Something Old

G-ETS Intro to OT: thinking, rambling, reflecting, musing, etc.


March 2016


Assignment: Pick someone whom you would like to teach about “Isaiah’s Servant.” (A colleague, a prospective MDiv student, a curious family member, or anyone else.) In about 1000 words, and using these course materials as a resource, write them a letter about what this “servant” is for the book of Isaiah. Be sure to cite appropriately, so that they can engage these materials themselves also. Don’t “lecture” (we all know how off-putting that is!), but do find compelling ways to include the relevant information. Anticipate their questions and concerns, and address them overtly.

Dear church music directors,

Greetings. Grace and peace! As a fellow church music director I can feel your pain this week – Holy Week – I do hope that you are hanging in there with the added services and demands of this week. I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to choose songs for worship. This is for a number of reasons: getting stuck in a rut, not wanting to teach new songs, all the songs are in ridiculous keys, no drummer this week, etc. BUT my most difficult issue is finding songs that contain helpful (could we say accurate?) theology. There are a lot of crazy theological ideas in Christian worship music repertoire! I’m committed to finding songs that don’t put incorrect words in the mouths and on the hearts of the people in my congregation, so I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

I was struck by this worship quandary again this week as I was studying the “suffering servant” theme in the book of Isaiah and I thought it might be important to discuss this topic in some depth. We have a lot of songs that talk about the “suffering servant” – most of which name Jesus as this One who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5a). Here’s one example, By His Wounds…or if you’re more into the hymn thing here’s another example, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. It’s a common Christian interpretation to read Jesus of Nazareth into the “suffering servant” narrative in Isaiah, and Christian theologians have done so throughout history. At the end of this letter I will discuss that reading of the text, but first I would like to offer some information that might shed light on the scriptural context to help us sort out what’s going on here.

A bit of background: The book of Isaiah is divided into three main sections. Chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah comprise a section called Second Isaiah. This happens to be the second of the three sections – hence, probably, the name. While the first portion of Isaiah was written to the pre-exilic community during the 8th century B.C.E., this second portion of the book of Isaiah was addressed to the people of Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.E.). If you’d like a more substantive discussion of this historical context you can check out Bandstra’s Chapter 12: Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration.

The “suffering servant” stuff is in Second Isaiah in a subsection of four poems that speak of a mysterious figure called the “Servant of Yahweh.” Here are the four poems: Isaiah 42:1-6, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The last of the four poems is the one that has been used as a theme in the aforementioned songs/hymns. So here’s the problem with those songs in regard to the ways they go about reading Jesus into these poems: In this context, Jesus of Nazareth is not likely the “suffering servant,” but rather the “suffering servant” is most likely the people of Israel. The notes in my Harper Collins Study Bible explain, “The early church identified the servant in this passage with Jesus, and Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission may have been shaped by this figure. In the original historical context, however, the servant appears to have been exiled Israel.” The context of the other poems supports the notion of the “suffering servant” as Israel. Tovia Singer writes, “Isaiah’s first three Servant Songs clearly identify Israel as God’s servant, and the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53 clearly speak of Israel as a suffering and humiliated individual” (Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isa 53)

This is a BIT of an aside to the discussion about music, but I found it disturbing/interesting/enlightening to read Rabbi Singer’s thoughts regarding Christian issues with Isaiah 53 and the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel. He discusses how the church has used Isaiah 53 as a prooftext in order to show the validity of the Gospels, particularly to prove Jesus of Nazareth’s death as “explicitly prophesied in Hebrew Scriptures.” He asserts that Christians use the suffering of Jesus as a cornerstone of their doctrine, claiming that a concession of the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel would, “require Christendom to abandon one of its most cherished polemical chapters used to defend its own teachings, and a vital part of its textual arsenal used against its elder rival, Judaism.” Singer goes on to write, “It is astonishing that missionaries would use rabbinic texts to support Christian doctrines given that each and every one of the rabbis that they zealously quote utterly rejected the teachings of Christianity.” Pretty intense stuff.

I can see the validity of Rabbi Singer’s statements though. We Christians tend to get trapped in church doctrine and become inflexible to other ideas, even if they are grounded in academically-sound readings of Scripture. And with the upcoming Holy Week services I have been noticing that we tend to sing a LOT of songs about suffering and blood shed in the church. Which is understandable, but they tend to only be from an atonement theology standpoint. Why not find songs that use liberation theology for Holy Week? Dr. Brooke Lester talks about the sinner/judgment model of the Christian tradition versus the victim/vindication model we see in Isaiah. This would be an interesting challenge to find words for worship that enliven the victim/vindication narrative.

Part of why I am writing to you is that I wonder if we might be able to find some room for new words to use in Christian worship. And I’m wondering if this conversation can serve to augment how we look at scripture and talk about it. It seems that we get stuck on one idea (Jesus as “suffering servant”) and perhaps fail to see the fullness of God’s grace and love.

One of the Enduring Understandings in our Old Testament class related to this topic is:
The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place. What does that mean for the words we choose to use in worship? In particular, what does this mean for the songs that use Isaiah 53 to speak about Jesus of Nazareth as the “suffering servant”?

The final question is one of our Essential Questions in Old Testament class: Why and how do we appropriate ancient words for our own purposes and interests? What does it mean for a text to “speak to” someone it’s not meant for? How does the understanding of this narrative shed light on the historical context? How does the historical context speak to us today? Can it? Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah 53, “Although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.” It seems clear that this text can speak from a broad context, but it seems clear that the historical context is also crucial. I guess we just continue to live in the tension, consider the contexts, and work on finding words for worship.





Make Option 02: Read these passages from Jeremiah: 1:1-19; 2:1-13; 4:23-28; 5:1-5; 7:1-34; 8:18–9:3; 18:1-12; 20:7-13; 23:9-32; 31; 32:1-15. Which of these texts sound to you like prophecies of “doom”? Which, by contrast, of “hope”? What make the differences? Do you find it credible that these types of utterance could both come from the same prophet? To what of Judah’s political circumstances might each be appropriate during Jeremiah’s career? If you are someone who preaches, do you preach both “doom” and “hope”? Under what circumstances, and what makes the difference?

First, a brief background. This background is summarized from my reading of Christopher Stanley’s The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in 627 B.C.E. (according to Jeremiah 1:1-3). He took up this vocation at a young age and, through visions and direct speech, proclaimed the judgment God intended to bring upon the people of Israel as a consequence of their rebellious actions. The rebellion involved social injustices and worship of other gods. Jeremiah worked as a prophet in the years leading up to the Babylonian invasion and the years immediately following.

Jeremiah 1:1-19 (Hope/Doom)

“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10) The notes in the Harper-Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version) identify this verse as a motif that summarizes the alternating messages of doom/hope throughout the book of Jeremiah. According to these notes, the message of destruction (destroy and overthrow, pluck up and pull down) points to the oracles in chapters 2-25, and the message of hope (build and plant) points to the messages of salvation in chapters 30-31. Therefore, this message of Jeremiah’s calling seems to hold both doom and hope, with an overarching message of Yahweh’s intended protection over the work Jeremiah is being called to do.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 (Doom)

This is a message of doom, though it seems to be equal parts mourning (of the people abandoning Yahweh) and doom (the punishment that shall not escape the people of Israel). Jeremiah 2:8 communicates a metaphor of God as a husband to the people of Israel, a narrative that plays out in the mournful image of a bride leaving her husband. This passage portrays doom in the expansive nature of the sinful behavior and the resulting punishments. Those who abandoned Yahweh are identified as priests, rulers, and prophets (2:8), a large segment of the population. The resulting punishment is even more expansive, with Yahweh accusing even their children’s children (2:9), naming Israel as a worthless people (2:5), and proclaiming that the people have forsaken God and are unable to save themselves (2:13).

Jeremiah 4:23-28 (Doom)

Except for 4:27, which the Harper Collins notes name as a later prose insertion meant to promise that destruction would not be total, this passage contains an overarching message of doom. Jeremiah uses language that calls the earth “waste and void” (4:23), entirely “laid in ruins” (4:26), containing no life, human or otherwise. This state of devastation is a vision of the outcome of Yahweh’s anger (4:26). The vivid descriptions of the entirety of destruction, and the eerie vision of a world completely void of life, frame the message as one of hopeless doom.

Jeremiah 5:1-5 (Doom)

This passage also contains a message of doom, particularly in the context of the expanse of people who “act justly” (5:1). The ultimate message of doom here is “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (5:5). This paints a picture of a land where absolutely no one keeps Yahweh’s commandments.

Jeremiah 7:1-34 (Doom)

While this passage begins with a suggestion of hope (“[If you amend your ways] I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever” (7:7)), the mood quickly shifts to one of doom, portrayed in the reality of the situation and the expectation that the people will not amend their ways. One of the messages of doom is that Yahweh is refusing to listen to the people and forbidding Jeremiah from interceding for the people (7:16). The words of Yahweh relate Yahweh’s intended silence to the manner in which the people have consistently ignored the warnings of the prophets. This paints a sort of “eye for an eye” picture of Yahweh’s punishment, which adds to the hopeless message of the text. The punishment here is graphic: “The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth” (7:33), naming the place the valley of Slaughter. The refusal of Yahweh to listen to the people, and the graphic depictions of punishment without relent, make the message here one of overwhelming doom.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 (Doom)

This message contains no hope. Jeremiah is offering a lament (much like the lament psalms and the lament we find in Job 3) for the destruction of the people of Israel. The hopeless message is beautifully written, but extremely sorrowful. An example of the tone of the passage is: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20). Sad. Poetic. Honest.

Jeremiah 18:1-12 (Doom)

Here God offers a way out of destruction for Israel. Yahweh describes himself as a potter, carefully devising plans that are malleable based on the actions of the people. God offers a plan for repentance and a promise of changing God’s mind about the intended disaster if the people amend their evil ways (18:8). But the people speak “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (18:12). Therefore, what was meant to be hopeful is, again, a message of doom. This passage is particularly sad because the message of hope is almost dangled like a carrot, but then taken away again because the people will not repent. (The carrot metaphor doesn’t quite work, because God is not taunting the people in that way, but rather the people’s own foolishness is reaping due consequence.)

Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Hope/Doom)

This is a disturbing passage. Dr. Brooke Lester refers to this passage in his Lecture Part B, discussing scholarly opinions that the passage can be read as suggesting the image of God as a rapist, seducing and overpowering Jeremiah (20:7). Even in the midst of this difficult imagery, Jeremiah seems to paint a more hopeful picture of God, even commanding praises to the Lord for “delivering the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (20:13). Here Jeremiah seems to offer a hopeful, if not honest and disturbing, message of God’s ultimate protection from enemies. Though one has to wonder, in this context, what protects from the violence of God??

Jeremiah 23:9-32 (Doom)

Much of this passage involves an oracle against false prophets (23:9-15), putting God in opposition to those who “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16). The message from the prophet Jeremiah seems to be not one of comfort, but one of punishment and doom, stemming from the honest examination of the actions and consequences for the people of Israel. The key idea is that “God will “bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment” (23:12).

Jeremiah 31 (Hope)

This passage is hopeful, conveyed in a tone that is altogether different from the preceding passages we have examined. The message is that “there is hope for your future” (31:17), and that God will “turn mourning into joy, comfort, and give gladness for sorrow” (31:13). The tone is so unlike the other passages that it seems to be coming from a voice other than Jeremiah. From a voice other than the Yahweh who spoke doom in the other passages. More on this in a bit…

Jeremiah 32:1-15 (Hope)

This passage outlines a purchase of a field during the time of Babylonian conquest and threatened exile, an act that shows great hope in the midst of unrest. The act of buying land is one of trust in God’s faithfulness and hope for a future where Israelites will be free in the land promised to them. Here God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15), offering hope for future restoration.

Concluding Thoughts

The mixture of hope and doom in Jeremiah is somewhat perplexing. The tone of hope versus doom is so vastly different that it does sound like a different voice making the proclamations. The historical situation in Judah provides one possible reason for the contrasting messages. When there is an obvious impending Babylonian invasion the tone shifts to one of hope, providing the people of Israel with a vision to sustain them throughout the years of exile. This situation makes it plausible that the prophet might change his tone in order to offer hope to a people in a dire situation.

In Dr. Lester’s Lecture Part B, he discusses the 2-part message that is involved in preaching the gospel: the message of God’s call (invitation) to all people, shaped by love and comfort, and the message of God’s claim, the demands or expectations that come with the call. The context of the congregation at any given time informs whether the message needs to be centered more on call or claim. My preaching experience is still somewhat limited, but when I have preached I’ve tended to try to gently weave together call and claim in the message. I think that typically both call and claim are there to balance one another, and to help congregations move safely in the direction in which God is calling them. That said, I also think there are times when one message must be the sole focus, and must be proclaimed boldly as Jeremiah did. For instance, in times of stagnation congregations need to step up to God’s demands for justice. In times of grief, congregations need to hear messages of comfort. This is perhaps what Jeremiah was trying to do with the people he ministered to, the people over whom he lamented in a very pastoral way.


Make Option 01: (Exercise 87 in Stanley.) Read Amos 2:6-16; 5:10-17; 6:1-8; 8:4-9:4. In about 750-1000 words, what does Amos say is wrong with Israelite society? What will happen to the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways? Is there anything that they can do to avoid this fate?

The words of the prophet Amos, directed at the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel during the middle of the 8th century B.C.E., are the earliest prophetic sayings recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Christopher Stanley, in The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, describes Amos’ audience as wealthy elites enjoying an “era of peace and prosperity” (p. 429). Amos brings to light the deceptive nature of this peace and prosperity, naming the sins that are undergirding the wealth of the nation.

What does Amos say is wrong with Israelite society?
According to Amos, there seem to be two categories of issues in Israelite society: economic injustice and straying from authenticity in their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Stanley names the broken covenant with Yahweh as the primary problem and the economic injustices as the symptom of the primary problem (p. 429). In other words, a lack of connection to Yahweh leads the people to all types of economic and social sins.

Amos indicates that the Israelite wealthy are “trampling on the heads of the poor and needy) three times in the excerpts we are examining: 2:7, 5:11, 8:4. This theme of the rich taking advantage of the disadvantaged is indicated in a number of other ways throughout these texts. Amos says that the Israelites steal from the poor (5:11 – “take from them levies of grain,” 8:5 – “practice deceit with false balances”), practice debt slavery (2:6 – “sell the needy for a pair of sandals,” 8:6 – “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”), and keep people from entering the city gates (5:12 – “push aside the needy in the gate”). In addition to these active sinful behaviors, the wealthy are accused of passive complacency, self-indulgent behavior, and lack concern for the troubles of the nation (6:4-6). The overarching sin in this section seems also to be related to pride (6:8 – “I abhor the pride of Jacob”).

Chapter 2 reveals sexual immorality in Israelite society (2:7-8 – “father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned”). This section of the text relays the ways in which the Israelites are sinning in sacred places intended for the worship of Yahweh (2:8 – “lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed”), a symptom pointing to the ways in which sin is related to the distance that the Israelites have put between themselves and their relationship with Yahweh. In the same way, the Israelites are forcing the nazirites, consecrated by God to do God’s work, to break their vows (2:12) and are telling prophets, raised up by God to prophesy, to be silent (2:12). Seemingly related is the accusation in Amos 5:12 of Israelites “afflicting the righteous.”

What will happen to the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways?
The message of Amos in the selected passages is that God will punish the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways. The primary punishments in these excerpts involve foreign armies invading the land, forcing exile to those who are not killed in the process. A catastrophic military invasion is described in Amos 2:13-16, resulting in “those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day” (2:16). Chapter 5 describes punishment in terms of the death of Israel, invoking the image of professional mourners wailing for the death of the people of Israel (5:16-17). The most severe judgment is described in chapter 9, where the total destruction of Israel is described. The totality of destruction is conveyed in terms such as, “not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1), going so far as to offer the descriptive warning, “though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the sea-serpent, and it shall bite them” (9:3). The section ends with the warning, “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4).

In addition to the warnings of death and destruction, God threatens to withdraw God’s word from the people of Israel. Amos reveals this state of separation in chapter 9: “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (9:12). Chapter 9 also describes the time of punishment in terms of darkness, famine, thirst, and trembling earth.

Is there anything that they can do to avoid this fate?

All hope seems almost to be lost in Amos’ assertions, but there remain a few glimmers of possible ways that the Israelites could avoid the aforementioned punishments. Chapter 5 offers the most hopeful path toward avoiding the devastating fate: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14). Amos describes the task as a turning from evil toward good, as would be evidenced by establishing justice, particularly in relation to justice for those who are needy at the city gates (5:15). Amos informs the people that these actions may cause Yahweh to be gracious to the remnant of Israel and not punish those whose hearts turn back to God. The excerpt in chapter 9 has a much more pessimistic view toward avoiding punishment, and seems to suggest that all hope is indeed lost.

Other thoughts.
One of the assertions of Dr. Brooke Lester in his list of essential understandings for the writings of the latter prophets is: “The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place.” At the same time, one of Dr. Lester’s essential questions is: “Why and how do we appropriate ancient words for our own purposes and interests? What does it mean for a text to “speak to” someone it’s not meant for?” This tension is important to consider when reading and studying the works of the latter prophets. We often approach biblical texts wondering what they have to say to us in our current time. And it is certainly easy to jump to making parallels between the actions (and inactions) of Israel portrayed in this text and the current political and social climate in the United States. The problem with making parallels between the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and our current time is that we often forego historical context and, as Stanley suggests, “interpret [prophetic] sayings in a manner that would have made no sense” to an 8th century audience. It is crucial, then, to begin with the goal of understanding the historical importance of the texts for their intended audience. Only then can we perhaps think about what the texts have to say more generally about how those people understood Yahweh, and how that understanding might interact with our own.

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