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.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Comfort my people": Isaiah 40:1-11

What does God say to people who are defeated and discouraged, who have given up hope?

The latter half of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, was written for Jews in the exile, who lived in Babylon. This is very clear from passages like chapter 48, where the Jews are told to leave Babylon; there are no more threats of exile, only promises of return.

Before the exile, the nation of Israel was given its charter by the promises that God made:
  • They would live in the land. 
  • They would be numerous (as many as the sands by the sea, or the stars in the sky).
  • They would prosper economically (they would be blessed). 
  • Those who cursed them would be cursed. 
  • They would "rule over the gates of their enemies", i.e., they would be militarily dominant.  A king from the line of David would rule over them. 
  • They, or especially their king, would be honored and have a great name, "like the great ones of the earth," i.e., like the greatest of the kings of the nations. 
  • They would be a blessing for all peoples. In fact, they would be the vehicle that brings God's intended blessing in creation to all the world
  • God would live with them. This was symbolized by the tabernacle and later the temple, the palace of the great king. 
These covenant promises were given in rough outline to the patriarchs and then elaborated and expanded through Moses and David. They are summarized in the often repeated words, "I will be their God and they shall be my people."

Every single thing God promised was systematically taken away in the exile.  No visible sign of God's promises remained. They were no longer in the promised land. They were not numerous; only a few thousand Israelites were actually taken to Babylon, and we know from archaeology and from various passages in the Bible that the land of Israel was greatly depopulated at that time, so that much formerly cultivated land was left wild. Apparently most people died during the Babylonian invasions. There was certainly no evidence of curse on the Babylonians who had cursed and mocked them. The Israelites were not a great people; apart from some notable exceptions in the Babylonian court, they were mocked and looked down on (and there are numerous predictions of this in the pre-exilic prophets). There was no king.  The city that God chose for his name lay in ruins.

Perhaps most importantly, God no longer lived with them. Ezekiel had the vision of the glory cloud departing from the temple; and anyway, it was obvious to anyone who looked at the ruins of Solomon's temple that there was no glory there any longer. God had left his people.

The people themselves were living in Babylon. Inside an impregnable wall that was fifty feet thick (as wide as a freeway in Los Angeles), enormous palaces and temples were everywhere. Even now these ruins are impressive; in their own day, before skyscrapers and modern earth moving equipment, they must have been awesome. Everything about this city was designed to impress with the glory of Babylon and its king and its gods.  It looked like nothing could ever challenge Babylon and its gods.

It is not hard to imagine how the Jews in Babylon must have felt about this. Some, no doubt, thought that God had been defeated by the Babylonian gods; that, after all, was the normal ancient way to understand defeat in war. (Even the Bible takes this viewpoint, especially when it was Yahweh who was victorious; for example, the Exodus is described as punishing the gods of Egypt.)

Others would remember the promises that God gave to Abraham and David, and would conclude that God had simply been unfaithful. Still others, knowing that Yahweh had after all been warning about this disaster for several centuries before it happened, probably concluded that God had given up on the Jews for good, and that he had no more plan for them. He was still ruling but their place in his plan had been forfeited by their stubborn refusal to obey him. No longer would the descendants of Abraham play any role in God's plan to bless the world. There was no more hope for Israel.  Maybe he would find some other people and redeem the world through them; or maybe he would just abandon the world to its fate.

The word of Yahweh

Into this bleak situation, Yahweh speaks again.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her hard service is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from Yahweh's hand
double for all her sins.
The first words bring to mind the ancient summary of the covenant, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people." God still regards them as his people! These words are also a sharp contrast with the opening words of the book of Isaiah, where in chapter 1 Yahweh calls together his witnesses and accuses Israel in a courtroom scene of violating her covenant with him. The verdict from the first half of the book has been carried out. Now she has paid the penalty ("double" is probably meant to be understood as a standard fine for wrongdoing that a court would assess).

The phrase "Comfort my people" is actually a plural command; Yahweh gives an order, and then three voices carry it out with messages of comfort in vv. 3, 6, and 9. The scene is something like the divine council in ch. 6, where the terrified Isaiah sees Yahweh in his glory giving his messengers a charge to proclaim Israel's destruction for her sinfulness. Here, however, the decree of Yahweh is for forgiveness and consolation and rebuilding.
3A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5And the glory of Yahweh will be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together.
For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken."
When a king comes to visit, it was customary to fix up all the roads for him. When Yahweh comes back, this must be done on a grand scale; even the mountains will be leveled to make a road. The mountains and valleys are to be understood metaphorically, like the similar reference to "threshing the mountains" in ch. 41.

Some commentators have understood the wilderness and desert as the terrain that must be traversed by the exiles, with Yahweh at their head, on their return journey from Babylon as a second exodus. The image of a second exodus is indeed prominent in this section of Isaiah, but here I think it is better to see the wilderness and desert as the land of Israel itself. We know that the land was greatly depopulated and much formerly cultivated area became wild, and this is repeatedly discussed in various passages in this book (see for example the end of Isaiah 7). One of the great promises of this book is that the devastated land will once again become habitable.

In any case, the glory of Yahweh will be revealed to all people (not just to Israel). The glory cloud had left the temple, but God's glory was coming back! Yahweh's glory is an important theme in this book. The glory that Isaiah saw in the temple will become visible to all, in a way yet to be described. (Later we find that the glory will be revealed through his saving actions, through the return from exile under Cyrus, and culminating in the work of the Servant.)

"For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken" means that the proclamation of comfort to his people is an official pronouncement, a final decree of Yahweh that no one can reverse. Yahweh has said it; he will do it, no matter what.
6A voice says, "Cry out!"
And I said, "What shall I cry out?
All flesh is grass,
and the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of Yahweh blows on it;
surely the people is grass."
8"The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever."
I have put the quote marks in different places than most English translations, following the suggestion of Westermann, because to me the end of verse 6 and v. 7 sound more like the prophet's complaint than the response of the voice that is speaking for God. (The quote marks are not in the original Hebrew, so anyone is free to put them wherever seems best.) v.8 is Yahweh's answer to the complaint.  Wherever you put the quote marks, the comparison is clear: the breath of Yahweh has blown on Israel and withered it, but from the mouth of Yahweh also comes the word which rebuilds it eternally. The hope of frail humans in the face of the judgment of God is the promise of God himself.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!"
10Behold, the Lord Yahweh comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
The Lord is returning to Jerusalem and that city is to give the exciting news to all the other cities that God once again is visibly with them. "Fear not" means that Zion need not fear being wrong about this and raising false hopes. The proclamation should be bold and audible to everyone, because there is no chance that it will not happen.

Yahweh's reward is what he gives to his people, and his recompense is what he gives to his enemies for the way they treated his people. (Part of the promise to Abraham was to bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him.) In the period before the exile, God's own people became his enemies and he destroyed them. Now they are no longer his enemies; he will be their shepherd and will care gently for them again.

Yahweh, the shepherd of Israel, will once again pasture his flock in their land.  How exactly this happens is the subject of the rest of Isaiah 40-55.

New Testament uses of Isaiah 40

This part of Isaiah, and other prophets as well, predict a glorious return from the exile and the establishment of eternal peace and prosperity for Israel. The actual return from exile was, in comparison with the prophecies, quite a disappointment. The Jews were back in the promised land, true, but nothing else that had been promised had come to pass. They were poor, not prosperous.  There was no king in the line of David.  They were an insignificant part of a vast empire, called merely "the province beyond the River [Euphrates]," far from where anything important was happening. Large numbers of gentiles were not bringing their wealth in to worship Yawheh. The temple was disappointingly small, and more importantly, God's glory had not come back. (Rabbinic sources talk about this: one of the things that was missing from the second temple was the glory cloud.) The primary problem the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had to address was discouragement and doubt at the disparity between the situation then and the earlier promises of God. These prophets affirmed that God was still in control, that the glory would return someday to the temple, and that Israel would again be vindicated and significant.

The faithful Jews concluded that the exile was not truly over yet. Any other way of looking at it would mean that the earlier prophets were simply wrong, and God had no intention of keeping his word (or maybe Yahweh was not really the true God).  So in the first century, even Jews living in the land of Israel were still hoping for return from exile, that Yahweh's gracious words of forgiveness and restoration would come in their time. Apparently God had not yet forgiven the sins of the nation, because he had not restored the people, and the two are inseparable in the prophets.

When John the Baptizer used the words of Isaiah 40 to describe his own ministry, everyone knew what he was talking about.  (All four gospels use the words from Isaiah 40--Mk. 1:2-3, Matt. 3:3, Lk. 3:4-6, John 1:23--so evidently that is important.)  John was proclaiming that the long wait was over, that what Isaiah had predicted was finally here.  John offered "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," and he proclaimed that one was coming who would restore Israel. The time of national forgiveness was here!

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament continually draw our attention to prophecies of return from exile and claim that they are fulfilled or are being fulfilled in Jesus. The glory of God returned in the person of Jesus.  The temple was rebuilt in the form of the church, with the Spirit living in it.  The nations were gathered into the people of God through the missionary work of the church.  The glory of Yahweh was revealed; all flesh saw it together in Jesus on the cross and will see it in the glorified Christ.


In my opinion, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary by Klaus Westermann (in the Old Testament Library series) conveys more effectively than any other the drama of the text and the significance of the historical context, though he fails to connect many of the passages together because of his source-critical approach.  The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 by Oswalt (in the NIV Application Commentary series) is also extremely good and makes a better attempt to connect the pieces of the text together into a systematic whole.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, has an excellent section on the New Testament appropriation of Isaiah 40.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Is God proud?

What does it mean to be God?  What is the most important aspect of deity that sets it apart from non-deity?  What does God think about himself?

What is the defining characteristic of God?  Most people throughout history would have answered immediately, "Power."  God is set apart from us because he can do things that we cannot do.  The Bible certainly agrees that God has power, but this is not the definition of what it means to be God.  Orthodox Christian theology teaches that Jesus did not cease to be God even though he surrendered the independent exercise of his power, and was weak as we are.  While we may shy away from the implications, the incarnation showed us something remarkable and unexpected about God that we never would have understood any other way: that power is not the essence of divinity.  Of course, this statement is derived from later trinitarian formulas, not the New Testament; what does the Scripture itself say?

Probably the clearest answer comes from Philippians 2:5-11 (a passage which figured prominently in the formation of trinitarian theology).  Here is this short poem in its entirety (NRSV translation):

3Do nothing from selfish ambition of conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each one of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Paul says that Jesus was "in the form of God" (v. 6) and it is hard not to take this in the same sense that Plato used the word "form", meaning that Jesus is the eternal, perfect ideal of God.  (There is some debate about whether we can attribute a Platonic sense to "form" here, but Paul says pretty much exactly that Jesus is the ideal of God later in this passage, so I see no reason not to interpret the phrase that way here.)

Perhaps the key phrase here is what is translated by the NRSV "did not consider equality with God something to be exploited" in v. 6.  Most older translations have something slightly different (KJV "thought it not robbery to be equal with God"; NIV, NAS "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped").  The reason for the diversity is that a key Greek word, harpagmon, occurs only here in the New Testament, and in the writings of the church fathers only when discussing this passage, so its meaning was not clear.  More recent philological research (see references in the article by Wright cited below) indicates than harpagmon means something to be exploited rather than something to be grasped or seized or held on to.  "Something to be exploited" makes much better sense of the passage.  Jesus possessed equality with God (he did not have to grasp for it)--but he did not exploit that for selfish ends.

Instead, Jesus did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit and regarded others as better than himself--that is the implication of v. 3, since we are to be that way in imitation of him.  The whole Roman world was devoted to doing things to gain honor, more so than our culture; it is hard for us to understand the extravagant lengths people in a shame-based culture go to gain honor for themselves.  Honor in such a society tends to be like a currency: if you gain it, someone else loses it, and that's how politics and just about everything else was played out in all the cultures around the Mediterranean world.  Striving for honor in that culture, perhaps more than in our own, meant putting down other people, the opposite of "being in full accord and of one mind".  The ultimate honor, of course, was payed to the gods, who were as jealous of their praise as any human would be.

But Jesus was not like that:  Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be exploited to gain honor and praise, unlike, for example, the Roman emperors who even at this time were beginning to be worshiped in the eastern parts of the empire as gods.  What did Jesus consider equality with God to mean?  Jesus thought equality with God meant emptying himself for us.

Instead of demanding reverence and homage as God, he humbled himself and took on the form of a human.  More than that, he humbled himself further to the point of death on a cross.  Crucifixion was not only a painful way to die; it was the most humiliating death possible, designed to take every last vestige of honor from the victim; and that's why the Romans did it.  (Remember that taking honor from someone else, it was thought, would bring you honor; in our culture, which has lived in the shadow of the cross for a millenium and a half, such actions might discredit you rather than bring you honor, but people did not think that way in the ancient world, or even in some cultures in the modern world.)  Victims were nailed to a cross naked, in full view of everyone.  This was usually done at the gates to cities, where as many people as possible would pass by, to show their absolute powerlessness to avoid even the most agonizing of suffering, and thereby to glorify the conqueror.

The poem says several times that Jesus took on the form of a slave, or servant.  On its own, the Greek is probably better translated "slave", but "servant" correctly alludes to the Old Testament figure called the "Servant of Yahweh".  The Servant of Yahweh endures humiliation, and everyone around him thinks that it is for his own sins (Isaiah 52:12-53); but this is not so.  He suffers out of obedience to Yahweh, because it was necessary for redemption of the people.  Following the outline of Isaiah's climactic poem on the work of the Servant (Is. 53), the text in Phillipians also shows how God highly honored the Servant for his obedience.

God did not have the same opinion as people.  "Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name above every name...."  To a Jew like Paul, there is only one "name above every name": the tetragrammaton YHWH, "Yahweh", "I am who I am".  Because of his obedience as a servant, and his humility for our sake, God points to Jesus and says, "This is who Yahweh is.  This is what it means to be Yahweh."

Lest we miss the idea that Jesus in his humiliation for us is the truest possible vision of Yahweh, he goes on to quote unmistakably from one of the most monotheistic passages in the Old Testament about Yahweh (Isaiah 45:23).  In its context, it is part of a challenge to the Babylonian gods to present evidence, any evidence at all, that they can save:
21Who told this [that Cyrus the Great would conquer] long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, Yahweh?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and Savior;
there is no one besides me.
22Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
23By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return [void]:
"To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear."
24Only in Yahweh, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
shall come to him and be ashamed.

Referring to this passage, Paul says, "At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."  The passage from Isaiah was speaking of men confessing Yahweh to be the true God; Paul has taken this and changed in into a confession that "Jesus is Lord."  "Lord" is an ambiguous word in Greek.  It can mean a polite "Sir"; it can mean "Master" or "Caesar"; or it can mean Yahweh (it is the translation into Greek of "Yahweh" in the Old Testament).  Given the context, it seems clear here that "Jesus is Lord" means here that "Jesus is Yahweh."  Everyone will eventually confess that Jesus in his humility is exactly what Yahweh God is like.

This confession is "to the glory of God the Father."  How does the greatness of Jesus glorify God the Father?  Because understanding that Jesus is Yahweh shows us what God the Father is really like: he is just like Jesus, not proud, willing to endure anything for the redemption of those he loves.  The greatest glory of God is not primarily in his power, it is in the love that he shows, and Jesus is the ultimate proof of that.

This is not an entirely new idea in the Bible.  Moses had seen the incredible power of God in the exodus, but then he prayed to see the glory of God.  What did God show him?  "Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, 'Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness....'" (Exodus 34:6)  The power of God is glorious; but the greatest glory of God is in redemption, in his love and forgiveness.

Other places in the New Testament affirm that the glory of God is found in his love and humility, not primarily in his power.  This is particularly evident in the writings of John, where perhaps the most frequently emphasized idea in the gospel is that Jesus reveals the Father by his actions.  This is first developed explicitly in John 5:19-20: "The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.  The Father loves the Son, and shows him everything that he himself is doing...."  In the context there, Jesus sees that the Father is raising the dead, so he raises a dead man (metaphorically at that point, literally later); in the next chapter, Jesus sees that the Father is providing spiritual bread, so Jesus provides physical bread; later Jesus sees that the Father is opening the eyes of the blind, so he does it too.  Everything Jesus does is an imitation of his Father.

Jesus' imitation of his Father does not stop after his last sign.  "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him."  (John 13:3-5)  Washing feet was about the lowest of jobs that could be given to a slave.  A Rabbi's disciples would do many menial tasks for him, but they were explicitly not required to wash his feet.  Here the Rabbi, knowing his divine origin and destiny, washes his disciples' feet.

What does this say about God? God the Father acts as a servant, just like the best of human parents.  After all, Paul says, all fatherhood derives its name from its archetype, God the true Father, Eph. 3:15.  A good human parent humbles himself to clean the baby's diapers, and God the Father will do no less for his children.  We need that kind of humble service from God, and God is not averse to providing it.

This was not very easily visible before the incarnation, though the Old Testament hints in that direction.  For example, Hosea shows God to be suffering and humble (only a humble person can forgive the insult of adultery and accept his erring wife back).  But the incarnation has shown much more clearly what God is really like.

In John's first epistle, he twice makes a remarkable statement about the nature of God: "God is love." (1 John 4:8,16)  The one thing that we have to understand about God, before anything else, is that the essence of God's nature is love.  Pride, arrogance, vengefulness--anything that conflicts with this fundamental part of God's nature is excluded.  John says that if you do not understand that about God, you do not know God--you have missed the most important fact about the being of God.

Now the point of the passage in Phillipians, as well as the footwashing passage in the gospel of John and the "God is love" statement in his epistle, is that we are to think the same way: we are to have the same mind in us as was in Christ, and we are to wash each other's feet.  We, who are made in the image of God, ought to behave as God did.  Unlike Adam and Eve, who sought to be like God to enhance themselves, we are to seek to be like God in that we empty ourselves for others.  Jesus, the one who was not only God but also fully human, has showed us the way of true humanity; we are "being renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator" (Col. 3:10).


A detailed relatively recent discussion of the philology and the theological significance of the Phillipians passage is "Jesus Christ is Lord: Philippians 2.5-11" in The Climax of the Covenant by N.T. Wright.

I first understood this from a really excellent sermon by Darrell Johnson, then at Glendale Presbyterian church a number of years ago, but I have been unable to find any links to anything he has written or spoken on this.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Babel, Abraham, and Pentecost

In the Genesis account, the call of Abraham (Genesis 12) occurs shortly after the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), and has some interesting links to it. The tower builders are trying to "make a name for themselves," but God promises Abram that "I will make your name great." The tower builders want to build a city and a tower so that they will not be scattered; Abram leaves the city life not far from Babylon for the life of a nomad. The nations were formed in the chaos after the tower building ceased; the nations will be blessed through Abraham. Yahweh comments that nothing will be impossible for the people of Babel, but Abram must learn that "nothing is impossible for Yahweh."

God's call of Abraham is his answer to the problem created by the tower builders. The tower is an expression of human determination to do what we want regardless of what God intends. God told Noah to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1); the justification for building the tower is to avoid doing that. The tower depends on human initiative and ability and ingenuity (figuring out how to make bricks in a land that has no stone for building--that is why the text makes a point of their discovery that they could fire mud bricks). The builders are proud of their abilities (they are making a tower whose top reaches heaven), but God does not agree with their self-assessment: He has to come down to inspect the tower, it is so small. So God removes the source of whatever strength they have, their common language and unity (11:6), and scatters them all over the earth, to be forever frustrated in their self-serving efforts to make a permanent name for themselves. Humanity's effort to achieve its goals results in curse and futility rather than blessing--the scattered nations will never achieve anything permanent. Rebellious humanity cannot accomplish the work of God, and God cannot let it accomplish what it wants.

But God has not given up on his plan to bring blessing, so he calls Abram to form a new people. This new people will not make themselves great; God will make their names great. (Furthermore, Genesis 12:3 says more literally that "the one who thinks lightly of you will be cursed"--whoever does not agree that Abraham's descendants are critical to God's plan will not obtain God's blessing.) Abraham's family, unlike the tower builders, will not depend on their own strength; one of the lessons that the patriarchs must repeatedly learn is that manipulation and human cleverness does not accomplish the purpose of God. Through them, the blessing God intended in creation will go out to the entire world ("in you all the families of the earth will be blessed").

But Abraham's family is just one family among many; how is this going to happen? There are some hints in the Old Testament. For example, we see Abraham blessing Sodom by his rescue operation and later by intercession. Deuteronomy talks about how the nations will learn from the Law if it is faithfully carried out. The Queen of Sheba, among others, is blessed by Solomon. Elijah and Elishah miraculously save Sidonians and Arameans. But for the most part, the kingdom of Israel could not be said to be a blessing to much of anyone. The prophets talk about a great day when blessings will flow out from Israel, but that did not happen in Old Testament times.

At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came (Acts 2), there was another miracle involving languages. This time, instead of confusing the the languages, God made them intelligible. The old humanity breathed out self-willed arrogance; the new humanity speaks from the Spirit in praise of Jesus. (Note also the close connection the act of speaking and the word "spirit", which in both Hebrew and Greek is indistinguishable from "breath".) The old humanity was unified by its common speech, and derived its power from that unity (Genesis 11:6); the church is unified by sharing in the one Spirit, and derives its power from that unity.

The miracle of the languages at Pentecost is the beginning of the undoing of the tower of Babel, the time when the blessing that God promised to all nations through Abraham will start having a very visible effect. The blessing is, of course, primarily Jesus and the proclamation about him (Acts 3:25-26); this is what will accomplish God's goal in creation. Instead of collecting humanity together in a city dominated by a tower, God collects all nations into a single coherent people in Christ (see Paul's extensive discussion in Ephesians 2). The promise to Abraham that his name will be great has been fulfilled. God's people have a great name because what they accomplish has lasting significance; Jesus, the seed of Abraham, has the greatest possible name (Phil. 2). God's kingdom endures forever, while the tower builders are only significant today as a foil for the story of Abraham.