January 1: Isaiah 8:11-22

Isaiah 8:11-22

There are three pieces to this section, which bring the oracles of chapters 7-8 to a close. They seem to be only loosely connected, though thematically they all relate, we may assume, to the 8th century Assyrian crisis. The pieces may be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 11-15—A message of warning from YHWH to the prophet, emphasizing the need to trust in Him alone
    • Vv. 16-18—A biographical notice, referring to the sealing of Isaiah’s oracle(s)
    • Vv. 19-22—A message of warning to people (Isaiah’s audience) against relying on other religious means (rather than trusting solely in YHWH’s word) in time of crisis.
Verses 11-15

The first unit begins with an introductory notice of a powerful inspired (prophetic) state that grips Isaiah:

“For thus said YHWH to me, as (with) a firm grasp (of the) hand, and disciplined me (away) from walking in (the) way of this people, saying…” (v. 11)

The central verb in the MT is rs^y` (“discipline, correct, rebuke”), yn]r@S=y]w+ (“and He disciplined me”), which fits the forceful image of God taking firm hold (qzj) of Isaiah with the hand. The idea would be of a parent forcefully disciplining a child. However, the Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) has yn]r@ys!y+ (“He turned me [aside]”), a Hiphil form of rWs (“turn [aside]”). This would fit the motif that follows, of walking on a certain path (or avoiding it). Thus, both verbs would fit the context, and it is difficult to decide between them; unfortunately, the other Qumran fragments do not contain this portion of v. 11, so there is no additional help to be found there (cf. Roberts, p. 136). I think that the context slightly favors rsy, with the overriding sense that YHWH is giving a stern warning to Isaiah.

He is to avoid “the way of this people”, where the expression “this people” should be understood in light of the earlier occurrence in v. 6 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). Assuming that we are still dealing with the historical context of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis, Isaiah was caught in the middle of this situation. Some of “the people” supported the anti-Assyrian coalition, while others would have preferred to ally themselves with Assyria. There is some indication that king Ahaz of Judah vacillated between these two positions. The prophetic message of Isaiah ran contrary to both of these practical political/military approaches, and here YHWH is warning him against falling into such worldly ways of thinking.

A key word in this message is the noun rv#q#, from the root rvq, which fundamentally means “bind [together]”. In the context, it refers to a political (and/or military) alliance, such as the anti-Assyrian coalition, formed by Aram-Damascus and Israel, which sought to force Judah (through military pressure) to join it. The prophet is directed not to think or speak in such terms, and he is also exhorted not to be afraid, nor to fear the kinds of things people fear during such times of crisis (v. 12). Rather than turning to political solutions, Isaiah and his supporters are to place their trust in YHWH alone (vv. 13ff).

The root vdq, denoting holiness and separation/ consecration, provides a contrast with rvq, and there is even a kind of alliterative wordplay between the two. It connotes the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, along with the protection that He provides for those who are faithful and trust in Him. For the faithful ones, God serves as a holy place of protection (vD*q=m!), but for others, He is a stone that trips them up and causes them to fall.

One is reminded of the use of vv. 14-15 (along with Psalm 118:22) as applied to the person of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Luke 20:18 par; cf. also the declaration in 2:34 of the Infancy narrative). Here the  warning of judgment is equally comprehensive, addressed to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah alike—and, indeed, both would experience considerable destruction and suffering at the hands of Assyria. None of their political machinations would help them to avoid this fate, and only a remnant—including the city of Jerusalem (where YHWH’s holy sanctuary [vD*q=m!] resides)—would survive.

Verses 16-18

The inclusion of this biographical notice is curious, and originally it was probably part of the tradition in vv. 1-4 (cf. the prior note). There is certainly a continuation of the themes from that earlier passage, namely: (1) a notarized written record of Isaiah’s prophecy, and (2) the association of the oracle with Isaiah’s child. In this particular scene, there is a further juxtaposition between the presence of Isaiah’s disciples (<yd!WMl!, v. 16) and his children (<yd!l*y+, v. 18)—presumably the two children, with the symbolic names, connected with the oracles in 7:3-9 and 8:1-4. The disciples are associated with the binding (vb rWx, i.e., securing) and sealing (vb <t^j*) of the prophecy—i.e., a written record of one or more of Isaiah’s oracles, which doubtless served as a primary source for the document of 6:1-9:6 as a whole.

The children, by contrast, are associated with the message of the oracle(s), as the symbolic names and connected signs indicate. This is specified in verse 18, referring to the children as those “…whom YHWH gave to me for signs [tota)] and for portents [<yt!p=om] in Yisrael”. The oracles, and the accompanying child-signs, relate specifically to the judgment coming upon the kingdom of Israel (along with Aram-Damascus), which was fulfilled by the Assyrian conquests of 734-732 B.C.

The central statement of the episode (in v. 17), emphasizes the prophet’s trust in YHWH, contrasted with the general faithlessness of the Israelite kingdom:

“I will wait [vb hk*j*] for YHWH, the (One) hiding His face from (the) house of Ya’aqob; indeed I will wait [vb hw`q*] for Him.”

The prophet’s two declarations that he will wait for YHWH, using two different verbs, bracket the statement alluding to God’s judgment against Israel (“…hiding His face from the house of Jacob”). The ‘hiding’ (turning away) of God’s face essentially refers to the removal of His covenant-protection from the people, thus allowing for their conquest by the Assyrians.

Verses 19-22

In the first unit, the focus is on how people respond (out of fear) in a time of crisis, turning to political/military alliances as their source of hope and protection. Another way of responding is to seek out (vb vr^D*) other religious sources, apart from simply trusting in the prophetic word of God. That is the focus here in the third unit, which matches the first as a message of warning against following in the path of the people at large. The first message was addressed to Isaiah himself; the second, here, is presented as an oracle, by Isaiah, to an audience: “And (it is) that they will/may say to you…”.

The implied “they”, as the subject of the verb, are the people at large (and their leaders). In time of crisis, people will often seek out various superstitious practices to gain answers and find a sense of hope and security. Among these can be included various forms of divination—most of which are specifically prohibited in the Torah. The one mentioned here in vv. 19-22 is necromancy—attempts to obtain information and guidance from the spirits of the dead. Such things were outlawed by the Torah (e.g., Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut 18:11), but they continued to be practiced throughout Israel’s history (cf. 19:3; 26:13-19; 28:14-22; 29:4; Blenkinsopp, p. 245). The most famous Old Testament example is the episode at En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28.

The message of warning concludes on a dark and chilling note (v. 22), promising that those who resort to necromancy, looking down into the darkness of the underworld, will themselves be thrust down into deep darkness.

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 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).

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.


December 23: Isaiah 7:1-9

Isaiah 7:1-8:10

The section spanning 7:1-8:10 contains a series of Isaian oracles, three of which are tied to the name of a male child—7:1-9, 10-17, and 8:1-4. In each case, the child’s name is relevant to the content of the oracle, and it may be the name was given (by the prophet) at the time of the oracle itself. The second of these oracles (7:10-17) contains the famous prophecy in 7:14 (to be discussed in the upcoming notes [for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day]), which, of course came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense and applied to the birth of Jesus.

The original historical setting of Isaiah 7:14—and, indeed, of the larger section 6:1-9:6 as a whole—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 usurper 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” —possibly Tab°al is to be identified with Ittoba±al of Tyre (Tubail in Tiglath-Pileser’s tribute list from 737 B.C.; cf. Roberts, p. 111). 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 7:1-9

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. The Aram-Israel coalition was a cause of great alarm for the kingdom of Judah (both the king and his people), as the historical/narrative introduction to the oracle makes clear:

“And (the news) was brought in front before (the) house of David, saying, ‘Aram has rested upon Ephrayim.’ And (at this,) his heart shook, and the heart of his people, like (the) shaking of (the) trees of (the) forest from (the) face of (the) wind.” (v. 2)
The precise meaning of the verb form hj*n` is disputed. Some commentators would explain it as a denominative verb (Niphal stem), hj*a*, from the root ja (“[be like a] brother”). It has also been explained in relation to the Arabic naµ¹ (“wind [one’s way], walk, turn [toward]”). It is probably best to hold to the customary derivation from j^Wn (“rest”), especially in light of the wordplay in the verse involving the verb u^Wn (“shake, waver”); the meaning, apparently, is that Aram has “rested upon” Ephraim (the Israelite Northern Kingdom), relying upon them as an ally (but perhaps also with the nuance of compelling them to be so).

This provides the background for the oracle in vv. 3-9, which begins with a command by YHWH to Isaiah (v. 3), directing the prophet to meet with king Ahaz. He is to bring along his son, who has the Hebrew name bWvy`-ra*v=. The meaning of this phrase-name, “A-Remnant-will-Return,” is explained in 10:20-23, and it likely carries much the same meaning here in the passage.

However, it is important to keep in mind the dual-significance of the name, in relation to the oracles of chapters 7-8, as those oracles convey both a message of judgment for the Northern Kingdom, and, at the same time, of deliverance for the Kingdom of Judah (esp. the city of Jerusalem). The latter aspect has the future invasion of Judah (by Sennacherib) in mind, in which a portion of the Judean Kingdom (including Jerusalem) will be spared. It also relates, more immediately, to the fate of the Northern Kingdom; after its conquest, and the exile of its people, the message “a remnant will return” offers the hope that at least some of the exiled population will eventually return, to be united with the Southern Kingdom.

Isaiah’s message to Ahaz is primarily an exhortation to trust in God:

“Guard yourself and be quiet! Do not fear, (and) do not let your heart grow soft (with fear) from (the) two tail-ends of these smoking firebrands (lit) by (the) burning anger of Rezin and Aram and (the) son of Remalyahu!” (v. 4)

Their plan to attack Jerusalem (vv. 5-6) will fail (v. 7), stated most bluntly: “It shall not stand, and it shall not be”. Then the oracle closes (vv. 8-9) with an announcement of judgment to come upon Aram-Damascus and the kingdom of Israel. As in the following oracles (vv. 10-17 and 8:1-4), here a time-indicator is given as to when this judgment (conquest by Assyria) will occur. At this point, however, the text is problematic. In the Masoretic Text (but confirmed by the Dead Sea MSS and the Versions), the declaration of judgment (v. 8b) interrupts the parallelism of the lines in vv. 8a, 9a:

8aFor (the) head of Aram (is) Damascus,
and (the) head of Damascus (is) Rezin;
8b[and in about sixty and five years Ephrayim shall be broken from (being) a people]
9aand (the) head of Ephrayim (is) Šomrôn {Samaria},
and (the) head of Šomrôn (is the) son of Remalyahu.

Many commentators would explain v. 8b as a later insertion; however, this is not entirely convincing, as the position of the ‘insertion’ is extremely awkward, and the time-frame of 65 years makes little sense. We would expect an announcement that the judgment would occur in the very near future of Ahaz (cp. the time-markers in 7:16 and 8:4). Roberts (pp. 111-4) offers the intriguing proposal that the current text is the result of an ancient scribal error, by which part of a line was omitted (haplography) when a scribe accidentally skipped over a line in the text because the line following began with the same words or characters (parablepsis). The LXX, for example, shows signs of such textual corruption in verse 5, and also here in v. 8a (Roberts, p. 112).

Roberts would reconstruct vv. 8-9 as follows:

“For (the) head of Aram (is) Damascus,
and (the) head of Damascus (is) Rezin;
and (the) head of Ephrayim (is) Šomrôn {Samaria},
and (the) head of Šomrôn (is the) son of Remalyahu.
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.”

According to this theory, the portion in italics was lost and the numbers five (vm@j*) and six (vv@) were conflated (into six[ty]-five). This all seems quite plausible, though the reconstruction remains entirely hypothetical, with no manuscript or versional support for it. It does, however, fit the framework of the oracles—both in terms of the Damascus-Ephraim parallelism, and a time-frame for the judgment within a few years. Damascus fell in 732 B.C., and the Northern Kingdom was also “broken” (though not completely) but the Assyrian campaigns in 734-733.

The final words of the oracle repeat the opening exhortation for Ahaz to trust in YHWH, but tinged with a sense of warning:

“If you do not remain firm [Wnym!a&t^],
then you will not be made firm [Wnm@a*t@].” (v. 9b)

The wordplay (which I have tried to preserve here) involves the verb /m^a* (“be firm”), which has a relatively wide semantic range. In the first line, the Hiphil (causative) form refers to Ahaz making (himself) firm—that is, firm in his faith/trust in YHWH; in the second line, the Niphal (passive) form refers to Ahaz (and his kingdom) being made firm (strong/established) by YHWH. The overriding message is that God will protect and  save those who remain faithful to Him.

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

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).