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Hide the Fugitives

When I spend time diving into Scripture, it is always illuminating. Sometimes I see something so eye-opening that I want to run and tell everyone I meet. And sometimes things appear that rock my prior understanding.

Isaiah 16 falls into the latter category.

This chapter continues God's lament over what will happen to Moab/Palestine. Three verses are devoted to descriptions of "weeping," being "[drenched] with tears," and joy and gladness being taken away during this tragedy.

God cares.

However, the truly stunning section to me, this time around, is verses 3-4.

Hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees. Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer.

Ellicott's commentary says that God is appealing to Judah to show mercy to the Moabite refugees.

I had honestly never noticed this passage in Isaiah, and was puzzled that I have spent decades reading the Bible front to back each year, and never noticed this.

And then I saw that many of the older commentaries had a very different take on this section.

The writers expressed puzzlement and stated that God, out of nowhere, commanded Moab to take in refugees from Judah. To them, it's another passage of God talking about caring about his people Judah, even if these verses are plopped right in the middle of a two-chapter series on Moab.

This seemed weird. But, then I opened a King James Bible translation and saw what they were seeing: "Let my outcasts dwell with thee, Moab." It's the exact inverse of the newer translations; for example, the NIV translation reads, "Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you."

This is not a knock against the King James Version (KJV) Bible. I love the beautiful phrasing of so many KJV Bible passages. As recently as last weekend, someone verbally shared a verse with me, and I wrote it out using the KJV' "thee's and thou's" from memory. It was the version I had memorized as a kid and it resonated strongly with me.

However, here is the problem. Bible translations can vary somewhat. This doesn't mean that we can't trust what the Bible says. The scholarly work and amount of manuscripts and the age of the manuscripts is such that we should trust scriptural translations more than any other historic documents and literary artifacts that exist. However, pre-printing press, translations relied on hand-copied manuscripts done by scribes. One tiny change gets copied and reified for hundreds and even thousands of years.

And, like any area of study, new information can come in. In 1946, seven "Dead Sea Scrolls" were discovered in the Qumran Caves in the Judean desert in the West Bank.

If you are an Indiana Jones fan, this is a real-life actual example of someone stumbling onto ancient religious artifacts in a way that proves that truth can be stranger than fiction. Shepherds searching for lost sheep threw some rocks and heard the sound of shattering pottery. The youngest shepherd goes to investigate later and finds one of the most significant archeological discoveries of all time.

Why significant? These are the second-oldest surviving manuscripts of books from the Hebrew Bible. The scroll of Isaiah in particular is the only scroll that was nearly completely intact. This Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah is the oldest copy of the book by 1,000 years. This is a big deal.

Since 1947, newer Bible translations have been printed that takes into account this new info--that is actually very old info. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts.

The KJV, NKJV, and any commentary based on older Bible translations such as these, do not include information from the oldest and most reliable manuscripts for Isaiah 16.

Consequently, what looks like a strange non sequitur because of a misplaced vowel and an inverted sentence is not confusing at all. It is extremely straight forward. "Let my outcasts dwell with thee, Moab," becomes, "Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter..."

If we're looking for a direct command from Scripture to shelter refugees, here it is.

This is Black History month in the United States, and, sadly, the church in this country is heavily divided along racial lines. White Evangelicals view Black Liberation theology with great suspicion, being uncomfortable with viewing all of scripture through the lenses of power and oppression.

However, this discomfort doesn't fully explain the tendency to ignore crystal clear directives and passages where a theology of the oppressed is plain as day, unless one is doing mental gymnastics to avoid it. On top of the Old Testament passages such as the one we see here, the Gospel that Jesus preaches in the...well, in the a Gospel for the poor, needy, and oppressed. He says this numerous times. He came to save the "lost," the "sick," the people who were like "lambs without a shepherd."

God consistently shows care to those in distress. And we see this at play here in Isaiah 16, even if it's been overlooked by many theologians due to translation issues. Here's an attempt at a quick summary of Isaiah 16 (I'm reminded of writing classes where we outlined chapters for analysis purposes!):

  1. The women of Moab are appealing to the people of Judah, crying out for help.

  2. These women are refugees and are currently homeless.

  3. God, through Isaiah, tells Judah to shelter these refugees.

  4. He then promises Moab that oppression will end, ultimately through the establishment of the Messianic throne (more on that below).

  5. Moab hasn't really been the most fantastic of places. They're yet another country consumed by pride and conceit. However, they're about to receive a come-uppance.

  6. God takes no joy in this--everyone should weep at what is about to happen to Moab. His "inmost being" is saddened.

What's remarkable about #4 is how clear and candid this section is:

In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it--one from the house of David--one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.

Personally, I feel bad for the Pharisees and others in 1st century Israel who had trouble seeing Jesus as Messiah. The Suffering Servant and the Triumphant King don't exactly look like the same person. It's almost like God has hidden messages in the prophesies that were intentionally opaque. C.S. Lewis says, in Mere Christianity,

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.

In addition to attending church, reading the Bible gives us the secret wireless messages as well. We're in a supernatural battle, and tidbits of code are hidden in such a way as to keep the meaning from the true enemy.

Moab, however, gets a pretty clear explanation of what the actual Messianic reign will look like. No confusion over whether Jesus is going to overthrow the human political regime of Rome, Babylon, or anyone else. No fuzziness over whether the Messiah was just for Israel or for all. Moab/Palestine gets a beautiful Messianic promise, with key qualities of the Kingdom of God spelled out:

  • In love a throne will be established. This is the beautiful Hebrew word, Chesed, which refers to lovingkindness. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Worlds says that the word, lovingkindness, in the Bible tends to have three aspects: Strength, steadfastness, and love.

  • In faithfulness a man will sit on the throne. Faithfulness/steadfastness is again emphasized.

  • The ruler is from the house of David.

  • He judges by seeking justice and bringing the cause of righteousness speedily.

It's reminiscent of the first passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus reveals who He truly is. It's to the Samaritan woman, in John 4.

The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."
Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."

In the Gospels, Jesus often refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Many theologians explain that He was likely distancing Himself from mistaken ideas about the Messiah. But, to the Samaritan woman, He gives an unequivocal answer that results in her running to tell everyone she knew.

The God of the Bible is a God who loves Judah but also cares about Moab. He has a plan and future for His people Israel, but He also proclaims His reign to Moab. He calls the 12 male disciples but gives one of the clearest descriptions of who He is to a sinful, idolatrous, pagan woman.

And despite the politicization of nearly everything in our modern world, He is a God who cares about the plight of the refugee, even when they are not "believers."

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