The Root of Jesse, Day 7

“The Root of Jesse, Day 7”
Isaiah 11:7
©️2020 by Gloria M. Chang

The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.

Isaiah 11:7

For Isaiah’s Hebrew audience, the image of a cow and a bear feeding together signified a new harmony transcending the division of “clean” and “unclean.” Whereas the cow belonged to the class of clean animals with cloven hooves that chew the cud (Leviticus 11:3), the wild and carnivorous bear was avoided as unclean. Beyond the animal kingdom, “clean” and “unclean” peoples and nations (Jews and Gentiles) will also be united. In the Gospels, Jesus shepherded “unclean” lepers, tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles into his fold. 

Early patristic and medieval reflections on the connection between the Levitical food laws and Isaiah’s prophecy illuminate the text:

St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 — c. 215 AD) writes: 

For the Jew is designated by the ox, from the animal under the yoke being reckoned clean, according to the law; for the ox both parts the hoof and chews the cud. And the Gentile is designated by the bear, which is an unclean and wild beast. And this animal brings forth a shapeless lump of flesh, which it shapes into the likeness of a beast solely by its tongue. For he who is convened from among the Gentiles is formed from a beastlike life to gentleness by the word; and, when once tamed, is made clean, just as the ox.

Stromata VI

From the perspective of the Torah, St. Clement reflects that those without the law and divine revelation are “beastlike,” but the word of God tames and instructs them. In St. Paul’s metaphor, branches from a wild olive tree (Gentiles) are grafted into a cultivated one (Romans 11:17-19).

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) writes:

…the calf, who eats grass and is a clean animal, the bear, who tears meat and is not a clean animal, shall feed together, on the same food of the Word of God; their young ones, that is, their families, together, that is, in conformity, shall rest to eat…

Commentary on Isaiah, Chapter 11, Lecture 2, n. 371

Referencing 1 Corinthians 10:3, “they ate the same spiritual food,” St. Thomas reflects that the harmony of the cow and the bear may also refer to the table of the Eucharist.

Two other Scriptural references highlighted by St. Thomas in this passage are instructive:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.

Colossians 3:11

“This is signified in Noah’s ark,” St. Thomas writes, “where there were all animals of each kind.”

Then the Lord said to Noah: Go into the ark, you and all your household, for you alone in this generation have I found to be righteous before me. Of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of the unclean animals, one pair, a male and its mate; likewise, of every bird of the air, seven pairs, a male and a female, to keep their progeny alive over all the earth.

Genesis 7:1-3

Noah’s ark is a figure of Christ, the ark of salvation, who assumed in his divine person “all flesh” (Genesis 6:19; John 1:14). 

Isaiah 11:7 ends with the lion, a carnivorous animal, eating hay like the ox, an herbivorous animal—God’s ideal for paradise in the beginning:

God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food.

Genesis 1:29-30

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