A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!