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Year A: Advent 4
Isaiah 7:10-16

Today’s reading is probably one of the best known passages in the Old Testament. It is associated in our lectionary with Matt 1:18-25, Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. The latter quotes Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:23) which suggests that the Matthew passage is a fulfilment of the Isaiah text. That was certainly the understanding of the writer of the Gospel, and Christian tradition has long associated the two passages. However, to understand their relationship simply in terms of a ‘prediction’ and its ‘fulfilment’ is to devalue the Isaiah text and to misunderstand the Gospel. There are many things to be explored here about what waiting for the Lord to be ‘with us’ implies.

First, a word about the relation between the passages. This hinges on the identity of the ‘young woman’ (Isa 7:14). There is ambiguity in the meaning of the Hebrew word almah, although many would say that the word seems neutral in relation to the sexual experience of the woman. The word is translated in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) by parthenos, and in the Latin Vulgate by virgo. While these words in their ancient contexts do not necessarily mean ‘virgin’ in our strict sense, that is the way the writer of Matthew has understood the Septuagint, from which he quotes Isaiah. The Isaiah passage shows very little interest in the woman or by whom she becomes pregnant. It is interested in the child as a sign for something else. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, cites Isa 7:14 as a prophecy about Christ seen against the Hellenistic idea of a divine pregnancy which, without the presence of a human father, points to the child as a divine gift. It is in this context that the virginity of Mary is emphasised.

Second, because Isaiah has little interest in the woman, her identity and that of the child remain unclear. Scholars have made many suggestions. The young woman could be a royal wife, soon to have a child to king Ahaz, or she might be an unknown queen of the distant future whose son will exercise kingship in a faithful way. She could be the prophet’s wife and the child will bear a name that is a sign of the prophet’s message, like his other two children (7:3; 8:3). Others have suggested that the woman, who is clearly pregnant, might just be an unknown bystander listening to the conversation between the prophet and king in Isaiah 7. The sign then has nothing to do with identity, but everything to do with timing. There are arguments for and against each of these suggestions. The vagaries of Isaiah 7 are part of the story. Some might want to resolve them by treating the passage as a ‘prediction’ clarified by the Gospel story. But in that case the ‘prediction’ soon outlives its usefulness. On the other hand, it can be instructive to keep the Isaiah reading, with all its uncertainties alongside the ‘fulfilment’ in Matthew 1. They ‘speak’ to each other and deepen our understanding of the Gospel.

The lack of identity for the woman or the child in Isa 7:14 sharpens the clear identity given to the child in Matthew 1. In the Gospel story Mary and Joseph are named, and information is even given on their characters. Joseph is further identified by his genealogy (Matt 1:2-16). We know who this mother and baby are with whom Matthew associates Isaiah’s prophecy. But even so, this identity is a surprise. Even modern scholars, with all the benefit of hindsight, and many with the benefit of Christian faith, limit their suggestions for the identities of the characters in Isa 7:14 to royal wives with newborn princes, or the wife and child of the prophet. The child who is the sign is assumed to be associated with power and prestige, be it social or religious. But not so Matthew’s promised child. In spite of the lengthy and noble genealogy of Joseph, and even the observations of the eastern kings (Matt 2:1-2), this young woman and child remain in obscurity, so much so that they evade the detection of Herod’s best secret service agents (Matt 2:16). The one whose name is Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is one whose presence will be known only in his ministry, death and resurrection. God is ‘with us’ in this one in totally unexpected ways, redefining power and prestige, and upsetting our most carefully planned and detailed expectations.

Finally, there are other complexities to Isa 7:10-16 that inform our interpretation of both Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1. In Isa 7:10-12, why does not king Ahaz, who is troubled by threats of attack from nations to the north, ask for a sign from God as to what to do? Is the prophet’s oracle in v. 14 an encouragement urging trust from the king who fears what that will cost him, or does it counter a decision the king has already made which he knows neither the prophet nor God will condone? Moreover, the oracle in vv. 14-15 and its interpretation in v. 16 give the oracle a positive twist. Before this child grows very old, the threat from the north will dissipate. But as we read v. 17 (not included in our reading for today but which rightly concludes the passage), we get a different picture. The threatening nations to the north will be overcome by Assyria, with whom Ahaz is thinking of making an alliance. But this will also inevitably bring trouble for Ahaz and Judah (Isa 10:5-11). The sign of Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is ambiguous. Is God with us to deliver us or to judge us? Some passages appended to today’s reading, namely vv. 18-20 and 23-25, say the latter. On the other hand, vv. 21-22 have a more positive outlook. It seems the editors of Isaiah deliberately maintained the ambiguity of the sign God insisted on giving Ahaz. Is God ‘with us’ for deliverance or destruction, salvation or judgment? Can we separate the two?

Reading Matthew 1 in light of Isa 7:10-17 with all its ambiguity, casts the story of the baby Jesus into a different light. Is God with us in Jesus for salvation or judgment or both? Maybe the only real hope for our world is to know God’s condemnation in Jesus of the conflict, hatred and injustice that fractures this world, a world which we also know in Jesus God loves dearly.

Psalm 80

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