Is the Jewish Bible a Mystery Novel?
Christian missionaries read the Jewish Bible as if it were a mystery novel. The Bible presents the missionary with an enigmatic puzzle that needs to be unraveled. Only the missionary knows that Jesus is the answer before he or she begins reading. The trick is to try to see Jesus behind every symbol and every metaphor that the poetic authors of the Bible bequeathed to us. When Jesus is “discovered”, the Jewish Bible has achieved its purpose and can now be summarily put aside.
But is the Jewish Bible a really a “mystery novel”? Is it one big “I spy” game in which the reader has to try to find that elusive Jesus? Is the Jewish Bible the ancient version of “Where is Waldo/Jesus”?
The missionary approach to the 53rd chapter in the book of Isaiah illustrates the Christian attitude towards the Jewish Bible. The first, and often the last, question that the missionary asks concerning this chapter is: Who is the servant? If we could get sound-effects with the Bible the missionary would have some eerie, mysterious music that rises to a crescendo as Jesus pops out from the page. And that brings the movie to its satisfactory conclusion – according to the missionary. Now that we “know” whodunit, we can close the book and move on to the “real thing”; the Christian Scriptures.
But is the Jewish Bible a mystery novel or an “I spy” game? Is that the purpose of the book? Were the Jesus-less chapters put in by the author just to provide some distracting back-ground so that the puzzle can be challenging?
The Jewish Bible is not a mystery novel and it is not a game of “hide and seek”. The Jewish Bible is God’s instruction for the Jewish people. The question we are to ask concerning every chapter of the book is not: who can I find here? But rather we are to ask; what is God trying to teach us? What is the spiritual lesson?
Let us focus on the section of Isaiah that follows the Hezekiah narrative, the part in which chapter 53 appears. Chapters 40 thru 66 in the book of Isaiah are separated from the rest of the book by the narrative that occupies chapters 36 thru 39. This section opens with God commanding that His people be comforted because their measure of suffering is filled (40:1).
The prophet goes on to tell us how God’s word endures forever and that those who had hoped to Him will ultimately be vindicated (40:27-31). Chapter 53 is situated in the midst of several passages of consolation in which God uses intense and vivid language to accentuate the extent of Israel’s ultimate vindication.
But how can Israel be consoled? All the years that Israel was exiled from her land are understood by her enemies as years of widow-hood; years in which her Divine husband had abandoned her and favored them. But God promises that the shame of her widow-hood will be forgotten and will no longer be remembered (54:4). How can the future erase the shame of the past?
Chapter 53 provides the answer to this question. The suffering was not in vain. The suffering that Israel experienced played an integral part in God’s plan for all mankind. Israel’s enemies understood her suffering as a sign that the Jewish people are more sinful than any other nation. But when the truth is revealed all will suddenly understand that Israel’s suffering was a sign of the deep relationship that existed between God and His chosen nation (Amos 3:20).
The more her enemies have built theological edifices on the basis of their misunderstanding of Israel’s suffering to that same degree will they be shocked when the despised people are vindicated (52:14). The nations may think that Israel’s suffering is a sign of their own righteousness, but the prophet encourages Israel with the message that her suffering is an indication of her own closeness to God and the part that she plays in His cosmic plan.
The underlying lesson of these later chapters in the book of Isaiah is that those who trust in God are trusting in the one power that is worthy of trust. Every iota of labor and toil will be rewarded by God, because God is a Master who pays His servant who labors before Him (40:10; 61:8; 62:1,11; 66:14). As God’s servant; Israel is commissioned to bear witness to His truth (43:10; 44:8). Those who resist God’s truth will persecute God’s servant and this suffering is all a part of Israel’s calling to bear witness to His truth.
All those who resisted God’s message and contended with the truth of Israel’s testimony will be confounded (41:11; 52:15; Micah 7:10). And Israel will rejoice and glory in the One God that she always trusted in (25:9; 41:16; 54:1).
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal