At the height of the EU Referendum campaign some of the Leavers unveiled a poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees snaking towards the borders of the European Union. The subtext was that, if we stayed in the Union, these people might arrive on our shores, taking our homes and jobs, our school places and hospital beds. Even some Leavers were shocked at the implicit rejection of an ‘open-hearted humanitarian response to appalling distress,’ the response someone has said we should be expected to make when a country like Syria is torn apart by warfare.
This was the situation which faced the people of Judah at the time of Isaiah. There had been deep enmity between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and their Moabite neighbours. King Omri of Israel - someone the Bible doesn’t like very much, actually - oppressed Moab during his reign so, in revenge King Mesha of Moab attacked Israel after the death of Omri’s son Ahab, and dragged away the sacred vessels from God’s shrine and took them to the temple of his god, Chemosh. We know this because he left a record carved in stone, celebrating his victory. We also know that the Bible accuses the people of Moab of sacrificing their own children to Chemosh, which is presumably why the Bible calls the worship of Chemosh ‘disgusting’.
This long standing enmity between Israel and Judah on the one side, and Moab on the other, makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that Isaiah reports the appeal from the defeated people of Moab for sanctuary in Judah. ‘Be kind and help us!’ they plead. ‘Shade us from the heat of the noonday sun. Hide our refugees! Don’t turn them away. Let our people live in your country.’
It has to be said that Isaiah isn’t always as forgiving. He has some particularly unkind things to say about the powerful empire of Babylon and its rulers, but he confesses that, ‘Deep in my heart I hurt for Moab.’ He mourns the refugees’ fate and sheds tears for them, even though he believes it is God’s will that their country has been brought low.
Perhaps part of the reason is that the people of Israel, Judah and Moab shared similar dialects of the same language. One of the most revered people in the Bible, Ruth the grandmother of King David, was also from Moab. Isaiah finds himself recognising the shared humanity of the Moabite, Israelite and Judahite peoples.
He promises the Moabites that they will not need to be refugees forever. ‘Moab, your cruel enemies will disappear,’ he says. ‘They will no longer attack and destroy your land.’ But he goes further: ‘Then a kingdom of love will be set up, and someone from David’s family will rule with fairness. He will do what is right and quickly bring justice.’ In other words, in Isaiah’s opinion these foreigners deserve the same God-given destiny as his own people.That’s a far cry from our own reluctance to open our hearts and our land today to people being attacked by cruel enemies. We often imagine that we have made progress on the attitudes and behaviour of the past. This passage should give us pause for thought.