XFiles Friday: Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?May 1, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)
Last week, Geisler and Turek started to tell us about the amazing messianic “prophecies” in the last several chapters of Isaiah, using Larry Helyer’s list of 14 detailed predictions plus an observation of their own. As we ran through the list of details, however, we noticed something odd: either the “predictions” were vague enough to apply to almost anyone, or else the messianic “fulfillment” consisted of believers simply attributing things to Jesus without there being any way for anyone to verify if they were really true.
Starting with item 12, though, things get a little more evangelical-sounding.
12. The Servant accepts vicarious and substitutionary suffering on behalf of his people (53:4-6, 12).
13. He is put to death after being condemned (53:7-9).
14. Incredibly, he comes back to life and is exalted above all rulers (53:10-12; 52:13-15).
In addition to Helyer’s observation, we note that the servant is also sinless (53:9).
A snippet here, a snippet there, and you can almost make the verses in Isaiah sound like a Gospel. But is that really what Isaiah intended? Who was Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” anyway?
According to Geisler and Turek, the Suffering Servant was none other than the long-awaited Messiah.
Isaiah calls the Messiah the “servant of the Lord,” and he begins to refer to the Servant in chapter 42, in what is known as the first “Servant Song.” However the Servant is most often referred to as the “Suffering Servant,” because of the vivid description of his sacrificial death found in Isaiah 53.
As you read the passage (52:13-52:12), as yourself, “To whom is this referring?”
To reinforce their point, they quote the passage from Isaiah, then return to the story of Barry, the Jewish sports hero who became a Christian. They quote Barry’s testimony about his study of the Scriptures:
Being rather confused over the identity of the Servant in Isaiah 53, I went to my local rabbi and said to him, “Rabbi, I have met some people at school who claim that the so-called Servant in Isaiah 53 is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. But I would like to know from you, who is this Servant in Isaiah 53?”
…The rabbi said, “Barry, I must admit that as I read Isaiah 53 it does seem to be talking about Jesus, but since we Jews do not believe in Jesus, it can’t be speaking about Jesus.”
Personally, I’d like to hear the rabbi’s version of this story before commenting on what a brilliant response that was, but meanwhile, let’s look at the bigger question, in context.
What’s interesting is that Geisler and Turek present this passage, not in its original literary and historical context, but in the context of a story about a Jew converting to Christianity based on the words of Isaiah. The story emphasizes the point that Barry did not believe his own Scriptures could contain a testimony about Jesus, and being drawn reluctantly to the conclusion that it could not be anyone else. Even his rabbi (according to his post-conversion witness) could not find any other possible candidate. Which is strange, considering that Isaiah himself tells us exactly who the “Servant of the Lord” is in the last 27 chapters of the book.
“But you, O Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant';
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
Reading from latter Isaiah and asking yourself who this servant is would be like visiting Grant’s Tomb and asking yourself who might be buried there. It’s not a terribly difficult mystery to solve. A slightly more interesting mystery would be to explore the last part of Isaiah in its historical and literary context, with a view towards understanding what it originally meant, and how it came to be co-opted into a future-looking Messianic expectation.
The last 27 chapters of Isaiah (that is, chapters 40-66) are regarded by some scholars as being the work of a “Deutero-Isaiah,” either an unknown scribe or possibly a second prophet also named Isaiah, who wrote near or shortly after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. Even conservative scholars have noticed the remarkable change in tone and focus between the first 39 chapters and the last 27. (My Bible college OT instructor declared that this was a striking and even prophetic parallel to the change in tone between the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New.) We’ll see in a moment some of the reasons why it makes sense that Isaiah II would be an Exilic or early Post-Exilic writer, rather than the original Isaiah of King Ahaz’s day.
First, though, let’s look at the Babylonian Exile, because that was a period of tremendous theological significance, and we’re never going to understand the writings of that period unless we understand what was going on in the minds of the prophets, priests and people of that time.
Before the Babylonian Captivity, the Hebrews were a henotheistic culture: they believed in the existence of many gods, but only worshiped and served one of them. In their minds, their God was tied to their land, both defining them as a nation, and giving the nation its strength. Within the borders of their God’s territory, He was supreme, and no other gods could intrude, nor foreign army triumph. This union of church and state provided Israel with a sense of community, national identity, and security.
Of course, this community, identity, and security were somewhat compromised when the kingdom split into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom, each with its own king. But still, you could at least say that God was sovereign within His own lands, even if those lands were not entirely friendly with each other all the time.
Enter the Assyrians. God’s nation had been attacked before, but had always managed to struggle through. If they were defeated, they paid tribute and put up with the occupying forces until they could be driven out, but they still maintained their national and religious identity. Assyria did something horrifically different, though: they scattered their captives, and replaced them with prisoners and refugees from other countries, mixing up the peoples, mingling their religions, and obliterating the national/cultural/religious boundaries. But only in the Northern Kingdom. The Southern Kingdom, where God’s Temple was, managed to bribe, bluff, and otherwise manuver the Assyrians into letting them off (well, more or less).
With Babylon, though, the Southern Kingdom was not so lucky. As the Assyrians had done before, so the Babylonians did as well, carrying a large number of people off into captivity, and replacing them with settlers from other conquered lands. Worse, the Temple itself was devastated, and its gold and finery carried off as spoil.
How could this be? God Himself, supposedly sovereign within His own land, defeated by foreign invaders? God sitting idly by as His own Holy of Holies is desecrated by the uncircumcised? How could this be?
The military defeat of a nation was viewed by the ancient Middle Eastern people as the conquest and subjugation not just of the land and its people, but of its god(s) as well. We see this in the imagery Isaiah uses to describe the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medo-Persians.
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
their idols are borne by beasts of burden.
The images that are carried about are burdensome,
a burden for the weary.
They stoop and bow down together;
unable to rescue the burden,
they themselves go off into captivity.
Bel and Nebo, of course, being some of the gods of the Babylonians. For a good Jew, this was an appealing image: as the pagan idols are loaded on carts and carried away, the pagan gods themselves are bowing down, stooping low in humiliation, and being taken away in their own captivity. And yet, how can the faithful Israelite not suffer just as great a humiliation over the conquest and captivity of his own God?
Exiled in foreign lands, separated from their Temple, exposed to the teachings of the Zoroastrians and other pagans, the nascent Pharisees conceived of a wonderful reinterpretation of their original faith: their God was not just their God, He was THE God, and the Captivity was not His defeat, but His punishment on Israel for their previous failure to realize the unique deity of Yahweh. Yeah, that was it. The whole thing was to purge and purify Israel of their belief in many gods, and to make them into true monotheists, in the Persian sense of monotheism.
Reading through Isaiah 40-66, it’s amazingly clear (to those who read the texts without putting their Messiah-tinted glasses on) that Isaiah is describing a major transition in the religious tradition of the Jews—a tradition that started during the Captivity and was still being felt centuries later, in the sectarian competition between the Pharisees (Farsis) and the Sadducees (followers of the older Temple traditions of Zadok the priest).
Isaiah, of course, is a champion for the Farsi Jewish interpretation of Judaism. Over and over he emphasizes how the past sufferings of the Servant are due to Jewish belief in “false” deities. He is not speaking in some “prophetic past tense” when he talks about how polytheistic Israel used to be, or how much they have suffered (both physically and in their loss of national prestige) in the recent past. He is describing his own current culture and national experiences. And he even says so.
You have heard these things; look at them all.
Will you not admit them?
“From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.
They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
‘Yes, I knew of them.’
“I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes—
one from the rising sun who calls on my name.
He treads on rulers as if they were mortar,
as if he were a potter treading the clay.
Who told of this from the beginning, so we could know,
or beforehand, so we could say, ‘He was right’?
No one told of this,
no one foretold it,
no one heard any words from you.
I was the first to tell Zion, ‘Look, here they are!’
I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good tidings.
If no one foretold it, then Isaiah himself is not foretelling, he’s just telling. From where he stands, it’s current events, the major story of the day. Read through his writings (i.e. chapters 40-66) and notice how many times he mentions the Servant being punished by physical violence and captivity, and the cause being idolatry, and how the suffering of the Servant was both the result and the atonement for the people’s sins, and how Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king, was God’s chosen instrument to punish the Babylonians and turn Jacob’s suffering into redemption.
So how, then, does this rather clear and unmistakable contemporary commentary get turned into a Messianic prophecy? Quite simply because Isaiah, in his zeal to convert his fellow Jews to his new view of theology, got a bit carried away when he was writing down his promises about how great things would be once they converted. His monotheistic utopia didn’t just promise to restore national sovereignty to Israel, he promised that the desert would bloom, that the Gentile nations would all submit to Israel and would follow the light of Judaism, and the land would never again be punished by God (i.e. through conquest). Even the Servant’s children, born during the Captivity, would be so blessed that they would wind up complaining that they needed more room for their burgeoning families (which in itself is rather inconsistent with the desire to apply these prophecies to Jesus). And they would all live happily ever after.
Awake, awake, O Zion,
clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your garments of splendor,
O Jerusalem, the holy city.
The uncircumcised and defiled
will not enter you again…
To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
Unfortunately for the Jews, God forgot to tell Alexander the Great about the “happily ever after” part, and the Jews all too soon found themselves an occupied territory once again, with Greek priests sacrificing pigs on Yahweh’s altar. Hardly the reign of peace and prosperity that Isaiah promised. But wait! What if it wasn’t supposed to start yet? What if all of Isaiah’s promises related to some future Suffering Servant? That would explain the defeat, AGAIN, of God’s Chosen People, right? Right?
Yesterday I mentioned that today’s XFiles would provide a spectacular example of re-purposing Scriptures to suit new theological imperatives, but the last 27 chapters of Isaiah actually give us two: not just the re-casting of Deutero-Isaiah as a messianic prediction, but the whole reconstruction of ancient Mosaic Judaism from a henotheistic and nationalistic patron-deity arrangement into a Persian (or Farsi) styled monotheism with the added flavor of a divine war between Good and Evil, and a final judgment for all the world’s peoples based on whose side they were on.
It’s a theological revision whose impact and internal conflicts were still being felt in Jesus’ day, and beyond. Christians, to this day, cite passages from the latter portion of Isaiah as though Jesus were the only person Isaiah could have been talking about, and some Jews support them, even though it’s plainly written in the book itself that Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” is Jacob/Israel being defeated and exiled because of the idolatry of the Zadokite Jews.
It’s not very often that I put a Bible passage on the Recommended Reading list, but in this case it’s irresistable. If you’ve never looked through this part of the Bible, take a look. The New International Version is fairly readable, and if you click on the single-arrow buttons at the top and bottom of the page, it’s easy to navigate from chapter to chapter. I promise, it will be most instructive. Reading through Isaiah 40-66 and not noticing that it’s about the Captivity purging Israel of polytheism is like reading Genesis 6-10 and not noticing that it’s about a large amount of water. The “Messiah” had nothing to do with it.