Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Isaiah 7: The Immanuel Prophecy in Context

Alright, quick ... to whom do the following Bible lines refer?

"Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel ['God is with us']." 

Did you say Jesus?  Oh great!  You were listening in Sunday school!  Gold star!  Problem is ...

You're wrong.

And you thought Sunday school would never lie, didn't you?  Don't worry.  It's still great for all sorts of other things--like matchstick-cross craft projects and learning the words to "Jesus Loves Me."  

And you're not totally wrong--I got carried away.  (I really did love Sunday school.)  If you said that "Immanuel" is Jesus, you've got at least one really important ally: the author of Matthew, who absolutely agrees with you.  Problem is ... he's wrong too.

I'm dropping bombs today.  You should definitely read past the jump ...

So let me explain some things while I'm rocking your world.  Daddy's gonna try to make this nice and easy for you. 

Some of you are probably familiar with Matthew 1, in which the evangelist claims that the Immanuel prophecy cited above is fulfilled by Jesus.  That prophecy comes from the book of Isaiah, and Matthew's claim is thoroughly predictable, because he's always trying to prove that Jesus is the completion of Hebrew Biblical scripture.  Immediately before quoting the Isaiah line, Matthew writes that the circumstances surrounding Jesus's birth "took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet" (Matthew 1:22).  

But while centuries of recitation have had the effect of adding substance to Matthew's argument, it frankly doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, especially if you take into account ancient Israelite historical context.  So for all of you who don't want any divided-kingdom history this morning, I'll see you next week, when I discuss Biblical allusions in the new Katy Perry single, "Sexxxy Gurlz of Summer Toun."  But for those of you who want a little lesson, read on. 

Most scholars believe that Matthew cites the Immanuel prophecy more than 800 years after Isaiah writes it, in the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E., during a military conflict that comes to be known as the Syro-Ephraimite War.  This was essentially an instance of civil strife, during which Israel's northern territory--here known simply as Ephraim--teams up with the Syrians to attack the southern kingdom of Judah.

Why?  Well in Isaiah's time, the big imperial power on the block was Assyria, and as Assyria grew in strength, the nations on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean were shaking in their booties--or thong sandals, or whatever.  (So I don't know divided-kingdom footwear.  Sue me.  And then just try to find  You'll be back.)

So as Assyria blows up, the kings of Ephraim and Syria (Pekah and Rezin, respectively) get an idea: they'll band together and try a pre-emptive strike.  And they'll ask Judah's king Ahaz for help. But there's a little problem: Ahaz isn't buying.  So what do Ephraim and Syria do?  In a huge strategic blunder that more or less secures Ephraim's eventual destruction, they attack Judah. 

And here's where Ahaz is forced to make a deal with the devil.  Fearing the total annihilation of the Southern Kingdom, Ahaz enlists Assyria's help in repelling the Syro-Ephraimite forces.  His gambit succeeds, but at a high cost: Judah essentially becomes an Assyrian colony.  (Assyria will wipe the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim/Israel off the map just a few years later, in 722 B.C.E.)

It is this dire politico-military situation into which Isaiah--a Judean--is dropped as prophet.  His task?  To assure Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite War will not mean the end of Judah.  Obviously, doing so is no small task.  The wolves are totally at the door, and Ahaz is losing hope quickly.  Thus, Isaiah's first efforts to comfort the faltering king come to naught.  

So God and Isaiah must resort to drastic measures.  Says the Lord, through Isaiah, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (7:11).  But Ahaz refuses.  He will not, good Jew that he is, put the Lord to the test. So God pushes through a sign on his own: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (7:14).

So in context, this son Immanuel (which means "God is with us") likely isn't Jesus.  He can't be some far-off savior, set to arrive nearly a millennium later.  He is a sign Ahaz needs right now, STAT.  So does he come?

Well, yes.  Probably.

Many scholars believe that "Immanuel" is actually a son of Isaiah himself.  You see, God has a habit of sending prophetic signs through Isaiah's wife's birth canal.  She's a lucky one, isn't she?  Isaiah's eldest is named Shear-jashub, which in Hebrew means "A remnant shall return"--a hopeful name through which God promises that Israelite exiles may come back to the holy land.  And in Isaiah 8, Isaiah has another son, and God commands that the boy be named Maher-shalal-hashbaz.  This extremely cumbersome name means "The spoil speeds, the prey hastens," and the text promises that "before the child knows how to call 'My father' or 'My mother', the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria" (8:4). (Damascus is the capital of Syria, and Samaria is yet another name for Ephraim/Israel.)

So Immanuel is probably a third son, whose name promises divine comfort in a time of severe trial--comfrot that will arrive with the defeat of Syria and Ephraim.  (The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible note an alternate tradition, by which "Immanuel" is Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz born around this time.)

So frankly, Matthew is stretching--hard--when he claims that Isaiah is talking about Jesus.  So where does he get off?  And how does his long-shot interpretation take hold?  Well, most believe that he takes advantage of the shifty ambiguity of that phrase, "the young woman," and gets extra help from a secret cabal of third-century B.C.E. Alexandrian Jews.  Intrigued?  Me too.  But this is a long post, and you've gotta get back to filing DRM reports.

Let's just call this one a cliffhanger. I'll get to it later, I promise.


  1. Thank you for this insightful article on "immanuel".

  2. There is one problem with this article, and that's the fact that Hezekiah was already born when the prophesy was given. He would've been about 9 years old. King Ahaz was 20 years old when he first reigned as king, and then he died when he was 36. When King Hezekiah took over, he was already 25 years old. King Ahaz would've been about 11 years old when he had Hezekiah, so Hezekiah couldn't have been this unborn child of prophesy if he was already around.

  3. Indeed this prophecy is not it unsealed. This prophecy is for the end of age. It can only be open by two signs or Isaiahs non biological sons which are the two servants of God. And is only for the house of Judah not humanity because the signs are only given to the house of David. The birth of the child is actually a coronation/blessing as a result of these two signs. These two servants of God are the two olive trees.

  4. This is the first post read on this blog so I'm not sure if you address this: what does Matthew being wrong mean for the Bible as a whole. If the Bible is wrong about one thing, why isn't it wrong about other things?

    Is the virgin birth even essential to Christianity? I don't think so because neither Jesus or Paul ever mention it as evidence of deity. What do you think?

  5. The question is not whether the virgin birth is essential to Christianity: The question should be how Matthew came to this conclusion. If wrong, the anonymous author of Matthew could not have been inspired by the Holy Spirit when he wrote of the virgin birth, which should bring everything else he said into question.


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