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Seeing Old and New Things in Isaiah

In our eagerness to explore imagery pointing to Christ in ancient text, let’s not overlook the value of other readings, including earlier meanings for ancient peoples and sacred meanings held by Jewish brothers and sisters still today
The Prophet Isaiah Foretells Christ’s Birth, by Harry Anderson

It is hard in the 21st Century—with more than 1 billion Christians and two millennia of Christian apologetics and tradition behind us—to truly appreciate the conundrum that Jesus posed to his Jewish adherents in the first century.  Here was a practicing Jew who understood and could explain the Torah and the teaching of the prophets with striking clarity and profound insight, and yet the authority by which he taught seemed by some to put him at odds with the same sacred text from which he taught. Here was a person whose insights were unquestioningly deeply rooted in Torah and prophetic literature but who also, simultaneously, stretched the Jewish tradition in ways that many found uncomfortable and others found downright problematic.  Here was a Jew who appeared strikingly uninvolved in local politics and yet who taught things and acted in ways that challenged, at the most fundamental levels, the social equilibrium of his day.  Most challengingly, while Jesus reinforced monotheism, a defining characteristic of the Jewish people—especially when contrasted with the polytheism of the Babylonia, Persian, Greek, and Roman powers which had subjected the people of Judah for more than 500 years—he also affirmed, or at least did not deny, divine sonship; a position which some saw as a continuation of God’s covenant with Israel, and which for others was a blasphemous dismissal of the first commandment. Though it may be hard for Christians of the 21st Century to see it sometimes, Jesus was a polemic figure who drew out intense reactions—positive and negative—from those with whom he interacted.

Thus, it is not surprising that Jesus’s detractors and followers both scrambled to find sacred text to support their respective position regarding Jesus—each group looking for a way to “explain away” or “explain” Jesus.  There are numerous examples in the New Testament of Jesus’s detractors challenging his teachings and actions based on (what we now call) Hebrew Bible texts.  They brought core Jewish teachings to Jesus (e.g. on the Sabbath Day) and, in essence, asked Him, “how can you do/teach [this thing] when our sacred text seems to say something contrary?” (According to the Gospels, Jesus handled these challenges easily.)  That this happened should not be at all surprising. Throughout religious history, and even today in modern Christianity, when there is a sense that someone is teaching/doing something that we feel is contrary to established practice or doctrine, individuals dig back into their sacred tradition to ground their disapproval in authoritative texts.

It is hard in the 21st Century to truly appreciate the conundrum that Jesus posed to his Jewish adherents in the first century.

Conversely, Jesus’s followers did the same thing—mining sacred text to marshal support for the cause of Jesus.  A prime example of this, as I note elsewhere, is the presence of the fulfillment citations in the Gospel of Matthew. (See Matthew 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; and 27:9-10.) That Gospel writer often used the phrase “that it might be fulfilled”  to expressly link the prophetic language of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and others with Jesus’s actions and teachings.  Matthew’s Gospel saw in Israel’s sacred texts a “theological trajectory” that could encompass Jesus and His mission.  In fact, to one degree or another, all of the New Testament texts seek to ground the authoritative nature of Jesus’s coming, mission, death, and/or resurrection somewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Though the New Testament’s way of reading the Hebrew Bible may feel like a self-evident approach for modern Christians 2,000 years later, in its day, this was a dramatic act of re-seeing ancient text with new eyes and within the new light of Jesus’s advent.  The earliest Christians, many of whom were Jewish Christians, re-heard the ancient prophetic language of their own faith tradition in distinct new ways and, in so doing, found texts that could support the doctrine Jesus taught and which seemed to be open to Jesus’s divine, messianic mission.  It was an innovative interpretative exercise.

So why does this matter?  In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum, for most of September, church members will be studying the writings of Isaiah—the most quoted Hebrew Bible prophet in our faith’s standard works. (See here for a table of Isaiah quotations found in the Book of Mormon and here for one list, among many, of Isaiah quotations in the New Testament.)  And, in a way that is not markedly different from many other Christian denominations’ readings of this profound piece of literature, Latter-day Saints are encouraged to see references to and prophecies of Jesus in the writings of Isaiah. To be clear, “finding Jesus” in the book of Isaiah (or other Hebrew Bible texts) is a perfectly legitimate interpretive move.  However, nearly 2,000 years removed from the early Christian’s first attempts to “find” Jesus in the Torah and prophetic literature, it is sometimes too easy for Saints, and for all Christians generally, to forget how novel this understanding of the Hebrew Bible was in the first century: this was a bold and daring reinterpretation of the core texts that had grounded the Jewish faith for hundreds and hundreds of years!  But in our time, we’ve become so normalized to seeing the Hebrew Bible through a Christian lens that it is easy (perhaps too easy) to slip into the belief that this modern Christian view is the only legitimate reading … to the exclusion of all other understandings.  And that is problematic.

The Come, Follow Me materials note plainly that, “for the most part, people today aren’t the primary audience of the Old Testament prophets. Those prophets had immediate concerns they were addressing in their time and place—just as our latter-day prophets address our immediate concerns today.” The guide also notes that “prophets can also look beyond immediate concerns. … they teach eternal truths, relevant to any age.”  In other words, there are multiple ways to understand the same text. As a case in point, the Come, Follow Me materials point to Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The materials note that this verse can be read at least three ways, all of which are proper: (1) as a message to captive Jews in Babylon that God would free them (probably how it was originally understood); (2) As a reference to John the Baptist for writers of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (a re-seeing of this verse in the new light of Jesus’s advent); and (3) as a prophecy still being fulfilled today in preparation for Christ’s second coming (when considered within the context of the continuing restoration).  

This same reality is true for scriptures like Isaiah 7:14-16, Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-12, and Isaiah 53:2-12.  Yes, we Christians can see in these specific scriptures references to Jesus who is portrayed as Immanuel, “God with Us” (Isaiah 7); the “prince of peace” (Isaiah 9); the one with “wisdom and understanding” (Isaiah 11); and he who was “wounded for our transgression” (Isaiah 53). That is a legitimate interpretive approach.  It is the approach the first Christians took.  But it is not the only interpretive approach. Consistent with the Come, Follow Me discussion of prophetic texts, it is also true that once again, “[Isaiah] had immediate concerns that [he] was addressing in [his] time and place.” These texts, in their own time, certainly had profound meaning for those who heard them.  (And they continue to have profound meaning for the Jewish community, which also draws strength from these same texts!)  For instance, consistent with the theological approach of Isaiah, in their own day, these texts likely pointed to the hope that God will establish a theopolitical leader (Isaiah 7 & 9) through the Davidic line that would be more attentive to the Torah requirements, specifically those related to communal care, resulting in a kingdom of peace and prosperity for a reunited Israel (Isaiah 11), and that Israel’s struggle to establish this kingdom would be redemptive for all people of the world (Isaiah 53).  Both readings provide valuable and different insights, and both readings represent visions that are legitimately beautiful.    

In fact, I believe honoring these different readings of these Isaiah texts specifically—but also, that honoring Jewish understandings of the Hebrew Bible more generally—increases our appreciation for these sacred texts.  Speaking of Isaiah, scholar Walter Brueggemann notes

 The book of Isaiah has been a fertile interpretive field for Christian theology … but it must always be recognized that much Christian reading has flatly preempted the text and forced upon the text readings that are far removed from its seemingly clear intent. … It is strongly preferable, I suggest, that Jews and Christians together recognize that the book of Isaiah is enormously and generatively open in more than one tradition.

Honoring these different readings of these Isaiah texts specifically—but also, that honoring Jewish understandings of the Hebrew Bible more generally—increases our appreciation for these sacred texts.

In short, and said slightly differently, when we fail to appreciate both readings, side-by-side, we do ourselves, the book of Isaiah, and the prophetic tradition a disservice.  When we only see the texts like those in Isaiah from an exclusively-Christian perspective, it robs us of an additional layer of insight and deprives us of being able to see how these same texts provided comfort to ancient Israel and still provide a fountain of hope for modern Jews.  Further, failing to honor multiple readings may unintentionally close us off from seeing new ways in which these texts might be understood in the future, perhaps even keeping us from anticipating the “great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” which have not yet been revealed.  Finally, in its most pernicious form, failing to honor Jewish readings (I’ve actually heard it sometimes expressed in church services I’ve attended as crudely as, “the Jews don’t even understand their own scriptures!”) can feel somewhat antisemitic.

Rather, I suggest we take the advice of Brigham Young and seek out as much truth as can be learned.  As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints move into their study of Isaiah and the other prophets, it is critical to follow the guidance of the Come, Follow Me manual and “learn about the context in which [the book of Isaiah was] written,” and to consider the “immediate concerns [Isaiah was] addressing in [his] time and place.”  In so doing, we may find new levels of insight that, perhaps surprisingly, deepen our reserves of Christian faith.  We may even find that the 8th century BCE and 21st century CE readings of the text have more in common than we initially imagine.  Returning to the insights of Walter Brueggemann, he notes: “my own judgment is that it is more important to recognize the commonality and parallel structure of Jewish claims and Christian claims at the core of faith than it is to dispute about which presentation of claim is primary. … Both faiths have in common [their] common trust in a common God to do something new” (emphasis added).  By recognizing the many different ways that Isaiah, and all of the prophets, can be read, we increase our own chance for insight and inspiration and create space to be taught new things which we had never before considered.

About the author

M. David Huston

Michael Huston (who has previously published in Public Square Magazine under M. David Huston) currently resides in central Maryland. He received degrees from Utah State University (Logan, UT), American University (Washington, DC), and Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC). You can find him at wonder.annotated on instagram and Wonder Annotated on facebook.
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