Tuesday, September 16, 2008

the problem with biblical prophecy about jesus

The preacher at church issued Sunday what he called The Bible Challenge. It's where you read a passage of Scripture from one religious tradition, and then read a passage of Scripture from another religious tradition, and see if you can tell from the flavor of the Scripture which is actually from your religion.

Well no, not really, but that would be fun. He did do something similar, where he had 10 quotes projected onto the screen and we had to figure out which ones actually were from Scripture and which ones weren't. Among the most popular goofs were the Karl Marx quote "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" and two proverbs: one that says a righteous man cares for his animals but the wicked abuses them; and a second that urges giving strong drink to those who are in mortal pain. Some others I think were thrown off by a quote from a pastoral letter, where Paul lays out the requirements for a "bishop."

The longer-term idea is to combat biblical illiteracy by challenging us to read five chapters of Scripture a day, and then to journal about them, as though journal were a verb and not a noun. If anyone gerunds it into journaling -- i.e., "Did you do your journaling today?" -- I may have to resort to lethal force, at which point I promptly will withhold strong drink from those who are perishing.

Monday's passages are Matthew 1-2 and Acts 1-3.

First, the genealogy. Everyone knows that this genealogy flatly contradicts the genealogy given in Luke's gospel, so I won't even pretend I'm saying anything new here. I've heard some people say that Luke's gospel is the genealogy of Mary, but it certainly doesn't say that in Luke's genealogy. They're both patrilineal.

Matthew builds his genealogy around two key figures from Israelite history. The first is Abraham, from whom the Jewish people claim descent; and the second is David, whom the Tanakh treats as the gold standard for kings. Thus Matthew is linking Jesus to the Abraham, the man whom God made his covenant with; and with David, whom God make a second covenant with.

Astute readers are sure to make the connection and see how Matthew is casting Jesus as a new Abraham, representative of a new covenant; and also to see the claim that Jesus, as a direct descendant of David, is heir to the promise that God would make David's throne an everlasting one.

The third leg of Matthew's genealogy is the time after the Babylonian exile. I'm not sure what he's attempting here, unless it's tying Jesus back into the joy of returning from captivity -- something I'm sure Matthew's contemporaries probably felt they could understand, as the Jewish people were scattered all across the Roman world at this point, and even in Judea, they were under the rule of a foreign power, with a king who was not even one of them. (Herod was a half-Edomite.)

So that's the genealogy. Jesus as the author of a new covenant between God and man, Jesus as heir of the promise to David, and Jesus as the promised homecoming. All that makes sense, since Matthew's gospel was written for the Jewish reader.

Moving along, we come to what for me has long been one of the iffy parts of Matthew. It really seems like he's cherrypicking the verses he wants to cite as prophecies about Jesus, doesn't it? He quotes Isaiah 7:4, the virgin will be with child; Micah 5:2, out of Bethlehem will come a ruler; Hosea 11:1, "out of Egypt I called my son"; and Jeremiah 31:15, a voice heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her childern.

And then he has one about "He shall be called a Nazarene," but no one really knows where he got that one. I've heard it linked to a few, including one about a branching bush in Isaiah, but each one's a stretch.

Which, of course, some of the others are as well.

"Out of Egypt I called my son," is a pretty good example, when you recall that passage continues "and the more I called him, the more he turned away." Hosea of course was describing the relationship between God and Israel in the Tanakh, where God literally called Israel out of slavery in Egypt and then, as the Scriptures recount, watched as the people engaged in one form of idolatry after another. The next verse says "They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images."

And this is supposed to be a prophecy about Jesus? Yikes!

I really don't know what Matthew was thinking with this one. Hosea tells a beautiful story through the tragedy of his own life, of marrying a prostitute and watching as she had children with men other than him -- and then, rather than divorcing her, redeeming her and restoring her to his side.

It's a parable about what God was saying he would do with Israel, and through a christocentric lens, it's easy to see Hosea's behavior as a foreshadowing of Christ's behavior. But Matthew for some reason links Jesus not to Hosea, the hero of the story, but to Gomer.

A little earlier in the passage, Matthew cites the prophecy about "the virgin will be with child, and you shall call his name Immanuel." That's a great Christmastime verse, but there's two problems with it. One is that Isaiah actually said the almah will be with child, almah being the Hebrew word for "young woman," and "virgin" being only a tertiary meaning, according to the scholars I've read.

We can cut Matthew some slack on this one, since he's quoting the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Scriptures made sometime in the previous few centuries, and the rabbis who translated it from Hebrew and Aramaic presumably had no pro-Christian bias at work in the translation process. Evidently they felt that parthenos, the Greek word for "virgin" was close enough to the sense of almah that they would use it, instead of the Greek word for "young woman," and so they went with it, however much contemporary Hebrew scholars disagree.

But if you read the prophecy in the original context, it's pretty clear that Isaiah was talking about the more immediate situation facing King Hezekiah, namely the army that was laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah spells it out in 7:16, when he says that the land of the two kings besetting Judah will be laid waste. As the chapter goes on, Isaiah gets specific about Egypt and Assyria attacking the two kings. So it's hard to see this as a particularly messianic passage either.

I don't subscribe to an American view of prophecy, where the prophecy must refer specifically to one and only one event; I realize that these things often have layers of meaning and relevance, like an onion. David's psalm about being betrayed by a friend finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus' betrayal by Jesus, and yet it had meaning to David's life as well, and undoubtedly to the rest of us as well.

But come on. I'm not even touching the passages in Micah or Jeremiah, but I think there still are some interesting questions that I've never heard addressed satisfactorily from a pulpit about Matthew's approach to prophecy. Ernie Trask, formerly the pastor at St. Andrew's on the Roundabout in Rotorua, New Zealand, did mention the Hosea 11:1 prophecy in this vein once, but his commentary on it essentially boiled down to "What are you going to do?"

So what gives?

Luke chooses his Scriptures a little more judiciously when he puts them into Peter's mouth. They're not cited as prophecies, but merely as Scriptural guides for the sort of situation they're in, because of the whole Ish-Kerioth affair.

Anyway, it's late, and I haven't much else to say about Acts. Matthew 1-2 showed the lead-up to Jesus' big debut, and the first three chapters of Acts show the lead-in and debut of the church. Luke reinforces the parallels to David by connecting Judas' betrayal of Jesus to a psalm David wrote about being betrayed; and he connects Pentecost to the promises given in the book of Joel.

One other tidbit I've thought of lately is that Pentecost shows God's continued commitment to undoing all that is wrong with the world. Christ's resurrection shows that even death is being undone; Pentecost reflects a lifting or unraveling of the Babel curse.

At Babel, languages were confused and the people were broken up into 70 different nations. On the Day of Pentecost, there surely were many nations unrepresented, but the people who were there miraculously heard the early church worshiping in languages that the speakers couldn't know but the listeners understood completely. It's a reversal of Babel, and a sign that God wants to put the human race back together again, through Jesus.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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