Reasoning Through the Prophetic: A Reading of Isaiah 61, Leviticus 25 and Luke 4:16

Randi Rashkover,
York College of Pennsylvania

We live in an era of de-secularization. Religion is being courted by two suitors in the our current democratic climate. On the one hand, religion is the cherished possession of the political right — its rhetorical and ideological armor and source of guidance. On the other hand, secular progressivists of the past are now wondering how we might restore its voice in America’s democratic discourse. We are now faced with the daunting challenge of discerning how religion should function and contribute to the democratic conversation. One compelling possibility posed recently by Cornel West’s Democracy Matters searches into Judaism and Christianity’s prophetic traditions. West argues here that Judaism and Christianity must retrieve their prophetic voices. Appropriation of the prophetic voice requires an investigation into this voice as it is proclaimed and heard scripturally. Far too often, recourse to the prophetic tradition has amounted to an implicit endorsement of liberalism and its standards of rationality — an endorsement that frequently dilutes central religious claims, their rationality and an authentic assessment of how those claims relate to a democratic conversation. As a method whereby readers may attend carefully to biblical texts in dialogical and tri-logical encounters with other readers, scriptural reasoning may contribute to an assessment of the value of the prophetic voice as a contributor to democratic discourse. What follows is an exercise in reading a prophetic text through a co-reading with a Levitical text on the one hand and a New Testament text on the other with respect to a particular issue of political concern, i.e. the character of territory or land possession, that will provide a case study of how scriptural reasoning permits religious traditions to engage in a pluralistic conversation without sacrificing their respective traditional commitments. Once one begins via scriptural reasoning to move beyond blanket applications of scripture, one begins to question liberal (that is enlightenment-glossed) readings or appropriations of these texts, thereby unveiling the authentic religious doctrines at their root. These doctrines, once exposed, help Judaism and Christianity both to identify and to mutually reason through their own positions, preparing them to better present them at the democratic table. Scriptural reasoning, therefore, permits the reasoned discourse around scriptural texts to transpire through the cross-readings in the traditions rather than through the lens of the philosophical standard of the day. It thereby offers an invaluable method for religious participation in a democratic setting.

Here I would like to pay particular attention to an analysis of Isaiah 61 through a reading together with Leviticus 25:1-35 and Luke 4:16- 30. I will pose the following question: What happens to the Jubilee when it is proclaimed prophetically? In turn what happens to the voice of prophecy when the subject is the Jubilee? An investigation of these two questions leads to an engagement between Judaism and Christianity’s readings of the prophetic tradition and its place within a democratic political discourse. More specifically, an engagement with these three texts will lead readers to re-consider Leviticus 25’s focus on the theo-economy of the land, in a time when neither Judaism nor Christianity present developed theological discourse about the land. The failure to provide such discourse helps to sustain a vacuum regarding how to handle disputes over land ownership and territory, which is then filled by secular politics alone.

Leviticus 25: 1-35

My reading of the three texts sits against the backdrop of the fact that rabbinic Judaism does not commemorate the jubilee ( yovel in Hebrew, meaning either “rams horn” or “to bring forth”) any longer, because of its identification with the holdings in the land. Both Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 do re-invoke the jubilee. More significantly, their re-invocation of the jubilee truncates its Levitical dimensions. The jubilee concerns a return of property holdings and not simply the liberation of the enslaved or the poor.

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. Then shalt thou make proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall ye make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty through the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (Leviticus 25: 8-10)

This return of property holdings is an essential piece of the theo-economy of the text. The text informs us of the liturgical-doxological significance of property holding (that is, its ‘holiness’ ). We are to ‘hold property’ in order to point to God as the final owner. “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.” (Leviticus, 25:23) . The condition of the possibility of the doxological moment however is property holding (not negation). We possess the land so that we may be servants of God. In this respect choseness or covenantal life is a life of possession, whereby our possessions are themselves a testimony to God’s holdings. To be chosen is not to forgo one’s property but rather to render it holy — that is, to recognize its holiness by virtue of its ultimate owner. The jubilee commemorates the sanctification of land in this liturgical function.

The Levitical theo-economy now noted, we can more fully appreciate the theological crisis of exile. If Israelite holdings are a condition of the proclamation of divine sovereignty, the demise of these holdings results in a liturgical crisis wherein the Israelites cannot proclaim divine sovereignty in this way. How, one may even ask, is it possible to guard against idolatry or the belief that the land is ‘ours’ if we no longer possess the land that is God’s? How do we avoid the dominant attitude of ancient and contemporary political reality that all land is ours without limit? Moreover, how do we guard against the disordering of our economic environment in general, when the land’s doxological value is a reminder of the character of all our possessions — land and otherwise? The loss of the jubilee, in other words, is highly disruptive to the overall theo-economic order reflected directly in the very character of Israelite election.

It is noteworthy then that both the Isaiah text and the Luke text re-invoke the jubilee in efforts to disrupt the disruption — with the jubilee as the ‘interruption’ like the blast of the shofar. Both the Isaiah and Luke texts are post-exilic texts (Isaiah 61 arguably a post first exilic text and Luke arguably written after the second exile in 70 CE) Both may be understood as responses to the theological crisis of exile. Both texts may be read as ‘restoration’ texts, broadly speaking. It is not surprising, then, that both re-invoke the jubilee as part and parcel of their hope for restoration of a pre-exilic condition. Still, when they do so both stress the liberation of the poor to the neglect of the restoration of property holdings.

Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me: he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor .

The Levitical references here to the jubilee are both the citation of the literal ‘proclaim liberty to the captives’ and the invocation of the year of the Lord’s favor.

In Luke we have the repetition of this Isaiah text as read by Jesus, with the important addition,

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words . . . He said to them ‘doubtless you will quote me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” . . .When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. (Luke 4:18-29).

Both leave out “It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family . . . ” (Leviticus 25:10 — immediately following the above cited material from the same Leviticus text.) This ‘neglect’, if you will, is a neglect not only of a circumstantial element resulting from exile but also a neglect of the whole theo/covenantal economy and of the jubilee.

According to Leviticus 25, the jubilee acknowledges the divine sovereignty by identifying God as the possessor of the land that we possess. The proclamation of divine sovereignty is predicated on our holding the land — our possession of the land — and this proclamation takes place according to the calendrical ordering of the year determined by a litany of sabbaths: “seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that [ultimately] the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month — on the day of atonement . . .And you shall hallow the fiftieth year . . .” We see here a calendrical ordering that links the cycles of the land itself to the liturgical practices of the covenantal life.

Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 take the jubilee out of the Jewish liturgical calendar and, even more significantly, trans-value the jubilee, rendering it a commemoration of the ‘good news of the poor’ rather than a celebration of property holding. In contrast to the Levitical emphasis on the calendrical and natural cycle, Isaiah 61 is immediately preceded by Isaiah 60 which identifies the year of the Lord’s favor — or ‘redemption’ (literally) with a time when “the sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night — but the Lord will be your everlasting light”. This text suggests the elimination of liturgical time, as set out in Genesis 1 (“Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years . . .”(Genesis 1: 14))

Luke also dislocates the jubilee from its Levitical origins. Luke 4:16 cites directly from Isaiah 61 and thereby appropriates Isaiah’s landless invocation of the jubilee. Also like Isaiah, Luke severs the connection between the jubilee and the calendrical cycle that derives out of and re-shapes the natural cycles of the land. This is evident in the ‘amazement’ and then anger of the Jews listening to Jesus’ reading of the text. Shocking to the listeners is Jesus’ proclamation re: Isaiah’s jubilee announcement “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 21). In one fell swoop, Jesus identifies himself as the calendrical authority — the one who determines literally ‘what time it is’ and the liturgical and religious significance of this time. No longer does God decide that the jubilee transpires in the 5th year after the seven cycles of sabbatical years. Jesus assumes this position — his authority overrides the Levitical calendar. (Note Jesus’ frequent re-definitions of the ‘sabbath’ itself in other Lukan texts e.g. Luke 6:5: “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”)

This trans-valuation in Isaiah 61 is further bolstered by Isaiah’s re-definition of Jewish election in terms of the Suffering Servant motif. Isaiah inverts the Jewish doctrine of election, from one wherein the Jews are elect by virtue of their holdings and the doxological significance of this holding, to one in which the Jews are elect by virtue not of their property but rather of their suffering — that is to say, their being without holdings.

Thus Isaiah 52: 3-14:

For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money . . . long ago my people went down into Egypt . . . to reside there as aliens, the Assyrian too has oppressed them without cause . . . See my servant . . . shall be exalted . . . so marred was his appearance beyond human semblance . . .

In 53: 4-10 we read,

. . . surely he has borne our infirmities and carried out diseases . . . like a sheep that
before its shearers is silent . . . for he was cut off from the land of the living . . . they
made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich . . . yet it was the will of
the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin . . .

To read the jubilee as the celebration of the poor, to repair the exile through a thematic of the Suffering Servant, is to not only truncate the jubilee but to invert its meaning altogether. On the one hand, we have election premised upon the right for me to hold property as a tribute to God’s ultimate holding; on the other, election premised upon — my impoverishment as a testimony to God’s long-suffering mercy. [1] Such an inversion of the doctrine of Jewish election results in significant theopolitical fall-out, evident in ancient and contemporary Jewish and Christian thought. On the Jewish front, The tendency in rabbinic Judaism to either dismiss the yovel or spiritualize its meaning in connection with Yom Kippur’s emphasis on ‘return’ or teshuvah can result in a de-politicization of Judaism in the face of political abuses. The jubilee offers a theology of the land that if sustained could grant rabbinic Judaism a position from which to credibly critique political-territorial abuses.

Potentially more problematic, however, than the rabbinic spiritualization of the jubilee is the prophetic description of the jubilee found in Isaiah 61 as it has been read and interpreted by strands inmodern Jewish thought. Modern Jews anxious to assimilate into European society quickly associated with the Suffering Servant motif in the Isaianic presentation.

Hermann Cohen’s reading of Leviticus 25 indicates exactly the extent to which modern Jews read the Levitical text backwards through Second and Third Isaiah, thereby arguing that Jewish life in the non-Jewish environment must involve ‘suffering’ servanthood for the sake of the universal human community. In Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism , Cohen admits the link between Jewish property and the covenantal notion of election and says, “It is not sufficiently considered that the idea of Israel’s election as God’s property is stressed mainly in Deuteronomy.” [2] Then, however, Cohen goes on to describe the theological history of the Jews in the context of Cohen’s messianism. He argues that the Jews do and should function as those who suffer – those who have of course ‘lost their land’ but whose loss of the land factors into their relation to God as the poor whose unique position it is to stimulate the affect of pity in the nations thereby providing the condition of the possibility of universal human compassion (Cohen’s ethics stresses that we are moved to ethical action towards the stranger when stimulated first by the pity we feel for her poverty).

Said more simply, Cohen sacrifices the jubilee-linked doctrine of covenant or election for the Isaianic model of the suffering servant. Subsequently he reads Leviticus 25 through the lens of the universal mission to the nations — a mission that undermines the very character of Jewish holiness with the land and in the liturgical calendar. While the Leviticus text establishes laws regarding redemption for property once held by ‘brothers’ in the group who are now poor, “If thy brother be waxen poor, and sell some of his possession, then shall his kinsman that is net unto him come, and shall redeem that which his brother hat sold” (Lev. 25: 25), Cohen’s reading of Leviticus 25:25-35 focuses less on the text’s concern to restore Israelite property and more on the social identification between the poor ‘brother’ and the ‘resident alien’ thereby evidencing an implicit toraitic concern with the welfare of the non-Israelite. “If your brother grows poor and his hand falters with you, you shall support him, as though he is a resident alien, so that he shall live with you.” (Lev. 25:35). Reading Leviticus 1-25 through the lens of 25:35 Cohen says, “Almost more important than the prohibition of taking interest from the stranger is this recognition of him as brother.” [3]

Taken as a whole, the tragedy of Cohen’s perspective is nothing less than the claim that Jews must sacrifice — that is to say, negate themselves for the sake of the human family. Jews, in other words, must deny their Sinaitic election in order to fit into the larger universal European community — a community that by and large did not welcome these efforts.

While it may be argued, of course, that the existence of the state of Israel is an out and out rejection of Modern Judaism’s appropriation of the suffering servant model, it too lacks an appropriate theology of the land wherein the land — our holding if you will, is of doxological significance. Jews have much to gain from re-reading Isaiah and Luke’s re-invocations of the jubilee. Appreciating the urgency for such a restoration may help Jews recognize the need for a fully-fledged teshuvah around this Levitical category. Without so doing Jews will either sacrifice their own doctrine of Sinaitic election — that is the very theo-economy of holiness and sanctification biblically described, for the sake of political survival in non-Jewish nations, or Jews will dwell in their own political environments idolatrously — also divorced from their covenantal status. I am not advocating that Jews actively campaign to restore the land, the temple and the monarchy. I am advocating that Jewish text readers pay attention to Leviticus 25 in the hopes of considering a viable theology of the land in the time of exile.

The encounter between Leviticus 25, Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 also impacts greatly on Christianity. While it is the case that the Lukan text (following Isaiah) invokes the jubilee — the dislocation of the jubilee from the liturgical calendar and from the restoration of property holdings drastically reduces the possibilities of Christian theopolitics.

Certainly the celebration of the good news for the poor has doxological significance.The classically prophetic advance of the rights of the poor and the critique of the abuse of power has granted Christian theopolitics, at times, vibrant theopolitical position (note of course the history of Christian political critique all the way from the early martyrs to the dialectical theology of Barth and up until the pacifism of Yoder and Merton). However, radical ‘prophetic’ critique cannot offer a way through the storm — it can only call out and warn folks of the danger.

Christianity needs a theology of the land — a theology that does more than negate the powers that be in the name of divine sovereignty — but a theology that restores the earth as the place of the glory of God. It needs a re-reading of Leviticus 25. Arguably, without this re-reading, Christianity runs the risk of assuming realpolitik’s own politics of land. Even given the dialectical theology mentioned above, a vacuum remains concerning the character of right possession, right holding, right materiality, the restoration of the created order as God’s order. All too frequently, this vacuum is filled with the rules of realpolitik, given the lack of attention to the earth that we find in post-prophetic dialectical theology.

How may Christians re-till the land? In a recent essay, “Holy Seeds: The Trisagion and the Liturgical Untilling of Time”, written as a contribution to a volume co-edited by myself and Chad Pecknold, Liturgy, Time and the Politics of Redemption , Ben Quash offers an exquisite reading of the role of the trisagion in the eucharistic commemoration. Here Quash suggests that the three fold repetition of the sanctus affords a liturgical re-tilling — or re-planting of the earth — what in the context of this discussion might be read as a eucharistic return to the land. In his essay, Quash appreciates the need for such a re-tilling in the face of political and economic idolatry and hubris. Quash’s inquiry into the sanctus, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord most High’, links the text back to its textual roots in Revelation and Isaiah. His liturgical reading of Revelation and Isaiah re-interprets these two texts through the liturgical function of the eucharist. Said daily and repeated thrice, the trisagion implicates the ‘holy, holy, holy’ — the holiness of Leviticus — back into the Christian dwelling in our time and in our place. Reading early Isaiah 6 through the trisagion ‘holy, holy, holy’ opens up Quash’s powerful suggestion that, “In Isaiah 6, alongside the uncleanness of the people, we are confronted with burning holiness; and alongside the images of extraordinary emptiness (‘vast . . . in the midst of the land’) we are confronted with images of extraordinary fullness (‘the whole earth is full of his glory’; ‘his train filled the temple’).” [4]

To read early Isaiah through the sanctus helps illuminate how early Isaiah suggests that amidst the very emptying abandon of the land there remains a glory in the land, a residue of holiness that requires attention — tilling, we might say.Of note here is how Quash’s eucharistic illumination of early Isaiah helps to challenge the dislocation of later Isaiah 61 away from the land (thereby helping as well to recover a Christian appreciation for the Levitical notion of Israelite covenant over against the suffering servant motif characteristic of Second and Third Isaiah).

It may be the case that the restoration of the jubilee and its economy must transpire through liturgical re-shaping of our land — of our place — of our earth. Liturgy may in both traditions have the unique ability to restore our earth to its doxological significance. In Christian terms, if Christ is understood as the agency of divine post-exilic redemption, a close reading of Christian liturgy may hold the key to appreciating how Christ’s redemption affects — that is, restores — the land/our land in a manner that exceeds (or in Sam Wells’ words, ‘overaccepts’) both the exile and the Christian bodily sacrifice. Liturgy — in Quash’s essay, the sanctus — offers a re-tilling of the earth as God’s via a new liturgical counting here specifically the thrice stated ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord most High’ — a new calendrical connection that re-plants God’s glory into our earth. [5] Are there, we may ask,ways to fill out the redemptive meaning of Christ’s sacrifice as something other than an absolute emptying in the name of divine fullness but as a creaturely restoration that points to the value of our land — that is a Levitical re-reading of the passion and the resurrection through the lens of temple sacrifice?

If Christians may re-till the land by reading Luke 4 forward through the lens of liturgical language, one possibility that Jews can explore may involve reading Isaiah 61 back through a reading of Leviticus 25. Quash’s reading of the trisagion is instructive here for Jews so far as it points to how Jewish readers may consult other passages in Isaiah that speak about restoration in terms that match the celebration of the poor with hopes for the re-possession of the land.We may seek to read late Isaiah through early Isaiah, and thereby re-establish the link to the Levitical emphasis on the theo-economy of the land. Isaiah 4:2-6 invokes the covenantal theology of Leviticus 25 replete with reference to the holiness of the land — its ability to bear fruit (its property value, we might say — understood here as its ability to house those who stand obediently to God within it):

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy . . .

coupled with the other pole of covenantal life — divine care of unconditional love:

the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

To conclude therefore, if, as Scott Bader-Saye and others have argued, Christianity must come to terms with the carnal body of Israel in order to affect its own post-Constantianian political life, it is also the case that Christianity must come to terms with the land of Israel (and its doctrine of Jewish election) in order to develop a post-Constantianian political life. At the same time, Jews can and ought to use recent trends in de-secularization to develop theological perspectives on a host of political issues, such as ‘land’ or ‘territory’, which they may bring to the democratic table.

As here demonstrated, scriptural reasoning can play a significant role in unveiling and discerning these theological positions.The unique contribution of scriptural reasoning rests not only in the careful attention to text here provided, but more in the reasoning process that transpires when text readings from the variant traditions are imported as agents of rational challenge or inquiry. The encounter between the texts and readings of the variant traditions brings about a rational encounter that offers a philosophical alternative to the apologetic tradition that sought commensurability with the governing philosophical views of the day. Scriptural reasoning offers an invaluable tool for those interested in discerning how religious traditions may participate boldly in the democratic conversation in an era of increasing de-secularization.


[1] Note the use of the suffering servant motif inpost-Holocaust thought, see Eliezar Berkovitz, Faith After the Holocaust (New York: Ktav, 1973).

[2] Herman Cohen, Religion of Reasong Within the Sources of Judaism, trans. Sion Kaplan (NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.), 1972, p. 148.

[3] Cohen, Religion, p. 126.

[4] Ben Quash, “Holy Seeds: The Trisagion and the Liturgical Untilling of Time”, Liturgy Time and the Politics of Redemption ed. Chad Pecknold and Randi Rashkover (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 2006, forthcoming.

[5] It is worth noting that Quash does emphasize the temporality of delay that is a necessary feature in any liturgical re-tilling.Quash hereby offsets any possibility of human over-determination of territorial restoration.