Sunday, January 18, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Prequel

Ages ago when Atlantis was young and the World still flat, when Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Reagan occupied the White House, I drew a black & white parody comic about a bullwhip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurer named Arizona Schwartz the Lost Archaeologist.  And yes, the comic did bear some resemblance to a certain movie of that era

In the movie, of course, the Nazis are trying to find the fabled Ark of the Covenant and bring it back to Germany for Hitler, and the Hero is trying to stop them.  But it occurred to me as I wrote the comic that perhaps the hero would have done better to let Hitler just have the Ark.  Because the Nazis weren’t the first to try to steal the blessed thing.

When Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, he also received instructions to build a tabernacle, a word meaning “dwelling place”; a large tent that would serve as a portable place of worship for the Israelites.  And he received instructions for the making of various furnishings that would go into the Tabernacle, the most important of which was the Ark.

The Ark was a large chest, about 3 ¾ feet in length and 2 ¼ feet wide and tall.  It was covered inside and out with an overlay of gold, and had rings fastened to the corners through which long poles were inserted which were used to carry the Ark when the Israelites moved their camp.  The cover of the chest was called the Mercy Seat, (or the “atonement cover” in the NIV translation; Mercy Seat sounds better).  Placed on the cover were two cherubim fashioned of gold, one on each end, with their wings spread over the cover.  (Exodus 25:10-22)

Within the Ark was placed the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.  According to the New Testament Book of Hebrews and later Jewish Tradition, it also contained a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron, and maybe Moses’ baby pictures and some other stuff as well.

The Ark was kept in the innermost part of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, (or Sanctum sanctorum in the Latin Vulgate version, from which we get the term “Inner Sanctum”), apart from the general public worship area.  Only the priests and Moses himself were permitted in the Innermost Sanctuary of the Tabernacle.  When God spoke to Moses in their subsequent travels, he did so from the Mercy Seat, between the two cherubim, (which is why in the movie Belloq insists that the Ark was “a… transmitter, a radio for speaking to God!”)

Whenever the Israelites moved their camp, the Ark led the procession, carried by four Levites.  It also accompanied the Israelite army when they went into battle during Joshua’s campaigns against the Canaanites.

Once the Israelites were settled in the Promised Land, the Tabernacle was set up near the city of Shiloh, roughly in the center of the territories of the Twelve Tribes.  There the Ark remained for a good long time.

Several generations passed since the time of Moses and of Joshua.  A man named Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were priests at Shiloh, in charge of performing the sacrifices at the Tabernacle.

Eli seems to have been a decent enough geezer, but as is sometimes the case with preacher’s kids (present company I hope excluded), Hophni and Phineas were jerks.  The text says that  “they had no regard for the LORD.” (1 Samuel 2:12)  When people came to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle, they defied the traditional procedure for determining the priest’s portion of the sacrifice, and demanded their “cut” up front before it was even offered.  They also made a practice of sleeping with the women who served at the Tabernacle.  Eli tried pleading with his boys to cease abusing their priestly position, but they ignored him. They knew Pops was a pushover  and they didn’t take him seriously.(1 Samuel 2:22-25)

At about this time the boy Samuel, who grew up to be an important prophet, was brought to Eli to serve in the Tabernacle.  One night, Samuel hears a message from the Lord, telling him that he was going to lay down some big-time judgment on the House of Eli; “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.”  (1 Samuel 3:11).  Eli would not be exempt from this judgment, because he had the power to curtail his sons but did not and therefore he bore part of the responsibility for their wickedness. Apart from his duties as a father, as chief priest, he had a professional obligation as well.  When a superior turns a blind eye to the misdeeds of his subordinates, he takes on their blame as well.

Eli’s sons have been walking all over him for so long, that Eli has really developed a fatalistic attitude towards everything.  When young Samuel relays this message to him, Eli sighs, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.” (1 Samuel 3:18)  He should have done something earlier to keep his boys from going out of control, but it’s too late now.

During this period, the chief rivals of the Israelites were the Philistines, who dwelt to the west.  They are believed to be originally a tribe of the Sea Peoples, a group that swept across Greece and the Aegean Sea region during the Bronze Age.  They tried invading Egypt as well, but were repelled by Ramesses III and settled in some of the coastal cities of Palestine, around present-day Gaza.  From the late period of the Judges through the reigns of Kings Saul and David, the Philistines are depicted in the Bible as the Arch-enemies of Israel.  Although largely subdued in the time of David, they retained their independence until ultimately absorbed by Assyria in the 7th Century BC.  In modern usage, the term “Philistine” has been used synonymous with “uncouth barbarian”, but the Philistines had plenty of couth, thank you, and seem to have been superior in technology and weaponry than the Tribes of Israel.

After a particularly humiliating defeat by the Philistines at a place called Aphek, the elders of Israel asked what went wrong and somebody remembered the Ark, and how in the time of Joshua, the Israelites were unbeatable when they carried the Ark before them.

When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?  Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from our enemies.”  (1 Samuel 4:3 NIV)
 
So they tried again, this time carrying the Invincilbe Ark before them into battle; and…

The Philistines once again beat the snot out of them.  Even worse than before.

Some people, even religious people; perhaps especially religious people; seem to think of God as being like a video game where all you have to do is enter the right cheat code and you’ll get what you want.  The sons of Eli and the Israelites seem to have thought of the Ark of the Lord as a kind of magic talisman, +5 vs heathens.  It didn’t work that way.

Not only did the Philistines once again send the Israelite army running, they killed Hophni and Phinehas, who were with the Ark and probably helping to carry it, and they seized the Ark itself.

Back in Shiloh, Eli sat waiting by the side of the road for word of the battle.  He had a feeling in his gut that things were going to go badly.  He was ninety-eight years old and he could barely see, but his gut was working just fine  A runner came from the battlefield with the bad news:  the loss of the battle, of Eli’s sons, and of the Ark.  Upon hearing the last, Eli fell backwards out of his chair and broke his neck.  He had led Israel for forty years; he would lead it no more. (1 Samuel 4:12-18)

On top of everything, the text tells us that the pregnant wife of Phinehas went into labor upon hearing the bad news.  It was a difficult delivery, and she lived only long enough to name her baby Ichabod, meaning “no glory”, because “The glory has departed from Israel.” (1 Samuel 4:19-22)

The Philistines returned with their spoils of war back to the city of Ashdod, one of the five cities of Philista.  They placed the captured Ark in the temple to Dagon, a Canaanite deity which the Philistines had adopted and which seems to have been their chief god. Although originally a fertility deity, Dagon is often depicted as part fish, perhaps partially because his name resembles the Semitic word, “dag”, for “fish; and partially because the Philistines were sea-going coastal dwellers.  H.P. Lovecraft borrowed the name in a couple of his stories involving the Deep Ones, eldritch monstrosities from beneath the sea.

The next morning, when the acolytes of Dagon went to the temple, they found the great statue of Dagon toppled over, face down, in front of the Hebrew Ark, as if the god was worshipping it.

Well.  That was freaky.  But they righted the statue and went back to business.

The morning after that, the same thing had happened, only this time Dagon’s head and hands had broken off the statue and were lying on the threshold of the temple.  (The writer of the text comments that for this reason, the priests and worshippers of Dagon will not step on the threshold when entering the temple.  Next time I meet a Philistine, I’ll have to ask if this is true.) (1 Samuel 5:1-5)

Dagon wasn’t the only one to suffer.  The people of Ashdod began to suffer from hemorrhoids.  Or something.  The King James Version call them “emerods”, but many more modern translations call them “tumors”.  Some commentators have suggested that they might have been the swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin which are symptoms of bubonic plague.

The people of Ashdod blamed the Israelite Ark for their affliction, so the rulers of the Philistines decided to move it to another city, Gath.  The emerods broke out in Gath too, afflicting both old and young in their private places, and people began to panic.  Once more, the Philistine rulers moved the Ark, this time to the city of Ekron.  Another town, another outbreak, and by this point people were starting to die from the affliction, which to me suggests that it was something like the Plague and not simply a problem that could be relieved with Preparation H. (1 Samuel 5:6-12)

The Philistines were rapidly running out of cities.  This had been going on for seven months now, and so the leaders of the Philistines consulted their priests.  “Give the sucker back to the Israelites,” the Priests said, and they also advised giving an offering of gold with it, by way of apology.  They suggested that the gold be fashioned in the form of five golden tumors, representing the five cities of Philista and the tumors caused by the plague, and five golden rats, because they’d been suffering from a rat plague too.  Rats?  Why didn’t they mention the rats before?  Sounds like Bubonic Plague to me.

How they pull off the transaction is kind of interesting too.  The Philistines put the Ark and the gifts in a cart, to be pulled by two cows that have calved and have never been yoked.  Then the cows with the cart will be let loose near the border of the Israelite’s territory.  If the cows go by themselves to Beth Shemesh, the nearest Israelite town, then it will be a sign that the Israelite god had afflicted them; if the cows went back into Philistine territory, then the plague was a coincidence and the Israelite god had nothing to do with it.  (1 Samuel 6:1-9)

The people of Beth Shemesh, in the middle of harvesting their wheat, were delighted and surprised to see the ox cart carrying the Ark of God wandering across their filed.  They built an altar on the spot and offered the cows up as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord, (which, if the Philistines really had been suffering from the Plague, might have saved the people of Beth Shemesh from contracting it themselves).

The Philistines observed all this from a distance, and went back to their cities.  Some Levites came to take charge of the Ark.  It was taken to the city of Kiriath Jearim and Eleazar, the son of Abinadab, was consecrated to guard it.

All ended happily.  Well, except for about seventy men of Beth Shemesh (most Hebrew texts say 50,070, but that looks like a copyist’s mistake), who peeked inside the Ark and were struck down for it.  (v.19)  Which is probably why Indy told Marion not to look when the Nazis opened the Ark in the movie.  Did those 70 guys’ faces melt and their heads explode?  The text doesn’t say.

The text also doesn’t say if the Philistines got over their genital emerod problem.  Presumably the affliction ran its course and was over.  The writer of the text is more interested in the Ark.

I ended my comic parody of the movie by noting that if Hitler had gained possession of the Lost Ark, Germany might have suffered the same kinds of misfortunes that the Philistines did, and Nazi Germany might never have become a threat to the world.  And that shortly after the story takes place, the US economy, which had been struggling out of the Great Depression, suddenly took another nosedive.

After which, I said, a mysterious crate was taken from a maximum security warehouse in Washington D.C. and loaded onto a plane bound for British Palestine.  The plane disappeared somewhere over the Bermuda Triangle, and its cargo never recovered.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Know Your Herods 1: Herod the Great, King of the Jews

For much of the period leading up to, and well into the First Century AD, the politics and the fortunes of Judea were dominated by a single family, the House of Herod.  The various rulers who bore that name get only occasional mention in the New Testament, and none of it terribly flattering.  This hardly does them justice; the story of House of Herod is as full of intrigue, sex, and bloodshed, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, as their contemporaries, the Caesars.

The founder of the dynasty, and the most famous of the family, was called Herod the Great, and deservedly so.  He is probably best-known as the villain in the story of the Wise Men in the Book of Matthew, but there was far more to him than that.

Herod was not Jewish by birth.  His father, Antipater, was from Idumea, called Edom in the Jewish Scriptures, and regarded as the home of the descendants of Esau.  Idumea had been annexed by John Hyrcanus, king of Judea, in 125 BC, and its inhabitants forced to convert to Judaism.  Despite this, because of his Idumean blood, Herod was never considered to be a Real Jew.

For many years, Judea had been ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family which had come to power during the Maccabean Revolt in 164 BC and established an independent Jewish kingdom. This kingdom lasted for about a hundred years, until a civil war broke out.  The ruling King and High Priest, Hyrcanus II, was forced to resign his positions by his brothers, and the feuding sides asked the Roman general, Pompey, (who happened to be in the neighborhood putting down an uprising in Syrai), to arbitrate between them.

Pompey decided the issue by annexing Judea for Rome.  Because that’s how Pompey rolled.  He reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest, but not as king; although later on Pompey granted him the position of ethnarch, which is Latin for, “Guy In Charge, But Not A King, So Don’t Get Funny Ideas.”  It would be another couple millennia before the Jews again had an independent state.

Antipater was a high-ranking official in Hyrcanus’ court and acted as the representative of Rome.  He was best buds with Julius Caesar, having once aided Caesar during his conflict with Pompey.  Antipater wrangled cushy administrative positions for both his sons; the elder, Phasael, became Governor of Jerusalem; (you can forget his name because I don’t mention him again), and the younger, Herod, was made Governor of Galilee.

Herod got along well with the Romans; less so with his subjects, who pressured Hyrcanus to put Herod on trial before the Sanhedrin for violating Jewish Law in executing an outlaw and his followers.  Herod won acquittal through a combination of sheer chutzpah and the pull of his influential Roman friends.

Herod married a woman named Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus.  He was already married at this time, to a woman named Doris, but this second marriage made him a member of the Royal Family and heir presumptive to Hyrcanus’ throne.  It would not be his last marriage.

Also during this period, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and the rulers of Judea found themselves embroiled in upheaval in Rome.  Cassius, who as you’ll remember from Shakespeare, helped organize the plot to assassinate Caesar, seized the province of Syria, and appointed Herod to collect taxes for him.  Herod was very good at this sort of thing.  Then, when Cassius was defeated by Marc Anthony, Herod switched his loyalty to Anthony.  This is another thing Herod was good at.

The neighboring Parthians invaded Judea and installed a nephew of Hyrcanus named Antigonus on the throne.  Herod and his family and perhaps as many as 5,000 fighting men fled the city of Jerusalem.  Installing his family in the safety of the mountain fortress of Masada, Herod traveled to Rome to plead to the Roman Senate for help.  The Senate appointed him basileus, (“king’) over Judea and gave him aid to help re-take Jerusalem.

He built a palace for himself in Jerusalem which he named the Antonia, after his patron, Marc Anthony.  But when civil war broke out between the members of the Roman Triumvirate, and Octavius, later known as Caesar Augustus, defeated Anthony, Herod switched sides again.  He went directly to Octavius, admitted he had supported Anthony, and promised to serve Octavius as faithfully as had his previous patron.  Octavius was impressed by his audacity, and probably recognized him as an effective administrator in an unstable province, and so retained Herod in his position as king of Judea.

Herod undertook many building projects during his reign.  It has been said that Caesar Augustus found Rome a city of wood, and left it a city of marble; well, Herod did much the same to Palestine.  In addition to the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem, and the fortress at Masasa, he built a city and harbor on the coast which he named Caesarea, after Caesar Augustus, which became the administrative capital of the province.

One of his projects came about as a result of his nighttime flight from Jerusalem during the Parthian invasion.  His mother was almost killed when her wagon overturned in the flight.  Herod almost succumbed to despair, but when he saw that she was safe, he returned to the fight with a renewed vigor and won the battle.  Afterwards, he vowed that he would be buried at the site.  Since the site was a place of no importance in the middle of the desert, he made it important by first building a mountain, by cutting off the top of a nearby hill and piling it up on the site, and then building a new fortress palace, which he named the Herodium, in the “crater” of this man-made volcano.  Since he intended to be buried there, it was appropriate to name this one after himself.

His most famous building project, however, was his renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been built by Zerubbabel following the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity in the time of Ezra, on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  This was a massive undertaking, because it involved building up the sides of the mountain to create a wide platform for the Temple complex.

In accordance with Jewish Law, the workers building the Temple were selected from the priestly tribe of Levi, and the construction process was organized so that daily sacrifices could proceed uninterrupted.

Herod did not live to see the completion of the whole project, although it’s possible that the Temple proper was finished sooner.  Work on the Temple complex was still going on at the time of Jesus, some 46 years later; and the final Temple was only in existence for a short time before the Romans destroyed it during the Jewish Rebellion of AD 70.  Today, only the Western Wall of the Temple remains standing.

You’d think that fixing up the Temple and all, he’d be a pretty popular guy, right?  No.  He paid for all his building projects with some heavy taxes; (he was good at levying taxes, remember?).  Those taxes didn’t just go to civic improvements, but also to a lavish lifestyle more suited to a Roman despot than to a sober priest-king like Hyrcanus.

He ruthlessly suppressed dissent, and kept a personal bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers.  Although the Temple in Jerusalem was his crowning achievement as King of Judea, he also built other temples to other religions in non-Jewish parts of his province, like in Samaria and in his city of Caesarea. In honor of his Roman patrons, he had a golden eagle erected over the gate to the Temple, something many Jews considered an outrageous blasphemy, and commanded that the priest perform special prayers and sacrifices in honor of the Roman Emperor, something which skirted awfully close to the heathen practice of emperor-worship.  And underneath it all, many would never really accept Herod because he was an Idumean and not a Real Jew.

He ruled Judea with an iron hand, and largely kept the Romans out of Jewish affairs as long as he reigned; but the order he maintained came at a great personal cost. He had to deal with constant plots and intrigues by his family, many of which were initiated by his sister, Salome.

Herod deeply loved his second wife, Miriamne; but has a funny way of showing it.  On a couple occasions where it looked like he might be executed, he left orders that if he died, Miriamne was to be killed as well, so that she would not become the property of another man.  When Miriamne found out about this, she did not take it well.  Did she really plot to poison her husband?  Herod’s sister planted rumors that she did, and Herod had her imprisoned based on these suspicions.  Eventually, under Salome’s persuasion, he ordered Miriamne’s execution.  He spent the rest of his life regretting his action and mourning her death.

Over his career he had a total of ten wives and several sons, most of which were either picked to succeed him at one point or other, or was plotting to do so.  He executed some of his sons for trying to kill him.  A couple of them actually were.  His buddy Augustus once joked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.  Since Herod didn’t eat pork, the pig would be relatively safe.

Towards the end of his life, Herod developed an agonizing, lingering illness which ultimately killed him.  Modern medical scholars have speculated that it was severe diabetes, or perhaps chronic kidney disease complicated with a side order of Fournier’s gangrene.  Which is like regular gangrene, except not nearly as much fun.

It is at this point that Herod enters the Biblical narrative with the story of the Three Wise Men.

You know the story.  Matthew chapter 2 tells of how Magi from the East, sages who studied the stars, show up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking where is he who was born King of the Jews.  Imagine how that must have sounded to a dying, paranoid old man who had spent the better part of the past few decades fighting off claimants to his throne.  Perhaps Herod thought this was another plot against him.  He certainly would have suspected that even if the Magi were genuine, that someone would seize on this baby they were looking for as an excuse to overthrow him; if not one of his ambitious sons, then maybe some rabble-rousing Pharisee or politicking Sadducee.

But Herod plays it cool.  He co-operates with the Magi and pretends to be interested in paying homage himself to this Newborn King.  He sends them to Bethlehem, where the Chief Priests assure him that the Messiah is supposed to be born, and waits for their report.

He has to wait a long time.  The Wise Men aren’t stupid.  Ominous dreams warn them that Herod is not to be trusted; and perhaps they got a creepy vibe off him from the very beginning.  Once they’ve found their baby, they return home by another route, bypassing Jerusalem and Herod.

What is Herod to do now?  Somewhere out there is a potential threat to him wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Well, he didn’t get to be Herod the Great by letting a bunch of babies walk all over him.  He orders the death of every male child in Bethlehem, two years of age or younger.  

Or did he?  The Gospel of Matthew is our only source for this story.  The Jewish historian Josephus, who writes about many of Herod’s other crimes, never mentions it.  On the other hand, given some of Herod’s other bloody acts, Matthew’s account isn’t really out of character for him; it’s the kind of thing Herod would have done under the circumstances.

Although Medieval interpreters liked to magnify the Massacre of the Innocents into a near-genocidal action, Bethlehem was not a terribly large town; and even if we add the surrounding countryside, the infants killed by the edict would have numbered maybe about a half dozen or so, maybe twenty tops.  Perhaps the death of a few babies in a small backwater town escaped Joesphus’ notice; or perhaps he felt it an insignificant crime compared with some of Herod’s flashier executions and assassinations.

Herod didn’t live to learn if his messiah-exterminating campaign was successful.  He died a couple years later in the year 4 BC.

Before his death, he ordered that prominent people from every city and every tribe of Judea be rounded up and held in the hippodrome he had built in Jericho.  At the moment of his death, the prisoners were to all be executed.  That way, Herod reasoned, his death would be an occasion for grief and mourning.  He didn’t want anybody dancing at his funeral. At the last moment, however, his sister Salome rescinded his order; perhaps the only decent thing she did in her life.

He was interred in the Herodium; and although archaeologists have found what they believe to be his crypt in the ruins, his body was not in it.  It is suspected that during the Jewish Revolt, when many rebels took refuge in the Herodium, as they did at Masada, some of them vented their anti-Roman feelings by despoiling Herod’s tomb.

Herod left four surviving sons, each of which had been named by him as a successor at one time or other.  Rather than making any single one of them king, the Romans divided Judea up among them.


Even though Herod was never a popular king with his Jewish subjects, there was a sizable faction which recalled his reign as a period of stability and of relative autonomy.  He was called Herod the Great with good reason, and the Herodians of Jesus’ time argued that Israel’s best hope for a political future was one united under a king from the house of Herod. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jonah and the Rest of the Story

The story of Jonah is one of those Bible stories that everyone has heard of.  He’s the guy who was swallowed by the whale.
But although people like to focus on the fishy aspects of the tale, that’s only the beginning of the story, and not even necessarily the most important part.  What happened to Jonah after the whale, and what does it have to do with a Colocynth?

A what?

To begin with, let’s start out with the familiar part.

Jonah was a prophet living in a town called Gath Hepher in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, somewhere around 800-750 BC.  It was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel, and during this period King Jeroboam recovered territory which had previously been taken by the King of Damascus.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, commanding him to go to the city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital of King Sennacherib, and to preach against it.  Nineveh was a great city and in the Bible is associated with wickedness. The prophets Nahum and Zephaniah also prophesied the destruction of Nineveh; but they didn’t have to actually go there.

Jonah did not particularly want to go to Nineveh, so he went instead to the port of Joppa and booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, which many scholars identify with Tartessos, a Phoenician mining colony in southwestern Spain; about as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could go.

A violent storm came up which threatened to sink the ship, and the sailors guessed (rightly) that the gods must be pissed at someone.  They cast lots to try determining who the guilty one might be, and the lot fell to Jonah.

Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed God and that the storm was all his fault.  He told the sailors to throw him overboard and that then the sea would become calm.  At first the sailors refused and tried to save Jonah – showing a greater moral sensibility than the man of God did -- but the storm became even more violent and finally they felt they had no choice.  Begging the Lord’s forgiveness, they do as Jonah said and chuck the prophet overboard. 

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:17 NIV)

This is the part that people get hung up on.  It sounds impossible.  Jonah couldn’t have been swallowed by a whale, because a whale’s throat is too narrow for a man to pass through.  Well, technically the original Hebrew says “big fish” not whale, but that doesn’t make things much better.  How many fish are there that big?  Was it a special fish, created specifically for this purpose, like an aquatic version of the Cat-bus from My Neighbor Totoro?  Or was it, as some more prosaic critics have suggested, merely a second ship whose name happened to be “The Fish” that came along in time to pick up Jonah before he drowned?

However he was saved, Jonah did not drown.  He spent three days in the belly of the beast, and he prayed.  And this is where we pick up the story:

“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.” (Jonah 2:2)

After three days, God commands the fish to regurgitate Jonah on dry land.  Then once again he gives Jonah his commission:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I will give you.”  (Jonah 3:2)  Running away won’t do any good.  Jonah obeys and goes to Nineveh.

Nineveh was located on the Tigris river in the northern part of Mesopotamia, across from the modern day city of Mosul.  The King James version tells us that it was “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”  

That can’t mean that it took Jonah three days to get there; the coast of the Mediterranean Sea lies hundreds of miles away from the city. In order for the Big Fish to deposit Jonah three days away from Nineveh, it would have had to swim all the way around Africa, up the Persian Gulf, and most of the way up the river Tigris, all within the three days Jonah was inside its belly.  Herman Melville, dissecting Jonah in one of the chapters of Moby-Dick, found this even harder to believe than the whole “swallowed by a whale” business.

A more likely interpretation is that Nineveh was so big it took three days to walk around it.  Archaeological excavations around the site of Nineveh suggest that it was about eight miles around – considerably less than a three-day walk.  But perhaps the text is referring to the Greater Nineveh Metro Area, including a few nearby cities as suburbs.  Or perhaps it means that it took Jonah three days to visit all the neighborhoods of the city doing his preaching.  This is the interpretation the NIV translation leans toward:  “a visit required three days.”

So Jonah goes through Nineveh, warning them that the city would soon be destroyed.  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4)  And something remarkable happens.

People believe him.

The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king decrees a national period of prayer and fasting, and urges his citizens to give up their violent and evil ways in hopes that God would relent and decide not to destroy Nineveh after all.

And God does relent:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Now it’s Jonah’s turn to be pissed.  He knew this would happen.  He knew that God was so compassionate, just so dang slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love that he’d wind up forgiving everybody.  “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish,” he gripes.

God doesn’t see any reason for Jonah to be all cranky; but Jonah doesn’t feel like listening to reason.  He goes to a place east of the city and builds himself a little shelter in order to watch and wait, hoping he might get to see some cool fire ‘n’ brimstone action eventually.

Jonah was a prophet, not an architect, and the rude shelter he put together didn’t provide him with much in terms of protection from the elements; but God once again provided for him.  A vine grew up over the shelter and provided Jonah with some degree of shade.

What kind of vine was it?  King Jim calls it a gourd.  Other translations call it a shrub or a bush.  Many versions just call it a vine and leave it at that.  J.R.R. Tolkien, who translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible, called it a “colocynth”, a type of wild gourd common to the middle east and looking like a small watermelon.  His editors changed it to a castor oil plant, a tall, leafy plant of the region, possibly because they suspected he made "colocynth" up.  "None of your elf-words, Tollers!  This is serious!  This is the Bible!"

But the shady leaves of the colocynth didn’t last long.  After a day or two, God also sent a worm to chew on the vine.  The plant withered and died, leaving Jonah to roast in the sun.  Miserable and faint with the heat, Jonah complains that he’d be better off dead.

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said.  “I am angry enough to die.” But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?”  (Jonah 4:9-11)

God leaves Jonah, and the reader, with that rhetorical question. 

We don’t know what happened to Jonah afterwards; presumably he went home to Gath Hepher.  Maybe, as tradition state, he wrote the book about his adventure which bears his name; or perhaps it was written some time later by someone else.

Presumably the Ninevites relapsed into wickedness, because we know from history that eventually the Babylonians conquered Assyria and destroyed the city; although not before Assyria conquered and absorbed the Kingdom of Israel.  But for a time, they gained a reprieve from the destruction to come.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cites the story of Jonah on an occasion when some Pharisees and teachers of the Law ask him to provide a miraculous sign to prove his credentials.

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!  But none will be given it except for the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”  (Matthew 12:39-41)

Here Jesus is stretching things.  It is only by a generous interpretation of the Gospel narrative that we can say Jesus was in the tomb for three days; and it wasn’t three whole days and three whole nights.  Still, I think we can grant the Gospels some poetic license here.

Although I have to wonder if the most significant parallel between the story of Jonah and the story of the Resurrection is not the number of days the protagonist spent buried away from the surface world but the message that God had compassion on the sinners who knew not their right hand from their left, and extended to them forgiveness.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Useless Onesimus

The epistles of Paul do not really lend themselves to narrative.  Paul doesn’t tend to do stories.  Oh, he might include a personal anecdote here and there, and he’s never reluctant to tell the tale of his own conversion, but for the most part his letters are exhortations, advice and discourses on theology.  Yet the stories are there, hidden under the surface.

Many of his letters were written in response to situations in the communities to which he wrote; and if we squint, we can see the bare outline of what might have happened to prompt his letter.  Usually, though, all we get is hints.

Then there’s the Letter to Philemon.

Philemon was a friend of Paul’s living in the city of Colossae in the Roman province of Asia in present-day Turkey.  The Christian community in Colossae was a satellite church that grew out of the church Paul had planted in nearby Ephesus.

Philemon seems to have been fairly affluent and the Colossian believers met in his home.  He owned a slave named Onesimus, a Greek name meaning “useful”, which is a good name for a competent and reliable servant, if that’s what he was.  Only he wasn’t.

We don’t know the circumstances under which Onesimus left his master.  Perhaps he ran away because his master was cruel to him. Perhaps he had been stealing from his master and ran away when the theft was discovered.  Or perhaps he had heard about Paul and his message and wanted to meet him.  Some critics have suggested that he himself had been stolen.

Whether he sought Paul out, or happened to run into him by chance, Onesimus wound up on Paul’s doorstep.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul describes himself as a prisoner, and biblical scholars in general believe it was written during his imprisonment in Rome, when he was awaiting trial before the Emperor. 

Some scholars have suggested that the letter was written during Paul’s two years of imprisonment in the Palestinian coastal city of Caesarea, prior to his trip to Rome; or possibly an earlier incarceration in Ephesus, when he was jailed for threatening the Tourist Trade.  Rome, however, seems more likely; and crowded, bustling Rome would have been a perfect place for a runaway slave like Onesimus to lose himself.

For much of his time in Rome, Paul was under house arrest, able to receive visitors, but not permitted to leave.  Under such circumstances, having a servant to act as a “gofer” would have been very helpful to Paul.

Nevertheless, as helpful as Onesimus might be, he still posed a problem for Paul.  Under Roman law, Onesimus was another man’s property and Paul could face legal sanctions for harboring a runaway slave.  (Well, additional legal sanctions on top of imprisonment).  Much of Paul’s legal defense consisted of trying to convince the Emperor that Christians were peaceful and law-abiding.  Perhaps more importantly, his friend Philemon would regard it as a betrayal if he ever found out Paul had his slave – and he would inevitably find out.  The situation could conceivably cause a schism in the Colossian community with some people taking Philemon’s side and some people taking Paul’s.

We would like Paul to have denounced the slavery; to perhaps have helped smuggle Onesimus out of the reach of Roman law and to have issued an edict that Christians were henceforth prohibited from owning slaves.  At very least, he should have insisted on following the Mosaic laws of freeing all slaves every seven years.

No, he didn’t do this; he did something more subtle.

Paul received word that the church in Colossae was having questions about some heretical doctrines which had arisen.  The nature of the heresy is irrelevant to this story, but it occasioned Paul to write a letter to the Colossians about the matter.  He had a guy named Tychicus carry the letter back – very likely the guy who brought Paul the news from Colossae in the first place – but also had Onesimus accompany the bearer.  I don’t know how he managed to talk Onesimus into returning to his master, but Paul could be dang persuasive.  Along with the Letter to the Colossians, Paul also gave Onesimus a personal note for Philemon.

The letter starts out with greetings to Philemon and to Apphia and Archippus, members of his household, very likely Philemon’s wife and his son.  Paul praises Philemon for his faith and the love he has shown to his fellows.  He’s setting Philemon up for the hook.

What comes next is nothing less than a guilt trip, and an exquisitely-constructed one at that. 

He makes a plea for Onesimus, whom he calls a son, because he  “became my son while I was in chains.”  (Philemon 10) He notes that could command this, but would prefer that Philemon follow his request voluntarily, out of love.  Not that Paul isn’t above playing the sympathy card, reminding Philemon repeatedly in the letter that he is currently a prisoner and in chains himself.  “Formerly he was useless to you…” Paul says, punning on Onesimus’ name, “… but now he has become useful both for you and for me.” (v. 11)

I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you.  I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent ….  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. (vv. 12-16)

That is the crux of Paul’s argument.  Isn’t it better, he asks, to have a brother in Christ and a friend than to have a useless slave?

Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus into his home as he would Paul himself; and says that if he owes Philemon anything – this is where we get the suggestion that Onesimus might have stolen from his master – Paul will repay it personally.  “I, Paul am writing this with my own hand.” (v. 19)  Paul won’t even mention that, really, Philemon owes his very salvation to Paul’s preaching – except, of course, that he just did; (Paul, you dog, you!)

Paul puts the icing on the cake by telling Philemon to prepare a guest room for him for when he’s released.  He doesn’t explicitly say so, but the implication is clear that he will be checking up to see if Philemon does as he asked.

So, did Philemon free his disobedient slave?  Did he at least forgive him for running away?  The fact that we even have this letter, I think, is evidence that he did.  If I had received a letter like that from Paul, the last thing I would want is for anybody else to know I blew him off.

Historically, Paul’s letter to Philemon has been used to justify the practice of slavery, using the reasoning that since Paul didn’t condemn it, it must be permissible, right?  There are a number of other places where Paul speaks of the duties of slaves and of the ethical treatment of them.  These also have been used to justify slavery, (usually while ignoring the “ethical treatment” part).

But Paul wasn’t interested in reforming society as a whole as much as he was living justly within the existing society.  Slavery was an accepted fact of life in Paul’s era and Paul here did not challenge that.  Except to leave Philemon with this subversive thought:

Would you rather have a useless slave, or a brother and a friend?


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Daughters of Zelophehad

According to Jewish Tradition, Moses received two Laws on Mount Sinai:  the Written Law, which was inscribed on tablets of stone, but also an Oral Law, which was transmitted orally and which interpreted and expanded upon the former.  This Oral Law was eventually written down around the year 200 CE and became the foundation for the Talmud.

This Oral Law was necessary because, although the Law as written may seem like it goes on forever when you’re trying to read the Bible cover to cover and hit Leviticus, there’s a lot of stuff the Written Law doesn’t cover; and even more areas where situations arose that Moses never dreamed of.

I have to admit, when I first heard about it, the idea of altering the Law of Moses as written in the Bible seemed pretty strange and possibly sacrilegious.  Which it shouldn’t, because certainly Christians have been selective about which portions of the Law we consider binding to us today.  But the Bible itself gives us an example of this kind of modification, in the story of five girls who stood up to demand their rights.

Their names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah; and yes, unlike many women of the Bible, we are told their names.  Their father was a man named Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, who had died during the period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

The Israelites were now preparing to enter the Land of Canaan, and the plan was to divide the land between the Twelve Tribes and then divide the tribal lands among the families and clans of that tribe.  Perhaps it might seem presumptuous for them to be thinking of this before they’ve actually conquered Canaan, but it never hurts to plan ahead.

These girls, however had a problem.  Under the existing Law, whatever property Zelophehad was entitled to would be inherited by his sons, and it was understood that the sons would bear responsibility to take care of any unmarried sisters.  But Zelophehad had no sons; just lots of girls.  (It’s been suggested that both Teyve’s five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof and the five Bennett girls from Pride and Prejudice owe a bit of inspiration to Zelophehad’s family).  So under the system as things stood, the Daughters of Zelophehad got nothing.

So the five girls went to the Tent of Meeting to put their case before Moses and Eleazar (the High Priest after the death of Aaron) and the whole assembly:

“Our father died in the desert.  He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons.  Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son?  Give us property among our father’s relatives.”  (Numbers 27:3-4 NIV)

Korah was a guy who had challenged Moses’ authority some time earlier and led a revolt against him.  God put down the revolt by having the earth open up and swallow the rebels.  The girls want to make clear to Moses that their dad was not one of these malcontents.

But what does it mean that “…he died for his own sin”, (or “…in his own sin” as the King James puts it)?  Some rabbinical commentators have suggested that he was guilty of some other sin like gathering sticks on the Sabbath for which he was punished.  I think the daughters are simply saying that, whatever sins their father might have committed, they had nothing to do with the treasonous Korah and that their father certainly didn’t deserve to have his family name blotted out.

And note that this is the girls’ chief argument.  They aren’t asking it for themselves; they are asking Moses and the leaders of the people to think of their father and of his family name.

Two things are noteworthy here:  The first is that these girls, (and since none of them were married at this time, even the oldest of them was very likely a young woman), had the chutzpah to come to Moses demanding justice. The other is that Moses did not reject these pushy dames out of hand.  He listened to their plea and felt it worthy of consideration.

Moses brings their case before the Lord.  The Zohar, a collection of Jewish mystical works that includes commentaries on the Torah, says that Moses asks God to rule on the issue rather than deciding himself out of humility; (and Numbers 12:3 assures us that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” which to many readers proves that whoever wrote the book of Numbers, it wasn’t Moses).  Or it could be that Moses realized this was a potentially divisive issue, and he preferred to let God handle it.

In either case, God confirms the justice of the girls’ request:

“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right.  You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.”  (Numbers 27:7)

The Lord goes on to extend the principle.  If a man dies and leaves no son, his inheritance will be passed down to his daughters.  Only if he has no children at all will his inheritance go instead to his brothers; and if he himself has no brothers, then it shall go to his father’s brothers, or lacking that, to the nearest relative in his clan.  That seems to cover every contingency.

No it doesn’t.  Several chapters later, several family heads from the clan of Gilead, (to which Zelophehad belonged), came with another beef.  They are worried that if the Zelophehad girls marry outside of their tribe, that the other tribe will get the family lands they inherited.  They cite the laws connected with the Year of Jubilee, when all lands must revert back to their original owners; (Leviticus 25:8-17).  This economic reset button was intended to prevent the wealth gap between rich and poor from becoming too great and to ensure that tribal lands stayed within the tribe and family lands within the family.

The Lord agreed with the Gileadites and further amended his previous edict to say that the Daughters of Zelophehad were still free to marry whoever they wished, as long as it was someone from their own tribe.  Non-inheriting daughters were not bound by this restriction, but ones like the Daughters of Zelophehad, who are carrying on their father’s name and inheriting his property, must marry within their father’s tribe.

The Daughters of Zelophehad seem to have been okay with this.  After all, had their father lived, they probably would have been married off to men of his choice with no say in the situation at all.  Mahiah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcha and Noah wound up marrying cousins of theirs, sons of their uncles from their father’s side.  Unusually enough, we do not get their husbands’ names.

Rabbinical scholars have lauded the Daughters of Zelophehad as wise women who were righteous and who understood the Torah; and Jewish feminists have embraced them as strong, assertive women who stood up for their rights and won acknowledgement from the Patriarchs. That in itself is worth remembering them for. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Revised Standard Virgin

When I was very young, I remember once hearing a bit of a conversation my Dad, who was a Lutheran pastor, had with someone regarding Bible Translations.  This would have been around 1970, I think.  About that time, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was the common translation used in a lot of churches, but there were a lot of traditionalists who insisted that if the King James Version was good enough for Moses, St. Paul and Martin Luther then by God it was good enough for them too.

I don’t remember much about that conversation, except for one little factoid:  That the KJV translated the famous passage in Isaiah often cited at Christmas as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” but the RSV rendered it: “a young woman shall conceive…”

As much as it irritates the traditionalists, the RSV translation really is the more accurate.  So why is there this discrepancy in the first place?  How did the young girl become a virgin?  (Well, yeah, that is how they start out; but still.)  And why do many modern translations follow the KJV?

The answer gets a bit complicated.  Let’s start by jumping ahead to the Gospel of Matthew.

I like to think that the writer of Matthew had a mind like mine.  I have a tendency to collect weird little factoids, and to connect them with other bits of trivia.  It’s a quirk which has both amused and I’m sure aggravated more than one pastor of mine, and it’s one of the driving forces behind this series.  I think Matthew did too, because he was always making connections between the events of his narrative and earlier passages from Scriptures.

One of these is the passage that frequently gets quoted during the Christmas season: 

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23 NIV)

I like to envision Matthew recording the story of Christ’s Virgin Birth and thinking, “Holy cats!  Isn’t there a prophecy in Isaiah like this?”  And then citing the verse in his narrative.  (Well, I doubt he said “holy cats”, but the rest of it sounds reasonable).

Now, a cynical mind might suggest that Matthew invented the story of the Virgin Birth in order to fit the prophecy, but I don’t think that’s the case.  I’m not sure that the Isaiah prophecy was even regarded as a Messianic one until Matthew made that connection; but we’ll get there later.

Matthew was writing in Greek, and when he quoted from Scriptures he used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that had been made in the Third Century BC.  In the Septuagint, the word in question is “parthenos”, meaning “virgin”.

In the original Hebrew, however, the word is “almah”, meaning “a young woman of marriageable age”, which is not necessarily the same thing.

Traditionalists will tell you that such a young woman usually would be a virgin in that culture, so it’s the same diff; and that in most other places in the Old Testament where the word “almah” occurs it’s understood that the girl is still a virgin.  And, for what it’s worth, the Jewish scholars of the Septuagint chose “parthenos” to translate the word.

(In researching this piece, I came across one translation that tries to split the difference.  It reads:  “Watch for this:  A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant…”  Meaning she was a virgin… up to the point where she got preggers.)

Later translations, such as the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Middle Ages, and King Jim followed the Septuagint, partially because that was the best version of the Hebrew Scriptures they had available, but mainly, I think, to keep the Isaiah passage consistent with the way Matthew quotes it.  And, as someone I know once observed, a young woman who wasn’t a virgin getting knocked up isn’t that remarkable a prophecy, now is it?

But then again, we’re used to hearing the verse lifted out of its context and uttered by cherubic-faced children too young to know what a virgin is in Sunday School Christmas pageants.  Let’s go back to Isaiah.

Isaiah chapter 7 starts out with King Ahaz of Judah facing an imminent threat from Pekah, the king of Israel to the north, and Rezin or Aram, in what we now call Syria.  Pekah and Rezin were trying to pressure Ahaz in to joining them in a coalition against Assyria to the northeast.

The Lord sends Isaiah to King Ahaz with a prophecy, telling him not to panic, and to remain calm and resolute, because both Israel and Aram were “smoldering stubs of firewood”.  They intended to invade Judah and divide it between themselves, but they would never get the chance.  Assyria was going to crush both of them.

Then we get to the meat of the passage.

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test,” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David!  Is it not enough to try the patience of men?  Will you try the patience of God also?”  (Isaiah 7:10-13 NIV)

I like this bit.  It’s irrelevant to the story, but I can just picture Isaiah coming to the king all ready to lay some spectacular Signs and Wonders on him, only for Ahaz to say, “Nah, don’t bother.”  Isaiah gets pissed and says that the king is going to get his sign whether he wants it or not.  “The Lord himself will give you a sign…” and then we get the familiar verse quoted by Matthew.  But the prophecy does not stop there:

“…He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.  But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isaiah 7:15-16)

And then Isaiah goes on to describe what will happen when Assyria comes in to kick everybody’s butt.  But the child is not the significant part of the prophecy; at least not the prophecy as Ahaz hears it.  And the prophecy says nothing about the Messiah, whenever he might come. Instead, it tells Ahaz what will happen to his kingdom and to the kingdoms of his enemies in the near future.

The kid in the prophecy is used to give Ahaz an idea of a timeframe. By the time the kid knows right from wrong – this could refer to the age of his bar-mitzvah, when a boy is officially regarded as an adult, or maybe a younger age when he has learned enough to be halfway responsible – he will be eating curds and honey.  Later on in the prophecy, Isaiah expands on this, explaining that war will ravage the countryside and destroy the fields and vineyards, forcing people to rely more on the dairy products from what livestock they can save for their diet.  And even before that, both Israel and Aram will be destroyed.

So the kid in the prophecy gives us a timeline.  Twelve or thirteen years tops, or maybe only two or three, depending on what Isaiah meant by knowing right from wrong, until these things come to pass.

Some Hebrew scholars have suggested that this child was Ahaz’s own son, Hezekiah; but another possibility comes up in a parallel prophecy in the very next chapter.

The LORD said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen:  Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz [“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”] And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me.”
 Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son.  And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  Before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”  (Isaiah 8:1-4)

So perhaps the child spoken of in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy was Isaiah’s own.  I’d hate to be named “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz”, though.  If nothing else, it would be hell to have to fill in the bubbles on those standardized tests in school.

Isaiah’s reference to his wife as “the prophetess” is also interesting.  Was it because the woman he married was also a prophet, or was she just called that the same way some pastor’s wives might sometimes be informally called “Mrs. Pastor”?  Frustratingly, Isaiah tells us very little of his family life, other than that she evidently permitted him to give their kids some really weird names.

But whether the kid of Isaiah 7:14 is Hezekiah, or Isaiah’s kid, or some purely hypothetical infant; his mother doesn’t have to be a virgin for the prophecy to work; at least not the prophecy regarding Assyria that Ahaz was most interested in.

Then does that mean that Isaiah’s prophecy had nothing to do with the Messiah after all?  Well, Matthew obviously thought it did.  And possibly he was connecting it in his mind with the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 9, (“For to us a child is born…” Isaiah 9:6) which definitely does look forward to an anticipated Messianic age.

But I think that we Christians often make the mistake of assuming that the Bible is a Code and that each verse has exactly One Meaning and One Meaning Only.  This is obviously not the case, or else clergymen would have a much harder time coming up with new sermons every week. The Bible is richer than that, and a single passage may hold many facets and inspire many thoughts.

I don’t have a problem with considering that God might have given multiple-purpose prophecies with meanings that reverberate beyond the immediate occasion of their delivery.  Heck, most of the End Times prophecies are like that.

Matthew found a particular meaning in this verse.  The Chucrch has latched on to his interpretation as The Interpretation of what Isaiah was saying; but I think that other interpretations have their validity too.  Still, I can’t say that the meaning he found is wrong.