December 31: Isaiah 8:5-10, continued

Isaiah 8:9-10

“Know (this), O peoples, and be shattered,
and give ear, all distant (part)s of (the) earth:
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Devise a plan, and it shall be split (apart),
Speak a word, and it shall not stand—
for (the) Mighty (One is) with us!”

Isaiah 8:5-10 concludes with a poem (vv. 9-10) that is likely considerably later than the oracle of vv. 5-8. It is an example of the way that the Isaian oracles inspired subsequent prophetic authors and poets, expanding and developing those traditions, giving to them new meaning and theological depths. Some of this development certainly could have taken place in Isaiah’s own oeuvre, during the prophet’s own lifetime; however, the scope and setting of many of the poems in chapters 2-39 (to say nothing of the Deutero-/Trito-Isaian poems in chaps. 40-66), strongly suggests a broader scale of development, over at least several generations.

The opening word of the poem is problematic. The MT (supported by 1QIsaa and 4QIsae-f) reads Wur), which the versions seem to understand as deriving from hu*r* II (“associate with”). However, this makes relatively little sense in the context of the poem. Much to be preferred is the Hebrew (WuD=) that presumably underlies the LXX gnw=te (“know”), scribal confusion between resh (r) and daleth (d) being relatively common. The command to “know!” offers a suitable parallel to “give ear” (i.e., “hear!”) in the second line.

The “peoples” (<yM!u^) here provide a certain contrast with “this people [<u^]” in v. 6 (cf. the previous note). Only now the situation is rather reversed:

    • “the people” (Judah)
      • will be overwhelmed by the nations (Assyria)
    • “the peoples” (the Nations)
      • will be unable to overcome God’s people (Judah)

The command for the nations of the earth to be “shattered” anticipates the harsh directive in lines 3-4, which uses the same verb. This verb (tt^j*), literally meaning “break, shatter,” is sometimes used in the figurative sense of being dismayed, frightened, unable to respond, etc. The reflexive imperative of the verb rz`a* (“bind [around], gird”) suggests the action of men preparing themselves for battle. The prophetic Nation-oracles often depict the Judgment in military terms. The Assyrian invasion of Judah, though largely successful (and quite destructive), ultimately failed in the goal of capturing Jerusalem and so conquering the entire kingdom. The invasion was thwarted, through the miraculous action of YHWH, giving divine protection to His people (cf. Isa 37:33-37 par). This would serve as a type-pattern for the nations in the future—similar attempts to attack and destroy God’s people (when they are under His covenant protection) will only result in humiliation and defeat for the nations.

Even their plans—what they may intend to do against God’s people—are doomed to fail. There is cognate wordplay in lines 5-6 that is difficult to translate:

    • hx*u@ Wxu% (“Plan [out] a plan…”)
      rb*d* WrB=D^ (“Speak a spoken [word]…”)

Their plans will be “split apart” (vb rr^P*), and what they say they are going to do “will not stand [vb <Wq]”. The reason for this failure is because YHWH is with [<u!] His people. This preposition is at the root of the name la@-WnM*u!, which was introduced (famously) in 7:14 (cf. the earlier notes), and is repeated here, only in a way that essentially expounds the meaning of the name, applying it within the context of God’s covenant loyalty toward His people. The protection provided by YHWH is based on His presence, manifest supernatural power. In terms of the colorful narrative in Isa 37 par, the Divine presence/power is expressed by way of the theophanous manifestation of the “Messenger of YHWH” (hwhy Ea^l=m^) who struck the assembled camp of the Assyrian army (v. 36). At the historical level, this may refer to a plague that broke out in the camp, leading to widespread sickness and death. This would be entirely in keeping with the ancient Near Eastern (and Israelite) understanding of disease as a manifestation of Divine judgment.

December 30: Isaiah 8:5-10

Isaiah 8:5-10

“And YHWH proceeded to speak to me again, saying…” (v. 5)

Verse 5 begins a new oracle, though the references to Rezin and “the son of Remalyah” (i.e., Pekah) in v. 6 make clear that we are still dealing with the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (735-734 B.C.) which was the setting of the prior oracles. There are, indeed, a number of points of contact with the four previous oracles, including the river/canal imagery here, which may allude to the locale of the first oracle in 7:1-9, when Isaiah met Ahaz at the canal of the Siloam pool (v. 3).

“(In) response for (how) this people has refused (the) waters of the offshoot traveling softly, and having rejoiced with Rezin and (the) son of Remalyah, indeed for this (reason), see! My Lord is bringing up over them (the) waters of the (great) River, mighty and manifold—(the) king of Aššur {Assyria} and all his weight—and (they) shall come up over all its channels and travel over all its banks.” (vv. 6-7)

The basic contrast here is clear enough—between a soft/gently (fa^) moving stream and a powerful flood of water overflowing its banks. The noun j^l)v! literally means something like “offshoot”, or “branch”, but in context here certainly refers to a water-canal. It may be the name of a specific canal carrying water from the Gihon spring to the pool of Siloam (cf. the locale of the oracle in 7:3, mentioned above). This canal is contrasted with “the River” —that is, the Great River (Euphrates), with its mighty (<Wxu*) and many (br^) waters. Obviously, the Assyrian empire is being referenced, which would have been clear to the audience, even without the specific mention of the “king of Assyria”, which could conceivably be a secondary gloss.

Because “this people” refused (vb sa^m*, also in 7:15-16) the gentle-moving and beneficial waters of the canal, YHWH is bringing upon them instead the powerful and destructive waters of the Euphrates. This ‘refusal’ is defined in terms of “rejoicing” (vb cWc) with Rezin and Pekah, i.e., the kings of Aram-Damascus and Israel. There is some textual uncertainty regarding the form cwcm. The Masoretic Text (supported by the Qumran MSS 4QIsae-f) vocalizes it as a construct noun (vovm=), while the great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) apparently reads a Hiphil participle (cyc!m*). In any case, a verbal noun (from the root cwc), would seem to be correct.

The idea of “rejoicing” with Rezin and Pekah surely means, in context, supporting the anti-Assyrian coalition of Aram-Damascus and Israel. Some commentators (e.g., Roberts, p. 133f) would identify “this people” as the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, but this does not seem to be correct. The overall context (of chaps. 7-8), in my view, overwhelmingly argues for the oracle addressing the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. There must have been a portion of the Judahite population (and its ruling class) that would have been in favor of joining the anti-Assyrian coalition, and, indeed, there is some evidence that Ahaz himself vacillated between the two positions. The thrust of the condemnation is that such people are relying upon the political/military forces of the coalition, rather than placing their trust on YHWH for protection.

“And it shall pass on in(to) Yehudah, shall wash (past) and (flood) over, (even) up to (the) neck it shall touch. And he shall be stretching out his wings, filling (the) breadth of your land, Mighty-with-Us!” (v. 8)

No specific mention is made of the judgment against Aram-Damascus and Israel. Rather, it is simply assumed that the floodwaters of the Assyrian army will (or has already) overrun the northern kingdoms, and will now reach all the way “into Judah”. The entire Judean kingdom will be flooded, using the image of a person standing in water up to his/her neck. The lone ‘head’ that is left above the waters certainly alludes to the city of Jerusalem and the ‘remnant’ of Judah that survives the Assyrian invasion (in 701 B.C.). Possibly, at the historical level, this oracle is to be dated to a time after the conquest of the northern kingdoms (at least after 733-732), and thus more clearly anticipating the coming invasion at the end of the 8th century. The survival of the Judean kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) is alluded to by the mention of the name la@-WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l, “God [is] with us”); cf. the earlier notes on 7:14.

“Know (this), O peoples, and be shattered,
and give ear, all distant (part)s of (the) earth:
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Devise a plan, and it shall be split (apart),
Speak a word, and it shall not stand—
for (the) Mighty (One is) with us!”

Commentators who view vv. 9-10 as a later poem, inspired by the Isaian oracles, are probably correct. It certainly fits the way the Isaian traditions (of the 8th and early 7th century) seem to have been utilized and developed, by the author/editor(s) of chapters 2-39 (not to mention the Deutero/Trito-Isaian poems of chaps. 40-66). The promise of divine protection for Judah/Jerusalem, in the context of the 8th century Assyrian invasions, is here expanded to encompass all the nations of the earth, anticipating the culmination of the Isaian nation-oracle traditions that we find in the so-called ‘Isaian Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. Attempts by the nations to attack or threaten God’s people are doomed to fail, because YHWH is with His people. Here, the sentence name la@-WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) needs to be understood as a definitive statement, rather than a name: “The Mighty One [la@, i.e. God] is with us [WnM*u!]”.

These lines will be discussed in a bit more detail in the next daily note.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).

December 29: Isaiah 8:1-4 (continued)

Isaiah 8:1-4, continued

In the previous note, I mentioned the close parallels between the two child-signs in the oracles of 7:10-17 and 8:1-4. The similarities are clear enough from the text itself; however, Blenkinsopp (p. 239) has conveniently presented these in a table form, which I reproduce here (modified slightly):

    • Immanuel
    • The maiden
    • “the maiden has become pregnant and will give birth to a son”
    • “she shall call his name Immanuel”
    • “before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose good”
    • “the king of Assyria” (7:17)
    • Maher-shalal-hash-baz
    • The prophet[ess] (8:3)
    • “(the prophetess) became pregnant and gave birth to a son”
    • “call his name Maher-
    • “before the child shall know  to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother'”
    • “the king of Assyria” (8:4)

Some commentators (e.g., Roberts, p. 107) would claim that the children mentioned in all three oracles belong to Isaiah. However, this does not seem to me to be correct. Isaiah’s relationship to the child in the first and third oracles, as father, is more or less specified; if this were intended the second oracle as well, one would expect it to be similarly mentioned. In point of fact, the context of the second oracle is specifically the royal court of Ahaz (7:10ff), and there is good reason to think that the “maiden” (hm*l=u^) who will bear the child is associated in some way with the royal court (cf. the earlier note on v. 14).

Moreover, the name la@-WnM*u! (Immanuel, “God [is] with us”) seems uniquely connected with the Judean kingship, and the special relationship between YHWH and the royal city of Jerusalem. I have previously discussed the theory that the name refers to Hezekiah, an identification that finds support from the reference in 2 Kings 18:7, in the context of the righteous conduct of Hezekiah, where it is stated that “YHWH was with him [oMu!]”. The prophecies in 6:1-9:6, insofar as they relate to the kingdom of Judah, anticipate the events at the end of the 8th century (in the reign of Hezekiah), when the Assyrians would invade Judah, conquering much of it, just as they did to the Northern Kingdom some 30 years earlier. Judah and the city of Jerusalem would survive, however narrowly, and as a ‘remnant’.

The immediate historical context is the Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-734, and the address to Judah primarily relates to the present crisis, while also anticipating (and warning against) future events. Thus the child-sign—its name and significance—applies directly to the situation facing Judah in this crisis. The time-indicator attached to the child-sign specifically relates to when the judgment against Aram-Damascus and the Israelite kingdom will occur. As can be seen from the parallels outlined above, the time-indicator in the second and third oracles is very similar. In the second oracle, it is described in terms of the weaning of the infant child, indicating a time-frame of within 3-4 years. In the third oracle, in reference to the infant first beginning to call to his parents (i.e., “my father,” or ‘daddy’, etc), the time-frame is more like 1-2 years.

In light of this, Roberts’ suggested reconstruction of vv. 8-9, discussed in an earlier note, becomes even more attractive. He suggests that the “sixty-five” years in v. 8b, originally was “five / six”, as part of a parallel couplet, one line of which has dropped out. According to this theory, the couplet originally would have been something like:

“In about five years Ephrayim shall be broken from (being) a people,
and in about six years Damascus shall be removed from (being) a city.”

The ‘numerical ladder’ device (of x / x+1) is a common feature in Hebrew (and Canaanite) poetry. It also fits the general time-frame of the other two oracles, rather than the peculiar “sixty-five years” which cannot be fit very well into any historical framework, nor would such a relatively distant time-frame have meant much to the original audience of the oracle, especially in the context of the immediate urgency of the crisis. Roberts’ theory is all the more attractive for the way that it allows for a dramatic ‘narrowing’ of the time when the judgment will occur:

    • Oracle 1—5-6 years
      • Oracle 2—approx. 3-4 years
        • Oracle 3—approx. 1-2 years

And, in fact, the judgment oracle was fulfilled, more or less accurately, in terms of this time-frame. If the oracles were originally given in 735-734 B.C., much of the kingdom of Israel and Aram-Damascus was conquered during the Assyrian invasions of 734-733, with Damascus itself falling in 732.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 2:25-32)

The Simeon Episode

The concluding episode of 2:22-38 brings together a number of important Lukan themes and motifs, developed throughout the Infancy narrative. Central to this episode is the encounter with Simeon (vv. 25-32). The pair of Simeon and Anna (vv. 36-38) forms a literary match with Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary—all three representing the righteous ones of the Old Covenant who are, with the birth of Jesus, experiencing the end of the Old and the beginning of the New Covenant. They are transitional figures, who embody the Lukan theme of continuity with the Old Covenant; in this regard, the Temple setting, as in the first episode (1:5-25, and the subsequent scene of 2:40-52), is most significant.

The Simeon episode includes a poetic oracle (vv. 29-32), one of four inspired oracles uttered by these characters in the narrative; note the pairings:

There is also a certain thematic symmetry to the oracles, in the context of the narrative:

    • Elizabeth—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus
      • Canticles of Mary & Zechariah, expressing the coming of the New Age in terms of the Old
    • Simeon—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus

Simeon’s encounter (with Mary and the child Jesus) parallels that of Elizabeth, but infused with much of the Messianic idiom that fills the intervening canticles by Mary (the Magnificat) and Zechariah (the Benedictus), as well as the Angels’ song in 2:10-14. A number of key Messianic themes also are expressed in this episode—themes which relate to the Old Testament and Jewish traditions regarding the Spirit (cf. the points outlined in Part 1). These include:

    • An emphasis on holiness and purity, alluding to the specific idea of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God’s holiness. This is expressed here by: (a) the Temple location, (b) the Temple-piety of Simeon and Anna (and others like them), and (c) the fulfillment by Joseph and Mary of the Torah regulations (relating to ritual purity), vv. 22-24.
    • The coming of God’s Spirit upon prophets and gifted/chosen individuals—here, specifically Simeon, vv. 25-27. The oracle that follows represents his inspired/prophetic announcement, centered on the person of Jesus.
    • The role of the Spirit upon God’s people in the New Age. Simeon stands as a transitional figure in this regard (cf. above), fulfilling the Old and prefiguring the New. The onset of the New Age is anticipated by the Messianic expectation of Simeon and Anna, referenced in vv. 25 and 38.
    • The figure of Jesus as the Messiah, upon whom the Spirit rests, who ushers in the New Age—a theme substantially expressed in the oracle of vv. 28-32 (cf. also the words to Mary, vv. 34-35)
Luke 2:25-27

Let us now consider the three-fold description of Simeon’s experience with the Spirit in 2:25-27. Three aspects are mentioned, one in each verse:

    • “…and the holy Spirit was upon him” (v. 25)
    • “and (the matter) was declared to him under [i.e. by] the Spirit…” (v. 26)
    • “and he came in the Spirit…” (v. 27)

The wording suggests that this was not a one-time event, but rather that Simeon may have had regular experiences of this sort. Two distinct modes of Spirit-experience are mentioned, both of which were introduced earlier in the Infancy narrative, and continue to be developed throughout Luke-Acts.

The first is the Spirit being upon (e)pi/) a person, just as it was said that the Holy Spirit would “come upon” (e)pe/rxomai) Mary (1:35, cf. the prior note). The second mode involves a person going about in (e)n) the Spirit, being led/guided by the Spirit. It was said of John the Baptist that he would go about in the prophetic spirit (1:17, meaning that the Spirit of God would be in/on him). The language for this mode is expressed more directly in the case of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (4:1, 14).

In the middle reference, Simeon is given special information from the Spirit; the verb xrhmati/zw is used, which here indicates a declaration of how certain business (i.e., a particular matter) will come out; it may also imply a decision (by God) regarding the matter. In this particular instance, the content of the message relates precisely to the Messianic expectation of Simeon (cf. above). Through the Spirit, God promises him that he will not die (lit. “is not to see death”) before he sees “the Lord’s Anointed (One)”. This (private) prophetic message is fulfilled by Simeon’s encounter with Jesus, which explains why the Spirit leads him into the Temple precincts at that moment.

He comes into the Temple “in the Spirit”; the expression is also important because it indicates the inspired character of the oracle that he utters in vv. 29-32. It is not said of Simeon specifically that he was filled with the Spirit, but given the parallel with the oracle of Zechariah, this may fairly be assumed. It is possible, however, that the idea of being in the Spirit is indicative of a longer-term experience, rather than a sudden and momentary burst of inspiration. Certainly, the oracle that he utters represents the culmination of a lifetime of faithfulness and devotion to God.

Luke 2:28-32

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

With regard to the poetic oracle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittus), it is worth noting that the Old Testament quotations and allusions in the hymn are all from the second (and third) part of the book of Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66)—so-called Deutero- (and Trito-)Isaiah. There are many themes in chapters 40-55, especially, which are appropriate to an exilic setting—a message of comfort, the hope and promise of restoration, and so forth. It is not surprising that these chapters had an enormous influence on Jewish and early Christian thought.

In terms of the Lukan Infancy narrative here in in this section (Luke 2:25-38), the Isaianic theme is established in the figures of Simeon and Anna, who are encountered within the Temple setting:

    • Simeon (vv. 25-35) who:
      (a) was righteous/just and took good care [to observe the Law, etc]
      (b) was [looking] toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel
    • Anna (vv. 36-38) who:
      (a) was in the Temple ‘day and night’, serving with fasting and prayer
      (b) was [with those looking] toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem

The latter point (b) refers to the ‘Messianic’ hope and expectation shared by many devout Jews at the time; consider the parallel phrases in (b)—Simeon and Anna were among those looking toward receiving [i.e., waiting for]:

    • the para/klhsi$ of Israel (v. 25)
    • the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem (v. 38)

The word para/klhsi$ in this context is usually translated “comfort” or “consolation”. In the second phrase, the parallel noun lu/trwsi$ refers to the payment of ransom (and the corresponding release) for someone in bondage, etc., and is normally translated “redemption”. The phrase “comfort of Israel” probably finds its origin in the Isaian passages 40:1-2 (which also mentions Jerusalem) and 61:2, cf. also 57:18; 63:4; 66:13. “Redemption of Jerusalem” would seem to be derived from Isa 52:9, which also mentions ‘comfort’ for God’s people. This message of hope and restoration is described in terms of “good news” for Jerusalem (cf. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7). Interestingly, the phrase “redemption of Israel” and “freedom of Jerusalem” are found in documents from the Wadi Muraba’at in the context of the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.).

Let us now look briefly at each of the six lines in the Song. For those interested in a more detailed study, consult my earlier series of notes on the passage.

Verse 29a: “now you [may] loose your slave from [service], Master” —the verb a)polu/w is conventionally translated in English as “release, dismiss”, etc. For similar use of the verb in the Old Testament (LXX) see Genesis 15:2; Numbers 20:29; Tobit 3:6; cf. also Gen 46:30. The use of despo/th$ in reference to God is relatively rare in the LXX (Gen 15:2,8, etc) and in the New Testament (Acts 4:24), but is occasionally used of Christ as well (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10). The image is that of a household master releasing his slave from service; since “slave” in English often carries the connotation of abuse and mistreatment, typically dou/lo$ is translated here as “servant”.

Verse 29b: “according to your utterance, in peace” —for the comparable idiom of departing “in peace”, see of Abraham in Gen 15:15 (note also the use in context of despo/th$ and a)polu/w in Gen 15:2 LXX). r(h=ma is usually translated “word”, being roughly equivalent to lo/go$ in such contexts; however it is frequently used specifically in instances of a prophetic “utterance”, a slightly more literal translation which captures something of this sense.

Verse 30: “[now] that my eyes have seen your salvation” —this phrase is an allusion to Isaiah 40:5 and/or 52:10 (LXX); see also Psalm 98:3; Gen 49:18; Baruch 4:24; Ps Sol 17:50.

Verse 31: “which you have made ready in the sight of all the peoples” —this, along with verse 30 (above), is drawn largely from Isaiah 52:10. The use of laoi/ (“peoples”) is interesting (Isa 52:10 uses e&qnoi, “nations”); most likely it is meant to encompass both the “nations” (e&qnoi) and the “people” (laoi/) of Israel in verse 32. The italicized expression (“in the sight of”) is a more conventional rendering of the idiom, which I translated above quite literally as “according(ly) toward the eye/face of”.

Verse 32a: “a light unto uncovering [i.e. revelation] for the nations”
Verse 32b: “and glory for your people Israel”
There has been some question whether do/can is parallel to fw=$ (“light”), or is governed (along with a)poka/luyin) by the preposition ei)$; almost certainly the latter is correct—i.e., “a light unto uncovering…and (unto) glory…”. The first phrase is more or less a quotation of Isaiah 49:6b (cf. also Isa 42:6); the second may be derived from Isaiah 46:13b (for the overall image in this verse, see also Isa 60:1). The noun do/ca is actually rather difficult to translate literally into English—the original sense is of a (favorable) opinion, and so indicates the honor, esteem, etc. in which someone or something is held; but just as often it refers to the reputation, dignity, honor, etc. which someone possesses.

How closely should one treat the parallel between a)poka/luyi$ and do/ca? It is natural to think this of “revelation” in terms of the truth (the Gospel) being presented to the Gentiles; but I believe the image is rather one of uncovering (i.e. the literal sense of the word) the nations who are in darkness. So, following the parallelism, the light God brings (in the person of Jesus) has a two-fold purpose and effect:

    • It will uncover the nations who are in darkness, shining light upon them
    • It will shine light upon ‘Israel’ (i.e. God’s people), giving to them an honor and esteem which they would not otherwise have

From the standpoint of the Gospel, of course, these are two sides of the same coin, for in Christ all people—whether from Israel or the nations—are the people of God.

December 28: Isaiah 8:1-4

Isaiah 8:1-4

This is the third of three oracles in the section, each of which involves a child with a symbolic name, relating to the Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C., and the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. The place and significance of the child in this particular oracle is extremely close to that of the oracle in 7:10-17. At the same time, there is a parallel with the first oracle (7:3-9), in that the child, in both oracles, belongs to Isaiah. This has led commentators to posit that all three children were Isaiah’s. I do not believe that this is correct, but the question will be discussed further, in the next daily note.

There is a short, but rather enigmatic, narrative introduction to the oracle; or, perhaps, it would be better to say that the oracle is embedded within the narrative itself. It begins as follows:

And YHWH said to me: “Take for yourself a great [i.e. large] clear tablet and write upon it with (the) engraving (tool) of an (ordinary) man, ‘(Belonging) to Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz.'” (v. 1)

The noun /oyL*G] (from the root hl*G`, “uncover”) refers to a smooth, clear flat surface, as of a mirror or a blank tablet for writing. The latter is in view here, and thus the fr#j# (“engraving [tool]”) is a writing stylus (or pen). The precise meaning of the qualifying element (“[of] a man”) is not certain; it may simply connote “ordinary, common,” i.e., an ordinary writing tool.

On the tablet, Isaiah is commanded (by YHWH) to write the phrase “Belonging to [-l=] Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz [zB^-vj*-ll*v*-rh@m^]”. The unusual compound phrase-name, given here untranslated, apparently means something like “(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey”. No one would name a child this way, under ordinary circumstances; but the name was intentionally chosen because of its prophetic significance, being tied to the oracle of judgment delivered by Isaiah. The names given to the child in the first two oracles—Š®°¹r Y¹šû» (“A-Remnant-will-Return”, 7:3) and ±Imm¹nû °E~l (“God-[is]-with-Us”, 7:14)—have a similar significance.

And I called as witnesses for me (con)firm(ing) witnesses, YHWH-(is)-my-Light {Uriyahu} the priest, and YHWH-has-Remembered {Zecharyahu}, son of YHWH-Blesses {Yeberekyahu}. (v. 2)

The verb dWu here is denominative, derived from the noun du@ (“witness”), carrying a specific nuance of the root dwu (“repeat, do again”) that appears to be unique to Hebrew. The verb /m^a* denotes “be/make firm”, here in the sense of the witnesses confirming (verifying) what it is that Isaiah has written (on the legal principle of two witnesses being present, cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15); the participle (verbal adjective) also connotes the character of the witnesses as trustworthy and reliable. The authenticity of the prophecy that Isaiah is committing to writing (cf. below) will be confirmed, for future reference, by these witnesses; cp. the situation in 30:8-11. The priest Uriah is presumably the high priest (2 Kings 16:10-16), while the Zechariah mentioned here may be the father-in-law of king Ahaz (2 Kings 18:2). Cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 238.

And I came near to the ha*yb!n=, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to a son. And (the) YHWH said to me: “Call his name ‘(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey'” (v. 3)

The concision of the narrative creates a certain confusion, in terms of the relationship between verses 1-2 and 3-4. The events described in vv. 3-4 almost certainly would have taken place prior to those in vv. 1-2. In other words, what Isaiah records (before witnesses) in vv. 1-2 is the prophecy given to him by YHWH in vv. 3-4, an oracle that relates to the unusual name assigned to the child.

Isaiah “came near” (vb br^q*) to a woman (designated as a female ayb!n`), which is a euphemistic expression for sexual intercourse. It is not clear that this woman was Isaiah’s wife; almost certainly, the wife of a ayb!n` would not have been called ha*yb!n=, unless she herself was a ayb!n` (such as Huldah, cf. 2 Kings 22:14). The fundamental meaning of the noun ayb!n` is of a spokesperson for YHWH—that is, one who functions as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. When this child was born (i.e., sometime before the writing by Isaiah in vv. 1-2), YHWH commanded the prophet to give the child the unusual name Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz [zB^-vj*-ll*v*-rh@m^], “(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey”.

“(For it is) that, in (the time) before the young (child) shall know to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother’, the strength of Damešek {Damascus} shall be carried (away), and the plunder of Šomrôn {Samaria}, before (the) face of (the) king of Aššûr {Assyria}.” (v. 4)

The substance of the oracle is presented in verse 4, explaining the name given to the child. The hastening for plunder/prey refers to the invasion of the northern kingdoms (of Aram-Damascus and Israel) and their conquest by the Assyrians (led by king Tiglath-Pileser III). The time-indicator for this will be discussed in the next note, along with a comparison of the three child-signs (and symbolic names) of these three oracles.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:41, 67)


The comparison of John and Jesus, in terms of their respective Messianic identities, is an important aspect of the parallelism of the two Annunciation scenes (as discussed in the previous notes on 1:15-17 and 1:35). But it also features in the poetic oracles uttered (in the narrative) by the parents of John the Baptism, Elizabeth (vv. 42-45) and Zechariah (vv. 68-79). In the narrative introduction to each oracle, the poetic and revelatory inspiration is attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit filling the speaker.

Luke 1:41, 67

“….and Elisheba was filled with (the) holy Spirit…and she gave up a great cry (with her) voice and said…” (v. 41f)
“And Zekharyah was filled with (the) holy Spirit and he foretold [i.e. prophesied], saying…” (v. 67)

Like John the Baptist, who was filled (vb plh/qw) with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb (cf. the prior note on v. 15ff), so also his parents (Elizabeth and Zechariah) were filled by the Spirit. This Spirit-motif, introduced in the earlier episode, continues here. It will be further developed in the figure of Simeon (2:25-27), who serves as a pattern for the relationship of the Spirit to believers, and also in the person of Jesus himself (4:1ff, cf. also 10:21).

As previously noted, the idea of a person being filled by the Spirit of God is an important aspect of the Lukan Spirit-theme. It is one of three primary modes of Spirit-experience featured in Luke-Acts. It is also, however, part of an ancient line of tradition regarding the manifestation of the Spirit of God (YHWH) upon chosen individuals in the Old Testament. Indeed, there was a strong tradition of charismatic (and prophetic) leadership in ancient Israel, whereby chosen individuals were gifted with the Divine Spirit, enabling them to function as inspired leaders over God’s people. This was true in the case of Moses and his successor Joshua, as well as the Judges and the early kings of Israel (Saul, David). The specific idiom of being filled, however, is only mentioned in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9).

Mention should also be made of the references in Exodus (28:3; 31:3; 35:31), of the artisans and craftspeople who made the priestly apparel and the tent-shrine (tabernacle) furnishings. They were uniquely filled with the divine Spirit, giving them the skill and artistry to perform this work. This relates to the situation here with Elizabeth and Zechariah, where the filling by Spirit enables them to exercise a poetic art. Within the narrative context, Zechariah utters a great hymn (the Benedictus, vv. 68-79), and Elizabeth, in her own way, also gives out a short poetic exclamation (vv. 42ff). It should also be noted that the inspired hymn attributed to Mary (the Magnificat, vv. 46-55) is, in a handful of manuscripts and other witnesses, attributed to Elizabeth instead.

There are three aspects of this mode of being filled by the Spirit that I would emphasize here.

1. Ecstatic inspiration. In the ancient prophetic tradition, the divine Spirit comes upon the individual and overwhelms him/her, producing a state of ecstasy, in which the prophet begins to speak with the voice of the deity. Sometimes this is characterized by unusual (or supernatural) signs, as well as strange behavior. In the Pentecost scene in Acts, this aspect of the prophetic experience is realized primarily through the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

More commonly, however, in both the Gospel and Acts, this ecstatic experience is manifest by a sudden exclamation, made at the spur of the moment, under the influence of the Spirit. We see this, for example, in Luke 10:21f, where the saying of Jesus is presented as an inspired exclamation. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, the ecstasy results in a poetic oracle. This is certainly true in the case of the canticles by Zechariah and Simeon (and also the Magnifcat [by Mary]), which are genuine poems, composed much in the pattern of the Scriptural Psalms. In this regard, it is worth noting the statement in Acts 4:25, how David, as the chosen servant of God, composed the Psalms (specifically Psalm 2) under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

2. The Prophetic communication of the will and purpose of God. This is the fundamental meaning of prophecy, especially as expressed by the Hebrew root abn. A ayb!n` properly denotes, in a religious context, someone who is a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the people. The Greek term profh/th$ has a corresponding meaning, depending on how one understands the prepositional prefix pro/ (“before”). The prefix can mean “beforehand” (that is, predictive prophecy, announcing future events), but it can also be understood in the sense of speaking the message before (i.e., in front of) a gathered audience (such as the Christian community/congregation).

There is certainly a predictive component of the prophetic oracles by Elizabeth and Zechariah (and also Simeon). Far more important, however, and central to the place of the oracles in the Lukan narrative, is what the oracles communicate regarding what God is doing (and is about to do) through the chosen (Messianic) figures of John and Jesus. This will be discussed further in the next note (on 2:25-27ff).

3. Prefigurement of the Gospel. The prophetic oracles uttered by Elizabeth and Zechariah, etc, foreshadow the proclamation of the Gospel by the early believers. In particular, the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narratives find their parallel in the sermon-speeches of Acts. Both are Spirit-inspired utterances made publicly, presented as occurring on the spur of the moment, before an audience. In particular, the utterances by Elizabeth and Zechariah declare the Messianic identity of Jesus, which is also the fundamental message of the early Gospel preaching.

Elizabeth and Zechariah represent the faithful and devout ones under the Old Covenant; but they also, like their child John (also their relative Mary), are transitional figures who stand at the threshold of the New Covenant. Thus, it should be no surprise that, in the context of the Lukan narrative, their Spirit-inspired prophecy anticipates the Gospel preaching of the first believers.

The content of this message is also shaped according to the literary theme and structure of the Infancy narratives. This means, primarily, that it is predicated upon the relationship between John and Jesus. John was a Spirit-filled (and guided) messianic figure, but one who is surpassed by, and subservient to, the greater Messianic identity of Jesus. John himself, in the womb of Elizabeth responds to the presence of Jesus (in the womb of Mary). His ‘jumping’ (vb skirta/w) in the womb (v. 41) is a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit (v. 15). Elizabeth’s prophecy confirms, and develops this theme: Mary is declared blessed because of the “fruit of her belly” (i.e., the infant Jesus), and she is specifically declared to be “the mother of my Lord”.

In the Benedictus of Zechariah we find a much more extensive poetic development, replete with many allusions to Scripture and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. For a detailed study of these allusions, specifically with regard to their Messianic significance, cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It is in vv. 76-79 that the traditional language (and Messianic imagery) is applied directly to the narrative context of the relationship between John and Jesus. These are examined in a separate article (in the aforementioned series).

The the traditional themes, developed by Luke, regarding the Messianic significance of Jesus, are brought together in the Simeon episode—the final episode of the Infancy narrative proper. These Messianic themes are connected with the presence and work of the Spirit, and will be discussed in the concluding note of Part 2.

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:35)

Luke 1:35

The second Annunciation scene in the Lukan Infancy narrative is in 1:26-38. The Angelic announcement regard the birth of Jesus, and follows immediately after the announcement of John’s birth (cf. the previous study on 1:15-17). This establishes the John-Jesus parallelism that runs throughout the narrative, along with the implicit comparison, emphasizing the superiority of Jesus as a Messianic figure.

This second Annunciation scene may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27)—summarizing the setting for the heavenly Messenger Gabriel’s appearance to Mary
    • The Angel’s Greeting (v. 28)
      —Mary’s response: surprise and uncertainty (v. 29)
    • The Angel’s announcement (vv. 30-33), prefaced by the traditional assurance (“Do not fear…”)
      —Mary’s response: question (“How will this be so…?” v. 34)
    • The Angel’s response: the sign (vv. 35-37)
      —Mary’s response: acceptance (v. 38)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 38b)

This follows the basic narrative pattern in the Old Testament for Angelic appearances (including birth announcements), as I have discussed in prior notes (and cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1977, 1993,  pp. 155-60, 296-8). The core announcement of verses 30-33 may further be divided:

    • Assurance (v. 30)— “Do not fear, Maryam, for you have found favor alongside [i.e. before] God”
    • Birth announcement (v. 31)— “And, see! you will take/receive together in (the) womb and you will produce a son, and you will call his name ‘Yeshua'”
    • Fivefold promise/prophecy of the child’s future (vv. 32-33)—
      • “he will be great”
      • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest'”
      • “the Lord God will give to him the (ruling) seat of his father Dawid”
      • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Ya’aqob into the Age”
      • “there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom”

There are unquestionable Messianic phrases and concepts in the prophecy of vv. 32-33. Mary’s response (question) relates to the apparent impossibility of her having a child: “How will it be so, seeing (that) I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Here the verb “know” preserves a Semitic idiom for sexual relations, and expresses the tradition of Mary’s virginity prior to bearing Jesus (also found in Matt 1:18). In verses 35-37 the Messenger gives a three-fold sign, explaining or confirming the truthfulness of the announcement:

    • Prophecy regarding the Divine source of Jesus’ conception (v. 35)
    • The miraculous conception by Elizabeth, who (being old/barren) similarly could not naturally bear a child (v. 36)
    • A declaration of the power of God to bring about anything he has uttered, i.e. through His Messenger (v. 37)

The reference to the Holy Spirit is in the prophecy of verse 35:

“The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you—therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

The first part of the verse presents two synonymous phrases in (poetic) parallel:

    • The holy Spirit—will come upon [e)pi] you
      The power of the Highest—will cast shade upon [e)pi] you

Despite an orthodox tendency to relate these two phrases with different members of the Trinity (“power” being associated with the Son), there can be little doubt that “holy Spirit” and “power of the Highest” are more or less synonymous expressions here. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the Spirit was not so much a distinct person as a manifestation of the presence and (life-giving) power of God (YHWH). This is important in light of how the concept and theme of the Holy Spirit is developed throughout Luke-Acts. The Infancy narratives preserve much of the Old Testament/Jewish background from which the new Faith (Christianity) would come forth—indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the important religious forms and patterns found in Old Testament tradition.

The reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (“out of the holy Spirit”) simply indicates the divine source of Jesus’ conception, without saying anything about how this takes place. By contrast, in Luke’s account, the Angel provides vivid and colorful imagery—but how exactly should we understand these two verbs (e)pe/rxomai [“come upon”], e)piskia/zw [“cast shade upon”]) as they are used here?

e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”)—of the nine New Testament occurrences of this verb, seven are in Luke-Acts, most notably a parallel reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in Acts 1:8. This prophecy by Jesus, similar and with a position in Acts comparable to the prophecy of Gabriel, will be discussed in an upcoming note. The verb can have the sense of something literally (physically) coming upon a person, but more commonly in the general sense of something happening (i.e. coming near) which will dramatically affect the person. It is used several times in the Old Testament in a sense similar to that of Acts 1:8 (cf. 1 Sam 11:7; Isa 32:15 LXX).

e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon”)—this verb really only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (with two parallel references), including twice in Luke-Acts in a context that is especially relevant to its use here:

    • Luke 9:34 par—the cloud in the Transfiguration scene is said to “cast shade/shadow upon” the three disciples; this image, of course, alludes to the Old Testament theophany of YHWH at Sinai and in the Desert (cf. Exod 13:21ff; 19:9, 16). For the verb used of the divine Cloud in the LXX, cf. Exod 40:34f.
    • Acts 5:15—it is related that Peter’s shadow was thought (by the people) to bring healing to the sick when it “cast shade/shadow upon” them. It is not clear from the context of the narrative whether this genuinely took place, or reflects a popular belief associated with Peter.

These two occurrences inform its use in Lk 1:35; the basic meaning is two-fold, as a vivid expression for the manifestation to human beings of (a) the presence of God (i.e. the Cloud), and (b) the power of God. It is unwise to read anything further than this into the text. The result of this divine “overshadowing”, of course, is declared in the last portion of verse 35: “therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, the Son of God”. It is probably best to read the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) as a substantive in apposition to “Son of God”, both being predicate to the verb “will be called”; in other words, we have here two names or titles which (will) belong to Jesus:

December 27: Isaiah 7:18-25

Isaiah 7:18-25

These verses contain prophetic sayings of judgment against the kingdom of Israel, each beginning with “(and it shall be) on that day…”. It is possible that they were originally uttered in a separate context, only later being connected with the oracles in 7:1-17 (and 8:1-4). While they fit the overall message of judgment, against Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, the closing words of v. 17 (cf. the previous note) give these sayings a greater sense of immediacy. The reference to the “king of Assyria” provides the literary impetus for the prophetic sayings in vv. 18-25.

Probably these sayings originally were directed against the Northern Kingdom, but they would also have applied as a warning to the Southern Kingdom. And, indeed, in the wider context of chapters 2-39, they could function as a prophecy of the devastating invasion of Judah by Sennacherib at the end of the 8th century.

Saying #1 (vv. 18-19)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) YHWH shall whistle, to the fly that is on (the) edge of (the) streams of Egypt, and to the bee that is in (the) land of Aššûr {Assyria}, and they shall come and shall rest, all of them, in (the) wadis of the steep (rock)s, and in (the) holes of the cliffs, and in all the thorn-bushes, and in all the (place)s one leads (flocks to drink).”

The basic meaning of this colorful imagery is clear enough. The Assyrians, along with the Egyptians, will invade the land like a swarm of flies and bees, and will take their place in every part of the land (no matter how small or remote). The image of a swarm of angry, stinging bees is appropriate for depicting an invading army (cf. Deut 1:44; Psalm 118:2). Flies are more of a nuisance, and here they presumably allude to Egypt’s status as a subordinate (ally) to Assyria. The historical reference may be to the pro-Assyrian position of the Nubian Pharaoh Shabako (c. 716-702), or to Shebiktu (c. 702-690) as an unreliable ally (a “broken reed”, 36:6) for Judah against the Assyrian threat; cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 236. There is some evidence that the Nubians had ties with Assyria even earlier (c. 732-720), even to the point of sending troops to aid Sargon in his siege of Gaza (cf. Roberts, p. 126).

Saying #2 (v. 20)

“On that day, my Lord shall shave with a razor th(at is) hired—(done) by (those) beyond (the) River, by (the) king of Aššûr—the head and (the) hair of the feet [i.e. genitals], and also the aged (beard) it shall sweep (away)!”

This second saying utilizes the motif of a person being shaved (lit. made bald/bare) with a razor. It is again used to depict  the military action of the king of Assyria, and the Assyrians from the northeast (“over [the Euphrates] River”). The victim—i.e., the kingdom of Israel (and/or Judah)—will be shaved completely, including (most shamefully) his pubic hair (lit. hair of the ‘feet’). Even the long beards of the distinguished elders will be “swept away” (vb hp*s*), in a complete and destructive manner.

Saying #3 (vv. 21-22)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) a man shall keep alive a young calf of (the) cattle; and it shall be (that) from (the) abundance of (her) making milk he shall eat butter-milk—for butter-milk and syrup (is what) every (one) left over in (the) midst of the land shall eat.”

The reference to “butter-milk [ha*m=j#] and syrup [vb^D=]” echoes the oracle in verses 10-17 (v. 15, cf. the previous note). And, as in the prior verse, there is a certain ambiguity in the reference. Is it a promise that the ‘remnant’ in the land will have blessing, eating rich food? Or, is it here a reference to the pathetic condition of the land, such that the survivors will have to subsist on the food given to newly-weaned infants? Almost certainly, the latter sense is intended, confirmed (it would seem) from the imagery in verse 20, where a man is able to keep alive only a young calf from the cattle, and will have to survive by eating whatever milk-product she is able to produce.

Saying #4 (vv. 23-25)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) every standing-place, in which were there a thousand vines (valued) at a thousand (pieces of) silver, it shall be (a place) for thorn(s), and (even) for weed(s) it shall be. With arrows and with bows (men) shall come here, for all the shall shall come to be thorn(s) and weed(s). And on all the hills that were dug with the hoe, you shall not come there, (for) fear of (the) thorn(s) and weed(s), and it shall be (a place) for sending oxen and for (the) treading of cattle.”

The wording of this saying is rather awkward, repetitive, and less colorful, but the imagery is quite clear. As a result of the Assyrian military invasion (spec. the bowmen), the entire land will be turned into a wilderness, a rough pasture-land overgrown with weeds and thornbushes.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

December 26: Isaiah 7:15-17

Isaiah 7:15-17

Many Christians who are familiar with the famous prophecy in Isa 7:14, doubtless are not so familiar with the verses of the prophecy that follow (15-17), nor of the historical context of the oracle (vv. 10-17) as a whole. We have examined this context in the previous notes, along with a careful critical study of verse 14 (cf. the two Christmas day notes [1, 2], along with the supplemental note on the Christian application of the verse). In the remainder of the oracle, we gain a clearer sense of the importance of this child (given the name ±Imm¹nû °E~l) as a prophetic symbol (and sign):

“Butter-milk and syrup he will eat before his knowing to refuse the evil and to choose the good. (So it is) that in (the time) before the young (child) shall know to refuse the evil and to choose the good, the land shall be abandoned, which you abhor, from (the) faces of her two kings.” (vv. 15-16)

In addition to the child’s name (v. 14), the time-frame of his early development serves as a prophetic time-indicator of when the judgment against Aram-Damascus and the kingdom of Israel will occur. The foods mentioned in v. 15 are choice items that presumably would be offered to a newly-weaned child. The noun ha*m=j# refers to a liquid milk/butter product (perhaps similar to Indian ghee), while vb^D= most likely refers to date-syrup (or honey). The basic point of reference is about three years, the same age (3-4) at which the child will begin to understand (“know,” vb ud^y`) enough to refuse (vb sa^m*) what is evil and choose (vb rj^B*) what is good.

Thus the meaning of the prophetic sign is that, within about 3 (or four) years after the child’s birth, the land of Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom will be left behind and abandoned (vb bz~u*). This is very much akin to the prophecy in vv. 8-9 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), referring to the defeat and conquest of the two kingdoms—Aram-Damascus and “Ephraim,” led by the two kings Rezin and Pekah (“son of Remalyah”)—which had joined in an (anti-Assyrian) alliance. This alliance was initially directed against the southern kingdom of Judah (vv. 2, 5-6), and the threat it posed toward Judah is the main reason why the royal court would have come to loathe and abhor (vb JWq) those northern lands; the verb can also connote a sense of fear/dread, which is probably intended here.

The oracle concludes with the dramatic statement in verse 17:

“YHWH shall bring upon you, and upon your people, and upon (the) house of your father, days (the like) of which have not (yet) come, from (the) day (that) Ephrayim turned (away) from (being) upon [i.e. next to] Yehudah…(the) king of Aššûr {Assyria}!”

Without the final words, mentioning the king of Assyria, this verse seems to close the prophecy on a positive note for Judah. That is to say, the days will be days of blessing, alluded to by the rich food that the child will eat, mentioned in v. 15. However, the reference to the king of Assyria creates, instead, an ominous warning, implying that the coming days will be days of danger and judgment.

For this reason, some commentators would view the final words as a later addition, from the time when 6:1-9:6 (and spec. 7:1-17) was incorporated into chapters 2-39 as a whole, with their emphasis on Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah at the end of the 8th century. While this does, in fact, fit the wider prophetic perspective of the book, I tend to think that the original oracle may also have contained this aspect of warning of a possible coming judgment against Judah. If king and people do not trust and remain faithful to YHWH, they may suffer the same fate as the Northern Kingdom.

The oracle would thus have a dual orientation—offering the hope and promise of deliverance, but also containing a warning of coming judgment. Certainly, the editors of chapters 2-39 would have brought out this dual-aspect, relating the events of 735-732 to the later Assyrian invasion of Judah (and siege of Jerusalem), as well as to the Babylonian threat against Judah a century later. In this regard, the name “God-with-Us” (±Imm¹nû °E~l) contains a qualified promise, and does not guarantee that Judah will avoid entirely a destructive judgment at the hands of Assyria.


The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:15-17)

The Spirit in the Lukan Infancy Narrative

The Holy Spirit features more prominently in the Lukan Infancy narrative, which, in large part, reflects the greater role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts as a whole. The lines of tradition, regarding the Spirit, discussed in Part 1 are also reflected in the Lukan narrative. Special importance is placed on the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, and his role in ushering in the New Age, in which the Spirit will be manifest in a new way among God’s people. This Messianic identity is primarily expressed according to two distinct thematic structures in the Lukan Infancy narrative:

    • The superiority of Jesus in comparison with John the Baptist (John being viewed as a Messianic prophet-figure)
    • Jesus as the Royal Messiah from the line of David

As an organizing device within the narrative, the Jesus-John comparison is more significant. The birth narratives of John and Jesus are essentially presented side-by-side, following a similar pattern, being intercut (and interrelated). In terms of the Messianic identity of the two children, there are two main points of comparison: (1) the parallel Angelic announcements, and (2) the two inspired oracles by John’s parents (Elizabeth / Zechariah). In each of these literary structures, the Holy Spirit plays a significant role and must be examined in some detail. Let us begin with the first of these.

The Angelic Announcements

The parallelism of the John and Jesus narratives, establishing the John-Jesus comparison, begins with the annunciation scenes, which follow one after the other, from John (1:5-25) to Jesus (1:26-38). For a discussion of the literary and thematic aspects of the John annunciation scene, see the earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” (cf. also the entry in last year’s Saturday Series Christmas studies).

Luke 1:15-17

“For he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord, and wine and liquor he shall (surely) not drink,
and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother.” (v. 15)

This contains the first two declarations made by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Zechariah, announcing the conception (and coming birth) of John. The statements are made with verbs in the future tense: (i) “he will be…” (e&stai), (ii) “he will be filled…” (plhsqh/setai). They announce both John’s birth and his future destiny. He will be a chosen servant of God, a role that has genuine Messianic significance, within the context of the Gospel Tradition. This is the primary meaning of the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”. It is also said of Jesus that he will be “great” (me/ga$, v. 32), but in a way that surpasses the greatness of John the Baptist, an absolute attribution that would normally be predicated of God (YHWH).

The second declaration involves the Holy Spirit:

“and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother”

Before examining the significance of John being “filled” by the Spirit, let us consider the final two declarations (in vv. 16-17):

“and he will turn many of the sons of Yisrael (back) upon the Lord their God,
and he will go before in the sight of Him, in (the) spirit and power of ‘Eliyyahu, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded (one)s in the mind-set of (the) righteous, to make ready for (the) Lord a people having been fully prepared.”

These statements describe (and define) the Messianic role of John the Baptist—certainly as it was understood in the early Gospel Tradition. It can be summarized by the expression “in the spirit and power of Elijah”. In order to gain a proper understanding of the place of the Spirit in this passage, we must join together these two aspects of the annunciation, where the noun pneu=ma is used:

    • “(filled) by the holy Spirit”
    • “in the spirit…of Elijah”

The principal association is between the Spirit and prophecy. John will be among the greatest of prophets (7:26-28 par), fulfilling the role of the end-time (Messianic) Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah (for more on this, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). More than this, he may be regarded as the last of the prophets of the old covenant (16:16 par), standing on the threshold of the new covenant. This sense of continuity between the old and new covenants is especially important in terms of how this passage fits in with the Lukan view of the Spirit.

This is the first occurrence of two distinct modes, in the Lukan narratives, whereby the Spirit is present and active. The first mode involves the idea of filling—i.e., being filled by the Spirit. Here the verb plh/qw is used. The idiom occurs numerous times in the book of Acts, but in the Gospel only within the Infancy narratives (1:41, 67) and the Lukan description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:1).

The second mode involves being (and walking) in the Spirit. Here it is said that John will go about in the spirit of Elijah, which is a very specific way of referring to the spirit of prophecy—which, in turn, is brought about by the presence of God’s own Spirit. The expression “the spirit of Elijah” can be understood two ways, as it relates to the person of John the Baptist: (1) the same Spirit (of God) that inspired Elijah also is present in John; or (2) that John is essentially a new manifestation of Elijah himself, inspired by the distinctive prophetic spirit that Elijah possessed (and which he gave to Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9-12).

Either way, the “spirit of Elijah” involves the presence of the Spirit, so we may fairly claim that the wording here in v. 17 is an example of the Lukan motif of persons going about “in (or by) the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1, 14; 10:21).

If we are to isolate the main Lukan themes that are introduced here, they would be as follows:

    • The association of the Spirit with prophecy—John is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant; with Jesus and his disciples (believers), the time of the New Covenant begins, and, with it, a new understanding of the nature of prophecy.
    • The Messianic role of John as “Elijah”, who will appear prior to the end-time Judgment (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6)—this reflects the fundamental eschatological understanding of early Christians, which Luke develops powerfully in his 2-volume work, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the early Christian mission.
    • The person of John as a transitional figure, emphasizing the continuity between the Old and New Covenant—he embodies the prophetic Spirit of the Old and, at the same time, points toward the manifestation of the Spirit in the New.

Another minor theme could also be mentioned, which is as much traditional as anything distinctly Lukan. In v. 15 the Spirit is associated with John the Baptist’s ascetic behavior (cf. Mk 1:6 par; Lk 7:33 par), but reflecting specifically the religious vow of the Nazirite (cf. Num 6:3). This detail may have been influenced by the Samuel and Samson narratives (Judg 13:4; 1 Sam 1:11, 22 [v.l.]), but there is no reason that it could not also be an authentic historical detail in the case of John. The principal idea here is twofold: (a) purity/holiness, and (b) consecration to God. Both of these motifs are central to the idea of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit (the holy Spirit, Spirit of holiness), are emphasized, to varying degrees, in the Lukan narratives. On the Nazirite motif, in association with the birth of Jesus himself, cf. my earlier note on Matthew 2:23 (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”).