Say to the Cities of Judah, "Behold your God" - The Hebrew Bible, Outreach and Messianic Judaism

Messianic Judaism[1] is currently undergoing a reappraisal of its modes and philosophy of outreach. In some sectors of the movement, traditional paradigms of evangelistic outreach are being reaffirmed.[2] In other sectors new paradigms about the nature of Messianic Judaism and outreach are being developed.[3] This climate of reevaluation provides an opportunity to revisit old biblical texts with fresh eyes to see what they have to offer in terms of our thinking about outreach.

In approaching the Hebrew Bible to see what lessons it has to offer about outreach, we must be aware of two characteristics of modern society that domesticate, restrain, and tame both our interpretation of the text and our practice of outreach. First, Western society is dominated by a radical individualism that privileges the individual in the practice of interpretation and in religious experience. Outreach in the West, whether in Jewish, Christian, or Muslim communities, has thus seen a significant emphasis on personal, emotional experience rather than corporate expression of faith convictions. Second, the religious message presented to individual seekers is often presented in Western society as a scare commodity that can be acquired at religious retail outlets (i.e., the church or the synagogue) during a once a week (or more infrequent) shopping trip (service). This subordination of religious experience to capitalistic economic theory is why outreach efforts often tend to have the appearance of a slick marketing campaign complete with a slogan and a product launch date. The individualization and commodification of outreach can impair our ability to read the Hebrew Bible and the lessons that it has to teach us about outreach. Adversely, outreach in the Hebrew Bible is primarily communal in nature and focused on announcing the advent of God's salvific reign.[4]

In our thinking about outreach, we also commonly make the association with the concept of evangelism. Evangelism is a word heavily freighted with a variety of both positive and negative meanings in the Messianic Jewish movement and throughout Western religion. This word and related terms derive from the Greek euangelizō. Euangelizō is a composite of two words which mean "good" and "to proclaim." Euangelizō, thus, means "to announce, herald, or proclaim good news." The writers of the New Covenant use euangelizō in the technical sense of proclaiming the good news of Yeshua.[5]

In the various Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (known commonly as the Septuagint), the translators frequently use euangelizō to render the Hebrew root b.ś.r. In its most basic meaning, b.ś.r. can be defined as "to bring a joyful message." This root appears mainly in the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), parallel passages in Chronicles and in the latter chapters of Isaiah (40-66) which address the socio-political situation of the exilic community following the conquering of the Babylonian Empire by the Achaemenid ruler, Cyrus the Great in 539/38 B.C.E.

In the Deuteronomistic History, verbal and nominal forms of b.ś.r. appear largely in military contexts. In 1 Sam 31:9 (=1 Chr 10:9), the verb is used to describe the Philistines announcement of Saul's death. In 2 Sam 1:20, it appears in a negative imperative enjoining the listener not to rejoice over Saul and Jonathan's deaths. In 2 Sam 18, the root appears four times referencing reports of battlefield successes (19, 20 (twice), 31). A similar usage appears in Adonijah's description of Jonathan, son of Abiather in 1 Kgs 1:42. The root also appears outside the Deuteronomistic History in Jer 20:15 in reference to the announcement of the birth of a child. Generally, however, its main connotation is the report of victory and triumph.

Most likely b.ś.r. is first used in human contexts and only later used to express divine triumph. This shift is seen in post-exilic texts where the range of meaning for b.ś.r. is extended from the announcement of children's births and military success to include divine triumph and salvation. Psalm 96:1-2, which is quoted by the Chronicler in 1 Chr 16:23, illustrates this subtle shift in meaning:[6]

Sing to YHWH[7] a new song,
sing to YHWH all the earth.

Sing to YHWH, bless God's name,
herald (baśśĕrû) God's triumph day after day.

This motif of heralding salvation occurs repeatedly in Isa 40-66, in those chapters related to Judah's socio-political situation following the rise of Cyrus the Great. In Isa 60:6, the dust clouds kicked up by camels bringing gold and frankincense from Sheba "herald the glories of YHWH." Most prominently in these chapters, the action of heralding God's salvation is undertaken by the figure of the mebaśśer or herald (Isa 40:9, 41:27, and 52:7).

The mebaśśer or herald is a role filled repeatedly in the Deuteronomistic History by unnamed figures. The term mebaśśer is used as a title for the one who bears the news of the loss of the ark to Eli (1 Sam 4:17), for the one who bears the news of Saul's death (2 Sam 4:10), and for the two messengers in 2 Sam 18:26. The mebaśśer, as a herald of divine salvation, does not first appear in Isaiah but rather in the 7th-century B.C.E. prophet Nahum.[8] Nahum's brief work celebrates the destruction of the great neo-Assyrian city of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E. at the hand of the combined forces of the Medes, Babylonians and Susianians. For Nahum, the destruction of Nineveh symbolizes the end of the Assyrian threat for Judah. As in the military conquests described in the Deuteronomistic History, a mebaśśer is sent out to bring the victorious news to Judah (Nah 2:1).

Behold upon the hills, the feet of the herald (mebaśśer) announcing peace.        

Celebrate, O Judah, your festivals;
fulfill your vows.

For never again shall a wicked one invade you;
it is completely destroyed.

Here the mebaśśer's proclamation of YHWH's triumph is not to individuals but to the community as a whole. The content of the mebaśśer's proclamation is shalom (peace).  The consequence of this good news is the resumption of the normal rhythms of life. Judah may again commence the regular patterns of religious life marked by the celebration of festivals such as Passover and Sukkot. Judah may again assume its responsibilities and commitments through the fulfillment of vows. These two aspects of life suggest that until the Assyrian threat has passed, Judah will be in a period of national mourning in which celebrations of joy are suspended and regular business transactions are put on hold. With the news that they will never again be defiled by the invasion of Assyrian forces, worship and business are resumed. Normal life can again return to Judah. 

As in Nahum, Isaiah describes the mebaśśer as more than just a simple messenger. Rather, the mebaśśer is an agent of God who heralds the advent of God's salvation. In the parts of Isaiah in which the mebaśśer appears, Judah has entered a new historical situation. "A wicked one" has again invaded Judah in 586/87 B.C.E. (Nebuchadnezzar) and this time carries off the elite of Judah, including most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to exile in Babylon and its surrounding territories. In 539/538 B.C.E., the socio-political fortunes of Judah change as Cyrus the Great emerges on the world stage and conquers the Babylonian Empire. The Achaemenid Imperial policy of Cyrus allowed for the return of exiled populations. Thus Cyrus' battlefield victory is understood by the exiled Judeans as the victory of their God. The herald arrives to them in two passages (Isa 41:27 and 52:7) to deliver the good news to Zion/Jerusalem and declare its significance. In a third passage (Isa 40:9-11), which is at the beginning of this section of Isaiah, Zion/Jerusalem itself serves as the herald of YHWH's triumph to the rest of the community in Judah. Thus, Zion/Jerusalem receives the news and bring it to the wider community. The content of the mebaśśer's proclamation and the manner in which the content is delivered is instructive for understanding how outreach is presented in the Hebrew Bible and helpful for the Messianic Jewish community in our own practice of outreach. In the passages in which the mebaśśer appears, the message of YHWH's triumph is both received by the community as a whole and announced through its own embodied, communal proclamation of salvation in the midst of the wider community.

Isaiah 41:27 and 52:7: Zion/Jerusalem receiving the message of the herald

The first reference of a herald being sent to Zion/Jerusalem occurs in the midst of an extended trial speech (Isa 41:21-29) and precedes the first so-called servant song of the book (Isa 42:1-9).[9] The main focus of this extended trial narrative is YHWH's capacity both to predict and fulfill what will happen to the community of Judah. The foreign nations and their gods are merely pawns in YHWH's international drama, agents in exacting judgment upon Judah. The irony pointed out in Isa 41:21-29 is that these nations and their gods have not realized they are merely pawns and have attempted to exert dominance over Judah by disclosing its future. Yet, they have only muttered unheard utterances (41:26). The good news for Judah is that YHWH is the only one who has the capacity both to predict and to fulfill the events that will unfold in Judah's life. The mebaśśer is the agent of this proclamation. Isaiah 41:27 describes the actions of the mebaśśer in notoriously enigmatic and terse Hebrew:

What was first disclosed to Zion, behold they are,

And what is more, I will send a herald (mebaśśer) to Jerusalem.

 

Here the content of the mebaśśer's proclamation is the fulfillment of YHWH's promises regarding Zion/Jerusalem. Presumably YHWH previously sent a herald to Zion/Jerusalem to declare the events before they happened (i.e., "What was first disclosed to Zion"). In the second visit, Zion/Jerusalem receives the news of the fulfillment. This visit is not only a disclosure of YHWH's salvific work but also a confirmation of YHWH's mastery over the divine and geo-political forces that oppose YHWH's rule.

The second reference to YHWH sending a herald to Zion/Jerusalem occurs at the start of a hymnic exultation of YHWH's kingship (Isa 52:7-10) and two sections prior to the start of the fourth so-called servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12): 

 7How beautiful upon the hills are the footsteps of the herald (mebaśśer) announcing peace
the herald (mebaśśer) of good news proclaiming salvation
Saying to Zion, "Your God reigns." 

 8The sound of your watchmen, they raise the alarm. Together they shout for joy.
 For every eye will behold when YHWH returns to Zion.

9Burst out, raise a shout as a unified community, O ruins of Jerusalem!
For YHWH has comforted his people, redeemed Jerusalem.

10YHWH has bared his holy arm before all the nations.
And what is more, all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.

What is first obvious about this passage is the evocation of the language from Nah 2:1. Here Isaiah reworks and expands the language of Nahum. The italicized portions of my translation of Isa 52:7 above indicate parallel language in Nah 2:1. Like Nahum's herald, Isaiah's herald not only proclaims peace but also announces salvation. The presence of the herald and the content of his message signal the victory of YHWH and reaffirm YHWH's divine kingship. At the sight of the mebaśśer, the watchmen of the ruins of Jerusalem raise the alarm. This alarm rouses Jerusalem (here as a metaphor for her people) and leads the whole community to join together in giving a resounding shout of joy. Note the repetition of the term yachdāv in Isa 52:8-9 thus indicating the communal, public context of the proclamation and its reception. Here Isaiah builds upon the use of the mebaśśer in the Deuteronomistic History as one who runs ahead of the army to announce news of the battle (e.g., 2 Sam 18:26). The appearance of the mebaśśer signals that YHWH has won the day. YHWH is like a general marching home victorious from war.

In Isa 52:8-9 there is a sharp contrast between the "ruins of Jerusalem" and return of YHWH to Zion. YHWH's impending return provides comfort and signals of redemption to the forsaken city of Jerusalem. The announcement of comfort to Jerusalem evokes the message of comfort to Jerusalem, which opens this portion of Isaiah (Isa 40:1). Carol Newsom has clearly demonstrated how the language of Isaiah 40-55, particularly in this opening section, serves as a dialogical "reversal" of the language of Lamentations (e.g., Lam 1:2).[10] In other words, Isaiah's message of the advent of God's salvation for the exilic community answers the mourning of Lamentations.

Jerusalem's salvation is worked by YHWH's "holy arm." The phrase zěrôa‘ qodshô ("his holy arm;" Isa 52:10) appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible only in Ps 98:1 in which YHWH is acclaimed for the victory won with "his holy arm." Similar phrases also appear throughout the Hebrew Bible in contexts in which God's salvation on behalf of the people of Israel is declared. These phrases include zěrôa‘ něţûyā/hazzěrôa‘ hanněţûyā ("outstretched arm"; Exod 6:6; Deut 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8), bigdōl zěrô‘ăkā ("in the greatness of your arm"; Exod 15:16), zěrō‘ô ("his arm"; Isa 40:10, 11; 48:14; 59:16) and zěrôa‘ yhwh ("the arm of YHWH"; Isa 51:9; 53:1). The disclosure of YHWH's arm signals the disclosure of God's just power. In Isaiah this disclosure is not merely to the exilic community or their immediate oppressors but finally and ultimately to "the ends of the earth." In Isaiah the advent of salvation for Judah is intimately intertwined with the reassertion of God's dominion over all of creation. Thus, the disclosure of YHWH's power takes place on a cosmological stage, to "the ends of the earth."

In Isa 41:7 and 52:7, we see the mebaśśer's message to the exilic community of oppressed Jerusalem. The appearance of the mebaśśer signals YHWH's triumphant return to Zion, both as a physical place and in the midst of her people. YHWH's triumph is total. It is a comprehensive reassertion of divine mastery over creation and the forces that oppress the Judahite community. The mebaśśer publicly makes the proclamation to the community as a whole, in its midst. We now turn from a discussion of the mebaśśer's proclamation to the exilic community to a treatment of the passage in which the exilic community is called to serve as a herald to the forlorn cities of Judah.

Isaiah 40:9-11: Zion/Jerusalem as the herald

9Ascend a high mountain, O herald (mebaśśeret) Zion.
Raise your voice aloud, O herald (mebaśśeret) Jerusalem.
Raise it. Do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God."

10Behold the Lord GOD comes mightily.
God's arm is triumphant.
God's reward accompanies him.
God's work is before him.

11Like a shepherd God pastures the flock.
God gathers the sheep with God's own arm.
God carries them in God's own bosom.
Gently, God leads them to a place of rest.

This passage comes as the fourth in a series of brief vignettes in Isa 40 which describe different aspects of God's imminent salvation of Judah:[11]

1-2       Announcement of comfort and an end to the punishment for Israel's sin.
3-5       Announcement of the return of God's presence.
6-8       Announcement of the surety of God's word.
9-11     Announcement of God's return with the exiles to Judah.

Here, Isaiah follows the form established in Nahum. The herald of God's eschatological salvation is stationed on a high mountain. As in Nahum, the herald's location fulfills the pragmatic function of providing a position from which to announce God's salvation to the largest group of people possible. On a symbolic level the presence of the herald on the high place can be seen by all. As in 2 Sam 4 and 18, the very presence of the mebaśśeret (note the feminine form in gender agreement with Zion and Jerusalem) symbolizes the advent of salvation before the first words of the herald are even uttered.

Whereas in Nahum the herald is a generic stock figure, in Isa 40:9 the herald takes on a particular identity. It is referred to alternately as mebaśśeret tzîyôn and mebaśśeret yěrûšālāyīm. Who is this mebaśśeret? Is it some anonymous figure, as in Nahum, come to proclaim the advent of God's deliverance to the community in exile? Is it the returning exilic community? Is it the prophet himself? The New Jewish Publication Society version  (NJPS), based upon the Old Jewish Publication Society version (OJPS), renders the phrases "O herald of joy to Zion" and "O herald of joy to Jerusalem" suggesting the first option.[12] The New Revised Standard Version renders the phrases "O Zion, herald of good tiding" and "O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings" suggesting agreement with the second option.[13] While John L. McKenzie, S.J. suggests that the speaker in verses 9-11 is the prophet himself.[14]

A strong argument can be made that the herald in Isa 40:9 is Zion/Jerusalem herself. The strongest piece of evidence for this assertion is that mebaśśeret is feminine suggesting that it is in agreement with the feminine Zion and Jerusalem. As we saw previously in the use of this term in the Deuteronomistic History, heralds are characteristically masculine (mebaśśer). Given these points, the use of the term mebaśśeret in this verse suggests that it is a title or role of Zion/Jerusalem rather than an anonymous figure bringing news of the advent of salvation to Zion/Jerusalem.

The herald is the role that Zion and Jerusalem fulfills as the returning exilic community. They are to return to Judah, reestablish Jerusalem on the hill of Zion, and through the reestablishment of this sacred city, announce the triumph of YHWH. Their embodied proclamation says to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!" This acclamation of God is two-fold. First, God is triumphant. The prophet emphasizes this with the two parallel lines in Isa 40:10. As in Isa 52:10, God "comes mightily" with arm raised like a "triumphant" general returning victorious from the battlefield. In the second part of this verse, God is described as processing with the reward of the triumph before God. Second, God is a shepherd. The motif of God as a shepherd appears elsewhere in prophetic texts (e.g., Isa 63:11; Jer 17:16, 31:9, 43:12; 49:19, 50:44; Ezek 34:5, 8, 12, 23, 37:24). In Isa 40:11 this image reinforces God's power to provide for the flock and God's tender care for the people.

The one remaining aspect of this passage that is relevant to our discussion of outreach in the Hebrew Bible is the communal dimension of the proclamation. The mebaśśeret model of outreach presented in this passage is communitarian in that it is focused on proclaiming a message to the wider community as a community. The content of the message is YHWH's triumph, which liberates the captive Judean elite and ultimately means victory and comfort for all of Judah. Additionally, that message is embodied through the mebaśśeret. Their presence on the high hills of Judah is a sign of YHWH's triumph. Finally, their embodiment of their proclamation takes shape in their participation in the rebuilding of the community. They are not merely to proclaim the message to the cities of Judah and then return to Babylon. Rather, they are to settle in Judah and help reshape the community as a living community of YHWH's triumph. Their resettlement of Zion/Jerusalem proclaims the return of their triumphant, divine king.

Concluding Reflections

As we have seen, the mebaśśer functions in Isa 41:27 and 52:7 as a herald declaring to the exiled community of Zion/Jerusalem that their God YHWH is victorious over the forces that hold them captive. The proclamation concerns the advent of salvation within the life of the community. Salvation is not an individualistic experience but rather the realization of the promise of shalom and victory for the whole community. In Isa 40:9, the community who has received the announcement of comfort (Isa 40:1) is called to become a herald (mebaśśeret) of YHWH's salvation to the rest of the Judean community ("the cities and towns of Judah"). Again their proclamation is of the advent of God's salvation for the community as a whole. Their return to participate in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Judah embodies the advent of God's salvation and symbolizes God's return.

In one sense outreach is not an appropriate term with which to describe the actions of the mebaśśer/mebaśśeret in Isaiah. Outreach, as it is conceived of today, is largely a programmatic activity of congregations and organizations. What would our outreach be if it was reconfigured on the model of the mebaśśer/mebaśśeret presented in Isaiah? In brief, it would begin with a reconceptualization of our message, the social location in which our message is proclaimed and the implications of our message. First, our message would primarily focus on the advent of God's salvation throughout the history of the Jewish people and particularly in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Israel's Messiah Yeshua. The advent of this salvation means the triumph of God over the dark forces of sin and death, which hold Israel and the world captive. In the Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant, forensic justification, or expiation of individual sins, is only one part of this larger announcement. The overarching theme is the triumph of God. Second, our message would be proclaimed within the rhythms and life of our community. Such proclamation respects that our God is already present and active in the midst of the wider Jewish community (Isa 52:8). Third, this community-focused message is principally proclaimed through our communal embodiment of the message within the wider community. We embody this message as a community that lives in response to the reign of God through a resounding doxology for God's fidelity to Israel, obedience to the commandments (mitzvot) and the loving expression of concern for neighbor, which is at the heart of God's covenant with Israel (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:37-40). Like the returning exiles, our return, our presence and our participation in the building and the shaping of the Jewish community signal the triumph of our God. The implication of our embodied announcement is the transformation of the wider community as we seek to cultivate a community that honors the presence of God and celebrates God's liberating triumph over the powers of sin and death in the person of Yeshua. Outreach such as this truly says to "the cities of Judah, behold your God."

 

Notes:

  1. Here I mean Messianic Judaism in the broadest sociological sense as referring to all Jews who follow Yeshua regardless of their relationship to the Messianic Jewish congregational movement.
  2. E.g., Jews for Jesus' operation "Behold Your God." According to Jews for Jesus' Web site, "There are currently 65 cities outside of Israel with a Jewish population of more than 25,000. These are our "Behold Your God" (BYG) cities. Our goal is to reach these communities with the gospel. We'll use street evangelism, secular media campaigns, phone calling, personal visits and Bible studies to draw people's attention." Online: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/programs/byg [accessed 16 July 2006].
  3. E.g., Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).
  4. An important work on the Bible and outreach is Walter Brueggemann's Biblical Perspectives of Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
  5. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains. 2d ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), volume 1, 413-14. E.g., Luke 1:19; Rom 1:15. The use and development of this term by the writers of the New Covenant is beyond both the scope and length limitations of this article.
  6. While 1 Chr 16:23ff is a definitively post-exilic text, the dating of Ps 96 is complicated. There are several long noted verbal and phrasal similarities between the psalm and those chapters of Isaiah dated to the exilic period (40-66; see especially Isa 42:10). However, Dahood points to "several archaic phrases in vss. 4, 6, 7, 9, 10" which in his opinion suggest "that both psalmist and prophet were heir to a common literary tradition long existent in Canaan." See Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 51-100 (AB 17; New York: Doubleday, 1968), 357.
  7. It is a point of Jewish law not to write "YHWH," the tetragrammaton or proper name of the God of Israel, with its vowels. I have therefore removed the vowels.
  8. Note that plural feminine form mebas's'erot also appears in Ps 68:12, perhaps in a context where this host of female heralds are announcing YHWH's triumph. The meaning of this text is obscure and has been excluded from our discussion for methodological reasons.
  9. The term "servant song" is problematic in describing this collection of texts (Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-10; 52:13-53:12) most particularly because "the poems are not properly songs" as Claus Westermann has pointed out (Isaiah 40-66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 92).
  10. Carol A. Newsom, "Response to Norman K Gottwald, ‘Social Class and Ideology in Isaiah 40-55,'" Semeia 59 (1992): 76.
  11. Note that in this division I am following the Masoretic division of the text. Each one of these brief sections closes with a stuma marker indicating closed paragraphs. In my estimation these markers accord with the flow of ideas in this part of the chapter.
  12. David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible (Jerusalem: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1998) follows the OJPS tradition because of Stern's use of the OJPS as a base text in his edition of the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly the Hexaplaric Codex Vaticanus (B) Greek manuscript of Isaiah reads both Zion and Jerusalem as genitives indicating that the mebas's'eret is proclaiming the news to Zion/Jerusalem rather than the once abandoned city assuming the role of the mebas's'eret.
  13. Claus Westermann [Isaiah 40-66, 43-46], James Mulienburg ["Isaiah 40-66" in IB 5:431], James Watts [Isaiah 34-66 (WBC 25; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 82], and Jan L. Koole [Isaiah, Part 3, Vol. 1: Isaiah 40-48 (Historical Commentary on the Old Testament; Kampen, The Netherlands: Pharos Publishing House, 1997),70-74] identify the mebas's'eret as Jerusalem and Zion.
  14. John L. McKenzie, S.J., Second Isaiah (AB 20; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 17.

Jonathan Kaplan, M.Div., M.A., A.M., is book review editor of Kesher and co-founder of Yachad Network, an organization that works in youth and young adult leadership development. He is an ordained rabbi of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, scholar-in-residence at Ruach Israel Messianic Synagogue, Needham, Mass., and a trustee of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI).

 
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