Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Isaiah's Failed Prophecy


Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:14b)

The name 'Emmanuel' means 'God is with us'. This verse is understood by many Christians to be a prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 1:23) However, Isaiah did not say that a virgin would conceive. He used the Hebrew word almah which means 'young woman'.

The Jewish Study Bible (JSB) says, "... the Hebrew (almah) merely denotes a young woman of marriageable age whether married or unmarried, whether a virgin or not." The word almah does not convey a woman's sexual status. That, we do not know.

But what we do know was that Matthew did not read the Old Testament in Hebrew. Instead he quoted the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint translates almah as parthenos which means virgin. (In Athens the Parthenon is dedicated to the virgin goddess, Athena.)

Could Isaiah have meant virgin? After all, the word almah does not exclude the possibility that the woman was a virgin. And the translators of the Septuagint might have had access to knowledge that has been lost.

However, I do not consider this idea to be credible. The idea of a virgin birth is completely foreign to ancient Jewish tradition. Consider Solomon, of whom God says, "I will be his father and he will be my son." (2 Samuel 7:14) Even this 'son of God' was to be conceived from the loins of David. (2 Samuel 7:12)

In ancient Israel the idea of a virgin birth would have been considered blasphemous and sinful. It was something that pagan gods did. In Egypt, Isis was the virgin mother of Horus.

The main problem is that Matthew ripped one sentence out of context and ignored everything else. Consequently, the meaning of the Emmanuel prophecy was completely distorted. Suppose that God wanted this prophecy to apply to Jesus. Then why didn't the angel instruct Mary to name her son Emmanuel? This prophecy had nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. It had everything to do with the politics of the eighth century B.C. It is not possible to appreciate the Emmanuel prophecy unless on understands the events of the time.

The kings Saul,David, and Solomon ruled over all twelve of the Israelite tribes. But after the death of Solomon, the northern tribes rebelled and established the northern kingdom, Israel, with its capital at Samaria. The southern kingdom, Judah, continued to be ruled from Jerusalem by the descendants of David and Solomon. These two kingdoms were sometimes at war and sometimes at peace with each other. The Old Testament contains many bitter diatribes against the kings and people of Israel for their heathen practices. Some of the kings of Judah, including King Ahaz wee condemned for apostacy.

In the eighth century B.C., the nation of Assyria grew in power and threatened the smaller states in the Levant. Israel formed a defensive alliance with Syria (a.k.a. Aram) and demanded that Judah join. King Ahaz refused. Then Israel and Syria attempted to depose King Ahaz and force Judah to join the alliance. Thus:

It came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. (Isaiah 7:1)

During this crisis, King Ahaz decided to seek help from Tiglathpileser, the king of Assyria. Isaiah learned of this decision and thought it was terrible. So Isaiah went to meet King Ahaz and to persuade him to change his mind.

Isaiah believed that King Ahaz should neither seek help from Assyria, nor join the anti-Assyrian alliance. Rather, Ahaz should trust in the Lord to protect Judah. Isaiah also believed in the divine promise that the House of David would rule in Jerusalem forever. He believed that God would send foreign armies to punish the Israelites for 'whoring' after foreign gods. But in the end, a purified remnant would repent and return to God. (That is the meaning of his son's name, Shearjashub.) This remnant would save the Davidic dynasty and save Jerusalem from being conquered by a foreign power. (JSB)

Ahaz' decision triggered the Emmanuel prophecy. That prophecy was given in a meeting between Isaiah and King Ahaz. In the complete verse Isaiah 7:14, the prophet Isaiah tells King Ahaz:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, an almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.

Since the sign is addressed to King Ahaz, and since the sign was intended to influence King Ahaz, it must be completed within the king's lifetime, not hundreds of years later. It is this historical context that many Christians are ignorant of. To understand the Emmanuel prophecy, it is important to read the prochecy in Isaiah 7:

1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.
2 And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. (i.e. Israel) And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.
3 Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;
4 And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. (Isaiah 7:3-4)

In other words, King Ahaz should trust in God to save Judah from Israel and Syria.
King Ahaz is told, "Ask thee of a sign form the LORD." (Isaiah 7:11) Ahaz resists saying, "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD." (Isaiah 7:12) Now comes the prophecy.

13 And he (Isaiah) said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, an almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.
15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. (Isaiah 7:13-16)

In other words, both King Rezin and King Pekah will die when Emmanuel is young, and that threat to Judah will vanish. In any case, Isaiah did not convince King Ahaz. Later:

Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, saying, "I am thy servant and thy son: come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Syria, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, which rise up against me." (2 Kings 16:7)

Thus King Ahaz became a vassel to Assyria. This chain of events had a disastrous result. The infighting between Judah and Israel helped the Assyrians to gain the upper hand. During the reign of Ahaz' successor, Hezekiah, Assyria overran both Israel and Syria. Many of the people were deported and became the lost tribes of Israel. Later, Hezekiah rebelled against Assyria. The Assyrians retaliated by invading Judah, but they could not conquer Jerusalem.

One can only speculate what would have happened if Ahaz had followed Isaiah's advice.

There is a big mystery tha arises from Isaiah's prophecy. Exactly who was Emmanuel supposed to be? Why is there no mention in the Old Testament of anyone named Emmanuel? What did Isaiah mean? What did Ahaz think the prophecy meant?

No one knows the exact answers to these questions. But it is possible to speculate. And any speculation should be consistent with biblical tradition. Now consider on two questions. What is meant by 'a sign from God'? How would Ahaz have understood the prophecy, 'an almah will conceive'?

King Ahaz would have understood almah to mean 'a young woman', either married or unmarried. If she was pregnant, Ahaz would not have thought her a virgin. A sign from God must be beyond human power. Otherwise it will be doubted. But a pregnancy is a very ordinary human event. What would make a pregnancy into a sign from God? The Christian answer is the virgin birth of Jesus. But, as I have mentioned before, virgin birth is contrary to Jewish tradition. Thus Isaiah, an observant Jew, could not have meant virgin birth. Nor would have Ahaz accepted the idea, in spite of his pagan leanings. Nor would the name Emmanuel be a sign from God. Children were usually named by their mothers, a very human act. Nor would an ordinary pregnancy be considered a sign from God.

However, within the biblical tradition there are several births which were considered to be signs from God. Among these are the births of Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel. In these cases, a woman unable to conceive is made pregnant after years of being barren. Centuries after Isaiah, a similar birth story is recorded -- John the Baptist. In these stories the child fulfills a divine promise. A child born to a 'barren' woman is a very special child that is called to perform a divine purpose.

Thus to be consistent with Jewish tradition, I conclude that the almah of Isaiah was a woman who was married, but had been barren for several years. But she would still be a young woman. Women of that time usually married at 13 or 14 years. If a woman married at 13 had no children by age 17 or 18, she could be considered to be both an almah and barren. Thus the statement that 'an almah will conceive' makes sense. It would be understood to mean that God would 'open the womb' of the woman as he did for Abram's wife Sarai.

Now who is the woman that Isaiah is referring to? How would this impress King Ahaz? It is not likely that Ahaz would impressed by any peasant woman becoming pregnant. Nor would he be impressed by any woman made pregnant by Isaiah. To convince Ahaz, the woman must be known to him. Very likely she was an important member of the royal family, someone of personal concern to King Ahaz. Isaih does not have to identify the woman -- Ahaz knows immediately who it is.

Furthermore, to be convincing, Ahaz must first hear of this pregnancy from Isaiah. If the pregnancy was common knowledge in the court, the words of Isaiah would mean nothing to Ahaz.

How would Isaiah know of this pregnancy? We do not have to suppose that Isaiah learned this from God. Very likely, Ahaz' court was divided over the Assyrian issue. Some would support Ahaz' desire to seek an alliance with Assyria. Others were bitterly opposed. The opponents would be divided those who shought an alliance with Israel and Syria, and those who rejected any alliance. Isaiah was in this latter camp. The rejectionists would eagerly seek help from a prophet who was sympathetic to their cause -- namely Isaiah. These opponents could give Isaiah secret information about the affairs of the court.

Eventually, Isaiah received a fortuitous piece of information, that a certain barren woman had become pregnant. Perhaps Isaiah told his informants to keep this news a secret. Perhaps Isaiah selected the name Emmanuel -- God is with us. The name Emmanuel is so symbolic of Isaiah's thinking that I think that Isaiah did choose it. This name would tell Ahaz to give up his pagan ways and trust in God, for God is with us.

It is noteworthy that Isaiah portrays Emmanuel as growing up and learning the difference between right and wrong. Ahaz is a king who "did not that which was right in the sight of the LORD his God, like David his father." (2 Kings 16:2) Ahaz is condemned as one who sinfully 'walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen." This means that Ahaz sacrificed his first son to the god Molech by having his son burnt alive. The story of the 'sacrifice' of Isaac condemns the practice of child sacrifice. Child sacrifice is specifically outlawed in Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, and Deuteronomy 18:10. In spite of this, there are numerous reports of child sacrifice. (2 Kings 3:27, 17:17, 21:6, 23:10, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 32:35, Ezekiel 16:21, 20:26, 23:37) The writers of these books condemn the practice.

Is there a hidden message when Isaiah says that Emmanuel will learn right from wrong? A child starts to learn right from wrong early when momma says, "Don't hit your brother!" But Jews have a special way of learning right from wrong -- the study of the Law of Moses in the Torah. A man studies the Torah all his life.

According to modern scholars, the Torah did not reach its current form until the Babylonian Exile some two hundred years after the time of Isaiah. However, Emmanuel could have studied several precursor documents which were written down some two hundred years earlier. Isaiah may have implied that Ahaz did not learn the Law of Moses and thus did not know right from wrong. Also, Isaiah may have been saying, "Don't sacrifice this child!"

Who was Emmanuel? What happened to the pregnancy? The Old Testament is silent on this point. No one in the Old Testament is named Emmanuel. Did the woman miscarry? Was the child stillborn? Was the child a girl, and not a boy? Was the child sacrificed to Molech? Was emmanuel real;ly a chold of divine promise. There is no answer to this mystery. All we know is that King Ahaz did not heed this prophecy. He offered himself as a vassal to Assyria. The results were disastrous.

Beginning in Isaiah 7:18, the tone changes from hope to bitter disappointment:

And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 8:3-4)

The name Mahershalalhashbaz literally means "pillage hastens, looting speeds." (JSB) Thus God will send the Assyrian armies not to purify Israel, but to destroy it. Here Isaiah recognizes that his prophecy intended to influence King Ahaz has failed.

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