Monday, November 21, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5

This passage occurs in the Advent season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently November 2016.
Big Picture:  This is an awesome passage to reflect on the mission and purpose of the church.  God is on a mission to heal and save the world.  He gathers a group of people to study his word.  As they gather more people, they are all transformed as agents of his love in this world.

*Note.  While this blog overwhelmingly looks at the New Testament passages from the weekly lectionary, this week the Hebrew Bible text is so compelling, that it deserves some closer examination.  For those of you that like Greek better (like me!), don't worry, there will also be some tie-ins to Greek, LXX style!  (no, not XXX style.  LXX style).

There are only five verses, so I want to add a few comments on each verse:

2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

"son of Amoz"  Isaiah is identified here by his father (and ultimately city and tribe).  Why?  Because identity in this culture is bound up with family and tribe.

"The Word..."  The word for "word" here is
דבר, davar.  Translated as "logos" in the New Testament, this word appears time and time again in the Bible.  The Word of The Lord speaks to and through the Prophets.  The Word of the Lord is said to be rare in the childhood days of Samuel (1 Sam 3:1) a sign of bad times.  Also, the construction of the sentence in Hebrew draws attention to the word, "The Word."  Typically a verb starts a sentence, but in this case, it is the noun, the Word.

"saw concerning"  This word, חזה , (khazah), means behold or see.  Normally the Word of the Lord comes to people, but in Isaiah's case, he beholds the Word.  The word becomes visible!

2:2  In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

"In the days to come...":  This specific phrase in the Bible, "In the after/end of the days" is often used in the prophets to connote the end times.  In this light, the NIV "In the last days" may be closer.  On other hand, the phrase may also simply mean the future.  I think the best word that provides this ambiguity is: "ultimate."  In the ultimate days; ultimately we hope, pray and strive that we can experience such days in our lifetime.  Linguistically, it is worth noting that the verb here (to become/to come to pass/to be) is in the imperfect tense, connoting that it is on-going and incomplete.

"The Lord's House":  The specific phrase used by Isaiah, "Bet-YHWH" does mean House of the Lord literally, however, it refers to the temple in Jerusalem. Tricky to translate.  Do you take the historically and linguistically accurate translation of "The temple" or do you leave it as "House of the Lord."  I like the idea of House of the Lord because it gives the sense that the temple is not a place of human hands or even of human worship, but the place of God's dwelling. 

LXX (Greek) Note:  The LXX translates the word as οικος του θεου (house of God).  Interestingly, YHWH is almost always translated as κυριος (kyrios), however, not in this case.  This anomaly is perhaps explained by the insertion that it is the mountain of the "kyrios," leaving the sentence with at least one incidence of "kyrios."

Technical grammar note:  The preposition in the phrase, "as the highest of the mountains" is one of those strange ב or "bet"s that would have certainly found its way onto a Hebrew exam...let's not get bogged down there, but if you have a bunch of spare time, have fun categorizing that particular preposition.

"All nations" (goyim) Once, while working at my firm in New York, I was called a goyim.  This is, in modern Jewish slang, often a derogatory term for non-Jews.  However, in the Bible, it simply refers to the nations -- the εθνε (ethne) in Greek.

"Shall stream to it"  Interestingly, another translation is "it shall shine forth to the nations."  The Tanakh translation picks up this possible meaning of the word "stream."  This would be interesting to insert the idea of God's people serving as example to the rest of the world.
2:3  Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

"For out of Zion shall go forth instruction"  The word for instruction here is "Torah" which can mean many things, including Law.  The LXX will actually translate this as νομος (nomos).  More broadly, Torah can also include, not simply the laws, but also the story that involves the instruction.  This is probably too technical a point for a sermon, but the point that people could understand is that in the Bible, instruction never drops from the sky, but always comes to the people in a relationship and for their good.

What is also interesting is that the word for "Torah" is a cognate of "Y-R-H."  This word (according to BDB) means 1) to cast; 2) to lay a foundation 3) to shoot an arrow 4) to teach (in the hiphil).  There is a huge debate about how the words "teach" and "cast" became related, with theories that speculate this relates to the priestly function of "casting" omens.  Another common theory is that when one casts, one points.  Teaching is often a matter of pointing.  I prefer the idea of teaching as laying a foundation for someone.

"the word of the LORD"  Here again we have the word "Devar" (translated as logos by LXX). 

"Walk in his paths".  The word for walk, (הלכ) halak, (apologies on not being able to get an ending Kapf there) is used four times in this section.  People walk to the mounting, the walk in his paths and twice they walk in the light.  This transformation of the people is not simply about intellectual insight, it is about embodied living.

"from Jerusalem."  Before, people were streaming to (אל) the city ..but now the word is going out from מן) Jerusalem.  This is a reminder that God's vision is greater than the ancient people of Israel.  Likewise, the vision of God is bigger than the church.

2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

No language comment, but a point:  Good laws (justice) leads to peace

2:5  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
"Let us walk"  This phrases echoes the previous verse:  "They will say...come, let us..."  This is why the translation, "In the last days," is not as helpful because 2:5 invites us to participate in that vision here and now.

"Light of the Lord"  This is the only time that this expression appears in the Bible.