Friday, April 4, 2014

Did Matthew misquote Isaiah? "A virgin shall conceive"

Some years ago, I was working my way through Isaiah when I came to the famous passage about "a virgin shall conceive and bare a son."  Great, I thought, that just proves Christianity, the Old Testament really did predict the virgin birth.  Everybody should believe.

But then I did something really dangerous.  I tried to figure out what the rest of Isaiah 7 was all about.   You know, all that useless verbiage that surrounds the one important verse that we love to spout off as an example of fulfilled prophecy.

I discovered years ago that Christians seem to have two basic responses to Isaiah 7.  Either we read it, and say, "Huh, I have no idea what that is all about, but it's cool that it predicts the virgin birth.  I think I'll go back to Matthew."  Or, we look at Isaiah, look back at Matthew, and say, "Clearly Matthew made a mistake.  What an idiot.  The Jews must be laughing at the idiocy of the fumbling apologetic attempts in the gospel of Matthew."

In fact, I found out, they are laughing--go read any of those books with titles like "How to refute Christian missionaries."  (Yes, such books and web pages do exist.  They should be required reading for Christians.)  I was embarrassed, frankly.  They really point out how inadequately we Christians have interpreted both Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1--especially when we try to use them to argue for the truth of Christianity.

Like most prophetic passages, to understand Isaiah 7 you must understand the historical background.  We glean some of the background from the passage itself (not just from the introduction, but also from what Isaiah says to the king).  2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 also fill in other extremely important details from the reign of King Ahaz.

Israel (the northern kingdom) and Aram (Syria) had formed an alliance against Judah.  Either of these nations alone was probably more powerful than Judah at the time.  The alliance had inflicted several crushing defeats on Judah (2 Chron. 28:5 says they killed 120,000 of his army and captured many more).  And now they conspired together to remove King Ahaz from the throne of David, and replace him with a puppet monarch.  Not only that, Edom in the south had attacked and had already taken some territory (Elat, Judah's only port on the Red Sea).  Judah was surrounded and was losing.  "The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind."

So what does Ahaz do?  Well, he knows he cannot hold back the armies much longer.  He does not have many options.  He does what any ruler would have done under the circumstances--any ordinary ruler, anyway.  First, he prepares for a siege.  When the story opens in v. 3, he is out inspecting the water supply of Jerusalem ("the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the fuller's field").  This is where Isaiah is told to meet him.

Isaiah comes to him with a message from God: "Don't panic!  Cease your preparations!"  (There are some issues on how to translate the words he says.)  Why would Isaiah say that?  Because Ahaz is not an ordinary ruler, even though he is acting like one.  Ahaz is a king in David's line.

"Because Aram and Ephraim have plotted against you, saying, let us... conquer it and make the son of Tabeel king over it, therefore the Lord Yahweh says, 
'It shall not stand,
it shall not come to pass.
For the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin...
The head of Ephraim [the northern kingdom] is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah [Pekah].
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
You shall not stand at all.'"
The hearer is supposed to ask the question, "Who is the head of Judah?"  The son of David, ruling in Yahweh's chosen city under Yahweh himself, that's who.  What is King Rezin and King Pekah compared to that?  And has not Yahweh promised David that his son will always reign over Judah?  What does Yahweh think about an attempt to place a non-Davidic puppet monarch on the throne?  That shall not stand.  In fact, he adds that within sixty five years, the northern kingdom that Ahaz fears so much will not even be a kingdom or have a recognizable people and national identity.  It will be totally gone.

But so will Ahaz, if he does not have faith.  If he continues to act like Yahweh is absent, he will not stand at all.  (The end of vs. 9 is a strong wordplay in Hebrew, which the NIV quoted above has tried to reproduce in English.)

Isaiah's message to Ahaz to stop striving, or cease preparations, or however you translate it, is asking Ahaz not to do the other thing he has in mind to do (see below).  God wants Ahaz to trust him, rather than trusting in his own strength to manipulate things.  Stop trying to save the kingdom and trust Yahweh to work a miracle?  It seems so irresponsible. 

So what does Ahaz do?  Unfortunately, he does not stand firm in his faith.  He continues to act like an ordinary ruler, and he does what must have seemed like the only thing he could do.  He sent messengers to the enemy of Aram and Israel to make an alliance with them.  2 Kings 16 tells us how he sent messengers and tribute money to the king of Assyria and asks him to help.  He says, "I am your servant and your son.  Come rescue me."

This is a fairly typical sovereign-vassal treaty in the ancient near east.  One nation folds itself under the protection of another and agrees to pay tribute.  Sometimes, as here, this is expressed as father and son.  It seemed like that was all Ahaz could do.  Isn't he just acting like a responsible monarch?

The problem is that Ahaz already has a sovereign-vassal treaty with a different sovereign--with King Yahweh.  The Mosaic covenant is expressed in similar terms: "Israel is my firstborn son," Yahweh says in Exodus 4:22.  The Mosaic covenant in fact precisely follows the usual forms of sovereign-vassal treaties, as we came to realize through the work of Mendenhall and others in the last century as these treaties were unearthed.  Yahweh, the Great King, the sovereign king demands obedience and loyalty, i.e., no independent foreign policy (do not make treaties with them, he says).  He demands that Israel "love" him (this word is actually used in Hittite sovereign-vassal treaties).  Like other sovereign kings, he drafts a treaty (covenant) and requires that copies of the treaty be stored in the temple (that's why the ten commandments are in the ark) and read regularly.  In return, Yahweh promises protection.  The treaty, like many such treaties, is followed by a pronouncement of the blessings that will come if the treaty is followed, and the curses if it is not.

So Ahaz, by becoming a vassal of Assyria, is rebelling against his own sovereign, breaking the treaty he already has with God, and bringing on himself the covenant curses.  Furthermore, we read in 1 Kings 16, he also worships the Assyrian gods (this would commonly follow from a treaty).  What is King Yahweh going to do about this rebellion?

He gives Ahaz one more chance.  "Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven."  Yahweh is willing to work to bolster Ahaz's faith and his faithfulness.  He knows there is no way Ahaz can stop his political maneuvering and trust God unless he really believes.  It would take a lot of faith to trust in God and stop this foreign policy when you see the clouds of dust from the invading armies getting closer and closer.

This seems like a very good deal for Ahaz--ask anything you want?  Why wouldn't you give it a try?  Make it something big!  But Ahaz responds, "I will not ask, and I will not put Yahweh to the test."  This is a pious-sounding excuse for a direct refusal to believe.  Ahaz does not want Yahweh to prove himself; he is too attached to his scheming, apparently.  Apparently he would rather be in control.

This is the last straw for Yahweh.  "You try the patience of men, will you try the patience of God too?  You don't want a sign?  Well, I'll give you one anyway.  That sign will be the destruction of your own land in just a few years, by the very king you are making an alliance with."

That is what Isaiah's words to Ahaz boil down to, but there is this matter of the child Immanuel wrapped up in it.  It says, "That young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and will call him Immanuel; and... before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted--and Yahweh will bring on you terrible days."  In the context, then, some specific but unnamed woman will bear a son and call him Immanuel, and before the child reaches some level of maturity (it is not clear whether he means 12 years old, or maybe 2 or 3 years old, or some other age), the other lands will be destroyed.  And this is a sign to King Ahaz, in something like 730 BC.

Now it is true that by the time Jesus was born, Aram and Israel were laid waste and rebuilt, several times over.  But that hardly would be a sign to Ahaz more than 700 years before.  It seems fairly obvious that the passage is talking about the invasion of Israel and Aram by Assyria, just a few years later, and the fact that Assyria did not stop there but also invaded Judah as well.

Who is this woman and this child?  We do not know, but there are several clues.  In this chapter, Isaiah has one of his own sons with him, a son whose name is a sign ("Shear-Jashub" means "a remnant will return").  In the next chapter, as the situation becomes even more dire, Isaiah has another son who also has a prophetic name ("Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz" means "the spoil speeds, the prey hastens"), to make the point that the Assyrians really are going to invade--before the child learns how to speak.  So some commentators suggest that this child, whose name is also a prophetic message, is another son of Isaiah.  "God is with us" is certainly Isaiah's message here and in the next chapter.  (The name Immanuel can just as well mean "God is with us" as "God with us"; in Hebrew names, the "is" is optional.  So, for example, Elijah can mean "Yahweh my God" or "Yahweh is my God"; obviously, everyone understood the latter.  Thus the name Immanuel does not necessarily imply that the child is divine in any way.)  If God is with us, can these nations really attack us?  Isaiah is so bold that he even issues a challenge to the other nations to do their worst.  It won't matter--for God is with us (8:10).  Isaiah and his sons together are magnificent signs of the faithfulness of God (8:18).

Another possibility is that the child is not one of Isaiah's, but rather perhaps Ahaz's own.  Immanuel could be another name for Hezekiah, Ahaz's successor.  In 8:8, it talks about the land of Judah as "Immanuel's land", which is perhaps more appropriate for a royal person than for some child even of a nobleman like Isaiah.

He goes on to say that the child will "eat curds and honey" when all this destruction happens.  This is country food, not civilized city food--he will not be eating bread and drinking wine.  The rest of the passage talks about how the country will be devastated--all the vineyards and cultivated fields will turn into weeds where people hunt animals or graze their flocks.  But those few who are still alive will have plenty of good pastoral food.

The first half of the book of Isaiah has a stark contrast between two rulers, Ahaz the faithless, and Hezekiah the (eventually) faithful.  Ahaz did not stand; he cowered before Assyria.  His son Hezekiah started off the same way (perhaps during his coregency with his father Ahaz), trying to make alliances with surrounding countries including Assyria, but it failed.  As prophesied, Assyria invaded anyway.  They captured all the fortified towns of Judah--every last one of them, except Jerusalem.  Probably hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.  The invincible, enormous Assyrian army was at the very gates of Jerusalem, about to break through.

Hezekiah finally did trust God, instead of trying to manipulate alliances.  He prayed, and God sent Isaiah to him just as he sent him to Ahaz, with the same message: "Do not be afraid!"  (Is. 37:6).  Eventually, God miraculously destroyed much of the proud Assyrian army, sending the remainder home with their tail between their legs.  God was faithful to the covenant to David: "I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David" (Is. 37:35).  "From Jerusalem, a remnant shall go out" (remember the name Shear-Jashub) and repopulate Judah.  Hezekiah did stand firm in his faith.

So the Immanuel passage is a magnificent passage about God's loyalty to his covenant, and about faith and faithfulness in a very dark time in the 8th century BC.    What does this have to do with Jesus?  And why does Matthew quote it?

(Here I must insert a disclaimer.  I am not denying the virgin birth, by any means.  No matter how you interpret the Isaiah 7 passage, the rest of Matthew's story, and Luke's as well, is totally clear; it was a virgin birth.  For historical reasons, evangelical Christians are extremely touchy about the Isaiah 7 passage.  The virgin birth was one of the Fundamentals that gave rise to fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism has defined itself by opposing to the death anything that even sounds like it might attack one of those Fundamentals.  It is hard to have a rational discussion about them within American Christianity.  And yet, it seems clear that the view that most Christians have about Matthew's quotation from Isaiah really does need serious discussion.  So please read on without getting your hackles up, at least until the end.)

A great deal of ink has been spilled pointing out that while the Hebrew word for "young woman" in this passage does not necessarily imply a virgin, the Septuagint translation uses a totally unambiguous word that cannot mean anything else.  Matthew quotes the Septuagint version.  I think that whole discussion is completely a red herring, of no consequence at all.  If someone says to you, "That virgin standing over there will conceive and bear a son," do you really think it implies a virgin birth?  She might be a virgin now, but the implication is pretty clear: not for long. This would certainly be the understanding of Isaiah's original audience, and it causes no difficulty to interpret the text that way.  So no matter what the word actually means in Isaiah, it does not necessarily predict a virgin birth or even a miraculous conception.

I think we have to rid ourselves of the mistaken notion that Matthew is trying to claim that the prophecy in Isaiah 7 finds its exclusive fulfillment in Jesus.  If that is what Matthew is doing, he has laughably misinterpreted the passage he quotes.  But note that this is just as much true of the other scriptures that Matthew cites nearby.  In Matt. 2:17, he quotes a passage from Jeremiah that quite clearly in Jeremiah refers to the disaster of the exile, 600 years before Christ; no one would ever have thought that passage predicted a slaughter of babies six hundred years later.  And again in Matt. 2:15, he applies a passage from Hosea, "Out of Egypt I drew my son", to Jesus.  But the passage in Hosea is not even a prophecy of the future--it recalls the fact that God drew his son, Israel, out of Egypt, hundreds of years before Hosea's time.

Is Matthew just an idiot?  Was he letting his concordance run amok?  "Let me see if I can find some passage talking about the Son of God...  got it, this thing in Hosea sounds good.  Let me see if I can scrounge up something about a virgin--hmm, this one in Isaiah might fit the bill."  This is the way he is often portrayed by skeptical scholars.

I think that it is not Matthew who is mistaken; it is we who have been mistaken about what Matthew is doing.  Matthew knows, as well as any reader of those passages, that they do not make a convincing case that Jesus is the one true fulfillment.  He is not using this as an apologetic argument--see, you should believe in Jesus, because the Old Testament prophecies point to him.  Let me repeat.  Matthew is not making an apologetic argument here.  Matthew did not intend that these quotes should form a proof of the messiahship of Jesus, or anything of the sort.  Nobody who has ever read them would be convinced by that argument.  (So we should stop making it.)

What Matthew is saying is more about Jesus than about the prophecies.  He is saying that what happened to Israel as a nation must also happen to the Messiah, Israel's representative and champion.  Jesus bears the destiny of Israel, he is the true Israelite, the culmination of Israel's long history.  So he must go through the same experiences as the whole nation.  He goes down to Egypt, just like Israel did.  The slaughter of the children in Bethlehem was like the slaughter of the people when the Babylonians came.  It continues on: like Israel, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he crosses the Jordan.  Jesus had to be made like his people in every way.  Israel's history is fulfilled in the Messiah; hence, these prophecies are replicated in some way in the Messiah's life.

This may seem like an odd way to think, but the New Testament writers consistently do it all over.  The psalms that are quoted about Jesus on the cross (e.g., Ps. 69) are, in their own context, quite clearly about David, and no Jew would have ever thought beforehand that they must apply to the Messiah.  

But there is something interesting happening here.  One of the things that is remarkable about passages like Psalm 69 is that it is figuratively true of David, but literally true of the Messiah.  Parts of Ps. 69 (not the whole thing) are a strikingly appropriate description of someone dying on a cross, yet they were written before anybody had ever thought of that gruesome method of execution.  So the cross is not something anybody expected before it happened, but looking back, we wonder--it seems that when God was looking at David and helping him describe his own sufferings, God actually had in his mind a picture of David's greater son.  God loves his son, and always has him in view even when he is talking about other things.  (It is almost like a divine freudian slip, except it's not a slip at all.)  These lesser things ultimately derive their significance not from themselves, but because they are like Jesus in some way.

To put it another way, David is a like a shadow of the true King cast back into history.  The reality is Jesus, the shadow is David.  So just as when a real object moves, its shadow moves too, the things that happen to the real King also happen in some way to the shadow, though they happen in a different place and different context.  (And, for those who happen to remember Plato's allegory of the cave, here I am using the word "shadow" in the same sense as Plato did.  The author of Hebrews uses the word the same way when he said the things in the tabernacle were a copy and a shadow of the true temple in heaven.)  This understanding of prophecy is called "typology", from the word tupos, which means a cast or a stamp.  Jesus is the mold that David was made in; David is a type of Christ.

(And while I said you cannot make an apologetic argument from these quotes of the Old Testament, that is perhaps not quite true.  After all, when you put all of them together, it really is remarkable that the life of Jesus lines up so well with so many fragments of the Old Testament, especially the ones quoted about the cross, even if they are obviously not the primary meaning of the passages.  The literal match of the words, at least when you take them all together, seems too striking to be entirely a coincidence.  This is a weaker apologetic argument than saying that Isaiah clearly predicted something and look! it happened to Jesus, and only to Jesus.  But it is an argument nonetheless.)

So what does this mean for the Immanuel passage?  Matthew has told us, quite clearly, how Jesus was  born of a virgin, in a completely miraculous way.  The words of Isaiah 7, though they do not in any ordinary sense predict Jesus' virgin birth seven hundred years after King Ahaz, are nevertheless strikingly appropriate to it.  Jesus' own birth was presumably in God's mind when he described Immanuel.  God was faithful to his covenant with David then, and embodied this in the person of the boy Immanuel ("God is with us") at the time.  God's faithfulness to his covenant with David is absolutely embodied in Jesus himself, the one who is truly "God with us".  When Matthew says, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet," he is saying that Jesus' life had to be an even greater sign of God's faithfulness than the 8th century fulfillment.  Immanuel was a type or a shadow of the true Immanuel who came later.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Render to Caesar...."

I used to think I understood the famous passage where Jesus says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:15-22 | Mk 12:13-17 | Lk 20:19-26).  Then I had to explain it to third graders.

As most of you know, Jesus' enemies sought to put him on the horns of a dilemma.  By asking him, "Are we allowed to pay taxes to Caesar?" they thought he would have two choices.  He could say, "No!" and promptly be arrested by the Herodians who had come along with the Pharisees for just this purpose.  Or, he could say, "Yes, you must pay taxes to the hated, ungodly Roman government," and be understood by his people as a traitor.  In their view, he would be not merely a traitor to his people, but to God, because any kingdom that sets itself up against God's anointed must be an enemy of God.  How could one who hopes in Yahweh's promise ever think that there could be peace with the Romans?

This part is easy to understand.  What is not so easy to understand is how Jesus got out of the dilemma.

The usual way of understanding this passage (which dates back to Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest church Fathers) is that when Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars," he meant, "Yes, you must pay taxes."  But if this is the correct understanding of the passage, didn't Jesus do exactly what they were hoping he would do?  Didn't he fall into their trap?  Why did they walk away amazed?

For this reason, there is actually considerable confusion in the interpretation of this passage.  Some (e.g., Marcus Borg) have said that Jesus' answer was really no answer at all--it was a deliberately confusing answer which confounded his opponents by its obscurity.  Jesus, after all, never defined by "what belongs to Caesar" and "what belongs to God".  The reason they went away amazed had nothing to do with Jesus' answer, but with a clever ad hominem argument that he made along the way (see below).

Similarly, some have argued that although Jesus never defined "what belongs to God," it ought to be obvious.   Everything belongs to God--there is nothing left over for Caesar.  Hence, some have taken this passage as justification for not paying taxes under some circumstances.  (A carefully reasoned and nuanced discussion of this viewpoint, which also combines elements of the "Jesus wiggles out by being obscure" viewpoint as well, is here.)  This sort of answer is particularly popular with pacifists who seek justification for not paying taxes that go toward the military machinery (just do a google search on "render to Caesar" to see what is out there).

So, if either of these is correct, why then did they walk away amazed?  If Jesus answer was deliberately obscure, why wouldn't they just force him to clarify?  And if Jesus' answer is that you need not pay taxes, why didn't they arrest him?  One reason may have been Jesus' clever request for the coin.  The coin itself was a Roman denarius, presumably with a picture of the then-current emperor Tiberius on it.  And the inscription, when translated, reads, "Tiberius Caesar, worshipful son of the god Augustus."  It is tantamount to a claim to divinity.  Before Nero, the emperors did not make overt claims to divinity during their lifetimes, but as this coin shows, Augustus was deified when he died, and Tiberius is claiming some right of worship.

This coin, therefore, is brazenly against Jewish claims of the one true God, and deeply offensive to sincere Jews.  Yet Jesus' questioners seem to have one handy, even right there in the temple, while Jesus has to ask for one.  Some have therefore argued that Jesus' request to see the coin was basically a cheap debaters trick, essentially an ad hominem argument.  It shows that his opponents are merely masquerading as champions of Jewish orthodoxy, but have no problem in practice collaborating with Rome.  And they stupidly fell into his trap.

I find this a little unsatisfying.  It is not the fact that this is basically an ad hominem argument that bothers me.  In fact, the whole tenor of the discussion in the temple during the last week before the crucifixion is very personal and bitter, and Jesus takes his opponents' character to task in no uncertain terms.  The issue really is character: are the Jewish leaders of that time worthy, or are they the sort of bad shepherds that God is about to remove?  Hence, an ad hominem argument is in fact appropriate.

But is the ability to produce a Roman coin really so damning?  We know that only the most extreme of the zealots refused to handle Roman money.  Furthermore, the Herodians accompanied the Pharisees, and they would have no qualms about producing a denarius.  No one had any doubt where their loyalties lay.  The text does not say that it was the Pharisees who produced the idolatrous coin; if it was the Herodians, then the whole argument about the character of the leaders being revealed by their production of the coin falls flat on its face.  Surely, if the gospel writers meant the argument to hinge on this sudden revelation of the cravenness of the Jewish leaders, they would have made it clear that it was some unsuspecting Pharisee who pulled it out of his pocket before he realized what he was doing.  Nowhere else are they shy about pointing out the faults of the Pharisees.

Furthermore, the idea that Jesus is triumphing over his opponents by dodging the issue is unlikely in this literary context.  Imagine the gospel writers, ardent admirers of Jesus, writing pro-Jesus propaganda, telling the story of when Jesus is asked a deep and important question.  All eyes are focussed on him, and then he says, "Mumble mumble mumble."  Here we see the great wise man, most skilled sage in all Israel, triumphantly dodging a dangerous question.  It just seems out of character.  The gospels are largely composed of short narratives (called "pericopes") with a short concluding word from Jesus that is the main point, and that short concluding word is always climactic and pithy, full of meaning.  Hence, I think they were not astounded by his ability to evade the question, and thus these interpretations are misguided.  We have to understand the episode of the coin differently.

So why does he ask to see the coin, instead of simply giving an answer?  "Whose image and inscription are on it?"  The natural way of reading this, and the traditional reading in the church, is that Caesar's picture and writing on it shows that it belongs to Caesar, and therefore taxes ought to be payed to Caesar.  The image and inscription are a sign of ownership of the money, and therefore Caesar can do what he wants with it.

Now if all that Jesus wanted to do was to say you must pay your taxes, I think he would not make some dodgy, almost poetic argument about the picture on the coin.  I mean, I have never in my life heard or read anyone saying that you must pay taxes in the U.S. because George Washington's picture is on our currency.  Yes, I know that the fact that Caesar's image is on the coin shows that Caesar minted it, and therefore Caesar is in control of the money supply, and therefore Caesar has the right to control the economy, and so on.  But if you really want to make that argument solid, you would not start with the picture on the coin.  There are many other reasons for paying taxes; Paul and Peter discuss them in the epistles, and they do not use the argument from the picture on the coin.  Neither does anyone else, in ancient literature or modern, as far as I know.  After all, does Caesar's picture on the coin mean that we give to Caesar every coin in our pockets?  Jesus must be leaving out big parts of the argument about taxes.  He wants to direct our attention to something else more important than taxes, and he is using a not-entirely-logical argument about taxes to make a very logical argument about something else.

"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's."  If we know that the coin is Caesar's because his image and inscription are on it, then how do we know what is God's?  Well, what has God's image and inscription?  You do, of course, and so do I; so does everyone listening to Jesus.  This understanding of the passage is at least as old as Tertullian.  Contra the viewpoints expressed above, Jesus does define what belongs to God--that is the whole point of the question about the coin.  "Render to God the things that are God's" is a call for those in the image of God to submit themselves to God.

(In this statement, Jesus also repudiates the emperor's claim to quasi-divine status.  Worship is to be rendered to God, not the emperor.  Jesus clearly does not accept the Roman propaganda on the coins, and no listener could possibly conclude that Jesus has abandoned Jewish monotheism, even if he does advocate paying Roman taxes with idolatrous Roman money.  But this seems to be a side issue.)

Jesus' response, then, leads us away from money back to loyalty to God.  This story is not primarily about taxes, and we miss the point entirely if we are looking only for an answer to that question.  This is a typical move by Jesus: he takes a practical question, reformulates in in terms of love for God, and turns it back on the questioner, who is supposed to realize he was asking a trivial question when a more fundamental issue is at stake.  Give to Caesar these worthless bits of metal he wants, and give the truly valuable things to God.

Remember that the Jews saw only two possible options in dealing with the Romans.  You could be loyal to Judaism and to God's kingdom here on earth by opposing the Romans; or you could support the Romans and be a traitor to Judaism, to the covenant, and to God.  What Jesus has done with this answer is to advocate a third option: you can pay taxes to Caesar and still be loyal to God.  He never advocates disobedience to the Romans, but he unquestionably is devoted to God as well.  This is consistent with the kind of kingdom Jesus has been advocating throughout his whole ministry (see my previous post), but decidedly inconsistent with the understanding of the kingdom that first century Jews shared.  This is how he escapes being a traitor to God while still arguing for paying taxes.

It is not only his argument for a new kind of kingdom that saves Jesus from the dilemma they tried to force him onto.  Jesus is now standing in the very temple which only few days earlier he had cleaned of sacrilegious buying and selling, sanctioned by other Jewish leaders who had most decidedly not been rendering to God what belonged to him.  Furthermore, he had just accused all of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees included, of not rendering to God the things that are God when he told the parable of the tenant farmers earlier that day.  God wanted the fruit from his vineyard (Israel; see Isaiah 5), but these tenants refused to yield a reasonable rent to the landowner when asked, and in fact killed the landlord's son so that ownership of the fields would revert to the tenants (as prescribed by Jewish law).  Everyone understood that he told this outrageous, shocking story about the Jewish leaders who refused to render to God the things that belonged to God--specifically, they were unwilling to give up Israel to her lord when he showed up, because they wanted it for themselves.

As with every other narrative in this section, Jesus has taken their accusatory question, and turned it into an accusation against his enemies.  But as with the other encounters, he takes a dated, pedantic question, and turns it into a life-giving answer about the core of life.  Jesus' response about Roman taxes in the first century still forces us to examine today whether we are rendering to God the things that are God's.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Jesus made everyone mad: inaugural address in Nazareth

How, within the space of a few minutes, did the opinion of the people of Nazareth about Jesus turn from apparent approval to murderous rage?  Kenneth Bailey (in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, in a chapter called "The Inauguration of Jesus' ministry") discusses this question in a fresh way.

There are few extra-biblical references to Nazareth, but we do know that after the failed Bar Kochba revolt in AD 135, Nazareth had become one of the towns inhabited by the 24 courses of priests.  This suggests that it was an overwhelmingly Jewish town, devoted to Jewish ideals--a priestly course would not have chosen it if it were a mixed Jewish-Gentile town.  It appears that Nazareth was a town which had originally been settled as part of a plan to take over Galilee and turn it into Jewish territory, much like modern day Jewish settlers in debated areas in Israel.  By settling in Galilee, they hoped to change it from Gentile territory to Jewish territory.  (One theory for the origin of the name "Nazareth" is that it comes from a Hebrew word meaning "watch, guard, keep": such a name might be appropriate for an advance outpost in the war between Jewish and Gentile culture.)

For this reason, everyone in the town would have grown up with the Jewish hope of conquering the godless Gentiles and ultimately bringing in the glorious kingdom.  This hope is expressed in many places, including Isaiah 61 (note particularly verses 7-11):
1The Spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me
2to bring good tidings to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
3to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
4to proclaim the year of Yahweh's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
5to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;
6that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of Yahweh,
that he may be glorified.
7They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
9but you shall be called the priests of Yahweh,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
10you shall eat the wealth of the Gentiles,
and in their riches you shall glory.
11Instead of shame you shall have a double portion,
instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot;
therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion;
yours shall be everlasting joy.

This sort of passage is the whole reason for existence of towns like Nazareth, and undoubtedly they knew it well.  So when Jesus, a son of the town, comes to talk in their synagogue and begins reading this passage, they know what to expect: in their understanding, God will ultimately turn the tables and allow them to treat the Gentiles as slaves, or worse (they will do to the Gentiles what the Gentiles have done to them).

But much to their surprise, he stops reading in the middle of verse 4.  Everyone knew that the next phrase was "the day of vengeance of our God," the day they are all hoping for, when God takes vengeance on their enemies.  In the original passage, "the day of vengeance of our God" is parallel to "the year of Yahweh's favor", so where Jesus stopped is very unnatural: he deliberately broke the poetic parallelism of the passage.  To those who know the passage well, it is as jarring as if someone were singing the Star Spangled Banner to a United States audience and stopped after "and the rockets' red glare" and didn't include "and the bombs bursting in air."  Why did he stop here, just before he got to the good part about God killing lots of Gentiles and making the rest our menial servants?

He also makes several other minor changes, the most important of which is that he inserted a phrase from Isaiah 58: "to let the oppressed go free."  (Synagogue readers were allowed to insert other passages or perform minor edits that were consistent with the sense of the passage.  The reader would read in Hebrew, and someone translated into Aramaic.  So after the reader read a phrase, he had a few seconds while the translation was occurring.  The custom was that a reader was allowed to insert a passage from a nearby source, as long as the passage was near enough that he could turn the scroll to it without creating a delay.)  Isaiah 58 is a passage calling people to show compassion to the oppressed; fasting and the sabbath are not so much markers of holiness and devotion to God, as a chance to show kindness to the homeless on the street, and the migrant farm workers (what Is. 61 says the Gentiles will become).  You are wondering why God does not bless you, but you have not been a blessing to others, you have oppressed them.

The addition of this phrase, and stopping before "the day of vengeance of our God," makes this passage go against the hopes of a town like Nazareth.  They naturally emphasized the promise of how they would be able to enslave or abuse their enemies; Jesus deliberately ignores the promise of the day of vengeance, and instead reminds them that God's blessing is for those "who let the oppressed go free," not those who wish to oppress.

Well, this certainly got everyone's attention.  "He rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were on him."  Suddenly no one was sleepy.  He then says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," and goes on to preach some unrecorded words, apparently about God's mercy and grace to those whom they thought God had rejected, using as evidence the healings that he had done earlier in Capernaum.  (Apparently these healings were unrecorded, or else Luke has reported things out of chronological sequence; either is possible.)

Since people of that day often considered sickness and infirmity as a punishment of sin, Jesus' healings were understood as offering forgiveness, and indeed at times Jesus explicitly makes this connection himself.  But forgiveness to those who had violated the covenant is not the sort of thing that the Nazerenes wanted to hear: their whole religion was bound up in hopes of the messianic age being a golden age for them and a time of vengeance for everyone else, whether Gentile or traitor to the covenant.  It would be somewhat like announcing in the middle of a anti-gay Christian political rally that God will heal the homosexual AIDS victims.  In the minds of the most rabid partisans (who are unfortunately the most vocal), these people should not be healed.  But God freely gives healing to the unworthy, whether we like it or not.

"And they all witnessed about him, and were amazed at the words of grace that came out of his mouth, and they said, 'Is this not Joseph's son?'"  Here there is a translation question: "witnessed about him" in Greek is fundamentally ambiguous, and usually in English versions it is translated "spoke well of him", implying some sort of positive feeling toward him which later turned into murderous rage.  But it could equally well be translated "murmured against him", which would not be surprising given how he just deliberately cut what they hoped for most out of one of their favorite passages.  How dare he turn a message about our dominance into a message of God's grace to those we hate!  This translation makes more sense of the passage: they were amazed and angry that he preached a message of grace.

He then makes them even more angry by citing two examples of those hated Gentiles.  The widow of Zaraphath is a Gentile woman, a Sidonian, from the same country as Jezebel, the evil queen of Elijah's time who did more than anyone else to destroy the worship of Yahweh in Israel.  Nevertheless (and starkly contrasting to Jezebel) the Sidonian widow showed more faith than any widow in Israel by giving her very last meal to an Israelite prophet.  Naaman the Syrian was a general from an oppressive foreign power (a power acting very much like their current enemy Rome), and God healed him.  The implication is very clear: even in the Old Testament, God showed grace and mercy to those whom the first century Nazarenes hated and wanted to oppress if they could.  God never has endorsed their hope.

They respond by rising up and trying to throw him over the cliff.  This is not a random act of impulsive violence.  Throwing someone off a cliff was the first part of the official punishment for blasphemy recorded in the Mishnah: if the person survives the fall, they were to rain heavy stones upon him until he died.  They regard Jesus as a blasphemer because he has just trampled on their hope, and they regard that as blasphemy against God.  This episode in Luke is a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus, and why.  This time they didn't get him, but in three years they will.

Why does Jesus deliberately antagonize them in this way?  Why doesn't he try to win them over first, and then slowly try to change the things that are wrong about their belief in God?  If nothing else, this seems like a terrible strategic mistake in his ministry.  He apparently never was able to go back to Nazareth, making his home in Capernaum.

Jesus' goal is to prepare his own people for the kingdom.  Jesus consistently saw the real enemy as sinfulness within the people of God, not sinfulness of others outside.  Instead of emphasizing the evil of the Romans and God's certain vengeance on them, Jesus instead called the Jews themselves to repent.  (Jesus certainly did not think that what the Romans were doing was ok, by any means; after all, he calls them "evil", even here in the sermon on the mount.  But he in his ministry did not attempt to call the Romans to repentance.)  Anyone who calls an oppressed people to repent for their sins, instead of calling the oppressor to repent, is going to be unpopular.  Imagine what would have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. stopped speaking against white oppression of blacks in the United States and instead called black people to repent for the things they had done wrong, or if Bishop Desmond Tutu had done the same thing in South Africa.  (See Kenneth Bailey's book, cited above, for further discussion on this.) 

It is not just that Jesus called the oppressed Jews to repent.  He called them to repent of wanting vengeance on their enemies.  He does this here, and perhaps more explicitly in the sermon on the mount (see my earlier blog post on this).

The sinful attitudes of racism and Jewish superiority had become central to the first century Jewish identity and world view.  Jesus knew his people could never be the true kingdom of God unless they repented of those attitudes, and so he consistently spoke against them every chance he had.  When an attitude forms the core of our identity, any attack will necessarily produce anger.  It is not possible to convince someone to change everything they think about the world and themselves without stirring up deep emotions, so any attempt to get on their good side first before talking about these issues would be doomed to fail anyway.  Furthermore, my experience has been that it is simply impossible for me even to understand that someone wants me to change such a deep-held belief unless they confront it openly and forcefully.  Otherwise, since it is part of the lens through which I view the world, I will not even understand that they are saying it is wrong.  For these reasons, I think, Jesus did not bother to be subtle about it.  It was more important, and probably more effective in the long run, for him to anger them--at least then they understood what he stood for, and what he was talking about.

The wedding theme in the gospel of John

The ideal marriage gives a new, richer life brimming over with joy.   John uses this as a metaphor for eternal life, the new kind of life that comes through relationship with Jesus.  I think this metaphor is much more tightly woven into the tapestry of the gospel of John than most people have realized.  This attempts to lay out some of the connections.  Probably not everyone will agree with everything in here.

The first place where the wedding theme crops up is in John 2, when Jesus is invited to a wedding. The wine has run out. It was the responsibility of the groom to provide the wine (we know this from external evidence, and also from 2:10). Providing the wine was a large responsibility, because a wedding feast could go on for days and involve the whole town. His mother, who is probably there in some semi-official capacity, perhaps because she is a relation, asks him to help solve the problem. It is not clear from the text exactly what she was expecting, but I think it is unlikely that she was asking him to perform a miracle (though many interpreters have thought she was). More likely, she was assuming he would go somewhere to fetch more wine and would need the servants' help to bring it back.

What is particularly interesting is Jesus reply to her: "My hour is not yet come." If it were not for the use of that phrase in the rest of the gospel of John (see below on this), we would probably assume that he was saying, "This isn't my wedding--it's not my time to provide the wine."  It is the bridegroom whose hour has come.  Despite this, however, he does provide the wine, of surpassingly good quality. What are we to make of this?

The point of the story is not just that he performed a miracle. Note that the miraculous nature of it is de-emphasized--the miracle is buried in a dependent clause in 2:9, and apparently it is not at all dramatic; it reveals Jesus' glory only through later reflection.  John calls it a "sign", and signs in the gospel of John are never merely demonstrations of power.  In every case, they point to something beyond the act itself, and the kind of power exerted reveals something about who Jesus is. (For example, he makes physical bread and then says, "I am the bread of life"--the miraculous physical bread is intended to be a picture of the spiritual bread that he is always giving.)  Here, I think that the sign is that by providing the wine, he is acting in the role of the bridegroom.  Jesus is the true bridegroom, the one who will provide the best possible wine and the most satisfying relationship. This is how he reveals his glory.

In case the allusions in the story of the wedding at Cana are too subtle and a reader misses it, in 3:29 John tells us flat out that Jesus is the bridegroom of the people of Israel.  (Note that this happens in the context of a discussion about water for baptism and purification, probably intended as a link to the water for purification that Jesus turned into wine.)  In the Old Testament, Yahweh himself is the husband of his people (Is. 49-50, 54, various other passages; Jer. 2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3). The relationship went tragically wrong through Israel's infidelity, and Yahweh distanced himself. But those same prophets promised a time when he would no longer be distant. For over six hundred years the faithful among his people waited. Then Jesus walked on the earth, and the people flocked to him.  3:29 explains this as the bride following the bridegroom. Finally the time has come.

The image of the bridegroom takes an unexpected twist, however, in the next chapter.  An important Old Testament image, deeply ingrained into Jewish thinking, is the picture of a man meeting his future wife at a well in the heat of the day and drawing water. Abraham's servant meets Rebecca; Jacob meets Rachel; Moses meets Zipporah.  This boy-meets-girl-at-well picture probably had a strong grasp on the imagination because water from a well in an arid land is like the refreshment that the marriage relationship brings. (See Prov. 5:15-20 as an example of this imagery.)   Like these Old Testament characters, Jesus also meets a woman at a well at noon, and as in those stories, there is an exchange of water.  Primed by this Old Testament motif, and by John's statements about the bridegroom in the previous chapter, we are thinking of a marriage.  But the woman here is a shockingly unsuitable bride for a Jewish rabbi: she is a Samaritan, married five times, living currently in adultery.  And that is the point: the bride of Christ, the bride of Yahweh, will consist not only of the people who were thought to be suitable, but all the people who come.  Jesus offers her living water (probably the same symbolic idea as the better wine at the wedding of Cana), which is what she has really been seeking all along through her failed attempts at marriage relationships.  Just like the people of Israel who John says are flocking to the bridegroom (3:26), all the Samaritans came out to him (4:30). He is happy to stay with the Samaritans (4:40) as he did with his disciples after the earlier wedding (2:12).  The story concludes with the Samaritans saying that Jesus truly is the savior of the world (not just Israel).

The picture of the wedding is probably also behind Jesus' words in John 14, "I go to prepare a place for you. In my Father's house are many rooms.... and I will come again to take you back to myself." A young man would often add an additional room on to his father's house when he was about to be married, and only when the place was prepared would he come and get his bride.  The upper room discourse goes on to talk about how the disciples will bear fruit only so long as they remain in relationship with him--probably an allusion to fruitfulness in marriage, an idea that Paul uses more explicitly in Romans 7.

The wedding and the hour

Later that night, Jesus prays, "Father, the hour has come! Glorify your son, that your son may glorify you." (John 17:1) These words echo key phrases from the story of the wedding at Cana (2:4 and 2:11).  Given how carefully the gospel of John is constructed, this is unlikely to be a coincidence.  Everywhere else in the gospel of John, "the hour" refers unambiguously to his death; why does he use that phrase in talking to his mother at the wedding?

Jesus left his Father to become one with his bride, as it says in Genesis, "A man shall leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."  A man starts out as one flesh with his parents, and becomes one flesh with his wife.  This is what he is praying for in chapter 17: that he and his disciples may be one, as he and the father are one.  His "hour" is the time when the union with his people is accomplished.  It is both his wedding (which ch. 2 suggests) and his death, because his death accomplishes the union.

It seems rather grisly to connect the crucifixion to a marriage, but I think that is precisely what John is doing with a number of ironic symbols.  He says, "I am thirsty," just as he said to the Samaritan woman. He drinks sour wine, not the good wine that he provided at the wedding.  He is wearing a crown, which the bridegroom would do at a Jewish wedding--but it is not a garland, it is a crown of thorns.

At his death, blood and water flow out of his side.  Commentators stumble over what to do with this emphatic assertion; sometimes it is taken to mean that he clearly died, a form of medical evidence.  (Though it is by no means clear--just what precisely does it mean that the blood had separated into two parts?  And would most readers in the first century have understood that?)  But it would be out of character for John, in his highly symbolic and theological gospel, at the very high point of the narrative, to suddenly forsake his theological mind and emphasize purely medical facts.  The medical facts are there, perhaps, but are unlikely to exhaust the significance.

I think the blood and water flowing out of his side is a symbolic, pictorial fulfillment of the better wine and the living water that Jesus promised.  The argument here is a bit technical, so bear with me or just skip ahead.  I think we are supposed to link together most of the references to water, wine, and blood in the gospel of John; the author is careful about his symbolic references, and is not throwing out symbols willy-nilly.  These all refer to the new quality of life that comes through relationship with him--more specifically, through the Spirit that he gives, as 7:37 makes clear.  There is an interesting translation issue in 7:37, having to do with where punctuation is placed in the sentence (there was no punctuation at all in the original manuscripts, so where punctuation is placed is a translator's decision).  Most English translations of 7:37 follow the eastern fathers: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."  Here the water flows from the believers.  But by changing the location of the period, we have the western Fathers' understanding of the verse: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me.  And whoever believes in me, let him drink.  As the scripture has said, 'Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.'"  In this case, water flows from Jesus, which I think is a much more natural way of understanding the passage.  7:38 clarifies that this water is referring to the Spirit that was going to come when Jesus was glorified--which in John's gospel happens on the cross, the ultimate glorification of Jesus.  Only with this interpretation of 7:37 is John's emphatic insistence on the water that flowed from Jesus' side understandable (19:35--he repeats it three times).  It is a physical sign of the spiritual reality that because of his death, the Spirit is now available to believers.  This is the time, at least in a picture, when he provides the better wine that he promised back at the wedding of Cana, and the living water that he promised to the Samaritan woman.

In our lives, marriage is the only thing that can change a person's family after he is born.  John makes it clear in several places that after the cross, the disciples are part of Jesus' family in a way that they were not before.  Interestingly, Jesus mother appears in only two places in the gospel: at the wedding, and at the cross.  In both places, he addresses her with the same title ("Woman", a not-entirely-common way of talking to a mother, something which commentators stumble over).  At the cross, he makes a point of bringing the disciple Jesus loved (despite all the arguments over this, I still think this is John himself) and his mother together into the same family.  Perhaps the most common view of Jesus' words here is that they show the extent of Jesus' love: even in his extremity, he could still think about his mother's well-being.  This may be true, but I am fairly certain it does not exhaust the meaning.  John is primarily thinking theologically rather than psychologically.  I think what we are supposed to gather from this is that the disciple whom Jesus loves is now part of his family--just as the woman a man loves becomes a part of his family.  John uses this concrete picture of changed family relations to show what is happening spiritually.

There is probably another allusion to marriage in the scene with Mary Magdalene in the garden.  Once again, a garden scene with a man and a woman is a rich picture for a Jewish audience, with overtones of the original garden.  Mary goes so far as to grab him and hug him (20:17), definitely overstepping the bounds of propriety.  This does not mean that they had some kind of physical relationship, contra the silly speculations that have recently become popular; but the text really does have hints of something romantic.  I think that John is using the suggestive image to point out that Jesus and Mary now have a kind of relationship which in some ways is a marriage (though not a physical marriage), a relationship which they did not have before the cross.  In the next verse, he calls his disciples "my brothers" and he calls God "your father"; never before had he done either of these in the gospel of John.  It is only after the cross that they are his brothers, and they have a common father in this sense--they have been brought into Jesus' family.

Finally, the gospel concludes with Jesus asking Peter if he loves him.  This is the only suitable attitude if we are the bride of Christ.

Monday, September 6, 2010

How Jesus made everyone mad: first century politics and the sermon on the mount

What Jesus' first hearers probably most remembered from the sermon on the mount was Jesus' unambiguous repudiation of the political ideals of virtually all of his contemporaries.  His references to first century politics probably provoked the same sort of emotional responses as Vietnam war protesters caused in conservative Americans.

Politics, theology, and moral issues have always been tightly intertwined in the middle east, and political opinions were determined by theology.  Most of us are aware that Jews of that day believed that God would achieve his purposes by reestablishing a kingdom very much like David's.  Most of the first century Jews probably thought that this had almost happened with the Maccabees in the second century BC.  After the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV attempted to exterminate the Israelite religion, there was a revolt in which the Jews repeatedly defeated apparently superior Greek forces, and eventually created an independent kingdom and restored worship in the temple.  However, within a generation or two, it became clear that the Hasmonean rulers (the successors of the Maccabees) were not reestablishing God's kingdom, despite God's evident blessing on the Maccabees' military operations; they were just as corrupt as any non-Jewish rulers.  (Besides, they never even pretended to be from the line of David.)  A century after the creation of the Jewish state, it was ended when the Roman general Pompey intervened in a Jewish civil war between the Saducees and the Pharisees (each favored a different Hasmonean brother; the Pharisees were fighting against blatant Hasmonean corruption).

But of course the dream of the kingdom lived on, because God's promises could not be false.  If the Maccabees were not God's kingdom builders, then someone like them would come and do the job right.  In first century Judaism in Palestine, you could either (1) compromise with the Romans and abandon the Jewish hope of the kingdom, or (2) you could live in expectation of the time when God would call his people to fight against the Romans.  Option 1 (abandoning the kingdom) was chosen by those Jews who abandoned the covenant entirely (some even tried to remove the marks of circumcision).  Others like Herod and his followers did not go so far as to embrace paganism fully, but lived as if God had no plan that had any bearing on the present.  Others perverted the Jewish hope into something more acceptable to the pagan world; for example, the renegade Jew Josephus in his later years argued that God had decided that his kingdom would be brought about through Roman rule.  All of these were considered traitors to the people and the covenant.  Option 2 (living in expectation of the kingdom) also had many variations (Essenes, Pharisees, hard-core Zealots); there was much disagreement about how the kingdom would come and who would lead it, but there was no disagreement that the eventual solution would be military.  Some of these groups were already preparing for war, while others were just praying and waiting expectantly.  At that point in history, there was no third option--until Jesus.

The sermon on the mount is Jesus' kingdom agenda, where he announces in systematic form what his plan for the kingdom is.  Jesus gives the sermon "on the mountain", which is a clear reference to Moses receiving the law on the mountain.  What we have here is a new giving of the law.  The old law started with the "ten words", which are nine commandments; there are nine statements of blessing in the sermon on the mount.   (Why nine, you may ask, when everyone always is talking about 10 commandments?  In Hebrew, the decalogue is never called the "ten commandments", it is called the "ten words".  It is really one introductory word--"I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt"--and 9 commandments.  Christians have misunderstood this, and attempted to divide them so that there are 10 commandments; but we don't even agree on the divisions.  Catholics and some Lutherans treat "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Deut. 5:21a) as a different commandment from "You shall not covet your neighbor's house, or field, or ..." (Deut. 5:21b), which feels like an arbitrary distinction.  Also it is not supported by the text; the account in Exodus 20 does not permit this division since the order of things we are not to covet is different.  Non-catholics treat "You shall have no other gods before me" as a separate commandment from "You shall not make for yourself an idol," which in the ancient world would have been indistinguishable.)  Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to them of old... but I say to you...".  The old law concluded with blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28); the new law also concludes with blessings and curses (7:24-27).  At the end, the people are amazed because Jesus speaks as one with authority, unlike the other Jewish teachers of his day (7:28-29), who were always citing earlier sages, trying to be faithful to the oral tradition which they believed came from Moses.  Jesus does not respect the oral tradition (and in fact in other places in the gospels he plainly says that pieces of it are wrong); he is the new lawgiver, and does not need to appeal to Moses' authority filtered down through the stream of tradition.

In the rest of the sermon, Jesus emphatically affirms the Jewish hope in the promises to Abraham, but just as emphatically he rejects the plan of the Zealots, too.  Using the words of Psalm 37:11, Jesus reaffirms God's promise to give the land to his people--but not to the Zealots who were fighting for it: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  (Note that in the New Testament, the "land" has turned into the whole earth--see for example Romans 4:13.  This is not inconsistent with the Old Testament, since the giving of the land and Israel's authority over the nations was understood even then as a beginning of the restoration of the entire creation, which is to be ruled by a descendant of Adam who would faithfully carry out the commission to Adam to rule.)  Jesus reaffirms God's mercy on the Jews--but not on those whose ambition was to kill the Romans: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  Jesus reaffirms God's special relationship with Israel ("Israel is my firstborn son," Exodus 4:22-23; speaking of Israel's king, he says, "I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son," 2 Samuel 7:14)--but not with those who are for waging war against the Romans: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God." This is again in line with Old Testament teaching. In discussing the promise of sonship for David's descendants, 1 Chronicles 22:8-10 says that David was not allowed to build the temple because he was a man of blood, but his son Solomon, whose name means "man of peace", would build it.

Other parts of the sermon touch on the same theme.  "Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also....  And if anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles."   This is a clear reference to the Roman rule that soldiers could compel natives to help them carry their pack (which could weigh 70 lbs) for one mile.  "Judge not, that you be not judged."  "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust."  This does not sound like what the heroic Maccabees did, or what most Jews in the first century were hoping to do.  Jesus has a different conception of God than they had. He tells us that we can infer from God's actions that God must be patient and kind to his enemies, so we ought to be the same way.  No one else before him seems to have drawn this conclusion from God's behavior, though it is hinted by some Old Testament passages such as the book of Jonah.

Throughout the rest of his career, Jesus consistently poured cold water on the dreams of the zealots.  This can be seen in many places in his teachings and parables, if we look for it.  (The best discussion of this I have seen is scattered through N.T. Wright's series of books beginning with The New Testament and the People of God.)  Several short examples of this:
  • In his debates with the Pharisees, he says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  This passage has a number of subtleties, but no one could possibly miss the message that he endorsed paying taxes to Rome.
  • When they tell him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Lk. 13:1-5), he tells them, "You must repent, or you will likewise perish."  By "likewise", he presumably means by falling masonry (like those on whom the tower of Siloam fell) and Roman swords (the ones whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices)--which is what happened.  Here Jesus calls his countrymen to repent of their sinful attitudes which would lead to the disastrous revolution.
  • In his discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24 and parallels), he warns his followers not to follow the false messiahs in revolt against Rome.  Instead, he says, when you see the armies coming, run, don't stay and fight.
  • In Gethsemane, when Peter starts attacking the soldiers, Jesus renounces this kind of violence to further his kingdom, and tells Peter, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword."  In other words, if you act like the Zealots, you will die like them.
If I had imbibed from early childhood the Jewish hope of finally being free from Roman rule, restoring self rule, and reestablishing the kingdom promised to David, I would think that Jesus was being a traitor to the Jewish cause.  He was advocating compromise with the Romans!  He was unpatriotic!  He was undermining Jewish resistance!  He proclaimed God's forgiveness to the traitors!  He said that God would destroy the temple, the most important symbol of God being with his people!

Jesus demanded that they choose between his concept of the kingdom, and theirs; and they did choose.  They chose the way of the insurrectionist Barabbas rather than Jesus' way.  So, ironically, they worked together with the evil Roman oppressors to eliminate him.  They were hoping that crucifying him would completely discredit him as Messiah (that's why they did not just lynch him, as they did to Stephen).

What was ultimately discredited, however, was the first century Jewish concept of the kingdom.  Within forty years of Jesus' death, God confirmed Jesus' judgment of the Jewish revolutionary movements, when the Romans crushed the Jewish revolution by A.D. 70.  Even if you did not believe Jesus, you could not possibly argue that God supported the revolutionary movement which had ended in such a fiasco.  Still the Jews clung to the hope of a physical kingdom that dominated the Gentiles, so God apparently showed the same thing again, more emphatically, in A.D. 135.  In A.D. 132, Simon bar Kokhba led a full scale revolt, triggered by Emperor Hadrian's plans to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman (pagan) city.  It took the Romans 3 years of very difficult fighting, but they eventually crushed the Jews even more brutally than in A.D. 70.  The majority of the Jewish population in Judea was killed, enslaved, or deported.  Hadrian prohibited the Torah and the calendar and attempted to execute Jewish scholars, and Jews were not permitted even to enter Jerusalem until 438 AD.  He changed the name of the province from "Judea" to "Palestine" (Latin for "Philistia", after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews).  The center of Jewish learning and culture was no longer in Judea; it was in Galilee for a while, and, ironically, it later shifted back to Babylon, where there was still a thriving Jewish community.  Given the history of the covenant, it was hard not to see the destruction of the temple and the ejection from the land as a second exile, caused by the revolutionaries.  Thus until modern Zionism, Judaism abandoned the concept of literal possession of the land, and turned instead to other markers of the covenant (keeping the law).

Jesus said as the conclusion to the sermon on the mount, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed."  They attempted to build a kingdom on something other than Jesus' words, and so the house they were trying to build did come down with a great crash.

So what exactly was wrong with the first century Jewish view of the kingdom?  Wasn't it written in the scriptures that the Jews were to have the land, and to dominate the nations?  What could be wrong with wanting that to be fulfilled?  Isn't that exactly what Joshua did in the conquest?  And why does Jesus choose to antagonize his hearers by speaking so directly about this?  I hope to deal with these questions in a subsequent post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Isaiah 40:12-31: Who can measure the Spirit of the LORD?

In my previous post on the first few verses of Isaiah 40, I suggested that in the exile, Jews in Babylon would be severely tempted to lose their faith in the promises of Yahweh.  After all, everything that he promised was taken away.  They were gone from the land, they were not numerous, there was no king, God did not live with them in any obvious way.

Maybe the Babylonian gods had won.  Maybe Yahweh did not have the power to do what he said he would do.  It looked like the Babylonian armies had triumphed through the superior power of their gods, and there was no end of their power in sight.

Or maybe Yahweh had just given up on the Jews.  His plan to bless the nations through them had failed; perhaps he would find another people, or maybe he had just given up entirely.  The descendants of Abraham were harassed, hopeless, powerless, worn down, and sinful; nothing good would ever come from them again, certainly not blessing to all nations.

Isaiah 40-55 is God's word to this situation.  Nowhere here is there an exhortation to try harder, nor even to repent.  The answer is Yahweh himself: his character, his power, and his plan.

Who can measure Yahweh?
12Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the heavens with the span
enclosed the dust of earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in a scale,
and the hills in a balance?
13Who has measured the spirit of Yahweh,
or as his counselor has taught him?
14Whom did he consult for enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
The key idea here is contained in v. 13a: "Who has measured the spirit of Yahweh?" In English versions, v. 13a is unfortunately often translated in a way that obscures its connection with v. 12. E.g., KJV, RSV: "Who has directed the spirit of the LORD?" NIV has "Who has understood the mind of the LORD?" which is somewhat better.  The Hebrew verb here is exactly the same as the word in 12b, "Who has marked off the heavens with a span?" (Translations in other languages, such as German, say the equivalent of, "Who has measured the Spirit of Yahweh?")

No one can measure the spirit of Yahweh--he is beyond anything that humans can measure.  I suppose that the reason English translators have not drawn attention to the repeated word is because 13a should be parallel to 13b, and at first glimpse the immeasurability of God seems not to be parallel with his wisdom. But I think it is (see below).

All the rhetorical questions in both v. 12 and v. 13 have the same answer.  The assumed answer to the rhetorical questions in v. 12 is therefore not "God," as it might initially appear, but "no one."  No one can measure the ocean by taking up one palmful, then another, then another; the ocean is too vast to be measured that way.  No one can measure the sky by the spreading out his hand (a "span" is the distance between the tip of the thumb and the tip of the little finger when the hand is stretched out). No one can measure the earth by filling up a basket again and again--the amount of dirt that can be measured that way does not compare to the size of the earth. Such quantities are beyond the reach of our measuring tools. Similarly, Yahweh cannot be measured or limited by any standard we have. In every way, he is on a completely different scale from anything we might compare him to.

The limitlessness of God is summarized by the word holiness, one of the most important words in the book of Isaiah (used here in 40:25, the "Holy One").  Sometimes we treat "holiness" as synonymous with "righteousness", but that is a secondary meaning of the word, and is not normally the way it is used in the Old Testament when referring to God.  "Holy" means literally "set apart", i.e., "different", on a different plane of existence--meaning primarily that the holy God does not have human limits. The pagans called their gods holy (e.g., Daniel 5:11) and meant that their gods were a different order of being.  For this reason, "holy" is often a synonym for "powerful" (e.g., Ex. 15:11), and this is normally the case in Isaiah.  But God is also unlimited in other ways, too.  He has unlimited wisdom to formulate his plans.  He is also without limits in his moral attributes (unlike the pagan gods), and for this reason "holy" for a Hebrew also means "perfectly righteous".

v.14 introduces another important theme in this section of Isaiah, the plan and counsel of Yahweh.  The author does not elaborate much on Yahweh's plan in this chapter, but it is the central theme of some of the chapters to come.  No human would have thought to do the things Yahweh is about to do to bring about justice in the earth, especially the work of the Servant in chapter 52:11-53:12.  Yahweh does not do what we expect (see below on chapter 55).  It is Yahweh's plan that drives history, a plan he began long ago in creation, without any advice from us.  His plan was partially revealed it to his people through the covenants, which were made at his initiative and not ours: he will bless the world through the descendants of Abraham.

Yahweh's plan and his wisdom are called into question by the exiles, since it looks like Yahweh has failed.  The next chapters go on to demonstrate that this is not the case.  Here we only have a glimpse at his plan, but its importance is suggested by the fact that in the two halves of v. 13, the measurelessness of Yahweh is put in parallel not with his unlimited power but his plan which had no human advice.  
15Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales.
behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
16Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17All the nations are as nothing before him,
They are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
"The nations" here summarizes all of the enemies of Israel: Babylon and its clients, Egypt, Moab, Edom, etc. Those of us from a large country like the United States do not have a gut-level appreciation of what it must have been like to be a citizen of a small country surrounded by many aggressive neighbors with large countries lurking in the distance. And in the exile, there were only a few thousand Jews scattered throughout the huge empire, a truly insignificant minority with absolutely no power, at least early in the exile. It would be hard not to fear the nations; but they are nothing compared to Yahweh. The nations which seemed so large in human estimation are so insignificant they are like the dust on the scales that no one bothers to brush off--it has no measurable influence on the outcome.

Lebanon used to be famous for its forests, though that is certainly not what we think first of it today.  The forests were eliminated by centuries of wars (where trees were cut down for sieges or as a punitive measure) and bad government policies (the Turks had a tax on trees).
18To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19The idol! A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
20He who is impoverished chooses for an offering
wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an image that will not topple.
21Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in;
23who brings princes to nought,
and makes the inhabitants of the earth as nothing.
24Scarcely are they planted,
scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them
and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
There is no need to fear the idols, no matter how impressive they are.  The best that idol makers can do is to make something that does not fall flat on its face ("does not topple"); the idol is lucky if it stays upright. In contrast, God is above the heavens.

The exiles of Israel might fear the princes, the rulers of Babylon; but these too are nothing before God. As he has blown on Israel and made it wither (40:7-8), so he will blow on them and they too will wither.
25To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.
One of the things the Babylonians were most proud of was their astrology. (Modern astrology comes from the Babylonians through the Greeks.) They were famous throughout the ancient world for their knowledge of the stars, and their supposed ability to predict the future from them. The planets and stars were thought to be deities; their regularity was evidence of their divine power (nothing on earth is so precise and unblemished). It would be natural in that environment to fear the power of the star-gods.

The text here turns that on its head. The stars are not in control of the future; Yahweh is in control of the stars, and Yahweh's plan controls the future. The stars only come up every night because he calls them. And he never accidentally drops one of them. Their very regularity is evidence not of their own power but of Yahweh's perfect sustaining power, which will sustain you too.
27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hid from Yahweh,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
28Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31but they who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The questions in v. 27 use the singular "you", in contrast to the similar questions in v. 21 which use a plural. In this context, the contrast makes the question to Israel more emphatic: "Have you not known?" Perhaps the nations might not know, but you certainly should.

The tired, defeated, worn out people in the exile will be given new strength by trusting in Yahweh God.  This is made emphatic by the structure of vv. 30-31:
be weary
fall exhausted
those who wait for Yahweh will renew strength
mount up with wings
not be weary
not faint

This kind of structure, where the first element corresponds to the last element, and the second element to the second-to-last, and so on, is often called a chiasm because it looks like the left half of the Greek letter chi (which looks like our X). The main point is usually in the center (those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength), not at the end where modern readers would expect it. What comes before the middle is often transformed into what comes after by reflecting through this main point (here, "waiting on Yahweh" tranforms "falling exhausted" into "mounting up with wings like eagles", and so on). This is a fairly common structure in both the Old and the New Testaments. In this case, it explains why this passage seems to end in something of an anticlimax: any modern western writer would have put "mounting up with wings like eagles" at the end as a grand finale, instead of "walking and not fainting".  But ancient readers were trained to look for the point at the center of the chiasm instead of at the end.

Yahweh carried his people on eagles' wings through the Exodus (Ex. 19:4); now he will do the same in a second exodus, the return from Babylon.

What comes next

Isaiah 40 is merely the introduction to one of the grandest sections of the Bible, sometimes called "The Consolation of Israel". The next chapters continue to address the same issues, resoundingly affirming Yahweh's incomparable superiority to anything that might be compared to him, and his unfailing care for his people and his plan to save the whole world through them. As in the exodus, the gods of the nations will be judged and Yahweh will vindicate his people, and all the nations will know that salvation is only in Yahweh. The people will return from exile and will once again, as in the time of David, be by far the greatest of the nations.  This is accomplished by the strange work of the Servant of Yahweh, who accomplishes forgiveness for Israel and establishes justice in the earth.

This section of Isaiah concludes with a final statement about the limitlessness of Yahweh in ch. 55:
6Seek Yahweh while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to Yahweh, that he may have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says Yahweh.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher that your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out [from Babylon] in joy,
and be led forth in peace....
vv. 8-10 are often cited in discussions of the incomprehensibility of God; but in context, they are about his incomprehensible forgiveness that is totally foreign to humans. No one can measure the Spirit of Yahweh; no one would have expected such forgiveness. No one would have expected it of God, based on what we know of people; but his ways are far higher than ours, and therefore his forgiveness is too.

This forgiveness is summarized in the words of promise (v. 11). God's promise to forgive and reestablish will not be empty words, nor are his previous promises in ancient times somehow void. They will accomplish what he always intended to accomplish, to redeem the whole world through the descendants of Abraham, despite their sinfulness. Israel's hope, and indeed the hope of the whole world, is in the word of Yahweh.

The book of Isaiah, and especially chapters 40-55, is a dramatic summons to renewed faith in Yahweh and hope in his purpose.  The historical situation may not have looked promising, but Yahweh has not given up on his people, and he never will.  Yahweh has not been defeated; he has been in control of history all along.  Yahweh's plan for the redemption of the world is unchanged.


See my previous post.