In the previous article, we mainly focused on the two gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke concerning the miraculous birth of Jesus. Other corollary topics were broached, some briefly and some in more detail as necessity dictated. While the gospel accounts are critical, they rest upon the Immanuel prophecy. Without its legitimate use, Christianity fades into the realm of the fantastical and surreal. For this reason, ANYBODY who lays claim to Christianity as based on historic fact and rationality must engage with this text in an honest yet critical manner. Anything less is intellectually dishonest.
Isaiah’s classic “Christmas” text
Most inerrantists cite verses like Isaiah 7:14 as convincing proof of predictive prophecy which only God could initiate. Yet this foundational verse employed by Matthew (specifically) and Luke (implicitly) to support both a miraculous (virgin) and a divine (holy spirit) birth is not remotely close to its original contextual meaning.
Even if we allow the original writer intended for “the virgin” to conceive, this only meant she was a virgin when she conceived the child having not had intercourse until the time of conception. Such would be worth noting. Furthermore, the “sign” had nothing to do with the woman’s virginity or even the role the child would play. It was to signal the countdown to Assyria’s vicious attack on Israel (and Syria) had begun.
There are multiple other factors which are incongruous with Jesus’ Bethlehem birth. Isaiah is promising relief for Ahaz (Judah) but according to the birth of Immanuel, this is at least a few years and perhaps over a decade away (many commentators see a preadolescent pictured), meanwhile the land of Judah suffers. Conversely, the gospel narratives present Jesus’ birth as inaugurating the hope and restoration of Israel. It should be noted, when Assyria sacked Samaria, it would spell the end of the nation of Israel.
18”Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.”(Isaiah 8:18)
The children represent signs of impending doom. Ahaz, according to the text, was the most wicked king Judah had (rf. 2 Kings 16:3,4, 2 Chron. 28), yet he is granted deliverance while the rest of the nation suffers? As will be discussed, at the time of final composition the Yahwist community were persuaded the Lord dwelt “on Mount Zion.” Jerusalem was not spared because of her righteousness but in spite of her unrighteousness. It was to protect the Temple, Yahweh’s holy dwelling place ( Isa.65).
The Immanuel Text
22”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”(which means “God with us”)[Isaiah 7:14](Matthew 1:22,23)
The heart of the Christmas story is Isaiah’s classic “Immanuel” text. It undergirds the most critical element of Christianity, the combined divinity and humanity of Jesus. Without a divinely conceived birth, Jesus’ deity cannot be theologically established. Without a perfect human Savior to identify with mankind, there can be no legitimate substitute for sin. The importance of a thorough contextual evaluation of this text cannot be overstated. If it is to serve as the very underpinning of Christianity, its veracity must be proven.
Most American evangelicals are familiar with this passage in Isaiah which is believed to predict the coming miraculous virgin birth of Jesus. It marks a time of joy and peace heralded by the birth of Israel’s messiah and redeemer of mankind, Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” If Easter is Christianity’s holiest day, Christmas is its most joyous.
Among Christians, this is one of its most sacred and cherished texts from the Hebrew canon. Many appeal to it as indisputable proof of divine prophetic fulfillment. It is the critical text used by Matthew and Luke to construct their narratives. Of course, if this text read as it does, and Mary conceived with “a” holy spirit not human involvement and her child was both divine and human, they would have a strong case. However, this position requires an enormous amount of faith and Christianized thinking to stand up. One is forced to read advanced Christian theology back into this text where none is evident. In fact, almost nothing about this text corresponds to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. To suggest otherwise is to perform exegetical gymnastics.
The prophetic treasure hunt of esotericism
The tendency of Christian writers was to comb the Hebrew texts looking for possible “hidden” truths about Jesus not readily apparent on the surface. It was not an act of deception as much as one of prophetic treasure hunting reserved for those to whom God would disclose his mysteries. Since God authored it via his holy spirit, a deeper spiritual meaning was not only expected but encouraged being more authoritative than the simple literal meaning. One must keep this in the forefront of their mind when determining authorial intent. It may have been a legitimate method of hermeneutics for ancient minds given the lack of literary parameters, but it today it should be regarded as mystical and fantastical.
The original context should settle the issue. A verse seen in perspective with the entire passage drives its meaning. Isolating a lone verse and extracting it without this consideration is an invitation to fanciful interpretations like we have here.
Evangelicals are fond of trying to circumvent this obvious principle by postulating the “double or dual fulfillment” theory (to be discussed in full, see below) which maintains a verse can have more than one meaning even if the original author was unaware of a future fulfillment. Here is a clear case of inventing a theory to support a predetermined idea.
Groups like evangelicals justify it by claiming if a specific prophecy was not completely fulfilled at the time of its pronouncement, a future fuller day or time was in view. The most obvious example of this would be the idealized time of Israel’s future restoration. So long as this is considered an absolute certainty, the door is wide open to repeated claims of its arrival, as it has for nearly three thousand years. Jesus was not the first nor the last to think he was “the one” who would see it arrive.
Evangelicals are fond of declaring their commitment to a literal, grammatical, historical interpretation of scripture, but this is only when it suits their theological needs. If a New Testament writer cites a verse out of literary and historical context, it is presumed an infallible act of one guided by God’s holy spirit, of one creating scripture not interpreting scripture.
But before we judge evangelicals too harshly, they take their cue from the New Testament writers themselves who engaged in a non contextual method of interpretation we will call “prophetic esotericism.” This method assumed the spiritual nature of the prophetic writings which were thought to contain deeper hidden truths accessible to those anointed by God’s spirit. This style of interpretation was made popular by allegorist like Philo of Alexandria and other Hellenistic Jews who saw allegorical or spiritual meanings throughout the prophetic texts. It greatly enhanced the intellectual respectability of the ancient writings in a world where literary sophistication was highly prized.
Every Christian who believes Jesus was born of a virgin through God’s holy spirit is carrying on this interpretive tradition. And while we can understand and forgive the glaring literary miscues of these ancient men, we in the twenty-first century have no such excuses. We must stop treating a collection of archaic writings as God’s divine truth because we feel and hope they are.
We now turn to the Isaiah material in full. I implore the reader to suspend preconceived Christian ideas and attempt to evaluate the texts dispassionately regardless of the outcome.
The literal, grammatical-historical method: The law of hermeneutics
A text out of context is a pretext for heresy
Having spent considerable time in Bible schools, college and seminary, one thing each professor was keen to stress was the importance of a literal, grammatical-historical interpretation of each scriptural text. In other words, the plain and simple meaning in its original context with one caveat: unless quoted out of context by a New Testament writer who were superintended creators of scripture.
I lived by this hermeneutical principle for many years thinking I was being true to the text. The circular reasoning attending this position should be obvious. The Bible is divinely inspired because of what it contains, e.g., predictive prophecy, miracles, yet it validates itself to make this claim according to evangelicals who subscribe to inerrancy. As we examine the Isaiah text, we will see how blatantly Christians ignore clear historical and grammatical markers while professing to derive pure authorial intent.
There are essentially two ways of viewing biblical content, through the lens of the supernatural or the natural. Either the God of the Bible exists or He does not. Either prophets were vouchsafed divine content which they relayed to others or these messages were entirely the product of their religious imaginations as they perceived the divine. Either Jesus physically rose from the dead or his body was surreptitiously stolen. Those who find some middle ground between these two extremes are free to do so, so long as they accept the repercussions of this position — moral* relativity. The Bible in its entirety becomes a general guidebook to morality and ethics with clear limitations and obvious bigotry, e.g., slavery, polygamy, sectarianism, homophobia, religious elitism and tribalism.
*Note: The term “morality” is extremely misleading when used by groups like evangelicals. The presumption is their view of morality is somehow superior and comes from God’s throne. They entertain pet sins like homosexuality and abortion but the real sins the Bible emphasizes, like greed, materialism, dishonesty and injustice, go largely ignored or tolerated. In reality there is little difference between how evangelicals and non evangelicals conduct their lives morally and ethically.
Isaiah 7:14 in strict literary and historical context
To recap. The chapter opens with Isaiah describing a specific historical situation involving “the two kings,” Pekah of Israel and Resin of Aram (Syria), who had allied themselves against Ahaz who refused to join their alliance against Assyria. They intended to overthrow him and install, “The son of Tabeel” in his stead and avail themselves of Judah’s military resources. Naturally, “The hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind” (Isa. 7:2). Isaiah comforts the king promising Judah will not be overthrown because “the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”
The Lord, via Isaiah, asked Ahaz to request “a sign” as proof what he has promised will take place. The king is reluctant to “put the Lord to the test” (vs. 12), so Isaiah declares, “the Lord himself will give you a sign” (vs. 13). At this point the sign of the virgin/young woman is given.
It should be readily apparent nothing remotely resembling the virginal conception of a baby through God’s “holy” spirit* is found in this text. It could not have this meaning for Isaiah’s time because it would require the same miraculous virginal conception via the holy spirit as it did with Mary. Nobody thinks a miracle child was born during Isaiah’s time who was divine and therefore another divine son of God. So it must be a different interpretation, but how different?
Furthermore, the force of this passage is on timing not a miraculous birth or a virgin conception. The natural reading is a pregnant young woman, possibly the prophet or perhaps king’s wife (if messianic), will soon give birth to a baby boy. Before he can discern right and wrong, the land of Aram and Israel “will be laid waste” by the King of Assyria and his army; thereby, effectively removing the threat to Judea. The time frame would be measured in months not years. In effect, Isaiah was saying God’s divine works were already in motion and soon the threat would be removed.
Implicit in this passage is the land of Judah having been laid waste for long enough, “The boy” will be eating “curdled milk and wild honey” when the king of Assyria responds. It therefore must be either the result of Israel and Syria’s invasion or else Sennacherib’s later campaign in 701BC. The key detail is the land is wild and uncultivated. If the latter it would be thirty-five years before Judah received any relief which would provide no solace, so a near event must be assumed. Verse seventeen makes explicit reference to Assyrian aggression in the land of Judah which didn’t transpire until Hezekiah’s reign (to be discussed later).
A more plausible explanation is the writer used imagery of the land during his time for dramatic effect. There is no reason to suppose the land was in such a state in 735BC but would have been later after Sennacherib’s campaign. Of course, this assumes a non predictive prophecy position.
1”When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
2Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with a Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
3Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6“Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“ ‘It will not take place, it will not happen,
8for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’ ”(Isaiah 7:1-9)
These opening verses set the historical stage for the material to follow and are critical for interpreting key texts. Commentators generally place these events somewhere around 735BC though exact dating is not critical for our purposes. Accurate chronology is difficult to ascertain given overlaps in reigns, inaccuracies in “official” records and multiple textual revisions and emendations. Simply acknowledging three major events separated by considerable time gaps is most important.
Our text is sandwiched between two passages of scripture which provide detailed information critical to a proper interpretation.
The combined armies of Israel and Aram have ravaged the land of Judah and are besieging Jerusalem. Many Judeans have been killed or taken prisoner (see 2 Chron. 28). Ahaz’ refusal to join the confederacy against Assyria has resulted in an attempted overthrow of his throne and a replacement king, Tabeel, who will join the alliance opposing Assyria. While Ahaz and the people of Judah fear the worst, the prophet Isaiah intervenes to reassure them their suffering will soon be over. Yahweh will use the Assyrians to attack the two countries tormenting Judah. In doing so the two nations will be forced to withdraw their forces and retreat to protect their own lands. As proof God is true to his word, Isaiah asks Ahaz to request a sign (vs. 11) from God which he refuses (vs. 12) resulting in a stern rebuke (vs. 13) and the giving of “a sign.”
14”Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin [‘ha’almah,’ or “the young woman”] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.15He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”(Isaiah 7:14-17)
Israel’s final “Christmas”
Israel’s permanent (?) removal from the land merits quick mention.
The first deportation (ca. 735BC)
29”In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maakah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria. 30Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah.”(2 Kings 15:29-30)
The second deportation (ca. 722BC)
5”The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria and laid siege to it for three years. 6In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.”(2 Kings 17:5.6)
The Northern tribes of Israel would suffer two deportations. The first occurring when Assyria came to Judah’s aid (735BC) against Israel and Syria, and a second final complete expulsion when Samaria fell (722BC, rf. 2 Kings 17) ostensibly “because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God” (2 Kings 17:7). However, despite the promise of their return being reiterated in the prophetic writings, it remains unfulfilled.
It is important to mention because these ten tribes formed the majority of Israelites and it was inconceivable to the prophets Yahweh would forget them. They postulated an eventual regathering of these dispersed because the alternative was unfathomable and inconsistent with the promises. These scattered people never did return as described and this fact stands as one of the greatest indictments on predictive prophecy in the Bible.
The Bible of the first Christians
The “Bible” of choice among these first Christians was a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint (LXX) written in the third century BC by Hellenistic Jews. With the proliferation of the Greek language throughout the Roman Empire, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew scriptures was beyond the reach of most ethnic Israelites, hence its need. One of the key tensions in our discussion involves a comparison of two versions of the Immanuel text.
There are many differences between the two translations, some more significant than others but few more important than we find here. Isaiah’s Hebrew text contains the word ‘almah’ (“marriageable young woman”) instead of a more definitive word for virgin (‘bethulah’). The translators of the LXX made an interpretive decision and used parthenos which is exclusively “a virgin.” Their reasons are unclear. However, they may have simply meant the mother of “Immanuel” would be a virgin who conceived contemporaneously with losing her virginity. There is evidence early messianic tradition shared such a view.
Conservatives make the claim, “A young woman” and “virgin” are not mutually exclusive. Lexically, it neither precludes nor condones this reading. Context drives the meaning. Even if we concede the woman in question was a virgin, a host of contextual details militate against its use by Matthew as definitively fulfilled by Jesus.
If, and that’s a big “if,” we assume Isaiah intended the meaning of virgin, the idea of a non male participant must also be implied, as well as, divine conception. The “sign” then becomes monumental. It switches from the age of a specific child of “the virgin” to his miraculous conception without male participation via God’s very holy spirit. In other words, a baby who was both divine and human just as Jesus was. If virgin meant the same thing to Isaiah as it did to Matthew, there would have been an earlier version of Jesus called Immanuel. Of course this is preposterous, so the only alternative is the Immanuel prophecy had absolutely nothing to do with Isaiah’s time and was reserved solely for Jesus.
This position would open the flood gates to the most outlandish and far fetched interpretations of any text. To take a text and completely change its meaning isn’t hermeneutics, it’s theatrics. Anything goes and anything is possible. Be as creative as you need to get the meaning you want.
Another lesser known discrepancy between these versions demands our attention. It concerns verb tense and is critical to accurate and honest interpretation.
The problem with “re-interpreting” this verse is we are swimming against the swift waters of two thousand years of Christian theological tradition. To suggest a variant reading bucks at what hundreds of millions of believers have considered unassailable truth. But, if we remove the blinders of faith, the natural historical reading becomes crystal clear.
14”Therefore the Lord himself will give you [plural] a sign: Behold, the virgin [‘ha’almah,’ or “young woman”] will conceive [‘harah,’ predicate adjective agreeing in number and gender but not definiteness with previous noun, “the young woman is pregnant”] and give birth to a son, and she will call him Immanuel.”(Isaiah 7:14).
There is no verb “conceive” in the original. Instead there is an adjective, ‘harah’ which means pregnant or “with child.” It agrees in gender (feminine) and number (singular) to “the virgin” (or preferably, “young woman”) but carries no definitive article. Its translative value is, “the virgin or young woman is with child.”
The Christian translators of almost every version of our English Bibles have deliberately matched this text syntactically and theologically to Matthew’s and indeed Christian theology by installing a future pregnancy to a virgin exempt from male participation. The outlandishness of such a rendering is lost on centuries of traditional Christian conditioning.
It is the goal of this article, and indeed every article, to tear down this mental barrier and inject logic and common sense where little has existed.
Genesis 16:11 & Judges 13:2-7
Two passages with similar grammatical constructions shed considerable light on Isaiah’s text.
11”The angel of the Lord also said [Imperfect with wav consecutive translated with past value] to her: “BEHOLD! [Interjection, ’hinnak’] You are now pregnant [substantive adjective, 2nd feminine singular, ‘harah’) andyouwill give birth [Qal Perfect with wav conjunctive translated with future value] to a son. You shall name him [same as previous] Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”(Genesis 16:11)
This text in Genesis can aid us in interpreting Isaiah’s text. Hagar is already pregnant (16:4,5) and is described as such with the same adjective used in Isaiah (‘harah’). Here it is used substantively as a noun, whereas in Isaiah it should be used as a predicate adjective. It might better be translated, “Behold, pregnant one! You will give birth…” The reason for this visitation is to announce the birth of Ishmael and his descendants,“so much that they may be too numerous to count” (vs. 10).
A passage in the book of Judges involving the birth of Samson is also helpful to our discussion. It introduces a remarkable element with profound implications. We will break the passage into three sections and examine each for its syntactical relevance.
2”A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth.
3The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said [Niphal imperfect with wav consecutive translated with past value] “BEHOLD! [Interjection, ’hinneh’] Nowyou are barren [predicate adjective] and childless [verb, ‘yalad’] but [perfect wav consecutive translated with future value] you are going to become pregnant and will give birth [wav consecutive with perfect translated with future value] to a son.
The passage contains a literary technique used in narrative sequence which can appear misleading since tenses shift in value. This has been noted.
The translators have obscured some helpful grammatical nuances. “Barren” is a predicate adjective and “childless” is a verb which has been translated also as a predicate adjective removing the dramatic effect intended. Verse three would instead read.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold! Now you are barren and you have borne no children, but you will conceive and give birth to a son.”
4Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. 5You will become pregnant [substantive adjective, 2nd feminine singular, ‘harah’] and will give birth [perfect with wav conjunction translated with future values] a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”
What happens between verses four and five is of critical important to interpreting this text shedding light on Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy.
The translators have perhaps deliberately changed the tense of the verse to conform to Isaiah. ‘Harah’ is again changed to a future verb tense unnecessarily. Its identical use in Genesis to describe an already pregnant Hagar should have the same force here and in Isaiah.
Various textual clues suggest the angel of the Lord’s visit was contemporaneous with her conceiving and not a future event involving Manoah. The adverb, “Now” (‘attah’) has been weakened in force by translations like found above. It would be better rendered, “Therefore, now be on your guard! Do not drink wine or strong drink and do not eat unclean food.”
The angel is commanding this woman not to drink wine or any fermented drink or eat anything unclean because she is currently carrying Samson. She is complying with the Nazirite vow on behalf of Samson who is currently in her womb as indicated in the next verse. This stands in stark contrast to verse three.
The angel seems to repeat what he has said previously but actually he has made a significant change. He addresses the woman not as one who will become pregnant but one who is now pregnant. An alternative reading carries this force.
“For behold, pregnant one! You will bear a son and no razor will come upon his head for the child will be a Nazirite to God from birth, and he himself will begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.”
It is curious the translators have once again transformed an adjective into a future verb tense. What impact, if any, Isaiah’s text had on this decision is unknown. Certainly here it is not necessary and may in fact provide some insight into another theological quandary. What role did Manoah play in Samson’s conception? We will discuss this further at the end of this section.
6Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name. 7But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant [substantive adjective, 2nd feminine singular, ‘harah’] and have [‘yalad,’ wav consecutive with perfect tense translated with future value] a son . Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’ ”(Judges 13:2-7)
The woman returns to her husband to tell him her news. She repeats almost verbatim what the angel said to her the second time. Note the absence of “now” because, as she tells Manoah, she is currently pregnant. When the angel of the Lord was informing her conception had just taken place. “Now” was inserted to stress the change in her condition from moments before.
It should be noted the narrative never gives the slightest indication conception has taken place any other time, i.e., later with Manoah. After the couple witness the spectacle of the angel of the Lord ascending in the flame of the burnt offering, the narrative states, “The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson” (Jdg. 13:24). Nowhere is intercourse implied and in fact the birth seems accelerated if anything. If the writer had in mind the conception was yet to take place with Manoah, he would have included this in his narrative.
It seems far more plausible the author was stressing the angel of the Lord as an actual physical manifestation of the Lord who caused the woman to conceive despite her barren state (vs. 3). Such an interpretation is grammatically and logically consistent with the text. Therefore, it cannot be used by Christians to support a futuristic rendering of a predicate adjective.
Some Christian commentators argue the two states of pregnancy and delivery must be given a futuristic interpretation in Judges. In other words, “will become pregnant” and “will give birth.” The fallaciousness of such reasoning should be obvious. It would have far greater impact to the text under review, for the angel of the Lord to be declaring to Samson’s mother conception had taken place at the moment of visitation from “God” (Jdg. 13:22).
We may speculate on one of the New Testament’s most vexing questions. Why do Matthew and Luke included an extensive genealogy tracing Jesus birth through the Davidic line. If he was conceived miraculously via God’s spirit? Would this not disqualify him as a genetic descendant of David? Surely these writers would be aware of this obvious incongruence if one existed.
Is it possible they viewed his birth much like that of Samson who seemed to be conceived without Manoah’s participation? Yet he was still regarded as his offspring. If so, we are witnessing nascent Christology in Matthew and Luke which had yet to accord Jesus equal status with God. God was regarded as the father of Jesus via his spirit but not the exclusive father of Jesus. Nor at this time had Jesus ascended to the rank of second person of the Trinity which was centuries from formulation.
Defending the indefensible
It is critical to Christians, “The virgin,” not be already pregnant though a modified view would have accommodated the virgin birth of Jesus in a natural sense. Which is to say, Mary conceived simultaneous to consummating her marriage giving Jesus’ birth a special status. Had Jesus remained an earthly messiah who exercised this role to bring about Israel’s restoration, this would have been the teaching; however, the resurrection/ascension theory changed everything.
Matthew or whomever originated the virgin birth story needed the woman in Isaiah’s text to be a virgin whom God could impregnate much like Samson’s mother. Though Samson possessed remarkable strength (superhuman even), he was not thought divine.
The point we are making is Jesus’ alleged supernatural birth via God’s spirit was not entirely unique. John the Baptist’s birth was miraculously orchestrated due to the age of his parents. God’s participation in births had been done before. Christians simply took it to a much higher level with Jesus to make it conform to their understanding of Jesus’ exalted state.
The exegetical liberties undertaken by Christians from the start is understandable and forgivable. They were not under the constraints of science or reason but God’s supernatural spirit. They were ruled by experience which dictated how they viewed the worlds of both the natural and spiritual. It was entirely “reasonable” to use the prophetic texts to illuminate and elucidate their understanding of who Jesus was.
Matthew’s concern was simply to find a text that seemed to support Jesus’ divinity or could be used to add further details about who Jesus was. When he “stumbled” upon Isaiah’s text, it opened up a world of speculation. He was able to create a story to explain how God and man could dwell in one body through divine conception. It did not matter his use violated the context and spirit of Isaiah’s original intention where there is no mention of Bethlehem, the holy spirit or divine impregnation not to mention the birth of “another’ Jesus like child named Immanuel.
The point is we are no longer living in biblical times. We do not have an excuse for sloppy hermeneutics nor should we indulge the fantastical thinking of groups like evangelicals. The time for an honest and accurate understanding of the Bible and Jesus is long overdue (by about five hundred years). The religious mind is not innocent and harmless. Being enslaved to these ancient superstitions has consequences some potentially dire.
It is not facts and data which cause so many to cling to the hope Christianity offers. It is fear undergirded by a sense God exists and the Bible is inspired. The role “feeling” plays in the evangelical experience should not be diminished or denied. The Bible feels true and God feels real for most evangelicals and that’s good enough. Unfortunately, it is a mental compromise.
Isaiah 7:14 could and should read:
If Christianity did not exist, Isaiah’s text would likely read as follows:
“The Lord himself will give you (plural) a sign. Behold! The woman with child will give birth to a son, and she will call his name, with us is God.”
This interpretation fits perfectly with the historical context and tone of the prophecy. It is also grammatically and syntactically sound. The only thing it violates is the Christian view. The audience is Judah (“you” is plural so the sign is not solely for Ahaz but all of Judah). The woman, likely Isaiah’s wife (See Isa. 8:18), is already pregnant making the sign imminent, certain and in progress, perhaps a few months until fulfillment. She is designated by Isaiah (“the woman with child”) to lock in the prophecy. The countdown has started and cannot be stopped anymore than her pregnancy. His name is symbolic to show to Judah God is with them in these troubling times.
The virgin concept must be abandoned for several reasons. First, the word itself does not specifically mean virgin which would have been critical if this was the focus. Second, the adjective cannot be given a futuristic verbal force when throughout scripture it has a present value (Gen. 16:11; 38:24,25, Ex. 21:22, Jdg. 13:5,7, 1 Sam. 4:19, 2 Sam. 11:5, Isa. 26:17, Jer. 30:8). Third, it adds valuable time to the prophecy by making conception and pregnancy still future. Also it raises the question, which virgin is in view and how does she suddenly become pregnant with Immanuel?
Judeans were already under enormous strain and the promise of an imminent birth of a pregnant woman to alleviate their suffering would be far more comforting than a pregnancy yet to take place.
These textual details should themselves be conclusive. The myriad logistical problems which arise when the Christian interpretation is forced should all but settle the matter. Obviously, this woman existed then, so if she had Immanuel as a virgin, he would be similar to Jesus, both human and divine, because God would have to assist in conception. The only way to avoid this theological dilemma would be to change the meaning of ‘almah’ which changes the meaning of the text and renders it unusable for Matthew’s purpose as specific prophetic fulfillment.
It is reasonable to assume, were it not for this Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, there would be no Christmas. Jesus’ divinity would still have been the bedrock of Christianity but it would likely be derived from John’s logos doctrine and Hebrew wisdom literature.
In the face of a mountain of evidence, logical, textual and theological, most Christians will reject it based on little more than a prima facie reading of Matthew and Isaiah’s text, a defaulting to the supernatural which makes anything possible. Reason no matter how compelling will always be sacrificed on the altar of prophetic revelation.
Christians who are aware of this tension have devised clever rationalizations as to how it could be used both by Isaiah and Matthew differently yet legitimately.
The Double Fulfillment theory of prophecy
At this point, many evangelical theologians would conveniently defer to the “Dual” or “Double” theory of prophetic fulfillment which postulates a partial present and fuller future realization. The unreasonableness of this argument should be obvious. It requires radically changing the original meaning of a simple natural birth to a future miraculous one of the eternal son of God when the text provides no such clues, e.g., the involvement of God’s holy spirit. The absence of which renders the verse absurd. How is this virgin to conceive? God’s holy spirit must be implied which would change the entire dynamic of the sign by making the “divine child” the focus and not simply a certain age he attains. Also this child signaled tragedy for Israel not hope as Jesus’ birth was supposed to do.
The double fulfillment theory is one of evangelical Christianity’s most devilish inventions. It allows one to “push” idealistic or unfulfilled prophecies to a future time under the guise of being divinely “delayed” rather than admit prophetic failure. It’s a never ending series of anticipation, failed realization and deferred hope. The optimism of a prophet as one intimately connected to his God resulted in romanticized depictions of a glorious future for Israel, which never came.
The first Christians (Jewish) hijacked this idealism hoping Jesus would fulfill all Israelite wishes for a restored Israel as the heavenly messiah. A series of failed messianic expectations led to Jewish Christianity’s inevitable demise. Gentile Christianity rose on the back of God’s seeming disdain with his “natural branches” and favor towards the “wild olive shoot” he had grafted in (Romans 11:17f.).
By the completion of the books that would eventually comprise the New Testament canon, Paul’s doctrine of Gentile inclusion and Israel’s rejection had taken root. The destruction of Jerusalem, Israel’s continued resistance to Jesus as their messiah and the passing of years with no trace of the kingdom led to the formulation of a new theory. Replacement theology posited God had turned his back on his people and replaced them with the Gentiles. In effect, this voided all promises of a literal messianic kingdom in restored Israel. A spiritual kingdom of those “in Christ” had already begun. It would replace
The synoptic gospels, particularly Matthew, contain a distinct apocalyptic message which Christians have pushed to a future Millennial age or spiritualized reign in believers. Matthew certainly did not envision the arrival of Jesus, the son of man, two thousand years in the future. He was convinced Jesus would arrive within “this generation” or not at all.
Telescoping or the Mountain Peaks perspective: Events may appear closer than they are
If you have ever climbed a mountain you are familiar with the phenomenon of how different the perspective is from the top. On the ground two mountain peaks may appear almost overlapping but when one arrives at the summit, one sees the vast distance separating peaks.
Anyone who reads through Isaiah’s material will find a peppering of references to multiple events within a single passage. Inerrantists and literalists simply attribute this to predictive prophecy. Others would see the hands of various editors over many years as a more plausible explanation.
A technique called telescoping occurred when a later writer conflated two or more events into one continual event. For instance, combining the initial attack on Israel and Syria by Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser (735BC), the fall of Samaria at the hands of Assyrian kings Shalmaneser and Sargon (722BC), king Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah and the siege of Jerusalem (701BC) and even the fall of Jerusalem under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (586BC) and subsequent return under the Persian king Cyrus’ edict (536BC). These events when viewed from a distant time(s) might appear closer than they were much like mountain peaks which seem to be near when in fact they are miles apart.
The difficulty arises when a reader discovers a text with allusions to several events. A conservative Christian is prone to see supernatural predictive prophecy whereas a literary critic would see a later editorial hand(s). In this sense, someone writing well after these events took place could see it as one long continuous period instead of separate events.
The importance of clarifying this technique is a question of plausibility. We must ask what impact a distant prophecy would have on the audience if it were indeed given at this time?
Shear-Jasub: “A remnant will return”
Why does the writer mention Isaiah’s first son, Shear-Jashub (Isa. 7:3 above), whose name means, “A remnant will return.” Its placement here is confusing and seems historically and logically out of place. What remnant and from where are they returning? When did the deportation take place and at whose hands? How would this help to quell the fears of the Judeans hearing it?
It cannot refer to Tiglath-pileser when he attacked Israel and Syria since there is no evidence of a mass deportation by Assyria of Judeans. Also, there is no indication Ahaz felt double crossed by Assyria. He submitted as Tiglath-Pileser’s “servant and vassal” (2 Kings 16:7) and, “took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:8). In turn, Tiglath-Pileser is said to have “complied” (2 Kings 16:9) resulting in Ahaz building an altar for the king and offering sacrifices on it in “deference” to him (2 Kings 16:10-18).
Nor can it refer to Israel since they are the villains and the target of Assyrian aggression and not the beneficiaries of the prophecy.
If the identity of this remnant is confined to this period and refers to a small group who return, it also cannot refer to Jerusalem which was the only city not breeched by Syria and Israel. Nor would one describe its inhabitants as “returning” to a city they never left. We are then left with allocating it to those who were released by Israel having escaped slaughter.
Contextually, it seems to point to those from Judah who have been taken captive by Israel and who will be released (rf. 2 Chron. 28:9-15) since the name implies the removal has already occurred. Why would Isaiah bring up a future event?
If this is the case, it seems to contradict the injunction of the prophet of the Lord, Oded, who orders all “prisoners” be returned with no hint of only a remnant being released.
9”But a prophet of the Lord named Oded was there, and he went out to meet the army when it returned to Samaria. He said to them, “Because the Lord, the God of your ancestors, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven. 10And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalemyour slaves. But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the Lord your God? 11Now listen to me! Send back your fellow Israelites you have taken as prisoners, for the Lord’s fierce anger rests on you.”(2 Chronicles 28:9-11)
Note: “The men and women of Judah and Jerusalem” are here referred to as “fellow Israelites” (vs.11).
6”In one day Pekah son of Remaliah killed a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in Judah—because Judah had forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors.”(2 Chronicles 28:6)
According to the text many from Judah had been “slaughtered” at the hands of their fellow Israelites (2 Chron. 28:9). The egregiousness of this sin seems to have eluded Isaiah though the Chronicler blames these killings on Judah’s rebellion from Yahweh. If nothing else, this greatly diminishes the impact of the Immanuel prophecy’s promise of comfort. The Immanuel prophecy is meant to console Judah not cause despair.
Another theory is Isaiah is offering “a prophetic teaser” of a yet to come major deportation and subsequent promised return? The word “remnant” implies only a small portion being spared while the majority suffer some unknown fate either death, bondage or lostness. But this scenario would hardly be consoling to Judah at this time (though may be perfectly suited to an exilic audience, to be discussed below). The import of this passage is to show how much Yahweh cares for Judah not create panic and anxiousness.
We pause here for perspective remembering the writer(s) is not attempting to record pure history. He is severely prejudiced by religious fanaticism that sees Yahweh meddling in the affairs of his people and the nations. Furthermore his mind is clouded by optimism and idealism. He is convinced one day Yahweh will destroy those who have punished his people and Israel will be vindicated among the nations (see Isaiah’s judgment of the nations chapters 10-35 exclusive).
The prophetic office: Fore-teller and Forth-teller
It is a mistake to think of the prophet solely as a predictor of future events. His primary role would not be much different from modern day preachers who attempt to provide a divine perspective on the mundane affairs of life. The dual functions of interpreting past events and predicting future events were key roles. However, it was his perceived ability to foretell the future that gave him the necessary authority to inveigh on past or current events.
Like so many events in the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic role is not so much that of foreteller as it is of forth-teller. These divine representatives were tasked with explaining why certain events befell their Israelite brethren, showing the hand of God in them and explaining what God required of them. Isaiah did not predict Assyria’s invasion but warned against relying on it rather than Yahweh. When Judah also suffered under Assyrian domination, it was deemed because of unfaithfulness.
Later editors would modify the text to suggest the predictive element in order to give credibility to the message of their prophet(s). By attaching additional instruction couched in prophetic fulfillment in the name of a respected prophet, their teaching was imbued with similar divine authority. The nature of this tactic was prophetic hindsight.
The following verse (below) appears to threaten Judah. It seems out of place given the context of “a sign” meant to provide comfort. Here is an example of a later interpolation meant to reconcile Judah’s initial reprieve due to Assyria’s intervention with Assyria’s later invasion. Yahweh’s reputation is at stake so the writer inserts a promise of destruction since he can’t retract the original.
17”The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”(Isaiah 7:17)
Ahaz is warned of Assyria’s attack on Judah in the context of the Immanuel prophecy (Isa. 7:14-16). The writer makes no attempt to offer a separate prophecy. Why bring up now that which will occur under Hezekiah’s reign when Sennacherib takes the throne and attacks Judah (comp., Isa. 7:17 with 36:1f.)? It would cause undo stress on the people many of whom won’t be alive when it does transpire. Also, if many in Judah were deported at this time, the biblical record does not reflect it though Israel’s relocation is well attested (2 Kings 17:6; 18:11). Sennacherib seemed content to conquer and capture Judean towns to support his war efforts. Lastly, no indication is given when the king of Assyria will arrive leaving the people in a state of perpetual fear. And given Assyria is currently active, aggressive and about to invade Israel, Isaiah is sending mixed messages of comfort and worry to a people Immanuel is supposed to give succor.
Christian commentators try valiantly to attach this dire prediction to Assyria’s attack on Israel because of its awkward placement here. It seems to negate the promise of comfort Immanuel was to bring. Why add insult to injury by promising to remove one threat (Israel and Syria) and replace it with a greater future threat (Assyria)?
The essential question is does this passage belong to the time period of the previous prophecy or is it introducing a new later prophecy? If the former, it nullifies any inherent comfort for Judah by anticipating unprecedented suffering. If the latter, it can only refer to Sennacherib’s attack during Hezekiah’s reign. The difficulty arises when one analyzes the entire passage which seems to elaborate on the imagery of “curds and honey” (vs. 21-25) from the Immanuel text. Furthermore, the addressee of verse seventeen seems to be Ahaz not Hezekiah who would be king if it was in reference to the events of 701BC. The muddling of details makes for confusion if attributed to the original audience but these disappear when presented to a later audience.
The phrase, “In that day” (Isa. 7:18,20,21,23) is repeated four times in reference to when, “He [the Lord] will bring the king of Assyria” tying it directly to verse seventeen. It is unmistakable Assyria is the cause of privation, not Israel and Syria. It is impossible to make the argument Assyria caused this degree of devastation to the land until Sennacherib; therefore, the melding of three major events overt a span of thirty-five years the most plausible explanation. The impact of this on a later audience (post 701BC) would have been great, whereas, it would be irrelevant on the presumed audience.
It would be natural to see this as a later interpolation designed to stress to the people of Judah their impending fate which had not originally been foreseen. It is likely, the Immanuel prophecy was given not long after Assyria attacked the lands of Israel and Judah but well before Assyria’s conquest of Judah. A later writer might easily have attached this second prophecy to show Isaiah’s prescience without realizing (or caring) it nullified the original purpose of the “sign.”
It is entirely possible, the land of Judah was overgrown with “briers and thorns” at the time of this writing or in the writer’s memory which he included in his description for dramatic effect. The possibility Israel and Syria had inflicted such widespread and lasting devastation as to warrant so bleak a description seems implausible. And if so, would suggest they had already endured a long period of suffering making a promise of deliverance still several years away of little value.
20”In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—to shave your heads and private parts, and to cut off your beards also.”(Isaiah 7:20)
These words that surround the Immanuel prophecy restrict its meaning to the end of the eighth century when these events took place. More importantly, it is hard to reconcile its Christian meaning of hope and salvation with the dire predictions found throughout this chapter and those that follow.
Immanuel’s other forgotten brother
We now move to chapter eight where another sign is given which calls into question the accuracy of the first.
1”The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” a 2So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. 3Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. 4For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”(Isaiah 8:1-4)
This second (third if you count Shear-Jashub, Isa. 7:3) child seems to provide a second closer countdown to Assyria’s invasion seeming to render the Immanuel prophecy redundant. Again, it begins with a promise of Assyria’s attack of Israel and Syria, then attaches a clear reference to Judah’s inclusion.
5”The Lord spoke to me again:
6“Because this people has rejected
the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
and the son of Remaliah,
7therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
8and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
There is a break after verse four then another prophecy is introduced, “The Lord spoke to me again” (‘od’). The writer/editor makes no attempt to conceal his intention to link the two chronologically even repeating “Rezin” (vs. 6) who figured prominently in initiating Assyria’s original involvement.
In the passage cited above, verse eight deserves special attention. It seems to be a thinly veiled reference to Sennacherib’s assault on Judah which eventually stalled at Jerusalem. The importance of this momentous event in Israel’s history cannot be overstated. The Isaiah scroll opens with it.
7”Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege.
9Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”(Isaiah 1:7-9)
The first chapter of Isaiah contains this vivid description of the devastation of the land inhabited by “foreigners” and “strangers.” This an unmistakable reference to Assyrian aggression under Sennacherib (see also Isaiah 10). Jerusalem is compared to “a hut in a cucumber field” suggesting its lonely status as all other cities lie in ruin. The placement at the beginning of Isaiah is no mistake. Jerusalem’s salvation would define Israel’s future as a nation indebted to Yahweh and the one in whom they would place their confidence.
Judaism as a cultus centered exclusively in Jerusalem owes its beginning to this event. For one hundred years it would strengthen and grow. When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, it was able to withstand this catastrophic event by suggesting it was deserved. It was payment for the nations unfaithfulness. The Yahwist remnant remained stedfast even in captivity and was vindicated when Cyrus issued his decree. Judaism would return stronger than ever and take the path it did. The corpus of Hebrew writings were profoundly influenced by those who saw this as a defining moment in Israel’s history.
When one pulls the camera back and views the entirety of the last half of the eighth century in Israel, it is one of mostly despair. Except for Jerusalem, the rest of the land has been reduced to briars and thorns, cities and villages plundered and filled with foreigners who have replaced their inhabitants. The one and only bright spot was the miraculous deliverance of Zion because of the Temple. It became abundantly clear to the Yahwist community this was no accident but was of divine intent. Yahweh by defending his dwelling place was declaring its preeminence while at the same time denouncing all other places of worship throughout the land.
For the next century, Isaiah was canonized as the prophet who confidently asserted Jerusalem would not fall under Yahweh’s care. He was vindicated when Sennacherib’s forces fell victim to a mysterious lethal illness. So depleted was his army, he was forced to break off the siege and retire to Nineveh or risk Egyptian retaliation at his flanks. But the story does not end here.
Over a century later, another epic event would shake Yahwism to its core. The Babylonian conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar, would bring his army to Jerusalem’s doorstep, but this time there would be no reprieve for the holy city. It destruction along with the pillaging and profaning of the sacred temple seemed to question the certainty of the heretofore inviolability of Yahweh’s covenantal pledge to protect his city, land, people and king.
With the land now empty of most of its noble citizenry and dispersed throughout the newly evolving empire, the Yahweh cultus seemed destined for extinction. Were it not for the rise of a new Persian king, Cyrus, who issued an edict releasing all captives and allowing them to return to their homeland, Judaism as we know it would likely look very different.
While in captivity, the Yahwist community continued in its hope for deliverance. Its prayers were answered in 538BC when Cyrus permitted deportees to return to their homes. The impact on Yahwists was especially profound as they saw the divine hand of their God controlling this pagan king. He was deemed, “a messiah” (Isa. 45:1f.) for his role in releasing the captives.
The “holy race” (Ez. 9:2, Mal. 2:15) and “remnant” (Ezra 9:8,13-15; Neh. 1:3. Hag. 1:12; 2:2) who returned to Israel had had their hopes stoked by prophetic promises of a land of prosperity and opportunity (Deut. 30:1-10, Jer. 29:10,11, Isaiah 65&66). Instead, they were met by resistance and hardship, mostly brought upon themselves by disrespecting and antagonizing the native peoples (Ez. 4:3,4; Neh. 1:3; 4:8; 6:6,7; 13:3 ), and famine (Hag. 1:5-11; 2:16-18, Neh. 5:1-5, Zech. 1:17, Mal. 2:2 ) which initially dampened their spirits (Ez. 3:12,13) and curtailed celebrations. The historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah along with the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah (Zech. 8:9-13) and Malachi (3:10,11) attest to the hardships of these first returnees which were attributed to their sins like mixed marriages and a defile priesthood (Ez. 9:10f; 10:3f., Neh. 1:7f; 9:2,36-38, Zech. 1:3, Mal. 3:7).
Another important factor in the ascendancy of Yahwism was the purging of Canaanite gods especially Ba’al from the Israelite pantheon after the Babylonian captivity. Many of the Canaanite deities did not travel well because they were localized gods. Others like Astarte and Baal had failed to repel Assyria and Babylon. El was subsumed by Yahweh who took over most of the roles assigned to these other deities such as fertility, weather and war. The Yahwist remnant who returned were first to plant the seeds of monotheism.
29”In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maakah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria. 30Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah.”(2 Kings 15:29-30)
The time span given is roughly fifteen years which from 735BC when the prophecy is given until the boy can discern right from wrong until 722BC when Samaria falls. It seems hardly comforting for the people of Judah to endure such long suffering; however, they did receive immediate relief when Ahaz secured Assyria’s help shortly after the Syrian-Israelite alliance began to threaten Judah (2 Kings 15:5-9). This renders the Immanuel prophecy pointless but brings into consideration the Maher-shalal-hash-baz sign which was to take place much sooner. Since Damascus is referenced in both sign prophecies, they must refer to Assyria’s initial and only attack on the city which resulted in its utter destruction (2 Kings 16:9).
The juxtaposition of these two signs is perplexing given the importance attached to the first. The need for the second sign and how it’s presented on a large scroll might suggest the need to reiterate the promise of the first prophecy. Perhaps the people were losing patience and doubting God’s promised deliverance. If so, he is reassuring the people the Assyrians are coming to their aid. We may see in these passages the work of the real Isaiah as he struggled to persuade the people of what he knew to be true. His king, Ahaz, had purchased Assyria’s help and Isaiah would capitalize on this knowledge to inspire the inhabitants of Jerusalem to faith and repentance.
Those bound to inerrancy are resistant to abandon historical accuracy or predictive prophecy but whomever the writer is, he is recording these events long after they have taken place. Nobody was transcribing Isaiah’s words as he spoke and preserving them to check for accuracy after the fact. Furthermore, later editors were free to emend the text as necessity dictated to make it conform to prophetic standards. For instance, the insertion of a verse specifically directed at Judah’s demise in the context of a passage intended to provide Judah/Ahaz with hope.
Isaiah had a long and illustrious career as a prophet. He first saw Tiglath-Pileser’s attack on Israel and Syria. Then he witnessed the fall of Samaria (722BC) under Sargon and Shalmaneser’s rule. And finally, he experienced Sennacherib’s assault on Judah (701BC). He very likely had some prescience of this looming storm building on the horizon for Judah and preached accordingly. No doubt these events spawned many sermons which were later codified and edited. The supreme difficulty for any literary critic is trying to separate the various strands chronologically. It may be an impossible task. What is left is a series of passages containing a sprinkling of several key events attributed to one man.
If we step back and look at the big historical picture spanning roughly thirty-five years (735-700BC), it is one of doom and gloom for Judah. Jerusalem has narrowly escaped its first threat from an attack by Israel and Syria after refusing to back the latter’s alliance against Assyria; however, the rest of Judah had suffered tremendously (2 Chron. 28:5f.). Their suffering would be exacerbated when Hezekiah took the throne and refused (temporarily) to continuing paying tribute to Assyria. The unprotected and fortified cities throughout Judah would be ravaged by Assyria’s advancement toward Jerusalem which it would once again “miraculously” escape (Jerusalem’s walls were its real savior).
Jerusalem’s respite was short-lived once Assyria made its way south eventually landing on Zion’s doorstep (701BC) having plundered and pillaged the land and its people along the way. These “signs” which Christian associate with the birth of the messiah and the salvation he brought are opposite to what they originally signaled — the judgment of Assyria upon Israel. Finding “peace on earth, goodwill towards men” is polar opposite of the suffering these two children heralded. Except for those fortunate enough to find refuge behind the indomitable walls of Jerusalem, the inhabitants of the land found themselves deported, displaced or dead. Immanuel which means, “God with us” portended misery not hope for most of Israel.
Isaiah’s audience: An exilic remnant
The idea Isaiah was a true prophet of Yahweh entrusted with divine oracles of yet future events especially the birth of Jesus as the messiah is wonderfully romantic and patently fallacious. It is reserved for those who have surrendered their mental faculties to fanciful dreams of a glorious future age.
Sprinkled throughout the book of Isaiah is the promise of hope and restoration. Yahweh through his holy servants will make good on his promise to preserve and protect his chosen people regardless of what befalls them, so long as they obey him (Isa. 7:9). In many cases, the prophets argue, he is using Israel’s wicked neighbors as instruments to carry out justice on his behalf (Isa. 10:5).
A careful reading of the biblical text and recorded history of the Israelites reveal glaring inconsistencies which we can only briefly mention here. Isaiah repeatedly inveighed against the wickedness of Jerusalem’s inhabitants (Isa. 1:21; 3:8 etc…), yet they were spared while the entire nation was ransacked by Assyria.
Isaiah tried to use these events to rally confidence in Yahweh and effect change in conformity to his sacred laws. Obedience would bring deliverance and blessing while unfaithfulness would bring judgment. We can only imagine how necessary this was to maintain morale in a nation constantly beset by conflict and war. The wondrous beauty of the prophetic message bursts through the dark clouds of despair like a ray of divine sunshine warming those it touches. In most cases it was a “remnant” who were saved.
7”Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege.
9Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”(Isaiah 1:7-9)
2”In that day the Branch [‘tsemach’] of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. 3Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem.”(Isaiah 4:2,3)
13”And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”(Isaiah 6:13)
1”A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch [‘netser’] will bear fruit.”(Isaiah 11:1)
11”In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean.”12He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.”(Isaiah 11:11,12)
These passages, and others (Isa. 5:13; 8:7,8), reveal a clear reference to “future” (if we accept the prophetic perspective) deportations in the context of the remnant concept. In the writer’s mind the remnant were those left after the deportations as well as the returnees. It is obviously more than a reference to those Israelites deported first in part by Tiglath-pileser (735BC, 2 Kings 15:29) and completed by Sargon (722BC, 2 Kings 17:6) who were exclusively from the Northern tribes. It is the more distant reference to the Babylonian captivity and subsequent return under Cyrus which includes “all Israelites.”
Most commentators see a total reclamation implied involving all the dispersed Israelites from both Assyrian and Babylonian deportations. Although Isaiah is ministering primarily to Judah, later prophets would envision a regathering of all Israel’s people. With this in mind, this could reflect the hand of second Isaiah writing after Cyrus’ decree while the scattered tribes were still in captivity. The failed optimism of the northern tribes return had not yet been realized and still offered a glimmer of hope. The prospect Yahweh will restore all of Israel has lingered for millennia and remains an integral part of Judaism’s eschatology today.
Shear-Jasub never existed but the remnant concept inherent in his name was critical. He was a fictional character created by the writer to advance his theological purpose. Nobody names a child this way. It was etiological. The challenge facing the leaders of the Yahwist cultus was preserving its supremacy. They needed to explain why Judah and Jerusalem fell, and how Yahweh was faithful to his holy remnant in exile. Cyrus’ decree unlocked the floodgate and unleashed a torrent of hope the nation would experience their glorious restoration (Isaiah 65&66). It would all begin with the return of a holy race (Isa. 11:11,16, Ez. 9:2,8, Neh. 1:3) to the land to begin the task of rebuilding the Temple from which the law would be proclaimed.
2”In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”(Isaiah 2:2,3)
Isaiah: The Christian prophet
“Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”(John 12:41)
The writer of John’s gospel suggests the prophet Isaiah saw “Jesus’ glory.”
It is not unusual for Christians to regard Isaiah as a “Christian” prophet because of his alleged references to Jesus as the messiah. Commentators will frequently suggest Isaiah was given glimpses into Jesus’ future birth, work, death and resurrection. Since the beginning, Christians have placed a Christian hermeneutical grid over the “Old Testament” especially Isaiah to reinforce their conviction in the prophetic legitimacy of their faith. Of course, such thinking is absurd except to the Christian mind.
It should be noted how far many Christians are willing to go with inflicting a Christian perspective on this text. Those who are locked into seeing Jesus in much of Isaiah’s “messianic” prophecies will read into this text a spiritual reclaiming of Jews and Gentiles from sins imperious grip. “Returning” is seen as a spiritual return to God not a physical return to the land. Though this may serve as a wonderful illustration, such a use of the text to “prove” predictive prophecy is unwarranted, unjustified and irresponsible. An honest and realistic interpretation without appeal to the supernatural and one that does not indulge religious affection is easily provided.
The intended audience were Judeans in Babylon who had grown increasingly despondent since Jerusalem’s fall and their own captivity. They needed assurance God had not deserted them as he seemed to have Israel but would bring them home. Cyrus’ decree gave the prophet the much needed confirmation Yahweh was sovereignly superintending the affairs of his people.
It must always be born in mind, these writers had a single purpose: to inspire Israelites to faith either by warning them of the repercussions of unfaithfulness or the rewards of faithfulness. Those in captivity would find comfort in reading or hearing the words of Judah’s most famous prophet, Isaiah. A prophecy spoken almost two hundred years ago promising through his son, Shear-jasub, a remnant would return. They would be that remnant!
The original Isaiah of the eighth century had encouraged Hezekiah to stand firm when other prophets advocated surrender (though there is some evidence he at first predicted Jerusalem’s fall, see Isa. 22:5; 32:14; 37:33, 2 Chron. 32:5 and Mic. 3:12 with Jer. 26:17-19, then changed as circumstances dictated). Isaiah was validated as a true prophet of Yahweh whose reputation would be celebrated for centuries. Later writers would piggy-back on his fame to advance their own prophetic agenda in tandem with his. Their goals were the same, to advance Yahwism among the people.
A Merry-go-round of reasoning
Where does a circle begin and end? I would challenge any who believe in the divine authority of the Bible to provide one single incontestable piece of evidence upon which this faith begins.
When all is said and done, many conservative will agree with some of what I have said. They will accept Isaiah’s writings contain multiple veiled references to events still to come like the falls of Samaria and Jerusalem, Babylonian captivity and Persian emancipation with one caveat. It is legitimate predictive prophecy no matter how specific or in advance. Through direct revelation, Isaiah foresaw all these events and even the coming of Jesus as the Messiah miraculously born of a virgin in Bethlehem. It all boils down to believing in the supernatural God of the supernatural Bible supernaturally inspiring men to speak or record his words.
For many Christians, the thought the text had been “tampered” with to give the impression Isaiah foresaw this when in fact he had not is reprehensible. It is an insult to God and his divine word. I would once again remind the reader, this presupposes the text is divinely authoritative which relies on predictive prophecy to validate it which cannot be established unless the former is presumed. It is an endless merry-go-round of fantastical thinking of appealing to one to prove the other and vice versa. It comes down to whether Isaiah glimpsed the future and recorded it for later generations. Or if a scribe(s) emended the text after the fact to bolster Isaiah’s prophetic credibility thereby inheriting his authority for his own message.
If we consider who would benefit most from this message, it would be a later audience. If we consider the impact this message would have on the presumed audience in 735BC, it would be met with confusion, uncertainty and fear. However, for a later audience, it would bring hope and comfort.
“Ockham’s Razor” of biblical interpretation
“The simplest, plain, literal, contextual interpretation is usually the author’s intended meaning.”
“When the plain sense makes perfect sense seek no other sense”
These two axioms should dictate how reasonable people interpret the biblical text, but they do not.
Once one removes their Christian spectacles, most of the Bible becomes incredibly plain and simple to interpret. It is only when we attempt to make a severely imperfect book perfectly infallible that accurate interpretation is obscured by a morass of faith addled thinking. We need not nor should be fettered by the limitations and prejudices of these ancient religious men. Approaching the text with unflinching scrutiny and objectivity void of a faith bias is the only rule of legitimate interpretation.
An interpretation does exist which is natural, historical, contextual and logical which precludes the possibility of the Christian view on these grounds.
Literary criticism and biblical inerrancy
The world of literary criticism is foreign to most conservative Christians because it tugs at the very fabric of inerrancy and biblical authority. Isaiah did not have a personal biographer transcribing his every word in real time. His sermons were probably written down over several decades somewhat haphazardly perhaps on several scrolls which were collated, appended and edited. Most importantly, unless one believes in predictive prophecy, these specific prophecies were written long after the fact, or at least achieved final fixed form. And it would appear, the writer implies God sent the Assyrians while 2 Kings makes it clear it was orchestrated by Ahaz.
Though not a popular opinion among conservative Christians, the book of Isaiah suggests the hands of many writers and editors over many decades. This is especially evident in the writings of Deutero (and perhaps Tritero) Isaiah in chapters forty through sixty-six.Though part of the same book, biblical scholars universally agree, they were composed during and after the Babylonian exile by later disciples of Isaiah’s prophetic school.
Note: For those who consider the second half of Isaiah to have been written by Isaiah himself, they must answer the question: How would this material have any relevance, comprehension or practical benefit to an eighth century audience? However, for an exilic and post-exilic audience it would be entirely relevant.
For those exercising the prophetic gift via Yahweh’s spirit, consistency would be assumed. Such a practice was done in the spirit of the original prophet by his disciples as a continuation of his prophetic style. These writers were not bound by the same literary principles and standards of objectivity and accuracy as we are today. The goal was to illicit faith in Yahweh by obedience to his message as presented by his prophets. In this regard, the theological end justified the literary means.
Their limitations along with these religious objectives would account for harmonizing several events, embellishing for dramatic effect and attempting to establish predictive prophecy. Though written as if being recorded in the real present, it is far more likely to have been written years or decades after the events described.
Evangelicalism and pseudo-scholarship
I feel compelled to address the issue of “scholarship” among evangelicals. What passes for scholarly work in the evangelical world is pseudo-scholarship in the secular world because it concerns the presumption of biblical inerrancy and the supernatural. An evangelical can most certainly be a bonafide scholar but not in matters which bring a conviction and application in the divine inspiration of the scriptures to his or her work. At this point one enters into the ethereal realm of borderless imagination and speculative fantasy. Incredibly, anyone who offers factual evidence which contravenes biblical authority is discounted because science, reason, logic and common sense must all bow to divine revelation.
Evangelicals pick and choose what scholarly work in theology to embrace and which to deny based entirely on whether it conforms to their inerrantist perspective. An evangelical scientist is unlikely to write a paper for peer review which advocates a literal six day creation of a young earth. Nor is a physics professor going to vehemently defend biblical miracles and the resurrection. Evangelical academics are prone to intellectual compartmentalization for fear of being professionally ostracized. They keep their beliefs “to themselves” preferring a quiet style of evangelization.
It used to be considered out of place for a politician to parade his religious beliefs among his constituents. Now it is a badge of honor and often necessary for office. We cannot be detained here to explore this matter further. We only draw attention to how high evangelicalism has ascended in politics today. It should embarrass us if not horrify us there are those who subscribe to the ancient biblical text as The Word of God. Those who do, do so without any rational justification. A smattering of biblical training from evangelical institutions, if any at all, qualifies one as an authority on the Bible. It is an affront to reason we continue to indulge pre-scientific thinking based on an arcane book.
Compromise is a dirty word but one most evangelicals embrace with enthusiasm. As their primitive thinking about the Bible grows increasingly unpopular and nonsensical, they are faced with one of two options. Either they dig their heels in deeper regardless of personal or professional consequences or they rationalize a style of faith that lets them function undetected for the most part in this world. They adopt many of the world’s standards and practices in the name of human frailty confessing, “God isn’t finished with me yet,” and indulge their carnal natures. I’m not saying any Christian is perfect, but they should most definitely be considerably more righteous than they are.
Inerrancy isn’t a belief, it’s a lifestyle
We’ve all heard someone say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I think most evangelicals should have this as a bumper sticker.
Inerrancy is maintained by Christians in an effort to ensure their place in heaven. It has little to do with an obligation to personal piety.
I could put forward a thousand reasons why the Bible isn’t the absolute, inerrant word of God. However, by far the greatest proof it isn’t is the lifestyle of those who most vociferously proclaim its infallibility — American evangelicals.
For fifteen years I read and studied the Bible everyday for hours. The more I read it, the more I felt compelled to follow it. Every time I turned the page, I was confronted with more teaching about my responsibility to live a holy life. Saturating yourself with God’s Word forces you to want to aspire to its ideals. Conversely, those who spend a few minutes a day in Bible study are unlikely to exhibit much a behavior change.
The doctrine of inerrancy means one is convinced the Bible reflects the mind of God which he communicated via his spirit to his prophets. Unless this dramatically effects how one lives, we should question those who insist on its veracity. Their lifestyle betrays their conviction, or lack thereof.
Was Isaiah being deliberately deceptive?
What if I said, God didn’t bring the Assyrians to attack Israel and Syria. Ahaz did?
Conservative Christians have a romantic outlook on the lives of many of the Bible’s most prominent characters. Moses, Joshua, David and Elijah, for instance, are regarded as having “feet of clay” but are otherwise righteous servants of Yahweh. Joshua would never be vilified as a mass murderer nor David as a blood thirsty mercenary. Whether it was Isaiah himself or his biographer, it would seem he was disingenuous with his portrayal of events.
The historical facts around which the writer built his narrative were the conspiracy of two kings against one and the subsequent arrival of the Assyrian army to relieve the pressure on Judah. It was the result of Ahaz’ deference to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria (rf. 2 Kings 16.7-18). The second event was the capture of Samaria by Shalmaneser and Sargon (721BC). Third was Sennacherib’s destruction of Judah and siege of Jerusalem (701BC). Whomever wrote or edited the Isaiah scroll crafted the narrative to strengthen Isaiah’s prophetic credibility and foster confidence among Judeans “to stand firm in your faith.”
Much like the four gospels, we have parallel accounts of these events in Kings and Chronicles which when compared introduce new issues which are difficult to reconcile with Isaiah logistically and perhaps ethically.
Christian commentators who adhere to the Harmony of Scripture doctrine, assume no scripture contradicts another scripture (Note, this is a predetermined belief arrived at through presumptive inerrancy). Scripture is reinterpreted and molded to fit other scripture rather than accept human fallibility and the possibility of contradiction.
5”Then Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem and besieged Ahaz, but they could not overpower him. 6At that time, Rezin king of Aram recovered Elath for Aram by driving out the people of Judah. Edomites then moved into Elath and have lived there to this day. 7Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. 9The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death.”(2 Kings 16:5-9)
The book of Kings make no mention of Judah’s hardships at the hands of Assyria. In fact, based on Ahaz’ efforts to ingratiate himself to Tiglath-Pileser by replicating an Assyrian altar and incorporating it within the Temple (vs. 10-18), he acts as if the king has been successful in removing the threat of Israel and Syria.
When a similar passage in 2 Chronicles (see below) is compared to this passage in Kings, it is evident this other author wanted to show Assyria was non compliant and in no way assisted Ahaz. Instead a prophet of the Lord, Oded, is credited with demanding Israel return her prisoners from Judah. This priestly perspective was necessary to avoid accepting a pagan nation being used to punish God’s chosen people or Israel taking fellow Israelites from Judah as slaves.
5”Therefore the Lord his God delivered him [Ahaz] into the hands of the king of Aram. The Arameans defeated him and took many of his people as prisoners and brought them to Damascus.
He was also given into the hands of the king of Israel, who inflicted heavy casualties on him. 6In one day Pekah son of Remaliah killed a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in Judah—because Judah had forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors. 7Zikri, an Ephraimite warrior, killed Maaseiah the king’s son, Azrikam the officer in charge of the palace, and Elkanah, second to the king. 8The men of Israel took captive from their fellow Israelites who were from Judah two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters. They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria.”(2 Chronicles 28:5-8)
After these events, Israel was forced by the prophet Oded to “give up the prisoners and plunder” (2 Chron. 28:14). We may infer much of the damage had already been done by this time, and certainly the foreign nations did not relinquish their human bounty. Furthermore, the implication in the Immanuel passage is the land of Judah was already in a severe state of wildness which could only be attributable to this invasion. The only other possibility is Sennacherib’s campaign thirty-five years later which would destroy the integrity of this text rendering it meaningless for the current audience.
16”At that time King Ahaz sent to the kings of Assyria for help. 17The Edomites had again come and attacked Judah and carried away prisoners, 18while the Philistines had raided towns in the foothills and in the Negev of Judah. They captured and occupied Beth Shemesh, Aijalon and Gederoth, as well as Soko, Timnah and Gimzo, with their surrounding villages. 19The Lord had humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had promoted wickedness in Judah and had been most unfaithful to the Lord. 20Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came to him, but he gave him trouble instead of help. 21 Ahaz took some of the things from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace and from the officials and presented them to the king of Assyria, but that did not help him.”(2 Chronicles 28:16-21)
If we did not have these additional records, we would conclude based on Isaiah’s text, he foresaw the invasion of Assyria which would ultimately relieve the pressure on Jerusalem by forcing Israel and Syria to defend themselves. However, when we introduce these “historical” accounts, it is clear Ahaz himself initiates Assyria’s aid though vassal submission and tribute well before 721BC. He is acutely aware of Assyria’s presence and his desperate need for their military support (He was not the first to seek foreign aid from Assyria, rf. 2 Kings 15:19). He gambles it is better to side with Assyria as a puppet king than to align with Israel and Syria and risk total devastation if unsuccessful against Assyria.
This passage nullifies the Immanuel prophecy altogether.
Could the writer be deliberately disingenuous in order to deceive his hearers into thinking Assyria’s involvement was initiated by God and not Ahaz? Remember, this probably was not written until well after Ahaz had died and perhaps Isaiah as well. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, at very least he was unaware of Ahaz’ role in securing Assyrian aid.
One further note regards the mention of Hezekiah’s tribute to Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:14) which is conveniently omitted in Isaiah’s historical section of the event (ch. 36). Likely, the king’s submission and offering would be seen as a lack of faith in Yahweh which would blemish his reputation. Furthermore, it was necessary the writer show Hezekiah’s willingness to listen to the prophet’s advice to resist Sennacherib. There is the possibility, “the writing was already on the wall,” when Isaiah admonished Hezekiah to stand firm against this threat. However, it is equally plausible, Isaiah truly believed Yahweh would protect his holy city and the mysterious illness which ravaged the Assyrian army was unmistakable proof he did. Regardless of what actually happened and why, this singular event established Isaiah’s prophetic credentials beyond a doubt. The centuries would only see his legendary status grow.
Conclusion: The pregnant young woman has a son named Immanuel
Forgetting for the moment the identity and nature of the child, the timing of events and which events are in view, the tone of this passage is diametrically opposed to the nativity stories. This alone should disqualify it as fulfilling, “What the Lord had said through the prophet” (Mt. 1:22).
Regardless of one’s interpretation, it is beyond comprehension how Christians can take this text in Isaiah as even remotely applicable to Jesus’ role as messiah. The original Immanuel of Isaiah was a harbinger of doom for Israel while Jesus’ birth was to be the salvation of Israel (as discussed in earlier section). Immanuel marked the time when Assyria would brutally attack Israel (and Syria) to relieve Judah. Unless one is willing to concede Jesus birth was intended only for the tribe of Judah, Assyria would inevitably and permanently destroy the Ten Tribes of Northern Israel (ca. 722BC) who would never return remaining “lost” to this day.
This would be Israel’s last “Christmas.”
Immanuel would bring temporary respite to Judah, in spite of her wickedness, but after she had already undergone considerable suffering first at the hands of Israel and Syria, then at the hands of her opportunistic neighbors, Edom and Philistine. By the time Immanuel was born, the land of Judah was already in a wild and uncultivated state. In order to keep Assyria at bay, her kings would continue to pay tribute as vassals including Hezekiah. God’s providential care was absent.
A cynic might look at Immanuel and Jesus’ birth as similar in that neither brought any solace to God’s chosen. They were either under the imperious thumb of Assyria or Rome and any promise of redemption went unfulfilled. Nothing in the Isaiah text hints of this child acting in a manner beneficial to Israel. The “messianic” concept is far removed from his role and quite the opposite. He heralds a time of final judgment on Israel not salvation. In Isaiah’s time, the Northern tribes would be banished and shortly thereafter all of Judah would be overrun except for Jerusalem. Jesus’ death would not see Israel’s restoration, far from it, instead Jerusalem would fall under the forces of Roman general Titus (70AD).
It’s almost two thousand years later (and counting) and Israel is no closer to its promised restoration. Immanuel was supposed to bring solace but if he did, it was short-lived. Jesus, on the other hand, was God incarnate and yet neither his life nor death brought the promised peace and hope for Israel. Evangelicals and other Christian groups can continue to delude themselves into thinking it is still to come, but in the twenty-first century such thinking seems steeped in the sectarianism of by gone days.
Inerrancy: A crippling of critical thinking
When I was an evangelical, I studied the Bible continually. I memorized scripture verses, doctrines, dates, places, events and whatever else was necessary to “master” its content. After fifteen years of passionate commitment to “all things biblical,” I would soon discover I had a completely distorted view of the Bible and Christianity. In many respects, being misinformed is worse than being uninformed because you think you are well informed. Dogmatism is a naturally by product of evangelical thinking because they believe they are absolutely right.
The Bible is an immensely complex collection of writings written over more than a thousand years with oral traditions dating back another thousand years. It was written or orally transmitted by hundreds of authors, compilers, editors and redactors in places like Egypt, Canaan, Babylon and throughout Asia Minor. It contains ancient hymns, sagas, songs, poems, proverbs, myths, legends and teachings born out of complex and unique situations. But if you’re a verbal, plenary inerrantist who sees each word as divinely perfect, it can all be reduced to simple fact.
The passage under consideration had profound implications for those who first heard it. Isaiah may have thought Assyria would be Judah’s deliverer because they refused to ally themselves against Assyria who in turn attacked Israel and Syria. It would be easy and unfair to blame what happened to Israel and Judah on “idolatry” as the biblical writers often do in hindsight. The Yahwists who wrote these books were religious revisionists who saw Yahweh’s sovereign hand in every detail of Israel’s history. For them it was theo-logical to assume her ebb and flow was directly related to her faithfulness or faithlessness to her covenantal obligations.
To the modern reasonable mind, this is simplistic and naive but understandable to the time. We must not indulge such ignorance as conservative Christians do and suppose the text is imbued with divine authority. Those who composed the New Testament writings were victims of this same historical naiveté and driven by religious devotion. It is reprehensible to rational thinking we accord the same degree of authority to the text in light of all we now know.
It is sheer romanticism to take the Bible at face value as one hundred percent factual and undeserving of critical evaluation. Inerrancy as held by evangelicals regards miracles as historical events, Jesus as the uncontested eternal son of God and the Hebrew prophets as divinely inspired prognosticators of yet unknown events. The ramifications of such beliefs have had and will continue to have increasingly profound consequences.
Paul’s (mis)use of the Hebrew Bible to justify his theological argument of Gentile inclusion
22Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel,
only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous.”(MT, Isaiah 10:22)
27Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved. 28For the Lord will carry out
his sentence on earth with speed and finality.”[LXX, Isaiah 10:22,23](Romans 9:27,28)
Paul quotes Isaiah 10:22,23 in Romans 9:27,28 in defense of Gentile inclusion. Isaiah’s text is in the historical context of Isaiah 7:14 under consideration. Paul’s argument is in the past God spared only a remnant of Israelites, not the entire nation. Therefore, during Paul’s time, it is logically consistent he was doing the same . Most Jews (Israelites) had rejected Jesus and would be judged for their stubborn refusal, but a small percentage (remnant) had believed and would be rewarded.
The infamous, “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26) text which is hotly disputed in light of Christian zionism, must be accounted for. The most honest and natural interpretation is Paul considered the remnant as those who were saved in Christ, and the rest of Israel to be temporarily blinded or hardened of heart until Jesus returned at which time they would acknowledge him as their messiah. Therefore, attempts by American evangelicals to abdicate their evangelistic responsibilities to convert Jewish people by appealing to this text are unjustified. If evangelicals were to commence evangelizing Jews, especially in Israel, the political fall out would be severe. The cozy relationship each enjoys with the other would be seriously challenged and perhaps betrays a disingenuousness that lies at the heart of this relationship.
Paul quotes a later passage in Isaiah to undergird his theory of Gentile inclusion.
1“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
2All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.”(Isaiah 65:1,2)
20”And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”[Isaiah 65:1]
21But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”[Isaiah 65:2](Romans 10:20,21)
Here again is a clear example of Paul using a text to suit his purpose without regard for its intended meaning. Certainly without the boundaries of context, these passages appear to support Paul’s argument. And while we could accept their use illustratively, we cannot condone their use interpretively. They simply have nothing to do Gentiles responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine the repercussions on Judaism if this was the intention.
Instead, this is a reference to Israelites in captivity were engaging in pagan practices who had forsaken worshipping Yahweh.
3”a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; 4who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of impure meat.”(Isaiah 65:3,4)
The passage continues by delineating two types of Israelites, those who are faithful and those who are rebellious. To his “servants” Yahweh will provide blessing (Isa. 65:13) but to those who “forsake” him he will bring “sword” and “slaughter” (Isa. 65:12).
In historical context, the prophet (in exile) suggests Yahweh has revealed himself to his people who were not looking for him. They were content in having assimilated the Babylonian culture in which they found themselves. It is likely, he implored them to turn from these evil ways and return to Yahweh which many refused. To these came a stern warning of wrath, as well as, disqualification from participating in the untold blessings of “new heavens and a new earth” for God’s people (Isa. 65:17f.).