Lesson 38: “Beside Me There Is No Saviour” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Reading: Isaiah 40-49

These chapters are a flashpoint for several reasons, most having to do with context. Scholars generally see Isaiah 40 as the beginning of “Deutero-Isaiah,” because whereas (most of) the earlier chapters of Isaiah assume a location in 8th century BCE Judah, chapter 40 depicts God returning to Jerusalem and its temple after a long absence, and chapters 44 and 45 explicitly name Cyrus (ca. 600-530 BCE), founder of the Persian Empire. For this reason and others, scholars therefore associate these chapters with the exilic or post-exilic period.

These scholarly conclusions have resulted in pushback from some LDS teachers, though. The familiar version of the argument that I’ve heard is that “scholars don’t believe in prophecy,” which implicitly or explicitly equates “prophecy” with “the ability to see the future” by doing such things as naming Cyrus before he was born. Mormon investment in this argument derives from the fact that the Book of Mormon quotes from Deutero-Isaiah, which means that Book of Mormon historicity rests in part on these chapters’ having already been written ca. 600 BCE, before the exile.

In my view, however, texts that try to call Israel to keep worshiping Yahweh as God even though Yahweh apparently didn’t prevent the destruction of the temple or the exile should count as pretty darn prophetic, especially given that predicting the future is a pretty narrow subset of what Hebrew prophets do. I bring this up because class members are likely to have varying degrees of familiarity with these issues, and good teachers should try to be aware of the kinds of questions and objections students might make, even if they’re not voiced. Sunday School that doesn’t attend to the actual needs and concerns of class members is a waste of everyone’s time.

A second, perhaps even more complicated issue has to do with the centrality of these chapters (second only to those immediately following) to the practice of Christianizing the Hebrew Scriptures. The tradition behind these readings is long, and Handel’s Messiah remains a potent vehicle for it, but the problem is that it puts us in the position of knowing the answers even before we read the text. (Which, come to think of it, is a familiar problem to have in Sunday School.) The difficulty here is that actually reading the text complicates a simple application of these texts to Jesus. (In Sunday School we tend to avoid this problem by not actually reading the text.) My argument here isn’t that we’re obliged to read these chapters as Jews and totally leave Jesus out of it, but rather that we get better Christian readings if we attend to the intricacies of the text itself, in its Jewish context. In other words, we shouldn’t treat Jewish and Christian interpretations as competitors in a zero-sum game. Christianity started as a Jewish sect, and I think we get better readings if we try to honor the legacy, fraught though it is, of reading the Hebrew Bible as the first Christian scripture.

I’d advocate dividing class time between two activities: using Isaiah 40 to set up Deutero-Isaiah, and then doing next week’s teacher a solid by digging into the three servant songs so that class members have some foundation going into Isaiah 53, which is the ultimate example (maybe alongside Job 19:25) of a text where the answers are so freaking obvious that it never occurs to us that we’re asking the wrong questions.

To read Isaiah 40 as addressing God’s return to Jerusalem, we have to pry the first five verses out of the interpretative grip of the synoptic gospels and Handel. Reading them as about Jesus and John the Baptist is well and good, but that doesn’t help us make sense of the chapter in its Hebrew context. God’s people need comfort (v. 1) because to all appearances God failed them by allowing the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple (which left God homeless, in a sense). Deuteronomy enables a reading of these events as divine punishment for the people’s wickedness—a human failure rather than a divine one—but God was also forced to wander as a result. But, as verse 2 says, Jerusalem has now served her term and paid her penalty, so the cry goes out to prepare the way for the LORD’s return, to make straight in the desert a highway for God, so that God’s glory might be revealed after lying obscured by the ignominy of apparent defeat. (I’m paraphrasing the NRSV here.)

The chapter undertakes to redeem God from this ignominy by appealing to God’s status as creator (vv. 12, 21-23, 27-31). This move offers assurance that God is not a mere tribal deity, bound to the geographical territory of Judah, but rather a cosmic entity that transcends the very existence of the earth. The chapter concludes by acknowledging that believing all of this is difficult in light of what happened—”even youths will faint and be weary, / and the young will fall exhausted”—but nevertheless extends the promise that “those who wait for the LORD / shall renew their strength, / they shall mount up with wings like eagles, / they shall run and not be weary, / they shall walk and not faint” (vv. 30-31, NRSV). These last verses are a rousing call to Israel not to give up on their God, even in the face of destruction and exile.

With the servant songs (42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 50:4-9, leading into 52:13-53:12), the question is: who is the servant? Conveniently, the text offers some assistance: 41:8-9 identifies the servant as Israel/Jacob, with reinforcement from 44:1-2 and 49:3. I’d read these songs with the class and ask them to make sense of this collective identity that the text assigns to the servant.

Having sorted that, the last question I’d ask is the relationship between God as Israel’s savior/deliverer (e.g., 43:11) and Cyrus as the shepherd (44:28) and anointed/messiah (45:1). Adding the servant Israel into the mix, what does this confluence of roles suggest about the nature of God’s covenant? Once the class has discussed that, then, in the last few minutes, you can start talking about where Jesus might fit into all of this, as someone who embodies the servant Israel and also the foreign shepherd/messiah. Conclude by asking the class how reading these chapters historically added to their understanding of what we’re saying about Jesus when we read him through these texts.

Related BCC content:

Kevin Barney, “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion”

Kevin Barney, “Isaiah in the BoM”

RJH, “Barker Part 3”

Jason K., “Jesus in Isaiah 52:13-53:12”

Comments

  1. Good post.
    One thing I’d never realized about Handel’s Messiah was how many subtle textual liberties are taken to change the text and make it more Christo-centric. I understand why this was done, but it encourages lay Christian confusion about why those darn Jews just couldn’t recognize Jesus. Wasn’t it obvious just from reading Isaiah? (No. No it wasn’t.)
    I’ve got a link to an article detailing those changes from the perspective of a Jewish Bible scholar in this post http://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2017/12/a-christmas-plug/

  2. Thanks for that link. Ben’s stuff is great, and I should have linked to it in the OP.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the excellent, Jason. Solid.

  4. Is it possible that Isiah didn’t name Cyrus, but had a pronoun for some future ruler; and then after the Exile all the scribes filled in Cyrus’s name now that they had the name for the person who did the thing that was prophesized about?

  5. I mean, you can hypothesize anything, but to go all Brevard S. Childs for a minute, the text we have is the text we have. I say that as a person generally comfortable with source criticism, but a good source-critical argument has to rest on more than the possibility that something could have happened. In the case of Deutero-Isaiah, the name of Cyrus is only one of many aspects to the argument.

  6. Eric Facer says:

    “My argument here isn’t that we’re obliged to read these chapters as Jews and totally leave Jesus out of it, but rather that we get better Christian readings if we attend to the intricacies of the text itself, in its Jewish context.”

    Steven McKenzie, in his fine book, “How to Read the Bible,” concludes that the authors of these chapters were not referring to Christ; nevertheless, their words/prophecies were fulfilled by the Savior. I like that.

    Nice post, Jason. And thanks for the link, Ben. I greatly admire your work.

  7. Thanks Eric!

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