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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 8’

The book called Isaiah clears a particular space for influential children.

Whether Isaiah’s story of redemption is considered as proximate to Judah’s fate amid the imperial episodes involving Assyria, Babylon, and Persia or across a trajectory involving New Testament messianic readings of the texts, the little ones exercise a surprising and potent agency.

In Isaiah 9—one must be aware that the Hebrew and English versification differ by a count of one unit—sudden and exuberant reversals are in play.

The section that comprises Isaiah 9:1-7 (English versification) swings on a hinge that might best be understood to usher in glorious light in place of hopeless darkness and peaceful celebration where moments ago the people knew bloody oppression. The tables are turned suddenly and in happy directions across these two ranges of experience.

The author of this revolution is understood to be YHWH, this by way of the second-person address in verses 3 and 4. I quote now the first five of the passage’s seven verses, with 3 and 4 italicized.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Isaiah 9:1–5 (NRSV)

Then Isaiah takes one of the tradition’s signature turns. I’ll again italicize, this time the references to the child whom the text now introduces.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:6–7 (NRSV)

This child’s birth is a monarchical moment of deep importance to our author. Scholars move quickly and understandably to map the birth of this royal child across what we know of Ancient Near Eastern kings and houses, a move that produces an interpretation that is very much contained within the text’s historical moment.

The grand titles attributed to the child may tug at the edges of such a reading, but it’s a viable understanding in its context. A child sired within the David household will presumably grow up to liberate the royal house and its subjects from imperial oppression. The resonant Hebrew expression כי ילד ילד־לנו בן נתן־לנו—For a child has been born to us, a son is given to us—locates liberation in the person of an infant or a mere lad. This is YHWH’s way of achieving his greatest redemptive feats by means of the least promising of human agents. The imperial yoke is broken and Judah erupts in grateful celebration.

It’s a stirring picture and not one whose utility for Israelite/Jewish understanding is difficult to appreciate.

It is of course not the end of the story.

Rather, the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew offers a complementary reading of the text. I choose the highlighted word carefully. It is not necessary to conclude and is in any case impossible to prove that Jewish messianic readers of the Hebrew Bible (in many cases via its Greek translation, the Septuagint) rejected or discarded an initial historically-contained reading of a text like this one. We may never know their precise assumptions in that regard. At the very least, an evangelist like Matthew offers an additional reading and admittedly one that for his community likely eclipsed almost altogether the earlier one.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Matthew 4:12–17 (NRSV)

Those same 8th-century tables have been turned. Gloom has again been displaced by glorious light. Imperial oppression of a different sort has been vanquished in a way that occasions peaceful celebration.

A blessed kingdom has regained or secured effective dominion.

Christian faith, then, understands the birth of Jesus in revolutionary, table-turning terms that resounds with the life-or-death gravity of the Isaiah oracle’s textures. As well, it embraces YHWH’s purported penchant for using ‘the least of these’—language that will become familiar on a grown-up Child’s lips—to accomplish his finest work.

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