Time for a Quickie: The Ox and Ass of Christmas

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.

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Isaiah Sermon Pair – Former Things, New Things

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

 

Isaiah Former Things Clip

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.

 

Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

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.

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Declaration of Amnesty – The Act of a King

Let’s try for a short one!

I’m studying Jeremiah 34:8-22, which features 4/7 occurrences of a rare Old Testament word, derôr, in vv. 8, 15 & 17.  Here’s the first occurrence.

The word came to Jeremiah from the LORD after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. (Jer 34:8 NIV)

It’s a little bit of a challenge establishing what such a rare word means; it only turns up once in the entire Torah or Pentateuch:

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Lev 25:10 NIV)

But there is, I have it on good authority, a cognate Akkadian word, durruru, and evidence of a practice described using this term, whereby an ancient Near Eastern king might, especially upon first coming to the throne, declare a kind of general amnesty or liberation of slaves as an opening goodwill gesture.  So you know I’m not making this up, check out Nahum M. Sarna,  “Zedekiah’s emancipation of slaves and the sabbatical year,” in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (ed. Harry A. Hoffner; Alter Orient und Altes Testament 22; NeuKirchen-Vluyn: NeuKirchener, 1973), 143-149 @147, as one example.

Out of two more occurrences in the OT, one is the important-sounding eschatological (focused on the final kingdom) passage in Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isa 61:1-4 NIV)

In context, it sounds as though liberation from bondage in Babylon might be offered here to Jewish captives of the exile (586-538).  It already strikes the reader as an arresting and profound passage, something momentous, a huge claim.  But that sense is only heightened when we see the way this text is quoted in the Gospels:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luk 4:18-21 NIV)

I love the dramatic pause at the end of v. 20.  It’s pin-dropping time!  What’s he going to say? The passage is already dynamite in a social environment where messianism is in the air, and impatience with Roman rule. The day of liberation! The jubilee year spoken of in Leviticus, but the one that God gives direct! What’s he going to say?

“This is that day.” Heavy! This is the first act of Jesus’ ministry described in detail in Luke. In Luke’s presentation, this is Jesus’ way of officially inaugurating his ministry. And what does he say? I’m here as the designated spokesman for the heavenly King, who is declaring an amnesty, release for those enslaved.

It’s a new day. It’s a new order. It’s a new age.

Jubilee. Sign on!

It was so radical, it could only polarize the crowd, and Jesus is immediately in trouble, the centre of controversy. Because if it’s true, it’s wonderful on a mythical scale, but if it’s false, it is heretically, blasphemously, and for a people already oppressed, painfully false, like prosperity gospel preached to poor South Africans, or a cargo cult expecting gifts from the sky.

That’s for you to decide, but when you check out the background of derôr in Isa. 61:1, and discover that it can be the opening act of a new regime, you can appreciate that Jesus opens his ministry with a biblical bombshell in a munitions factory.