Day Seven of “Through Advent with Isaiah”
Yesterday I said that I would move on to talk about King Hezekiah, but I forgot that there is an important episode involving Isaiah with King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father. As mentioned yesterday, Ahaz was challenged by Israel and Damascus, and turned to Assyria for help, and paid tribute to its king. This is verified by an ancient cuneiform tablet dug up in Nimrod in 1873 CE, where Ahaz’s longer name Jehoahaz is used.
This tablet was written in the seventeenth year of Tiglath-Pileser III (745 to 727 BCE), and part of it reads: “In all of the (foreign) lands that … [… I received the paymen]t of . . . Mi]tinti of the land Ashkelon, Jehoahaz of the land Judah, Qauš-malaka of the land Edom, Muṣ…[… of …, … of …, (and) Ḫa]nūnu of the city Gaza: gold, silver, tin, iron, lead, multi-colored garments, linen garments, the garments of their lands, red-purple wool, […, all kinds of] costly articles, produce of the sea (and) dry land, commodities of their lands, royal treasures, horses (and) mules broken to the yo[ke, …].”
The event described in Isaiah 7 does not show up in 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles:
1 In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
3 Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah. 5Because Aram—with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah—has plotted evil against you, saying, 6Let us go up against Judah and cut off Jerusalem and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it; 7therefore thus says the Lord God:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.
8 For the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin.
(Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.)
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all. – Isaiah 7.1-9
The Book of Isaiah does not talk about Ahaz in particular as a bad king, as 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles does, but simply describes him as being pretty shaky when Damascus and Israel come in a military alliance to attack Jerusalem. Isaiah meets him and tells him that the attempt of the two northern allies would “not stand”.
Then comes one of the most famous passages in the Book of Isaiah:
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore 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. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’
The passage is very straightforward. Isaiah points to a pregnant young woman – perhaps the prophet’s own wife – and says that she will give birth. Before the child reaches a capacity for moral reasoning (five years? seven years?), both Damascus and Israel would be overwhelmed and conquered by Assyria, which will also threaten Judah.
I suspect the reason that this narrative is here, immediately after the call of Isaiah, is because it is the prophecy that made Isaiah’s name. It was relatively short term, and it came to pass.
Of course, this passage is famous not because of this, but because of its use in the Gospel according to Matthew:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
In the translation of the Hebrew text into Greek some 150 years before the time of Jesus took the word הָעַלְמָה ha almah “the young woman”, or “maiden”, and it was translated as η παρθένος ee parthenos “virgin”. Jewish and Christian scholars have argued over whether this is a legitimate translation, as obviously there is a difference between a virgin and a young woman. Stan Walters, who I studied with 33 years ago, suggests that this indicates that by the 2nd century BCE this passage and much of Isaiah was being read messianically – in terms of a prophecy about the restoration of the kingdom of David. If this is correct, then the first Christians did not innovate when they read this passage in isolation as being about the Messiah, but they did innovate in applying it to Jesus of Nazareth.
This raises a key issue in Isaiah. As one reads through the book themes are raised, and then they are developed. When the book received its final form the way in which it was read also continued to develop.
- This passage is keenly interested in the King of Judah and the survival of Judah.
- II Isaiah (from 40 to 55) is not so interested in the monarchy or the independence of the Judeans, but seems quite happy to proclaim Cyrus of Persia as God’s anointed (despite being a Zoroastrian), and being ruled by governors as part of the Persian Empire. Instead the people of Israel are treated as the bearers of Judaism, as God’s servants – what was said about the kings is now said about all the people.
- III Isaiah (56-66) likewise is unconcerned with the monarchy.
- After the book received its final form it appears that some Jews were reading it messianically, perhaps as indicated by the translation into the Greek of the Septuagint.
- More importantly, Isaiah was used messianically and apocalyptically in some of the non-scriptural texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Shiu-Lun Shum writes:
I QSb, 4Q285 and 4Qplsa(4QI61), though very badly preserved, exhibit before us distinctive sectarian messianic beliefs, especially the role of the Davidic Messiah and his relation to other nations. These documents present such a Messiah as a political and military leader or king, who will come to liberate Israel by destroying Israel’s foreign oppressors and enemies in the eschatological battle in the end of days. In I QSb and 4Q285, the relation of this messianic figure to other nations is unclear, but in 4Qp1se it is clearly spelled out. In 4Qp1se we are told that the “shoot of David” will be strengthened by God Himself with a”mighty spirit” (cf. line 18) and will judge all the nations with his sword (line 21). This seems to suggest that his rule and the peace, righteousness, and faithfulness that he brings about on earth for Israel’s sake are established on the basis of his political and military power as well as divine inspiration and wisdom.
– Shiu-Lun Shum, The Use of Isaiah in the Sibylline Oracles, Qumran Literature and Romans (A Source-influence Study) (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Glasgow, June, 1999), p. 213.
Of course, some would argue that both the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the author of Matthew misused the passage, taking it out of context. However, I suspect that this is begging the question about the proper use of prophecy. We may not like the way these passages are used, but it is unquestionable that faithful Jews used Isaiah in ways that might have surprised the prophet and his successors, but which they might not have considered illegitimate. The whole point of having a book of prophecy in which development over several generations is clearly indicated might be that this gives license to continued development of interpretation.
The oldest part of Isaiah is very concerned with the monarchy. By the end of the book that concern recedes, and it seems to see the whole of Israel as inheriting the role of the Messiah. In succeeding centuries this was re-conceived as an apocalyptic Messiah, a Son of David who would make all things right. This kind of evolution explains why the author of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 the way he did.