Waiting for the return of the King: at the end of the First Testament

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Today’s is the third of three posts looking at the so-called minor prophets. It brings to a close my whistle-stop tour of the First, or Old Testament for those who are trying to understand better what they read in their Sunday assemblies. Today’s four prophets are Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

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Mixed prophets, mixed messages: Jonah, Micah, Nahum and Habakkuk

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Yesterday’s post covered the first four of the minor prophets; today I look at the middle four: Jonah, Micah, Nahum and Habakkuk. Obadiah, the last of yesterday’s selection, offered the most narrowly tribal take on God’s justice.

Jonah

Today, the author of Jonah gives us a very expansive view of God’s internationalism. Unlike all the other books in this twelve book collection, the writer is not interested in the content of Jonah’s message, but in telling a story about a reluctant prophet.

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Twelve books, one scroll, mixed messages: the minor prophets (today’s first four).

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The fourth book of prophecy in the Jewish “Latter Prophets” designation (after Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) is a bit of a cheat. It’s actually twelve books, the books designated in Christian classification as Minor Prophets, and in the Jewish scheme as the Book of the Twelve. At some point these books were collected together and written in a single scroll. This is probably known by the time of Ben Sirach at the beginning of the second century BC, when he refers to “the Twelve Prophets” (Sir 49:10).

There are only a small number of readings provided from the minor prophets in the Sunday lectionary – some are more significant than others. I shall take the Goldilocks option: neither treating them as one book (too long for a single blog post) nor twelve (too short for one post each). Instead I shall post three blogs each covering four of these books. That means today’s blog is on Hosea, Joel, Amos and Obadiah.

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Daniel: interpreting divine dreams & God’s graffiti

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Daniel, as I have mentioned in a previous post, is not classified among the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, but as one of the rather more miscellaneous “Writings”. The main reason for that is almost certainly because it was written quite late – around the time of the Maccabean revolt1, as an encouragement for those who were being called to give their lives, if necessary, as a faithful witness to their God.

The writing on the wall at Belshazzar ‘s Feast. See the story in Daniel 5.
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On the impossibility of describing God: the weird of Ezekiel

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Ezekiel may be one of the longer books of the bible, but there are comparatively few readings from his prophecies which occur in the lectionary. Those that do tend to reflect the most straightforward aspects of his message. Right from the beginning, however, Ezekiel draws his listeners in to bizarre descriptions of his visions. Perhaps fortunately for readers and preachers, these are omitted from the Sunday cycle of readings.

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When the call of God is a tale of woe: Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Baruch

This post is in the series Rite Reading

A story circulates about St Teresa of Avila in several versions. The most common is that she is making her way back to her convent in a storm when her horse slips, and deposits her in the mud. In indignant prayer she admonishes God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you’ve got so few of them.”

Jeremiah would have agreed with the sentiment. He seems to be the prophet who both finds his calling most irresistible, and most uncomfortable and unwanted. He is therefore often miserable about his life trapped between the rock of his vocation, and the hard place of the people who reject it.

Michelangelo’s portrayal of weeping Jeremiah

Whereas there was no real need for the Revised Common Lectionary to include an alternative continuous track from Isaiah since there are so many related readings, it goes to town on Jeremiah. When reading through the prophets in Year C, it tried Isaiah for two brief Sundays before passing quickly to Jeremiah, where (with one addition of a reading from Lamentations) it provides semi-continuous readings for nine Sundays, Propers 16-24. There are a reasonable number of readings in the related track, again too many to deal with each one individually, although nowhere near as many as from Isaiah.

Jeremiah, the book, like most of the prophets, is an edited collection of poems and stories which occurred at different times in the prophet’s working life. Unusually with Jeremiah there is a significant degree of biography as well. In particular Jeremiah sets up a contrast between true prophets (Jeremiah) and false (pretty much everybody else).

Jeremiah’s work has some clear affinities with Deuteronomy, and the religious reform linked to the book of Deuteronomy that was initiated under King Josiah. This placed heavy stress on the worship of YHWH as the one true God, and a renewed call to obey the law given by God. In particular, Jeremiah sees the growing power and aggression of Babylon as an instrument God will use to punish Judah and Jerusalem, as Josiah’s successors fail to live up to his reform, and fall back into polytheistic ways.

This leads to Jeremiah being characterised as a defeatist and a traitor by the court prophets. These royally approved prophets carry on a rather carefully selective version of Isaiah’s belief that God will defend Jerusalem because his temple stands there (Jeremiah 7:1-7). Unfortunately for them, and for the nation, God is trying to say something different to their age through Jeremiah. Having the Jerusalem temple will be no defence for people who worship Baal and Astarte (Ishtar) alongside YHWH. It is there as a promise of an exclusive covenant.

Jeremiah comes to see that a new covenant will be needed, and he particularly stresses the inward aspect of that covenant, and of obedience to God in the heart (Jer 31:23-34).

Perhaps because Jeremiah is too well connected as a member of a priestly family, he is not executed for treason, only imprisoned for his loyalty to God. The powers that be, however, interpret his message, his faithfulness to YHWH, as treason to the nation. He lives and works in turbulent times, where the truth or falsehood of a prophecy can be a capital offence, or the military defeat of a nation. Again and again in the prophets, religion is politics carried out in a divine frame of reference.

When this national drama is overlaid on the psyche of a young man who feels things very deeply, as Jeremiah clearly does, we as readers are drawn into his internal drama, the intense depression into which his calling leads him. He is clearly tempted to despair at times, and only kept going by the overwhelming conviction of his calling, and the company of his friends, and his friend and scribe Baruch.

There is something of a Jeremiah tradition marked by continuing editing until quite a late stage. The book exists in two editions, a long Hebrew Bible version, and a somewhat shorter and differently arranged Greek Bible text.1 This existence of different versions of Jeremiah adds to the sense that, apart from the broad historical context outlined above, the readings selected in the lectionary will be understood as much in relation to the gospel as to their original setting.

The Jeremiah tradition is continued in the book of Lamentations. Because so much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is expressed as lament, it seemed natural to attribute these anonymous poems to Jeremiah, not least because they reflect the destruction of Jerusalem he lived through. Perhaps they should be better known in a world where so many end up fleeing destroyed homes and cities because of the violence of others. Unfortunately, the only widely used verse is quoted as an affirmation without the context of desolation and adversity.2

This is part of the same tendency to suppress lamentation in the modern church’s use of the Old Testament that we also saw with the Psalms. Nonetheless, some of the language of Lamentations does colour the Holy Week liturgy, and there is some sparing use of it in the alternative continuous lectionary.

Finally, we arrive at the apocryphal or deuterocanonical book of Baruch. This represents a fairly late development of the Jeremiah tradition, probably from the last century before the Christian era. It comprises both a book attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, particularly focussed on Jerusalem and its restoration, and a different version of the letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles.3 The focus on the renewal of Jerusalem means Baruch provides a reading for Advent, a passage that echoes Third Isaiah rather more than Jeremiah,4 and inspired the Advent carol, “People Look East”. It also provides one of the prophetic readings for the Easter Vigil.


Notes

  1. Both versions have been found in Hebrew among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  2. These are the verses that have inspired more than one hymn or song from Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
  3. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is at Jeremiah 29:4-28. The longer letter included as Baruch 6 is completely different and focussed on living among a people who worship idols. In some editions of the Apocrypha, this chapter (still numbered 6) is printed as a separate book, the Letter of Jeremiah.
  4. Advent 2, Year C.

The New Testament’s favourite Hebrew prophet: Isaiah

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Of all the prophets, Isaiah is the one most often read in the lectionary. It is also the most quoted book, apart from the Psalms, in the New Testament. Isaiah provides some of the key Old Testament readings for both the Christmas and Easter lectionary cycles, and much of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah.

The book as we have it falls into three main sections. Much of the first section, chapters 1-39, relate to the time when Assyria is the major power in the Middle East. Isaiah’s ministry covers the time of four kings of Judah, and by the end of his prophesying Israel, the northern kingdom has fallen, and Judah, especially the city state of Jerusalem, stands alone.

One of the features which makes Isaiah stand out in his day is the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege. The section of 2 Kings which includes this story is also repeated as chapters 36-39 of Isaiah. Isaiah emphasises that the Lord has made his home on Mt Zion. If his people trust him, he will defend them. According to the biblical account, the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army are struck down by God, possibly by a plague. Sennacherib’s own records give no account of why his siege failed, but merely recount an unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem and a substantial financial tribute.1 This failed siege is seen in scripture as a stunning vindication of Isaiah’s prophecy.


A detail of the Assyrian carved record of Sennacherib’s campaign (see note 1 for the link)

Perhaps because of this prophetic success, Isaiah’s theology was carried on by one or more disciples, who not only edited his voluminous prophecies, but brought his theology up-to-date for subsequent generations. Most notable among these disciples was the anonymous prophet2 who prepared the people for the end of their exile in Babylon, nearly 200 years later. The section containing his work is the most coherent in the book, consisting of chapters 40-55. It is also the section which is most used in the lectionary.

While this anonymous prophet, sometimes called Isaiah of Babylon, continues the emphasis found in Isaiah of Jerusalem on the importance of that city, he particularly uses the first Isaiah’s way of identifying God as the Holy One of Israel. The most significant sections of his prophecy, however, are what have become known as the Servant Songs, most famously the song of the suffering servant,3 read in the Good Friday Liturgy, and treated from New Testament times on as a prophecy of the crucifixion.

This and the other servant songs have always presented something of a conundrum: whom did Isaiah have in mind? Some have seen the servant as inspired by Jeremiah, others as a self-portrait, and others as at least in part the nation’s calling. Perhaps the prophet is simply offering a vision of the kind of person God wants: what true calling means. It is a vision that Christians see reaching its fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth in such a way that it is impossible for them to read these texts without hearing the gospel story.

If the first section of Isaiah perhaps has more prophecies focussed on the calling of a true king, and the second on the calling of a true servant, the final section has a significant vision of the promised kingdom, Jerusalem triumphantly restored, where there will be true justice and peace. All these themes occur throughout the book, and help make it feel like a unity, but they can be seen as emphases of their particular sections.

The readings from Isaiah in the lectionary are too numerous to mention. However, their significance will often derive more from relating them to the gospel of the day than from their context in the book of Isaiah. With Isaiah more than any other book of the Old Testament, the Christian theological tradition tends to overpower the historical context. This is especially true in Ordinary Time; let me take two examples to illustrate.

In Year A, Proper 22, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time has a reading from Isaiah 5, which portrays God as the owner of a vineyard, a metaphor for his people Israel. The gospel reading has Jesus telling a parable about the owner of a vineyard, and the disrespect its tenants show him. In Year B, on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 19, an excerpt from one of the servant songs relates to a gospel in which, after Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tries to teach his disciples that the cross is the way of true service.

Essentially, prophecies from the book of Isaiah, all three sections, do so much to shape the Christian gospels, that now, especially when reading from Isaiah in the liturgy, the gospel inevitably shapes our understanding of what Isaiah is about. There is perhaps no other book of the Old Testament where it is so hard to imagine what Jewish readers hear when they listen to the same text. Whether it is helping us interpret Christmas with “unto us a boy is born”,4 or Good Friday with “he was wounded for our transgressions”,5 Christians read Isaiah as a book about Jesus, almost a fifth gospel.6


Notes

  1. Sennacherib’s monumental inscription is now in the British Museum, it includes a reference to shutting Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage”. See https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=295077&partId=1
  2. Scholars tend to refer to the Isaiah who prophesied in Jerusalem beginning in 740BC as First Isaiah, or occasionally Isaiah of Jerusalem, and to the one who prophesied in Babylon around 540BC as Second Isaiah, or Isaiah of Babylon. For convenience’s sake, rather than because people think they all came from the same author, chapters 56-66, largely coming from the time after the Exile, are sometimes referred to as Third Isaiah.
  3. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the Old Testament Reading for Good Friday. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 22. The passion narratives of all four gospels echo phrases from these two readings which underscore their value, and help the early Christians interpret the crucifixion as God’s triumph prepared for by the prophets, rather than a disastrous end to the Jesus movement. An excerpt from the suffering servant passage is also read as the related reading on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 24, Year B.
  4. Isaiah 9:6
  5. Isaiah 53:5
  6. One scholar in fact titled his book on Isaiah The Fifth Gospel, (John SawyerCambridge University Press, 1996)