SBL (Society of Biblical Literature, #SBLAAR2016) has been a reawakening for me, an experience of recapturing something that has been beautiful in my life. Since leaving my former occupation as a rabbi a year and half ago, I’ve not stopped studying the Bible, wrestling with texts and ideas, trying to comprehend what God has spoken through prophets and words and events. But I’ve caught the passion anew and I feel like I found more direction at this year’s meeting.
I’m reading things I would never have read before. In several areas of longtime interest, I have picked up more in a few days than I’ve learned in the past several years. My longtime love for Isaiah has grown. My preoccupation with Paul and his ideas in relation to Judaism has increased.
Mostly in this post, I want to describe to you one of the best papers I heard all conference long, Mark Nanos’s “Reading Paul’s Allegory (Gal 4:21-5:1) as Haftorah.” Before I do that, I want to mention briefly two other areas: the book I’m reading that would not have been in my parlance previously and a quick description of some new direction I have in Isaiah research.
The Genesis of Liberation, by Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler, Jr.
A longtime friend, an African-American business woman and community leader, is studying theology with me. I may be learning more than she is. Through our dialogue I am imagining as a white male a little bit of what it would be like to be black in America. I am thinking about God and faith in black perspective.
The Genesis of Liberation is essentially about how the King James Bible has been used, especially by black leaders, as a text of comfort and hope, in spite of the fact that white religion used it to justify slavery and dehumanize blacks. Perhaps the following quote by Frederick Douglass in 1845 captures the crux of the matter:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.
Some Direction in Isaiah
I’ve written about many areas of scripture and Judaism and theology over the years. My intention is that Isaiah will become my specialty. I’ve been attending the Formation of Isaiah sessions at SBL for four or five years now. I’ve invested a lot of time in Isaiah, writing notes on the entire text twice through, translating a small but substantial bit of it, and so on.
But now, after some time, I see the direction I am interested in. I want to focus on the macro-level of Isaiah. I’m not interested in reconstructing history. I’m not a poetry expert. I enjoy and respect those who work on history and the details of poetry in Isaiah.
But I’ve written about and have been growing in my understanding that Isaiah is a collection, sort of like the Psalms. It is not one book written by Isaiah of Jerusalem (I stopped believing that some time ago), though Isaiah of Jerusalem is the originator of what came to be the collection. I’ve been discovering scholars whose work helps me understand the big picture. How did the collection of Isaiah come into it’s final form? How does the final editor of Isaiah shape the collection and guide the reader to a certain understanding of its messages?
Hugh Williamson of Oxford University, Jacob Stromberg of Duke, Archibald Wieringen of Tilburg University of Catholic Theology, Daniel Stulac of Duke, and the longstanding work of Brevard Childs on Isaiah. These are the scholars I’ll be reading.
Mark Nanos, “Reading Paul’s Allegory (Gal 4:21-5:1) as Haftorah”
The highlight of Day 2 of SBL for me was Mark Nanos’s paper. He presented new, not-yet-published material on the allegory in Galatians 4:21-5:1.
You’ve probably noticed before that passage in Paul is bizarre and he sounds like a preacher stretching the text to make a point. Nanos promised to show us how Paul’s midrash or homily here is an example of what is called in Jewish practice a haftorah.
What is a Haftorah?
First, you need to know that there is a lectionary in Judaism, that is, a set of readings from the Bible. The Jewish lectionary has two parts, the Torah portions (called parashot) which are selections from the five books of Torah, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). These readings are consecutive and in order in most systems so that you read the whole Torah every year.
Accompanying each Torah portion is a haftorah, which is a selection from the prophets that has a correspondence in some way with the Torah portion. These haftorot can be drawn from any of the texts in Judaism considered to be prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or the Twelve).
Here is something important to know about the Jewish lectionary. In ancient times, there was a triennial system. We discovered this when the Cairo Genizah began to draw scholarly attention in the late 1800’s and old lists of lectionary readings were found. The old system brought readers through the Torah twice every seven years (so it wasn’t exactly “triennial”).
I am told that the old lectionary readings tended to emphasize much more than the current ones passages in the prophets that were about salvation, future hope, and messianic themes.
Here is the thing that Nanos develops about Paul’s allegory: it is about the Torah and haftorah and how they connected. In one version of the ancient Jewish lectionary (we can’t say for sure if this is the one used in Paul’s time) Isaiah 54:1 was associated with Genesis 16, the Hagar story.
In Isaiah 54:1, Jerusalem is pictured as a barren woman who becomes a mother, just like Sarah. Historically speaking, this was a message of hope for Jerusalem during the exile, when the city was empty of most of its people. God promises this barren mother, Jerusalem, that her children will be more than those of the one who has a husband.
Because of the tradition in which this was read together with the Hagar-Sarah story, one creative interpretation would be to see Sarah being promised in Isaiah 54:1 more children than Hagar, who had (temporarily at least) Abraham. And, of course, Paul uses the Hagar-Sarah story and Isaiah 54:1 in his rather odd sermon on Gentile identity in Abraham in Galatians 4:21-5:1. Paul’s strange interpretation now can be understood in the genre of his time, as a d’rash or midrash (a kind of sermon common in Jewish antiquity).
Of course, this little bit I have said probably raises many more questions for you as a reader, but I want to wait until Nanos publishes the article to say more. Some of you know enough about the genre of midrash to already begin to put together some of the implications. Let me spell out one of them.
Paul indicates that Jerusalem is in slavery and that this slavery has something to do with Sinai. A typical reading is that Paul is criticizing Judaism in his time. He is saying that “works-based religion” is slavery.
But the use of Isaiah 54 puts a different spin on it. The slave condition of Jerusalem is not a judgment against Judaism. It is the reality of the prophetic message: only when God brings the covenant promises to pass will Jerusalem be free. Sinai did not have a purpose to make the Jewish people free. The law is not a covenant of salvation. It is the promise given through Abraham that makes free. In Isaiah 54, Jerusalem exists in Sinai mode waiting for the covenant promise.
Paul is saying that the covenant promise has begun to happen in Yeshua. He is saying that the Gentiles in his audience are part of the Jerusalem that is free, not the Jerusalem of old. He is saying in a clever way that going back to Sinai — which for them would mean giving in to the temptation to convert to Judaism via adult circumcision — is moving the wrong direction.