Monday, December 04, 2006

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child!"

Unbelievers typically contend that Matthew quoted Isa 7:14 out of context. Actually, it’s unbelievers who quote Isa 7:14 out of context.

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The use of Isa.7:14 in Matt.1 is best understood by J.A. Motyer (“Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,”Tyndale Bulletin 21 [1970]: 118-25). Signs in the OT may function as a present persuader (e.g., Exod 4:8-9) or as “future confirmation” (e.g., Exod 3:12). Isaiah 7:14 falls in the latter case because Immanuel’s birth comes too late to be a “present persuader.” The “sign” (v.11) points primarily to threat and foreboding. Ahaz has rejected the Lord’s gracious offer (vv.10-12), and Isaiah responds in wrath (v.13). The “curds and honey” Immanuel will eat (v.15) represent the only food left in the land on the day of wrath (vv.18-22). Even the promise of Ephraim’s destruction (v.8) must be understood to embrace a warning (v.9b; Motyer, “Isaiah 7:14,” pp. 121-22). Isaiah sees a threat, not simply to Ahaz, but to the “house of David” (vv.2, 13) caught up in faithlessness. To this faithless house Isaiah utters his prophecy. Therefore Immanuel’s birth follows the coming events (it is a “future confirmation”) and will take place when the Davidic dynasty has lost the throne.

Motyer shows the close parallels between the prophetic word to Judah (7:1-9:7) and the prophetic word to Ephraim (9:8-11:16). To both there come the moment of decision as the Lord’s word threatens wrath (7:1-17; 9:8-10:4), the time of judgment mediated by the Assyrian invasion (7:18-8:8; 10:5-15), the destruction of God’s foes but the salvation of a remnant (8:9-22; 10:16-34), and the promise of a glorious hope as the Davidic monarch reigns and brings prosperity to his people (9:1-7; 11:1-16). The twofold structure argues for the cohesive unity between the prophecy of Judah and that to Ephraim. If this is correct, Isaiah 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit—i.e., 7:14 must not be treated in isolation. The promised Immanuel (7:14) will possess the land (8:8), thwart all opponents (8:10), appear in Galilee of the Gentiles (9:1) as a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death (9:2). He is the Child and Son called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” in 9:6, whose government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever (9:7).

Much of Motyer’s work is confirmed by a recent article by Joseph Jensen (“The Age of Immanuel,” CBQ 41 [1979]: 220-39; he does not refer to Motyer), who extends the plausibility of this structure by showing that Isaiah 7:15 should be taken in a final sense; i.e., Immanuel will eat the bread of affliction in order to learn (unlike Ahaz!) the lesson of obedience. There is no reference to “age of discretion.” Further, Jensen believes that 7:16-25 points to Immanuel’s coming only after the destruction of the land (6:9-13 suggests the destruction extends to Judah as well as to Israel); that Immanuel and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, Isaiah’s son (8:1), are not the same; and that only Isaiah’s son sets a time limit relevant to Ahaz.

The foregoing discussion was unavoidable. For if Motyer’s view fairly represents Isaiah’s thought, and if Matthew understood him in this way, then much light is shed on the first Gospel. The Immanuel figure of Isaiah 7:14 is a messianic figure, a point Matthew has rightly grasped. Moreover this interpretation turns on an understanding of the place of the Exile in Isaiah 6-12, and Matthew has divided up his genealogy (1:11-12, 17) precisely in order to draw attention to the Exile. In 2:17-18 the theme of the Exile returns. A little later, as Jesus begins his ministry (4:12-16), Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2, which, if the interpretation adopted here is correct, properly belongs to the Immanuel prophecies of Isaiah 7:14, 9:6. Small wonder that after such comments by Matthew, Jesus’ next words announced the kingdom (4:17; cf. Isa 9:7). Isaiah’s reference to Immanuel’s affliction for the sake of learning obedience (cf. on Isa 7:15 above) anticipates Jesus’ humiliation, suffering, and obedient sonship, a recurring theme in this Gospel.

This interpretation also partially explains Matthew’s interest in the Davidic lineage; and it strengthens a strong interpretation of “Immanuel.” Most scholars (e.g., Bonnard) suppose that this name in Isaiah reflects a hope that God would make himself present with his people (“Immanuel” derives from immanuel , “God with us”); and they apply the name to Jesus in a similar way, to mean that God is with us, and for us, because of Jesus. But if Immanuel in Isaiah is a messianic figure whose titles include “Mighty God,” there is reason to think that “Immanuel” refers to Jesus himself, that he is “God with us.” Matthew’s use of the preposition “with” at the end of 1:23 favors this (cf. Fenton, “Matthew 1:20-23,” p. 81). Though “Immanuel” is not a name in the sense that “Jesus” is Messiah’s name (1:21), in the OT Solomon was named “Jedidiah” (“Beloved of Yahweh,” 2Sam 12:25), even though he apparently was not called that. Similarly Immanuel is a “name” in the sense of title or description.

No greater blessing can be conceived than for God to dwell with his people (Isa 60:18-20); Ezek 48:35; Rev 21:23). Jesus is the one called “God with us”: the designation evokes John 1:14, 18. As if that were not enough, Jesus promises just before his ascension to be with us to the end of the age (28:20; cf. also 18:20), when he will return to share his messianic banquet with his people (25:10).

If “Immanuel” is rightly interpreted in this sense, then the question must be raised whether “Jesus” (1:21) should receive the same treatment. Does “Jesus” (“Yahweh saves”) mean Mary’s Son merely brings Yahweh’s salvation, or is he himself in some sense the Yahweh who saves? If “Immanuel” entails the higher christology, it is not implausible that Matthew sees the same in “Jesus.” The least we can say is that Matthew does not hesitate to apply OT passages descriptive of Yahweh directly to Jesus (cf. on 3:3).

Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 is very close to the LXX; but he changes “you will call” to “they will call.” This may reflect a rendering of the original Hebrew, if 1QIsaa is pointed appropriately (cf. Gundry, Use of OT , p. 90). But there is more here: The people whose sins Jesus forgives (1:21) are the ones who will gladly call him “God with us” (cf. Frankemolle, pp. 17-19).

http://www.apttoteach.org/Theology/05Christ/501_Christ_person.doc

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5 comments:

  1. Ray Zinnakavis12/04/2006 6:49 PM

    I do not see anything in the Isaiah passage about someone named "Mary," and it would be very easy for later writers to graft details from Isaiah into their story as they reworked the material to create their own fictional account.

    Ray Z.

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  2. ray zinnakavis said...
    I do not see anything in the Isaiah passage about someone named "Mary," and it would be very easy for later writers to graft details from Isaiah into their story as they reworked the material to create their own fictional account.

    ***************************

    Your objection is incoherent. On the one hand, you indicate that the passage isn't truly prophetic since it doesn't name the mother of Jesus.

    On the other hand, if it did name the mother of Jesus, you'd dismiss the prophetic foresight on the grounds that later writers simply invented a Marian story to go with the prophecy.

    And if, for the sake of argument, Matthew concocted a backstory to go with the prophecy, then he's not forcing the language of the original—for his imaginative story is cut-and-tailored to accommodate the original text.

    So a liberal has to choose:

    i) Was there an actual event which Matthew then cast about for a prooftext to illustrate—however strained?

    ii) Or did he make up a backstory to exactly fulfill the terms of the original?

    If you're going to be an unbeliever, at least try to be a consistent unbeliever.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ray Zinnakavis12/04/2006 9:14 PM

    "Your objection is incoherent. On the one hand, you indicate that the passage isn't truly prophetic since it doesn't name the mother of Jesus.

    On the other hand, if it did name the mother of Jesus, you'd dismiss the prophetic foresight on the grounds that later writers simply invented a Marian story to go with the prophecy."

    **************************

    Neither of these, either by itself or combined with the other, make my "objection" "incoherent." Both are simply observations, neither of which you've been able to refute. You call them incoherent because you simply don't like what they do to your precious little virgin story.

    "And if, for the sake of argument, Matthew concocted a backstory to go with the prophecy, then he's not forcing the language of the original—for his imaginative story is cut-and-tailored to accommodate the original text."

    That does not necessarily follow. He could be forcing the language of the original (or merely cribbing a poor translation) for his own creation's purposes. But you're welcome to believe otherwise. After all, you've got "faith," right?

    Ray Z.

    ReplyDelete
  4. To go along with what Steve said...

    Assuming Matthew wrote fiction in his Gospel, why would he appeal to this particular verse unless there was already a pre-existing understanding that Isaiah 7 was Messianic? I mean, if Matthew was making this up whole-cloth, it's doubtful any Jew would have believed this as a prooftext for a story Matthew invented. Matthew would first have to convince them that this passage OUGHT to be about the Messiah, and THEN he could demonstrate that it was about JESUS.

    The only way I can see anyone "falling for it" if Matthew was making it all up would be if they were already predisposed to thinking this was a Messianic text. Then, Matthew would just be "fooling" them into thinking Christ was the Messiah rather than having to convince them of the Messianic nature of the passage first.

    If that is true, Steve is correct in saying:
    ---
    And if, for the sake of argument, Matthew concocted a backstory to go with the prophecy, then he's not forcing the language of the original—for his imaginative story is cut-and-tailored to accommodate the original text.
    ---

    The liberal has a problem then. If Isaiah 7 was already seen as Messianic, then it would not be interpreted as something that occured contemporarily (or at least, if it did it also pointed toward a future fulfillment too). So I don't see how a liberal can consistently claim both that this was a contemporary prophecy (probably written just after the actual events, of course, because it can't be TRUE prophecy) and that Matthew was able to deceive a large number of Jews into thinking it was Messianic in character.

    In short, a miraculous birth would have been expected of the Messiah, if this passage was deemed Messianic; and if it was not then there was no reason for Matthew to bother to make up the virgin birth and try to use this passage as proof of it's foretelling.

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  5. RAY ZINNAKAVIS SAID:

    “Neither of these, either by itself or combined with the other, make my ‘objection’ ‘incoherent.’"

    They are incoherent for the reasons I gave. You have given no reasons to the contrary in reply to my critique.

    All you’ve done is to offer an empty denial in lieu of a counterargument.

    “Both are simply observations, neither of which you've been able to refute.”

    Other issues aside, the onus is not on me to refute two mutually inconsistent objections. They refute themselves.

    Like a lot of unbelievers, you have everything it takes to be a rationalist except the rational part. A shiny hood with no engine underneath.

    “You call them incoherent because you simply don't like what they do to your precious little virgin story.”

    No, I didn’t merely call them *incoherent*. Rather, I *argued* my point—something of which you’ve thus far shown yourself incapable.

    “That does not necessarily follow. He could be forcing the language of the original (or merely cribbing a poor translation) for his own creation's purposes.”

    What he *could* be doing is irrelevant. The only salient question is what he *did* do with the original. Care to comment on E. J. Young’s detailed linguistic analysis of Isa 7:14 in his Studies in Isaiah (Tyndale 1954), 171ff.?

    “But you're welcome to believe otherwise. After all, you've got ‘faith,’ right?”

    Yes, I’ve got faith and I’ve got reason—which puts me to ahead of you on both counts.

    ReplyDelete