Small sign in a shop window in Nantucket, “How to Live on an Island: Stretch, Listen in on shells, Put living things back, Cultivate quiet…Sugar yourself with sand, Float…Ebb and Flow…
This week Porter Fox wrote an article in The New York Times about his childhood on an island off the coastline of Maine. The article was called, “Everything is Different on an Island,” a thought I have had often, fascinated as I am by the small scrims of land that create an isolation Fox finds hard to describe. He wrote that, “… there is no escape from an island. The borders are finite and the surrounding ocean deep. Waves, wind and flotsam drift in with the breeze and tide, somehow drawn to the island’s singular existence. The thing is, a solitary entity in the middle of a void becomes the void. The sea is everything. The island is a vanishing point on a map. It is disconnected from the outside and, when you inhabit it, it becomes your world.”
This immersion and isolation make an excellent combination for writers and painters, scientists and those who seek to leave lives of convention. Little did I realize that islands occupy an interesting place in our sacred literature. Perhaps the most well-known appearance of islands is found in Esther 10:1. “King Ahaseurus imposed taxes throughout the empire, to its distant islands.” If you want to show just how insidious and far-reaching taxes are, make sure they get to the farthest island in your kingdom!
Their relative smallness also made islands a symbol of human insignificance in the presence of the Almighty, particularly in the Book of Isaiah (See Isaiah 11:11, 40:15-17, Jeremiah 31:10). In the Book of Jeremiah, we find such a use: "For cross to the islands of Kittim and see and send to Kedar and observe closely and see if there has been such a thing as this! Has a nation changed gods when they were not gods? But My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit” (Jeremiah 2:10-11).
In the Hebrew Bible islands can also be symbols of distance and isolation, as if to suggest that God’s presence is expansive, reaching even the most remote corners on earth. “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing His praise from the end of the earth! You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and those who dwell on them.” (Isaiah 42:10). “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations and declare on the islands far off and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock’” (Jeremiah 31:10)
The reverse is also true. Not only will God reach these distant places because a good shepherd keeps his flock together no matter how disparate, but people will hear of God and come from the remotest parts on earth to bring tribute and honor the Divine Presence: "Surely the islands will wait for Me, and the ships of Tarshish will come first, to bring your sons from afar. Their silver and their gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel because He has glorified you” (Isaiah 60:10). The idea of people responding to God’s call from afar – from islands - echoes in several other biblical verses (Isaiah 24:15, 42:4, 51:4-5).
In a similar usage in the book of Isaiah, we find islands ironically as places so far away that they do not know of God, as in this verse: “"I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory and they will declare My glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). In a similar thread, despite their distance from mainland and convention, those on islands are not beyond the law (Isaiah 59:18, Ezekiel 25:16-17, 39:6).
When the poet John Donne wrote “No Man is an Island,” one of the first poems I studied seriously in school, he wanted to communicate the artificial nature of isolation. We think we are alone, but we are never alone: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Our prophets had a similar message to communicate much earlier. Islands can be a spiritual oasis, a place to go away to find oneself, to find God. But they can communicate a false distance from humanity, as Isaiah, our island prophet said long ago, “Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar The Lord called me…” (Isaiah 49:1). We are a community. We are not islands.