Unto Us a Child Is Born (Tyler D. Mayfield) - Review
UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN: Isaiah, Advent, and Our Jewish Neighbors. By Tyler D. Mayfield. Foreword by Walter Brueggemann. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. Xvi + 192 pages.
As a preacher and leader of worship, I regularly draw on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible for my sermons. I also find teaching from the Old Testament in Bible study sessions enjoyable. This sacred text is the Bible for my Jewish friends, but it also forms part of the Bible read by Christians. Because the Old Testament is a shared text, we who are Christians need to be respectful of our cousins who hold it dear. The lectionary, which many of us follow prescribes readings from the Old Testament for each Sunday of the year (except, strangely enough, during the Easter season when the Book of Acts is often the first reading). And when it comes to Advent, that means engaging with some regularity with readings from Isaiah.
Onward from the New Testament, Christians have interpreted the coming of Jesus through an Isaianic lens. Unfortunately, that often involves discounting the original context and reading these texts as if they point to Jesus (and to Jesus alone). How then might we engage with these texts in a Christian liturgical context without dismissing their place in Jewish life? That is the task that Tyler Mayfield takes up in Unto Us a Child Is Born.
Mayfield is the Arnold Black Rhodes Professor of Old Testament and director of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In this new book, he provides preachers, teachers, and Christians in general with an important resource that looks at the texts from Isaiah that are linked with Advent and Christmas either through the lectionary or tradition. In his introduction, Mayfield notes that what he seeks to do here is offer a "bifocal look at Isaiah." That is, he looks at Isaiah through the lens of the liturgical season of Advent and "a lens of Christian love toward our Jewish neighbors." While engaging with the text liturgically, he wants us to not "render Jews invisible or irrelevant or as incomplete Christians" (p. 3). The goal is faithfulness to the Christian message without dismissing or setting aside our Jewish neighbors. The book focuses on Isaiah because it provides the greatest number of lectionary texts to the season of Advent. To accomplish this, Mayfield looks at the original text in context, explores its usage liturgically through time and in the present, and listens to Jewish interpretations. The latter provides an important counterpoint to the tendency to read Isaiah only Christologically.
Mayfield divides the book into three sections. Part I is titled "Isaiah through Bifocals." Part II focuses on the "messianic" texts that form part of the Advent/Christmas season. These include Isaiah 7:10-16; Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-10; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. Part III focuses on "Isaiah's Visions of the Future." In other words, these are readings with an eschatological/apocalyptic emphasis: Isaiah 2:1-5; Isaiah 35:1-10; Isaiah 40:1-11; and Isaiah 64:1-9. In each section he begins with the originating context of the reading and concludes with "a bifocal look" In most of the sections, he looks at both Jewish and Christian traditions. Of the latter, in several places, he takes note of the influence of Handel's "Messiah," which tends to read the text in a predictive manner.
Returning to Part I, Mayfield divides this section into two chapters. Chapter 1 is titled "Using Our Near Vision during Advent." Here he first takes note of the two theological emphases that converge in the Advent readings from Isaiah. These themes are "the coming of Christ as a child" (the first Advent) and "the future coming of Christ at the end of time" (the second Advent). Thus, Advent focuses on both incarnation and eschatology. There are both words of judgment and joy. He writes "We are pulled in different emotional directions. No wonder we are so confused about Advent celebrations!" (p. 17). The second focus is on the intersection of the two testaments, and the "problematic prophecy-fulfillment paradigm." This is an important element of the exploration of the reading of the texts that occurs in parts two and three. He reminds us that practices shape theology. Therefore, even if we embrace this prophecy-fulfillment model unintentionally, our use of the Old Testament can lead to problems. There is also a section in this chapter on the placement of the readings from Isaiah in the lectionary for Advent, noting the relationship with the readings from the Gospel and Epistles. Mayfield brings the chapter to a close with a discussion of how we read prophetic literature, reminding us that while the season easily leads to reading the text as foretelling future events, that is likely not its original purpose. Thus, in the latter two sections, he begins with the original context and probable application, before moving to its later interpretation and usage in Christian contexts.
Chapter two offers an important lesson for preachers and others who are called upon to teach the Hebrew Bible. Mayfield focuses here on "Using Our Far Vision to Love Our Jewish Neighbors." This serves as a reminder that when we use Isaiah in our churches, we're sharing the book with our Jewish neighbors. He encourages the preacher/teacher to begin any discussion of Isaiah in a Christian context by making that point clear. But that is not sufficient. We need to also recognize how Christian interpretations have harmed our Jewish neighbors. He writes that he uses the term "neighbor" in the book, because "neighbors do not always agree. In fact, they sometimes disagree and have to take seriously one another's perceptions, feelings, and opinions" (p. 40). Thus, as we look at how our Jewish neighbors experience the Jewish Bible and compare that usage with our use of it as Christians, especially in the liturgical context of Advent, we will begin to see contrasting understandings of the concept of the messiah. Since Christians proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Christ), how did Jews then and now understand this concept? To discern this, one must look at its use not only in Scripture but in Second Temple Judaism. Understanding how the texts we perceive as messianic are understood in a Jewish context is important. The important point is that there never was just one interpretation. This has led to the conflict between the two communities as to how Jesus is to be understood.
There is also an important section in the chapter on "supersessionism." Here again, we're reminded of the dangers of portraying Judaism as inferior to Christianity, which at times has been intentional and malicious. This helped lead to the Holocaust. So, here he invites us to be vigilant in our readings so that we do not give room to supersessionism. From my own experience and observations, we can easily fall into forms of supersessionism in our preaching and teaching. That often happens when we contrast Jesus' teaching and practices with the Old Testament and his Jewish context. While supersessionism has been a major part of Christian readings of the Old Testament, that has been compounded by Christian anti-Judaism. Here, Mayfield helpfully distinguishes anti-Judaism from antisemitism, with the latter being a racial designation, while the former is a religious one. Since racial categories are relatively new developments, anti-Judaism has a much longer history. One aspect of anti-Judaism is the tendency to confuse ancient Israelites of the Old Testament and ancient Judeans of the New Testament with modern Jews. We can mistakenly assume that modern Jewish practice is the same as that of their ancestors, and that may not be true (often isn't true). While he doesn't go deeply into it, he takes note of "post-Holocaust" or "post-Shoah" readings of the Hebrew Bible. By that, we're talking about keeping in mind the history of anti-Judaism and its expression in the events of the Shoah. However, in doing so, there is the problematic tendency of retreating simply to historical-critical readings of Isaiah so that no connection is made with the present.
With these two chapters as the foundation, Mayfield turns to the texts of Isaiah offering bifocal engagement, keeping together both the original intent and the Christian appropriation, both early and modern. The point then is to receive a word that speaks to the season of Advent without denying Judaism its claim on the text. In my view, this is an essential tool for Christian preachers as they take up the Advent readings described above. I sense that if we take to heart the information provided here, we can bring messages that have theological integrity, speak to the season, but don't dismiss the ownership of the text by our Jewish neighbors. The good news is that he covers the readings from all three cycles, making this an important resource for Advent preaching. We need not ignore Isaiah during Advent. In fact, we need to ponder its witness. However, we need to do this without misappropriating it. When used rightly, Isaiah can provide will give us great blessings. Thanks, then, goes to Tyler Mayfield for offering us this excellent book.