Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost in Translation (or, perhaps, Found)

Our Lectionary Texts for this final Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25, and Romans 1:1-7. Read them here as we prepare for our final days of preparation.

Here's the dilemma of this week's readings: I hate it when people take scripture out of context and try to bend it to whatever point they're trying to make. It's one of my pastoral pet peeves...always pay attention to the context, people. Though they have rich applications for life today and can still be faithful guides, these texts were originally written for specific communities in specific times, and we have to approach them always with this in mind.

So what do we do, then, when one biblical writer seems to misquote and take out of context another biblical writer? It makes me squirm a little...but that seems to be what Matthew is doing in quoting the now-famous and much-debated prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 within the narrative of his gospel.

Isaiah had a very specific context in mind when he offered this sign to Ahaz more than 700 years before the birth of Christ. The original Hebrew of this passage reads something like this: "Here, the young woman is pregnant, and is giving birth to a son. She will call his name Emmanuel, meaning 'God with us.' And before this child is three or four, these two kings you presently live in fear of will have been dethroned." Matthew, apparently drawing upon the Greek version of this passage which uses a word that could be translated "virgin" as well as "young woman," takes the liberty (prompted again by the Greek) of projecting this passage out of the present tense into the future, saying this virgin (now understood as Mary) "will give birth," and claims this son, too, will be called "Emmanuel"--even though the angel, clearly, had just told Joseph to name him not Emmanuel, but Jesus, or "God saves."

So what gives? Is Matthew being a bad interpreter of scripture? If so, Lord help us all.
But I don't think he is. Perhaps what Matthew is doing is reinterpreting Isaiah in light of God's new one expected any further fulfillment to Isaiah's prophecy, you see. That Emmanuel had been born, the years had passed, and the kings had gone down just like Isaiah said they would. The prophecy was over. But here we see God doing something unexpected...that prophecy had been fulfilled, but perhaps it has not yet been full-filled, if you get what I mean. That child was named "God with us"; but here is a child who actually is "God with us." Now it's not just a young woman, but a virgin--the prophecy is taken a step further. And now it's not just two kings who will be deposed, but all the kingdoms of the world will be superceded by this baby who is himself a king, one introducing a new sort of kingdom that will have no end.

Perhaps what Matthew is doing here is not interpretive unfaithfulness; perhaps he is doing the most faithful thing an interpreter can do with a text: seeing the God who is lurking behind it and animating it, and imagining how God might, again and again, do a new thing that no one expects. It's having the imagination to dream of new ways that God's promises might be even fuller in the future than they were in the past. I really like how commentator Fred Gaiser described such imaginative dream work:

"It takes a daring reinterpretation to make this one work. The word of God is not a simple prediction that will "come true" in a latter day or an equation to be solved to get one final answer-it is a living word that kills and makes alive in every generation, always needing to be proclaimed anew, always carrying both continuity and surprise: continuity in God's steadfast love and mercy, which never change; surprise in God's enduring penchant to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), which always stirs things up. And now, says Matthew, Jesus is that unexpected new thing: Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even if they didn't get his name right. The details are not the point; the promise is."

Are we free to dream about the story of God in this way? Or does Matthew need to go back to school and take another class on proper biblical interpretation?
Thoughts on this one welcomed...


Jeremy said...

Hmm...yes. I'm not one to get too tangled in tiny details, but I think I have to disagree with Gaiser a bit. There are many levels of "details," and just saying that they broadly don't matter is a little dismissive and seems to fly in the face of much of Bibical scholarship. I'm far from being a Bible literalist, but this glib answer from Gaiser (in this case, at least) seems out of place.

This slight hiccup in the naming of Jesus is kinda glossed over - I don't remember hearing much about it. Naming seems to be vital in other parts of the Bible, so Abby's look into what is trying to be said here becomes especially important, to me.

Speaking of details, care to wiegh in on this one, Abby?

Isa. 7:15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

How does this relate to the promise and the prophecy in general?

Abby said...

Hmmm is right...I'm going to have to give this some continued thought, Jeremy. I posted on this because the entire debate intrigues me too...I'd never given much thought before to how Matthew changes or reinterprets the prophecy, especially as it has to do with tense and that little detail that Jesus was named "Jesus" and not "Emmanuel".

But here are a couple of beginning thoughts:
1) I agree that it feels like Gaiser makes a fairly large generalization there at the end that glosses over more than it needs to...I think you can say the promise is more important than the details, but not that the details can be totally ignored or discounted. Part of me wonders if his glossing over was a reaction to how awkward this strange interpretation made him feel, too...perhaps he was trying to tidy things up in the midst of this interpretive puzzle that didn't seem to quite fit together?
2) As for naming in scripture, I started thinking about the number of people in the Bible who are referred to by multiple names--not necessarily those who trade one in for another (i.e. Abram/Abraham or Saul/Paul), but those who are referred to be two different names that have little on the surface to do with each other but that describe the function of these people (i.e. Jacob also being called Israel, Simon also being called Peter). It seems there could be precedent for someone carrying two names...though we never hear of Jesus referred to as Emmanuel anywhere but here. However, the theme of "God with us" is one that resonates throughout Matthew's Gospel in particular--after all, this declaration is not just how Matthew's gospel begins, but how it ends: "I will be with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). So...Jesus is called this, in indirect ways, in other places in the story. I have no idea what precisely all of that means, but it strikes me as something to pay attention to.

Beyond this, my best understanding on the whole "curds and honey" piece is to give Isaiah's prophecy a timetable--curds and honey would have been the ancient equivalent of baby food, the soft foods that babies eat before they can get solids. That means that all of this stuff is going to occur before he moves fully past the curds and honey stage into a more mature childhood--i.e., soon. Very soon.

Hope that helps--and I'm going to keep thinking about these things, too!

Stephen said...

I may be way off target, but what I think Matthew is doing here is is saying, "remember when...well it's like that only bigger." If we think about the community that Matthew was writing to (and looking forward to ourselves as well) we see people living in fear of being overwhelmed by enemies and troubles. Matthew says, "here, in this One is the note of God's presence that the Isaiah story was just an echo of." He points to the ongoing nature of the story of God's action in our world and lives.
At least that's where I come down; I'm hoping one of you will tell me if I'm playing too fast and loose here.