Since I’ve been attending a lectionary discussion group during Wednesday lunch, and therefore spending more time on the lectionary texts, I’ve been interested in the way the texts are selected. For this coming Sunday, Epiphany, one of the texts is Isaiah 60:1-6. “Now what could possibly be interesting about that?” you might ask.
I’m glad you asked! In this case what’s interesting is the cut-off point. In general, this is a prophecy of restoration, given to Israel during the time of the exile, or perhaps afterward. (It would fall in trito-Isaiah, assuming one accepts that division.) More specifically it is a prophecy of Israel becoming a religious center, and other nations supporting them.
I found it interesting that the Learning Bible (CEV), in its note on Isaiah 60:7 specifically says that the temple referenced there is the rebuilt temple, dedicated about 515 B.C. This suggests that in the view of those interpreters this passage was fulfilled with the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple following the Babylonian exile. Yet a brief reading of the chapter suggests there are a number of things which were not fulfilled at that time, such as the sun no longer being their light (verse 19) but YHWH serving that function (cf. Revelation 21:23-24), all its people being righteous (v. 21), to name just a couple. I note also that the Jewish Study Bible refers this to a future age when God will rule the nation directly.
So again why do I find the cutoff at verse 6 interesting? Well, in that verse we have a reference to the continuation of the sacrificial services of the temple, something that most Christian interpreters do not include in any future age. Quoting from the JPS Tanakh:
All the flocks of Kedar shall be assembled for you,
The rams of Nebaioth shall serve your needs;
They shall be welcome offerings on My altar,
And I will add glory to My glorious House.
Now Christian interpreters are not unaware of these texts, but many people in the pews are, and thus when they start studying eschatological prophecies they can become very confused.
Let me make a couple of quick observations. First, Christian eschatology, insofar as it works from the prophecies of Hebrew scripture has divided prophecies between a first and second coming of Jesus. No such division is known here in the text. Salvation from sin and salvation from physical oppression are closely intertwined.
Second, while both Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of a future time when the temple will be restored and sacrifices will be offered, Christian interpreters find that very hard to fit into any prophetic scheme. There are those who believe there will be a period of sacrifice in a restored temple during the time of the tribulation. I won’t go into the details of how this is supported from the text here. Suffice it to say that it can get complicated quite quickly. But in general, Christian theology has a problem with restored sacrifices seen in a positive sense, since the sacrificial system is commonly seen as unnecessary following the death of Jesus.
One has to wonder whether the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t want to avoid having these questions raised by a reading of verse 7 on Epiphany.