Opening The Old Testament
The Hope of the Birth: Advent Reflections on Isaiah 7:10-16
It is not my intent in this rehearsal of the linguistic facts of this famous problem to argue that one ought or ought not to believe in Jesus’ virgin birth. It is important, however, to hear what Isaiah was trying to say to Ahaz, the waffling king of Judah, with his sign of Emmanuel. Perhaps that may help us deepen our understanding of the value of this oracle for the early community of Christians. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” a clear statement that God has not left Ahaz on his own to struggle with the fiery war-like designs of Pekah and Rezin, kings of Israel and Aram.
This boy, Emmanuel, says the prophet, will eat “curds and honey,” non-solid food fit for babies. The next word in verse 15 has been the subject of enormous scholarly debate. NRSV translates that Emmanuel will eat this food “by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” I admit to being able to make little sense of that reading. It strikes me that the word might better be read “until,” hence he will eat this food “until he knows how to refuse evil and choose good.” Assuming that designation means that he will eat soft baby food until he can gain some sense of moral discernment (3 or 4 years old?), before that time, says the prophet, both Aram and Israel will be deserted lands. The visitation of God will be as swift and terrible as the days when “Ephraim departed from Judah,” that is 922 B.C.E. when Solomon’s kingdom divided into northern Israel and southern Judah.
Historically, in 735 B.C.E. Aram and Israel invaded Judah in the so-called Syro-Ephraimitic war in an attempt to coerce Ahaz to join them against the Assyrians. Ahaz refused and sent to Assyria, against Isaiah’s warnings, for help. Isaiah counsels Ahaz as follows, using a Hebrew pun: “If you do not stand firm (in faith), you surely will not stand firm” (the two verbs of the sentence are identical). Trust God, says Isaiah, do not trust Assyria or Israel or Aram or Egypt or any other country. Only God is your final fortress.
Thus, the sign of Emmanuel to Ahaz warns him that all foreign alliances are doomed; a tiny nation like Israel is forever fated to be only a pawn in the political designs of far larger and more powerful countries. Nations all rise and fall, but Ahaz, and we, are never to forget that God is always with us.
And there we discover the deeper truths of Isaiah 7 for us Christians. Whenever we rush to attach ourselves to another protector out of fear that we will lose what we so desperately wish to retain -- our way of life, our nation state, our individual safety -- our hopes in these intermittent protectors are forever destined to be dashed. The hope of the birth at Christmas is that God is with us in the midst of our greatest fears. Little wonder that the first word from Luke’s chorus of angels to the awestruck shepherds was “Fear not!” Do not be afraid, for his name is called Emmanuel, and in him God is with us.
Read Alyce McKenzie's accompanying New Testament reflection for this week, “The Fear of Betrayal,” here.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.