Immanuel - Our God is With Us - Part II - Historical Background

This is the second installment of a series on Isaiah 7:14. 

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 (Cf. Matt 1:23)

Historical Background.

In order to follow this next segment, a familiarity with Isaiah chapters 7 and 8 would be helpful. The author of the Gospel of Matthew was a Jew writing in the latter half of the first century A.D. He used the Hebrew Scriptures[1] (Old Testament), often quoting passages he interpreted as involving in some way the one he believed to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, Jesus. As always, it is of vital importance to understand the context of this passage, without it, the impact it made will be lost. It appears as though the writer of Matthew saw 7:14 as a far off prophecy concerning “the Messiah” and not just a messiah. But what was it he saw as pertaining to the birth of Jesus? Comparably, there sometimes seems to be a duality in other prophecies as well.[2]

The historical background is key for understanding the relevant “sign” in this passage of Isaiah. These words of Isaiah take place during the reign of perhaps one the most aggressive kings to ever rule Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III. His dominion began in the 8th century B.C.E (745). This was approximately 741 years before Jesus' birth. This king - like many of his predecessors and contemporaries - had the desire to extend his empire. His objective stretched from modern day Egypt to the Persian Gulf; he wanted complete domination of the Middle East (some things never change). Thus, the context of Isaiah 7 happens during the Syro-Ephraimite war. Israel, as a natural highway between the north and the south was literally at the center of the conflict. So in order for Tiglath-pileser to bring about his plan of world dominance, he needed to bring Israel under subjection for need of the natural highway by the sea that she was. At this time, Israel was not Israel as thought of today, but rather only the northern territory, with Samaria as her capital. Judah was the autonomous southern nation, under the rule of different kings and Jerusalem as her capital.

Like other ancient governments, Assyria had a system of governors set over specific regions to carry out the needs and desires of Assyria (e.g. militarily – food, slaves, soldiers etc.). In the provinces set-up/conquered by Assyria, each person became a citizen of Assyria. So whenever Assyria by nature of conquest added a territory and formed its governing body, the citizens of that region became Assyrian and had to pay tribute to their new lords. Assyria was quite ruthless in their tactics of enforcement, revolution was not tolerated. Pain, suffering, death and deportation were among the penalties for revolting against the state.

Will Durant wrote,

“To avoid these recurrent rebellions Tiglath-Pileser III established the characteristic Assyrian policy of deporting conquered populations to alien habitats, where, mingling with the natives, they might lose their unity and identity, and have less opportunity to rebel.”[3]

This was a phenomenon well-known to other regions of that world who were not yet occupied territories, and therefore fostered within them a strong fear. Israel - the northern kingdom- had for many years been in a subordinate relationship, keeping tensions at bay by paying an annual tribute and in a sense subjecting themselves to Assyrian kings as militarily dominant.

In 746 B.C.E., Zechariah became king of Israel (the north), due to the death of his father Jehu. According to 2 Kings 15, he ruled for only six months (15:8-10). He was assassinated in 745 B.C.E. (the same year Tiglath pileser III became king) by Shallum. Shallum however, lasted for only one month (15:13-15), most likely because of distaste for Assyrian rule. He was murdered the same year (745) by Menahem (15:14), who took the northern throne with the aid of Tiglath pileser (15:19), who then in turn imposed a 1000 silver talent tribute for the rebellion, resulting in 60,000 of Israel’s wealthiest residents having to give up 50 silver shekels in order to maintain their “freedom” (15:20).

In 738 B.C.E, Pekahiah took the throne upon his father’s (Menahem) death. He maintained the vassal relationship with Assyria, but as was often the case, discontentment with the overlord was brewing and many revolutionaries were ready to be free of the Assyrian yoke. In 737 B.C.E., Pekah, the leader of a revolution to rid the kingdom of Israel of Assyrian tyranny along with the support of any who were advocates of cooperating with Syria, assassinated Pekahiah and assumed the throne.

It was then that Rezin, king of Syria along with Pekah, the newly installed king of Israel, prepared for war against Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria by forming an alliance to oppose him. In order to muster as much military might as possible, Israel (under the newly formed leadership of Pekah, king the northern kingdom) and Syria (Rezin) turned to the southern kingdom (Judah) with her kings Jotham (740-735) and his son Ahaz (735-715). Judah (the southern kingdom) refused to partake and was subsequently invaded by the Pekah-Rezin (Israel-Syria/Syro-Ephraimite) coalition with hopes that upon defeat, Tabael (cf. Isa. 7:6)- who was friendly to their cause - would be placed in control and aid in the alliance against Assyria.

[1] He quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
[2] Example: Hos. 11:1 was relevant in its contemporary time, but also contained reference to what NT authors (Matt. 2:15) saw as prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. In context (of Hosea 11), it is obvious that God had called his “son”, Israel, out of Egypt (Exodus 4:22-23). The Matthean author does not make mention of this passage blindly or in an unjustifiable out-of-context use, he is far more sophisticated than that. Matthew (and other gospels) makes it clear that Jesus undeniably is the prophet like Moses from Deut. 18. The details given (even numbers) of how Jesus did almost exactly as Moses did, even down to the way he divided the people to feed them (which is also something Moses did in the wilderness), are to take the reader back to the Torah in subtle ways. Most of what he did and said comes directly out of the imagery well-known in the Hebrew Scriptures. We have (in general) failed to recognize it or make the connections because we don’t know our “Old Testament” or the ancient theology present within it. As the “new Moses” and ultimate representative of Israel, Jesus relives many of the same experiences described in the Torah that happened to Israel (God’s first-born: "Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son” Ex. 4:22): Jesus survives a gruesome infanticide by a wicked king, has compassion on the people, divides them in groups of hundreds and fifties, in the wilderness alone for 40 days (Israel 40 years), instructed people on a mountain, climbs a mountain with only his closest companions and has visions of glory and light, chooses twelve disciples (12 tribes), offers himself in the peoples stead among many other nuances. In this knowledge it should not be surprising that Matthew makes Jesus appear as the ultimate son who is a firstborn, as he does with Mary as the ultimate “virgin Israel”.
[3]Will Durrant, Story of Civilization: Part I, Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 270.

The next segment will continue with more historical details.

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