Hebrew Bible, New Testament

Isaiah Sez What?


The King James Version (KJV) of the Christian Bible reads:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew 1:22-23

This is a quotation by the unknown author of the Gospel of Matthew from the Greek Septuagint version of The Book of Isaiah, also quoted below from the KJV.

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14

This is the passage from the Septuagint that Christians have quoted since the first century CE as fulfilled prophecy that Jesus was born of a virgin and therefore divine.  It sounds kind of silly when you stop and think about it.  It is a bit antiquated in thought, but it is part of the history of Christianity.  It also sounds a bit Greek to me.  In addition, there are also a few logical problems with this line of thought.

The first problem is that there were no prophecies or requirements in Second Temple Judaism that the “messiah” of the Jews be born of a virgin.  The author of GoMatthew simply misinterpreted the meaning of the word “parthenos” from the Septuagint to mean “virgin” instead of “young maiden”.  The Septuagint also used the word parthenos several times when describing another young maiden, Dinah, who had just been raped (Genesis 34:1-4) so it obviously did not specifically mean virgin.  After all, after she was raped, she was not a virgin.  The author of First Isaiah simply never wrote about or implied virgin birth.  Christians and Jews have been going ‘round and ‘round about this ever since it was first paraded out as evidence of Jesus’ virgin birth.  It would not surprise me to find out that countless people from both sides were killed over this silly argument.  History does tell us which side came out on top.  Fortunately, this has finally been put to rest; as the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scroll find, dated before the Common Era, used the Hebrew word “Almah” which means young maiden, not “Betulah” which would mean virgin.

The second problem is that Isaiah 7:14 is not a messianic prophecy.  It had to be violently snatched out of its context, and the interpretation forced, in order to vaguely resemble a prophecy of the one who would deliver Israel.  The child “Immanu-el”, meaning “El is with us” is the sign, not the deliverer.  If there is a messiah in the story, it is King Ahaz, the “anointed” of Judah.

Obviously there is a great variance between what many Christians understand and what the author of the Book of Isaiah meant.  So we are faced with two options, we can either listen to what Christian theologians and preachers say, or we can actually look at the passage of scripture in context and hope that we can find out what it really means.

Low and behold, by reading Isaiah chapter 7, interestingly enough, First Isaiah tells us exactly what it was that he was trying to say.  It’s kinda funny how stuff works that way, huh?  That is what I will do here.  I will be quoting from the JPS Tanakh, so hold on. . .

Isaiah was a prophet of the YHWH cult from Jerusalem in Judah in the eighth century BCE.  The historical setting of chapter 7 is during the reign of the Judahite king, Ahaz, who is said to have been 20 years old when he became the king of Judah and reigned from about 742 to 727  BCE.  He was the father of Hezekiah, the king of Judah who would witness the destruction of Israel in 722 BCE.  In chapter 7, King Ahaz is facing two enemies, but neither of them could independently conquer Judah.  These two enemies were Israel, also known as Ephraim and Aram, also known as Syria.

And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Aram, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it; but could not prevail against it.
Isaiah 7:1

The king has just been notified that Israel and Syria had joined forces against him.  This was very disheartening news indeed.  While Judah had been successful at defending against each army individually; combined, they may have the force to overthrow him.  Imagery of trees being swayed by the force of the wind is employed to relay the concern of the people.

And it was told the house of David, saying: ‘Aram is confederate with Ephraim.’ And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest are moved with the wind.
Isaiah 7:2

The prophet is told by the deity to go meet the Judahite king and tell him not to worry about these two kings or their armies.  These “two tails of smoking firebrands” are no threat.  To help understand this illustration better, I’ll provide a few modern English translations.  “two ends of smoking fire-wood” – Bible in Basic English, “nothing more than a dying fire” – Contemporary English Version,

Then said the LORD unto Isaiah: ‘Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fullers’ field; and say unto him: Keep calm, and be quiet; fear not, neither let thy heart be faint, because of these two tails of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and of the son of Remaliah.
Isaiah 7:3-4

The author says that the intent of these two kings was to remove the Judahite king and replace him with someone who would be loyal to them.

Because Aram hath counselled evil against thee, Ephraim also, and the son of Remaliah, saying: Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set up a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeel;
Isaiah 7:5-6

BUT. . . .

thus saith the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.
Isaiah 7:7

Do not worry.  Within 65 years Ephraim/Israel will be destroyed as a people, because they refuse to accept the YHWH cult: “If ye will not have faith, surely ye shall not be established.’”

For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people; And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son. If ye will not have faith, surely ye shall not be established.’
Isaiah 7:8-9

Our prophetic protagonist, Isaiah, stands before King Ahaz, to ease the King’s mind and tell him to trust YHWH.  Ahaz is told to ask for a sign from the deity.  Divination, in one form or another was just as common then, as, well, it is today, I suppose.

And the LORD spoke again unto Ahaz, saying: ‘Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God: ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.’
Isaiah 7:10-11

King Ahaz is reluctant to ask for a sign.  He sees it as tempting the deity.  He is then chided by the prophet.

But Ahaz said: ‘I will not ask, neither will I try the LORD.’ And he said: ‘Hear ye now, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also?
Isaiah 7:12-13

Now we arrive at the block of text that includes the regularly misinterpreted passage referenced by Christians, claiming that this passage somehow refers to Jesus.  But when Christians grab the text out of context, they only take a part of the sign and ignore the rest.  Why?

Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Curd and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. Yea, before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou hast a horror of shall be forsaken.
Isaiah 7:14-16

Whether Ahaz is willing to ask or not, a sign was given.  The sign was that a young woman would conceive and give birth to a son.  It has nothing to do with virgin birth.  His name would be called Immanu-el.  Perhaps El is with US, not with them.  (cf. Isaiah 8) But that is not the end of the sign, it is the beginning.  “Curd and honey” is a metaphor for prosperity, likely meaning that Judah would be just fine.  The child will grow old enough to “refuse the evil, and choose the good”.  King Ahaz should not worry because, “>before< the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good” the two kings, the king of Israel and the king of Syria, will be out of jobs, before Imannu-el becomes responsible.

If Ahaz will only listen to the prophet of the YHWH cult, then Judah will pass through this storm and be more prosperous than before.

BUT Ahaz did not follow the advice of the prophet of YHWH.  Instead he took matters into his own hands, the best decision that a good ruler can make.  2 Kings 16 relays the same story by the Deuteronomistic Historian, who shore didn’t seem to like ole Ahaz none too much, prolly for that very reason.

Then Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war; and they besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome him.
2 Kings 16:5

Samey-samey

So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying: ‘I am thy servant and thy son; come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, who rise up against me.’ And Ahaz took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent it for a present to the king of Assyria.
2 Kings 16:7-8

King Ahaz of Judah cashed in his vassal agreement with the Assyrian Empire, offering a gift of silver and gold as incentive.  This was a most excellent move.  Judah did indeed begin to prosper as never before, especially with the flood of northerners over the next century as a result of the destruction of Israel by those same Assyrians.  Arriving with these exiles were their culture, their expertise and their deities.  That is when life truly becomes interesting.

If you want to know what happened next, start reading at Isaiah 7 or 2 Kings 16.

Watch syncretism in action.

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “Isaiah Sez What?

  1. Interesting. A few years ago, I got out my Greek-Hebrew concordance and looked @ the part where it lists every instance where the English Bible uses the word “virgin” in the book of Isaiah. I noticed that the Heb word “betulah” (meaning “virgin”) is used in every single instance….except one–in 7:14. There, the Heb word “almuh” (meaning “young maiden” or “young girl”) is used.
    Now, if I’m the god of the Bible, and I’m inspiring the Bible, and I want to use a verse to prophecy of my messiah’s virgin birth. Why would I use “betulah” in every single instance in that particular book, but in the the one verse that I want to be my prophecy of the virgin birth, use “almuh”?
    Hmmmm….

    Posted by Larry Jones | January 17, 2011, 2:00 am
  2. Hey — fascinating stuff, X!

    If I were a less generous man, I would be tempted to conclude that the early Christians were not people of faith at all, but snake-oil salesmen.

    Posted by Dearth of Couth | October 19, 2010, 8:59 pm
    • I think (which is only an opinion and worth nothing) that throughout the history of humanity, for about as long as people have been seeking answers to questions that they couldn’t answer themselves, there have been other people just plum happy to provide those answers, whether they were right or wrong. It seems that the more desperate a person is, the more inclined they are to try something new or believe something incredible.

      The first century of the Common Era was a pretty desperate time for Palestinian Jews and early Christians, both Jewish and Pagan. The earliest Christian writings were wonderfully diverse in addressing many of these existential questions. Much of it would be unrecognizable to the modern eye. (Thanks to heresy hunters) But the reality is that these writings were created to provide encouragement and hope to marginalized people. They were not interested in world domination, they were interested in survival. I don’t blame the authors for how their writings were later used by other people whose intentions were world domination. I see them for what they are, historical fiction.

      One thing is for sure, the unknown author of the Gospel of Matthew definitely were’nt no Hebrew biblical scholar, else’n he’da knowed what Isaiah was talking about. Throughout GoMatthew, the author continually takes verses from the Greek Septuagint out of context and twists them into pretzels in a attempt to create his Jesus for his community. Some of them are even quite hilarious, like when he has Jesus ride into Jerusalem on the backs of “two”, count ’em, “two” donkeys, like he’s on a couple of Lipizzaner Stallions. (Matt. 21:6-7) My guess is that the author was an early Christian Jew of the Diaspora, much like Paul, who had never actually studied the Hebrew scriptures in the original languages or context (much like Paul). He just used it as a source-text for his fictional creation. I doubt that he ever once thought that it would end up on the coffee tables and dusty shelves of Pagan-Christian-folk over the next couple of thousand years.

      Su-Prize, Su-Prize, Su-Prize !

      Posted by xcntrik | October 21, 2010, 12:40 am
  3. How ’bout an adventure?

    Isaiah might be considered one of the greatest of all prophets. Isaiah chapter 6 contains the call of Isaiah. Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple.” You know the story. Then he says, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

    What would it mean to be “a man of unclean lips”?

    I would think that the most common Christian answer would be that he was a sinner. Maybe he liked watching porn on the internet, or he cheated on his taxes.

    But what would “unclean lips” mean in the 8th century BCE?

    I have an idea, and it’s most definitely unorthodox, but hey, that’s me.

    Posted by xcntrik | September 21, 2010, 10:08 pm
  4. Another interesting article. The virgin birth interpretation seems a bit forced at best. What do you think of R.C. Sproul’s dual-fulfillment explanation, that both a contemporary fulfillment and an ultimate prophetic fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ are in view? It sounded good to me at the time, but now it sounds about as vague and far-fetched as a Nostradamus prophecy in terms of predicting Christ’s birth.

    Posted by Byroniac | September 19, 2010, 2:41 pm
    • Well, I suppose I’d be wanting to ask Dr. Sproul which fulfillment of which prophecy it was that he was referring to. Bet ya a quarter he’d go back to Isaiah 7:14, which I have shown was not about Jesus, nor was it a messianic prophecy.

      At that point, I would imagine that he would start dancing and possibly say that I lacked the spiritual eyes to see the truth of the scripture.

      In response, I would have to say that this “truth of the scripture” based on something that the Hebrew text never actually said is dishonest, it carries no validity and my eyesight is just fine. Perhaps he should check his.

      I would then recommend reading both Isaiah 7 and 8 because they are opposite sides of the same coin.

      The sign in Isaiah 7 is Immanu-el, or El is with us (Judah).
      The sign in Isaiah 8 is Maher-shalal-hashbaz or plunder speeds, spoil hastens (for Israel)

      For before the child shall have knowledge to cry: My father, and: My mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be carried away before the king of Assyria.’
      Isaiah 8:4

      Neither of those children were messiahs, they were signs. If one is looking for a messiah, Ahaz was the man. He is the one who saved his people, AND he had the credentials; a son of David, the anointed king, the deliverer of his people. That is a messiah if I have ever encountered one.

      But as I understand the history, Jewish messianic hope wasn’t actually a concept that ever existed until the exile and Second Temple Era. There is no need to hope for a son of David when one sits on the throne, eh?

      When one removes the context of biblical writings to defend a theological argument, is that any different than destroying what the bible actually says? If one is destroying what the bible is actually saying, then how can one claim that the bible is important? You see the problem?

      Hypothetical: The bible is true. I’ll have to change what the bible says in order to prove that the bible is true. Except that since I have just changed what the bible says, I have just proven that I don’t actually believe that the bible is true.

      Posted by xcntrik | September 19, 2010, 11:08 pm
      • Great points, thanks.

        Posted by Byroniac | September 21, 2010, 6:02 am
      • O.K. X If the Bible is true then how can changing it make it true too? Or why would you change it to prove it? I can’t grasp this. Does not your hypothetical short because who authorizes it to be the true?

        Posted by lanita linder | September 27, 2010, 5:06 pm
      • All of those are Xcellent questions. If the bible were true, how could the changes also be true. Why would one need to change it in the first place, if it were true. Who gets to decide what is true?

        Your logic is working just fine, lanita. The hypothetical has caused a glitch and does indeed fall short, which was my point.

        The reality is that the numerous disparate writings of the Christian bible contains things that are true and things that are not true. In response to this, believers must “interpret” the bible, in order to try to force it to say what they want it to say rather than what it actually says. The only logical response to this anti-logic is to first understand what the authors were really trying to say, who they were talking to and the economic, theological and social climate of the world of the author.

        That was the reason for my walk through the first part of Isaiah chapter 7. I hope that it was helpful in fostering an understanding of the world and scenario of the Judahite king Ahaz and this episode with Isaiah.

        I am now wondering if we should next flip forward a few pages in the writings of First Isaiah and discuss another one of those supposed prophecies regularly misinterpreted by Christian apologists that discusses the great King Hezekiah, the son of the above referenced Ahaz:

        “For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele- joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom; That the government may be increased, and of peace there be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts doth perform this.”
        Isaiah 9:6-7

        Bet that you’ve always been taught that this was a reference to Jesus, ain’t’cha?

        Posted by xcntrik | September 27, 2010, 8:45 pm

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