An Ancient Yom Kippur Mashup-->Jesus Mixing the Prophet Isaiah


September 2017


Tonight, Friday, September 30th, begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Isaiah 58 will be read in synagogues tomorrow.  Above is the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls that has Isa 58:5-6 (light) overlayed on Isa 61:1 (dark).

Mashup: a song or composition created by blending two or more songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another.  Here is an example of a mashup of well-known hymns.

There is only one story in the gospels where Jesus reads from the Scripture when he was in his hometown synagogue.  At some point after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C., Jews first began meeting in synagogues every Sabbath—or Shabbat—and reading from the five books of Moses.[1]  Those first books of Hebrew Scripture—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—also known as the Torah, formed the core scripture readings in the synagogue every Shabbat.  This weekly Torah reading was called the parasha.  During this time, a parallel tradition developed where a specific passage from the prophetic books was linked to that weekly parasha portion.  In Luke 4:16-17, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah the Prophet.  Some scholars think this is early evidence for this liturgical practice of reading from the Prophets, known as the haftara.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

---to set the oppressed free---,

to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord...”Luke 4:16-19

On this occasion, it is widely acknowledged that Jesus read from the beginning of Isaiah 61, which introduces an anointed one of the LORD sent to rescue the poor and the broken.  So forceful is this connection of Isaiah 61 with Jesus’ calling, that “proclaiming good news” becomes iconic for the rest of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke and Acts, and even initiates the idea of “preaching the gospel” that has flourished from New Testament times up until the present.[2]

Yet, what is often overlooked in this episode is that Jesus read from two different chapters of Isaiah.  While Jesus was reading from chapter 61, he seamlessly inserted the phrase, “to set the oppressed free” found in Isaiah 58:6.  Why?  On the surface, this phrase easily compliments Isaiah 61’s thematic emphasis on freedom for prisoners.  But are there deeper gems to be mined in Jesus’ inaugural teaching?  In ancient Jewish interpretation of Scripture, every weave of scripture was as purposeful as it was artistic.  We therefore must look more closely at Isaiah 58’s context to understand its inclusion with Isaiah 61. 

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.               

Raise your voice like a shofar.

Declare to my people their rebellion

and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out;

they seem eager to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that does what is right

and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

They ask me for just decisions

and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,

‘and you have not seen it?

Why have we afflicted our souls,

and you have not noticed?’    Isa 58:1-3b

Reading Isaiah 58 for clues, we can find the phrase “afflicted our souls” that is drawn especially from the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).[3]  While the people “afflicted their souls” on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place with the annual offering, a male goat, to make atonement for the sins of the people (Lev 16:29-34).  Following tradition, Isaiah 58 is read every year in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  Isaiah 58’s prophetic critique blasts the people who were seeking forgiveness for their sins on the Day of Atonement through ceremonial practice, but not also through their ethical action.

…on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.

You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to afflict their souls?

Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast, --an acceptable day of the Lord?--               Isaiah 58:3b-5

Here we find the linchpin of Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah 58 and 61.  He paired this last phrase of Isaiah 58:5, “an acceptable day of the Lord” with Isaiah 61:2a’s “the acceptable year of the Lord.”[4]  What “acceptable year of the Lord” is Isaiah 61:2a referring to?  Looking for hints in Isaiah 61, we find the phrase “he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” in verse 1.  In Hebrew, freedom is only proclaimed (לקרא דרור) on the year of Jubilee, or Isaiah 61’s “acceptable year of the Lord.”  And the Jubilee year begins on the Day of Atonement.[5]

Then have the shofar sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.  Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.  Lev 25:9-10

Notice that the Jubilee year begins with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn, with which Isaiah 58, too, starts his diatribe.[6]  The Jubilee year is also characterized by four specific actions: letting the land lie fallow, freeing Israelite indentured servants, forgiving debts, and returning Israelite property to their ancestral owners.  Later, in the Lord’s Prayer of Luke 11:4, Jubilee language of forgiving financial “debts” becomes equated with “sins” that God forgives and we forgive—"forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 

Continuing in Isaiah 58:

Is that what you call a fast, an acceptable day to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,

--to set the oppressed free-- and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?Isaiah 58:5b-7

It is clear that Isaiah 58 is alluding to the Day of Atonement—“a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord.”  He is also demanding acceptable treatment of fellow Israelites when they are freed on the Jubilee year or the 7th year (see Dt 15:7-11). Isaiah 58 specifically calls for “setting the oppressed free.”  Fascinatingly, there is only one recorded historical story in the biblical text that refers to Israelite slaves being "set free."  This occurred while Babylonian forces were besieging the last three Judean cities—Lachish, Azekah, and Jerusalem—during the last gasps of the Kingdom of Judah.  Zedekiah, the final descendant of David to sit on the Jerusalem throne, declared a release of all Hebrew slaves.  The same phrase that Isaiah 58:6 utilizes, “to set free,” is only used here in this story (Jer 34:8-22) and nowhere else in Hebrew scripture.  Soon after, those Hebrew slaves were enslaved again by their Hebrew masters.  In contrast to Isaiah 58, which reminded its Hebrew readers to take care of their own flesh and blood, Zedekiah’s last days were punctuated by a cowardly betrayal of the powerless of his people.  

With Zedekiah’s faithless example blotting the background, Isaiah 58:9b-10 sums up what is required for real repentance on the Day of Atonement and what truly characterizes the year of Jubilee.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

Returning to Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue as he finishes meshing Isaiah 58:6 with Isaiah 61:1, we now hear the notes of Isaiah 58’s harmony blending with Isaiah 61’s melody.  It is recognized that “good news to the poor” can sum up Jesus’ earthly ministry, as a time of miraculous healings, concern for the broken and lost, and, even, messianic fulfillment.  Yet, lying beneath our initial excitement over Jesus’ prophetic proclamation, we find an arduous call to personal, even corporate, repentance.   The year of Jubilee was not some idealistic utopia; it required the people and their rulers to implement it.  One significant step in realizing Jesus’ “year of the Lord” and its forgiveness of debts is for us to embody the “day of the Lord” through our repentance of sins.

[1] “Synagogue” is a Greek word meaning “gathering together” and is first found used in the Greek New Testament.  It is a translation of the Hebrew term, beit knesset or “house of gathering.”  For more on the background on the use of the term “synagogue” and “beit knesset”, see this article, here.  Some see Ezk 11:16 as an allusion to the first Jewish gathering places—“little sanctuaries”—in Babylon.

[2] The verb “to proclaim good news” is practically only found in Luke-Acts in the gospels (25 times).  It does appear once in Matthew, but only because he is quoting directly word-for-word from Isaiah 61:1.  Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, prefer the noun, “good news,” or “gospel” as it more often translated (12 times). 

[3] The verb “to afflict the soul” (לענות את הנפש) refers to various forms of self-denial, including but not limited to fasting. The Mishnah (m. Yoma 8:1) lists abstentions from food and drink, bathing, using oil as an unguent to moisten the skin, wearing leather sandals, and sexual intercourse (cf. 2 Sam 12:16–17, 20; see the remarks in J. Milgrom, Leviticus [AB], 1:1054; B. A. Levine, Leviticus [JPSTC], 109; and J. E. Hartley, Leviticus [WBC], 242).  Footnote adapted from NET Bible Notes.

[4] This ancient Jewish exegetical technique is called “gezerah shavah,” which literally means an “equal cut” but can be better understood as analogy between two biblical verses which share a unique word or unique collocation of words.  In this case, both Isaiah 58 and 61 are the only two passages in Hebrew scripture which have the phrase “acceptable ______ of the Lord (רָצוֹן לַיהוה____ ).”

[5] Lev 25:8-10.  The Jubilee is the culmination of seven cycles of “release” (shmita or שְׁמִטָּה) which occurred every seven years (see Dt 15:1-15).  So, the Jubilee began with the conclusion of the 49th year, marking the 50th and final year of the half century pattern.

[6] Jubilee is the Hebrew word yovel (יוֹבֵל) which is another word for “ram’s horn.”