Posted by: Ascentury | Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Isaiah shift.

How far do our scriptural types stretch? I’ve been thinking about some passages in Isaiah that I’ve read recently, and how they challenge my thought about scriptural symbolism and parabolic thought.

We are all familiar with the passage in Isaiah which describes Jesus Christ as the Suffering Servant:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. ∙He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
Isaiah 53:6-7

There is a beautiful juxtaposition of imagery that pulls the rug out from under the metaphor here. The sheep moves from symbolizing us, the confused and straying, to symbolizing Christ, the innocent and submissive.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 1980,

One reason, of course, is that He will be the Lamb of God.

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people was he stricken” (Mosiah 14:7-8).

Submissive. Meek. Mild. Quiet. Literally standing before Pilate and Caiaphas and Annas and his accusers, everyone but Herod, silent, lamblike. For the transgressions of my people was he stricken. But the other image of the lamb is also given us by Isaiah, and we must not forget it. For,

“All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all (Mosiah 14:6).

Blind. Ignorant. Childlike (too childish). Wandering. Straying. Transgressing. Needing help. Cut off. Lost. Removed. Trapped. Forsaken.

“And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all.”
–Jeffrey R. Holland, “What is the Heart of the Atonement?”

It occurred to me in my recent re-reading of the Isaiah passages in Jacob’s sermon that the switching of the metaphor, pulling the rug out from under our understanding, may be a more common technique than I had previously thought. Consider the following passages:

I gave my back to the smiter, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. I hid not my face from shame and spitting. ∙For the Lord God will help me, therefore shall I not be confounded. Therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. ∙And the Lord is near, and he justifieth me. Who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is mine adversary? Let him come near me, and I will smite him with the strength of my mouth. ∙For the Lord God will help me. And all they who shall condemn me, behold, all they shall wax old as a garment, and the moth shall eat them up.

∙Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light? ∙Behold all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand—ye shall lie down in sorrow.
Isaiah 7:6-11

In the first instance, the faithful prophet shifts from his proper role of humble submission in the vein of the mortal Jesus to a triumphant warrior backed by the Lord of Hosts. In the second, those who have received the Lord have his light in their life, while those who have rejected him to walk in darkness walk in the light of the sparks they have kindled. The prophet challenges our easy stereotyping of scriptural forms by forcing the reader (or, in earlier days, the hearer) to shift their attention and realize the multiple levels of meaning in every parable and type.

What other instances of this shift are there? Are they limited to Isaiah? Although I’ve not noticed this literary technique anywhere else, I wouldn’t be surprised if Isaiah, at least, made far more extensive use of it. It invites deeper reflection on the inadequacy of any parable of the glory of the Atonement, as well as how Christ traded “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3) and assumed the form of his mortal younger brethren and sisters.

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