In his most recent article
Dr. Brown charged that “Rabbi Blumenthal has made far too much out of the armor-bearer image, which simply refers to the returning exiles as those who carry the vessels of the Lord. They are not to touch anything unclean because of what they are carrying – namely, some of the sacred objects from the Temple. That’s it. Rabbi Blumenthal makes something out of this that the text does not make, then turns around and criticizes me for holding to the scriptural context.”
Dr. Brown is referring to my interpretation of Isaiah 52:11 which proposes that the people of Israel are called “armor bearers of the Lord.” The point I was making is that the prophet is identifying Israel as one who works to accomplish God’s purpose here on earth. Dr. Brown counters with the argument that the Hebrew words that I translated as “armor bearers” can also be translated as “vessel carriers.” According to Dr. Brown the prophet is merely referring to Israel as people who carry the vessels of the Temple and “that’s it.”
The fact is that I acknowledged (in Blumenthal 2) that this is a legitimate interpretation and I put forth the argument that this interpretation also supports the point that I am trying to make. I will take this opportunity to elaborate.
First of all, the Temple vessels contained the tablets of Law that Moses brought down from Sinai, God’s word. So if Israel is described as bearers of the Temple vessels, the prophet is telling us that they are bearers of God’s word. The prophet has already taught us that it is God’s word that accomplishes His purpose here on earth (51:16; see also 55:11). Whether Israel is being called the armor bearers of the Lord or they are being called bearers of the Temple vessels they are being described as active participants in God’s plan for mankind.
But it goes much further than this. In the book of Numbers (chapter 4), we read how the Levites were appointed with the task of carrying the vessels of the Tabernacle. All of Israel benefited from this service, but the responsibility was placed on the shoulder of the Levites. In that same chapter we read how this responsibility was liable to bring judgment upon the Levites (verses 17-20). If the Levites did not fulfill their holy responsibilities exactly as commanded they would die.
Now imagine if a child from the tribe of Dan watching how the Levites seem to be stricken by God to a greater degree than the other Israelites. This child would assume that the Levites must be more sinful than the rest of the nation. The child’s elders would explain
that the Levites were given an awesome responsibility and that the slightest deviation from the parameters of that responsibility brings God’s wrath down upon them. But they carry this responsibility for the benefit of the entire nation. In a sense, their suffering is what preserves the holiness of the sanctuary for the blessing and benefit of the entire nation.
This is precisely the Jewish position on Isaiah 53. The righteous of Israel are suffering primarily for their own sins, but this is no contradiction to the concept that their suffering brings healing and blessing to the world at large. Although they suffer for their own sins, but the responsibility that they carry as bearers of God’s word makes them so much more liable than the rest of mankind. And the task of bearing God’s word will ultimately be revealed as mankind’s greatest blessing.
According to Dr. Brown’s own interpretation, it is this very image that the prophet sets before us as we approach Isaiah 53. Is this merely a wild coincidence?