In a recently published volume on the Ascension of Isaiah is a chapter with these arresting words:
It is the thesis of this paper that readers and authors of ancient oracular literature did not assume that meaning lies in the text, that the meaning is what the text says. Rather ancient revelatory authors wrote to open windows on meaning that lay beyond what their texts say, and ancient readers read to look through those windows to the meaning beyond. Perhaps an ancient way of reading can explain ancient translators’ decisions and can lead modem readers to appreciate them – and can open a door through which modern readers can understand the Ascls as its authors and earliest readers may have wished.
(Hall, 146-47. my bolding)
That reminded me of a conflicted time in my own past life trying to make sense of my church’s teachings against the reality of what the Bible itself said. “Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), was the phrase that our church leaders had taught to us: scripture, we were taught, could only be understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it was written so that only the spiritually guided ones could truly understand it. One passage was to be interpreted by another passage in some other book. You wonder what Hosea meant when he wrote,
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1) ?
Why, turn to Matthew and you will read the answer:
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)
Matthew explains the meaning of Hosea, you see. That’s how the Bible works, we were taught.
My difficulties began one day quite some years ago when I decided study each book in isolation from the other books just to try to get a firm handle on exactly what each book really was saying — in its “own write” — in its own context, without any input from any other book in the Bible. That was an eye-opener. I fairly quickly found myself in a position where I knew more about what the Bible itself says than what our pastors and evangelists and ministers who were teaching us. There begins another tale for another day.
But now I’m studying Christian origins and the more I learn the more I realize that my old church was right — the sacred texts were not meant to be read for literal meaning but as gateways into other texts and visions of the mysteries. At least, that’s how they were read so very often. Such a method is the fundamental assumption of midrashic readings, too. That is how Matthew read Hosea, after all. (Of course, there remains one serious difference between church readings “here a little, there a little”: church authorities have had a habit of cementing their jig-saw readings of the Bible as set doctrine, the departure from which amounts to the crime of heresy; the early explorers of midrashic interpretations of text were apparently free to explore and discover new “insights”, at least for a time.)
The author of the Gospel of John understood the principle well. He even had Jesus propound it:
Nicodemus respectfully offers a careful, precisely consistent interpretation of what Jesus said, and Jesus berates him for it, ‘Are you a leader of the Jews and you do not know these things’? (John 3.10). Jesus refuses to define his statements. Instead, Jesus stokes Nicodemus’ bewilderment by piling on puzzle after puzzle. Jesus had said, ‘Unless one be born άνωθεν, one cannot see the kingdom of God’. Does Jesus mean ‘born again’? or ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the beginning’ or ‘born anew’? When Nicodemus tries ‘born again’ and asks Jesus to explain what he means, Jesus simply replies with another puzzle: ‘Unless one is bom from water and πνεύμα, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (3.5). Jesus’ words do not refute Nicodemus; Nicodemus’ interpretation works as well as ever. Furthermore, Jesus’ second puzzle does not define the meaning of the first; rather it multiplies meaning: Is Jesus speaking of resurrection? ‘Unless one is born again, born from water (death, Lam 3.53; Ps 69.14-15] and breath [Ezek 37.9] one cannot enter the kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of life in the Spirit? ‘Unless one is born from above, born from water [water of life flowing from Jesus who comes from above, John 4.10-15] and Spirit [water from Jesus is the Spirit, John 7.38-39], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of a new creation? ‘Unless one is born from the beginning, born from water and wind [think Gen 1.2], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Jesus’ subsequent statements solve nothing; they simply add depth to the ambiguity. Nicodemus tries to understand the words as propositions, as statements containing meaning. Jesus refuses to fix the meaning: the statements are not propositions; they are windows to meaning that goes beyond what they say. Only by interpreting windows by windows can the statements remain windows; to fix the meaning is to kill them. Jesus refuses to do so.Authors of ancient revelatory literature wrote not to fix meaning but to open windows. Their goal is not a well- expressed message but the readers’ enlightened mind. They expect a reader who will join the inquiry, who will try to see through the text into the realities beyond.
(149-50. italics original, bolding mine)
To add to the “windows of opportunities” for various meanings Hall reminds us that books were far more often heard performed than silently read. And each reading performance was surely different in some way given that Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowels and Greek manuscripts lacked word divisions.
Readers had to decide what to pronounce. Every performance might be different; each would beget its own insight. (150)
Take the most central conundrum of the Jewish Scriptures, the very name of God:
I AM WHO I AM, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Ex 3.14) is complex. The imperfects denote continual action in the present, the past, the future, continual action always. The Septuagint translates έγώ είμι ό ών. ’Εγώ είμι denotes present continual action; ό ών is timeless, denoting the act of being simply, έγώ είμι ό ών pretty well captures continual action always – much better than έγώ είμι ός είμι έγώ. This last is elegant, but captures only continual present action. Of course, the divine name is carefully composed; readers meditating on it will see much more than ‘continual action always’ and the Greek repays meditation, too. Translators of the Septuagint have tried to open a window rather than simply to translate what the text says. (152)
Recall that the Psalms have those curious musical terms popping up here and there:
The Psalm titles are difficult to understand because they contain musical terms the significance of which is lost. Even the Septuagint offers little help because it prefers to translate the titles as windows for insight rather than as notes to musicians. For instance, the NRSV translates the title to Psalm 45 (LXX 44) as ‘To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song’. The LXX has delved for insight: εις τό τέλος ύπέρ των άλλοιωθησομένων τοΐς υίοΐς Κορε εις σύνεσιν φδή ύπέρ του αγαπητού, ‘For the end concerning the things that shall be changed a song by the sons of Korah for insight concerning the Beloved’. The Septuagint translates the title to urge readers and hearers to penetrate to what the song is really about: it is not simply the marriage song of the king, but it opens insight into the transformations at the end for the sake of the Beloved, for David. In the Septuagint the Psalm title offers Psalm 45 as transparent to insight that is behind and beyond its words. (152-53)
The Descent and Ascent of Jesus in the Psalms?
The Ascension of Isaiah claims the authority of its visions derives from the Psalms:
And all these things, behold they are written in the Psalms, in the parables of David the son of Jesse, and in the proverbs of Solomon his son, and in the words of Korah and of Ethan the Israelite, and in the words of Asaph… (Asc. Isa. 5.21).
Is the vision of the descent and ascent of the Beloved really to be found in the Psalms? One of the Psalms cited is by Ethan the Israelite. That’s Psalm 89 in our Bibles, but Psalm 88 in the Septuagint. But if we read that Psalm literally we will have a difficult time trying to find anything about anyone other than David and his descendants in it. And his descendants are said to be lawless! So what is going on here?
Hall plays a mind-game of sorts. He reads Psalm 88 (LXX) he suggests authors or readers of ancient texts did.
In verse 3 we read that God’s truths are to be found in heaven:
thy truth shall be established in the heavens
So when we come to verse 5 and read . . .
I will establish thy seed for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations
. . . are we not permitted to read here that David’s seed is “in the heavens”!
Perhaps so, because the next verse, six, says
The heavens shall declare thy wonders, O Lord; and thy truth in the assembly of the saints.
And is that exactly what we have read in the Ascension of Isaiah — a vision of heaven where we see angels and saints praising the Beloved?
But there’s more. Look at it all as a single paragraph and see that there is no change in whom is being addressed: it is David throughout!
I sware unto David my servant. 5 I will establish thy [thy = David] seed for ever, and build up thy [thy = David’s] throne to all generations. Pause. 6 The heavens shall declare thy [thy = David’s] wonders, O Lord; and thy [thy = David’s] truth in the assembly of the saints.
But, as Hall asks,
Therefore, God addresses David as ‘Lord’ and ordains that the heavens praise him. If God calls David Lord, how can David be simply David? (157)
David = the Beloved
Yes, we may infer that David stands in for his messianic descendant. But the readers of the Ascension of Isaiah had something more specific to go on. The messianic figure in the Asc. Isa. is always called Beloved. Beloved is his title.
The title ‘Beloved’ may glance at a number of texts17 but it traces most convincingly to the re-reading of David’s name: דָּוִד֙, ‘David’, repointed is דּוֺד, ‘Beloved’
17 Isa 5:1 I will sing for my beloved a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
….Is 26.17 (LXX) And as a woman in travail draws nigh to be delivered, [and] cries out in her pain; so have we been to thy beloved.
….Zech 12.10 and they shall make lamentation for him, as for a beloved
….Psalm 44:1 (LXX) a Song concerning the beloved
….Psalm 2:7 as read in Matthew 3:17, This is My beloved Son
….Isa 42:1 as read in Matt 12:18 or 17:5 etc, Here is My servant, whom I have chosen, My beloved, in whom My soul delights
(157, I have added the text for each of the biblical citations)
The visionary who penned these parts of the Ascension of Isaiah read Psalm 88 (LXX) references to David as words speaking of the Beloved in heaven.
As God addresses the Beloved as Lord in the Ascls (10.11) so God calls David Lord in Septuagint Psalm 88 (88.6). As the Beloved is ‘Lord of all this praise that you see’ (9.32) and as the angel tells Isaiah to see in the Beloved ‘your Lord, the Lord, the Lord Christ’ (9.5) and ‘worship this one’ (9.31) so God commands all the heavens to praise David, that is, the Beloved (LXX Ps 88.6;).
How did this reader understand, then, the Psalm’s references to “David’s seed”?
If David is the Beloved, the reference to the Beloved’s seed (LXX Ps 88.5) must refer to the Beloved’s people, held in readiness. As we will see, Ethan offers a glimpse of their heavenly readiness as well (88.16-19).
The Beloved’s people? That would be the “church”. So when the Psalm speaks of David’s seed departing from the ways of the Lord then we are to understand the Psalm as speaking of heresy among God’s people. So when the Psalm speaks of David’s seed departing from the terms of the covenant God made with David we are permitted to think of so much of a church turned “apostate”.
What happens to David in this Psalm, though? In the opening verses we read of an abundance of praises being sung in the heavens for this David, this Beloved. But then in verse 39 we find a reversal of all of that:
But thou hast cast off and set at nought, thou has rejected thine anointed
And the next verses establish this fall towards death:
43 Thou hast exalted the right hand of his enemies; thou hast made all his enemies to rejoice. . . . 45 Thou hast deprived him of glory: thou hast broken down his throne to the ground. 46 Thou hast shortened the days of his throne: thou hast poured shame upon him. . . . 49 What man is there who shall live, and not see death? shall [any one] deliver his soul from the hand of Hades?
David, the heavenly Beloved, cascades towards death. How can the Beloved be delivered? The final verse reads as a message of hope in God despite all the troubles in the earthly realm:
53 Blessed be the Lord for ever. So be it, so be it.
God has promised David/the Beloved to reign in glory forever. The Beloved must therefore have been delivered from death.
Other Psalms are cited, too. But in this one, a Psalm of Ethan, we can see how a visionary might well find confirmation of his belief in the descent of the Beloved to earth, being delivered to the power of Death, and restored to his glory with angels and saints once again praising him in the seventh heaven.
Sacred Scripture was to be read as a window into the otherwise hidden mysteries. One might even say that “the letter” (of the text) “kills”, but the “spirit gives life”.
Hall, Robert G. 2016. “Subtleties of Translation and Ancient Interpretation: Cues for Understanding the Ascension of Isaiah.” In The Ascension of Isaiah, edited by Jan N. Bremmer, Thomas R. Karmann, and Tobias Nicklas, 145–74. Leuven: Peeters.
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