Tuesday, June 15, 2010
One question that was brought up was the difference between the LXX (the Greek Old Testament read by the Apostles) and the Hebrew OT. For example take verse 10 where it says in the Hebrew
"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering..." (NIV)
but the LXX has,
"The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if you give an offering for sin..."
These two texts clearly have different meaning, but let's step back for a moment and look at the big picture. The whole narrative of Isa 53 is one of a travesty of justice. It begins in 52 by saying that "kings will shut their mouths" when they finally get what no one was able to see coming. Then in 53 it begins by saying "who has believed this message?" and goes on to show how everyone in fact completely got it wrong and did not realize that the one who " took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows" was not someone they should despise as "stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted." The picture here we are seeing is one of a travesty of justice. The servant is treated unfairly. Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones. It is not at all a picture of the fulfillment of justice, but of something is lamented as horribly unjust "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth... By oppression and judgment he was taken away."
Clearly this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice. No legal system would ever say it is just to punish the innocent. This goes completely against the entire thrust of the OT law, and indeed against all legal systems. Luther commenting on this says that it goes against "all law, custom, and reason." And that is the whole point. The big picture is that this is supposed to be a shock, something hard to swallow. Isaiah tells us this repeatedly. Paul similarly speaks of the cross as being "foolishness" and a "scandal". So with that in mind let's return to that verse in the LXX...
My guess is that a scribe changed it from "crush" to "cleanse" in an attempt to make sense of the text. The idea that this travesty of justice was somehow God's will was too much for him. So he "fixed" the text. Penal substitution tries to do the same thing by presenting the cross as a reasonable fulfillment of law, even though as I said this really makes no sense (punishing the innocent is not just). Here we who want to get away from a punitive understanding of the cross might also want to adopt the LXX reading and avoid the idea that Christ suffered for us too. But I think that is a mistake. The cross needs to stay a scandal and a shock. It needs to be intimidating. As Moltmann says "if we do not have the feeling that we must flee the cross of Christ, we have not yet understood it in a sufficiently radical way"
The crazy picture we get is that even though it is totally unfair, the servant bore our sickness, suffering, and hurtfulness and that somehow acts to cleanse us. Isaiah does not directly deal with how that works. He says that we are healed, brought peace, and carried, and alludes to the idea of sacrifice, speaking of lambs and guilt offerings (i.e. offerings of restitution). As I have argued here and here, sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment (sacrifice is the alternative to punishment) and everything to do with cleansing - that is with sanctification. So the purpose of Christ bearing our pain, doubt, fear, and ugliness is not so that God can be appeased, but so that we can be made new. This is as I have argued in my article here the way that the early church understood Christ's death for us. So with that in mind, let me "fix" the LXX
"The Lord wishes to cleanse
While I'm at it, let me offer a thought about doing biblical exegesis. Most people read the Bible one verse at a time. When doing this it is very easy to miss the larger story or narrative point (like the one we saw in Isa 53) and instead to simply plug in our preconceived doctrinal understandings onto the words and phrases we see in those little verse snippets. This is not at all helped by the fact that the majority of biblical scholars read in this same way, fussing over single words, arguing about the exact grammatical form of this or that word. Commentaries go on for pages like this, and if you asked me the result is that we focus on the crumbs and miss the cookie. We get so focused on some minute detail that we miss the big picture - not just of this chapter, but of how atonement works throughout the entire narrative of both Testaments, how it was understood by the Apostles, and by the early church. How all the pieces fit together. It is that BIG picture we need to focus on as the primary goal of biblical interpretation, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense. If we were interpreting any other novel or story we would certainly not fuss so much over some little sentence fragment or tense of a verb, we would read the whole story and talk about that. Likewise when people read this blog post I hope they focus on the points I am making and don't write a dissertation on my use of the word "of". It is really not that hard to interpret Isaiah 53 if we simply read it as a whole and look at the theme that it is developing. You don't need to know Hebrew or Greek, you just need to read the whole thing and get your head in the narrative. Someone who does this really well is Eugene Peterson. Here's his rendering of Isa 52:13-53:12:
13-15"Just watch my servant blossom!
Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn't begin that way.
At first everyone was appalled.
He didn't even look human—
a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes,
what was unthinkable they'll have right before them."
1 Who believes what we've heard and seen? Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?
2-6The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.
We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,
on him, on him.
7-9He was beaten, he was tortured,
but he didn't say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
and like a sheep being sheared,
he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he'd never hurt a soul
or said one word that wasn't true.
10Still, it's what God had in mind all along,
to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin
so that he'd see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
And God's plan will deeply prosper through him.
11-12Out of that terrible travail of soul,
he'll see that it's worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
will make many "righteous ones,"
as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I'll reward him extravagantly—
the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn't flinch,
because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
he took up the cause of all the black sheep.