Some Thoughts on SJ Thomason’s Response to Elisha Ben Abuya

In December Twitter user Elisha Ben Abuya posted to his blog a piece on Isaiah 53. In it he lays out his case that the passage which Christians attribute to divine prophecy about Jesus is actually about Israel and is hardly prophetic at all. He wrote,

My intent was to show that Isaiah 53 needs to be read COMPLETELY with the other chapters.

And if you pull out chapter 53 and threw it away, and you had to guess what it would have to say, based on all of the other chapters before and after.

The individual words of one chapter are not as important as the complete package.

And isn’t that something that Christians are always complaining about? “You are taking it out of context!”

Indeed.

In response to his post, pop-apologist SJ Thomason posted a rebuttal that not only completely misses the point of Elisha’s work but also displays a dearth of knowledge about biblical texts generally. I have no desire to dissect her post piece-by-piece but I would like to make a few observations. We will begin with the end.

Jesus and the Fourth Servant Song

Thomason writes,

The four Gospels recount Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, which corresponds to the passage above [i.e. Isaiah 53] in that he (1) was rejected by mankind; (2) bore our suffering and was crushed for our iniquities; (3) was pierced for our transgressions; (4) did not open his mouth when being led into slaughter; (5) was cut off from the land of the living; and (6) after suffering he saw the light of life and was satisfied.

This tells us exactly nothing about whether the Fourth Servant Song is about Jesus. Rather, it tells us that Christians accommodated the biblical text in their telling of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thomason offers no meaningful exegesis of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that demonstrates beyond any doubt that Jesus is the topic of discussion. And why doesn’t she? Because she can’t.

When we read the Gospels, we aren’t reading a unified approach to the telling of Jesus’ life and death. Each of the writers shaped their narratives to suit their audiences. It is why when we read the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law and healing the sick and casting out demons in the Gospel of Mark (1:29-34) we don’t find a connection to any fulfillment of prophecy like we do in Matthew’s version of the story (Matthew 8:14-17). Matthew sees Jesus’ healing and exorcism ministry as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4:

“This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.'” (Matthew 8:17, NRSV)

But we expect this of Matthew’s Gospel which before Matthew 8 had already appropriated seven other texts from the Hebrew Bible and made them about Jesus in one way or another. For Matthew, Jesus is the new and better Moses and, in many ways, the new and better Israel. [1] L. Michael White notes that

this pattern of formulaic citation of scriptures appears throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Consequently, all of the prophecy-fulfillment citations in Matthew are part of the Matthean design and composition of the narrative….In each instance they are carefully selected and adapted to give the actions described an aura of verisimilitude….The prophecy-fulfillment citations reflect a major component of the Matthean theological agenda in shaping the image of Jesus. [2]

But is this appropriation by Matthew proof that Jesus is the fulfillment of passages such as Isaiah 53:4? No, it is merely evidence that early Christians saw in the Jewish holy texts their crucified and risen Savior. In order to establish that Jesus is the fulfillment of these texts, one must provide some kind of meaningful exegesis that deals with the full context of the citations and not just the cherry-picked portions. [3] Thomason simply doesn’t do that. Instead, she comes up with weak arguments for why Isaiah 53 cannot be about Israel. She writes,

Unlike the Suffering Servant, the nation of Israel (1) is beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2 and (2) has a history of violence, as opposed to Isaiah 53:9. If the nation refers to the people of Israel as a whole, as Origen suggested, some within the group are beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2; and (2) all Jewish people have not been led into slaughter and have not been silent when persecuted, as opposed to Isaiah 53:7. God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).

I’ll be honest, it looks like Thomason wrote this part in great haste. [4] For one thing, the numbering of her points is off – (1), (2), (2) – and for another she completely undermines the point she is trying to make regarding Isaiah 53 and Jesus.

First, while it is true that the nation of Israel is described as beautiful in the Hebrew Bible (see Psalm 50:1 or Ezekiel 16:14 for example), there are also descriptions of Israel that are not so beautiful. In not a few places is Israel referred to as a whore (Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 4:15) and in Isaiah the nation is referred to as “godless” (Isaiah 10:5). The description of the Servant in Isaiah 53:2 fits perfectly with Israel. In fact, there is an interesting parallel between the description of the Servant in Isaiah 53:2 and Yahweh’s description of what the nations did to Israel in 53:23. In 53:23 we read,

And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
“Bow down, that we may walk on you”;
and you have made your back like the ground [כָאָרֶץ]
and like the street for them to walk on.
(NRSV)

The imagery is vivid enough: in what the nations did to Israel, they essentially pounded them into the ground . In Isaiah 53:2 we read that the Servant grew up “like a root out of dry ground [צִיָּה מֵאֶרֶץ].” So then we can see the idea that the misfortune of Israel at the hands of her “tormentors” is being reversed. Though Israel had been pounded into the ground, out of the ground she emerges.

Second, Thomason thinks that because Israel has conducted violence in her past that this disqualifies her as the Servant based upon 53:9 which says,

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
(NRSV)

Since Israel certainly had a violent past, this description of the Servant cannot fit Israel, right? Only if you ignore the larger context of the passage. If you look back at 52:3-6 you see something interesting going on in the book of Isaiah. Really, it has been going on since chapter forty. It says,

For thus says the LORD: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money. For thus says the Lord GOD: Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. Now therefore, what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers howl, says the LORD, and continually, all day long, my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; her am I. (NRSV)

Twice we see Yahweh through the prophet saying that the Assyrians and the Babylonians have acted against Israel “without cause.” This is clear revisionism. In Isaiah 10 the Assyrians are called “the rod” of Yahweh’s anger that he would send against the “godless nation” of Israel (10:5-6). So what is going on? It seems that the author is presenting the ideal Israel, the faithful remnant that seeks after Yahweh. So too in Isaiah 53:9 and in other verses in the text we see this ideal Israel, the faithful remnant that is Yahweh’s Servant. Furthermore, in the Third Servant Song (50:4-11) we read of Israel’s humility in the face of suffering.

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out
the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
(50:4-6), NRSV

We must also consider who is speaking in 53:9. The Fourth Servant Song begins with 52:13 and the final three verses of Isaiah 52 are clearly Yahweh. But then the voice switches from the first person singular to the first person plural – “Who has believed what we have heard?” (53:1) I think that the speaker is the nations or the kings of the nations referred to in 52:15. They have witnessed Israel’s humiliation and have judged it to be unjust. From their perspective, the Servant has seemingly endured a miscarriage of justice.

Jesus and the Justice of God 

Thomason also objects to identifying the Servant as Israel on the basis that it is not characteristic of how God deals with people. She writes,

God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).

There are two parts to this objection. The first is that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness. I do not have a problem with this claim: the Hebrew Bible does communicate such a message, particularly in the passages Thomason cited. But the second part of the claim is that for God to punish Israel for the sins of someone else is inconsistent with the Hebrew scriptures. For that she offers no support whatsoever. Now I could mention some places where this seems to be the case, Jeremiah 31:29-30 for example. But what is interesting about this second part of the objection is that it completely undermines the point Thomason attempts to make that it is Jesus and not Israel that is the Servant.

While there are a myriad of ideas that try to answer the theological question as to what exactly Jesus’ death accomplished, Thomason appears to be in the penal substitution camp based upon this blog post. There she writes (with reference to Matthew 27:51-53),

The moment Jesus died on the cross was the same moment in which holy people who had passed were freed from captivity, death, and Satan, and raised to eternal life. Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, by overcoming the world and redeeming humanity from sins and death.

She also says in that post that

when He was crucified, we and our sins were crucified. He and we are one. He served as both a substitute for us and as an integral part of us as both God and man.

But how can this be? If it is the case that God rewards righteousness and punishes iniquity, and that it would be unjust of God to punish Israel for the sins of the nations, how then can Jesus – by all counts a righteous man – be punished for the sins of the world? Isn’t this also “inconsistent with the scriptures”?

I doubt whether Thomason thought about the implications of what she wrote and when confronted I’m sure she will have some less than clever response that invokes some kind of special pleading, but the point stands. If Jesus can stand in and be punished for the sins of the world, then Israel can stand in and be punished for the sins of the nations.

Falling Flat

Much more could be said about Thomason’s lackluster response to Elisha Ben Abuya. For the sake of time, I didn’t dwell on the first section of her response but she didn’t contribute much to the overall discussion there anyway. I would also encourage my readers to take a look at Elisha Ben Abuya’s response to Thomason’s blog post here. There he briefly goes over the seven exegetical issues that render a Christocentric interpretation of the Fourth Servant Song null and void. He also offers his own translation of the passage which is fascinating in its own right. You can also check out my blog post that discusses the Fourth Servant Song here.

At the end of the day, seeing the Servant in Isaiah 53 as Israel makes far more sense than seeing it as Jesus. That text must have meant something to its original audience and by-and-large the Jews at that time were not looking for a suffering messiah. Rather, the Fourth Servant Song communicates how Israel in the Exile was punished for the sins of the nations but would be restored and exalted.

END NOTES

[1] The very first text that Matthew appropriates is from Isaiah 7:14, a text that is not about Jesus at all.

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel.
(Matthew 1:22-23, NRSV)

Isaiah 7:14 is clearly not about Jesus because of the context (Isaiah 7:10-17). Ahaz fears that his kingdom will be attacked and the city of Jerusalem besieged. But Isaiah declares that Yahweh will give a sign to him, an assurance that things will turn out okay.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria. (7:14-17, NRSV)

When you examine the text in full, it becomes clear that (1) Matthew cherry picked the verse from its larger context, and (2) in context Jesus is not the subject. Rather, it is a message to Ahaz that there will be plenty of food (“he shall eat curds and honey”) and therefore the siege against Jerusalem would not last long. Why? The child’s name reveals why: God would be with them.

Furthermore, this is not the first time a child has been given a symbolic name in Isaiah nor is it the last. In 7:3 we read that Isaiah has a son named Shear-jashub, a name that means “a remnant shall return.” In 8:1-4 we read of a prophetess who conceives a bears a son whom they name “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” The name means something like “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” and in context was meant to symbolize the coming destruction of Syria and Israel at the hands of the Assyrians.

It defies imagination that the text of Isaiah 7:14 is about Jesus since the only way to make it about him is to divorce it from its original context and insert it in a birth narrative that is intended to make Jesus look like a new Moses or Israel. We should also consider that Matthew was clearly using the LXX in his citation of Isaiah 7:14 and not the Hebrew text. For whatever reason, the translators of the LXX translated הָעַלְמָה (“the woman” or “the young woman”) as ἡ παρθένος (“the virgin”) and it is ἡ παρθένος that we find in Matthew 1:23. Since the birth tradition in Matthew has a pregnant virgin as Jesus’ mother, Matthew lifted Isaiah 7:14 in the LXX and used it as proof that Jesus is “God with us.”

[2] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 244-245.

[3] Christian interpreters have come up with ingenious ways to work around the implications of Matthean-type lifting of texts. In their Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, the authors list four criteria for adopting what they deem “a creative interpretation.” Those criteria are:

  • “it expresses or conforms to orthodox Christian theology;
  • it corresponds to typical paradigms of God’s truth or activity as clearly revealed in historically interpreted sections of the Bible;
  • it works in the crucible of Christian experience – producing godliness and other valid Christian qualities, and advancing God’s kingdom; and
  • it finds confirmation along the full spectrum (racially, sexually, socio-economically, et. al.) of Christians within an orthodox faith-community.”

Then they write this:

Where a creative interpretation meets these criteria, it has a claim to validity – not as the historical meaning of the text, but as a valid “perlocution,” that is, additional effect. Where one occurs in isolated sectors of the Church or derives from individual interpreters, it must remain seriously suspect and probably be rejected until it can meet the criteria. (William B. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, revised and updated [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004], 206.)

So when Matthew lifts the words of Hosea 11:1 about the nation of Israel and applies them to the young Jesus leaving Egypt to return to Nazareth, this is not an eisegetical rendering but rather a “creative perlocution.”

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write that instances like the aforementioned Matthean usage of Hosea 11:1 represent an example of “analogical” fulfillment. He writes,

This kind of “second meaning,” therefore, should not be thought of as “playing games” with the Old Testament; rather, as God’s inspired servant Matthew is “retelling” the story of Israel, God’s son, as that which has been reenacted by God’s true and greater Son.” (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, third edition [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003], 204.)

This too is a creative approach but it is one that already assumes the supremacy of Christianity. In order to demonstrate that supremacy, one would need to appeal to the texts of the Hebrew Bible and unless one wishes to invoke a tautology, the fact of the matter is that these ancient texts had their own meaning in their own contexts.

[4] Thomason isn’t known for taking her time. She has on more than one occasion claimed that it takes me so long to write a piece because God was hindering me. And she has on more than one occasion been able to write a “rebuttal” to a piece in just a few hours. I think the quality of her writing and research, particularly about biblical texts, demonstrates that she is way out of her depth and needs to take more time in thinking through what she writes.

1 Comment

  1. Your point (3) I find it interesting that, essentially, the authors of “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation” are using modern theology to justify their interpretation and analysis of an ancient resource.

    This is like claiming that the Bible is right to claim the earth is flat because locally you act as if it was flat, the curvature is unimportant on the scales used by the “primitives”. Similar analysis would show that the “hard firmament” was hard from the point of view of the ancients because they could not achieve escape velocity and that the waters within which the firmament is placed correspond to space

    Like

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