Saving Word Downunder: 5th Sunday In Ordinary Time / C
The main theme for next Sunday is the call to the Ministry. The Isaiah text has been an inspiration to many ministers of all denominations, a foundational biblical text in my own priestly foundation, and has inspired many hymns, ancient and modern. The Psalm is a call to worship, and Paul speaks of the authority of the apostolic succession. And if there are any doubts about why God chose you, then go to the Gospel and review yourself against those fishermen.
From the perspective of a biblical exegete, I have chosen this week to look at the Book of Isaiah, and I now want to introduce you to the work of an Australian scholar from the University of Queensland, Edgar W. Conrad, who has published Reading Isaiah in the Overtures in Biblical Theology Series from Fortress Press.
The Series is an important landmark in Biblical Studies representing a newness of approach but not necessarily a newness of methodology. Other monographs include The Ten Commandments and Human Rights, Biblical Concepts of the Land, Israel in Exile, and so forth. As a Series, I commend them to you. I find them exciting, just as I found the International Theological Commentary Series exciting on Amos. I do not suggest that you purchase the Series, but put them on your list for further reading.
To return now to Conrad and Reading Isaiah. The starting point is a departure from the prevailing historical-critical assessment focusing on the inception of the text. As Isaiah is thought to have originated as two or three texts,, it is read as if it were two or three Isaiah's.
The meaning of the text is therefore thought to be located in the intention of the authors, and those intentions are associated with a determination of the inception of the Book. In other words The locus of meaning is restricted to the authorial intention, as opposed to contemporary literary theory which locates meaning in the process of reading.
The shift is from writing to reading the text, so that the reader is no longer as passive receiver of a text communicating its meaning, but an active agent in making the text speak. This in turn shifts the emphasis in Revelation to include not only the Prophet's ecstatic experiences but also the redactional Heilsgeschichte, and the present day reader. The original words of the Prophet are suddenly not so important; the quest for redactional intention is minimised, so that we end up with the "trick of the disappearing redactor", and the readers throughout the ages become the most important.
As we know nothing about the Book of Isaiah's inception or its original reception, the work stands as a literary monument of the past. Most historical-critical analyses attempt to overcome this problem by utilising a literary time machine to journey to the past, thereby returning to the time of the text's inception, i.e. the context of its original historical background and its original authorial intentions. Expressed in an alternative way, this makes the Book like any other monument, whether carved in stone or recorded in other time locked communications. The nearest analogy that comes to mind is a poem on a tombstone.
The essence of Conrad's thesis is that the gap with the past has been bridged, but it is the text and not the reader who does the traveling. In contrast, in historical criticism, it is the reader that does the traveling. It follows then the text and not its original audience or its author, are available for present day study. It is essential that you understand the distinction between these two methodologies.
Conrad argues that Isaiah chapters 1-66 provides the context for reading another book within the Book of Isaiah, namely the Vision of Isaiah in chapters 6-39, thereby providing the framework for the reception of that vision.
The original audience was unreceptive; accordingly it was bound up and sealed ( 8:16-20) in a book (30:8) and was unreadable (30:8). Therefore, the Isaiah Vision was alien at the time of its reception. However, the occasion for re-reading the Vision is found in Is 40:6, in the exilic period reflecting an age when the Davidic Kingship is but a memory, a new kingship has emerged, and Servants of the Lord include foreigners. Wars are long over, and YHWH is engaged to overthrow all the nations of the world to establish world peace. In summary the Book of Isaiah contains another book, the Vision of Isaiah, the latter pre-exilic, the former exilic.
Conrad proposes that the audience for the Book of Isaiah is an exilic community of survivors with minority status that suffers and is threatened by murder and bloodshed. The audience perceives the legal and religious institutions as morally bankrupt, so waits for righteousness and justice to replace the present systems. Their pain and suffering has led to the release of social imagination, which according to Brueggemann is energy and courage to envision the world alternatively arranged.
The audience envision that the people are king, so that future peace and security will rest not on mortal men. It is also a community without borders, and here we see the early thinking that led to rationalisation of the theology of the diaspora, as well as the admission of the Gentiles into the YHWH community, and thereby opening up the necessity of the LXX and so forth.
Isaiah's vision has importance for the implied present community of the exilic period - it is a vision of a new age to come based on the past vision, as hearing about the future makes sense of the present.
The orality of Isaiah as well as other prophets is often overlooked. It was written for oral presentation to a community. The inception of a text has received the greatest attention in interpretative strategies in mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish traditions. Isaiah has been read as a source of information about the past, thereby making the text inaccessible to non - scholars, and the actual text through secondary sources.
It is to be noted that such reading strategies were not known in the Qumran Community nor in the Targumin. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue, it was unlikely that he used a commentary; and it was until much later that the Rabbinic authorities started producing textual commentaries.
Conrad is critical of the historical critical approach in that this methodology recreates the gulf between the past and the present that the text itself has spanned. In turn this makes the received text irrelevant to the community of faith
Dear readers, I suppose that having survived this onslaught on the Book of Isaiah, your next stage is to pray the texts for next Sunday. I will prepare in two ways: 1) go into my church when no one is there and pretend that there is a congregation actually listening to the Isaiah text - remember Isaiah was not written as a reference book for some library or that "Isaiah" liked to see his name in print, but rather it is a living text that formulated an experience and response to God. And 2) pray in my study that these texts become part of my formation. It will be three years before I hear again the gathered community's response to this call to ministry.
An Australian Commentary on the Lectionary from Fr Terence McKenna Lecturer in Theology Charles Sturt University & Parish Priest Anglican Diocese of Ballarat