For much of the year, the lectionary presents us with a First Reading taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. (The exception is during Easter, when a reading from Acts stands as the First Reading.) I am regularly asked, “why has this reading been chosen?” In Epiphany and the “ordinary” season of the Sundays Epiphany after Pentecost, the reading is consecutive—or almost consecutive—following the narrative of a designated book, or set of books, in order. So there is not necessarily any obvious, or intentional, link between the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel readings.
For the seasons of Lent and Advent, however, the selection of each Sunday’s First Reading and Epistle is made with a deliberate intention to connect with the Gospel for that Sunday. So the way the lectionary is built itself includes a bias towards seeing the Gospel reading as the primary focus, and the other readings as feeding into that focus. Nevertheless, the immediate connection with the Gospel for this Sunday—an account of the fiery apocalyptic preaching of John the baptiser (Matt 3:1–12)—is not immediately evident.
The First Reading offered for this coming Sunday is an oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A) in which a vision of universal harmony is expressed: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isa 11:6–8).. It follows from the earlier reading last Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A) in which a similar vision is expressed: the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4).
In last week’s passage, the peoples of the nations stream in to Jerusalem, where they ascend to “the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob”. There, in the Temple, they will receive instruction in “the ways of the Lord” so that they will “walk in his paths” (2:3). Presumably this instruction will come from the priests of the Temple, for they were the authority figures who would “teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek 44:23; see also Mal 2:7). In disputes between people where the understanding of the law is at stake, “they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (Ezek 44:24).
In this week’s passage, we are told of a promised figure, who will arise to lead the nations into that time of peace: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). That figure will exude “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2); he will judge with tsedeqah, righteous-justice, and mishor, equity (11:4). The proposing of this promised figure is a significant development from the prophetic word we heard last week.
This “shoot” from Jesse will advocate for “the poor” and “the meek”, and stand firmly against “the wicked” (11:4). This is precisely the stance that the prophets had previously advocated (Amos 27; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4–6; Isa 3:14–15; 10:2; 25:4; 26:6; 29:19) and would subsequently express (Isa 41:17: 58:7; Jer 22:16; Ezek 18:11–13; 22:29–31; Zech 7:9–10). It is consistent with teachings in The Law about justice for the poor and punishment for the wicked.
This “shoot” will be girded with righteous-justice, for which the prophets have consistently advocated (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4). The “shoot” will also exhibit faithfulness, a quality that the prophets have valued (Hos 2:20; 4:1; 14:8; Isa 16:5), because its presence amongst the people reflects its centrality in God’s own nature (Isa 38:19; 65:16; Jer 31:3; 32:41; Zech 8:8).
Thus the “shoot from Jesse” will demonstrate two qualities that feature strongly in Hebrew Scriptures: fidelity to “the fear of the Lord” (11:3; see Job 28:28; Ps 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Prov 1:7, 29; 9:10; 14:27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17; Isa 33:6) and the “knowledge of the Lord” (11:9; see Gen 2:9, 17; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:16; Ps 94:10; 119:66; Prov 1:7; 2:5; 5:2; 8:10; 9:10; 10:14; Hos 6:6; Hab 2:14; Mal 2:7).
This oracle thus sits firmly within the stream of prophetic speech about what God desires amongst the people of Israel, calling them to be faithful to the Law and walk in its oaths. Yet its presence in the Christian lectionary at this time of the year directs our attention to a way of reading it as a prophecy that foretells the coming of Jesus. Indeed, each of the Hebrew Scripture readings during Advent and at Christmas offer us a similar invitation to understand them as saying, “this is what the prophet of old said, and we can see that these words are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus”.
How are we to deal with this hermeneutical invitation, guiding us to interpret words spoken 800 years before Jesus as clear and direct statements about what Jesus himself will be like, and what he will do? I started pondering this question in my blog on last week’s passage from Isaiah; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/11/22/on-reading-scripture-during-advent-drawing-from-the-ancient-prophecies-isaiah-2-advent-1a/
After reading this blog, one person responded to me by quoting scripture and posing a rhetorical question that appears to resolve the matter. “‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ — Luke 24:27 As followers of Jesus, is this not our interpretation of the Bible?”
Well, yes. And, no. So, let me explain.
I think that we need to be careful in the way that we say that “this passage is about Jesus”. There is one way of saying this that drives us towards claiming that “when the prophet said these words, he was looking forward in the future to the coming of Jesus and predicting him”. That is to say, prophecy is understood as foretelling; looking into the distant future and predicting what God will be doing at that time. And so, these words are about Jesus.
I think that this way of reading texts actually does violence to them. It runs roughshod over the original context in which the words were spoken. It ignores, and perhaps even obliterates, the original context (in the time of Israel) for the sake of highlighting the later context (in the time of Jesus). And in the course of doing this, it actually wrenches the passage out of its earlier Israelite context—within the society that developed into Judaism—and forces it into a later Christian context.
This can actually lead to a form of supercessionism; a way of claiming that the Jewish texts, and the Jewish way of life and faith, are superceded by Christian faith and understanding; that Judaism is “old” and no longer relevant, because Christianity is “new” and now the way that God relates to us.
I don’t subscribe to this interpretive approach; Judaism is a living faith in its own right, with its own sacred texts. Those texts maintain an integrity in their own right, within that faith context, and should not be forced into a different, dogmatic Christian framework. My church does not hold to this way of reading things, either. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/
Nor do I subscribe to the notion that prophecy is always and only about foretelling. The ancient prophets were not just fixated on “what would happen with Jesus”. Prophecy may be about foretelling—and not always centuries into the future, but also about the time soon to come as the prophet spoke. But prophecy is also (and perhaps primarily) about forthtelling; speaking the word of God into the immediate context, addressing issues of concern in the political and social life of the people.
That is to say, prophecy is multilayered, multivalent, open to a range of interpretative options. It is not to be reduced to one line of sight, but should remain open to the richness of interpretive possibilities it offers.
Another person who respond to my blog said, “God can accomplish two things at once. He can send a prophet that speaks words that the people in a specific time and place need to hear, while at the same time those words can speak to us now.” Not exactly how I would say it; but I agree that any passage in scripture, and any communication from God, can indeed convey meanings at different levels of understanding.
(And one thing I have learnt from my years in dialogue with the Jewish community, representing my church in that dialogue, is that Jewish interpreters are open to a wide range of meanings, and the process of exploring those meanings raises questions and possibilities that invite even wider understandings!)
So I would say that Isaiah 11:1–10, and the other Hebrew Scripture texts offered during Advent, need, firstly, to be understood in their own right, in their original historical and religious context; but secondly, are able to be understood as setting out features which we find, much later, with the benefit of hindsight, are manifested by Jesus. In that sense, the ancient forthtelling for the society of the day also is capable of being understood as foretelling into the time of Jesus.
The prophet of old was looking for someone to act in ways that would be faithful to God’s way and helpful for society of the day, holding to the standard of righteous-justice that God desired. That way of acting is indeed the way that Jesus behaved; he was faithful to God’s way, demonstrating righteous-justice in his own actions, and calling his followers to live in accordance with that same righteous-justice. The words of the prophet tell us significant things about Jesus. But let’s not make it “all about Jesus”. It’s not.