Sabbath School and the Book of Isaiah: Is there Anything New to Learn?

Sabbath School and the Book of Isaiah: Is there Anything New to Learn?

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Published:
March 18, 2021

One of the perks of living in the preeminent Adventist university “town” of Berrien Springs, MI, is that it hosts the church’s only theological seminary on the campus of Andrews University, and by default a significant number of the church’s theologians. Consequently, a good number of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide (ASSBSG) Principal Contributors have, over the years, been resident scholars at Adventist Theological Seminary. This means that if you live in Berrien Springs and are so inclined, you could have a front row seat to a weekly class or two taught by one of these contributors, during the quarter the world church studies lessons they authored. And if you’re luckier still and attend my Sabbath School class, which always manages to leverage this home court advantage and gets these local authors to lead class sessions, you savor the privilege and enjoy the treat.

It was under these circumstances that, a few weeks ago, Roy Gane, the Principal Contributor of the 2021 first quarter ASSBSG on Isaiah, led the zoom Sabbath School class I attend. For those few in Adventist theological circles who might not know Roy Gane, he is an eminent Hebrew professor at Andrews Theological Seminary, and probably the foremost contemporary Adventist authority on Isaiah. Which partially explains why this quarter’s study is his second contribution on the book for the ASSBSG. His first was the second quarter study in 2004. Needless to say, he is neither new to ASSBSG nor to Isaiah.

While I found Roy’s presentation thoroughly engaging and informative, it quickly became apparent that he hews to the same historicist Adventist orthodoxy which characterizes our approach to Isaiah as frankly, we do to many Old Testament (OT) narratives. His quick dismissal of the three authorship hypothesis exemplifies how we filter out uncomfortable topics or inconvenient realities regardless of overwhelming scholarly consensus. By disengaging with the three Isaiahs premise, though, we miss a good opportunity to discuss a different but important way to read the book.  One that addresses issues the authors confronted in real-time in the three different periods of their experience: pre-exilic (1-39), exilic (40-55) and post-exilic (56-66). Simply recognizing these widely accepted positions could have exposed the church to, among others, the process of biblical composition, including manuscript editing. But we wouldn’t, because exposing us to such intricacies is inconvenient to our theology.

Similarly, by staying only within the tight confines of our theological lane, we miss the opportunity to examine the writers’ responses, especially Second (period) Isaiah’s, to the exilic experience in comparison to other prophets of the time. Contemporaneous with Second Isaiah were such late exile and postexilic prophets like Haggai, Obadiah, Malachi and Zachariah, who almost uniformly saw exile as God’s punishment for Israel’s disobedience to his Law. Thus upon return they focused, with a fanatical zeal unequal in Israeli history, on ridding Israel of all foreign influences and redirected their people’s attention back to the Law. Compare their positions to Second Isaiah’s, who saw in Israel’s suffering, a call to empathy with the alien, healing for the spiritually wounded and a sacrifice that put social justice needs of the marginalized above the entitled. These, it seems to me, are the themes that make Isaiah relevant for our fractured times.

Instead, the studies emphasize the historicist perspective with its messianic overtures. In this we are not alone. Much of Christendom, especially evangelicals and conservatives, follow this script as they parade a host of “evidentiary” texts throughout the book that lead inexorably to chapter 53:3-7:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

Sufficient proof that Isaiah’s raison d’être is the depiction of Christ as the Suffering Messiah. As byproduct of this messianic match, the historicist slant also confirms another important Christian belief: God’s foreknowledge and ability to predict events many centuries before their fulfillment.

But is the historicist/messianic stress the only, or even the most effective way of approaching Isaiah? Since the purpose of school, regardless of type, should be educational not indoctrination, the question of approaches is germane. Otherwise there is not much point to the exercise. As always, when examining any “historical” document, if Isaiah in fact is history, our first concern should be the writing’s context. What was the writer or writers, as this case suggests, objectives in this material? What did they aim to communicate to their immediate audience? And more importantly, how did their contemporaries, who were the recipients of this writing, understand or interpret the work, and the purported messianic imagery we now widely assume?

Here we hit a roadblock of sorts using the historicist/messianic pathway. For this approach to work we have to assume that the writers’ contemporary audience somehow envisioned a savior who would free them from their immediate predicament with foreign adversaries, like the Assyrians, who were literally at their doorstep. Except that they had to wait some 750 years later for this savior – the approximate time difference between the writings of the Isaiahs and the New Testament (NT) writers who first scoured the scriptures and made the attributions. This would have sounded nonsensical to Isaiah’s contemporaries in much the same way the NT writings would have sounded to their contemporaries if their first century readers were asked to anticipate the New World and America’s place in it.

Another problem with the historicist conceptualization regarding Isaiah is that it leans too much on literalness. If the accounts are to be taken as literally and factually true, then God is culpable for the carnage that ensues from his actions, because in the context of the Israeli/Assyrian conflict, the text has God insisting Assyria is “the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation.” (10:5 KJV) This notion is re-enforced repeatedly, culminating in a declaration in which Isaiah’s God leaves no wiggle room for parsing his words: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (45:7 KJV) In exile, Israel encountered the Zoroastrians and their dualities: a good and bad god, resulting in a formulation of a bad god, Satan, as the adversary of the good god.  Consequently, such pre-exilic notions of a single deity, who embodies both good and bad, as quoted above, is now unsupportable in our theodicy.

But there are other non-historicist readings of Isaiah, including literary approaches, which avoid the problem of God’s complicity in the internecine violence between Israel and her neighbors, even when the text puts the originator of these conflicts in God’s mouth. Reading Isaiah, not as purely history, but with symbolic and metaphoric lenses in which the writers see Israel as a wayward and unruly child, is an option. A reading where a son – representing Israel – experiences exile as rejected and despised, but still comes out, bruised and battered, yet intact as a nation. This makes more sense because it serves the encouragement needs of the book’s original exiled readers. The NT authors were not writing as eye-witnesses to the Jesus event thirty plus years after he had died and almost eight hundred years after the events described in the three Isaiahs. So why would they apply some portions of the book to Jesus? This is illustrative of the parochial uses of interpretation. Which also explains the significant differences among Paul and the four gospel writers, about how they told the Jesus story.

The point I’m making here is, in a school setting such as 13 weeks of Isaiah study, the lessons should not gloss over difficult issues or pigeonhole the narrative to serve a predetermined understanding. Which unfortunately is what these lessons do, serving the Sabbath School student population the same sort of prepackaged meal it has for years, but somehow leaving us always underfed.

In an earlier paragraph I mentioned that this is Roy Gane’s second go as Principal Contributor of the ASSBSG. But what I failed to add is that this current study is really not a new take on Isaiah. It is virtually identical to the one he wrote 17 years ago. If you had your copy of the 2004 issue, you wouldn’t need this quarter’s edition at all, unless you place a high premium on the one page “Inside Stories” tucked at the end of each week’s study. Those stories are different from the 2004 issue. Nothing else is. In a way, I see this as emblematic of a larger problem with the formulaic structure of the quarterly studies, in that it feeds the members perceived settled truth.

Are we to infer from this that there has been no new scholarship or experiential influences in Isaiah since Roy’s work 17 years ago, thus justifying what is basically the reprinting of an entire study for the world church? Certainly there are enough equally competent OT theologians in the church who could be tasked to author an Isaiah ASSBSG if Roy was unavailable when the decision was made to re-study Isaiah. Or is the implicit message this simple: we have a fully settled understanding of scripture. There is nothing new to learn, so we feel comfortable just cutting and pasting a 17 year-old study, and don’t care how this is perceived.

Maybe this type of thing has been done before or has been common practice and we’ve not been paying attention. I know we do stuff like this with Ellen White material all the time, especially her devotionals, and sometimes with other dead authors. But Roy is very much alive and at the height of his scholarship. So I don’t understand the motivation to reissue his previous study guide verbatim the way this was done. Are there new scriptural insights to be gained as we encounter the Bible or are they already exhaustively known and should just be re- imparted to followers?  If we approach the Bible with the view of discovering what it can teach us about our lives today, in our times, and not merely as a historical document that tells us about events and times far removed from us with which we share no commonalities, then no matter how many times we study a biblical book, there will be something new to discover that is fresh and unique for us. If so, then the idea of dusting off the pages of a 13-week study on Isaiah 17, from years ago, should not be acceptable.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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