So last week, just as I was about to post a followup to this piece on Matthew, Isaiah, and the Virgin Birth my old computer suffered a devastating myocardial infarction and died. Since then, I have been struggling to get the new system online, reconstruct my data, and salvage what is left of my old hard drive. Also, Christmas happened, bringing with the attendant goofoffery that makes Christmas so wonderful. Every time I have thought to myself “You should post something on the blog” the better angels of my nature have said, “Better still, you should enjoy some Irish Cream and open a gift or have a snowball fight with a kid or take a walk or take a nap or go to Mass or snuggle with your wife or watch It’s a Wonderful Life or work on your novel.” So I’ve done these things instead. But duty calls and so I’m back with my followup explaining why Matthew bothers quoting Isaiah 7:14, because it’s good to talk about holy things at Christmas, which it still is, by the way:
Last time, in this space, we chronicled the confusion of my friend, who discovered that the prophet Isaiah did not write “Behold, the virgin shall conceive” in Isaiah 7:14, but “Behold, the almah shall conceive”. Almah, as we saw last time, means “young woman” (an idea that certainly can encompass a virgin, but which need not be limited to that). We saw that it was Jews a couple centuries before Jesus who translated the Hebrew almah into the Greek parthenos (virgin) and thereby provided Matthew with the passage he quotes in his gospel (Matthew 1:23). We also saw that this passage from Isaiah is not the source of the tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin, but rather that this Tradition can have only one possible source: the Blessed Virgin herself.
So the question arises: why does Matthew bother quoting this passage from Isaiah at all?
The answer takes us far into Israel’s past and into a way of reading Scripture that is both deeply Jewish and deeply Christian.
First, an important rule of thumb about the New Testament.
When a New Testament writer quotes a passage from the Old Testament, he is assuming you know the Old Testament as well as a modern teenager knows the scripts to all the Star Warsmovies.
My oldest son is named Luke. When his friends are visiting I will sometimes walk into the room, breathing heavily, and point at him saying, “Luke! I am your father.” I don’t need to laboriously explain to everybody the context of my remark. Everybody in the room instantly recalls the scene from The Empire Strikes Back and can, indeed, tell you the whole story of Anakin Skywalker’s humble origins, rise, fall, and redemption. What I am doing in quoting that line is alluding to all of that and making a joke that everyone will get.
We can make use of allusion in all sorts of ways other than jokes. If I say of some cutback to medical care for the poor “If the poor be like to die they had better do it and help decrease the surplus population”, I need not elaborately explain the whole tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. Most literate people will understand the reference.Matthew is doing the same thing. He expects us to understand the entire context of Isaiah 7:14 and not simply read it in isolation. So what is that context?
To find that out, we must go back in time a thousand years before Christ to a moment that is the source of the entire Jewish messianic tradition. David has recently become king and is thinking about the Ark of the Covenant still being housed in the tent Israel used for it during the centuries in which they first wandered in the wilderness and eventually conquered and settled in the Holy Land. He goes to Nathan the prophet and says, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:2). So he proposes to build a “house” (i.e., a temple) for God to replace the tent. But Nathan, after consulting God, returns with God’s reply:
“Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” ’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my merciful love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.’ ” (2 Samuel 7:5–16)
There is a pun at the root of this exchange. Instead of David building a “house” in the form fo a temple for God, God will build David a “house” in the form of a dynasty: the House of David. This is the origin of the Israelite conviction that the “Son of David” would rule over Israel forever and that God is with (Emmanuel) the House of David forever.
So we now fast forward from the time of David to the time of Isaiah (about three hundred years)….