Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Bright Future

Isaiah 60:1-6 (Cf. JPS, NASB translations)
1. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2. For, behold, the darkness will cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory shall appear upon you.
3. And the nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4. Lift up your eyes around, and see; they all gather themselves together, they come to you; your sons will come from far, and your daughters will be nursed at your side.
5. Then you will see, and be filled with light, and your heart will tremble and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you.
6. The multitude of camels will cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense; and they will proclaim the praises of the Lord.

The book of Isaiah includes an abundance of figurative imagery concerning the future fortunes of Israel and the neighboring nations, whether these fortunes be good or bad. As is often the case with figurative material, hyperbole is used to make sharp distinctions between good and bad fortunes. If a nation or king is to suffer destruction, it may be described in the darkest cosmic terms as if the sky were to fall. On the other hand, if a nation or king should enjoy restoration and long life, then surely the sun will shine day and night and every good fortune will be multiplied beyond the highest expectation. [Cf. Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, Book 2, Chapters 27-29.]

Isaiah 60 describes in wonderful terms a messianic kingdom which was expected by the prophet to follow the misfortune and humiliation Israel suffered under Babylon’s rule. The portion quoted above is good enough, but it gets much better in the remainder of the chapter: the wealth of nations will flow into Israel (v. 11), foreign kings will be subservient to the power and glory of Zion (vv. 10, 14), peace and justice and salvation and praise will adorn the kingdom (vv. 17-18), and the God of Israel will be their everlasting light (no need for the sun or moon anymore, v. 20).

Now in all honesty, this marvelous future has yet to come to Israel, and perhaps never will. Isaiah’s words were intended to bring comfort and hope to a beaten down people; to this day these words encourage the one who reads them. Jew and Christian both receive these words with hope for a bright future.

Yes, the Christian too regards Isaiah as a true prophet of God. From the very beginning of the Christian religion Isaiah has spoken to their view of salvation within and beyond history. Matthew appropriated some of his imagery from Isaiah when presenting the advent of the Christ child. Heavenly light, camels and kings and gifts from afar all converge on the place where this child was born. Two of the gifts, gold and frankincense, are a perfect match between the LXX of Isaiah 60:6 and Matthew 2:11. Expectations run high for this child, for according to Matthew he is “born king of the Jews” and apparently worthy of worship by even a king such as Herod! He is the Messiah after all, or so says Matthew and succeeding generations of Christians, all the “faithful, joyful and triumphant” as the carol goes.

Here is how Matthew tells the story:

Matthew 2:1-11 (Cf. NASB translation)
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,
behold Magi (Gk., magoi; cf. Dan. 2:2 LXX) from the east arrived in Jerusalem
2 saying, “Where is the one born king of the Jews (lit., Judeans)? For we saw his star in the east, and came to worship him.”
3 Now hearing this, Herod the king was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,
4 and gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he demanded from them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 And they told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what was written by the prophet:
6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are not at all least among the leaders of Judah. For out of you will come a leader, who will shepherd my people Israel.” (The prophet cited is Micah 5:2a, with a little help from 2 Sam. 5:2b)
7 Then Herod secretly called the Magi and ascertained from them the time the star appeared.
8 And sending them to Bethlehem, he said: “Go and search carefully for the child, and when you find him, report to me, that I too may come and worship him.
9 So hearing the king they went, and behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.
10 And seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 And coming into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and falling down they worshiped him (cf. Psalm 71:11 LXX, 72:11 MT, they worshiped him, all the kings); and opening their treasuries they offered to him gifts (cf. Psalm 71:10 LXX, 72:10 MT, gifts present) of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Gold and frankincense and myrhh. Again, from Isaiah 60:6 is derived the picture of great men coming from afar on camels with gifts of gold and frankincense, “proclaiming the salvation of the Lord.” Likewise another source, the Song of Songs 3:6, supplies the combination of myrhh and frankincense for the occasion: King Solomon’s procession comes “perfumed with myrhh and frankincense, with all the scented powders of the merchant.” The gifts from the LXX version are identical with the gifts that appear in Matthew.

None of this is a direct criticism of Matthew or a challenge to the veracity of his story. I am merely pointing to a connection between the gospel account and its “Old Testament” background. Even as a Christian I did not place much credence in the historicity of the stories concerning the birth of the Christ child, so it would be a little hypocritical of me to pick apart Matthew’s story on these grounds now that I am a student of Judaism.

What interests me is the entire question of the Messiah and his future kingdom as described in Isaiah, and how this relates to the Christian claim that Jesus fulfilled the words of the prophets concerning the Messiah. That is, after all, why they adopted the name Christian for their religion: Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew moshiach, or as more popularly rendered, messiah.

Did Jesus in his first and only coming fulfill the words of Isaiah 60? I must say at the outset that it begs the question to refer to his second coming. The latter is only a ruse to confuse the critic who wonders in just what way Jesus was a king of any nation, much less “king of the Jews,” and just how his violent and pathetic death enters into an everlasting and glorious kingdom. No, the alleged resurrection does not solve the dilemma, for all the empirical data of the two millennia since simply does not fit the picture of a messianic kingdom as described by Isaiah. Remember, Isaiah was a Jew speaking to Jews about hope for a bright future for Israel their kingdom. The role given other nations, or Gentiles, was to bring their wealth and glory to adorn Israel in peace and justice.

Isaiah 60:10-14 (Cf. JPS, NASB translations)
10. And the sons of strangers will build up your walls, and their kings will minister to you; for in my anger I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.
11. Therefore your gates will be open continually; they will not be closed day or night; that men may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession.
12. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you will perish; yes, those nations shall be completely destroyed.
13. The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the cypress, the maple, and the box tree, together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.
14. The sons also of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you; and all those who despised you will bow themselves down at the soles of your feet; and they will call you, The city of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

I’m not sure the Holy One of Israel is pleased with the present state of affairs! The place of Israel among the nations continues to complicate rather than resolve questions of peace and justice. Hope remains for that bright future. Even so, only a blind fool would say Isaiah’s vision for Israel has been fulfilled.

In contrast to Isaiah’s vision, Matthew portrays a messiah figure whose advent is a threat not only to Herod the king but to “all Jerusalem” and (so we may assume) “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.” These folks are elsewhere identified with the Pharisees and Sadducees, that “brood of vipers” who oppose John the Baptist as well. (Matt. 3:7) Matthew’s messiah stands apart from and hostile to his own people at the very beginning. A strange messiah, don’t you think?

What remained of his movement by the end of the first century had more to do with the Gentiles than with the Jews, influenced greatly by Paul’s teaching against “the Law” and against circumcision in particular. The faithful and triumphant became “the Church” in a twisted kind of kingdom, whose only use for Jews continues to be as a villainous backdrop to the gospel story.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Quote of the day

"God is love. And love is evolution's very best day."
(Bono Hewson of U2, from the song Stand Up Comedy)