Friday, April 4, 2014

Did Matthew misquote Isaiah? "A virgin shall conceive"

Some years ago, I was working my way through Isaiah when I came to the famous passage about "a virgin shall conceive and bare a son."  Great, I thought, that just proves Christianity, the Old Testament really did predict the virgin birth.  Everybody should believe.

But then I did something really dangerous.  I tried to figure out what the rest of Isaiah 7 was all about.   You know, all that useless verbiage that surrounds the one important verse that we love to spout off as an example of fulfilled prophecy.

I discovered years ago that Christians seem to have two basic responses to Isaiah 7.  Either we read it, and say, "Huh, I have no idea what that is all about, but it's cool that it predicts the virgin birth.  I think I'll go back to Matthew."  Or, we look at Isaiah, look back at Matthew, and say, "Clearly Matthew made a mistake.  What an idiot.  The Jews must be laughing at the idiocy of the fumbling apologetic attempts in the gospel of Matthew."

In fact, I found out, they are laughing--go read any of those books with titles like "How to refute Christian missionaries."  (Yes, such books and web pages do exist.  They should be required reading for Christians.)  I was embarrassed, frankly.  They really point out how inadequately we Christians have interpreted both Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1--especially when we try to use them to argue for the truth of Christianity.

Like most prophetic passages, to understand Isaiah 7 you must understand the historical background.  We glean some of the background from the passage itself (not just from the introduction, but also from what Isaiah says to the king).  2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 also fill in other extremely important details from the reign of King Ahaz.

Israel (the northern kingdom) and Aram (Syria) had formed an alliance against Judah.  Either of these nations alone was probably more powerful than Judah at the time.  The alliance had inflicted several crushing defeats on Judah (2 Chron. 28:5 says they killed 120,000 of his army and captured many more).  And now they conspired together to remove King Ahaz from the throne of David, and replace him with a puppet monarch.  Not only that, Edom in the south had attacked and had already taken some territory (Elat, Judah's only port on the Red Sea).  Judah was surrounded and was losing.  "The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind."

So what does Ahaz do?  Well, he knows he cannot hold back the armies much longer.  He does not have many options.  He does what any ruler would have done under the circumstances--any ordinary ruler, anyway.  First, he prepares for a siege.  When the story opens in v. 3, he is out inspecting the water supply of Jerusalem ("the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the fuller's field").  This is where Isaiah is told to meet him.

Isaiah comes to him with a message from God: "Don't panic!  Cease your preparations!"  (There are some issues on how to translate the words he says.)  Why would Isaiah say that?  Because Ahaz is not an ordinary ruler, even though he is acting like one.  Ahaz is a king in David's line.

"Because Aram and Ephraim have plotted against you, saying, let us... conquer it and make the son of Tabeel king over it, therefore the Lord Yahweh says, 
'It shall not stand,
it shall not come to pass.
For the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin...
The head of Ephraim [the northern kingdom] is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah [Pekah].
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
You shall not stand at all.'"
The hearer is supposed to ask the question, "Who is the head of Judah?"  The son of David, ruling in Yahweh's chosen city under Yahweh himself, that's who.  What is King Rezin and King Pekah compared to that?  And has not Yahweh promised David that his son will always reign over Judah?  What does Yahweh think about an attempt to place a non-Davidic puppet monarch on the throne?  That shall not stand.  In fact, he adds that within sixty five years, the northern kingdom that Ahaz fears so much will not even be a kingdom or have a recognizable people and national identity.  It will be totally gone.

But so will Ahaz, if he does not have faith.  If he continues to act like Yahweh is absent, he will not stand at all.  (The end of vs. 9 is a strong wordplay in Hebrew, which the NIV quoted above has tried to reproduce in English.)

Isaiah's message to Ahaz to stop striving, or cease preparations, or however you translate it, is asking Ahaz not to do the other thing he has in mind to do (see below).  God wants Ahaz to trust him, rather than trusting in his own strength to manipulate things.  Stop trying to save the kingdom and trust Yahweh to work a miracle?  It seems so irresponsible. 

So what does Ahaz do?  Unfortunately, he does not stand firm in his faith.  He continues to act like an ordinary ruler, and he does what must have seemed like the only thing he could do.  He sent messengers to the enemy of Aram and Israel to make an alliance with them.  2 Kings 16 tells us how he sent messengers and tribute money to the king of Assyria and asks him to help.  He says, "I am your servant and your son.  Come rescue me."

This is a fairly typical sovereign-vassal treaty in the ancient near east.  One nation folds itself under the protection of another and agrees to pay tribute.  Sometimes, as here, this is expressed as father and son.  It seemed like that was all Ahaz could do.  Isn't he just acting like a responsible monarch?

The problem is that Ahaz already has a sovereign-vassal treaty with a different sovereign--with King Yahweh.  The Mosaic covenant is expressed in similar terms: "Israel is my firstborn son," Yahweh says in Exodus 4:22.  The Mosaic covenant in fact precisely follows the usual forms of sovereign-vassal treaties, as we came to realize through the work of Mendenhall and others in the last century as these treaties were unearthed.  Yahweh, the Great King, the sovereign king demands obedience and loyalty, i.e., no independent foreign policy (do not make treaties with them, he says).  He demands that Israel "love" him (this word is actually used in Hittite sovereign-vassal treaties).  Like other sovereign kings, he drafts a treaty (covenant) and requires that copies of the treaty be stored in the temple (that's why the ten commandments are in the ark) and read regularly.  In return, Yahweh promises protection.  The treaty, like many such treaties, is followed by a pronouncement of the blessings that will come if the treaty is followed, and the curses if it is not.

So Ahaz, by becoming a vassal of Assyria, is rebelling against his own sovereign, breaking the treaty he already has with God, and bringing on himself the covenant curses.  Furthermore, we read in 1 Kings 16, he also worships the Assyrian gods (this would commonly follow from a treaty).  What is King Yahweh going to do about this rebellion?

He gives Ahaz one more chance.  "Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven."  Yahweh is willing to work to bolster Ahaz's faith and his faithfulness.  He knows there is no way Ahaz can stop his political maneuvering and trust God unless he really believes.  It would take a lot of faith to trust in God and stop this foreign policy when you see the clouds of dust from the invading armies getting closer and closer.

This seems like a very good deal for Ahaz--ask anything you want?  Why wouldn't you give it a try?  Make it something big!  But Ahaz responds, "I will not ask, and I will not put Yahweh to the test."  This is a pious-sounding excuse for a direct refusal to believe.  Ahaz does not want Yahweh to prove himself; he is too attached to his scheming, apparently.  Apparently he would rather be in control.

This is the last straw for Yahweh.  "You try the patience of men, will you try the patience of God too?  You don't want a sign?  Well, I'll give you one anyway.  That sign will be the destruction of your own land in just a few years, by the very king you are making an alliance with."

That is what Isaiah's words to Ahaz boil down to, but there is this matter of the child Immanuel wrapped up in it.  It says, "That young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and will call him Immanuel; and... before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted--and Yahweh will bring on you terrible days."  In the context, then, some specific but unnamed woman will bear a son and call him Immanuel, and before the child reaches some level of maturity (it is not clear whether he means 12 years old, or maybe 2 or 3 years old, or some other age), the other lands will be destroyed.  And this is a sign to King Ahaz, in something like 730 BC.

Now it is true that by the time Jesus was born, Aram and Israel were laid waste and rebuilt, several times over.  But that hardly would be a sign to Ahaz more than 700 years before.  It seems fairly obvious that the passage is talking about the invasion of Israel and Aram by Assyria, just a few years later, and the fact that Assyria did not stop there but also invaded Judah as well.

Who is this woman and this child?  We do not know, but there are several clues.  In this chapter, Isaiah has one of his own sons with him, a son whose name is a sign ("Shear-Jashub" means "a remnant will return").  In the next chapter, as the situation becomes even more dire, Isaiah has another son who also has a prophetic name ("Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz" means "the spoil speeds, the prey hastens"), to make the point that the Assyrians really are going to invade--before the child learns how to speak.  So some commentators suggest that this child, whose name is also a prophetic message, is another son of Isaiah.  "God is with us" is certainly Isaiah's message here and in the next chapter.  (The name Immanuel can just as well mean "God is with us" as "God with us"; in Hebrew names, the "is" is optional.  So, for example, Elijah can mean "Yahweh my God" or "Yahweh is my God"; obviously, everyone understood the latter.  Thus the name Immanuel does not necessarily imply that the child is divine in any way.)  If God is with us, can these nations really attack us?  Isaiah is so bold that he even issues a challenge to the other nations to do their worst.  It won't matter--for God is with us (8:10).  Isaiah and his sons together are magnificent signs of the faithfulness of God (8:18).

Another possibility is that the child is not one of Isaiah's, but rather perhaps Ahaz's own.  Immanuel could be another name for Hezekiah, Ahaz's successor.  In 8:8, it talks about the land of Judah as "Immanuel's land", which is perhaps more appropriate for a royal person than for some child even of a nobleman like Isaiah.

He goes on to say that the child will "eat curds and honey" when all this destruction happens.  This is country food, not civilized city food--he will not be eating bread and drinking wine.  The rest of the passage talks about how the country will be devastated--all the vineyards and cultivated fields will turn into weeds where people hunt animals or graze their flocks.  But those few who are still alive will have plenty of good pastoral food.

The first half of the book of Isaiah has a stark contrast between two rulers, Ahaz the faithless, and Hezekiah the (eventually) faithful.  Ahaz did not stand; he cowered before Assyria.  His son Hezekiah started off the same way (perhaps during his coregency with his father Ahaz), trying to make alliances with surrounding countries including Assyria, but it failed.  As prophesied, Assyria invaded anyway.  They captured all the fortified towns of Judah--every last one of them, except Jerusalem.  Probably hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.  The invincible, enormous Assyrian army was at the very gates of Jerusalem, about to break through.

Hezekiah finally did trust God, instead of trying to manipulate alliances.  He prayed, and God sent Isaiah to him just as he sent him to Ahaz, with the same message: "Do not be afraid!"  (Is. 37:6).  Eventually, God miraculously destroyed much of the proud Assyrian army, sending the remainder home with their tail between their legs.  God was faithful to the covenant to David: "I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David" (Is. 37:35).  "From Jerusalem, a remnant shall go out" (remember the name Shear-Jashub) and repopulate Judah.  Hezekiah did stand firm in his faith.

So the Immanuel passage is a magnificent passage about God's loyalty to his covenant, and about faith and faithfulness in a very dark time in the 8th century BC.    What does this have to do with Jesus?  And why does Matthew quote it?

(Here I must insert a disclaimer.  I am not denying the virgin birth, by any means.  No matter how you interpret the Isaiah 7 passage, the rest of Matthew's story, and Luke's as well, is totally clear; it was a virgin birth.  For historical reasons, evangelical Christians are extremely touchy about the Isaiah 7 passage.  The virgin birth was one of the Fundamentals that gave rise to fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism has defined itself by opposing to the death anything that even sounds like it might attack one of those Fundamentals.  It is hard to have a rational discussion about them within American Christianity.  And yet, it seems clear that the view that most Christians have about Matthew's quotation from Isaiah really does need serious discussion.  So please read on without getting your hackles up, at least until the end.)

A great deal of ink has been spilled pointing out that while the Hebrew word for "young woman" in this passage does not necessarily imply a virgin, the Septuagint translation uses a totally unambiguous word that cannot mean anything else.  Matthew quotes the Septuagint version.  I think that whole discussion is completely a red herring, of no consequence at all.  If someone says to you, "That virgin standing over there will conceive and bear a son," do you really think it implies a virgin birth?  She might be a virgin now, but the implication is pretty clear: not for long. This would certainly be the understanding of Isaiah's original audience, and it causes no difficulty to interpret the text that way.  So no matter what the word actually means in Isaiah, it does not necessarily predict a virgin birth or even a miraculous conception.

I think we have to rid ourselves of the mistaken notion that Matthew is trying to claim that the prophecy in Isaiah 7 finds its exclusive fulfillment in Jesus.  If that is what Matthew is doing, he has laughably misinterpreted the passage he quotes.  But note that this is just as much true of the other scriptures that Matthew cites nearby.  In Matt. 2:17, he quotes a passage from Jeremiah that quite clearly in Jeremiah refers to the disaster of the exile, 600 years before Christ; no one would ever have thought that passage predicted a slaughter of babies six hundred years later.  And again in Matt. 2:15, he applies a passage from Hosea, "Out of Egypt I drew my son", to Jesus.  But the passage in Hosea is not even a prophecy of the future--it recalls the fact that God drew his son, Israel, out of Egypt, hundreds of years before Hosea's time.

Is Matthew just an idiot?  Was he letting his concordance run amok?  "Let me see if I can find some passage talking about the Son of God...  got it, this thing in Hosea sounds good.  Let me see if I can scrounge up something about a virgin--hmm, this one in Isaiah might fit the bill."  This is the way he is often portrayed by skeptical scholars.

I think that it is not Matthew who is mistaken; it is we who have been mistaken about what Matthew is doing.  Matthew knows, as well as any reader of those passages, that they do not make a convincing case that Jesus is the one true fulfillment.  He is not using this as an apologetic argument--see, you should believe in Jesus, because the Old Testament prophecies point to him.  Let me repeat.  Matthew is not making an apologetic argument here.  Matthew did not intend that these quotes should form a proof of the messiahship of Jesus, or anything of the sort.  Nobody who has ever read them would be convinced by that argument.  (So we should stop making it.)

What Matthew is saying is more about Jesus than about the prophecies.  He is saying that what happened to Israel as a nation must also happen to the Messiah, Israel's representative and champion.  Jesus bears the destiny of Israel, he is the true Israelite, the culmination of Israel's long history.  So he must go through the same experiences as the whole nation.  He goes down to Egypt, just like Israel did.  The slaughter of the children in Bethlehem was like the slaughter of the people when the Babylonians came.  It continues on: like Israel, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he crosses the Jordan.  Jesus had to be made like his people in every way.  Israel's history is fulfilled in the Messiah; hence, these prophecies are replicated in some way in the Messiah's life.

This may seem like an odd way to think, but the New Testament writers consistently do it all over.  The psalms that are quoted about Jesus on the cross (e.g., Ps. 69) are, in their own context, quite clearly about David, and no Jew would have ever thought beforehand that they must apply to the Messiah.  

But there is something interesting happening here.  One of the things that is remarkable about passages like Psalm 69 is that it is figuratively true of David, but literally true of the Messiah.  Parts of Ps. 69 (not the whole thing) are a strikingly appropriate description of someone dying on a cross, yet they were written before anybody had ever thought of that gruesome method of execution.  So the cross is not something anybody expected before it happened, but looking back, we wonder--it seems that when God was looking at David and helping him describe his own sufferings, God actually had in his mind a picture of David's greater son.  God loves his son, and always has him in view even when he is talking about other things.  (It is almost like a divine freudian slip, except it's not a slip at all.)  These lesser things ultimately derive their significance not from themselves, but because they are like Jesus in some way.

To put it another way, David is a like a shadow of the true King cast back into history.  The reality is Jesus, the shadow is David.  So just as when a real object moves, its shadow moves too, the things that happen to the real King also happen in some way to the shadow, though they happen in a different place and different context.  (And, for those who happen to remember Plato's allegory of the cave, here I am using the word "shadow" in the same sense as Plato did.  The author of Hebrews uses the word the same way when he said the things in the tabernacle were a copy and a shadow of the true temple in heaven.)  This understanding of prophecy is called "typology", from the word tupos, which means a cast or a stamp.  Jesus is the mold that David was made in; David is a type of Christ.

(And while I said you cannot make an apologetic argument from these quotes of the Old Testament, that is perhaps not quite true.  After all, when you put all of them together, it really is remarkable that the life of Jesus lines up so well with so many fragments of the Old Testament, especially the ones quoted about the cross, even if they are obviously not the primary meaning of the passages.  The literal match of the words, at least when you take them all together, seems too striking to be entirely a coincidence.  This is a weaker apologetic argument than saying that Isaiah clearly predicted something and look! it happened to Jesus, and only to Jesus.  But it is an argument nonetheless.)

So what does this mean for the Immanuel passage?  Matthew has told us, quite clearly, how Jesus was  born of a virgin, in a completely miraculous way.  The words of Isaiah 7, though they do not in any ordinary sense predict Jesus' virgin birth seven hundred years after King Ahaz, are nevertheless strikingly appropriate to it.  Jesus' own birth was presumably in God's mind when he described Immanuel.  God was faithful to his covenant with David then, and embodied this in the person of the boy Immanuel ("God is with us") at the time.  God's faithfulness to his covenant with David is absolutely embodied in Jesus himself, the one who is truly "God with us".  When Matthew says, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet," he is saying that Jesus' life had to be an even greater sign of God's faithfulness than the 8th century fulfillment.  Immanuel was a type or a shadow of the true Immanuel who came later.