Sunday, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11: The Road

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B is a familiar reading from the prophet Isaiah. In the text, the subject, perceived by some as literal and by others as metaphorical, is road-building. The landscape is to be leveled so that a way for the Lord can be made. Low-lying places are to be raised. High ground is to be flattened. Stony patches are to be smoothed out.

Such accomplishments are expected in modern road-building. A drive today through mountains requires fewer hairpin turns that find a car and its passengers clinging to the edge of a precipice. Today's interstate highways are multi-lane, comfortably wide, and carved through mountains rather than ascending and descending the full height of the mountain.

The commonness of contemporary road quality was not always the case. The 1375 Catalan Atlas includes the image of a group of travelers on the Silk Road. Identified as both a generic caravan and Marco Polo and his traveling party, the travelers ride horses along the road that ran connected East and West, making trade possible. The cartographer, Abraham Cresques, has drawn a stony roadbed along which mounted and walking travelers make their way.
Abraham Cresques. Catalan Atlas. 1375. Bibliotheque Nationale. Paris, France. 
The so-called Silk Road is actually a network of trade routes rather than a single road. Other well-known roads connected to or intersected and were part of the network as well. One of those other roads was the Persian Royal Road, which ran from Susa to the Aegean Sea - more than 1600 miles. Alexander the Great used the road built by Darius I. A series of relay stations equipped with fresh horses made it possible to cover the route that crossed the Persian Empire within days rather than months. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the royal messengers who rode this route that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Why did God need a road? In the ancient near East it was common practice for images of gods to be paraded through the streets and along royal roads (read Isaiah 46:7 for a description of one such procession). For the nation of Israel, however, the road is prepared not for an inert statue. Rather it is prepared for the God who has created the world and moves in it. The "new thing" that Israel is about to experience won't be important because it highlights the efforts of human laborers (or divine beings!) as they build a road. The "new thing" is because the God who moves will once again enter into the life of the nation and in that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all people will see it together.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 2B, click here.

Find out about another road through the Middle East on this week's Facebook post

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