Oracles against the foreign nations are an important part of the Old Testament’s prophetic tradition. This thematic essay will introduce these foreign nations, discuss why judgement exists against them, and in addition show why this judgement importantly reflects one of the main themes of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Old Testament Scriptures, the concept of ‘nation’ (גוי in Hebrew, and Έθνος in LXX) includes four main components. Firstly; a group of people; 2) living within their own territory; 3) consisting of its own government; and finally; worshipping its own gods. Humanity is depicted as being divided into nations, in Genesis 10:1-32 for example, then we read that the people of Israel appeal to find a king ‘like all the nations.’(1 Sam 8:5) The Hebrew Bible’s oracles against the nations attest that prophecy was certainly not confined to Israel. We find Jeremiah and other prophets urging rulers from nations such as Edom, Moab and Ammon not to pay attention to their false prophets, diviners and intermediaries, who were backing the planned rebellion against Nebuchadrezzar (נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר in Hebrew, a Chaldean king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Jer 27:1-15)
All of the Major Prophets’ writings consist of prophecy relating to God’s judgement against the foreign nations. In the book of Ezekiel we find these oracles preceding the description of Israel’s restoration, in chapters 25-32. These chapters consist of oracles against the nations of Ammon (east of the Jordan river), Moab (eastern shore of the Dead Sea), Edom (south of Judea and the Dead Sea), Philistia (a pentapolis comprising of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath), Tyre and Sidon (present day South Lebanon), as well as Egypt. In the book of Jeremiah, we find oracles against the nations between chapters 46 to 51. In this case we find oracles against Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus (also titled in some texts as ‘Against the Syrian Cities’), Arabia (the Bedouin tribes of the Syrian desert, east of Transjordan), Elam (far west of modern-day Iran), as well as Babylon (largest city of Ancient Mesopotamia, with its empire eventually dissolving after long periods under Assyrian, Kassite, and Elamite domination). In the book of Isaiah we once again read oracles against Babylon, Assyria (centred on the upper Tigris river - a major Mesopotamian kingdom and empire), Philistia, Moab, and other foreign nations from the early exilic period, before the fall of Babylon. Similarly, within the Minor Prophets’ writings we see oracles against the nations, such as in the opening chapters of Amos, and the book of Obadiah (which is a judgement speech against the people of Edom). In Amos, each speech condemning foreign nations follows a similar pattern, using formulae that are repeated in each oracle:
‘Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Damascus,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they… and the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir”
Says the Lord.’
‘Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Gaza,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they… and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish”
Says the Lord God.’ (Extract from Amos 1:3-2:16, RSV)
This section consists of eight oracles, each with the same beginning and structure. ‘Presumably Amos’s Israelite leaders would have listened with delight to the announcement of doom against neighbouring nations..however the series does not end with the seventh (Judah) as would be expected.’ Israel is the last in this section of Amos, significantly directing the focus onto God’s people, with a more detailed, and descriptive list of accusations, and warnings of a greater punishment. This highlights one of the main Old Testament themes, relevant to this essay - God’s special relationship with Israel, and His Sovereignty and Kingship over all the world’s nations and their people. Yahweh is Lord of all nations, Creator, and ‘God Almighty’ (Gen 17:1). The climax of these verses, as with all prophetic oracles against nations, stresses this. Yahweh affirms that He will not take Israel back as His ‘vassal’, any more than the other nations. Like the six nations, Israel has broken the relationship and covenant with their Lord, by going against their neighbours, oppressing the poor (2:6) as well as falling into other immoral and unholy acts. The Lord accuses the Israelites more severely, and as St John Chrysostom writes, ‘showed that they deserved greater punishment, because they had sinned after receiving the honors that he had bestowed on them.’ In other words, even though the holy nation of Israel has had God’s blessings and has heard His commandments (Deut 6), they have still chosen to disobey Him along with the foreign nations.
Israel is of course the divine heritage; the people of God. However the Lord Who is due praise from all His nations (Psalm 117:1), is King of the entire world, and sovereign over all people. These oracles, and the Old Testament in general, remind us of this, as they show the work and will of Yahweh - working and acting within all nations and people. Often, the ‘gods’ who are worshipped in some parts of the near east are deities associated with their particular area and territory. The oracles against the nations emphasise that the true God of all creation is not nationalistic, but is ‘King..the Lord of hosts’ (Is 51:15, Jer 46:18, Jer 48:15, Jer 51:57, Amos 5:27), Who is in control of every political situation. Referring to the book of Jeremiah (46:19), we notice that God is able to announce that the people of Egypt are going into exile, just as the Lord does when Judah is also going into exile. He is in control, and this is the fundamental message. Another relevant example is when we read of the refugees fleeing to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them, in order to avoid the judgement of God. Jeremiah warns them that going into Egypt will not remove them from God’s territory, as He is sovereign and reigns everywhere.
Despite the fact the oracles are against the nations, (in that they have fallen into sin and turned their backs on their creator and Lord) the passages may also give them hope and reassurance that there is indeed one God Who will redeem all people if they are faithful to Him. God’s plan is not only one of judgement and punishment - but more importantly an opportunity of freedom from idolatry, and a relationship with Him. One main point of the passages relating to the nations, is ‘that man is incurably religious, and if he forsakes a real faith he will develop a substitute religion or lapse into the grossest superstition.’ Similarly for Israel - the Lord’s chosen ‘people’ (Λαός, in the Septuagint) - these oracles could be seen as a word of encouragement, that their Lord will certainly deal with their enemies and protect them from opposing nations. ‘But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for lo, I will save you.’ (Jer 46:27-28) The Lord promises this safety and security to His people of Israel, ‘for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye.’ (Zechariah 2:8) Several foreign nations, including Babylon, oppress the people of Israel - and of course this deserves a response and reaction from their God (Exodus 29:45). The problems faced by the foreign nations are not mere political issues that could be solved with coalitions or arrangements, but are spiritual issues. As Dr Gary Yates writes, ‘they had a problem with God.’ Again the cosmic, and political sovereignty of the Lord is highlighted; with His power and might transcending boundaries. Throughout the Old Testament, it is clear that when one turns their back on God and His commandments, they will fall into darkness and suffering (Exodus 32:33) - and of course this is what we see with the nations who unrepentantly oppose the Lord’s people.
The early Church fathers see the oracles against the nations, as a calling to the people who are desperate and beaten down, by evil deceptions and idolatry. Furthermore, the theme of expectation and hope within the oracles is seen as a projection of the coming of Christ, the Messiah; for example, within the oracle against Egypt in Isaiah 19, it is indeed the Word of God, coming to Egypt ‘on a swift cloud.’ The foreign nations are all in need of the forgiveness, defence and salvation of God - and so ‘He will send them a saviour, and will defend and deliver them.’ (Isaiah 19:20)
To conclude, the foreign nations, and in particular the oracles against them which this essay has discussed, point to God’s sovereignty over the world. He works through these lands and their people, in order to convey His message, offering freedom, the ability to worship Him, and consequently salvation. Babylon for example is both ‘the executor of Yahweh’s plans and the object of Yahweh’s punishment.’ These oracles relate to the Old Testament theme of the Lord protecting His faithful people, working through various political situations and contexts, emphasising His kingship and ruling will. This thematic essay has introduced many of the foreign nations through scriptural examples, explaining why judgement exists against them, and how the nations, along with Israel, could understand the scriptures in a positive and hopeful light.
Blenkinsopp, J 1996, A History of Prophecy in Israel, Westminster : WJK , p.41.
Reimer, D 1993, The Oracles Against Babylon in Jeremiah, San Francisco : Mellen, p.1.
Yates, G 2013, Oracles Against the Nations (Online Article).
2000, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Cambridge.
2013, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, London : Bloomsbury, p.321-322, 238-240, 294-296.
2008, The Orthodox Study Bible, St Athanasius California : Thomas Nelson, p.998.
1982, The Interpreters Bible Volume 5, Nashville : Abingdon Press, p.273.
2003, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Isaiah 1-39 Illinois : IVP, p.134-144.