I’ll confess that I’ve stopped being open-minded about the “suffering servant” passages in the latter half of Isaiah: the referent in the historical moment of the Babylonian Exile seems pretty plainly to be Israel, spoken of by the prophet, in the words of YHWH, in aspirational terms. Israel, a nation of many families to be sure but also an unfaithful bride sometimes and an oppressing monster at others, here becomes, in singular metaphoric and pronominal subjects and objects, the servant of YHWH, existing for the sake of the nations. The oracles of the servant and of the suffering servant project a vision of what Israel is to be among the nations from that day forth, aware in new clarity that there is only one God who directs all the nations and that Israel will be YHWH’s priest (and sometimes the living sacrifice) in behalf of the other nations.
The servant is also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not all that open-minded about that either. Jesus is also the divinely ordained king of Psalm 2 and also stands as the son of Eve who crushes the serpent (even if the serpent was not yet the Devil all those centuries before the Roman occupation). If the state of humanity is different and more abundant in the wake of Christ’s advent, then so is the range of meanings that the Bible can take on. Yes, Isaiah and the writer(s) of Genesis and the Psalmist(s) get to have their historical moment. But so does Paul, and so does Matthew. And the advent of the Son of God, the ministry of Jesus the Galilean, means that history gets a whole mess stranger in a hurry.
Of course, Isaiah’s moment is itself a new moment. (The text itself calls it a new moment.) To say that the event of Christ is the singular defining moment in history is not to say that the rest of the story of God’s image-bearers in the earth is one damn nihil sub sole novum after another. To say that God speaks anew when the Son becomes Jesus is not to assert simultaneously that God never spoke before. I realize that certain strands of piety call the enterprise of “finding Jesus” in every corner of the Biblical text the best way of reading it, and I agree that such readings in addition to careful, historical-minded readings, are valid Christian hermeneutics, but never at the cost of the particularity of Isaiah, the man who walked about in Babylon proclaiming that the season of YHWH’s wrath was over for those beleaguered Jews. When John baptizes the man Jesus, he does not thereby drown the Jerusalem king who first wore Psalm 2 as his Scriptural crown. And when the text of the Bible “speaks to us” in our own moment (and I will defend to my dying day the text of Scripture as the site of perpetual and sometimes even novel disclosed wisdom from God), it always does so in addition to all of the words that God has spoken to the faithful before us.
In this season of Epiphany, may we celebrate all the times when the Divine has disclosed the face of the Divine to those who came before us, and may we stand open to the next moment, our moment, when the Divine makes demands upon us.