The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (3)

Edward_Bendemann_The_Mourning_Jews_in_BabylonianExile_oil_on-canvas_1832

Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile (based on Psalm 137), 1832, Eduard Bendemann. In the public domain.

As early as the twelth century scholars have noticed that the emphasis and tone of Isaiah 40-55 is markedly different from the first 39 chapters. While the main concern of chapters 1-39 was the threat from the Neo-Assyrian empire, 40-55 is concerned with Jews living in exile in Babylon. By the time of the Babylonian exile the Neo-Assyrian empire had collapsed, defeated by the Babylonians who went on to conquer Judah and Jerusalem and take its king, the nobility and officials into exile. Scholarship now widely accepts that chapters 40-55 were written much later than 1-39, by a “Second Isaiah” who lived during the Babylonian exile. The main thrust of Second Isaiah is to provide comfort and hope for the Jews living in exile, and to encourage them with the message that the time is soon coming when they will leave Babylon, cross the desert, and return to Zion/Jerusalem. The sequel, and the third part of this “trilogy,” is in chapters 56-66 (“Third Isaiah”) which records the return from exile and commencement of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Second Isaiah declares its intentions to offer hope and comfort in the face of adversity from the very first verses:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins. (40:1-2).

In one lengthy section (43:1-48:22) the prophet compares the return from exile in Babylon to the exodus from Egypt, with the crossing of the Red Sea being re-enacted in the exiles’ crossing of the desert and a “way in the sea” becoming “a way in the wilderness”.

16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: [an allusion to the defeat of the Egyptians with their chariots in the Red Sea]

18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

As God provided water for Israel when they were in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt, so God will again provide water in the desert which lies between Babylon and the land of Israel: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) and “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (44:3). The exiles should take comfort in the fact that what God has done in the past he will do again in the future:

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”  They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split open the rock and the water gushed out” (48:20-21).

For the exiles in Babylon who had been forcibly removed from their homeland, this message would have given hope, together with prophecies that Jerusalem with its Temple and Judah would be rebuilt and inhabited again (e.g. 44:26-28). As Moses was chosen by God to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so Cyrus is called God’s “shepherd” and a “Messiah” (מַשִׁיחַ =Messiah/anointed), the agent of God in freeing the Jews from Babylon (44:28-45:1). Like the fleeing slaves, the exiles would be set free: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (49:25).

This message was followed by a series of visions of a restored Israel with Jerusalem rebuilt and glorified, elevated to be the most beautiful and important of all the world’s cities, reaching a crescendo with the return of the Lord to Zion (52:7-10). Immediately following this series of visions of a restored city and nation comes the fourth servant song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Against the setting of an exiled and oppressed people who are not only restored to their ancient homeland but also elevated to be of prime importance among the nations, this song about a servant who first suffers and then is exalted makes perfect sense.

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—  so he shall startle many nations (52:13).

Having said restored Israel would prosper, this servant song says the suffering servant will prosper. As the nations would be astonished that Israel and Judah which had been destroyed and exiled by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians could be restored to be even greater than they were at first, so they will be startled by the amazing recovery of the suffering servant. Despite the terrible things which happen to him, the servant will be vindicated and numbered with the great (53:11-12).

In the context of Second Isaiah – a message of comfort and hope to a nation in exile – and against this background of the nation’s prolonged sufferings, it becomes clear that the song of the suffering servant personifies the nation as an individual. It is followed by another song (54:1-17) where Jerusalem is personified as a childless woman (the book of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem in a similar way) who becomes the wife of the Lord and has many children. It is similar to the suffering-servant song in that it provides hope and promises restoration for the exiles. There are several similarities between these two songs. In the song of the childless woman God acknowledges that “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer” (54:7-8). In a similar way, in the servant song the writer says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10). Both songs make similar claims that the sufferings of the servant and the childless woman were inflicted by God because of sins committed by the people, but that God will also bring them to victory. The themes are similar, and both songs would have been relevant and encouraging to people in exile wondering if they would ever see their homeland again. The message of Second Isaiah was that their tribulation would be temporary and would lead to greater prosperity than previously experienced.

Continue reading … part 4

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (2)

Raffaello,_profeta_isaia

The Prophet Isaiah, by Raphael, 1512. From a fresco located in Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Rome. In the public domain. The prophet is holding the Hebrew text of Isaiah 26:2-3a “Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in. Those of steadfast mind …”

To understand any text in the Bible we have to see it in its historical and literary context. In the case of Isaiah 53, this not only means reading the whole of the book of Isaiah – all 66 chapters – to see how this chapter “fits” with the overall themes and messages, it also means placing it in its historical and social context. What was happening at the time when these words were written? How would the initial audience have understood them, and how was the message relevant to them?

Biblical scholars have long recognised that the book of Isaiah has three major parts which differ from each other in terms of content and style as well as in their messages. The differences are so significant that most scholars agree that they were written by three different writers, at different times. Consequently, scholars often refer to the three divisions as “First Isaiah” (or Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (or Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55), and “Third Isaiah” (or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66). If you read the book through as a whole you will notice that there are logical breaks between the three divisions, and the style of writing changes significantly. It is argued that only chapters 1-39 were written by the prophet Isaiah (or by one of his followers) in the eighth century BCE, that chapters 40-55 were written in the sixth century during the exile which began in 586BCE by an unnamed writer, and that chapters 56-66 were written after the return from exile in 515BCE when the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was underway. Third Isaiah was possibly compiled as an anthology consisting of twelve “oracles” which may have originally been written (or spoken) by multiple prophets. There is a considerable amount of evidence within the book that it was not all written at the same time. For example, the name “Isaiah” occurs several times in chapters 1-39 but never after, and specific details in chapters 40-66 suggest that the writers had detailed knowledge and experience of the exile. For example, Second Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus twice by name and says of him “I have aroused Cyrus … and he shall build my city and set my exiles free” (45:13). Cyrus lived 600-530BCE and Isaiah’s ministry was between 740 and 698BCE, more than a century before Cyrus was born, but he would have been well known to someone living at the end of the exile. Interestingly, Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus God’s מַשִׁיחַ anointed, using the word from which we get the English “Messiah”. The Greek translates it is as Χριστός Christos, from which we get the word “Christ”. This is the only place in Isaiah where the word מַשִׁיחַ / Messiah is used, and it describes a Persian king, probably because he was chosen by God as a saviour figure to restore the vanguished kingdom of Israel.

The chapter we are looking at – Isaiah 53 – is in Second Isaiah where it is one of four poems, or songs, which describe an unnamed “servant of the Lord.” In two of the songs it appears that the writer may be speaking about himself:

  1. The second song begins by saying “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” and goes on to say  “You are my servant,” which makes it seem that the writer is describing his own calling by God. However, there is some confusion because the verse continues “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (49:1-3). I’ll come back to this shortly. The identification of the writer as the servant is maintained because the writer goes on to say “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob* back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him …” (v5). If this servant is Israel how can Israel be called on to bring Jacob/Israel back to God?
  2. Similarly, in the third song the writer again describes his calling: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4) He describes the people’s response to his message using servant terminology: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” (v10), apparently speaking of himself as this servant.

The identification of the servant as Israel, noted in the first point above, is not unusual in the context of Isaiah. On several occasions the writer of Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant. For example:

  • 41:8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;  you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
  • 43:10 You are my witnesses [speaking to Israel, see v1], says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen.
  • 44:1    But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
  • 44:21    Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; , you will not be forgotten by me.
  • 45:4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
  • 48:20    Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Incidentally, this verse is one of the many which provides evidence that Second Isaiah was written during the time of the exile in Babylon.)
  • 49:3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.”

In fact, almost every time the writer of Second Isaiah uses the word עֶבֶד servant it refers to Israel. In only two or three places is the servant unnamed or not identified. The fourth song begins with the same servant terminology, but it is unclear whether the writer here is speaking of himself or not: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (52:13).** Because of the confusion (especially in the second song) about whether the writer is describing himself or Israel as God’s servant, there is a possibility that he both speaks to Israel but also personifies and represents Israel. In other words, the prophet as God’s servant, and as a member of the nation of Israel, acts as a “servant” on two levels: individually, and corporately as a representative of the wider community.

Continue reading … part 3.

________________________

* The name of the patriarch Jacob was changed to “Israel”. “Jacob” is used in poetry as the semantic equivalent of “Israel.”

** The fourth poem actually begins in 52:13 and includes all of chapter 53 – the chapter divisions are a late invention and don’t form part of the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (1)

Isaiah 53 in the “Great Isaiah Scroll” from Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

Isaiah 53, also called Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, is one of the best known chapters in the Book of Isaiah. It describes God’s suffering servant. For Jews it is a metaphor for the nation of Israel which has been frequently and repeatedly persecuted and oppressed. For Christians it is a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this post I want to take another look at how the New Testament makes use of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), with specific reference to this chapter in Isaiah. In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in the context of the book of Isaiah, and will ask the questions “who wrote it?” and “why?” Finally I will look at various interpretations of the “suffering servant”.

Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. The New Testament quotes various parts of this chapter in the following ways:

  1. According to Luke 22:37, Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah 53:12 to say that he would be “counted among the lawless”: 

    35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” 

    Some argue that the positioning of this saying in Luke, at the beginning of the events in the garden of Gethsemane leading to Jesus’ arrest the night before his crucifixion, reveals that Jesus saw himself as the one destined to fulfill the whole of Isaiah 53, and therefore identifying himself as the suffering servant. However, in its immediate context it is part of Jesus’ explanation about the need for his disciples to buy swords, which is picked up again just a few verses later (v.49) when they literally draw swords. In other words, it appears that Jesus was telling his disciples that he – and they, because of their solidarity with him – should henceforth expect to be regarded by the authorities as “lawless” or as criminals. If the intention is to identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant, it seems to be an odd place to cite these words as being fulfilled when a more logical place would have been in 23:33 where he was literally “counted with the lawless”: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” Some manuscripts, no doubt made by some scribe or scribes coming to the same conclusion, insert this quote from Isaiah 53 at Mark 15:27-28 “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones’.” Various scholars have suggested this and several other places during the passion narrative as the point when this Isaiah 53 prophecy was more properly fulfilled, which highlights the problem that we cannot be certain what Jesus (or Luke) meant by citing Isaiah 53 here.
  2. Matthew 8:16-17 cites Isaiah 53:4 in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’.” These verses are applied to Jesus in two ways in the NT. First, Matthew cites them with reference to Jesus’ work as a healer. The Hebrew word (מַכְאוֹב) translated “diseases” (sometimes also translated as “sorrows”) means physical pain and suffering, while “infirmities” translates חֳלִי which means “diseases”. Matthew’s “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” is an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation, however, used the word ἁμαρτίας sin instead of “diseases”. The second citation of these words in the NT is by Peter (1 Peter 2:21-24) who quoted Isaiah 53 to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus’ steps: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” After undoubtedly quoting Isaiah 53:9 – “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” – he may have gone on to allude to another part of the same Isaiah passage: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This may be an allusion to the words in the LXX that the suffering servant “bears our sins and suffers pain for us” although he does not specifically make this connection (although there was no real need to do so – having already quoted Isaiah the similarity in phrasing suggests quite strongly that he is further alluding to the same chapter). Peter may have been following the Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation which used the word ἁμαρτίας sin rather than the Hebrew. In any case, the Hebrew and the Greek translation have quite different meanings, and Matthew follows the Hebrew while Peter seems to follow the Greek. Matthew applies them to Jesus’ work as a healer, while Peter gives them a different meaning and applies them to Jesus carrying sins on the cross.
  3. The Acts of the Apostles has a pericope where an Ethiopian official was reading from Isaiah, and came to a verse in chapter 53 which said: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian asked Philip: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip’s answer does not provide any explanation of the specifics, but says simply “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v35).

These quotations, or allusions, in the NT to Isaiah 53 tell us several things about how the NT writers used the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek translation).

  • First, different writers could use the same text in the Hebrew Bible in different ways, and give them different meanings. One writer could use the Hebrew, with one meaning, while another writer used the Greek translation, with an entirely different meaning. Or they could use the same text in the HB and apply them to different events, saying both events fulfilled the same prophecy.
  • Second, although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to Jesus’ sufferings during the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus himself, quote it primarily with reference to Jesus and his disciples being regarded as lawless criminals, and to Jesus’ non-retaliation. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don’t take this opportunity and are silent. In fact, later generations of Christians have made more of Isaiah 53 than the writers of the NT, and found applications to Jesus which weren’t made by the NT writers.
  • Third, it seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in quite the same way later Christians did – as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world – or at least Peter is the only NT writer who gives it this meaning, and even then his emphasis was on Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation.

Going back to the first of those three points, we should note that when NT writers used HB/OT texts they often re-appropriated them or re-interpreted them for a new situation, and in doing so they weren’t necessarily implying that the whole passage applied in every detail to the ’new’ situation. A good illustration of this is the way Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) is used in Matthew 2:15 (This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”) This reads (in Matthew) as though the Hosea text was primarily about Jesus. However, if we continue reading in Hosea the very next verse says “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” The writer’s shift from the singular “my son” to the plural “they sacrificed to the Baals” makes it clear that God’s “son” there is the nation of Israel and the words cannot primarily refer to Jesus or to his taking refuge in Egypt. The Hosea text has been wrenched from its context and appropriated by Matthew because the words in just one verse fit the situation with Jesus. However, the Hosea text in its context cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination apply primarily to Jesus. We should therefore be careful in thinking that because a NT writer refers to a text in the HB that the passage must therefore refer primarily to the ‘new’ situation. With respect to the Isaiah 53 text, even though the NT quotes it and applies it to Jesus this is not its primary meaning.

In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in its context to determine its primary meaning.

Continue reading … part 2

Husband or master?

In an earlier post I argued that the relationship between God and his people is described in several places in the Hebrew Bible as being like a partnership and that this equality between the creator and the created was radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. I quoted Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. Suzanne McCarthy has posted an article today along similar lines and with some interesting comments about the use of these terms in modern Israel.

God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.

(Concluded)


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

God’s wives (2)

Julia Kristeva has noted that the earliest texts of the Bible contain only two references to God’s love for humanity, and even these are somewhat obscure.[1] The theme of divine love, she argues, is fully developed in Deuteronomy and the prophets and metaphorically in the Song of Songs, and while there is no explicit mention of either God or Israel in the Song of Songs the fact that the book is found among the Qumran scrolls is evidence that it was studied from a religious standpoint before the destruction of the Second Temple. It was almost certainly understood as an allegory from earliest times by a nation which which saw itself as the Shulamite woman, chosen by a God who had an erotic passion for her.[2] But God as the husband of his people is “the most innovative metaphor of the biblical period”[3] and is not seen elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Kristeva noted that “No other nation, even if dedicated to sacred orgiastic worship, has imagined its relation to God as that of the loving woman to the Husband.”[4] But the idea is not presented in the biblical texts early as a fully developed concept, and there are hints that it developed over time.

Referring to the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman Phyllis Trible argues convincingly that in the order in which the story is told “the account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination.”[5]  Tribble reads Songs of Songs as developing the equality theme of Genesis: “Like Genesis 2, Canticles affirms mutuality of the sexes. There is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. The woman is independent, fully the equal of the man.”[6] There appear to be several deliberate intertextual links between Song of Songs and the creation myths in Genesis which provide an insight into the purpose of Song of Songs. For example, the word translated “desire” in Song 7:10 is תשוקה which occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible, here and twice in the creation story (Genesis 3:16; 4:7). Interestingly, Song of Songs reverses the meaning of this word to the way it is used in Genesis where it refers to the woman’s desire for the man: in Song of Songs it speaks of the man’s desire for the woman. This should immediately give us a clue that Song of Songs may be deliberately reversing the consequences of disobedience in the Genesis story with the recovery of equality between man and woman. Tribble calls Songs of Songs “a midrash on Genesis 2-3”[7] and the recurring references in Song of Songs to gardens, animals and fruits pleasing to the eye and taste are strong indications that the writer has drawn themes and motifs from Genesis and deliberately restored the equality between the man and woman which was disrupted by eating the forbidden fruit. While “desire” in the context of Genesis is the result of disobedience (Tribble calls it “perversion”: the Genesis account does not use the word “sin” until the second occurrence of תשוקה in 4:7 where it is in the context of Cain’s sin and it is the abstract “sin” that “desires” to have Cain) in Song of Songs desire is joyous, passionate and pure. There is a pericope in Song of Songs however where passion is conspicuously absent, and that is in the second night scene (5:2ff) where the woman ignores the call and knocking of her lover. Is this the crux of the book and is the writer telling us that passion, or the lack of it, is the key to understanding something greater?

The idea of the relationship between God and his people being like an Edenic partnership is also implied in Psalm 8:4-6 where the question “what is man that you are mindful of him?” is answered by juxtaposing two ideas drawn from the creation story: man is made only a little lower than the heavenly beings, or God (almost certainly drawing on the words “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” in Genesis 1:26a); and, mankind being given dominion (drawing on the words “And let them have dominion” which immediately follow in Genesis 1:26b). Humanity is not only in God’s image; it also has dominion and is crowned, enthroned with God in joint-rulership. This equality between the creator and the created is radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. In the Genesis story however, the equality ends abruptly and creation is marred. It is a continuing saga through the prophets where God takes Israel as his wife and partner, but she leaves him for other lovers and yet even after she “plays the whore” he has a passion for her and takes her back in an effort to restore the intended unity evident in the creation story. We have a few glimpses of an eventual harmony in the relationship: Psalm 8, drawing heavily on creation themes; the Song of Songs, where there is no sign of either lover dominating the other, but where, if only for a moment, the man disappears, forsaken, because of the woman’s loss of passion; and in Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. But even in these texts there is a tension between the way it should be, and was perhaps always intended to be, and the way it actually is. Psalm 8 with the near-equality at the crux has an inclusio which includes the words “O LORD, our Lord” where אדנינו Lord, although different to בעלי Baali has the meaning of someone who has authority over the other.

to be continued


[1] 2 Samuel 12:24-25 where Solomon is named by David Jedidiah or “beloved of the LORD”, and 1 Kings 10:9 where the Queen of Sheba observes that God loves Israel, or at least has “granted [Israel] his favour”.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.99f

[3] I noted this phrase and placed it within quotation marks during a lecture by Dr Ari Lobel at the University of Sydney but did not note a source, so I expect that they are Dr Lobel’s own words and not a quotation.

[4] Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 97f

[5] Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation”, Journal of the American Academy of religion, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 1973) Oxford University Press, pp. 30-48, p. 36

[6] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 45

[7] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 47)

God’s wives (1)

Relationships can be difficult, even tumultuous, yet Alfred Lord Tennyson reputedly once said “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved.” According to several biblical writers the relationship between God and humanity is no less complicated than human relationships and in fact we might wonder if it is even possible to have an intimate connection between the human and the divine. If so, is it something that can be experienced on a personal or individual level, or only as a corporate abstraction? In the history of interpretation, both in Judaism and Christianity, it has been common to interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor or allegory describing the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church. The New Testament letter to the Ephesians[1] encourages husbands and wives to submit to one another (5:21 ESV) and uses the relationship between Christ and the church as the model: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22); “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25); “husbands should love their wives … just as Christ does the church” (5:28f); and concludes with “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). Paul (or a later pseudonymous writer) was almost certainly influenced in this analogy by several prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible which described the relationship between God and Israel in terms of a marriage.

Possibly the earliest use of the husband metaphor for God is in Isaiah 5 where the prophet sings a love-song: “Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard” (v. 1) and describes his beloved as caring for the vineyard by clearing it of stones and planting it with choice vines. The song then shifts from the third person (about the beloved) to the first person (the beloved singing) and asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (v. 4). The song includes a warning for the ‘vineyard’: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured” and continues with a prediction that the wall will be broken down, the vineyard will be trampled on, and it will become waste and desolate (Vv. 5-6). The song finally returns to the third person and identifies the ‘vineyard’: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7). While this love song doesn’t explicitly speak of God as Israel’s husband, it used the same kind of language that we find in the Song of Songs[2] and has some of the characteristics of a wasf, [3]a near eastern poetic form in which a boy and girl describe how the other’s body affects them[4].

Perhaps the best example of a wasf outside the Song of Songs is Ezekiel 16:10-13 which includes elements similar to Song 5:10-16 with a difference being that Ezekiel’s wasf describes the woman’s clothing and jewellery in greater detail while Song of Songs focuses more on her physical features (perhaps because Ezekiel’s woman is a metaphorical one rather than a real person). Ezekiel used the marriage metaphor twice: in chapter 16 Jerusalem is described as a woman whom God marries, and in chapter 23 God takes two wives, Oholah (Israel) and Oholibah (Judah), both of whom turn out to be unfaithful. These two chapters have generated a great deal of controversy because of the graphic sexual metaphors which are used to describe the women. Some scholars take this language as evidence of “an abusive and misogynistic patriarchal society”[5] although it is possible that the writer is intentionally using vivid language to highlight some stark irregularities in the relationship between God and his people. There are some disturbing features about the metaphorical wives in the prophets. Judah is described as a whore who is wayward, incompetent and oppressive (Jeremiah 2:20-34). Hosea is told by God to take “a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2) in an enacted parable about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Israel’s “abominations” contains some imagery which is unique to this prophet and is graphically disturbing. It first describes the birth of an unwanted female child which is left to die in an open found (16:3-5) and which God pities and takes in as his own daughter, and because of God’s care the child grows and flourishes. The imagery thus far, although graphic, is not particularly disturbing although we may consider it to be an unusual way to describe God’s love for his people. However, it takes a dramatic turn when the child reaches puberty and is observed naked and the prophet attributes to God sexual desires toward her (vv. 7-8a). Here God is first father and then husband and this has the elements of an abusive relationship, or at least an unequal relationship. It is possible that the Song of Songs later addresses this issue by allegorising God and his people in an equal relationship where each desires the other. In Ezekiel’s metaphor God then makes vows and enters a covenant with the child, taking her as his wife. The wasf which follows describes God adorning his wife, but it takes another dramatic turn when the wife “played the whore” (v. 15). The disturbing element here (at least to a modern western mind) is not so much the wife’s unfaithfulness (serious though that would be, especially in an ancient culture) but the potentially exploitive and sexually abusive use of the child by God. Yet that concept must also have been shocking to Ezekiel’s audience – it seems intentionally designed to shock – or why would he have used it? What precisely are the biblical marriage metaphors telling us about the relationship between God and his people, or his creation in general?

… to be continued


[1] Ephesians is attributed to Paul but regarded by many scholars as a late first century text.

[2] Song of Songs includes a song about Solomon’s vineyard (8:11f) and also uses the vineyard metaphor in 1:6, 14; 2:15; 7:12

[3] Wasf is an Arabic word meaning “description”.

[4] G. Schwab “Wasf”, in Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), p. 835

[5] T.C. Parker “Marriage and Divorce” in Longman, Wisdom Poetry and Writings, p. 536