Off by Nine Miles. (Living by the Word)

By Brueggemann, Walter | The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Off by Nine Miles. (Living by the Word)


Brueggemann, Walter, The Christian Century


Sunday, January 6
Isaiah 60:1-7; Matthew 2:1-12

MATTHEW IS NOT the first one to imagine three rich wise guys from the East coming to Jerusalem. His story line and plot come from Isaiah 60, a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 B.C.E. These Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed-out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed, and nobody knows what to do about it?

In the middle of the mess, an amazing poet invites his depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. "Rise, shine, for your light has come." The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new center of international trade. "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn ..." Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring prosperity. This is cause for celebration. God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace, and a promise from God is very sure.

Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order.

Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, "Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?" The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the center of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.

Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, "Well, do you have a better text?" The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4:

      But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah ... from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old ...

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. …

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