Notes on Prayer: Acts 1:24

Acts 1:24

In the previous study, we looked at the place of prayer in the depiction of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. The unity of these first believers was manifest and expressed through prayer (1:14). The setting of this episode—marking the real beginning of the Acts narrative—was the “upper room” in Jerusalem, where the believers were gathered together following Jesus’ departure (ascension) into heaven.

This first community was comprised of Jesus’ closest male disciples (the Twelve), along with a group of his close female followers (cf. Lk 8:1-3), as well as members of Jesus’ family (his mother and brothers, cp. Lk 8:19-21). These believers were united in location (in one room, in Jerusalem), in purpose (o(moqumado/n, “with one impulse”), and in their activity (prayer). The same narrative setting continues in the next episode (vv. 15-26). The community is still gathered together in one place (presumably the same “upper room”), now numbered at around 120 people (v. 15). This number has a vital symbolic importance for the Acts narrative, since 120 = 12 x 10, and so is tied to the concept of the twelve.

We may ask why the author chooses to include the episode in vv. 15-26, devoting attention to the selection of an apostle to take Judas’ place, introducing a person (Matthias) who is never mentioned again in the book of Acts. There are two reasons why the episode is important for the author, and they relate to the symbolism of the Twelve. First is the theme of the unity of believers. This sense of unity requires that the Community be made whole, and this cannot happen until the circle of the Twelve is restored.

The second reason involves the key eschatological theme of the restoration of Israel. There is a clear and unquestionable parallel between the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel. It is quite possible that Twelve were chosen (by Jesus himself) to represent, at least in part, the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

Based on this symbolism, the restoration of the Twelve represents the idea of the restoration of Israel (the Twelve Tribes). From the standpoint of the book of Acts, the restoration of Israel is realized through the early Christian mission—the proclamation of the Gospel and the manifestation/work of the Spirit among believers. This is made abundantly clear in the answer given by Jesus to the disciples’ (eschatological) question regarding the establishment of the Kingdom (vv. 6-8). Consider also this theme of restoration in light of the Pentecost narrative that follows in chapter 2:

    • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
      • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
        • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
      • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
    • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

Let us now consider the episode in vv. 15-26 and the place of prayer in it. Here is an outline of the episode:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 15)
    • Speech by Peter (vv. 16-22), which the central Scripture citation of Psalm 69:25 (and 109:8)
    • Selection of Matthias to restore the Twelve (vv. 23-26):
      • Presentation of the two candidates (v. 23)
      • Prayer regarding the selection (v. 24-25)
      • Selection of Matthias [by lot] (v. 26)

The importance (and symbolic significance) of the selection of this apostle, to complete/restore the Twelve, made it an occasion for praying to God. In this regard, the mention of prayer in v. 24 continues the thematic association between prayer and the unity of the early Community of believers. They are specifically praying for Divine guidance in establishing (and confirming) this unity. Here is how this is expressed in verse 24:

“And, speaking out toward (God), they said: ‘You Lord, (the) heart-knower of all, may you show (clearly for us) which one you (have) gathered [i.e. chosen] out of these two'”

This is the first occurrence in Acts of the verb proseu/xomai (“speak [out] toward [God],” i.e., pray); the related noun proseuxh/ was used in v. 14. The prayer acknowledges that the actual choice belongs to God, and that essentially He has already made the choice. As the One who ‘knows the heart’ of all people (and all things), God knows who is best suited to fill the apostolic role. The statement is also an acknowledgement that God is already aware of the needs and concerns of the Community, and of the reason why they are praying to him—a point Jesus makes in his teaching on prayer (Matt 6:8). The title kardiognw/sth$ (lit. “heart-knower”) may have been coined by Christians; in any case, it is only found in early Christian writings (Acts 15:8; Hermas Commandments 4.3.4; Clementine Homilies 10:13; Acts of Paul and Thecla 24; cf. Fitzmyer, p. 227), though the underlying idea is expressed in the Old Testament (Deut 8:2; 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 44:22, etc).

Verse 25 emphasizes again the importance of filling the place vacated by Judas, as thus restoring the Twelve and creating a fully unified Community:

“… ‘to take the place of this service [diakoni/a] and being sent forth [a)postolh/], from which Yehudah stepped alongside to travel into his own place’.”

English translations do not always capture the point that is being stressed here: Judas stepped away from his place among the Twelve, going instead to his own place (the adjective i&dio$, “[his] own”, being in emphatic position). This has a double-meaning: (a) it refers simply to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, by which he departed from his place among Jesus’ circle of disciples, and (b) it also alludes to Judas’ ultimate fate—viz., his death and condemnation (see the parenthetical statement by the author in vv. 18-19).

I have translated the noun a)postolh/ according to its basic meaning of “being sent away” (or sent forth) by someone. It is, of course, related to the noun a)posto/lo$, which is typically transliterated in English as “apostle”. Thus the place that Judas abandoned (and will be filled by Matthias), and the service (diakoni/a) he had performed, was that of an apostle—one sent forth by Jesus to act as his representative and to proclaim the Gospel.

Prayer, as it is depicted in this episode, has special significance, not simply in relation to deciding on leadership roles within the Community (though that is of genuine importance); rather, the specific context of restoring the circle of the Twelve apostles means that it ultimately is tied to the central themes of Christian unity and the mission of believers (to proclaim the Gospel and act as Jesus’ representatives). These two themes remain fundamental to our identity as believers even today, and ought to be, also for us, the focus of our prayers.

References marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday/Yale: 1998).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 2)

Psalm 44, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-9 [1-8]), cf. the previous study) emphasized the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Here we are looking at the second part. The meter in this section tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though there are certain exceptions, particularly several 3+2 couplets, which are noted below.

Verses 10-17 [9-16]

Verse 10 [9]

“But you rejected (us) and brought disgrace on us,
and you did not go forth with our armies.”

The opening particle [a^ is adversative, indicating a transition (and point of contrast) with the first section of the Psalm. YHWH’s support for Israel, including fighting battles on her behalf, has changed to rejection (vb jn~z`). He no longer travels with the armies of Israel to provide his Divine power on their behalf. This has led to military defeats, and to humiliation and disgrace (vb <l^K*).

Verse 11 [10]

“You made us turn back from (the) adversary,
and (the one)s hating us took plunder for themsel(ves).”

Here the context of military defeat is made clear; Israel’s defeat in battle reflects YHWH’s withdrawal of His support. As a result, Israel is forced to turn back from her enemies.

Verses 12 [11]

“You have given us, like sheep, (as something) eaten,
and among (the) nations you have scattered us.”

This 3+2 couplet combines herding and agricultural imagery—i.e., sheep raised to be slaughtered for meat, and grain tossed (threshed) about after harvest. Both reflect the idea that the people of Israel, following their military defeats, are overpowered and devoured/consumed by their enemies. The first line alludes to conquest, the second to exile. It is not possible to isolate a specific historical setting for the Psalm, but this reference to exile suggests a time no earlier than the late-8th/early-7th century B.C. (following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom and/or the southern conquests during the invasion of Sennacherib).

Verse 13 [12]

“You sold your people with no wealth (coming),
and did not think much by (the) price for them.”

The exile motif of v. 12 [11] continues here with the idea of YHWH selling off (vb rk^m*) His people—that is, like slaves. Not only that, but God sold them at a low price, with “no (real) wealth [/oh]” coming from the sale. Indeed, He did not even bother to set a significant price (ryj!m=, plural) for them, indicating that He did not “think much” (vb hb^r*) of their worth. The harsh and derisive wording here should be seen as rhetorical in nature, a kind of exaggeration to show how far Israel has fallen in God’s eyes.

Verse 14 [13]

“You set us (as) an insult for (those) dwelling (around) us,
(as) mocking and laughter for (those) surrounding us.”

It is possible that this couplet is meant to express life in exile. Certainly there are other people dwelling (vb /k^v*) around Israel, and the verb bb^s* (“[en]circle, surround”) in the second line may suggest that the Israelites are a minority, being surrounded by other nations and peoples. More important is the fact that Israel’s defeats—including conquest and exile—has led to them being an object of ridicule among the nations. Three nouns are used to express this, within the synonymous parallelism of the couplet: hP*r=j# (“insult, cast blame, treat with scorn”), gu^l* (“mocking, derision”), and sl#q# (something of no value, a target of laughter/derision, i.e. ‘laughing-stock’)—the latter two words being close in meaning.

Verse 15 [14]

“You set us (as) an example (of shame) among (the) nations,
(for) shaking of head(s) among (the) peoples.”

Another 3+2 couplet, which follows closely in meaning and tone after v. 14 [13]. Not only has Israel become a target for derision among the nations, they have turned into a veritable example for the shame and disgrace that can befall a people. The noun lv*m*, often translated flatly as “proverb”, fundamentally refers to a likeness, and here it seems to be used in the sense of a pattern or “example” of a people’s shame. The nations can only “shake (their) head” (a literal translation of the idiom var)-dogm=) at what has become of Israel. This is perhaps to be understood in light of the first section of the Psalm, with its references to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (in the past) on behalf of Israel, things which caused amazement (and fear) among the nations. Now the nations are amazed in a different way: what has happened to this people who had God on their side?

Verse 16 [15]

“All the day (long) my humiliation is in front of me,
and (the) shame of my face has covered me.”

The wording of this couplet would seem to make clear that, in terms of the Psalm-setting, the shame (of exile) experienced by Israel is a present condition. The Psalmist counts himself among the people, shifting from the plural (“us”) to the singular (“me”). He experiences this humiliation and shame (tv#B)) “all the day (long)”. The sense of disgrace is complete and overwhelming, “covering” him. Dahood (p. 266) suggests that the problematic suffixed verb yntsk should be read as a Pual (passive) form, understood in a privative sense—i.e., “the shame of my face is uncovered (before) me.”

Verse 17 [16]

“(It is) from (the) voice of (the one) insulting and reviling,
(and) from (the) face of (the one) hostile and taking vengeance.”

The overwhelming shame and disgrace heaped upon Israel (in exile) is two-pronged: it comes from the voice of the nations (i.e., their speech), and their faces (i.e., their attitudes and how they treat Israel). The abusive speech is characterized by the verbs [r^j* and [d^G` which are similar in meaning (“insult, revile,” etc). While the nations’ attitudes and behavior toward Israel reflects hostility (vb by~a*) and a desire to take revenge (vb <q^n`). All four verbs are participle forms, indicating a situation that is continuous, and that is characteristic of the relationship between the nations and Israel.

This part of the Psalm makes for rather depressing reading, with its litany of suffering and repeated descriptions of the abuse Israel has suffered (from the nations) since YHWH has withdrawn His support. The reason God has ceased to support Israel is not stated, but anyone familiar with the Scriptural account of Israelite history would know that it was due to violation of the covenant bond—acts of wickedness and idolatry that led to YHWH bringing judgment upon His people.

Sadly, the abuse directed at Israel has not been limited to the Exilic period, but has continued, in a variety of ways, during the many centuries since—a long period which can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s exile and ‘dispersion’ among the nations. The “nations” have frequently mistreated the Israelites and Jews who dwelt in their territories, often in harsh and terrible ways. This is to the shame of the “nations” themselves, as much as it is for Israel.

Fortunately, the Psalm does not end here. In the final part (beginning with verse 18 [17]), we find expressed a profound hope for Israel’s restoration, for deliverance from their suffering among the nations. This expectation is tied to a collective affirmation by the people of a renewed loyalty to the covenant with YHWH. We will examine this section of the Psalm in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26-40

This week’s study is related to recent notes and articles on the famous ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, an important Scripture passage that was interpreted in a Messianic sense by early Christians, and applied to the person and work of Jesus. In the last part of the article on this passage in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”, I explored how the poem came to be understood by early Christians. Portions from it were cited in the New Testament, in Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:23-25; Matthew 8:17; John 12:38; Rom 10:16, along with several other possible allusions (see, for example, Mk 9:12).

In this study I wish to explore further how verses 7-8 of the poem were utilized in the Acts 8 episode (vv. 26-40). Scripture quotations are central to the Acts narratives, but feature most prominently within the sermon-speeches. For example, in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (2:14-41), there are three Scripture citations which are used: Joel 2:28-32 (vv. 17-21); Psalm 16:8-11 (vv. 25-28); and Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35). These passages are fundamental to the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), being expounded and applied to Jesus (his death and resurrection). For a study of these Scriptures in the context of the Pentecost sermon, see Parts 2 and 3 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

The episode in 8:26-40 does not contain a sermon-speech, but it does illustrate the early Christian mission and Gospel preaching in action. Thus it is appropriate that a Scripture citation (of Isa 53:7-8) occurs at the center of the episode. To demonstrate the centrality of the Scripture, it may be helpful to present an outline of the episode as a chiasmus:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27ab): Philip encounters the Ethiopian
      • The mission: guidance by the Spirit (vv. 27c-29)
        • Question regarding the Scripture (vv. 30-31)
          • Scripture citation (vv. 32-33)
        • Explanation regarding the Scripture (vv. 34-35)
      • The mission: baptism and the work of the Spirit (vv. 36-39a)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-40): Philip and the Ethiopian separate

Clearly, the Scripture citation lies at the very heart of the episode. In this instance, an exposition of the lines from the Servant poem forms the basis for the Gospel preaching. No actual preaching is recorded, merely the summary statement that Philip “gave to him the good message (regarding) Yeshua” (v. 35). He did this by “beginning from this Scripture” that the Ethiopian was reading. That is to say, the Scripture formed the basis for the preaching of the Gospel.

From the standpoint of the Acts narratives, as they record the earliest Christian preaching and missionary work, this is most significant, for a number of reasons. Foremost is the importance of the use of the Scriptures by early believers to demonstrate two key points regarding Jesus: (1) that he was the Anointed One (Messiah), and (2) that the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah was prophesied in the sacred Writings.

The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die, especially in the painful and disgraceful manner of crucifixion, was so contrary (and repugnant) to Jewish expectations, it had to be explained. How could Jesus have endured such a death, if he is truly the Messiah? The early Christians worked hard to reconcile and explain this, as they began their missionary work among Israelites and Jews in the area. It was necessary to marshal Scriptural support for the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die (and then rise from the dead). This is an important point of emphasis in the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, and is mentioned, either directly or implicitly, on a number of occasions—see Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:26-27, 32, 44-45ff; Acts 3:18; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 13:27; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23.

As it happens, there are relatively few Old Testament passages which can be used in support of the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die. The Servant poem in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is certainly one of these; indeed, it may be regarded as the foremost such Scripture passage. It is thus quite proper that it should feature prominently in at least one of the missionary episodes in the book of Acts.

Before proceeding to an examination of how verses 7-8 of the poem are used within the narrative, we must briefly consider them from the standpoint of textual criticism. The text as it appears in Acts 8:32-33 is virtually identical to the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation. Only in the first line of v. 8 is there any difference. In some manuscripts of Acts, the reading is “in the humiliation of him” (i.e., “in his humiliation”), including the pronoun; but this is really only a minor variation, perhaps intended to bring greater clarity to the passage. The pronoun may be original, being omitted in certain manuscripts in order to conform the citation to the LXX.

Being a translation of poetry, it is not surprising that the Greek only loosely renders the Hebrew text. Here is a literal translation (in English) of the original Hebrew, with a corresponding translation of the Greek LXX, side by side:

Hebrew [MT]
LXX
“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.
From oppression and from judgment he has been taken,
(and now) his (life) cycle—who thinks on it?
For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living;
from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch (came) to him.”
“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth;
from the lawlessness of the people, he was led to death.”

Only in the first line of verse 8 does the LXX differ substantially—in meaning and emphasis—from the Hebrew:

Hebrew:
“from oppression and from judgment he has been taken”
LXX/Acts:
“in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away)”

I understand the Hebrew to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX (and in the Acts citation), however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (ho díkaios), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode (compare with 1 Peter 2:23-25), and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13.

Even more significant is the fact that the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8, omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering. In Hebrew, this line reads:

“from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch [i.e. of death] (came) to him.”

The Greek translation, of the LXX, which would also have been used in Acts, reads:

“from the lawlessness [plur.] of the people, he was led to death.”

The reference is to the sin (and guilt) of the people. The Hebrew term (peša±) refers specifically to a violation of the covenant with YHWH (essentially an act of rebelliousness), while the Greek word (anomía) means “(act of) lawlessness”. Regardless of which aspect is being emphasized, it is the sin of the people that results in the death of the Servant. He is judged/punished by God for the people’s sins, not his own.

The author of Acts cannot have left out this line by accident; it must have been omitted on purpose. The best explanation is that the author simply did not wish to emphasize the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death. As we have seen (above), that aspect was not an important part of the Gospel preaching in Acts, nor does it feature prominently in the theology of Luke-Acts as a whole. Only one reference in the book of Acts (20:28) could be viewed as expressing anything like a clear belief in the vicarious, atoning character of Jesus’ death.

An interesting historical-critical question is whether this lack of reference to the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death is due to the early character of the preaching in Acts. If the sermon-speeches (in the early chapters, especially) represent authentic Gospel preaching from the period c. 35-50 A.D., then the relative lack of theological development would not be all that surprising. The focus of such early preaching was on the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection, the injustice of his death, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God. Forgiveness of sin was definitely part of this proclamation, but it does not appear to have been specifically tied to the nature of his death.

Even the traditional emphasis on the establishment of the new covenant through Jesus’ death (his blood, see Lk 22:20 par) does not feature prominently in the book of Acts (see 3:25-26). This contrasts notably with Paul’s letters, written in the period c. 52-62 A.D., where the various theological (and Christological) aspects of Jesus’ death are developed in complex and powerful ways.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (concluded)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, concluded

In the final portion of this article we will examine the application of 52:13-53:12 to the person of and work of Jesus. There are three primary New Testament references which make clear that early Christians, by the year 70 A.D. (at the latest), were citing this passage as a prophecy of Jesus’ life (and death). In addition, there are several other minor quotations or allusions that should be mentioned. However, before proceeding with a study of all these references, it will be worth highlighting the lines, in the original poem, which are most applicable to the Gospel tradition and beliefs regarding Jesus in the early period (c. 30-60 A.D.).

  • “See, my servant will show (his) understanding” (52:13a, note)
    By the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Deutero-Isaian “Servant of YHWH” was viewed as a Messianic figure (esp. in 42:1ff, cf. the earlier article in this series). To be sure, the Servant is more properly understood as a Messianic Prophet (according to the figure-type of Moses or Elijah), rather than the royal/Davidic Messiah. However, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, all of the Messianic figure-types were applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. This includes the Messianic Prophet types, such as the “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-19) who would appear at the end time.
  • “he will rise high and be carried up, and be very high [up]” (52:13b, note)
    The exaltation of the Servant to a heavenly position would obviously apply to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, so central to the Gospel message and the earliest Christology. Somewhat surprisingly, this particular connection is not mentioned in the New Testament, nor is 52:13 cited.
  • “so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him…” (52:14, note)
    This line could easily be applied to physical abuse of Jesus during his Passion—particularly the vicious whipping (verberatio) by the Romans prior to crucifixion. Admittedly, the whipping/scourging is barely even mentioned in the Passion narratives, but the effect of it would have been obvious (and striking) to eye-witnesses.
  • “—so will he sprinkle many nations” (52:14, note)
    Assuming that the rendering of “sprinkle” is correct, this could be seen as a prophecy of early Christian baptism, tied to the apostolic mission to the Gentiles.
  • “Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard…” (53:1, note)
    Cited twice in the New Testament (cf. below) as a prophecy of the Gospel message (by and regarding Jesus), as well as the reaction to it.
  • “(there was) no (fine) shape to him, and no adornment that we should look (at) him” (53:2, note)
    This could be understood in light of the humble/modest origins and social standing, etc, of Jesus.
  • “He was disregarded and forsaken by men…” (53:3, note)
    Almost certainly, this verse was interpreted in light of Jesus’ suffering and his being rejected by many Israelites and Jews at the time. Cf. especially the wording of the Passion prediction in Mark 9:12 par.
  • “Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses, and our sorrows, he has carried them” (53:4a, note)
    This can be understood in terms of Jesus’ identification with human weakness and suffering, interpreted as a prophecy either of (a) the earthly ministry of Jesus (cf. on Matt 8:17 below), or (b) his (vicarious) suffering and death as sacrificial offering for the guilt/sin of humankind.
  • “But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith)…” (53:5a, note)
    Assuming that “pierce” is the correct rendering of the Hebrew, this can be seen as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. also the study on Zech 12:10). There may be an allusion to 53:5a by Paul in Rom 4:25, where the emphasis is on the vicarious/sacrificial character of Jesus’ suffering and death.
  • “…and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.” (53:5b, note)
    My translation understands the final line of v. 5 in light of Isa 1:6. However, the emphasis may be on the wounds themselves, rather than the binding of them. Again, this would make for an obvious connection with the whipping (scourging) of Jesus prior to crucifixion (cf. above). The idea that his suffering/death brings healing for us makes for an excellent statement of the vicarious suffering of Jesus. Cf. on the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24 below.
  • “All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered…” (53:6, note)
    Another expression of the vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus, also cited in 1 Pet 2:24-25 (cf. below). On Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s people, with the Messianic and Divine implications of that motif, cf. Mk 6:34; 14:27 pars; Matt 2:6; Jn 10:1-18; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:2-4; Rev 7:17; and consult Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (on the Davidic Messiah).
  • “And he…was (op)pressed and (yet) he did not open his mouth….” (53:7, note)
    This was almost certainly understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ relative silence before his accusers in the (Synoptic) Passion narrative (Mk 14:60-61; 15:4-5 pars; cf. also Jn 19:9). 1 Peter (2:23) ties this aspect of Jesus’ character directly to Isa 53:7. Verses 7-8 are cited in Acts 8:32-33 (cf. below).
  • “For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living” (53:8, note)
    A clear reference to the death of the Servant, forming an obvious parallel to the death of Jesus. The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die was highly controversial for Jews at the time, and it was virtually unique to the identification of Jesus as the Messiah.
  • “(even) though he (had) not done (any) violence, and (there was) no deceit in his mouth” (53:9, note)
    Verse 9a could conceivably be viewed as a prophecy of Jesus’ burial, though the idea of being buried “among the wicked” does not fit the circumstances of his burial particularly well. It applies better to the manner of his death (Mk 15:27f par). V. 9b would apply to Jesus’ innocence, that he was not deserving of such a painful and humiliating death.
  • “…with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many…” (53:11, note)
    Verses 10-12 emphasize again the vicarious nature of the Servant’s suffering and death, and how he took upon himself the guilt of the people. He is also characterized specifically as “just/righteous” (qyD!x^, Grk di/kaio$). On Jesus as the “righteous one” in the early tradition, cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; also Lk 23:47. Justice/righteousness comes to believers through the just/right character of Jesus (cf. Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 5:17ff; 10:4; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, etc).

Acts 8:26-40 (vv. 7-8)

Verses 7-8 are featured at the heart of the episode of Philip’s missionary encounter with the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26-40. The Scripture citation (in 8:32-33) follows the LXX Greek, the wording of which provides a more fitting application to Jesus. Here is how the LXX of vv. 7-8 reads:

“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth.”

The LXX only loosely translates the Hebrew, as is often the case with the Old Testament poetry. However, the overall sense of the lines is preserved well enough. Only in the first line of v. 8 does the LXX (and Acts) differ noticeably from the original Hebrew. A rather literal translation of the line into English is:

“From oppression and from judgment he has been taken”

I understand this to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX, however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (o( di/kaio$), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two key references to Jesus as the “Righteous One” both come in the Messianic context of Jesus as the ‘Prophet like Moses’ (3:17-23ff; 7:17-53). As discussed in the previous portion of this article, and in the exegetical notes on Isa 52:13-53:12, there are good reasons to think that the Servant figure is closely tied to the type-pattern of Moses.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode, and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13, and note how the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8 omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering.

The only conceivable reference in the book of Acts to Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice (for sin) is at 20:28, where Paul speaks of the Christian congregations (the e)kklhsi/a) as something which God “made [i.e. gathered/acquired] around Him through the blood of His own [Son]”.

1 Peter 2:21-25 (vv. 4-7, 9, 11)

The same points of emphasis can be seen in 1 Peter’s use of the passage, but with a much stronger reference to the vicarious aspect of the Servant’s suffering—how he took upon himself the sin/guilt of the people. In the context of the letter, the author (Peter) is referring to situations where believers may suffer and undergo oppression unjustly (vv. 19-20). In such instances, we are to follow the example of Jesus:

“For unto this we were called, (in) that (the) Anointed (One) also suffered over us, leaving behind for us an underwriting, (so) that we might follow upon his (foot)steps” (v. 21)

The example of Jesus—literally, an “underwriting” (u(pogra/mmo$), i.e. a writing used as an exemplar for copying—is described in vv. 22-25 largely using words and phrasing (or paraphrasing) from the Servant Song. It begins in v. 22, which essentially quotes 53:9b (cf. the note):

“…who did not do (any) sin, and deceit [do/lo$] was not found in his mouth”

This emphasizes the innocence of Jesus (with regard to his death), but also his righteous and holy character generally. Such character is demonstrated by the fact that he did not respond in like manner when he was mistreated:

“…who, being abused, did not abuse (back) against (them); (though) suffering, he did not threaten, but gave (himself) along justly to the (one) giving judgment” (v. 23)

This almost reads like a explanatory comment on the more colorful description in 53:7. He suffered and did not resist or strike back, allowing himself to stand before the judgment (i.e., the interrogations before the Jewish and Council and the Roman tribunal of Pilate). He endured this suffering even to the point of death, and it is his death that is emphasized in verse 24:

“…who himself took up our sins on his own body (when) upon the tree, (so) that, coming to be (dead) from the sins, we should live to justice/righteousness—of which (it is said) ‘by the battle-marks you were healed’.”

The crucifixion of Jesus—that is, his death on the cross—is identified as the moment when he “took upon” himself the sin/guilt of the people (“our sins”). This clearly stands as a reference to the vicarious and atoning aspect of Jesus’s death (an aspect generally missing from the book of Acts, cf. above). It is related to the same idea expressed in the poem regarding the Servant’s suffering and death (probably vv. 4-5 are primarily in mind, cf. also v. 11). The author specifically cites the closing line of v. 5, an adaptation of the LXX version, which itself reads:

“…by his battle-marks we were healed”
tw=| mw/lwpi au)tou= h(mei=$ i)a/qhmen

The noun mw/lwy fundamentally refers to a mark (bruise, wound, etc) left as a result of fighting. The Hebrew term (hr*WBj^) is more enigmatic, referring to something that is bound or joined together. When used in the context of a wound, it may signify something that is cut into the flesh, though I tend to view the wording in light of Isa 1:6, and the idea of binding up one’s wounds (wordplay between rbj and vbj). For 1 Peter, however, it seems that the wounds themselves—as the marks of Jesus’ suffering (and death)—are a sign of our healing (from sin). This healing continues to be the subject of the concluding statement:

“For you were as sheep being made to wander, but you (have) been turned back now upon the herder and overseer of your souls.” (v. 25)

The sheep/shepherd motif is traditional, but it certainly alludes to v. 6 of the Servant song (cf. the note). The author (Peter) develops it further in the letter, at 5:1-5.

Matthew 8:17 (v. 4)

The Gospel writer in Matthew 8:17 also cites v. 4 of the poem, expressing the idea that Jesus took upon himself the suffering and weakness of the people. However, in the Gospel context where this is quoted, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus’ death. Rather, it is related to the healing miracles performed by Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (8:2-16). The Hebrew term yl!j( literally means “weakness”, but this can be understood as resulting from sickness or illness—which would be appropriate for the healing ministry of Jesus.

The Gospel writer does not quote from the LXX, but a Greek translation that is closer to the original Hebrew. The Hebrew may be translated in English as follows (cf. the note on v. 4):

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them”

Here is a rendering of the Greek in Matt 8:17:

“he took our weaknesses and carried (about) our sicknesses”

Unless the association here with Isa 53:4 is purely superficial (based on the reference to sickness), it is necessary to understand Jesus’ “taking up” our weakness in a broader and more holistic sense. As the “son of man”, he identified himself with the human condition—including its weakness and mortality. This was an important part of his ministry (cf. the “Son of Man” sayings in Mk 2:10; 10:45 pars; Matt 8:20 par; Lk 19:10), and should not be limited to his suffering and death in Jerusalem.

John 12:38; Romans 10:16 (v. 1)

Finally, we should mention the citation of v. 1 in the Gospel of John (12:38) and Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:16). John’s citation (which matches the LXX) comes at the close of the first half of the Gospel (the so-called “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12), in a narrative summary that emphasizes how, even though Jesus had done great signs among the people, many of them refused (or were unable) to trust in him (12:37). This is then said to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in 53:1, treated as a rhetorical question, implying that few (if any) of the people will believe the report given about the Servant (cf. the note on v. 1).

The Gospel writer deals with this sensitive topic—that is, why so many Israelites and Jews at the time did not accept Jesus as the Messiah—by adding an explanation that became traditional among early Christians, citing Isa 6:10, a passage that is quoted, for this same purpose, twice more in the New Testament (Matt 13:14-15 par; Acts 28:26-27). The rejection of Jesus by his people was very much part of the suffering he experienced, and fairly represents the experience of the Servant in the poem.

Paul’s use of v. 1 (citing the first half of the verse, again according to the LXX) in Rom 10:16b is very similar. He states bluntly in v. 16a that “not all have heard under [i.e. listened and submitted to] the good message”. The context of chapters 9-11 is centered upon this very issue: how and why so many Israelites and Jews have failed/refused to accept the Gospel. It was a matter dear to Paul’s heart, as we can see from the way he opens each of the three chapters.

Paul’s reference implies that the suffering/rejection of Jesus extends also to his followers—that is, those who proclaim the message of Jesus to others. Paul experienced firsthand suffering and hardship from his fellow Israelites/Jews, as we see narrated throughout the book of Acts, and referenced on occasion in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). Jesus predicted that his disciples would experience just this kind of suffering (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc), and would even be put to death. In experiencing such suffering, believers are, in their/our own way, following the example of Jesus (the Servant) himself (Mk 8:34 par, etc).

 

 

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (continued)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, continued

Having concluded a detailed critical and exegetical study of the passage, verse by verse, in the recent daily notes, it remains to explore the specific lines of interpretation which may plausibly be applied to the figure of the Servant. I identify four primary lines of interpretation, each of which will be discussed in turn.

    1. The type-figure of Moses
    2. A specific Prophetic figure from history
    3. A collective figure for the Prophets of Israel
    4. A collective figure for the People of Israel

1. Moses. In an earlier article (on Isa 42:1ff) I discussed the strong possibility that the Servant of the Deutero-Isaian poems was patterned after the figure of Moses. It is worth summarizing the chief evidence for this:

    • Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” (db#u#) on a number of occasions in Old Testament tradition: Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:2, 7; 18:7; 1 Kings 8:53, 56; Psalm 105:26; Isa 63:11; Dan 9:11; Mal 4:4 [3:22]; Bar 2:28; cf. also Heb 3:5; Rev 15:3.
    • Moses was the pre-eminent Prophet and leader for the people of Israel, and possessed the spirit of prophecy (i.e., God’s Spirit); on this line of tradition, see my study on Numbers 11:10-30.
    • Moses led the people out of exile in Egypt, even as they are now to be led out their exile within the Babylonian empire; the return of the Exiles is clearly understood in the Deutero-Isaian poems as a ‘new Exodus’ (in chaps. 41-45, cf. especially 43:1-2, 16-17ff).
    • The role of bringing judgment to the nations, in the context of Israel’s release/return, would fit the archetypal pattern of Moses in his encounters with Pharaoh and the rulers of Egypt. This parallel applies more to 42:1ff, but see also the context of 52:14-15.
    • The servant functions as a judge and law-giver, which well fits the historical and traditional portrait of Moses.

I have discussed the parallels between 52:13-53:12 and the Moses traditions in the recent set of notes. Perhaps the strongest point is Moses role as intermediary and intercessor for Israel. By the very nature of this role (as YHWH’s servant) he identifies with the suffering of the people (cf. Exod 2:11ff; 3:7ff), and comes to bear their burdens, in many different ways, during the long Exodus journey through the wilderness (see esp. Num 11:10-14ff). On several occasions, Moses stood before YHWH on behalf of the people, interceding for them.

Two traditions are most pertinent to the argument here. The first is the Golden Calf episode, and its aftermath (Exod 32-34). The people broke the covenant bond in an egregious manner, and YHWH intended to destroy them in His anger, but Moses interceded for them (32:11-14, 30-34; 33:12-16; 34:8-9). In Exod 32:32, Moses essentially offers to taken upon himself the guilt (and punishment) that belonged to the people.

The second tradition to note is the episode at the “Waters of Strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20. Provoked by the rebelliousness of the people, Moses speaks and acts in a way that does not give proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses shares the same punishment that fell upon the adult generation of the Exodus: he would die without entering the Promised Land. This may reflect the lines in our passage regarding the death of the Servant. On the possible allusions to Moses’ death and burial in the land of Moab (near Mt. Peor, Deut 34:5-8), cf. the recent note on verse 9.

If Moses is the type-pattern for the Servant figure, how should this be understood? There are several possibilities. Taking the scenario of the passage at face value, it would seem that Moses died and then was exalted to heaven. He then appeared before YHWH in the heavenly courtroom, where his righteous character and role as YHWH’s servant was confirmed, and he was then given a new heavenly position. Here he would continue in his role as the Servant, working and interceding on behalf of God’s people in the New Age (the period of the new covenant).

But could this association with Moses be merely figurative? On the one hand, a figurative interpretation would better fit the Deutero-Isaian theme of Israel’s restoration, which involves a new covenant and a renewed adherence to the Torah, echoing the ancient Moses/Exodus traditions (the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Law, cf. Exod 19-34). Subsequent Isaian poems and oracles (i.e., from chapters 56-66, so-called Trito-Isaiah) give special emphasis to the theme of the Law going out from Jerusalem, as a light to the nations (cf. on 42:5-9).

On the other hand, the passage seems to be dealing with a specific person—a person who, like Moses, will lead Israel back into the land (a “new Exodus”, cf. above) and play a central role in establishing the new covenant between YHWH and His people. In this regard, it is worth considering a particular eschatological tradition associated with Moses. Deuteronomy 18:15-19 records a prophecy regarding a “prophet like Moses” who will arise in Israel, essentially taking Moses’ place and functioning as a ‘new Moses’. By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this had developed into a clear belief in a Messianic prophetic figure, according to the figure-type of Moses, who would appear at the end-time, prior to the great Judgment.

This eschatological figure could be explained as Moses himself, having returned from heaven, or a separate Messianic Prophet patterned after Moses. Jesus was identified explicitly with this figure in Acts 3:22 (also 7:37), and there are other implicit references to “(the) Prophet” which likely have this same (Messianic) figure-type in mind (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). For more on this subject, and on the identification of Jesus with Moses, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

2. A specific Prophet-figure. Along the same lines, the Servant may refer to another Prophet from the history of Israel/Judah. The overall context, and the specific wording in v. 8, strongly indicates that the Servant (and his generation) belongs to the past. If we look to the Exilic setting of the Deutero-Isaian poems, there is no obvious candidate known to us from the historical record of the 6th century. To be sure, Jeremiah suffered at the hands of the people (and their leaders), and Uriah was put to death by Jehoiakim for prophesying the judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (Jer 26:20-23). According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Isaiah himself was killed by king Manasseh, and one version of this involved his being sawn in half (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho §120; cf. Heb 11:37). There are other historical traditions regarding the Prophets suffering oppression, persecution and death (cf. below).

Since the Deutero-Isaian poems seem to view the restoration of Israel (the ‘new Exodus’), and the establishment of the new covenant with YHWH, to be imminent, it is unlikely that the suffering and death of the Servant is meant to be understood as occurring in the future. The orientation of the passage as referring to a past event (that is, prior to the 6th century Exilic time-frame) should be taken seriously. His suffering reflects the failures of Israel/Judah, their violation of the first covenant—the covenant established at Sinai.

3. A collective figure for the Prophets of Israel. A stronger argument can be made for viewing the Servant as a collective figure for the Prophets of Israel. He embodies all of the true Prophets, from Moses to those of the 6th century. His suffering (and death) reflects the suffering experienced by many of the Prophets, whose call to deliver messages of judgment against the people of Israel/Judah, including harsh rebuke and condemnation of the rich and powerful in society, naturally made them unpopular and a target for hostile and violent reaction. Elijah and Jeremiah are probably the most famous examples of Prophets who suffered oppression and persecution at the hands of the people (and their leaders). The tradition of Isaiah’s martyrdom was noted above; we also have Zechariah son of Jehoiada being stoned to death as one of many similar examples (cf. Matt 23:34-37 par; Heb 11:35-38). On the idea of the Servant being “pierced” (v. 5), we may mention again how Uriah was killed by the sword (Jer 26:23).

This interpretation has the advantage of not being bound to the historical details of any one Prophet. At the same time, most of the description in the passage could apply to any number of the Prophets—or of all of them, taken together.

4. A collective figure for the People of Israel. This is perhaps the line of interpretation that is favored by many, if not most, critical commentators today. In its favor is the fact that Israel/Judah is specifically referred to as YHWH’s “servant” (db#u#) at a number of points in the Deutero-Isaian poems (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4). Moreover, the general context relates to YHWH leading His chosen people out of their exile. The formula is established in 41:8-9:

“But you, Yisrael, my servant [yD!b=u^],
you, Ya’aqob, whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my loved (one),
you whom I have seized from (the) ends of the earth,
and called from her corners,
you to (whom) I have said
‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you,’
—do not be afraid, for I (am) with you…”

The same basic formula is used in 42:1, only there Israel is not specifically identified as the “servant” (except in the LXX).

But if Israel is the Servant, then it is difficult to explain the relationship between the Servant and the people that runs through the passage. One possibility is that the Servant is limited to the righteous ones of Israel, who suffer at the hands of the wicked people. A better fit to the context of the passage would be the relationship between Israel and the nations. The nations (and their rulers) are referenced in 52:14-15, and, according to this line of interpretation, it is they—and not the people of Israel—who offer the testimony regarding the Servant in 53:2-6. The nations mistreat and oppress the Servant (Israel), and it is the people of Israel (or at least the righteous among them) who suffer vicariously and bear the guilt of the nations. Through this suffering, and with the Servant’s restoration in the New Age, justice and righteousness will be brought to the nations through him—that is, through the righteous ministry of the restored Israel. This legitimately reflects a key Isaian theme (cf. 2:2-4) that was developed in the Deutero- (and Trito-) Isaian poems.

Summary. In my view, the overall evidence from the Deutero-Isaian poems strongly favors the first and fourth interpretations above. That is, the Servant should be understood as either: (1) a Prophetic leader patterned after the figure of Moses, or (2) as a collective figure for the people of Israel.

It may be possible to combine these approaches, given the close relationship between Moses and the people in the historical tradition. Moses represents the people before YHWH, and YHWH before the people. He has a central and foundational role in establishing the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. Indeed, following the episode of the Golden Calf, with the violation of the covenant, Israel ceases to be the people of YHWH. It is only through the intercession of Moses, that the covenant is restored; Israel is once again considered to be the people of YHWH, but only in a qualified sense, through the personal mediation of Moses.

The Deutero-Isaian theme of the New Age (of Israel’s restoration) involves the return of Israel/Judah to the Land (i.e., a ‘new Exodus’), with the establishment of a new covenant (cf. the following 54:1-17). It thus makes sense that the Prophetic leadership of the people would likewise be understood as a “new Moses”.

To the extent that the Servant is related to the figure of Moses, there are several ways of understanding this (cf. above):

    • Moses continues to act as the Servant of YHWH, on behalf of the people, through his new (exalted) position in heaven
    • Moses serves as the symbolic pattern for the Prophetic leadership of Israel/Judah in the New Age
    • The association relates to the (eschatological) tradition of the “Prophet like Moses” who will appear to lead and guide Israel into the New Age. This could further be understood as: (a) Moses himself appearing from heaven, or (b) a new chosen Prophet who resembles Moses. There was a similar Messianic/eschatological tradition regarding the figure of Elijah. Cf. Part 3 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.

It still remains to explore how Isa 52:13-53:12 was applied to the person of Jesus—specifically his Passion (suffering and death). This we will do in the concluding portion of this article.

Notes on Prayer: Acts 1:14

Acts 1:14

For the remainder of this Spring and Summer, the Monday Notes on Prayer feature will focus on references to prayer in the Book of Acts and the Pauline Letters. We begin with the first reference in Acts, which immediately follows the departure (ascension) of Jesus into heaven (1:9-11). In many ways, the ascension marks the beginning of the book of Acts proper, with 1:1-11 serving as the narrative introduction.

The main narrative of Acts truly begins with the return of the disciples to Jerusalem:

“Then they turned back into Yerushalaim from the hill called (the mount) of Olives, which is near (to) Yerushalaim holding a Sabbath (day’s) journey (away).” (v. 12)

They return to the house and room in the city which the disciples had been using as a gathering place. It is presumably the same place where they were gathered after Jesus’ death and was the locale of his resurrection appearance (Lk 24:33-49; cp. John 20:19ff). It is an upper story (or rooftop) room, much like the one used to celebrate the Passover (Lk 22:12 par). It may be located in the house of Mary the mother of John Mark (12:12). The importance of the location is emphasized in the narrative summary here:

“And when they came in, they stepped up into the room over(head), in which they were remaining [i.e. dwelling]…” (v. 13)

The remainder of verse 13 is a list of the twelve men who made up Jesus’ closest circle of disciples—that is the eleven who remain out of the twelve (minus Judas Iscariot). The list corresponds with the Synoptic tradition in Mk 3:13-19 par [Lk 6:12-16]. However, this is no mere incidental detail. The symbolism of the twelve is of vital importance for the narrative of Acts, and for the author’s portrayal of the early Christian Community and its mission. The early Christian mission cannot begin until the twelve are reconstituted. This relates symbolically to the eschatological idea of the restoration of Israel—i.e., the twelve tribes (= the twelve apostles).

One way that this theme of restoration is expressed in Acts is through the ideal of unity among the earliest believers. Not only were they together in Jerusalem, but they were gathered in the same room. Here is how this is introduced in verse 14:

“These all were being strong toward (each other) with one impulse…”
ou!toi pa/nte$ h@san proskarterou=nte$ o(moqumado\n

ou!toi pa/nte$ (“these all”)—that is, all of the apostles, along with the other believers who are with them (cf. below). The key word here is the adjective pa=$ (“all”). Fundamental to the ideal of early Christian unity is the requirement that all believers are joined together as one.

proskarterou=nte$—this participle is of the verb proskartere/w, which literally means “be strong toward” (someone or something). This emphasizes the strength of the bond between the first believers. The participial form here indicates something active, and which is occurring continuously.

o(moqumado/n—this adverb literally means something like “(with) one impulse”; in English idiom, we would probably say “with one heart” or “with one mind”. It is an important term throughout the book of Acts, being used repeatedly as a characteristic of early Christian unity. It is used again at 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6; 15:25; and, in a negative sense, for people being united in hostility/opposition against the believers, at 7:57; 18:12; 19:29.

The apostles in the ‘upper room’ are joined with a group of female believers, along with members of Jesus’ family (Mary his mother, and his brothers). This relates to the Synoptic episode of Mark 3:31-35 par, which, in Luke’s version (8:19-21) has a special significance. Mary and Jesus’ brothers wish to see Jesus, but are unable to come into the room where he and his followers were gathered. In the core Synoptic tradition, this reflects a pointed contrast between Jesus’ biological family and his true family (that is, his disciples). Luke gives to this episode a different meaning: Jesus’ mother and brothers are part of his true family (disciples/believers), only they are not yet able to come into the room to join with his disciples.

Now, however, the situation has changed, and we do see them in the same room with Jesus’ close disciples. Among these disciples are a number of women, which is also something that Luke particularly emphasizes (8:1-4, etc). It goes without saying, of course, that Mary (Jesus’ mother) has a special place in Luke’s Gospel as a female follower and believer in Jesus. There are a number of key references to this in the Infancy narratives (1:35-38, 45; 2:19, 34-35, 39, 51).

At the heart of the Christian unity described in verse 14 is prayer. The central wording is:

“…being strong toward (each other) with one impulse in speaking out toward (God) [th=| proseuxh/|]”

This can also be rendered in the sense that the believers were being strong together toward (pro$) their activity of prayer. In conventional English, we might say they were devoted to prayer.

I translate the noun proseuxh/ here quite literally as “speak (out) toward”; the Greek word is frequently used in the religious sense of speaking out toward God—that is, speaking to God in prayer. The unity of the early believers was expressed in prayer.

We tend to think of prayer in terms of specific requests we make to God, and of his answer to our requests. Our prayers thus tend to be goal and outcome oriented. Here in Acts, however, the focus is rather different. The emphasis is on prayer as a manifestation of our bond of unity as believers. Our prayer (together) thus reflects this bond, but it also serves to reinforce the bond. It is part of our continuing to “be strong toward (each other)” (vb proskartere/w). This bond is also directed toward our identity as believers, and our relationship to God (through Christ). It is also part of our “common impulse” (o(moqumado/n, cf. above), what drives us to act, speak, and feel as believers.

May the strength of our bond, and our driving impulse, with each other likewise be rooted in the act (and spirit) of prayer.

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 1)

Psalm 44

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsc (vv. 3-9, 23-25 [2-8, 22-24]); 4QPsc (vv. 8-9 [7-8]?)

This Psalm is a lament, written from the standpoint of the people, or nation as a whole. It appears to have an Exilic setting, to judge from the statement in verse 12 [11]; at any rate, the kingdom has met with crushing defeat, and it has led to exile of the population. Possibly the Assyrian conquests are in view, which would indicate a late 8th or 7th century date, but some commentators would place it in a later period; the lack of clear historical references do not allow for a precise dating.

The superscription is essentially the same as that of Psalm 42-43. On the term lyK!c=m^, and the identification of the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the study on that Psalm. This is an ‘Elohist Psalm’, using the general plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, understood as an intensive plural, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”) in place of the Divine name hwhy.

I divide this Psalm into three parts, the first of which (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) ends with a Selah pause. It emphasizes the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest (One), with our ears we have heard,
our fathers have recounted (it) for us:
the deed(s which) you did in their days,
in (the) days (now gone) before”

The meter of this initial couplet is 3+2, typical of the so-called qina meter often used in poems of lament. The first section opens with a traditional reference to the history of Israel, marked by the great and wondrous deeds done (luP, both noun and verb) by YHWH on the people’s behalf. These deeds are presented as something told in narrative form, as a traditional tale (or tales) passed down from earlier generations (“our fathers…”, “…in days before”). Certainly this would have included the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the miraculous deliverance at the Reed Sea, as well as accounts of the Conquest of Canaan (under Joshua), and the victories under the Judges and the first kings of Israel (Saul, David). Some of these existed in a poetic form that could be taught and committed to memory (cf. Exod 15:1-21; Judges 5); the great poems also formed the core of the larger historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings) that developed by the time of the Exile.

The opening word, <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim), used in place of the Divine name YHWH, marks the ‘Elohist’ character of this Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

“You, (with) your hand,
dispossessed (the) nations and planted them,
broke apart (the) peoples and sent them (up).”

This verse is to be parsed rhythmically as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet preceded by a 2-beat line. The short initial line serves to build dramatic suspense, emphasizing that it is God (YHWH) who achieved the victories and successes for Israel; He did this with His own Divine power (His “hand”). The nations / peoples are contrasted with “them” —that is, with the people of Israel. This refers primarily to the nations of Canaan who were “dispossessed” (vb vr^y` in the Hiphil stem) of their land and “broken apart” (vb uu^r*) as national and territorial entities. In their place, Israel was “planted” in the land, where God’s people would “send (up)” (jl^v*) their shoots and branches—that is, grow and prosper. This imagery is ancient, and can be seen as early as the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13-17).

Verse 4 [3]

“For it was not with their sword (that) they possessed the land,
and their arm did not work salvation for them;
(but it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular: an extended 4+3 couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The initial couplet plays on the emphatic contrast in v. 3 [2] using the suffix < *– (“them, their”), referring to the people of Israel. In v. 3, the contrast was with the nations, while here it is with YHWH. The contrast emphasizes the point made in the initial line of v. 3—that is was God’s own hand that achieved these successes for Israel. Ultimately, victory and deliverance from enemy forces was not won by Israelite strength and military power (“their sword”), but by the power of God. This is expressed beautifully by the terse tricolon and closes the verse here:

“(it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them”

On the shining “face” (lit. “turning[s]”, <yn]P*) of YHWH as a manifestation of His fiery anger and judgment (against the wicked), cf. 34:16; 80:16, etc. The reverse of this is the motif of God’s face “shining” on the righteous in love and benevolence (4:6; 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1, etc). When the righteous experience suffering and misfortune, it seems that YHWH has turned away His face or has “hidden” it (10:11; 13:1; 27:9; 30:7, etc).

Verse 5 [4]

“You (are) He, my King (and) my Mighty (One),
commanding (act)s of salvation (for) Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist, in addressing YHWH, identifies Him as the same one who did these things for Israel (Jacob) in the past: “You (are) He” (aWh-aT*a^). This expression also serves to establish, most emphatically, the declaration “you (are) my King and my God”. Here “Mighty (One)” = “Mightiest (One)” (<hy!l)a$). With Dahood (p. 265) and other commentators, I divide MT hwx <yhla as hwxm yhla (hW#x^m= yh*l)a$, “my Mighty [One], commanding…”).

Verse 6 [5]

“In you we butted (horns against) our adversaries,
in your name we trampled (the one)s standing (against) us.”

With God’s own strength on their side, the Israelite people are able to defeat their enemies. The imagery is that of a powerful animal, like a ram, butting (vb jg~n`) its opponent and trampling (vb sWB) him. The parallel of “in your name” with “in you” illustrates again how, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, the name of a person is a manifestation and embodiment of the person himself. To be protected and strengthened by God’s name means being protecting/strengthened by His very presence and power.

An important grammatical shift takes place in this verse, as the Psalmist now speaks in the first person plural (“we…”), rather than the third person (“they/them/their”). He, and the righteous ones of his generation, identify themselves with the Israel of the past.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“For not with my bow did I seek protection,
and my sword did not bring me salvation,
(but) you have saved us from our adversaries,
and (the one)s hating us you have put to shame.”

These two couplets essentially restate v. 4 [3] (cf. above), but with the Psalmist (and other righteous ones) taking the place of the Israelites of old, and thus speaking in the first person, as in v. 6 [5] (i.e., “our sword” instead of “their sword”). However, the point is the same: it was not our strength and military skill that won the victory, but the power of YHWH working on our behalf.

Verse 9 [8]

“In (the) Mightiest (One) we shout all the day (long),
and (to) your name we throw (praise) into (the) distant (future).” Selah

The first section closes with this declaration of praise and worship for YHWH (the “Mightiest [One]”, Elohim). The righteous ones shout (vb ll^h*) praise “in” YHWH—that is, in His power and presence (cf. above). But they also throw (vb hd*y`) praise to Him—specifically, to His name, which, as noted above, means the same as giving praise to Him.

References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

May 7: Isaiah 53:12

Isaiah 53:12

“For this (reason) I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
(and with) the strong he shall have a portion of (the) plunder;
(it is) for that which (he did:) he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted,
and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith).”

This final verse (12) is comprised of three parallel couplets. It will be helpful to examine each of these in some detail.

Couplet 1

The verse opens with the compound particle /k@l*, which I translate rather literally as “for this (reason)”. It continues the discussion of the previous lines, but also anticipates the final two couplets here. The Servant’s faithfulness to YHWH, even while enduring suffering and punishment (on behalf of the people), has resulted in his being given a heavenly reward, and entry into the blessed afterlife, where he also will hold a new (heavenly) position as YHWH’s servant. This reward is described in the remainder of the first couplet:

“I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
and (with) the strong he shall have a portion of plunder”

The verb ql^j* is used twice, in the technical sense of giving someone a share or allotment in an inheritance, etc. A covenant setting must be assumed, whereby each vassal receives an appropriate portion from the sovereign, in return for faithful service he has rendered. This includes the plunder (ll*v*) from warring activity. There are “many” (<yB!r^) such vassals for YHWH, and some are particularly strong (<Wxu*), in battle, etc. The Servant is to be given an honored place among these mighty vassals. Probably the divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are in view here, in which case, there is an intentional play on the meaning of the plural substantive <yB!r^ (“[the] many”).

Earlier in this passage, <yB!r^ referred to the nations (and their rulers, 52:15), but also, apparently, to God’s people Israel/Judah (cf. the previous note on 53:11). Possibly the initial occurrence in 52:14 is meant to encompass both groups. There will be “many” among Israel/Judah, and among the nations, who will be made righteous through the Servant’s work. Thus, we should not discount the earthly aspect—that is, of the restored Israel/Judah in the New Age, with a kingdom centered at Jerusalem, from which point the Torah of YHWH will spread out to embrace the nations.

This touches upon an important Isaian theme (cf. 2:2-4) that is developed in the Deutero-Isaian poems (and again in the so-called Trito-Isaiah of chaps. 56-66). In the New Age, the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage and give worship to YHWH; within this eschatological imagery, we find the motif of the nations bringing tribute to Judah (cf. chap. 60, etc). The section that follows here (54:1-17) certainly involves the idea that God’s people will prosper in the New Age, and will spread out to possess the territory and wealth of the nations (vv. 2-3). This will constitute a reversal of earlier times: instead of being plundered by the nations, Israel/Judah will come to possess their wealth.

Couplet 2

The second couplet begins with an expression (rv#a& tj^T^) that is difficult to translate in English. Literally it means “under which”, but it essentially modifies the initial particle /k@l* in the first couplet (cf. above), “for this (reason)”. Here it is clarified: the reason is that which the Servant did. And what did he do? The couplet states this clearly:

“he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted”

The verb hr*u* signifies a condition of nakedness—of uncovering or baring oneself. The Servant willingly laid bare his soul, leaving it naked and vulnerable, to the point where it could easily meet with death. He did this by taking on himself the guilt that would make him prone to the judgment (of death) from YHWH. But it is the guilt of the people, not his own, as the discussion in the prior verses makes clear. The guilty persons are characterized as “(the one)s breaking (faith)” (<yu!v=P)), that is, breaking the covenant bond with YHWH and rebelling against His authority. This fundamental meaning of the root uvP has been discussed in the earlier notes. While the Servant has remained faithful/loyal to YHWH, he bears the guilt of those who have broken faith.

It is worth mentioning that it is possible to translate the verb hr*u* in the sense of “empty (out),” which naturally brings to mind the idea of kenosis in the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11.

Couplet 3

The final couplet essential restates the point made in the second:

“and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith)”

The two couplets together have a chiastic thematic structure, which may be illustrated as follows:

    • The Servant bares his soul for death
      • He is identified with (i.e. bears the guilt of) those breaking faith
      • He bears/lifts the guilt of those committing sin
    • He meets with the punishment (of death) for their sin

Again the verb ac*n` is used for the lifting/bearing of guilt (cf. also in v. 4). The pronoun “he” (aWh) is specifically set in emphatic (first) position, emphasizing that the Servant himself did this, that he bore the guilt of their sin upon himself.

The verb in the final line (ug~P*) can be a bit difficult to translate. In my view, it is best to keep to the fundamental meaning of “meet” —that is, to meet with (i.e., encounter) someone or something. It can be used in the harsher sense of meeting with an impact, i.e., getting hit or struck. Here, it would seem, the idea is of the Servant meeting with punishment—that is, the punishment that should have fallen upon the guilty people, but which has come upon him instead. This is the central theme of the passage: the vicarious suffering of the Servant, by which he bears on himself the guilt of the people.

There can be no doubt that it is this theme which helped to make Isa 52:13-53:12 such a powerful passage when applied to the sacrificial death of Jesus. Interestingly, however, the vicarious and sacrificial aspect does not seem to have been foremost in view for the earliest believers who applied the passage to Jesus. Rather, it appears to have been the correspondence with certain details in the account of Jesus’ Passion that first established the connection between Jesus and the Servant.

Having gone through the passage in detail, it now remains for us to explore the main lines of interpretation—including, but not limited to, the early Christian interpretation. How, precisely, should the figure of the Servant be understood? Does he represent a specific historical person, or is he a symbolic or collective figure? Does he differ in any way from the Servant-figure in the other so-called “Servant Songs” of Deutero-Isaiah? How does this figure fit within the visionary framework of the Deutero-Isaian poems, in terms of their theology, eschatology, expository purpose, and so forth? These subjects will be touched on in the concluding article (on this passage) in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”.

May 6: Isaiah 53:11

Isaiah 53:11

“From (the) labor of his soul he shall see and be satisfied,
with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many,
and their crooked (deed)s, he shall carry (them) along.”

This verse continues the theme from verse 10 (cf. the previous note), regarding the Servant’s reward for remaining faithful, enduring the suffering and punishment (from YHWH) on behalf of the people. In v. 10, the promise is that the Servant will see his descendants (“seed”) flourishing; here, the same verb (ha*r*) is used, but in a more general sense. There is no object provided in the MT for what the Servant will “see”, but the Qumran MSS 1QIsaa and 1QIsab include the word roa (“light”)i.e., “…he shall see lightand this reading would seem to be confirmed by the LXX. Whether or not this represents the original text, it probably reflects the sense of the line accurately enough.

The “light” seen by the Servant, and the satisfaction (vb ub^c*) experienced by his soul, indicates his presence in a heavenly/blessed afterlife. This is the reward for the labor (lm*u*) and suffering of his soul during his lifetime. He is now freed from this toil in the afterlife. If the setting of the passage, as suggested, is the heavenly court, then these verses reflect the decision passed down on the Servant’s behalf, in his favor. The announcement is made by YHWH Himself (“my servant”), or in His name.

The second line shows that the Servant, in his new heavenly position, will, in many ways, be continuing the service he performed on earth. That is to say, he will act on the people’s behalf, functioning as their intermediary and intercessor. With his just/right character having been confirmed, before YHWH in the heavenly court, the Servant is now able to establish justice/righteousness for the people of YHWH. Here he is called the “just [qyD!x^] servant” of YHWH (“my just servant,” or “[the] just [one], my servant”). And he will work to make/bring justice (vb qd^x* in the Hiphil causative stem); the religious aspect of this work would be emphasized by translating this verb form as “do righteousness, make righteous”. However, we should perhaps understand the verb here in the fundamental sense of “make right”, in terms of the covenant between YHWH and his people (but cp. the Servant’s role in bringing justice to the nations in 42:1-4). The Servant’s role in establishing the new covenant, likely reflects the role of Moses as the mediator of the first covenant.

It is not entirely clear what the knowledge (“with/by his knowledge”) is through which the Servant will accomplish this work. There are two possibilities: (1) it refers to his knowledge (i.e., the experience, etc) of his suffering, especially its purpose and significance; (2) the focus is on his new heavenly position in the presence of God, which gives to him a new awareness and revelatory knowledge. I would lean toward the first option. Since the emphasis in the entire passage is on the suffering of the Servant, it seems likely that his “knowledge” must be related to it as well. In any case, this knowledge and understanding is fundamentally given to him by YHWH (on this theme elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah, cf. 40:14; 41:20; 42:16ff; 43:10; 50:4-5; 51:7; 52:6; and cp. 11:2).

In the final line, it is declared that the Servant will carry the “crooked (deed)s” (or “crookedness,” in a general sense) of the people. This continues the motif from earlier in the passage, only here the verb lb^s* refers, not so much to the lifting of a heavy burden, but of transporting it, i.e., carrying it along. In other words, the Servant now does not merely bear the sin of the people, he transports it; likely a sense of expiation is in view herethat is, the sins of the people are taken away. However, this does not apply to all the people, but to the “many” (<yB!r^).

The motif of the “many” was introduced at the beginning of this passage (52:14-15), and is taken up again at the conclusion (53:11-12). The significance is perhaps best understood in light of the traditional “remnant” motif in the Prophets. In a time of great wickedness only a small portion of people are declared holy or righteous, with the implication that only they will survive or be rescued from the judgment. Now, with the dawn of the New Age, and a new covenant established between YHWH and Israel, the situation is reversed: a multitude (“many”) will be righteous and faithful throughout to YHWH. The same even applies, it would seem, to the nations— “many” of them (and their rulers) will come to be holy and righteous in the New Age. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on v. 12).

 

May 5: Isaiah 53:10

Isaiah 53:10

“But YHWH delighted to crush him, (and so) weakened (him);
if his soul would set (itself as bearing the) guilt,
he shall see (his) seed, he shall lengthen (his) days,
and (the) delight of YHWH will succeed in his hand.”

This verse summarizes the description of the Servant’s suffering and death, explaining how and why it happened. That is to say, it explains why YHWH chose to have His Servant suffer in this way. In the scenario of the passage, there seems to be a shift from the testimony of the people, to an argument that affirms the righteous character of the Servant. The important point in this regard involves the guilt (<v*a*) borne by the Servant. Why was the Servant punished by YHWH? It was not because he was deserving of the punishment, through his own guilt. However, as the wording in these lines is difficult, it is necessary to examine each component of the description carefully.

First, let us note the structure of the four lines. The ‘outer’ lines (1 and 4) emphasize the role of YHWH, while the ‘inner’ lines (2 and 3) focus on the role of the Servant. There is a thematic consistency to the framing lines on YHWH’s role, referring to His will and intention (to act) in terms of His “delight” (Jp#j@). The suffering and death of the Servant came about simply because YHWH wished it to be so. This is declared bluntly, and strikingly, in the first line:

“But YHWH delighted to crush him, (and so) weakened (him)”

The verb ak^D* (“crush”), also used in verse 5, alludes to the death (and burial) of the Servant. By “crushing” him, YHWH ultimately turns him into dust (cf. Psalm 90:3ff, a poem attributed to Moses by tradition). In order to bring about his death, the Servant first had to be weakened (vb hl*j*, cf. also in vv. 4-5). This idea of “weakness” often implies the presence of sickness, illness, disease, etc., though a person can similarly be ‘worn down’ (to the point of death) in other ways.

In the final line, the “delight” of YHWH is expressed in a different way. Instead of God’s will being directed against the Servant, it will come to be realized through him. The phrasing here is:

“and (the) delight of YHWH will succeed in his hand”

In other word’s YHWH places the authority (and power) to exercise His will in the hand of the Servant. The Servant thus comes to function like a heavenly Messenger (Angel). This would especially fit the figure of Moses, as a type-pattern for the Servant, since Moses functioned in a comparable way at points during his ministry on earth. In particular, we may note the way that the power of YHWH was given into his ‘hand’ to bring about the plagues on Egypt (cf. Exod 4:1-9, 21ff, etc; cf. also Num 10:13). All the more, then, would this Moses-Servant act as a powerful instrument of God’s will in his new heavenly position (following his death and exaltation). Much the same could be said of other major Prophetic figures, such as Elijah.

The central lines (2 and 3) focus on the role of the Servant in this process. While the suffering came about through the sovereign will of YHWH, the Servant still had a choice in how to respond to this. His response is indicated in line 2, though, admittedly, the phrasing is unusual:

“if his soul would set (itself as bearing the) guilt”
ovp=n~ <v*a* <yc!T* <a!

The first word is the conditional particle <a! (“if…”); this implies that what follows in line 3 will only occur if the condition in line 2 is met. The verb <yc!T* is best understood as a 3rd person feminine form, which indicates that ovpn~ (“his soul”) is the subject. Some commentators would emend this to a masculine form (<yc!y`), which would yield a more straightforward line (“if he will set his soul…”). In any case, the condition is that the Servant sets himself (his own soul) for guilt (<v*a*). It is not necessary to view <v*a* here in the specific ritual sense of a sacrificial offering for guilt. Rather, the point seems to be that the Servant willingly accepts that he himself bears the guilt of the people.

If he willingly places/sets his soul in this way, for this purpose, then the promises in line 3 will be realized for the Servant. There are two promises involved:

    • “he shall see (his) seed”
    • “he shall lengthen (his) days”

If the Servant has died (and been buried), how are either of these things possible? There are several aspects to this promise that should be considered. First, is the obvious sense of a long life on earth, during which one lives to see many children and descendants (“seed”). Second, the exaltation of the Servant makes it likely that a heavenly existence (future life) is in view for him. If the proposed setting for the passage—a scene in the heavenly court—is correct, then the Servant has to pass through the judgment of this court to enter into his new position as YHWH’s servant, in heaven. Third, there is the idea that the Servant’s life will continue in the person of his descendants, understood either in a literal/biological or figurative sense. Finally, we must also keep in mind the close connection between the Servant and the people of Israel, since Israel/Judah is also referred to as YHWH’s servant (db#u#) in Deutero-Isaiah (and elsewhere in the Old Testament). Many commentators would interpret the Servant of these Songs as a representation of the collective people of Israel. However, here the collective interpretation is difficult to maintain; the text seems to portray the Servant as a distinct individual, with a life/career on earth, and offspring/descendants, etc.

Again, it is worth considering the type-pattern of Moses. In spite of the suffering and oppression he experienced, including the judgment brought upon him by YHWH that fated him to die outside the Promised Land, Moses lived an unusually long time—120 years, according to Deut 34:7 (cp. Psalm 90:10). Also, an important component of the Moses/Exodus traditions is how the restored covenant between YHWH and Israel (following the Golden Calf episode) was entirely dependent upon the mediation of Moses. Having broken the binding agreement (covenant), Israel now could only be considered the people of YHWH in a qualified sense. Technically, they were Moses’ people, and related to YHWH only through Moses as their representative and intermediary. For more on the complex narrative that deals with this situation, Exodus 32-34 should be studied carefully (in the overall context of the book of Exodus, esp. chapters 19ff). Following Israel’s violation of the covenant, YHWH wished to eliminate the people entirely, and to replace them with the descendants of Moses (Exod 33:1, etc). The promise expressed in these traditions is that Moses’ descendants (his “seed”) would be vast, and would inherit the land. Even after the covenant was restored, the idea of Moses’ descendants, and their importance, remained established within Israelite and Old Testament tradition. It is possible that verse 10 deals with this idea.