Reading Isaianic Prophecies

In church this morning we looked at a few texts that Christians have traditionally taken to be prophecies of the coming Messiah, prophecies of Jesus.

Most Christians, upon reading Isaiah 52:13 – 53:  see the text as descriptive of Jesus. we see how the Servant is described and we think,  “How could people in his era have missed it?”

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.[e]
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Or we look at Isaiah 7:14. We find there a prophecy of a sign given by God, a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called “Immanuel.” We Christians know – of for no other reason than the use of this text in Matthew 1 – that this is Jesus. It is completely clear and obvious to us. Again we think, “How could they have missed it?”

But then, perhaps, we read more of Isaiah 7.

Isaiah 7:1-20 (NIV)

The Sign of Immanuel

When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.

Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘It will not take place,
    it will not happen,
for the head of Aram is Damascus,
    and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
    Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
    and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
    you will not stand at all.’”

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

In this larger context we see that the sign of 7:14, the son born to the virgin, is not just a sign given to everyone but specifically to King Ahaz. Ahaz was worried about the two armies that were surrounding Jerusalem. He knew he couldn’t stand against them for long. God sent Isaiah to give him reassurance. God’s promise was that these two enemies would soon pass from the scene. They would not overcome the Kingdom of Judah.

God spoke to Ahaz through Isaiah the prophet: “Ask me for a sign that what I have told you will come to pass.” Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, hiding behind a superficial spirituality. So in v.14 God himself offers a sign – the sign of the son. This son, we read in the next few verses, will still be a young child when the Armies of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (Syria) are complete taken care of. Read this way, this son to be born could not be Jesus – as Jesus was born over seven hundred years too late to be a sign to Ahaz.

So what do we make of this? We keep reading. We examine the context further. As we continue to read in Isaiah we find in chapter 9:

Isaiah 9:1-7 (NIV)

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Notice particular v. 6. Here again the prophet points as the son who will be given. Now we move far beyond a sign offered to Ahaz. This son will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These features fit no one in the age of Ahaz; these do fit Jesus.

So where do we stand?

If all we read is Isaiah 7:14, we find an obvious reference to Jesus. If we expand the context a bit to include the verses around 7:14 we find that it’s instead an obvious reference to someone other than Jesus, someone who lived centuries before Jesus. But when we continue on and consider the still larger context, this simple distinction is thrown into question. Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of a child being born who will be a sign to Ahaz and his contemporaries. This same prophecy is also of a child who will be much more than that, a child we Christians recognize as Jesus. In other words, this text has multiple levels of fulfillment. We miss this when (a) we take single verses out of their context, and (b) when we don’t look at the full context.

So what about Isaiah 53 and the Servant? Christians have traditionally taken this to be Jesus. Jews have traditionally taken it to be Israel. There are reasons to consider both possibilities. Let’s consider a neighboring text, also in the Servant Songs of Isaiah, that throws some light on the question.

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NIV)

The Servant of the Lord

49 Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
    and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—
    he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
    and gather Israel to himself,
for I am[a] honored in the eyes of the Lord
    and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

As in Isaiah 53, we find the Servant here. In v.3 we finally see the Servant identified: the servant is named “Israel.” There it is – it can’t be more obvious. The Servant is Israel. So much then for the traditional Christian reading. But wait! Consider the Servant’s vocation in v.5. Here we see that the first part of the Servant’s job is to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, to “gather Israel to himself.” So here the Servant is something other than Israel who will save Israel (and, in v. 6, all the rest of us as well). Once we consider this whole context then, the Servant is Israel  and just as clearly, the Servant is more than Israel.

How can this work?

I’ve already suggested that prophecy is capable of multiple forms of fulfillment. That’s one thing happening here. There’s another. Jesus – the Servant – came not merely as the embodiment of Israel’s God, the God who created the whole universe (the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation), but also as the embodiment of Israel. Where Israel had failed in its mission, Jesus would take up that mission and save Israel and fulfill the mission in the course of his life, death, and resurrection. If we want to understand Jesus biblically, we need to understand him (and the scriptures that tell of him) in the context of Israel. Jesus was not out to start a new religion (which we have come to call Christianity); Jesus came instead as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, his chosen people. Now we, the people of Jesus, join that same story, and become part of God’s project of bringing healing, life, and salvation to all of creation.

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Book Review: Greek for Everyone

9780801018916I just finished reading A. Chadwick Thornhill’s, Greek for Everyone: Introductory Greek for Bible Study and Application published by Baker Books (Note: My copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher for purposes of review.)

I minored in Greek back in my undergraduate days. My seminary required study of Greek, so I added a couple more courses in New Testament exegesis then. All that was many years ago, however, and my Greek has grown rusty. I thought this book would be a good review for me and be worth considering to share with serious Bible students in my church. I was not disappointed.

First some comments on the content. Thornhill takes the reader from an introduction to the Greek language – what the letters and sounds are – through a comprehensive overview of the grammar. The material is up to date – more than what I had been taught 30 years ago – so in spite of my extensive courses on the subject, I found myself learning quite a bit.

Second, Thornhill structures the book so there are examples throughout. Each grammatical feature is amply and simply illustrated with brief excerpts (verses and partial verses) from the actual New Testament text. The organization of the book as a whole and of each chapter in particular is clear and easy to follow.

Third, each chapter gives some vocabulary and brief exercises for the student. These are by no means extensive enough to constitute a whole course in Greek, but they suffice for the introductory work this is intended to be.

Fourth, as the author brings everything together in the final chapter, I appreciate his wisdom and helpful suggestions. I’ll mention two. First, Thornhill is emphatic that biblical interpretation is a communal activity. As I teach my own students, he insists that we’re more likely to get the Bible wrong when we read it alone, in isolation from other readers. Second, there is an emphasis on epistemic humility. Thornhill hammers home the fallibility of readers. Because we can be wrong, and often are, we need to practice being open to correction.

The main weakness of this book is probably common to the genre, and more a feature of our culture than the book itself. Ordinary church folk seem desperately afraid of Greek (Shakespeare didn’t help us here). Thornhill’s book, if read carefully, will help dispel some of that fear. I’m not sure, however, that a majority will be willing to give it a chance.

There are two contexts I would be inclined to use this book. The first is the New Testament exegesis class I taught to undergraduates. That class required no knowledge of the original languages, and this would have made a nice addition to the course. Second, I would happily use it with advanced Bible students in the local church, particularly those who are or aspire to be teachers.

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Today’s Lament

A lament, in light of the signs of the times.

I lament that so many women suffer from the depredations of men who treat them as mere objects.

I lament that so many of those men cover their actions with, “This is how men are.”

I lament that so many women, given their experience and hearing those men say, “This is how men are,” have reason to believe it.

I lament that so many young men, hearing their elders say, “This is how men are,” take up that way for themselves in the hope of becoming real men.

 

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The Possibility of Market Morality

Major Nathaniel B. Davis of West Point writes recently of the need for a morality of the market similar to the way just war theory provides a morality for war. As one who believes all areas of human action benefit from and need ethical/moral reflection, I’m sympathetic with his position. I think it could use more clarification however.

Near the end of his essay he writes:

In a theoretical sense, law should approximate the normative ideal in the real world. Yet, in economic thought we have no normative ideal, no foundational morality. We have economic ideals derived from market theory, but these are not tempered by a coherent set of ethical ideals, allowing the market’s worst excesses, and resulting in many of the morally troubling outcomes produced by the economy. We need better laws and regulations, but first we must establish a foundational morality to guide their development.

My first observation is that our culture has intentionally sought out a divorce between law and morality. Morality pertains to the particular and the local. It may be that an act is immoral (according to some), but perfectly legal. Some people think abortion is the murder of an unborn child and thus immoral. In the US, however, abortion is legal. On another issue, some think it immoral to not use the pronouns someone desires, even though such refusal is still currently legal.

Similarly, some actions are moral – or at least possibly not immoral – but are illegal. This kind of relation between acts, morality, and law may be more common when judgments are made across cultures/societies. We would judge, for example, resistance to the Nazi regime and its evil actions to be fully moral, even if the law of the land (in Germany at that time) declared all resistance illegal. Seeing this gap between morality and legality is not hard for us to imagine.

Second, I wonder about his claim that “in economic thought we have no normative ideal, no foundational morality.” Whether this is true hinges on the referent of “we.” If we consider Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, we see in each tradition a history of morality that pertains to the market and its operations. Now it may be that his “we” is American Culture In General. But if this is what he means, then I don’t think his analogy to just war theory as a moral foundation holds up. It is not the case that American Culture In General adheres to just war theory. Competing theories include “Win at all costs” and “If they’re not for us, they’re against us.”

Third, again considering this “we,” I wonder who Davis is appealing to. Is he asking us as American citizens to think about a morality of the market? Or is he calling on philosophers to write studies and tomes on the subject? Or is he looking for action by the government, i.e., legislation to make it happen? I don’t think this third option is what he’s urging, though I believe it would be popular for those who are generally anti-market. My first reason for thinking this isn’t what he’s urging is that he doesn’t mention it when he easily could have done so. A second reason is that our culture is generally convinced that morality cannot be legislated.

Ont his latter idea, I part with our culture. Morality is legislated all the time. Now it may be that legislation alone cannot make people actually moral. Behavior and attitudes accompanying that behavior may be reckoned to be part of what morality is about. People can break laws. People can only grudgingly comply with laws, adhering to the letter, but not the spirit of the law.

So if he’s not calling for the legislation of a morality of the market, just what is he calling for? To which audience is he appealing? As I already mentioned, Jews, Muslims, and Christians – at the very least – already give thought to the morality of the market. Now it might be that the conclusions they (or some of them) have thus far reached are not agreeable to him. But that’s another matter.

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All Are Winnable

800px-lucas_cranach_d-c384-_-_christus_und_die_samariterin_28leipzig29One of my fundamental convictions is that everyone is winnable. “How unrealistic,” many of you would say. I’ll reluctantly agree with you. But so what? Why should I value being realistic over considering people winnable?

In John 4, we see Jesus “wasting” his time on a Samaritan woman. She wasn’t just a Samaritan woman; she also showed signs of being on the margins of Samaritan society. Surely Jesus, committed to realism as he was, would spend his time with Jews. As a man who knew his own culture, he’d also skip women altogether. Men weren’t supposed to associate with unrelated women. Much better for him to spend his time with Jewish men. At least they’d be winnable.

Surprise of surprises, Jesus wins the woman. That’s not the end of the story. By winning the woman, Jesus wins her whole town.

One of the most depressing things about contemporary political discourse is that partisans (of both parties) tend to act on the assumption that the other side isn’t winnable. They’re “stupid” or “evil” – or something like that. They’re to be mocked and derided, put in their place, rather than won over.

Too often we Christians aren’t much better. We look at various populations and mark them off as unwinnable. Consider ISIS – no, let’s not go so hard core – let’s just consider average Joe and Mary Muslimperson. Oh, they’re unwinnable, we assume, so let’s just keep our distance.

I could ask, How do we know they’re unwinnable, but let’s try another question. What is God’s attitude toward them? If what we read in the Bible is true, if the basic claims of the Christian tradition are true, if Jesus died for the sins of all , that is, what would God say about their winnability? Obviously too tough? Those pagan ancestors of ours, the ones who martyred the first generations of Christian missionaries, they were winnable, but not these folks now? I have trouble imagine God saying that.

So what do we do if we come to believe all are winnable? Here’s what I do:

  1. I assume that God calls me to love my neighbor as myself. If Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” from his parable of the Good Samaritan is taken as the standard, then the neighbor I am to love is the one who stands in need of love. Not much boundary there, is there?
  2. I have to treat people with respect. This can be tough, since respect is understood differently from culture to culture and even from individual to individual. If I’m going to treat people with respect, it means they’ll be more than objects. I’ll need to converse with them and get their feedback. If I discover that the way I am acting is perceived as non-respect rather than respect, I may have to change my ways. At the very least, I’ll have to become a better communicator with that person.
  3. I have to take things for the long haul. Some people will be won over easily and quickly. Some can take years – even a whole lifetime (or more). The weightier the matter in focus, the longer it may take. If I love people – and consider them winnable – I’ll have to take the time.
  4. I need to be part of a team. For me, the most important “thing” I want to win people to is allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom. Other things – politics, sports, cuisine – these things matter to me, but not enough to let them get in the way of the more important thing. I’m not a good enough communicator, I’m not spiritual enough, I’m not good enough – to do it all on my own. I need people on my team who share my allegiance to Jesus and seek to join in my disciple-making efforts.
  5. I final thing I need to do: I need to change. John Wesley, the chief guide of the Methodist movement, wrote of a continual need for “repentance in believers.” I can’t be happy with my current state, but need to continually submit myself to the work of the Holy Spirit. More painfully (sometimes), I need to submit myself to the work of the Holy Spirit through other people, maybe even people I don’t want to listen to.

What about you? Do you think other people are winnable? Is anyone willing to serve on the team with me?

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“If a brother sins (against you)…”

This Sunday I’ll be looking at Matthew 18, spiraling outward from v. 20. If you look at v. 15, chances are your Bible, assuming it’s a modern translation, likely has a footnote about a textual variant. What’s a textual variant, and why does it matter?

The Bibles we read today in English (or some other modern language) are not translated from the New Testament as-a-whole-document-someone-wrote-down-all-at-once. What we know as the New Testament took at least a couple of centuries to come together as a single book (as we think of books). Though Christians were early promoters of the codex format (a codex is the format we today just call a book), the earliest texts were likely in scroll format.

The writers of the New Testament books wrote their books for particular audiences. Those audiences read the texts, and as they found them valuable, made copies for wider distribution. Because of the type of materials they were made of and their heavy usage, none of the autographs (autograph is a term referring to the actual manuscripts written by the original authors) survive. As you probably suspect, this is true not only for the books of the Bible, but for just about every other ancient writing. Paper (or papyrus, it’s older form) wears out. What scholars work from today as they identify what the authors originally wrote is a collection of thousands of ancient manuscripts that witness to the text. Many of these are Bible texts themselves. Others are quotations, lectionaries, references, and translations (translation is NOT a new phenomenon when it comes to the Bible).

Most of the texts are the same from copy to copy to copy: since the texts were highly valued, great care was put into the copying and transmission process. There are differences, however, in some places, from text to text. Matthew 18:15 has one of those differences. When you’re reading your handy-dandy Greek New Testament you see what is called the “textual apparatus” at the bottom of the page when there is a textual variant:

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You can see three variants listed here in Greek. The first two are simply matters of the tense of the verb “sin.” The third option has the same verb as the first but omits the “against you.” The difference between the first and third readings are, then, “sins against you” and “sins.”

You can see that there is more in this picture than just the Greek reading. The first thing you see is that the editors of the text have given it a grade of “C.” There are four possible grades, A, B, C, and D. These range from certain to less certain. In this case the C grade means that they are relatively uncertain that they’ve made the correct choice in identifying “sins against you” as the original reading.

Why are they uncertain? Well, look at what follows each of the bits of Greek. You see a list of letters, some in English, some in Greek, and, on the third, one in Hebrew, some numbers, and some names. To keep things simple (some of you may be wondering if any talk of textual criticism like this can be called simple!), the greatest number of ancient witnesses attests to the longer reading, “sins against you.” The oldest witnesses, however, (in this case Codices Aleph [Siniaticus] and B [Vaticanus]) have the shorter reading. Having the most witnesses counts for something, but so does having the oldest, since those are closest in time to the originals. An additional reason for the editors to choose the final reading is that it is shorter, on the assumption that texts usually (that’s a troublesome word, isn’t it?) get longer over time rather than shorter.

Now, I’m not only not a trained textual critic, but I’m also not a Bible scholar. My specialization is in philosophy and theology. For that reason, I’m mostly going through this to let you know what’s going on. In Sunday’s message I’ll not deal with these details. I may, however, briefly explore the consequences either way. My own analysis leans to the third (and shorter) reading. It’s the harder reading, of course. We all have heard that we’re supposed to forgive people when they sin against us. That’s even the clear message of the parable with which Jesus ends the chapter (one reason to stand against my analysis). But the broader message, that we’re supposed to seek the reconciliation of sinners, even when the sin of those sinners is not against us, is also clearly witnessed in the Bible, even if it is frequently ignored.

On Sunday we’ll glance at both options. See you then!

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The Moving Preacher

Anyone who has heard me preach knows that I usually don’t stand still. Sometimes I get comments on my constant movement. Some people like it, others not.

I have two reasons for moving, the first isn’t really under my control while the second is a chosen strategy.

In the first place, I am not very good at being still. Since childhood I’ve been a fidgeter. If I can’t move one part of my body, I’ll move another. This may be connected to my normally short attention span, though I’m not sure. When I’m preaching (or teaching, or doing much of anything) movement is normal.

Secondly, however, I chose movement as a strategy. When I communicate with an audience of more than, say, 5-8, I want every individual to feel like I am communicating directly to them. An important aspect of this is moving my attention around and looking each person in the face during the process. Obviously, I can’t literally do this once I get more than 20-30 people in the audience, but movement allows me to get much closer than if I just stood in one place – especially if that one place is rooted in the pulpit.

Once upon a time we could depend on people coming to church feeling a duty to listen to the preacher. That time is long past. Sure, some will come and feel such a duty, but for many listening to a preacher (drone on and on) is viewed as a chore. For this reason, I take it as my duty to earn my hearers’ attention every time I speak. I work hard to gain and keep their attention, and movement is one way I do this.

Why worry about attention? I take the preaching of the gospel – the good news that Jesus is God incarnate, come into the world to proclaim the kingdom of God, crucified for the sins of the world (including my own!), raised from the dead, and now Lord of all – very seriously. I don’t want anyone to miss out just because my way of presenting the gospel is boring or fails to grab their attention.

Part of me knows I can’t reach everyone, not even everyone who makes the effort to show up Sunday morning. But as long as they make that much effort (or someone else makes that much effort to haul them in), I’m going to do what I can to connect with them. They – and the gospel of Jesus – are too important to do otherwise.

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