Tag: isaiah

How did Jesus read the Old Testament?

One of the most insightful things I read last year was Joseph Spencer’s book on Isaiah, and this part especially stood out to me:

What else needs to be said? Shall we tackle the most difficult bit of advice? Let’s do. Here it is, put far too strongly at first: Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah. We’ve been trained by a long Christian tradition to think that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently spoke in anticipation of Christ. And the result has been a Christological approach to understanding Isaiah. All too often, we read Isaiah, talking to ourselves in something like this way: “This doesn’t make sense. Nor does this. Oh, that sounds like Jesus! Okay, this doesn’t make sense again. Nor that. Oh, Jesus again! Now this doesn’t make sense. . . .” You see, the passages from Isaiah we’re most comfortable with are the ones we associate directly with Christ: “a virgin shall conceive,” “unto us a child is born,” “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all,” and so on. The rest of Isaiah we find too obscure to make much sense of. I think that’s in part because we’re wondering what the rest has to say about Christ. We read about the virgin conceiving, and we feel like we’re on solid ground. But the passage then goes on to talk about eating butter and honey, about foreign kings, about flies and bees, about hired razors, and so on, and we feel like everything stopped making sense. That whole text actually becomes relatively simple if you wait a bit before trying to find Christ in it, figuring out what Isaiah himself is saying first. You see, there’s a difficult political situation in Isaiah’s day, and Judah’s king is acting out of fear as it unfolds; Isaiah tells him not to fear because a soon-to-be-born baby won’t know how to speak before the enemy has been deposed; but then the real tough times will come beyond that, and largely because the king has acted faithlessly—and so on. This is a relatively clear story (we’ll be telling it in detail in a later lecture), but it’s clear only if we don’t try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ. It’ll do that in good time.

Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”

My wife and I began our reading of the Old Testament today. One of her goals, a noble one, is to learn something about how Jesus read the Old Testament. The passage I always go to is the scene from the Road to Emmaus: how the risen Christ listens to the two disciples expressing confusion, and he calls them fools for not understanding the scriptures (what we today call “the Old Testament,” the only scriptures they had at the time). “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

I think that the advice above is pertinent. Not everything in ancient scripture is about Christ, or at least, not at first. And it’d be good for me to slow down, and not “try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ.” Such a reading is Christocentric, which sounds good. But I can attest, it’s lead to a lot of confusion on my part. “How is any of this”—the weird stories in Judges, the temple blueprints in Exodus, the war chapters of Joshua, the angry Psalms, the downer Ecclesiastes, the parts of Job and Ezekiel we don’t read—”about Jesus?!”

And the frank answer, it’s not, at least not at first. But given that we know how the story ends with Jesus, we can look back, and read it in that light. I like this from Pete Enns:

As an analogy, it is helpful to think of the process of reading a good novel the first time and the second time. The two readings are not the same experience. Who of us has not said during that second reading, “I didn’t see that the last time,” or “So that’s how the pieces fit together.” That the Old Testament is not a novel should not diminish the value of the analogy: the first reading of the Old Testament leaves you with hints, suggestions, trajectories, and so on, of how things will play out in the end, but it is not until you get to the end that you begin to see how the pieces fit together. And in that second reading, you also begin to see how parts of the story that seemed wholly unrelated at first now take on a much richer, deeper significance…

The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is “christotelic.” I prefer this over “christological” or “christocentric” since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to “see Christ” in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passage. Telos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion.” To read the Old Testament “christotelically” is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading.

This occurred to me as my wife and I were talking about the Bible Project’s overview of the Old Testament. If we step back and understand the large story, we can see how even the Old Testament is built around hints and expectations of a Messiah, imperfect though that understanding was. And though not all of the Old Testament is about Christ, and I don’t need to force it all to fit—it all leads to Christ, and that’s amazing!

I think that’s what Christ was saying to the disciples. They were confused, trying desperately to understand how the story could have ended this way. And Christ is over there telling them: “My life, my death, my life again—it was a surprise! But not a total surprise. And now that you know how the story ends, go back and re-read it. Look it over again. And you’ll begin to see how parts that seemed insignificant take on a much, much greater significance now.”

Teaching Sunday School How to Read Biblical Poetry

This past Sunday, I subbed for our Sunday School class. Much as I love teaching Sunbeams, it was a great change of pace to discuss scripture with adults. And part of the challenge (and fun) was looking for ways to not just introduce Jacob’s wonderful discourse in 2 Nephi 6-10, but also to talk about the elephant in the room: Isaiah, who dominates the next two weeks.

The lesson was met with some positive feedback, and I had several people come up and let me know how much they liked it. So in the spirit of sharing, here’s part of what I did for the lesson, and here’s the handout I gave people a link to for later reference.

Reading Biblical Poetry

The first thing I wanted to do was help people know that Isaiah is mostly poetry, and so think about how to read Biblical poetry. I borrowed heavily from The Bible Project’s great video on how to read Biblical poetry, which you can see here:

I unabashedly love The Bible Project.

While I could have shown the video in class, probably, I decided just to hit the main points myself, keeping it really high level:

  • I explained that 33% of the Bible is poetry. So how do we read it?
  • Biblical poetry doesn’t use rhyme to mark something as poetry, but rather couplets set parallel to each other.
  • The first line of each couplet makes a basic statement.
  • The second line either completes, deepens, or contrasts the first line. (This is really general, but hey, rule of threes.) I drew these points on the board.
  • Let’s see an example of this. Jacob uses chapter 6 to comment on Isaiah 49:22-23. But that’s actually part of a larger poem, Isaiah 49:14-23. Let’s take a look at it.
  • At this point, I passed around this as a handout, which showed the larger passage in poetic form. I also made a couple of notes regarding the “setup” of the poem.
Isaiah 49:14-23
  • I took a minute to observe that, unlike the KVJ or our own Book of Mormon, this translation shows the couplets. It helps to see the couplets when you read poetry, and you should try to do that whenever possible!
  • We spent a couple of minutes reading through the couplets, and I asked them each time what they thought the second line was doing. Verse 14? Deepening. The first half of verse 15? Deepening. The second half? Contrasting. Verse 14? Deepening or completing. It was fun, and they really got into it.

Isaiah’s Two Halves

At this point, I had them break into groups and read the poem again, looking for the answer to these two questions: what is the poem about? And why would Nephi and Jacob have taught this to their people? What message did it have for them? After a fruitful discussion, I asked them what it might mean for us. We had a great time.

One of the things that came up in the discussion was that the Isaiah passages Jacob was quoting to his people were basically hopeful. And this makes sense, if we know something about the book of Isaiah! I only spent a couple of minutes making this point, but it proved helpful for several people in our group:

  • Isaiah has two halves!
  • I drew a picture of a book, and wrote “Isaiah 1-39 / Judgement” on the left side, and “Isaiah 40-66 / Hope and Comfort” on the right side. I take this basic idea from the Bible Project, commentaries, and BYU’s Joseph Spencer, who said this:

The simplest or most obvious literary feature of the Book of Isaiah is the fact that it comes in two halves… whether we divide the book between chapters 33 and 34 or between chapters 39 and 40, what’s important for our purposes is the fact that the two halves are literarily and theologically different. The first half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of judgment (both of covenant peoples and of Gentile nations), while the second half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of restoration (of the covenant people thanks in part to the assistance of the Gentile nations). Other major prophetic books are similarly organized, with prophecies of peace and restoration coming after prophecies of destruction and judgment…

Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”, Chapter 2
  • I explained that (generally speaking) it’s helpful to ask which “side” of Isaiah the passage is from. If Jacob or Nephi (or Jesus or Abinadi) is quoting from the first half, like most of next week’s readings, it’s from the “judgement” section. If it’s from the second half, it’s from the “hope” section.
  • I asked them which “side” today’s reading is from–the “hope” side!–and which “side” next week’s reading is from. And then, with that very brief note about Isaiah’s larger structure, we moved on.

Making Isaiah Approachable

After this, we launched in 2 Nephi 9-10, which is, I think, where most lessons on 2 Nephi 6-10 spend their time. (It’s certainly where the manual focuses us.) But I wanted to make sure we spent some time on the Isaiah chapters–learning how to read the poetry and making Isaiah’s own book a little more approachable. This handout I gave people a link to also helped to point people toward some of the YouTube videos and directions.

I’m always trying to learn how to make Isaiah more inviting. These are little “hooks” that have helped me into a very daunting but powerful testament, a testament that bears witness of God’s covenant love for His people–anciently, and today. I hope it helps!

If you have any other ideas or things that work for you and your class, let me know.