The Lands of Zabulon and Nephtali

Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris, vidit lucem magnam.  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (Is. 9: 3).”  This great messianic prophecy from the prophet Isaiah was included in last Sunday’s (January 26, 2014) first reading for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  The entire passage that forms the reading was an extraordinary prophetic utterance at a time when the ancient Kingdom of Israel was experiencing one of its darkest moments and it seems to possess an equally extraordinary relevance for our own time.  Let’s just take a look at it (Is. 9: 1-2) and see what there is to see here.  First the Greek from the ancient translation of the Septuagint:

Τοῦτο πρῶτον ποίει, ταχὺ ποίει, χώρα Ζαβυλων, ἡ γῆ Νεφθαλιμ ὁδὸν θαλάσσης καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ τὴν παραλίαν κατοικοῦντες καὶ πέραν τοῦ  Ιορδάνου, Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν, τὰ μέρη τῆς Ιουδαίας ὁ λαὸς ὁ πορευόμενος ἐν σκότει, ἴδετε φῶς μέγα – οἱ καταοικοῦντες ἐν χώρα καὶ σκιᾶ θανατοῦ, φῶς λάμψει ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς.

From the Clementine Vulgate:

Primo tmepore alleviata est terra Zabulon et terra Nephthali: et novissimo aggravata est via maris trans Jordanem Galilaeae gentium.  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris, vidit lucem magnam,; habitantibus in terione umbrae mortis, lux orta est eis.

And finally the Douay-Rheims English translation:

“At the first time the land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephtali was lightly touched: and at last the way of the sea beyond the Jordan of the Galilee of the Gentiles was heavily loaded.  The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen (Is. 9: 1-2).”

A rich prophetic utterance from Isaiah here.  First it is necessary to look at the situation of the lands of Zabulon and Nephtali during the prophet’s lifetime.  They were part of the northern kingdom of Israel.  This kingdom had its capital at Samaria about 75 miles north of Jerusalem and was composed of the ten tribes who separated from their southern neighbors after the death of David’s son King Solomon some two centuries before.  Isaiah was a southerner and the southerners generally regarded the northern kingdom as less pure in terms of religion.  The northern kingdom covered a larger area and was closer in proximity to the population centers of the pagan kingdoms such as Tyre, Sidon, and Damascus that surrounded it than the more isolated southern kingdom of Judah was.  Pagan ideas crept into the life of the northerners and all throughout the history of that kingdom it was continually reproached by God’s prophets (Elijah was based in the north and had continual confrontations with the northern king Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel) for their lack of fidelity to the Covenant and their worship of foreign gods.  Then during Isaiah’s lifetime catastrophe struck.  The Assyrian army struck and annihilated the northern kingdom in 721 B.C.  The kingdom was destroyed and the ten tribes, following the general policy of the Assyrian empire at that time, were deported from their land and scattered among the nations.  These are the celebrated ‘ten lost tribes’ that every crackpot archaeologist worth his salt has claimed to have found everywhere from Zimbabwe to Minnesota.  But in truth they disappeared and lost their identity as the People of God.  This was the reward for their constant and unrepentant infidelity  The land though was resettled completely by pagans and plunged into darkness.

This is what Isaiah saw in his lifetime.  To prophesy that a great light would come from the lands of Zabulon and Nephtali, the Galilee as it was starting to be called, was courageous indeed, and would have seemed absolutely ludicrous to any of Isaiah’s hearers.  But, many centuries later, such a thing did happen.  The greatest Light that has ever come into the world walked through these lands.  Our Lord, God Himself, would come into the lands of Zabulon and Nephtali and proclaim that the Redemption of mankind was at hand.  It is a lesson in how history and human memory work that during his life on earth our Lord was continually excoriated by the Jewish leadership of his day that he could not be a prophet because no prophet ever came from those lands.  Those lands that had been plunged into darkness first by the treason and infidelity of the northern kingdom and then by its dissolution and the permanent destruction of its inhabitants.  But Light did  shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  This is the way God works, is it not?   And it is a passage that can in fact not only be applied to geopolitical circumstances  but to our own individual lives as well.  All of us walk in darkness and into our lives we must let the Light shine.

But let’s come back to the idea of lands that were long ago plunged into darkness.  Might a great Light not shine once more in them?  Is it impossible?  As we have seen it has happened before.  Fifteen centuries ago the Middle East and North Africa were solidly Christian, but they being were ripped apart by schism and controversy and division that would not heal.  Then in the seventh century the armies of Islam emerged from Arabia and cut off the Middle East and North Africa.  Over the long centuries that followed the greatest apostasy in Christian history occurred with the Church diminishing greatly in strength and numbers in the Middle East and in Egypt and disappearing completely in North Africa.  Darkness fell upon those lands with the advance of Islam.  Might a great Light shine again there in the future, at some hour known only to God?

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and for their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.