“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 1:23

Matthew 1:23

In the previous note (for Christmas Day) I discussed the structure of the first episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative, 1:18-25—in particular, the actual birth announcement in vv. 20-21 and the declaration (by the Angel) of the child’s name (Yeshua/Jesus). Today, I will be looking at the Scripture cited in vv. 22-23. This is the first such citation formula used by the author (one of at least 11 in the Gospel). Each of the three main sections in the Infancy narrative—1:18-25; 2:1-12, and 2:13-23—contains at least one Scripture quotation (cf. 2:15, 17-18, 23, as well as vv. 5-6) indicating that the events being narrated are a fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy in this section is part of the oracle in Isaiah 7:1-17. The oracle, properly speaking, occurs in verses 3-9. What follows in vv. 10ff is the sign given by God confirming the truth of the message, much as we see in the Lukan annunciation episodes (Lk 1:19-22, 35-37). Here in Matthew, the Scripture citation functions as a different sort of sign—one which confirms the divinely-guided nature of the event as a fulfillment of God’s word (and promises) to his people in ancient times.

The declaration in Isa 7:14 is justly famous, being applied by early Christians to Jesus as a Messianic prophecy. The Greek of Matthew’s version appears to be an (intentional) adaptation of the original text, whether working from the Hebrew or a Greek translation (such as the LXX). Here is a rendering of Matthew’s version, with the Hebrew (in translation) given below:

“See!—the virgin will (come to) have (a child) in (the) womb,
and she will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son, and they will call his name Immanuel”

“See!—the young (maid)en [hm*l=u*h*] will be(come) pregnant [hr*h*] and she will bring forth [i.e. bear] a son,
and she will call his name ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E~l, “God”] (is) with us’ [la@ WnM*u!].”

The main difficulty, and a longstanding point of controversy, is the translation of the Hebrew word am*l=u* (±¹lmâ). It is usually translated in Greek by nea=ni$, literally a “young/youthful woman”. However, this does not quite capture the sense of the Hebrew; the particular root <lu signifies something strong, vigorous, virile, etc, and, when applied to a young female, it often connotes a girl who has just (recently) come into sexual awareness and maturity. In the context of ancient Israelite society, such a young woman, at a marriageable age, would typically be a virgin, though am*l=u* does not mean this specifically; indeed a different word (hl*WtB=, b§¾ûl¹h) is used to emphasize virginity. It is significant, then, that the Septuagint (LXX) translates am*l=u* in Isa 7:14 with parqe/no$, rather than nea=ni$. The word parqe/no$ is of uncertain origin, but it came to mean specifically a virgin (male or female), as in 1 Cor 7:25ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4. In only one other place, does the LXX translate am*l=u* this way—in Gen 24:43 (cf. vv. 14, 16). I have discussed the matter extensively in an earlier Christmas series of notes.

It is likely that the word parqe/no$ was used in Isa 7:14 (as in Gen 24:43) to emphasize the purity of the woman and the sacredness of the scene—the special situation attending the child and his birth. Neither in the original Hebrew, nor in the LXX version, is there any clear sense that this is a miraculous birth, let alone a virginal conception. The significance of this child was as a sign confirming the oracle in vv. 3-9. For the various theories regarding the identity of this child, and an overall interpretation of vv. 10ff, cf. the aforementioned Christmas series above. One conclusion is inescapable: the original historical and literary context does not refer to a (distant) future savior/ruler figure, but to something expected to occur in the general time frame of the prophet—the reign of Ahaz and/or his son Hezekiah. Based on the use of the name ±Immanû °E~l in Isa 8:8-10, and a comparison with the language in 2 Kings 18:7, it seems likely that Hezekiah is the immediate point of reference. This is not to say that a Messianic interpretation by Jews and early Christians should be considered invalid, but that it ought to be regarded as a secondary interpretation or application, pointing to events of a future time (such as the birth of Jesus). I would argue strongly that such a view is perfectly compatible with any reasonable and legitimate doctrine of inspiration, and can be amply documented by many Old Testament passages which the New Testament authors have adapted or taken out of their original context (cf. my earlier article on this aspect of Scriptural prophecy).

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke (cf. below). It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

  • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
    the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
  • “and she will produce a son”
    “and she will produce a son”
  • “and you will call his name…”
    “and they will call his name…”

It is hard to say to what extent a Messianic interpretation of Isa 7:14 was current among Jews in the 1st-century B.C./A.D.; it is not particularly attested as such in the surviving Qumran texts and other literature of the period. It would not have been difficult, however, for Jews and early Christians to recognize the possible Messianic significance of the prophecy (as of that in Isa 9:1-7 [Heb 8:23-9:6]). This would be enhanced by the idea that Jesus’ conception was truly miraculous, and the work of the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35 and the italicized words above).

When we turn to the name ±Immanû °E~l (Greek  )Emmanouh/l), we find a sentence-name or title which includes the divine name-element °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); for more background information and detail, cf. my earlier article on °E~l. The explanation the Gospel writer gives in verse 23 generally matches the actual translation of the name, as used in Isa 8:8, 10—”God [°E~l] (is) with us” or “God (be) with us”. In the original context of the prophecy, it is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

  • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
  • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (Part 4)

It is hard to know just when early Christians began to view Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth, as we see in Matthew 1:22-23; it is possible, though quite uncertain, that the Gospel writer was the first to make the connection. Here I place side-by-side, the Hebrew (MT), the Greek (LXX) and Matthew, in a rather literal translation, with the Hebrew/Greek given below:

As explained in prior notes, “virgin” is not particularly appropriate for translating hm*l=u^; nor exactly is “young girl/woman”. As no English word or phrase entirely fits, I have somewhat reluctantly opted for “maiden” as the least unsatisfactory solution.

For my Lord Him(self) will give for you a sign: See—the maiden (is [becoming]) pregnant and (is) bearing a son, and (she) will call his name “God-with-us”

toa <k#l* aWh yn`d)a& /T@y] /k@l*
/B@ td#l#y)w+ hr*h* hm*l=u^h* hN@h!
la@ WnM*u! ov= tar*q*w+

Through this (the) Lord Him(self) will give you a sign: See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and she will call his name ±Immanû¢l

dia\ tou=to dw/sei ku/rio$ au)to\$ u(mi=n shmei=on i)dou\ h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri\ e&cei kai\ te/cetai ui(o/n kai\ kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou= Emmanouhl

{first part of the verse is not cited} See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name ±Immanû¢l, which is being explained across [i.e. translated] (as) “God with us”

The LXX is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew (MT), the difficulties surrounding the use of parqe/no$ notwithstanding, and apart from the very different idiom used for conception and childbirth. The citation in Matthew is identical to the LXX, but for one difference (indicated in italics above): “they will call” instead of “you will call”. The MT has regularly been understood as a 2nd person form, but most scholars today read it as a 3rd person feminine. Manuscript 1QIsaa reads arqw (“and he will call”), apparently in an indefinite sense, which may be reflected in the Syriac )rQtNw (wntqr°, “and he will be called”), and possibly is the basis for the rendering in Matthew (“they will call”). The Gospel writer also provides an explanation of the Hebrew term.

This citation in the Gospel is one of a number which occur especially in the Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23):

With the possible exception of 2:5-6 (Micah 5:2), these Scripture passages were taken and applied in a sense altogether different from the original context. This was discussed already for Isaiah 7:14; I will treat the remaining verses in upcoming Advent Season notes.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catchphrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.  This is indeed what has happened: for believers, who ‘find’ Jesus in the Scriptures, apply those texts to him—whether or not the original context truly warrants it!

Even in the early years of the Church there were questions (by both Jews and Greco-Roman ‘skeptics’) about such use of the Old Testament, and even about the Isaian passage in particular. Isa 7:14 is not cited in the New Testament outside of Matt 1:22-23, but then the birth of Jesus in general is scarcely mentioned apart from the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Nor is it used by the so-called Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early/mid-second century (except for the ‘long’ form of Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians §18). By the late-second and into the third-century it appears more frequently, corresponding both with an increased interest in traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, as well as more ‘systematic’ attempts to defend (proto-)orthodox Christian beliefs in the face of Jewish and pagan objections. Justin Martyr gives perhaps the earliest [c. 140-160], and most noteworthy, surviving treatments of Isa 7:14: in his First Apology §33, and especially in the Dialogue (with Trypho) §§43, 66-67. The Jewish interlocutor “Trypho” in §67 (at first) offers an interpretation of Isa 7:14 similar to that of modern scholars (that is, according to the original historical sense); Justin has no interest in responding to this view, but rather reacts to the notion that beliefs such as the Virgin Birth are derived in imitation of pagan myths, provoking a lengthy discussion. While earlier generations of critical scholars occasionally posited similar explanations for the “origin” of the Virgin Birth, they have been almost entirely abandoned by serious commentators today.

In conclusion, let me return to the interpretive crux—believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (Part 3)

Having discussed the translation of the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ in Isaiah 7:14 (see Part 2), it remains to explore the equally difficult interpretive question as to the identity of woman (and child) in the prophecy. To begin with, it is vital that one look for clues first in the immediate context of chap. 7 (and the section 6:1-9:6) before seeking them elsewhere. However, it worth noting the three main interpretive approaches (see also the note regarding the interpretation of prophecy in general):

  1. Futuristic—that is, in retrospect, the child refers to a figure (usually understood as Messianic) who would only appear many years after the time of Isaiah. This has been the traditional Christian view, but, as indicated in the previous studies, it more or less ignores the original context of the prophecy. Still, there are (or have been) a number of ways to retain it as a secondary or supplemental interpretation. The wider application of the “sign” to the ‘house of David’, makes some sort of Messianic interpretation at least possible on textual grounds.
  2. Historic—in that it relates to the present circumstances involving Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah. This is the view favored by most critical or otherwise serious scholars today, with two differing positions being commonly held:
    a) It is the wife (or bride) and child of Isaiah. The close parallel of 8:1-4 is a strong argument in favor of this view, as is the fact that the prophet gave symbolic names to two other children (7:3; 8:3) relevant to the circumstances and fate of Israel/Judah. However, these other children create a problem, as does the fact that hm*l=u^, it seems, would not normally be used of a married woman (though it might be of a young bride). The “prophetess” of 8:3 appears to be different woman from that of 7:14, which is another complication; though we really don’t know enough about Isaiah’s personal life to be sure of the details.
    b) It is the wife (or concubine, etc) and child of Ahaz. In the context of the passage, the prophecy is addressed to the king (as head of the ‘house of David’), so an application to Ahaz, rather than Isaiah himself, seems to make more sense. In Song 1:3; 6:8, hm*l=u^ seems to be a technical term for girls in the royal court (or harem), and this may also be the sense here. The promise of the name “God-with-us” is, perhaps, more appropriate for a royal figure; and the parallel of 9:5-6, if applicable, would also be an argument in favor of this view.
  3. Symbolic/collective—referring to the people or kingdom of Israel/Judah as a whole. The strongest argument here is the subsequent use of the name/phrase “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) in Isa 8:8, 10; however, this is perhaps better viewed as an application of the symbolic name given in 7:14. Even if the child represents the king (‘head’), the woman could be symbolic of the people (recall the use of hm*l=u^ in Gen 24:43 for Rebekah, the mother of Israel/Jacob).

In terms of the original meaning of the prophecy, I would say that 2b is the best solution, though certainly not without its own difficulties. However, it seems to fit the context overall: a specific girl (hm*l=u^h*), belonging in some respect to the royal court (circumstances unknown to us), is (or is soon to become) pregnant and will give birth to a son; by the time the child has been weaned, and is old enough to choose between good and evil, Aram-Damascus and Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom) will suffer at the hands of the king of Assyria and no longer threaten Judah (a prediction which more or less came to pass by 732 B.C.). Whether such a son of Ahaz should be identified with the (positive) figure of Hezekiah is a separate question; though accepted by some scholars, I am by no means certain that such an identification is correct.

Is a virginal birth as such indicated? I do not see anything in the original Hebrew text, nor in the context of the passage, which necessarily implies a miraculous birth. However, three textual points need to be considered:

  1. Whether the use of hm*l=u^ here does indicate specifically a chaste young woman, as the LXX translation would suggest. Unless the word here is otherwise a technical term related to the royal court, such an implication is possible, even likely, but not certain (as discussed in the previous study).
  2. The force of the verbal adjective hr*h*: does this mean she is already pregnant, or that she will soon become so? Judging from similar instances (Gen 16:11; 38:24-25; Ex 21:22; Judg 13:5, 7; 1 Sam 4:19; 2 Sam 11:5; Isa 26:17; Jer 31:8), the present tense is perhaps more likely. The closest parallels to the prophetic formula of Isa 7:14 are Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5—the present tense seems more appropriate in the former, the future tense in the latter.
  3. The significance of toa (“sign”): the word can occasionally refer to a wondrous portent or omen. As indicated previously, the LXX translator may have understood this as a miraculous event (use of parqe/no$ to indicate a virginal birth, so understood in Matt 1:18ff). However, the use of toa elsewhere in Isa 6:1-9:6 (7:11; 8:18) and in the book as a whole (19:20; 20:3; 37:30; 38:7, 22; 44:25; 55:13; 66:19) would speak against this (only in Isa 38:7 is does a special miracle seem to be indicated).

As a short answer to each question, I would state: (1) I do not think that virginity as such is emphasized in the use of hm*l=u^ [nor is it in any way contradicted]; (2) hr*h* probably indicates that the woman is currently pregnant; (3) the ‘sign’ (toa) is the child itself [rather than the nature of the birth], cf. 8:18—the sign carries two primary points of signification: (a) the name “God-with-us” [cf. esp. 8:8, 10], and (b) the temporal indicator based on the development of the infant [7:15ff].

What of this name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l)? Some believers may feel that such a momentous name could only apply to a Messianic (or even Divine) figure, rather than an ‘ordinary’ human (king). However, theologically significant names were common in Hebrew, often using “God” (°El) or Yahweh (shortened or hypocoristic form “Yah[u]”). This is more or less obscured in English translations, where names are typically given an anglicized transliteration rather than translated. For example, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y§sha±y¹hu) ought to be rendered “Yah-will-save” or “May-Yah-save!”; similarly, Ahaz is probably a shortened form of Jehoahaz (zj*a*ohy+, Y§hô°¹µ¹z) and would mean something like “Yah-has-seized” or “Yah-has-grasped [hold]!”. So, a name such as “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) could certainly be applied to a significant person or ruler (though at this time, Yah-names are much more common than El-names). Isaiah himself gave elaborate symbolic names for his two (other) sons: bWvy` ra*v= (Sh§°¹r-y¹shû», “[a] Remnant will return”, Isa 7:3), and zB^ vj* ll*v* rh@m^ (Mah¢r-sh¹l¹l-µ¹sh-baz, “Hurry [to] seize booty! hasten [to] take spoil!”, or something similar)—both names relating to the impending/future judgment on Israel.

In the historical context, the name “God-with-us” has a very specific meaning: Ahaz and the southern Kingdom faced an imminent attack by Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, along with the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. From a practical political-diplomatic view, the young king had two options: submit to the Syria-Ephraim alliance, or seek aid from Assyria to fend of the attack (effectively becoming an Assyrian vassal or tributary). Judging from the account in 2 Kings 16:7ff (and the rather different parallel in 2 Chron 28:16ff), as well as the Assyrian annals (cf. ANET, 282-4), Ahaz appears to have chosen the latter. Isaiah’s counsel in chapter 7 was to trust in God, for God is with Jerusalem and his people in Judah, and within just a year or two the threat from Aram-Ephraim will be eliminated. The use of the name “God-with-us” in Isa 8:5-10 is even more dramatic and telling, for the warning (and promise) of ±Immanû °El (vv. 8, 10) extends to all the surrounding nations (even to the Assyrian Empire): “take counsel (for) counsel and it will break apart, give word (to) a word and it will not stand! For God (is) with us!”. In this final exclamation, we have moved clearly from the sign (the child) to what it signifies—that God Himself is with us. Little wonder that early Christians would have applied this name (and this passage) to the person of Jesus Christ: “and the Word [logo$] came-to-be flesh and set-up-tent [i.e. dwelt] among us…” (John 1:14a).

It is to this Christian interpretation that I shall turn in the next, and concluding, study on Isa 7:14.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (part 1)

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Yet, an examination of the verse in its original context shows clearly enough that it had little to do with a miraculous ‘messianic’ figure of the distant future. What is one to make of this?

The original setting of Isaiah 7:14—indeed, I would say, of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1-9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:

10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I shall discuss (along with the identity of the ±almâ) in a subsequent note.

Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:

  • It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
  • The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
  • The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
  • The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
  • The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
    a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
    b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
    This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)

In light of this, one must turn to the traditional Messianic and/or Christian interpretation of the verse 14, especially as it relates to the citation in Matthew 1:22-23: for the Gospel writer applies the verse to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, apparently without any regard for the original historical context. If the (inspired) New Testament author treats the passage thus, why should we be so concerned to understand and appreciate the ‘original context’? Looking at it from the opposite side, if there is no clear reference to Christ (or a future Messiah) in the Isaiah passage, should we continue to accept the traditional Christian/Messianic interpretation without exception?

In response to the first question, I would suggest that believers in each place and each generation must study and contemplate the Scriptures anew. There is available to us today a wealth of information—linguistic, historical, archeological, and so forth—which earlier generations did not possess. We approach and use texts in many respects very differently than did early Christians in the ancient Near East. Protestant readers and commentators, in particular, tend to emphasize an “historical-grammatical” approach as the primary (and fundamental) mode of interpretation; on the whole, I agree with this. I would add that the first goal of interpretation then is to analyze and consider what the (ancient) text would have meant to the (ancient) author(s) and audience; without at least a basic sense of this, any secondary interpretation or application runs the risk of distorting the fundamental meaning. We ignore or disregard these factors very much at our own peril.

With regard to the second, opposite question, I find there to be at least as great a danger in ignoring the ways in which Christians have (traditionally) made use of the Scriptures. We see today, for example, a tendency to disregard completely earlier mystical-spiritual or allegorical-typological modes of interpretation, so prominent and vital to the thought and spiritual life of the early Church. Even with regard to the New Testament, we often fail to appreciate just how creatively the authors (and/or their sources) made use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Scores of examples could be cited where the wording (and even the basic sense) of the original passage were altered by the (inspired) author. If this be admitted, we must always be careful to examine how, and for what purpose, the Scriptures were adapted. Surely inspiration, as the work of the Spirit, far exceeds the limitations of any one view.

With this in mind, let us explore Isaiah 7:14 in relation to the birth of Jesus in a little more detail, in the next study

There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).