Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading (December 10): Isaiah 61:1-4
According to tradition, the book of Isaiah was written by the 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz. For more than a century, however, scholars have recognized that the book is actually the work of at least three different writers. In this view, most of the first thirty-nine chapters (now called Proto-Isaiah or First Isaiah) are attributed to Isaiah, Son of Amoz; chapters 40-55 (Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah) are attributed to an unknown author who lived and wrote during the Babylonian captivity—that is, in the middle or so of the 6th century BCE; and chapters 56-66 (Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah) are attributed to an even later author who lived and wrote after the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem—that is, near the end of the 6th century. (Scholar H.G.M. Williamson thinks that even this is too guarded a view: “There seem to be many more contributors to this great book, and of course we must not forget the work of the ancient editors who compiled it. Isaiah is therefore like a tapestry, with many hands contributing to a greater unity.”)
Though both were written in the 6th century BCE, Second and Third Isaiah differ thematically in some important ways. For example, Second Isaiah mocks foreign idols, believing they have no power or real existence; Third Isaiah berates Israel for succumbing to idol worship. Second Isaiah doesn’t focus on Israel’s failures and insists that its former sins have been forgiven; Third Isaiah condemns Israel for its “rebellion,” for failing to “share your bread with the hungry, and [to] bring the homeless poor into your house” (58:7). Second Isaiah offers a grand vision of a renewed Israel; Third Isaiah reflects the harsh reality that those returning from exile faced. Its author denounces the corrupt leaders and the people who perform “works of iniquity and deeds of violence” (59:6). God wants justice, not fasting; he wants faithfulness, repentance and humility. Those who turn from their sinfulness will be God’s “servants,” and they “shall eat,” “shall drink,” “shall rejoice,” and “shall sing for gladness of heart.” Those, however, who forsake God “shall be hungry,” “shall be thirsty,” “shall be put to shame,” and “shall cry out for pain of heart” (65:13-14)
God, the prophet says, has “anointed” Isaiah (Hebrew mashach, the source of English “messiah”) to deliver “good news” to the righteous and faithful, to those who worship as God demands, who practice “justice” rather than “robbery and wrongdoing” (61:8). To them the prophet proclaims “release” (61:1). Here, says Benjamin Sommer, the author recalls Leviticus 25, which addresses God’s promise to Israelites who lose their land and are forced into servitude. According to the Leviticus, in the 50th year, the “year of jubilee,” they shall be released from servitude and shall regain their land. Analogously, for the returnees from exile it is “the year of the Lord’s favor” (61:2; also Lk. 4:19). “In 586,” Sommer writes, Israel “lost its land and was forced to live elsewhere, Fifty years later, its period of service ended when the Edict of Cyrus allowed them to leave Babylonia and to regain their ancestral land.” Now back home, they are to “build up the ancient ruins” and “repair the ruined cities” (61:4). And in time, Isaiah promises, “everlasting joy shall be [theirs]” (61:7).
Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team
Last Week’s Scripture (December 3): Jeremiah 29: 4-7, 11
This week’s reading is, purportedly (though there is good reason to think otherwise), a portion of a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote (ca. 597 BCE) “to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:1). Here’s the back story. In or around 601 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem when King Jehoiakim of Judah stopped paying tribute to him. Jehoiakim, killed during the siege, was replaced by his son Jehoiachin. Three months later, Jehoiachin was forced to surrender to the Babylonians and was taken into exile along with the members of his court and many other prominent Judahites, including the prophet Ezekiel. (The destruction of Jerusalem occurs about ten years later.)
In his letter, Jeremiah, acting as spokesperson for God, tells the exiles to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “take wives and have sons and daughters”; in other words, to adapt wholly to life in Babylon. Why? Because they and their descendants will be there for “seventy years” (29:10). Only then will God fulfill his promise to restore their fortunes and allow them to return to Judah. These are, Jeremiah writes, God’s “plans” for his people (29:11). As we might suspect, this is not in the least what the exiles want to hear. They prefer the prophecy offered by Hananiah, son of Azzur, who tells the people that “within two years” God will “break the yoke of the king of Babylon,” and return to Judah “all the vessels of the Lord’s house” that Nebuchadnezzar “carried to Babylon” and all the exiles, including King Jehoiachin (28:3-4). Upon hearing this, Jeremiah warns the people that Hananiah is among those false prophets and diviners who are deceiving them. What these prophets and diviners are saying is a “lie” because God “did not send them” (29:9). In fact, so egregious is Hananiah’s lie that God (through Jeremiah) calls it “rebellion against the Lord” and causes Hananiah to die “that same year” (28:16-17).
Jeremiah goes on to give the exiles even worse news: because the “kinsfolk” who remain in Jerusalem, those who “did not go out … into exile” (29:16), have not listened to the prophets and heeded God’s word (29:19), God is going to severely punish them by letting “loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence” (29:17, 18). In response to Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, Shemaiah the Nehelamite, one of the captives in Babylon, writes a letter instructing the priest Zephaniah to rebuke the “madman” Jeremiah for telling the exiles that they will be in captivity “a long time” and that therefore they should “build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce” (29:28). In response, Jeremiah sends another letter to the exiles, this time telling them that Shemaiah does not speak for God—in fact, he has, like Hananiah, “spoken rebellion against the Lord”—and therefore God will “punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see the good that [God] is going to do to [his] people” (29:31-32). The lot of Shemaiah of Nehelam, unlike that of Hananiah, is not reported.
Adult Christian Education Team