Opening The Old Testament
The Hope of the Birth: Advent Reflections on Isaiah 7:10-16
This is the fourth reflection in our Advent Series, "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years," by biblical scholars and preachers John C. Holbert and Alyce McKenzie. For an overview of the series with links to all the reflections, click here.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
It seems unimaginable that anything new could be said about this passage from Isaiah. It has played such a huge role in the evolving theology and faith convictions of the Christian community. This has been so since some in the earliest community of Christians appropriated Isaiah’s words as prefiguring the miraculous birth of Jesus. Indeed, in some modern communities of faith this belief in the virginal conception of Jesus has become nothing less than a litmus test of correct belief, and those who do not so believe are excluded from that community. It is always useful to reiterate what happened to make this belief important for some. It is in this case a problem of linguistic ambiguities.
Isaiah announces in 7:14 that God will give Ahaz, king of Judah, a sign. Ahaz has piously refused to ask for a sign from God, but it seems clear that his refusal has less to do with piety than with fear, fear of the kings of Israel and Aram who are anxious that Ahaz join them in an axis against the gathering might of the Assyrians. Isaiah warns Ahaz that such an alliance will be doomed, because both Aram and Israel, the northern kingdom, are soon to be destroyed by those same Assyrians. It turns out that the prophet is quite right, though the complete destruction is delayed until 721 B.C.E. (perhaps a decade after the prophecy), when the northern kingdom of Israel is wiped off the map.
But the sign that Isaiah proposes to give to the reluctant Ahaz is that “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and (she) shall call his name Emmanuel.” We will say more of this below, but the linguistic point now is that the text says “the young woman.” This woman is known by the prophet, hence the definite article that designates her, and she is called in Hebrew ‘almah. Several hundred years later, when Greek became the language of the known world, made so by the great conquests of Alexander late in the fourth century B.C.E., it became necessary to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek in order that the many Greek readers could have access to it. This translation was called the Septuagint, based on the Greek number 70, because the myth developed that 70 translators went into 70 different rooms and came forth with precisely the same translation! Anyone who has translated anything from one language to another knows all too well how improbable such a myth is! But in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew ‘almah was translated as parthenos, a word often, but not always, meaning in Greek “virgin.” Hebrew ‘almah never means virgin; that word in Hebrew is bethulah. It is certain that Isaiah’s image of the young woman had nothing to do with her virginal status. However, both Matthew and Luke (although not Mark and John), readers of the Greek Old Testament, read parthenos at Isaiah 7:14 and proclaimed that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.