Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Isaiah 50 and the Messiah

Walter Kaiser has a recent post at Koinonia related to the "Vision of Gabriel" interpretation. He doesn't add much to the discussion of the stone itself, but he does offer some important food for thought related to the issue of a suffering messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

I've posted before on the "Vision of Gabriel" and the issue of messianism in the Hebrew Bible, here, here, here, and here. In the most recent post, I commented that the Suffering Servant and the Davidic Messiah are separate categories in the Hebrew Bible, and we should not be too quick to link them. The link is made when we read the Hebrew Bible through the connections that the New Testament makes to show Jesus as the fulfillment of all these categories. The assertion that the Jews were expecting a suffering messiah seems to rest on very little evidence and seems to be contradicted by the reactions to Jesus's death that are recorded in the Gospels.

The issue is not IF the idea of a suffering messiah existed. The issue is WHEN do we first see evidence of it and does that evidence pre-date Jesus and provide background for the New Testament.

I find no solid basis for even asserting that the motifs were connected in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, Kaiser has "argued that both Messiah's suffering and his resurrection are an endemic part of the earlier writings of the TENAK." I have added his book The Messiah in the Old Testament to my reading list for this subject. If the suffering and rising messiah idea really is "endemic" to the Tanak, then I must be missing something. (Actually, I think it's endemic only when you read the OT through the framework of the NT.) I assume he offers more evidence in the book, but his blog post centers on the interpretation of the Third Servant Song in Isa. 50:4-11.

First, we have a problem with just pulling the Servant Songs out of their larger context in Isaiah. There's really little justification for doing so, especially since the "servant" theme runs throughout Second Isaiah. I'm giving Kaiser the benefit of the doubt that he is just adopting the division out of convenience.

Second, I agree that Isaiah 50:4-11 reflects the motif of the Suffering Servant and likely refers to an individual servant, not collective Israel as the servant. However, the only evidence that Kaiser offers to connect the ideas of the Davidic messiah and the Servant from Isaiah 50 comes from the use of the divine name "Adonai Yahweh." Kaiser claims this is "a title mostly reserved for the Abrahamic Covenant in Gen 15 and the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam 7." Hmm...the use of the title Adonai Yahweh automatically implies a connection to the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. That seems like too strong of a claim to me.

"Adonai Yahweh" occurs 293 times in the Hebrew Bible (Bibleworks search). Two of those times refer to the deity speaking to Abraham in Genesis 15. Seven times the name is used during David's prayer in 2 Samuel 7. Yes, the name doesn't otherwise occur in Samuel, but it does occur several times in the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH). And there's a specific pattern to it's use in DtrH. It usually occurs in the context of prayer. The other examples are Deut. 3:24, Deut. 9:26, Josh. 7:7, Jdg 6:22, and Jdg 16:28. The only exceptions to this pattern in DtrH occur in 1 Kgs 2:26 and 8:53. It also occurs 3 times in the Psalms. That covers 17 occurrences.

The other 276 occurrences come in the Prophets with the vast majority being in Ezekiel (almost 220). So for Kaiser's connection to work, all these uses in the Prophets should be implying the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants by using this name. "Adonai Yahweh" is a common title in the Prophets - 23 times in Isaiah, 11 in Jeremiah, 20 in Amos, and a few left over in the Minor Prophets. It seems like a huge theological leap to claim that the prophets are intentionally alluding to the covenants by using this form of the name.

Furthermore, the connection to a Davidic messiah only comes from a link to the Davidic covenant through 2 Sam. 7. However, the frequency of use of the title in prayers in DtrH makes the usage in 2 Sam. 7 unremarkable.

Kaiser also discusses the suffering and attitude of the servant and connects those to the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth. I agree that Jesus of Nazareth fits the template of a Suffering Servant, but that itself doesn't help us understand what messianic expectation was like BEFORE Jesus.

The Suffering Servant is a much richer motif that existed separate from messianism, doesn't imply messianism, and can be seen at work in the Hebrew Bible apart from just in the Servant Songs in Second Isaiah.

Isaiah 50:4-11 is itself a fascinating example. In a future post, I will look at the passage more closely and discuss some of the possible parallels for the Suffering Servant motif in other parts of the Hebrew Bible.

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