A Text for Worshipers

Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) argues that the Pentateuch is a text for worshipers, not for historians. The difference is significant. A modern historian is charged with uncovering facts, who, what, when, where, how, and why.  A worshiper is concerned with only a few of these – specifically why and who as they pertain to worship. Precise dates, so important to our modern mind, were not all that important to the ancient author and audience. Dates, when given, have more symbolic than historical significance.

There are only a handful of dates events in the Pentateuch – connected with the exodus or with the story of Noah. In chapter 4 of The Liturgy of Creation Lefebvre runs through all of these. The dates are connected to the major festivals of Israel and serve to anchor these to both events in the story of Israel and to the agricultural year.

Dates link a historical memory to the specific festivals that later Israel observed. The dates of the festivals are set by the heavenly lights and naturally occurring seasons and harvests of Canaan (as we saw in chapters one through three). The timing of the festivals are not based on the historical events they commemorate.  Rather, the reverse is the case.  The historical events are ascribed with the dates of Israel’s festivals in order to associate those memories with later Israel’s progress through each year’s calendar. (p. 60)

This is not a concept we should find entirely foreign. We do something similar as Christians when we celebrate the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. But it teaches us how to read and consider the dates given in the Genesis (connected with the flood) and in the exodus story.

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His Grace is Sufficient

As we all know by now, the current move to “social distancing” is designed to “flatten the curve.” While the problems will last longer, the human toll should be smaller. The number of critical cases will remain closer to the capacity of our health care systems. If the spread is slowed more people survive.  There may even be time to develop and disseminate more effective treatment plans.  At our University all research, except research related to COVID-19, is pretty much on hold – or will be soon.  This is pretty typical. Many relevant laboratories around the world have refocused their efforts onto this problem. The internet, and the capacity to share information around the world, will also help. Fortunately this kind of virus doesn’t travel through the net.

We can also pray that warmer weather will help to slow the spread.

As is well known to many of us, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health for the last decade, is an eminent scientist, an effective leader, and a devout Christian. Peter Wehner recently interviewed Dr. Collins on both the coronavirus and his Christian faith. The interview is published in the Atlantic, and currently available on the site with or without subscription. NIH Director: ‘We’re on an Exponential Curve’ Francis Collins speaks about the coronavirus, his faith, and an unusual friendship. The article starts:

There are estimates that if nothing goes right and if we fail to flatten the curve and if health systems are overwhelmed, we might see the deaths of as many as a million and a half people in the United States.”

That’s what Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told me on Saturday. Collins is one of the most widely respected physician-geneticists in the world, who is deeply involved in containing the coronavirus pandemic. (Anthony Fauci, arguably the world’s leading infectious-disease specialist, works for Collins at the NIH and is a close friend.)

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Forward and Backward

These are interesting times. Last Monday and Tuesday I was out of town, part of a departmental review committee at another University. Wednesday, seeing the writing on the wall, I spent half of my class introducing my students to our video conferencing software. By Thursday classes were canceled and effective yesterday everything at our University was moved online. I even gave my regularly scheduled midterm last night – but in a somewhat different format, with my students scattered across the country. (We were asked to stick with the regular schedules as much as possible so students wouldn’t have scheduling conflicts.)

We are not the only ones affected, of course. Churches look to online services, which seemed to work relatively well last weekend. It is strange to lecture or to preach to cameras instead of faces.

It is probably no surprise that I haven’t had time to dig deeper into Ben Witherington’s book (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) for a new post today. Instead I though I’d repeat a post from several years ago from Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, his chapter on Jesus and Isaiah.

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_Emaus dsLuke 24 relates a story immediately following the resurrection account (image):

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them … He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (v. 13-15, 25-27)

The Scriptures Jesus explained were in the writings we refer to as the Old Testament. The Old Testament Scriptures provide the context for understanding Jesus as Messiah. The disciples needed to be able to read these Scriptures in a new light. But what does this mean? What did Jesus tell his disciples? Walter Moberly digs into this issue focusing on Isaiah, but touching on other prophets as well.

The nature of prophecy. Many (most?) Christians have a rather distorted view of the role of prophecy in the Old Testament. There is no “Bible code” with messages foretelling specific events in the future. Prophetic speech in the Old Testament takes several forms – but this isn’t one.

Classical prophetic speech is a “moral and spiritual challenge that seeks response.” The prophet is focused on the present situation. “Correspondingly, the future is seen to be contingent in relation to the response given: God can take into account people’s responsiveness and not carry out the prophet’s warning or promise if the circumstances have changed.” (p. 147) Although Christians often take Deuteronomy 18:22 and Jeremiah 28:9 as proof texts for the accuracy of prophecy, these do not undercut this contingency. Jeremiah is facing a specific situation: As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet. Moses speaks of the future of Israel, but the curses and blessings of Moses himself were contingent on the responsiveness of the people.

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A Chosen Servant

We continue our walk through Isaiah with Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) as our guide. Today we focus on Isaiah 42, the first of the servant oracles – presented as lyric poetry or “songs.” Witherington emphasizes, however, that they are prophetic oracles. Isaiah 42:1-7 is a well known text.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (42:1-7)

The Lord’s servant will bring forth justice for the nations – including, but not only, Israel.  The Hebrew word behind our translation “servant” is a general term not necessarily defined by a specific role … “More to the point in a context where Yahweh is speaking, it refers to a relationship someone, or some group, has with God.” (p. 201) God’s servant, whom he has chosen, on whom his Spirit rests, will bring forth justice. Although “servant” is, at times, applied to Israel (e.g. Is 41:8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend“), in chapter 42 it appears to reference a specific individual, perhaps with multiple levels of fulfillment. The servant is made a covenant, i.e. embodies a covenant, for all peoples. The servant himself is central.

Whether the intent of the original human author was to identify an individual or the Jewish people as the servant, there is no doubt how it was interpreted in the early church. Jesus is the faithful servant, the faithful Israelite. Jesus does what Israel never could accomplish. Matthew quotes the first part of this passage explicitly, and applies it to Jesus as predictive prophecy. (12:17-21)

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Witherington points out that Matthew has not tailored this quote to fit fit his immediate context. Rather, he is quite clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy. In fact, “Matthew is quite clear that Isaiah prophesied this oracle, and prophesied it quite specifically about Jesus.” (p. 205) This doesn’t mean that it had to be the historical Isaiah living in the time of Hezekiah, but it surely means the original author of this portion of the book – long before the first century birth of Jesus. Matthew also emphasizes that this was spoken through the prophet – these are the words of God spoken through his prophet. Only with the advent of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the church was their meaning more fully understood.

Matthew does make one clear change to the text – following the Greek rather than the Hebrew text of Isaiah. The nations will put their hope in his name not in his teaching. It is Jesus himself, not the law, that brings hope.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.

The link to the book above is a commissioned link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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Samson – A Hero of the Faith?

Samson is mentioned in two places in Scripture. The first is the story of Samson in Judges 13-16. The only other mention is in Hebrews 12 among a list of other Old Testament characters.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. (12:32-34)

As a group, faithfulness among those in this list varies widely. David was flawed, but also a man after God’s own heart. Samuel was generally faithful. Barak (Judges 4-5) was used by God, but required Deborah the prophet to accompany him.

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. … She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. (Judges 4:4-9)

Gideon (or Jerub-Baal) … there are a number of places in the story (Judges 6-8) where he acted faithfully before God but in the end “Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” (8:27)

The Lord used Jepthah (Judges 11-12) to subdue the Ammonites and Ephraimites – but he also sacrificed his daughter to satisfy a vow he made to “ensure victory.”  Not the kind of hero we would really like to emulate, nor do I think that it is consistent with the gospel.

It is not at all clear that inclusion on the list in Hebrews requires that we view these men as heroes of the faith. Some are, some are not. All were used by God to achieve his purposes. Of course, God also used Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. As we will see in our walk through Isaiah, Cyrus is even called “his anointed.”  (Is. 45:1) But this certainly does not make Cyrus a hero of the faith.

So What? I recently heard a sermon that used the story of Samson as a foreshadowing of Jesus. The way that Samson was connected with Jesus disturbed me. A number of parallels were drawn – the divinely enabled birth of Samson to a woman unable to have children (13:2 ff), the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson (13:25, 14:19, 15:14), Samson sacrificed himself for his people (16:26-30 – more on this below). This preacher is not off by himself. Other Christians have viewed Samson as a type of Jesus, based on similarities between their lives.

I think this is a serious mistake.

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God as Creator

Over the last two months I have listened to the book of Isaiah straight through several times on my morning commute. Although I have never really thought of Isaiah as containing a creation narrative, it is clear that this theme of creation, and more importantly God as Creator, is integral to the book and runs through Second Isaiah in particular. Isaiah 40:25-28 is a case in point:

“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

William P. Brown (The Seven Pillars of Creation) notes that “the language of creation pervades what many readers consider the greatest body of prophetic literature in the Bible: “Second Isaiah,” chapters 40-55. … Creation is not confined to the primordial past but extends into, invades even, the present.” (p. 198) Isaiah is unabashedly monotheistic and the one God, the God of Israel is the Creator of everything. Brown points out that in Isaiah God’s creation is all encompassing. In Genesis 1 darkness was over the surface of the deep. God spoke light into being and separated light from dark. In Isaiah 45:5-7 we read:

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.

I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.

God forms light and creates darkness. Darkness is not merely the absence of light as in Genesis 1. Here it is a creation of the sovereign God.

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A Rhythm for Worship

Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) looks at the rhythm of the ancient Israelite calendar as recorded in the Pentateuch to provide insight into the creation narrative in Genesis 1. The festivals of Israel are outlined in detail, and provide a window on these rhythms.

Israel’s festival calendar was not a liturgy for worship divorced from daily life but a rhythm for worship that helped regulate both risk spreading and labor optimization for national fruitfulness. (p. 39)

And later:

The festivals (especially through the lens of the exodus narrative mapped over them …) taught the people to view themselves as stewards of a land that God had given them. They were being taught to maximize the fruitfulness of the land with gratefulness and with God’s love for the poor on their hearts. (p. 45)

The festivals in the spring coincided with the barley harvest and the wheat harvest. In both cases the firstfruits are presented to God. It is not clear how LeFebvre views the timing and authorship of the books of the Pentateuch, particularly Deuteronomy. He argues from a reference frame where the festivals outlined in Deuteronomy 16 require pilgrimage to Jerusalem and presentation of offerings at the temple. As temple worship centered in Jerusalem dates far later than the exodus setting assumed in Deuteronomy, this would suggest a relatively late date for the text.  We read in the New Testament of pilgrimages to Jerusalem – but it is not clear how early these regular pilgrimages started. It would be interesting to hear from someone with the necessary expertise on this point.

Independent of this issue, it is clear that the rhythm of festival worship is tied to a communal life together and to the agricultural cycles of the year in ancient Israel. LeFebvre suggests that the festivals provided a means to work together in the harvest and to provide for those who lacked sufficient food and resources. Certainly the need for such generosity is made clear in the outline of festivals in Leviticus 23.

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” Lev. 23:22

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From Metaphor to Reality

A voice of one crying in the wilderness
“prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight the paths of our God.”

The impact of the book of Isaiah on Christianity is hard to over-emphasize. Although this is true of the entire book, it is especially true of Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 40:1-5, especially v.3 (quoted above from the Septuagint), is referenced in all four Gospels with John the Baptist identified as the voice calling out in the wilderness. Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) notes that “there is frankly no passage of Isaiah that more clearly binds all four canonical Gospels together.” (p. 189) All four of the Gospels attribute the quote to Isaiah and use the quote, in one way or another, to frame the ministry of Jesus (the one for whom the way is prepared). It was integral to the church’s early understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While the narrator makes the connection in the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John makes it personal.

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (Jn 1:22-23)

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Confident or Not?

Do you think the scientific method generally produces reliable conclusions?

There is an interesting new report out by the Pew Research Center summarizing poll results on views of science: (see the link: Key Findings). The results presented are enlightening and thought provoking. While public opinion on climate change and some energy issues are tied very closely with political affiliation, this is not true of most other significant “hard science” (my term not theirs) issues. There is, for example, no significant difference in the view of vaccination correlated with political affiliation. Something my grandfather, who was extraordinarily conservative politically – but who also spent his early career as a medical doctor treating polio victims, would appreciate. (Polio was only important in the earlier part of his career because vaccination wiped out polio in this country.)

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A Voice Calling in the Wilderness

From “First Isaiah” connected directly with the historical Isaiah, son of Amoz (Is 1-39) we move to “Second Isaiah” or as Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) puts it “Eschatological Isaiah” and specifically to Is 40-55. Although the traditional view has this section of the book recording the oracles of the historical Isaiah, there are many reasons to view this as composed at the end of the Babylonian exile, some two centuries later. These reasons do not undermine the power of prophecy or the nature of the entire book of Isaiah as Scripture – the word of God.

There are issues of language, style, and vocabulary that distinguish early Isaiah (1-39) from the later chapters. Resolution of these issues suggest, but do not require, more than one prophetic source. The more telling issue is the nature of the argument presented.

Is 40-55 “seems to be speaking out of a situation of exile, and not just any exile but more specifically the Babylonian exile, from which Judah was delivered by the Persian king Cyrus.” (p. 174) To have such a specific prediction from Isaiah the son of Amoz would be “without precedent in the prophetic corpus of the OT.” The OT prophets speak either to their direct times or in grander eschatological terms. But according to Witherington “this is not the most pressing reason” to place the time of writing and the original audience of Is 40-55 in the context of the end of exile. Rather it is the nature of the message and the impact it would have on the audience.  He quotes Childs:

The coming of Cyrus is not presented as a future prediction, but rather as proof that the prediction of him has been fulfilled. On the basis of his former prophecies concerning Cyrus, which have been realized and can readily be confirmed by all, the prophet then makes a future prediction in 44:24ff. and 45:1ff. The logic of the prophetic argument demands that the audience of the prophet’s words stands at a point in the sixth century when the former prediction is viewed as part of history.[Isaiah, p. 290]

Specific details about the distant future would be meaningless to the historical Isaiah’s audience. Witherington suggests that they would care about as much as Hezekiah cared about the eventual loss of possessions to Babylon – and even the exile of his descendants – after his lifetime. (See IS 39:5-8) “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” (v. 8) But a reference to a fulfilled prophecy at the time of return from exile would validate the later prophet’s forward looking message.

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