Opening The Old Testament
Gold, Frankincense, and Foreigners, Too: Reflections on Epiphany Sunday
January 5, 2014
And a bright Epiphany to you! This is the Sunday when finally we are asked to sing "We Three Kings of Orient Are," though truth be told we have already heard it since October 15 in the mall and have sung it in eager anticipation in our services during Advent. But now, at last, Matthew's kings (not specifically three, you note, and "wise men" rather than kings) show up at the birthplace of Jesus and shower him with their treasures, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Good old Matthew is ever eager to beat us over our spiritual heads with his certain conviction that all that transpires in the life of Jesus has been predicted (well, at least anticipated) long ago in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, Isaiah, always a ready source of Matthew's preaching, once again foretells the events that followed the holy birth.
The author of Isaiah 60, the so-called III-Isaiah (or IV?), announces, as he regularly does, that Israel's greatest days lie ahead, even though the realities of a post-exilic Israel are less than salubrious. Late in the 6th century B.C.E., around 515 or so, the temple is rebuilt by the returning exiles from Babylon, probably aided by some of those who remained in the ruined land during that exile. Yet, that temple was only a shadow of its former glory, and the hopes of the returnees and their struggling compatriots perhaps faded in its tiny and rather pathetic shadow. Did III-Isaiah sing this oracle before that new temple arose or after its somewhat sad construction? We cannot know, but we can know that the presence of the temple, however paltry it was, did not affect the glorious singing of the prophet. As we all know, realities rarely get in the way of prophetic song. Prophets march to an unseen orchestra, and any real disharmonies be damned!
The promise of Isaiah is that the dispersed Israelites in whatever exiles they have suffered will soon be returning to the land of promise. We should remember that Babylon was not the only place of exile after the 6th-century destruction of Jerusalem. At the fifth cataract of the Nile River in southern Egypt at a place called Elephantine there was a thriving Jewish community early in the 5th century. Also, the important Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt surely began to form at this same period. Hence, when Isaiah promises a return of exiles to Israel, he must have had in mind all those who once called the Promised Land their home.
"Stand and shine," he says, "for your light has come; the glory of YHWH has risen above you!" (Is. 60:1) The day of YHWH has dawned, sings Isaiah, and that means that the way back home is now clear and well lighted for all. "Yes, darkness covered the earth, a thick gloom darkened the people, but YHWH now rises above you, God's glory appears above you" (Is. 60:2). Isaiah uses the important word "glory" (kavod) twice for emphasis. It is YHWH's glory that Moses demands to see on the sacred mountain of Sinai (Ex. 33:18), but YHWH only allows the lawgiver to see YHWH's "goodness" (33:19) instead. The glory of YHWH is not shown even to the one to whom YHWH speaks face to face. But now, says Isaiah, YHWH's very glory has appeared in the sky as a light for all returning exiles. Little wonder that Matthew speaks of the miraculous star that lights the way of the Magi to the Christ child. Here is his iteration of the glory of YHWH that shines to light the way for the exiles' return.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.