Reading the prophetic texts during Advent (Isaiah 11; Advent 2A)

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).

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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.

Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 11–12; Pentecost 10C)

The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.

These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).

Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.

And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.

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Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.

These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).

In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).

The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).

Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).

As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). This sacrifice brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).

Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).

A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).

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Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with an opening exhortation which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13). In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16).

More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24–25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17). A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.

By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in

Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40).

By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).

The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

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See also

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