Just have to wake my somnolent blog from its slumber to mention this, a firstfruits offering from John F. A. Sawyer’s Isaiah through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell, 2018). Have you ever noticed that the Gospel nativity stories mention no ox or ass/donkey in connection with the birth of Jesus? This is one of those Christmas traditions that’s so ingrained you can’t quite believe it isn’t actually there. So where does it come from?
Sawyer points out the presence of this benevolently beastly pair in Christmas carols, Renaissance art (Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, c. 1500) and medieval traditions, right back to “the eighth-century apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” (ah yes, I know it well!), but Sawyer finally traces them back to a Christian interpretation of the opening verses of the ‘fifth Gospel’, a name for Isaiah whose contemporary currency (with me, at least) is thanks in some degree to Sawyer’s own book of twenty years ago, The Fifth Gospel (for the detail, see Isaiah through the Centuries, 11–13). This is Isaiah 1:3 (NIV):
The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
‘Manger’ in this translation is apt; combine this verse with Jesus’ post-natal bedding arrangements, and you have stock animals outshining their human contemporaries in their recognition of their true master. As you might imagine, every possible anti- and pro-Semitic battle can be fought right over these words, but I thought I’d put this out there as a fascinating tidbit from reception history that demonstrates how we don’t simply formulate our sense of a text from our own direct reading alone, but read in community across space and time.
By the way, I still like it how many donkeys, like the one living at our old favourite holiday camping spot in Australia’s New England region, have a cross displayed across their shoulders, as if for pure symbolic value alone.
In November I presented a two-part sermon series attempting to cover the whole book of Isaiah – ambitious, right? I used a close look at Isaiah 48 as my jumping-off point, since it talks about the ‘former things’ in 48:3 and the ‘new things’ in 48:6. Some scholars, namely Brevard Childs, R. E. Clements and Christopher Seitz, I believe, consider this former things/new things language as a deliberate internal clue to the double setting & audience built into the book. My approach to surveying the book using these double-door terms is based on this scholarly concept. Here are the links:
Isaiah sermon #1: The Former Things: Remembering the Past
Isaiah sermon #2: The New Things: Readiness for the Future
Have somehow forgotten how to embed these things. I know I could once. In any case, this gives you access if you’re interested in understanding Isaiah at a glance.
Reading through Jeremiah again, I noticed a couple of new factors that just mitigate a little the harshness of the prophet that strikes us at first glance.
Jer. 20:7-18 concludes the series of Jeremiah’s complaints to God that began at the end of chapter 11. However, 20:7-18 seems composite itself. Verses 7-10 are true complaint, featuring the nickname given Jeremiah by his opponents, ‘Magor-Missabib’, or Terror on Every Side, equivalent I think to calling him Chicken Little. (If you want to hear a powerful song, check out Phil Keaggy’s rendition of this idea at the end of True Believer.)
What follows is a song of deliverance in vv. 11-13 in classic psalmic fashion, where the persecuted person celebrates his rescue by God. But then vv. 14-18 unexpectedly return to dark lament, in the form of the evidently stereotypical curse on the day of one’s birth. I say stereotypical because it is the form of lament that opens the body of the book of Job.
Here’s where our first mitigating feature comes in. Like Job’s voice in Job 3, Jeremiah curses roundly the poor guy who brought the news about Jeremiah’s birth to his father:
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you – a son!” May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.
Talk about shooting the messenger! But here’s the point. This is rhetorical. What purpose would it serve for God to tackle that poor guy years later for a job well-intentioned and kindly performed? That’s not the purpose. Jeremiah (more likely than his editor alone here, I think) is letting off steam.
We should keep in mind when we read the bitter tones of the ‘oracles against the nations’ (e.g. Jeremiah 46-51) the role that rhetoric can play. They can make it sound as though God hates non-Israelites from the very bottom of his heart. Then how do we account for the sudden magnanimity of the gospel in the New Testament? We ought to keep in mind the natural extremity of rhetoric.
My time’s up. Second part next time.
I often write my posts pretty off-the-cuff, and this one will have to be an absolute first impulse, because I have 22% battery power left on my laptop, and no cord here at home. But chances to post come rarely so…
Here are some interesting leads for you to follow up in the book of Micah among the minor prophets, should you be so inclined:
- Micah’s hometown, Moresheth, mentioned in the title (1:1), appears again in the list of towns on the invasion route of Assyria as ‘Moresheth Gath’. Apparently it is represented by a large present-day ruin mound or ‘tell’ overlooking the Shephelah or western foothills of central Israel, or in ancient times, the borderlands of Philistia.
- The call to ‘hear’, using the very common Hebrew term ‘shema‘ in the plural, Micah 1:2, is very like similar calls to attention, or as it were, courtroom summons, at key locations in other prophets, e.g. Micah 6:1, to the mountains; Hosea 4:1, to the Israelites, at the beginning of the body of Hosea, and Isaiah 1:2, to the heavens and the earth as witnesses of Israel’s wrongs.
- To go another verse, the frightening appearance of the LORD in 1:3 is very like the theophanic description in Habakkuk 3, not to mention Psalm 97. When the LORD goes out, the mountains shake and melt like wax, says Micah 1:4, and so does Ps. 97:5 and Nahum 1:5-6. Scholars these days talk about ‘cultural memory’ as a conduit for ancient traditions, and I can’t help but wonder about distant memories of some great volcanic eruption lying behind these descriptions of God’s fearful presence, notwithstanding scholarly pointing to similar mythological traditions in the Ugaritic literature.
- Micah 4:1-3 is famously nearly identical to Isa. 2:1-4, and scholars debate endlessly whose the passage was first, if either prophet’s. It actually finds a very natural ‘bed’ in Micah, because the judgment of the temple ‘mount’ (Heb. har) in 3:12 is immediately reversed in the supreme blessing of the same mount in 4:1.
- Speaking of the devastation of Jerusalem’s ‘mountain’ in 3:12, which would have to be Micah’s most pioneering prophecy, as he was the first to forecast devastation for Jerusalem, along with exile to Babylon (4:10, acknowledging what most scholars would conclude here, but I still suspect it’s Micah’s own), there is a shared word here too. Jerusalem is so destroyed in Micah’s prediction here that it returns to scrub (ya’ar). Yet in 7:14, ya’ar becomes a positive image, as the LORD shepherds his people in the mountain scrublands such as Bashan and Gilead.
- Micah has a Jeremiah-style complaint in ch. 7 beginning in v. 1, which also uses the Hebrew term for ‘summer fruits’ that appears in Amos 8:1.
- Micah 7:17 speaks of foreign leaders coming bowing and scraping to Israel, licking the dust like serpents. As well as a suggestive help for understanding the curse on the snake in Genesis 3, it is very close to Isaiah 65:25, saying “Dust will be the serpent’s food.”
More generally, and my battery’s about to go, I find the relief from the burden of finding a great enough sacrifice to really remedy sin in Micah 6:8 a very prescient passage from a gospel point of view, though no real means of atonement is flagged there. But in 7:18 we do have a God who forgives, rather than staying angry forever, leading to an uplifting and hopeful conclusion that is taken up at the end of Mary’s long in Luke 1:55 or so, as Luke makes the connection between the hopeful texts of the OT prophets and the advent of Christ. God would prove true not just to Jacob but to all the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.”
Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:
- Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
- Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
- The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
- Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
- Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.
George Athas at his blog ‘With Meagre Powers’ has drawn my attention to an apt post by theologian Tim Bulkeley on the nature of prophecy. I agree with his point there, though it might challenge your ideas about what prophecy is!
I’m not emphasizing the point about conservatives. I am one to some extent, and know that we can all bring our preconceptions to our interpretation of the Bible. But Jeremiah certainly challenges us, especially in 18:7-10 and the lesson about the clay pot, to remember that God announced the future through his OT prophets in order to change that future, with the result, hopefully, that the dark future originally ‘predicted’ does not need to happen!
Hello Old Testament/Hebrew Bible fans. If you’re interested in Jeremiah and/or OT law/torah, you might like to take a look at a paper I’ve recently posted on Academia.edu: http://www.academia.edu/10557454/Jeremiah_34_8-22._Fresh_Life_from_Ancient_Roots.
It is intended to be read along with a prezi online, which is found at: https://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/. It is bilingual, thanks to my colleague Peter Tie’s contribution, so Mandarin readers can find some benefit there as well.