Sheffield Phoenix New Testament Monographs, 43, 2021, 204 pp.
By David H. Wenkel, PhD
Messianic expectations in the first century were varied, but rarely did they include a figure associated with the sunrise or the direction of the east. However, in Luke’s gospel (1:78) the prophetic song (the ‘Benedictus’) of the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, includes a title for Jesus that means the “dayspring,” “dawn,” or “rising sun” (“the sunrise shall visit us from on high” ESV).
Where did this title arise? How did some first century Jews come to this association of the sunrise with messianic expectations? This study argues that the best answer is that the Old Testament offered an antecedent theology and messianic vocabulary that contributed to this title and associated expectations.
The first chapter argues that the sunrise in the east functions as the direction from which God’s presence will arrive. In the book of Genesis, Old Testament scholars have recognized that there is an important directional theme in which God’s presence comes from the east. This nature of this arrival is ambiguous because it will bring his holy wrath as well as mercy. This chapter follows this directional theme of “hope from the east” in relation to the Genesis narratives of the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and beyond. It explores how God’s presence is both gracious and terrifying, bringing mercy and justice in a post-Eden world.
The second chapter argues that the direction of east is closely associated with the redemptive acts of Yahweh and his on-going discipline of Israel. As in Genesis, God’s presence is associated with the direction of east or the sunrise. For example, an “east wind” offered Israel salvation as God divided the waters of the Red Sea. This “east wind” is identified as God’s personal presence or Spirit. This identification of God’s visitation among his people through his Spirit in an east wind appears in Hebrew poetry as well as narratives.
The third chapter argues that the theme of “hope from the east” starts to take on messianic elements through the honor associated with the tribe of Judah at the Tabernacle. The messianic expectations are oriented around the concept of Yahweh having a physical place on earth that offered an interface between God and humanity. The Tabernacle was the first semi-permanent place for Israel to corporately meet God and it was oriented toward the east. This chapter argues that it faced the sunrise in hope of God’s future visitation that would redeem and save. These places created an anticipation of a relational restoration with God that would reflect the personal contact evident in the Garden of Eden.
The fourth chapter argues that the temple in Jerusalem was oriented toward the east because it anticipated a future day of Yahweh’s visitation. The Tabernacle was used as a model for the permanent temple in Jerusalem and it also faced eastward. This structural characteristic was divine in origin. Although Israel did participate in idolatrous sun worship, the sun remained an important symbol and element of Yahweh worship.
The fifth chapter focuses on the importance of Yahweh’s visitation from the east before, during, and after the exile. After Israel was defeated by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, they lived in exile. This defeat was understood as an act of divine punishment associated with the Mosaic covenant. The exilic prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel offered messages that referred to the directional theme of God’s presence coming from the east. Isaiah uses the imagery of the “east wind” to describe Yahweh’s personal presence moving to put Israel in exile. But Ezekiel uses the eastward motif to establish hope: there will be a future day when Yahweh’s personal presence will come to bring purity and ritual cleanness among God’s people. This eastward looking hope appears in Ezekiel’s vision of a temple where God’s glory would appear through an east gate.
Chapter six argues that Jerusalem was a city that anticipated Yahweh’s arrival from the east. This develops and expands up on Ezekiel’s vision of an east-ward facing temple that would one day greet Yahweh’s personal presence. This chapter focuses on the concept of Zion as a temple-city—a place where the temple is indivisible from city. Although there was never a static vision of Jerusalem, it was always characterized as a temple-city expecting God’s personal presence. This eschatological anticipation of God’s presence in the temple-city of Jerusalem would restore it to an Eden-like place where humanity dwelt with God. The entire city of Jerusalem was designed to expect a king who would come from the east.
Chapter seven argues that there is a trajectory in Old Testament theology that uses the sunrise to create anticipation of a specific individual who will embody Yahweh’s personal presence. This chapter follows this figurative and canonical pattern through the prophets of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Malachi. This chapter examines how these various prophetic messages contributed to messianic expectations in Second Temple Judaism and New Testament writers.
Chapter eight argues that the messianic title of “Dayspring” reflects Luke’s theology of God’s visitation in the person of Jesus. This chapter returns to the Lukan title of “Dayspring” as found in Zechariah’s prophecy. It seeks to locate this messianic title in Luke’s distinct literary and theological agenda. Special attention is given to the way this title contributes to Luke’s larger motif of God’s visitation in Christ. This chapter details how Luke (chapter 19) is careful to narrate Jesus’ arrival (the “visitation of God”) in Jerusalem from the east side of the city, after he came down from the Mount of Olives. Although it seemed as though “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53) had prevailed, it was only fitting that Jesus’ empty tomb is found by the disciples “at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). The “darkness over the whole land” (Luke 23:44) and the “sun’s light failing” (Luke 23:45) at Jesus’ death gives way to light.
The central argument of chapter nine is that the canonical motif of “hope from the east” continues to have relevance for the book of Acts because it contributes to the reception of the “word of the Lord” and the geographical movement of the gospel outward from Jerusalem. The directional motif of “hope from the east” and Jesus’ messianic title as the “Dayspring” continues to have relevance after his Ascension because it contributes to the centrifugal movement of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea-Samaria, to the ends of the earth.
The last and final chapter returns to the overarching thesis that the regular anticipation of the sunrise in the east finds its ultimate expression in the Messianic visitation of God in Jesus. This chapter offers a canonical set of criteria for identifying Israel’s messiah that includes the motif of a figure arriving from the sunrise or the east.
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David H. Wenkel lives in the Chicago area with his wife and children. He holds a PhD in NT theology from Univ. of Aberdeen, Scotland, as well as ThM and MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He serves as Research Fellow in New Testament at LCC International University (Lithuania).