Friday, December 12, 2008

More on the Old Testament

It's the season of Advent in the church year right now, and we all know what that means: lots of readings from Isaiah. The prophecies of Isaiah, perhaps more than any other part of the Old Testament, have been read by Christians as being about Jesus Christ. The most famous examples are related to Christ's death (the "suffering servant") and to his birth ("The virgin is pregnant and bearing a son, and she will call him Immanuel"). This raises some complicated questions for me about how to read the Hebrew Scriptures. There are a few clear facts: the writer of Isaiah, and the Israelites to whom he wrote, did not believe that this prophecy was about some baby to be born more than five hundred years later. The language of the prophecy is very immediate. It is supposed that Isaiah was referring to Hezekiah, who would later be king. The other clear fact is that early Christians did read Isaiah's prophecies in light of the events of Jesus' life and death. Their interpretation is clear in the Gospels, especially in Luke and Matthew.

The issue is further complicated by questions of translation. The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7 literally means "young woman," not "virgin". In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the word is "virgin," which was obviously picked up by the early Christians as sounding like the miraculous birth of Jesus. So how should modern Christians read this text? I am inclined to try to be true to the original meaning of the text, being sensitive to its historical context; but at the same time, this passage bears a powerful meaning for Christians. Saying that it is a prophecy about Jesus seems unfair and disrespectful of the Jewish tradition from which it comes; but saying that it is not about Jesus might offend Christians who love this passage. How can we be honest to both traditions?

My Old Testament professor gave a powerful answer to this question. She talks about reading the Scriptures in the context of faith claims. To read a passage in the Bible a certain way is to make a certain faith claim about it. This perspective applies to any Biblical passage, but consider it in this particular case: to say that this prophecy is about God's action in the political situation of ancient Israel is to make one faith claim, and to say that it is about the birth of Jesus Christ is to make another. It's not so much a question of right or wrong; but in the interest of respect, it's important to recognize that one is making a faith claim. When we read Isaiah in church during Advent, we should realize that this book has been read in different ways by different people and at different times; our reading is one of several, and we cannot claim absolute validity for our perspective. Nevertheless, our reading has a long tradition behind it and it contributes to our understanding of the stories of Jesus that have been passed down to us. In this way, we can read the Old Testament with respect to the people for which it was originally written, without being forced to completely agree with their interpretation.

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