Year A: Epiphany 3
January 23, 2011
The Old Testament reading this week has been chosen in part because of the quotation of Isa 9:1-2, with some small differences, in Matthew 4:15-16. However, the connection has more to it than simply the references to the land of Galilee, and the territory of the ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, the places mentioned in Isa 9:1.
The Old Testament reading has been limited to vv. 1-4 of Isaiah 9. But the words of joy and hope in vv. 1-4 lack any real context without probing the text of Isaiah both preceding and following them. The poem, which begins in v. 2, continues beyond v. 4 to at least Isa 9:7. In particular, vv. 6-7 give the reason for the joy of the earlier verses: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us”. There is some question as to who is speaking in these verses. It could be the people who celebrate the birth of a king. If so the word “given” is important. This one in whom the people’s hopes are centred is one who comes to them, as a gift. There is a strong sense of the gift of liberation and salvation. Alternatively, the speaker could be God, and the occasion the coronation of a new king (cf. the language of Ps 2:7 which might also come from that context). In either case, the occasion is the advent of a new king in whom are centred hopes for a new future. The list of titles at the end of v. 6 could echo the list of throne names (usually five) given to the Egyptian Pharaohs (cf. also 2 Sam 23:1 for similar epithets for the king in Israel). While Christians have read these verses, especially Isa 9:6, messianically in relation to Jesus, in the context of v. 7 they are messianic only in terms of the Davidic dynasty and expectations on the human kings of that line.
Isa 9:1-4 also needs to be seen in the context of the material immediately before it, Isa 8:16-22. Although the passages may not have been connected originally, the editors of Isaiah have placed them together and provided some thematic connections. The desolation of the land (8:21) prepares for the anguish in 9:1. The references to “no dawn” and “darkness” in 8:20 and 22, suggest the image of the dawning of a new day in 9:2. In making these connections, the editors have firmly linked 9:1-7 with the story of King Ahaz of Judah whose political dilemma and debate with the prophet Isaiah are described in chapters 7-8.
The time was 734-732 BCE and Ahaz faced the threat of attack from his northern neighbours Israel and Syria. One option he contemplated was calling on the superpower Assyria to defend him against his neighbours. But that would mean making a political alliance that, in the end, could be as destructive for Ahaz and Judah (see Isa 5:28-30 with further references to darkness and distress, v. 30). Some scholars have thought the mention of Zebulun and Naphtali in 9:1 could possibly relate to an Assyrian campaign and conquest of the coastal regions of northern kingdom of Israel (cf. 10:9). The incident, if it is this, is not mentioned in any other sources. Furthermore, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were fairly insignificant ones, so the events referred to in 9:1 still remain obscure. The reference to the day of Midian (cf. Judg 6:33ff) may provide a further northern connection. In the Judges story Gideon led the northern tribes of Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh, against the Midianites and Amalekites.
In the face of Ahaz’s political dilemma Isaiah urged a solution that required the bringing of religious belief into the world of real politics and national security. He urged Ahaz to stand firm in faith (7:3-9). This is echoed in 8:17, where the prophet speaks of his own “waiting” for the Lord. The Hebrew word for “wait” is the same as the word for “hope”. Moreover, the assurance Ahaz would have sought, that God would indeed come to his aid, hardly seemed impressive. It consisted of the prophet, his word and the children whom the Lord had given the prophet, who bore names with prophetic import (8:18; cf. 7:3; 8:1 and possibly even the child with the name Immanuel, 7:14). A man’s word, and the names of a few children. That is all that is offered by way of a “sign” for Ahaz, a man probably used to making decisions based on firmer knowledge and intelligence.
Attention to the context of the Isaiah reading relates to the Gospel for today in a couple of ways. First, the expression of joy and hope fulfilled in Isa 9:1-4 is to be seen in the very real and risky world of political alliances. Likewise the story of the birth and beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew is set in the harsh world of infanticide (Matt 2:16-18), political intrigue and fear (Matt 2:3-12), and violent oppression and arrest (Matt 4:12). The messiah in Matthew’s Gospel also comes into a real and risky world. Secondly, in Isaiah there is a call to faith in a world where the signs of faith seem insignificant. So too the birth of the messiah in Matthew seems a vulnerable and insignificant event given all that surrounds it: a child is born to a poor refugee family fearing its very survival.
As we celebrate the joy of Christmas and of the season of Epiphany, we do so in the context of continuing war and struggle in many places, of political assassination or attempts at such in Pakistan and the US, of devastating floods, and not least the increasing threat to the future of our planet. We celebrate joyfully “a son given to us” not in spite of all that is horrible, dangerous, or distressing about the world around us, but precisely because of it. In the birth of that one we hear again the call to faith that has always been there for God’s people. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we hear again the call to discipleship (Matt 4:18-22). The prophet and the evangelist both point us to a reality that transcends all that is darkness about us; to a light that shines even in the land of deep darkness.
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