15 November 2017

Text Study for November 19 - A Child is Born

Prayer of the Day
God of light, there can be overwhelming obscurity in this world. But you shine your light and increase joy, and for your brilliance we are grateful. Let the light of your grace, which shone through Isaiah's prophecy, shine through us also, that we might radiate your joy in a darkening world. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Reading: Isaiah 9:1-7
The prophet Isaiah brought a message of hope to the people of Israel and Judah in a time of great suffering and sorrow. After the fall of Israel in 722 B.C., many of the people of the northern kingdom were taken into exile in the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah prophesied that the tribal territories conquered by Assyria would one day be rebuilt by the power of God.
A reading from Isaiah.
1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
 those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
 you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
 authority rests upon his shoulders;
 and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
 The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.


  1. What questions do you have about these readings?
  2. “…Zebulun and Naphtali” (9.1)
    1. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the original 12 tribes of Israel, alloted lands north and east of the Sea of Galilee (see map). The territories roughly correspond to areas that were taken by Assyrian king Tilgath-pileser III in 732 B.C. Isaiah’s prophesy of redeemed hope and light for these lands would have been heard as the work of God, since they had already been lost to Assyria at the time of Isaiah’s writings here. 
  3. “…as on the day of Midian.” (9.4)
    1. A direct reference to the victory of Gideon over the gigantic Midianite and Amalekite armies recounted in Judges 7: “…all the people…lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” Despite these overwhelming odds, the Lord sent only 300 Israelites with Gideon against them, so that the Lord alone could claim the victory.
    2. “The comparison would have been evoked by the similarly long odds of Judah surviving the mighty Neo-Assyrian empire.”  (Christopher Hays. http://bit.ly/2ANBauZ)
  4. “Particularly in the light of the history of the interpretation of this text, it is important to clarify the tenses in the poem. Verses 2-5 clearly speak of past events…the verbs in v. 6 are perfects and consecutive imperfects, the normal narrative tense in Hebrew. They must be read as reporting past action or, in view of the passives, possibly as present: ‘A child has been born to us…authority rests upon his shoulders.’…The implications of this analysis are quite clear: the reasons for celebration - release from an oppressor, destruction of battle gear, and the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’ - are not in the future but in the past. These events form the basis for confidence in the future.” (Gene M. Tucker, The New Interpreter’s Bible, v. 6: Isaiah 1-39. © 1996 Abingdon Press. p. 122. Emphasis mine.)
  5. The titles listed in v. 6 would have been a common element for the birth proclamation of a crown prince in the Ancient Near East. Egyptian Pharaohs were particularly well-known for the descriptive titles attached to the names of their children who would one day ascend to the throne. 
    1. Keeping in mind this is the past tense proclamation of the birth of a prince, these would not be earned descriptors but a kind of hortatory title - the sort of thing one wishes to be, not what one has already demonstrated. Think more along the lines of "Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons” (though some of these titles from the series A Song of Ice and Fire are earned honorifics) and less “Vlad the Impaler.”
  6. A few questions to ponder:
    1. “…he (God) brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali…” Does it disturb you to think of God bringing down the fortunes of a kingdom or a people? Does it delight you? What do you imagine this word must do to the people who are presently suffering? 
    2. Most Christians see this passage as a prophetic announcement of the coming of Jesus over 700 years after the earliest time this passage could have been written. However, Biblical scholars are almost unanimous in stating this was not Isaiah’s intent at the time it was written - any messianic connections to Jesus are a later addition to the scriptural tradition. Does this sort of historic analysis of scripture challenge your understanding of the Old Testament? Are you comforted or disturbed by the idea that Isaiah was not talking about Jesus, that it is our interpretation and not his original intent? 
    3. Can you hear this text without thinking of the Michael W. Smith/Amy Grant Christmas recordings based on it? (Confession: your pastor cannot. đŸ˜€ )
    4. What brings you hope from this reading? What would you love to see fulfilled, even if it isn’t a direct prophetic utterance predicting a certain future?

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