all the Galilee region; to name all the tribes would compromise the poetry. Israelite Galilee and its neighboring regions had been “scorned,” dishonored, by the Assyrian conquests of 733/2 B.C. The Assyrians detached them from Israel and placed them under direct Assyrian rule. These regions were the first to be brought into contempt, to begin “walking in darkness”; many survivors were exiled (2 Kgs 15:29). Ten years later, with Samaria’s destruction, Israel disappeared as a national political entity, but the Galileans were the first to “dwell in the land of the shadow of death” (Isa 9:2).
Yet Isaiah recorded a promise concerning these people. Those who had been brought into contempt would be given honor. This follows from the fact that the three districts named in verse 2b also represent the whole region, as do the two named in verse 2a.
“The Way of the Sea” was the east-west road running from the towns along the lower slopes of Mount Hermon to the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre. These and other inland towns produced grain for Tyre, as well as wheat, olive oil, and wine for export through Tyre (Ezek 27:17). The loss of this district and its commerce was a serious blow for Israel, to say nothing of the district’s own inhabitants.
“Beyond the Jordan” encompassed the territory of eastern Manasseh and at least the northern sections of Gad. Geographically, these lands lay east of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River both above and below it.
“Galilee of the Nations,” or “the District of the Gentiles,” included at least a part of Zebulun west-southwest of the Sea of Galilee and all or most of Issachar southwest of the Sea of Galilee.
What did all this mean? Isaiah certainly knew his geography, and the political changes brought about by the Assyrian annexation of Israelite territory. But how God would fulfill this promise, Isaiah could not know.
Some seven-and-a-half centuries later, Jesus—at least once—visited the region of Tyre, the western terminus of the road Isaiah knew as the Way of the Sea (Mark 7:24). At least once, he visited Caesarea Philippi, in the area of that road’s eastern terminus (Mark 8:27). At least once, Jesus visited the area Isaiah designated as Beyond the Jordan. Outside one of its smaller cities—we should read the phrase “the country (region, district) of the Gergesenes” in all the Synoptic Gospels—he healed a demon-possessed man (Luke 8:26).
Most of Jesus’ earthly ministry took place in or near the ancient tribal territories of Zebulun, southern Naphtali, and Issachar, Isaiah’s Galilee of the Nations. Initiating his ministry in these three districts—Galilee of the Nations, the Way of the Sea, and Beyond the Jordan—Jesus fulfilled the ancient promise that those previously brought into contempt now would be brought to honor. Matthew recognized this fulfillment (4:12-16, 23), and rejoiced in it.
This Advent season, so may we also rejoice. We too, dwelt in the land of the shadow of death; but now also upon us Jesus, “the Light of the World,” shines. We were scorned, as were they; now Jesus has brought us into honor along with them—into God’s family as his own younger sisters and brothers.