Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"A Virgin Shall Conceive": The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent


This weekend, as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary readings have us focus on Jesus' virgin birth. Much could be said about the readings for this Sunday, but here I want to especially look at this theme (as it seems to be the intention of the lectionary).

Why is the Virgin Birth important? Is it simply the result of a mistranslation? What is the point of this Christian belief? Why is this belief so important that it appears in the Creed? Is it relevant today?

For the answers to these questions, read on. . .

FIRST READING: Isaiah 7:10-14
The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
To really understand this reading we need to look at it within the larger context of the book of Isaiah. 

The Emmanuel Prophecy in Context

The time frame of the Emmanuel prophecy in Isaiah is clear: it is dated to about five years after [Isaiah's] prophetic commission”[1], i.e., 735 B.C.

The historical context is also clear; the prophecy occurs during the midst of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis. Specifically, the Northern Kingdom of Israel (which by this point had broken away from the Davidic Kingdom in Judea) had aligned itself with Syria to stave off the threat of the Assyrian Empire. Syria and Israel had tried to recruit the Kingdom of Judah into their alliance but King Ahaz had refused. This led to the former two powers to invade the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1). Their hopes, however, to replace Ahaz with a puppet king (cf. Isa. 7:6: the "son of Tabeel") failed.

The Lord had sent Isaiah to assure Ahaz of his protection of his people. The prophet warned the king that he must trust in the Lord: "if you will not believe, surely you shall not be established" (Isa 7:9).

The location of Isaiah's confrontation with the king is notable for reasons that will become evident later. Specifically, we read that he met him,  “. . . at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field” (Isa 7:3).

King Ahaz Refuses to Ask for a Sign

The prophet tells Ahaz that he is to "ask for a sign (’oth)", implying that he should ask for some sort of miraculous sign or portent--which is the way the term seems to be used in Isaiah (cf. Isa. 37:30; 38:7).[2]

However, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign as the Lord has commanded him, responding with what seems like false humility: "I will not tempt the Lord!" The reason he refuses is that Ahaz has already decided to try to form an alliance with Assyria (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:7-8).

I love the humor in Isaiah's response, which is dripping in sarcasm: "Is it not enough that you weary people that you must also weary my God?" 

In other words, "Is it not enough that you frustrate the living-daylights out of other human beings who all hate you? Is your problem that human frustration with you is not enough? Is that why you are trying to anger God too?"

"Young Woman" or "Virgin"?

The sign promised by the Lord--a woman will conceive and bear a child--is the subject of a famous debate. The New American Bible tells us that the sign will involve a "virgin"; the RSV has "young woman". 

The Hebrew word ’almah, is literally a “young woman”. Interestingly, the term is "actually almost always used to designate the unmarried daughter".[3] It is not inconceivable (pardon the pun) therefore that the term is being used to describe a "virgin". 

The problem, however, is that there is actually another Hebrew term that specifically means "virgin" (bethulah). Isaiah could have used this term but, for some reason, chose not to. If he meant to tell us about a virgin, why the ambiguous language?  

Further complicating matters is the fact that the Greek version of the Old Testament does translate the Hebrew with a term meaning "virgin" (parthenos). Yet here things get even more tricky: whether it always necessarily had that narrow meaning is disputed; in some sources it is used for women who are not totally sexually inexperienced (cf. LSJ, TDNT). By the first century, the term seems to have taken on the more strict meaning.

Either way, when Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the birth of Christ he, of course, cites this Greek translation and applies it directly to Mary, who is clearly a virgin. 

This has led some to suggest that the whole belief about a virgin birth is based upon a a mistranslation of the Hebrew. 

As I shall explain below, this is a oversimplification. 

The Isaiah Prophecy in Context

Though it is not given in our lectionary reading this Sunday, it is important to look at the rest of the prophecy. Isaiah's oracle goes on to state that the child "will eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good" (Isa. 7:15). 

What this language points to exactly is unclear. Such food was associated with abundance and even, in ancient Near Eastern contexts, the gods. However, its appearance in Isaiah 7 does not seem to be entirely positive. It most likely points to the idea that the son will grow up in a time of desolation--likely the result of the the wicked decisions made by Ahaz.

Rikki Watts makes the suggestion that the child's eating of such food is the result of superabundance of food in the wake of devastation: "The child might eat the food of the gods but only, ironically, as the aftermath of God's judgment."[4] This seems right to me. 

In fact, the rest of the prophecy doesn't paint a happy portrait. It describes the destruction that will be wrought at the hands of the Assyrians.

The point, however, is that God will not abandon his people. A child will be born and he will make good decisions; unlike Ahaz he will choose the good. Read in light of the larger "Book of Immanuel", Isaiah 7-12, it seems that the prophecy is in a way pointing out that the house of David--despite Ahaz's best (worst?) efforts--will not come to a complete end. Support for this evidence will be given further below.

In sum, the prophecy makes clear that Ahaz's people have no need to fear their enemies; God will take care of them. God will act to save his people and bring judgment on the wicked. 

Who is the Woman/Virgin and Her Child?

Of course, back to the complex issue of identifying the woman and the child. One point that often gets lost in the debate: Technically, Isaiah's prophecy concerns not "a woman/virgin" but "the young woman (ha’almah) / virgin (hē parthenos). The specificity of the oracle should not be overlooked. 

All of this leads to the question: Who is the woman and the child? To say identifying these figures is a thorny question is to put it mildly. The literature on this question is voluminous and numerous proposals have been made.[5] I can't possibly do justice to this issue here. Still, we cannot possibly interpret this prophecy without addressing the question.

The following is a survey of the options:

1. An unknown Davidic king. The major problem with this view is that this prophecy's specificity doesn't seem to lend itself to such an otherwise insignificant figure.

2. Isaiah’s wife and son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz. This view also has problems. 
If the “prophetess” is not Isaiah’s wife, it would seem to imply that he himself is unfaithful. Also, if the “prophetess” is Isaiah’s wife, she would already have a son and would seem an unlikely candidate for the figure described: ha’almah. Indeed, while some have made the case that the Hebrew clearly indicates that the woman is already pregnant, the linguistic evidence is not actually decisive. The language of ha’almah would at least seem, in general, to refer to a sexually inexperienced woman.[6] 

3. Ahaz’s wife and son, King Hezekiah. This view actually has a lot more going for it than the above options in my view.
  • Within context, the language of Isaiah 7 points to a story about Hezekiah later in the book.[9] As we have seen, the location of the prophecy given to Ahaz is quite specific: “. . . at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field” (Isa 7:3). Notably, in Isa 36:1–2, this is precisely where we find Hezekiah:
"In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 2 And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field."  
Furthermore, we can point out that Isaiah 7 speaks of the future defeat of Assyria. This is actually witnessed by Hezekiah in the narrative that begins here.  
Moreover, Isa 38:7–8 links similar language found in Isaiah 7 to Hezekiah, specifically recalling Ahaz! We read, “This is the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: 8 Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.”   
Within Isaiah, then, Hezekiah is closely linked to the oracle of Isaiah 7.
  • Hezekiah is spoken of in terms of Emmanuel language ("God is with us") in 2 Kings. Of Hezekiah we read: “The LORD was with him” (2 Kgs 18:7) 
  • Some manuscripts of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls translate this verse: “you [Ahaz] will give” his name, implying it would seem that the child is likely Ahaz’s son.[7] 
  • Given the points above, it is not surprising that Hezekiah is identified with the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 by later rabbinic tradition (Exod. Rab. 18:5; Num. Rab. 14:2)[8] We read in the Babylonian Talmud: 'Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end' (Isa. 9:7). . . [T]he Holy, blessed be He, considered the possibility of making Hezekiah Messiah” (b. Sanh. 94a). 
  • Likewise, contemporary scholars link Isaiah 7 to the Hezekiah narratives at the end of the Isaiah 1-39.[9] 
Again, though, we need to highlight the larger point of the Isaiah prophecy, which seems to be that, despite Ahaz's wickedness and despite the devastation the Assyrians will bring, the house of David will stand firm. The wicked will be judged. God will be present to his people. 

Yet, as we shall see, there are reasons to think the prophecy was seen as pointing beyond itself.

We shall look at the implications of all this as we examine the Gospel below.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps. 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6

The Responsorial Psalm highlights the "glory of the Lord" who is identified as the "savior". 
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
As we shall see below, the Virgin Birth is closely linked with the divinity of Christ in Christian tradition. In the incarnation we have the one who comes to show us "the face of the God of Jacob". We shall return to this theme below. 

SECOND READING: Romans 1:1-7

Although we could say much more about it, there are essentially four major points I want to highlight from the second reading.

First, Paul describes how he has been set apart for "the gospel of God," which he tells us was already promised through the Old Testament prophets:
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. . . 
One immediately thinks here of the book of Isaiah, which frequently uses the term "good tidings"="good news", essentially, "Gospel" (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1).

Second, the gospel is about God's Son, who is son of David "according to the flesh":
. . . the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
For Paul, the Messiah, is "Son of God". The link between Jesus' role as "son of God" and "son of David" is not surprising. As is well known, the son of David was frequently described as "son of God" (e.g., 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:27; 2Q252 V, 3–4; 4Q174 I 1:21:2; 1Q28a 2:11–12 and 4Q369). [14].

However, Paul seems quick to point on that Jesus' status as "Son of God" is something that transcends the sonship of the Son of David; Jesus has been established as "Son of God in power". In sum, Jesus' sonship transcends the sonship of the kings of the Old Testament.

Paul also links Christ's divine sonship to his resurrection. The eschatological age has arrived in Christ! What Isaiah ultimately announced is reality. 

Third, believers have received a special calling: they are to "belong to Jesus Christ", something which is linked to a call to become "holy".
Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.
The eschatological age has come and this means the ushering in of the "obedience of faith". What Ahaz lacked is now available in Christ.

Finally, believers in Christ are identified with divine sonship as well:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In sum, the Gospel, which was promised in the Old Testament concerns the Messiah, who is not only Son of David, he is Son of God in a unique way. However, this divine sonship is something that also is shared with believers who "belong" to Christ. It seems that as Christ has been established as the Son of God in power, believers receive something akin to this as well.

THE GOSPEL: Matthew 1:18-24

At the outset of Matthew's Gospel we find the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus. It is first implicitly affirmed at the end of the genealogy that opens Matthew's Gospel: Joseph is described as "the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (Matt 1:16).

The close reader of the Gospel will therefore be led to ask: If Joseph is not the father of Jesus, whose son is he? That's the point of our Gospel reading, which follows the genealogy.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.” 
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
Of course, from ancient times people have been suspicious about this claim. Was Jesus really the product of a virginal conception or was the story of the virginal conception the result of something else? 

Some have argued that the story emerged out of the "mistranslation" of Isaiah 7:14. Some Christians, it is said, saw it as a passage that suggested the Messiah would be born from a "virgin" and therefore concluded that this must have been what happened to Jesus.

The problem with this view is, as mentioned above, ancient Jews did not apparently see this prophecy as necessarily describing a "virgin" birth. It seems it was associated, in some way, with Hezekiah (not the product of a virgin birth). Moreover, the term for virgin, parthenos, may not have always been used with the simple strict meaning "virgin". 

Others suggest that the story of the Virgin Birth has a more scandalous origin. Some have suggested that Mary had a child out of wed-lock and that this story was invented as a "cover". Yet this seems to incredibly fanciful. For one thing, scandal was at the very heart of the Christian message. Jesus was remembered for eating and drinking with public sinners. Even worse, at the center of the Gospel is the scandal of the cross! What would be gained by explaining away a scandal regarding Jesus' conception? In other words, I'm not sure it is convincing to conclude that the early Christians made up what must have seemed like a far-fetched story to explain away what might have been seen as a scandal.

Here I think R.T. France is right. I will quote him in full.  
It is sometimes suggested that it was the text of Isa 7:14 which gave rise to the idea of a virgin conception... in Matthew 1:22-23, with its use of the LXX term parthenos, "virgin", this might seem more plausible, but two factors urge caution. The first is the fact that Isa 7:14 is set in a passage which speaks of events in the immediate future of the prophet's own time, so that this text does not immediately suggest itself as a basis for interpreting the birth of a Messiah more than seven centuries later. The second is that Matthew is not slavishly tied to the Greek text of the LXX, especially in his formula-quotations, and is clearly aware of other textual traditions, so that it is unlikely that he would be unaware that while the LXX term means "virgin", Isaiah's Hebrew word 'almah, even though not the usual term for a child-bearing woman, does not in itself demand the sense "virgin" (for which the normal Hebrew term would be bethulah). Isa 7:14 was not therefore in itself an obvious text to bring into an account of the origin of the Messiah. It was only when a tradition of a virgin conception was already established that its relevance, especially in its LXX form, would be readily perceived. [15].
I might here also highlight the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 
People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark’s Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus’ virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history. To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery, or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike [cf. Cf. St. Justin, Dial., 99, 7: PG 6, 708–709; Origen, Contra Celsum 1, 32, 69: PG 11, 720–721; et al.]; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the “connection of these mysteries with one another”[Dei Filius 4] in the totality of Christ’s mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover. St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection: “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence” [St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Eph. 19, 1: AF II/2, 76–80; SCh 10, 88; cf. 1 Cor 2:8.] (CCC 498)
Matthew's Christological Reading of Isaiah

Matthew's Gospel, of course, provides us with another referent for the prophecy of Isaiah 7: Mary and Jesus. 

In support of a Christological reading, the fathers made this observation: if a “virgin” is not in view, there doesn't seem to be much of "sign" involved.[16] As mentioned above, the word "sign" elsewhere in Isaiah seems to carry the connotation of something miraculous. They would argue, "A young woman shall conceive" is not really much of a miraculous sign or portent; it's sort of "dog bites man". This line of thinking is also taken up in Thomas Aquinas' Commentary on Isaiah as well (cf. at Isaiah 7:14). 

Hezekiah as a Model for the Messiah

So is the child to be born in Isaiah 7 to be understood as Hezekiah or Jesus?

According to the fathers of the Church, the answer might be: "both". In context, the prophecy in Isaiah 7 seems related to the prophecy of the messianic figures in Isaiah 9 and 11, prophecies Isaiah's book ultimately leave unfulfilled. And despite the fact that the book does link Isaiah 7 to the Hezekiah narratives through intertextual echoes, Hezekiah ultimately does not usher in the eschatological age.  

Isaiah 1-39 contains many prophecies that are fulfilled within the narrative of the book. For example, the promise of the coming invasion of the Assyrian army and their destruction is both announced (Isa 8:7-8 and Isa. 14:24-26) and realized; the defeat of the Assyrians is described later (cf. Isa. 37:36-38; Isaiah 37:26). 

Yet, and this seems hugely significant, there are also many unfulfilled prophecies in Isaiah 1-39:
  • The promise of universal restoration at Zion (cf. Isa. 2:2-3)
  • Universal peace under a Davidic king (cf. Isa. 11:1-2, 5-6, 14-16)
Long story short, partial fulfillment implies partial non-fulfillment. Hezekiah may have been an important figure but the canonical book of Isaiah does not suggest that all the promises were fulfilled in him. 

Not surprisingly, then, later rabbinic interpreters saw Hezekiah as a type of the coming Messiah. As Laato writes, “The problem of Hezekiah’s Messianic nature seems to have been solved in the Rabbinic literature by regarding him as a kind of model for the coming Messiah.”[17]

Of course, one might ask: If the child can be seen as the Messiah, how is the birth of Immanuel a sign seen by Ahaz?[18] Patristic writers dealt with this by pointing out something that is often overlooked: technically speaking, the sign is said to be given to "the house of David". It seems possible then that the prophecy has a multifaceted purpose, definitely pointing to Hezekiah but, in addition, open to something beyond him. From the perspective of New Testament faith, then, the fathers might say that inspiration leads us to carefully consider what was said and what was not in Isaiah 7. The prophecy lends itself to further fulfillment--ultimate fulfillment.
Borrowing from Benedict XVI, we might speak of a "transcendent" fulfillment. 

Indeed, in the final form of the book, Isaiah 40-66 points ahead to some future restoration of Zion in a way that would involve nothing less than a "new heavens" and a "new earth" (Isa 66:22). 

From a purely historical-critical view, then, the Christological dimension of this prophecy is not immediately clear. However, in the light of faith, we might see what the fathers saw. Invoking the concept of theōria (“to see”), some fathers, particularly those in the Antiochene school of interpretation, looked for the deeper meaning in the historical/literal reading of the Old Testament. Certainly the prophecy of Isaiah 7 had relevance in Hezekiah's day; however, it could also be seen as pointing beyond itself.

That Matthew highlights other passages with other referents should also be mentioned; for example, the slaughter of the innocents is said to be prefigured in the Assyrian conquest [19].

Ratzinger, thus, after pointing out the difficulties of interpreting Isaiah 7 in its original context, describes it as a "word in waiting": "I believe that in our own day, after all the efforts of critical exegesis, we can share anew this sense of astonishment at the fact that a saying from the year 733 b.c., incomprehensible for so long, came true at the moment of the conception of Jesus Christ--that God did indeed give us a great sign." [20].

Why the Virgin Birth?

But why make such a big deal about the virgin birth? Isn't it a little irrelevant? Why does it feature so prominently in the Church's pre-Christmas reflection? 

Indeed, the Virgin Birth has been under a bit of discussion in the blogosphere of late. My Protestant friend Mike Bird tackles the issue in his best-selling Evangelical Theology. Mike's treatment was highlighted on Scot McKnight's heavily trafficked website. McKnight is another Protestant who has also written about the doctrine.

Humorously, Mike says that the doctrine is not "one of my top five doctrines" (374). I'm not sure what my top five would be; I'm not even sure if having such a personal hierarchy is really advisable. Certainly, though, Mike's comment is rhetorically effective at minimizing the dogma's significance. After all, it puts one in an awkward position; what kind of person would want to be perceived as "pre-occuppied" with something related to such a private biological event?

The problem is, as Mike makes clear in his own treatment, the virgin birth is about more than mere genetics. The virgin birth highlights Jesus' utterly unique divine sonship: he is "the only son of the Father"--meaning, ontologically, that Jesus shares the divine nature. 

Jesus is fully human (born of a woman) but he is also fully God, and that is what the virgin birth highlights (cf. Bird, Evangelical Theology, 374-75).  

Mary's virginal status is therefore affirmed for Christological emphasis. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, "What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ" (no. 487).

Moreover, it highlights the transcendence of God. Unlike the gods of pagan mythology, God the Father does not beget children through sexual intercourse with a woman. This is NOT to say that this is because sexual intercourse is somehow dirty or sinful. Such conclusions from the doctrine are crass and uninformed. In fact, in Catholic tradition both the virgin birth is affirmed and marriage is understood to be one of the seven sacraments. 

Rather, the doctrine highlights the "otherness" and the almighty power of God. The Incarnation is not accountable on human grounds alone; from the beginning, his coming is miraculous--prefiguring what comes at the end of the Gospel story as well, the resurrection. The doctrine as relevant today as it was in the first century; the temptation to make God fit into boxes we have made for as just as real now as it ever was.  

Human reason and historical research cannot prove it. But here is where we find the point of departure for faith. We are called to accept that beyond the material and earthly there is mystery; it is not irrational but super-rational (to borrow from Matthias Scheeben).[21] 

And this mystery involves what Isaiah had predicted: God is coming as Savior. 

Isaiah 7:14, Judgment and Matthew's Gospel

We might also, agreeing with Rikki Watts, point out that Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 serves as a kind of double-edged sword: God will save his people but the wicked will face judgment. 

Note the original invitation to Ahaz: "“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

I think Watts is on to something when he writes, "Without wanting to make too much of this, I find it interesting that a sign as high as the heaven is precisely what the Magi, Herod, and all Jerusalem are given (Matt 2:2, 7, 9-10).[22] 

Jesus' coming brings redemption for those who accept him. Those who do not, however, will find themselves facing judgment. In fact, the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew seems deliberately tied to the ruling class' rejection of Jesus.

And so, as with Isaiah 7, the announcement of Jesus' birth represents a defining moment. Will we believe that God has acted and prepare ourselves for his coming or face the consequences of disbelief?

Finally, reading the Gospel reading through the second reading we might ask another question: if grace is given to those who "belong to Christ" we might approach the Lord for that gift, fully confident that he wants to thereby become our Father.

This Sunday let us prepare our hearts to receive the Son so that we can become sons in him. 


NOTES
[1] See Robert B. Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 28.
 
[2]  See Exod 4:8–9; Deut 13:2–5; 2 Kgs 20:8–11; Isa 38:7.

[3] See Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12 (Continental Commentary; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), 308. The term is used of Rebekah (Gen 24:16, 43), Miriam (Exod 2:8), and in the plural several times (Song 1:3; 6:8; Ps 46:1; 68:26; 1 Chr 15:20). Wildberger says, "Only in Prov. 30:19* could the term be understood to include the idea that this is a married woman (cf. also עֶלֶם, youth, in 1 Sam. 20:22)" (p. 308). 

[4] See Rikki Watts, "Immanuel: Virgin Birth Proof Text of Programmatic Warning of Things to Come (Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23)" in From Prophecy to Testament: The Function of the Old Testament in the New (ed. C. A. Evans; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 99. See also Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12, 314, who makes the case that the food is suggestive of the messianic / eschatological age, highlighting Joel 4:18, Amos 9:13, Deuteronomy 32:13 and numerous other passages other ancient literature. The problem is tthe negative use of the same language in 7:21-22. See Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC; Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 214. 


[5] For discussion of options with further bibliography, see Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, 33–34; J. Lust, "The Immanuel Figure: A Charismatic Judge-Leader," ETL 47 (1971): 464-70.  

[6] Raymond Brown, Birth of the Messiah (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 148, who points out: "If we compare two OT scenes where this grammatical construction is used in a birth announcement to women, in Gen 16:11 the woman (Hagar) is already pregnant, while in Judg 13:3, 5, 7 the woman (mother of Samson) becomes pregnant afterwards."

[7] See Antti Laato, A Star is Rising: The Historical Development of the Old Testament Royal Ideology and the Rise of the Jewish Messianic Expectations (University of South Florida, International Studies in Formative Christianity and Judaism; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 122–23.

[8] See also Justin Martyr, who says that this was the teaching of the Jews (Dialogue with Trypho 43; see also chapters 68, 71, and 77). He also states that Psalm 110:1 and 24:7 were also applied to Hezekiah in chapters 83 and 85. In terms of a contemporary

[9] For a fuller discussion see Edgar Conrad, Reading Isaiah (Overtures in Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 38–39.

[12] That the prophecy refers to Christ is also affirmed by Jerome, Augustine, Bede, and many others. Bede writes, “The Savior’s name, because of which he is called ‘God with us’ by the prophet, signifies both natures of his one person. For he who, born before time from the Father, is God himself in the fullness of time, became Emmanuel (that is, ‘God with us’) in his mother’s womb, because he deigned to take the weakness of our nature into the unity of his person when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’” (Homilies on the Gospels, 1.5; cited in McKinion, Isaiah 1–39, 64).

[14] See, for example, John Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1995), 162: “The individual most often designated as ‘the son of God’ in the Hebrew Bible is undoubtedly the Davidic king, or his eschatological counterpart.” 

[15] R.T. France, "The Birth of Jesus", in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; ed. T. Holmen and S. E. Porter; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 2381.

[16] Theophylact: “The Jews say that it is not written in the prophecy ‘virgin’ but ‘young woman.’ To which it may be answered that ‘young woman’ and ‘virgin’ mean the same thing in Scripture, for in Scripture ‘young woman’ refers to one who is still a virgin. Furthermore, if it was not a virgin that gave birth, how would it be a sign, something extraordinary? Listen to Isaiah, who says, ‘For this reason the Lord himself shall give you a sign,’ and immediately he adds, ‘Behold, the virgin.’ So if it were not a virgin that would give birth, it would not be a sign. The Jews, then, alter the text of Scripture in their malice, putting, ‘young woman’ instead of ‘virgin.’ But whether the text reads ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’ it should be understood in either case that it is a virgin who will give birth so that the event may be a miraculous sign’” (Explanation of Matthew 23; cited from Steven A. McKinion, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, v. 10: Isaiah 1–39 [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004], 61). See also Chrysostom: “Were she not to be a virgin, the birth would not have been a sign. . . It is called a ‘sign’ because it is significant. Were the birth to be like normal births, it would not have been significant. If the prophecy is about a woman giving birth in the normal manner, like what happens every day, then why call it a sign?” (Commentary on Isaiah 7.5; cited in McKinion, Isaiah 1–39, 64.) 

[17] See Laato, A Star is Rising, 122–25. 

[18] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 36; F. L. Moriarty, “The Emmanuel Prophecies,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 19 (1957): 232 [226–33]. 

[19] See Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, 34: “This is not the only passage in which Matthew draws an analogy between events surrounding the birth of Jesus and events from Israel’s history referred to in the prophets. The linking of these passages by analogy is termed ‘fulfilment’. In 2:15, God calls Jesus, his perfect Son, out of Egypt, just as he did his son Israel in the days of Moses, a historical event referred to in Hos 11:1. . . Matthew 2:18 views Herod’s slaughter of the infants as another instance of the oppressive treatment of God’s people by cruel tyrants. Herod’s actions are analogous to those of the Assyrians, who deported the Israelites, causing the personified land to lament as inconsolably as a mother robbed of her little ones (Jer. 31.15). Neither of the prophetic texts in their original context to the events of Jesus’ time, but from Matthew’s perspective these episodes in Israel’s history foreshadowed those of Jesus’ time.”

[20] Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 50-51.

[21] The language here is indebted to Matthias Joseph Scheeben's stunningly good introduction to his magnum opus, Mysteries of Christianity (trans. C. Vollert; St. Louis: B. Herder Book, Co., 1946 [1865/1888]). Scheeben writes, "Christian mystery is a truth communicated to us by Christian revelation, a truth to which we cannot attain by our unaided reason, and which, even after we have attained to it by faith, we cannot adequately represent with our rational concepts" (13).

Going on he writes in his characteristic poetic prose,
“And when, supported by the all powerful word of divine revelation, we soar upon the wings of faith over the chasm dividing us from them and mount up to them, they temper themselves to our eyes in the light of faith which is supernatural, as they themselves are; then they display themselves to us in their true form, in their heavenly, divine nature. The moment we perceive the depth of the darkness with which heaven veils its mysteries from our minds, they will shine over us in the light of faith like brilliant stars mutually illuminating, supporting, and emphasizing one another; like stars that form themselves into a marvelous system and that can be known in their full power and magnificence only in this system. Lastly, the more we bring ourselves to a realization of the supernaturality in the suprarationality, and of the suprarationality in the supernaturality of these mysteries, the less will the darkness of the incomprehensibility enveloping them trouble and bewilder us. Yet we can never forget that this incomprehensibility is part of the their sublimity.” (19)      
[22] Watts, "Immanuel," 109.

5 comments:

Nick said...

In Jewish Tradition, the Emmanel prophesy has two meanings:

1) Israel and Jerusalem his mother

2) the Messiah and his mother

This is because the Messiah's mother is said to be the new Jerusalem, just as the Messiah is said to be the new Israel. In Jewish thought, Jerusalem is Israel's mother because God is Israel's Father, Who gave birth to Israel in Jerusalem.

Thomas Renz said...

My own hunch is that almah was used to refer to a sexually mature young woman prior to motherhood. In other words, almah-hood came to an end not necessarily with sexual intercourse but with motherhood. Maybe the same was true for parthenos in earlier Greek, given that Dinah is still a parthenos in Gen 34:3.

The chronology of Hezekiah's reign is notoriously difficult but short of discounting the various textual data altogether, he must have been born by 735. We cannot be sure when he was enthroned but it is unlikely to have been later than 715 and according to 2 Kings 18 he was already 25 years old by then.

If the woman was not Abi daughter of Zechariah (nor Isaiah's wife who no longer was an almah) but another woman from within the royal household, the prediction of the birth of a firstborn son (from the point of view of the mother, not necessarily the father) would be two-edged in the same way as so much else in these chapters. On the positive side, there is continuity of the line. On the negative side, there is the claim that God-with-us will be signfied by someone other than the currently reigning king or his designated successor.

This fits with the shoot in chap. 11 which grows from the line of Jesse but not in continuity with the Davidic dynasty.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the translation of 'almah', Dr. Lawrence Feingold points out in 'The Mystery of Israel and the Church', vol. I, that the word can be translated as either 'virgin' or 'young woman'. There is the other Hebrew term that specifically means virgin, but there is also another Hebrew term that specifically means young woman. So which way to translate 'almah'? Dr. Feingold points out that when God witnesses to us, He does so in a supernatural way. For Him to prophecy that a young woman shall conceive... there's nothing supernatural about that. A virginal conception, however, is miraculous, and thus, would be a fitting sign to be prophesied regarding God's power and faithfulness.

Thomas Renz said...

"See, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion." (Isaiah 8:18)

It is not true that God witnesses to us only in supernatural ways. There is no need for this sign to include anything miraculous; Isaiah's dress code wasn't either (Isaiah 20:3). In any case, the house of David is not invited to a medical examination of a pregnant woman, let alone one who herself was only going to be born 700 yars later. Still, Isaiah may have demonstrated "supernatural" insight when he pointed to a young woman, claiming that she was pregnant and would give birth to a son. No ultra-sound scan was available but a few months later the birth of this child would be a reminder of Isaiah's message.

Ruth Cassin said...

Regarding the section quoting Matthew 1:16: Isn't this a typo? Scripture calls JACOB the father of Joseph, not Joseph the father or Joseph.