Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ramblings on Isaiah 58, the Sabbath, and Edward J. Young

I’ve been reading the Book of Isaiah for my daily quiet time.  A while back, I got Edward J. Young’s three volume, verse-by-verse commentary on the Book of Isaiah, which dates to the 1960′s-1970′s.  The commentary is conservative in that it believes that there was only one Isaiah who wrote the Book of Isaiah, namely, Isaiah of Jerusalem, plus it treats the Book of Isaiah as infallible Scripture that points to Jesus Christ.  At the same time, it interacts with liberal scholarly views, and there are many times when it attempts to explain passages in light of their contexts.  Overall, I’d say that I have been impressed with this commentary, and I especially like how it offers an explanation for every verse (and almost every phrase) in the Book of Isaiah.  Yet, there are times when I wish that it would seek to explain certain verses in light of their historical contexts rather than Christ.  That’s me, though!  I happen to like the Antiochian Christian school of biblical interpretation!  It’s the historical-critic in me!

I was reading Isaiah 58 last night before I went to bed.  Isaiah 58 criticizes the Israelites for strife and indicates that God does not accept their fasts.  The chapter proclaims that the type of fast that God will accept is one that helps the poor and loosens the bonds of oppression.  The chapter than goes on to promote Sabbath observance: not doing one’s own pleasure on God’s holy day, but calling the Sabbath a delight.

I was consulting Young’s commentary because I had a question: Was Isaiah 58 saying that the Israelites should help the poor while they are fasting from food, or that they should help the poor instead of fasting?  What does it mean to call helping the poor a “fast”?  Is the author here saying that helping the poor will accomplish what the Israelites are looking to fasting to do: to get God’s attention so that Israel will be blessed?

As far as I could tell, Young did not address this question explicitly.  But he did have some interesting notes.  On pages 425-426 of volume 3, he interacts with liberal scholarship regarding Isaiah 58.  First of all, Young mentions the argument that Isaiah 58 is post-exilic because of its reference to the Sabbath, which was especially important in the time of Nehemiah (a post-exilic leader).  Young, as one who believes that all of the Book of Isaiah was pre-exilic, disagrees with this argument, thinking that it is a mere presupposition.  Young appears to regard the argument as rather circular: these liberal scholars assume that the Sabbath came to be emphasized later in Judaism, and so, whenever they find the Sabbath mentioned in an earlier book, they ascribe to that particular passage a later date.  How can one falsify that?

Second, Young refers to a scholar, J.D. Smart, who thinks that vv 13-14 (the part of Isaiah 58 that concerns the Sabbath) were added even later to Isaiah 58, and thus were not originally a part of Second Isaiah.  (Smart must have believed that Isaiah 58 was part of Second Isaiah, rather than attributing it to Third Isaiah.  Young does not divide Isaiah up in this fashion, for Young believes that one Isaiah wrote all of the Book.  A number of scholars, however, date First Isaiah to Israel’s pre-exilic period, Second Isaiah to Israel’s exilic period, and Third Isaiah to her post-exilic period.  Yet, there are many scholars who argue that there are exilic and post-exilic elements even in First Isaiah.)  According to Young, Smart’s problem is that “it makes nonsense of the prophet’s sermon to have him reject fasting as a substitute for works of love and mercy and then to insist that if only the people observe the sabbath, all will be well.”  Smart’s view is that vv 13-14 “come not from ‘second’ Isaiah but from a later orthodox community which had an enthusiasm for the sabbath” (Young’s words).  Smart wonders why a prophet would emphasize love and mercy above ritual, only then to promote Sabbath observance, a ritual.  Smart’s conclusion is that he would not, and thus a later hand added to Isaiah 58 the part about the Sabbath.

Young disagrees with Smart, though, and he explores why Isaiah 58 would be mentioning the Sabbath.  Young finds the Sabbath to be consistent with principles of love and mercy, not in conflict with them.  Young later states that the Sabbath was not a Mosaic ordinance, but was actually established at creation.  The pre-exilic Isaiah, according to Young, was stressing the Sabbath in Isaiah 58 with the realization that Israel would soon experience exile.  Perhaps Young’s point is that Isaiah realized that Israel would especially need the Sabbath in exile, after being cut off from her land and her temple!  The Sabbath in exile could preserve Israel’s identity as a people and her relationship with God by being a weekly time of rest and worship.

I found this discussion to be interesting.  Here are my thoughts:

1.  I was recently listening to a debate between skeptic Robert Price and Christians Gary Habermas and Mike Licona on whether Jesus rose from the dead.  Price said that many biblical scholars engage in speculation in that they try to figure out when to historically situate certain developments: at what time would a particular concept in Scripture (or other writings one is trying to date) make sense?  My impression is that this is why many scholars date the weekly Sabbath to a later stage of Israelite religion, such as the exile: they believe that its origin would make sense then.  After Israel’s temple was destroyed, she wanted some way to maintain her contact with God and her identity as a people, and so she established a sanctuary in time (the Sabbath) rather than one in space.  She could observe the Sabbath and be close to God in exile, without a temple.  After she returned from exile, she kept on observing the Sabbath, even when she had a temple.

That makes sense to me, but I am not absolutist about it.  If conservative scholars can offer a reason that the weekly Sabbath would emerge in Israel’s pre-exilic context, then I am open to it.  Granted, pre-exilic Israel most likely had festivals: that is how many scholars understand the Sabbaths in biblical writings that they consider pre-exilic—-not as a weekly Sabbath, but as festivals.  Other ancient Near Eastern countries had festivals, too, even without going into exile.  But why would the weekly Sabbath originate in pre-exilic times?  What need would it meet at that point?  Would its origin make sense then?

2.  As I look at Isaiah 58, I can somewhat sympathize with Smart’s position that vv 13-14 were added later, for these are the only verses in the chapter that mention the Sabbath.  Still, I can appreciate Young’s point that the promotion of the Sabbath does not necessarily contradict what the rest of Isaiah 58 is talking about.  Isaiah 58 is about doing things correctly: loving the poor rather than fighting and looking to fasting for salvation, and honoring God on the Sabbath rather than seeking one’s own pleasure.  Smart raises a good question, as do many biblical interpreters who question whether certain strands in the Bible are as beneficent or as noble as believers might think.  Still, in my opinion, there is a place for trying to view biblical writings from a positive perspective, rather than just construing certain parts of the Bible negatively (i.e., someone added this ritualistic part to a passage about love and mercy).

3.  Young’s comments on the Sabbath being a creation ordinance rather than a Mosaic ordinance stood out to me, for that is a key issue in debates among Christians about whether Christians should observe the seventh-day Sabbath.  One side says “no” and argues that the Sabbath was given only to the Jews, whereas another side says “yes” and claims that the Sabbath existed as a holy institution before there even were Jews—-at creation.  Sabbatarians claim that, because the Sabbath was instituted at creation, all people, Jews and Gentiles, are commanded to observe it.

Young views the Sabbath as a creation ordinance and affirms that it was a “pattern of the heavenly sabbath rest which the redeemed are to enjoy in the presence of the eternal God.”  I doubt, though, that Young believed that Christians had to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.  I wonder what exactly he did believe about this issue.  Did he think that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, but it was replaced by Sunday once Christ rose from the dead, and now Sunday is the Sabbath?  Did he believe that the Sabbath foreshadowed Christ and now is null-and-void because Christ has come?

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