Lectionary III (Sept-Dec. 2007)
Christmas I (12/30)
Hebrews 2:10-18 (I)
Hebrews 2:10-18 (II)
Advent IV (12/23)
Isaiah 7:10-17 (I)
Isaiah 7:10-17 (II)
Matthew 1:18-25 (I)
Matthew 1:18-25 (II)
Advent III (12/16)
Isaiah 35:1-10 (I)
Isaiah 35:1-10 (II)
Matthew 11:2-11 (I)
Matthew 11:2-11 (II)
Advent II (12/9/07)
Rom. 15:4-13 (I)
Rom. 15:4-13 (II)
Advent I (12/2/07)
Matt. 24:36-44 (I)
Matt. 24: 36-44 (II)
Rom. 13:8-14 (I)
Rom. 13:8-14 (II)
Christ King (11/25)
Luke 23:33-43 (I)
Luke 23:33-43 (II)
Col. 1:11-20 (I)
Col. 1:11-20 (II)
II Thess. 3:6-13
Luke 20:27-38 (I)
Luke 20:27-38 (II)
II Thess. 2:1-17
Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Luke 19:1-10 (I)
Luke 19:1-10 (II)
II Thess. 1:1-2:2 (I)
II Thess. 1:1-2:2 (II)
Luke 18:9-14 (I)
Luke 18:9-14 (II)
II Tim. 4:6-18 (I)
II Tim. 4:6-18 (II)
Gen. 32:22-31 (I)
Gen. 32:22-31 (II)
Luke 18:1-8 (I)
Luke 18:1-8 (II)
II Tim. 3:14-4:5
II Kings 5:1-13 (I)
II Kings 5:1-13 (II)
Luke 17:11-19 (I)
Luke 17:11-19 (II)
II Tim. 2:8-15 (I)
II Tim. 2:8-15 (II)
Habakk. 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Luke 17:5-10 (I)
Luke 17:5-10 (II)
II Timothy 1:1-14 (I)
II Tim. 1:1-14 (II)
Luke 16:19-31 (I)
Luke 16:19-31 (II)
I Tim. 6:6-19 (I)
I Tim. 6:6-19 (II)
Jer. 8:18-9:1 (I)
Jer. 8:18-9:1 (II)
I Tim. 2:1-8
Exodus 32:7-14 (I)
Exodus 32:7-14 (II)
Luke 15:11-32 (I)
Luke 15:11-32 (II)
I Tim. 1:12-17
Psalm 139 (I)
Psalm 139 (II)
Luke 14:25-33 (I)
Luke 14:25-33 (II)
Philemon 1-21 (I)
Philemon 1-21 (II)
Advent II--December 9, 2007
Bill Long 11/28/07
Isaiah 11:1-10; Breaking the Code of Isaiah
Here is our text, from the NRSV:
"A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
I. Introduction--A Traditional Reading
If you are looking for a traditional exposition of Isaiah 11, you should stop at the end of the next paragraph. Such an exposition could do a number of thoughtful things: (1) It could look at Is. 11 in the context of the flow of Isaiah from Is. 6-12. If you did this, you would note the struggle between messianic hope and judgment in alternate chapters. Ch. 6 announces a great vision of Isaiah; ch 7 is the famous "Immanuel" passage (7:14); ch. 8 urges the people to "gird yourselves and be dismayed" (8:9); ch. 9 talks about light dawning for the people walking in darkness (9:2-6); ch. 10 returns to the theme of the "day of punishment" (10:3); ch. 11 reasserts messianic themes (our passage) and ch. 12 concludes this section by a reading on joy and gratitude. Then, chs. 13ff. turn to another subject--the oracles against the nations. Thus, your entire message could be based on the "struggle" between hope and judgment, which is resolved in favor of hope and joy.
Or...(2) You could look exclusively at Is. 11 and note the flow of the text: (a) a judge equipped with wisdom-style characteristics (1-2); (b) a judge who judges with righteousness (3-5); (c) the transformation of nature (6-9). When developing the last theme you can refer to Woody Allen's famous joke about the lion and the lamb lying down together--but the lamb will not get much sleep; you could also make reference to the quaint American Quaker folk painter Edward Hicks, and his simple depiction of the "Peaceable Kingdom."
In fact, if you did either of these, you would have a good sermon or series of teaching points for the day. But something about these readings just didn't seem to bring the text alive to me this year--especially in the context of an email correspondence I am having with a writer in Australia. Let me turn to that correspondence, and then return to the text of Isaiah.
An Unsolicited Email
One of the joys (and risks, to be clear) of putting myself "out there" with all these expositions and other essays is that I open myself up to receive missives from people from all over the world on a number of topics--many of which I have little knowledge about. Recently, a woman from Australia wrote to me after reading my essay on the word "drab." She has been studying Jane Austen, probably one of the most superb stylists and perceptive writers on human emotions/aspirations that we have in English. She, along with a small coterie of Austen devotees, has been subjecting her novel Emma (which came to most people's attention about a decade ago through a film in which Gwyneth Paltrow starred) to a different kind of reading--a reading in which they try to discover a "code" which is behind the actual text. Well, you say, 'that is what the "Modern Language Association" types have been doing for the past 30 years--and that is why Johnny or even Mary can't read.' Maybe so, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some kind of hidden code or message that a person is trying to communicate to the perceptive reader. We know that Shakespeare often did this with respect to sex--using double and sometimes triple-entendres in order to "conceal" or at least partially cover up some things that he just couldn't come out and say directly because of the spirit of his times.
So, that is the thesis of my new friend in Australia--that Austen's Emma is written in some kind of "code," a code that has much to do with bawdy sexuality (after all, sex and thoughts of sex take up most of many people's waking hours). I am not able to evaluate her claims at this point; I mostly read her stuff, comment and ask some questions. But it did provoke the thought in my mind of whether Isaiah, one of the most beautiful prose and poetic works in Western Civilization, might also successfully be subject to this "code" reading.
A "Code" for Isaiah?
Normally when one thinks of codes and biblical authors, one thinks of Fundamentalists who think they have "cracked" the meaning of Revelation so that they know exactly when Christ will return and His Kingdom will dawn. But that is far from my intention. Believing as I do that the Church fathers (especially Origen in the 3rd Century) were not all wrong when they began to caress the text and discover two, three or even four levels of meaning in it (variously called the historical, literal, allegorical, typological, moral or anagogical readings), I would like to return to the text today and suggest another level at which we can read this passage of Isaiah. I don't know if you could extend this reading to other sections, but let's begin here.
The major observation I would make is that Is. 11:1-5 and 6-9 seem to "balance" each other. One speaks of the shoot from the branch of Jesse who will bring justice and righteousness; the other speaks of the result of this justice and righteousness. The first speaks of the delight of the human ruler; the second speaks of the delight of the playing child and animals. It seems that the Lectionary-makers have rightly put these two passages together for our reading today.
But what is striking to me as I look more closely at the text is a nearly one-to-one correspondence between the virtues of the first part of the text and the animals of the second. Just as wisdom, understanding, counsel and might rest on the shoot of Jesse, so the wolf, lamb, leopard and kid are celebrated in the second half. As it is the spirit of counsel, might and knowledge of the Lord that triumph at the beginning, so it is the calf and lion and fatling together in the second, with the little child triumphing over them all--by leading them. Almost a one-to-one correspondence between virtues and animals. What is up?
I don't know, but one thing that normally is "encoded" are thoughts that simply aren't acceptable to be said in "plain words." They don't always have to be about sex, however...that is just our cultural hangup! But codes always conceal thoughts that aren't acceptable in the time in which they were written--but thoughts which may more honestly reflect the author's mind than the seemingly "obvious" ones. Or, encoded thoughts could also be nothing more than a sort of "word game," or "fun exercise" in which the author is engaging. Why? Because the simple expression of straightforward, clear and even eloquent truths isn't enough to keep the racing mind of the literary genius occupied.
My suggestion or attempt to 'break the code' of Isaiah (if you are even convinced there might be a code (!)) is that Isaiah actually believes that the hopeful vision he portrays is as hopeless as the situation in which he and the people find themselves. He says this by pairing human virtue and (dumb) animals. Human virtues are paired with (dumb) animals--animals which may at times speak in the OT but are never endowed with the kind of virtues that correspond to the list of virtues in Is. 11:1-5. Since we know that humans and animals cannot be compared in terms of their moral traits in the OT, then the whole superstructure on which the passage is built collapses before our eyes.
Isaiah, in fact, didn't believe in what he said--he was too much of a realist to believe that some glorious future age really would dawn, but he knew that one of the things that vaulted prophets to the top of national recognition was the ability to maintain a vision of hope even when things looked really bleak. So, he did that--and he got his reward by eventually being included in the canon and by being considered a classic prophet of hope, whose Scriptures are used in Advent. But, when the truth of Isaiah is told and the code is interpreted, he is as bogged down by the realities around him as anyone else. The only thing, however, is that he knew how to convince others that he wasn't. We have "fallen" for his line about hope. Now is the time to right the balance.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long