Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 3

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Isaiah 35.1-10

1 The wilderness and the desert will rejoice and the dry steppe will shout in exultation and they will blossom like the crocus. 2 They will blossom continuously and, indeed, they will rejoice continuously and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon will be given to them. They will see the glory of YHWH, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the hands of the weak and make firm stumbling knees. 4 Say to those with a fickle heart “Be strong, be not afraid! Behold your God. Vengeance is coming. The retribution of God will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be restored. 6 Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because water will break forth in the wilderness and torrents on the dry steppe. 7 The parched ground will become a reed encircled pool and the thirsty ground will become a spring. The jackals’ den will become a swamp and the dry grass will become reeds and rushes. 8 There will be a path there and it will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not walk on it. It will be for God’s people. No traveler, not even fools, will get lost on it. 9 There will be no lion there, and predators will not be found there. The redeemed will walk there. 10 And the ransomed of YHWH will return, and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will be on their heads; they will attain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing will flee.

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in southern California, a land of dry scrub and chaparral. Every year, I went camping with my father and brother in the White Mountains, a mountain range in the desert that straddles Nevada and California. We camped next to a creek, less than three feet wide in most stretches, but large enough to transform the landscape. On the banks of the creek, green grass and willows flourished. Trout swam in it and voles scurried through the meadows that it watered. But walk 100 feet away, and you’d wander into a wilderness of sage brush and cactus and scrubby pine trees.

This passage from Isaiah makes me think back to those mountain camping trips, but even more so, it makes me reflect on the topography in Minnesota, where I live now. Here in Minnesota, I have to take care not to trip, otherwise I’ll end up in a lake or a river or some other body of water. It presents a question to the translator: where does translation end and interpretation begin? For instance, should I adapt Isaiah 35:6-7 for my Minnesota readers and render it: “Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because the sun will break forth on the prairie and summer on the frozen hills. The frozen pond will become a swimming hole and the dead grass will become a flowery meadow.” It may get the point across, but it definitely changes the metaphor. It’s a slippery slope that I’m not sure that I want to walk down. But as a preacher, I think it’s important to keep your climate in mind. If your congregants have never been to the desert, you may have to think about whether “jackals’ dens” becoming “swamps” is translating for them.

This is a slippery question, and one that I’ll continue to reflect upon throughout this feature. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look at my earlier post on a similar desert problem, translating the Hebrew word nachal (incidentally, the word nachal appears in Isaiah 35:6, where I’ve translated it ‘torrents’).

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 1

With the start of a new church year and with the Revised Common Lectionary coming back to Year A, I’m starting a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. I kick off the inaugural post with a reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah 2.1-5

1 The word that Isaiah, son of Amos, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.2 And at the end of days, it will happen that the mountain of the house of YHWH will be established as the highest of all mountains, and it will rise above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 And because the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of YHWH will go out from Jerusalem, many peoples will come and they will say, “Let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob. And He will teach us His way and we will walk in His way.” 4 And he will judge between nations and he will maintain justice for many peoples and they will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives and nation will not lift up sword against nation and they will not learn war again. 5 O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

Those of you familiar with New Orleans jazz may recognize Isaiah 2.4 as the source of the famous song, Down by the Riverside, whose lyrics proclaim that “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” Of further preaching interest, verses 2-4 occur verbatim in Micah 4.1-3. And of the most preaching interest, the words from verse 4, “they will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives” appear Joel 3.10, but with two important differences. The first difference is that in Joel, the verb “hammer” is an imperative. Rather than predict the change, the prophet Joel commands. The second difference is in the objects being hammered. Rather than hammering “swords” into “mattocks” and “spears” into “pruning knives,” the prophet Joel commands the nations to blacksmith their gardening implements into weapons!

The upshot of looking at Isaiah’s words in light of their two prophetic parallels is manifold, and if nothing else, it teaches that preaching on prophecy requires an eye for context. To tell a congregation that Isaiah requires them to change their warlike ways into gardening is no less misleading than telling them that Joel requires them to sharpen their gardening tools for battle.

To the end of contextualizing Isaiah 2.1-5, the beginning of verse 2 looms large. As Isaiah says, all of the future verbs in 2-4, all of the rising and flowing and coming and hammering, take place “at the end of days.” Placing the prophet’s words in their eschatological context transforms them from an ethical program into gospel promise. Through the prophet Isaiah (and the prophet Micah and even the prophet Joel), God promises that our present tendency to turn even the most benign tools into weapons will be undone.