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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Further thoughts on Isaiah

I have now finished reading through Isaiah in Hebrew (I did this quite a while ago, actually, and have been making heavy work of Jeremiah so far, what with more goats to milk and the garden picking up and articles to write for Christian History). In my earlier post I wrote about the language of creation and chaos in "Second" Isaiah and how it connects to the book's critique of Babylonian idolatry.

But there's another cluster of language that struck me in Isaiah 40-55--the words "nasa'" and "sabal," both meaning "to carry." For instance, Isaiah 46, which describes Babylonians (and their animals) carrying heavy idols around from place to place: "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle; these things you carry (nasa') are loaded as burdens on weary animals. They stoop, they bow down together, they cannot save the burden (masa'), but themselves go into captivity" (1-2). Just as humans are the makers of idols, so humans are the ones who carry the idols. Again, in v. 7: "they lift it (nasa') to their shoulders, they carry it (sabal), they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries out to it, it does not answer or save anyone from trouble."

Sandwiched between these condemnations of idolatry is God's assurance that in his relationship with his people it's the other way round (3-4): "Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne [by me from your birth, carried (nasa') from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you (sabal); I have made, and I will bear (nasa'); I will carry (Sabal) and will save."

So when Isaiah 53 announces that the Suffering Servant has "borne (nasa') our infirmities and carried (sabal) our diseases," it is using the same language about the Servant that it uses about humans carrying idols and about God carrying his people.

Here, I think, is one way Christians can legitimately make a case for the divinity of the Servant from Isaiah 53. Isaiah 46 has established that a key difference between God and idols is that God carries us, while we carry idols. Now Isaiah 53 tells us that the Servant will do what Isaiah 46 says YHWH does. And it says it in stronger language--not only will the Servant carry us, but he will carry our "infirmities" and "diseases," the consequences of our own sins and idolatries.

Isaiah 53:4 is not simply an isolated "Messianic prophecy," but part of an extended poetic description of the ways in which YHWH will redeem his people from idolatry and show himself to be the true God. And how more powerfully to demonstrate this than by carrying their very sins? Idols are burdens to us. We are burdens to God.

I heard a marvelous sermon this morning at the Methodist church about the Psalms of Lament (specifically Psalm 31). The pastor, Bruce Nettleton, frequently finds creative ways to "cover the liturgical bases" while doing his own Protestant thing. And this was a great example. He used Psalm 31 as a window into the genre of Psalms of lament, leading to an explanation of why Jesus would quote such a psalm (22) on the Cross. Jesus takes upon himself our laments, our brokenness--even our anger at God. (Bruce ended by inviting people to practice Ignatian prayer and imagine themselves as part of the story of Holy Week--a traditional practice that I admit doesn't do a whole lot for me.) This, I think, is how Christological exegesis of the Old Testament should be done. Here, as in Isaiah 53, the passage is "Messianic" not in spite of its apparent "original meaning," but because of it. The point is not to "prove Jesus from the Old Testament," but to immerse ourselves in the strange world of the Old Testament and understand, from that standpoint, how Jesus fulfills the trajectory throughout the Hebrew Scriptures of God entering into and taking upon himself the sufferings, and even the sins, of his people.

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