To See and Not Perceive: Isaiah 6.9-10 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation (JSOT Supplement)
In his vision of the enthroned and exalted Lord, one of the best known passages of the Old Testament, Isaiah the prophet is told to tell his people ‘to see and not perceive’, and thus harden their hearts, ‘lest they repent’ (Isa. 6.9-10). Most who read this passage are perplexed. To be sure, we may have found the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart a trifle unfair, but there is something about deliberately rendering the people of God obdurate that is particularly disturbing. Then we turn to the New Testament and discover, according to Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus speaks parables for the same reason: lest ‘outsiders’ repent and be forgiven. It all seems so strange that it is no wonder that interpreters (ancient and modern) have from time to time suggested that Isaiah, Jesus, or both have been misquoted or misunderstood. The present work analyzes this problematic text and the theology out of which it arises and to which it contributes. However, the study is not limited to a particular point in time, but rather it is concerned with the variety of interpretations and applications to which this powerful text has given rise during the period of time that saw the growth and recognition of that compilation of writings we now call the Bible.
With the relatively recent recognition of midrashic interpretation in early Jewish and Christian times, there is increasing evidence, if the burgeoning bibliography in this field tells us anything, that scholars regard this new area of study (often called ‘comparative midrash’) as highly profitable for exegesis of biblical literature. Rather than being limited by the traditional view that ‘midrash’ is a rabbinic literary form (e.g., the midrashim, or ‘commentaries’ on portions of the Bible), it has become widely recognized that midrash is an exegetical method which was practiced in wider Jewish and primitive Christian circles. Underlying midrash was the conviction that authoritative traditions (i.e., ‘scripture’ at either the canonical or pre-canonical stages) have enduring meaning for the community of faith and that these traditions address themselves to, and elucidate, the community’s historical experience. Committed to this hermeneutic, the community searches (darash) the scriptures with the conviction that an interpretation (midrash} will be found that will give meaning to its experience. Because historical situations change and because scripture was more or less stabilized as sacred text, the challenge of the midrashist was to unpack from scripture meaning that was relevant to the needs of the contemporary community. Consequently, the basic purpose of midrash, as well as most methods of exegesis, was to update authoritative traditions or, as G. Vermes has put it, ‘to fuse Scripture with life’.
Another important and related factor is the new appreciation of haggadah, that is, that aspect of midrashic interpretation concerned with elucidating biblical contents not concerned with legal matters. Whereas halachic exegesis engaged in the effort to update the laws of Torah so that virtually every contingency in Jewish life might be met, haggadic exegesis was concerned to draw out theological significance from, and to explain difficulties in, the narrative portions of Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Haggadic exegesis is that area of midrash in which the community is able to find itself in scripture and to learn more about itself from scripture. The community’s experiences are found in scripture and, at the same time, scripture explains more fully to the community its experiences. It is this aspect of midrashic exegesis that appears so often in both Testaments and is of such great importance for biblical interpretation.
Since midrash is now being viewed more as method rather than genre (though the rabbinic midrashim certainly constitute a distinctive literary genre), new attention has been given to its appearance in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. But of particular importance is the emergence of comparative midrash for New Testament study. Rather than only asking questions pertaining to the verbal accuracy of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament (questions often concerned with harmonization), questions are raised pertaining to the resignification and applications of the text in question. Alterations in a given text do not always point to faulty memory or confusion between similar texts, though at times they may, but often they point to thoughtful and deliberate exegesis; and we should assume that this exegesis to a certain extent mirrors the experience of the community out of which it arose. The studies of Peder Borgen, Wayne Meeks, David Hay, Jane Schaberg, Klyne Snodgrass, and Mary Callaway are among the finest examples of this method of study.
New Testament comparative midrash means looking beyond the appearance of formal quotations and verbal allusions and looking for similar structure and theology, particularly for cases in which the New Testament writer has modeled larger portions of his writing after extended passages and particular themes found in the Old Testament. Ultimately, the goal of comparative midrash is to discover how the older traditions have been interpreted and applied in the newer contexts.
The present study is a study in comparative midrash. The focus will be upon a particular text (Isa. 6.9-10), and it will be studied in as many historical contexts, or stages, as possible. Not only is such a study useful, in that it makes a contribution to our understanding of the variety of theological perspectives in early Jewish and Christian history, but it contributes to our understanding of canonical hermeneutics as well. However, in mentioning ‘canon’ I hasten to add that this study does not intend to enter the dialogue currently being developed by J.A. Sanders and B.S. Childs, among others, although the study does reflect the methodology advocated by the former. It is out of a conviction that the canonical process itself is of much hermeneutical and historical value that this study is undertaken (though I am not sure that I can agree with Sanders that the very processs is itself ‘canonical’). Although it is a highly specialized study, its results have implications for this wider theological concern. Finally, this work hopes to shed some light on the meaning of an important text within its various New Testament contexts, an aspect which alone should justify it.
The procedure of the book is simple enough. The terminus a quo is the eighth-century prophet Isaiah who uttered the original words of Isa. 6.9-10. The terminus ad quern is the respective usages of this prophetic text in rabbinic and patristic literature. Isa. 6.9-10 is a text that is particularly suitable for a comparative study, for it has given various believing communities theological explanations of major significance in times of disaster, turmoil, rejection, and self-doubt.
This book is interested in a particular text and the hermeneutic to which it gives expression. But it is not intended to be a study of the motif of obduracy,17 though Isa. 6.9-10 is certainly a major witness to that tradition. The prophetic motif of obduracy is but a manifestation of a more fundamental theological issue, that of affirming the sovereignty of God in the face of religious apostasy, political disaster, or rejection and ostracism. I am not primarily interested in either Isaiah the prophet or Isaiah the book. Rather, I am interested in the text of Isa. 6.9-10 because in a certain sense it epitomizes the struggle to monotheize, that is, to explain all of existence in terms of God and his sovereign will. I believe that Isa. 6.9-10 is perhaps one of the most important prophetic witnesses to the monotheistic hermeneutic, the hermeneutic that lies at the very bean of the canon.