Immanuel - Our God is With Us - Part I

This is the first installment of a series pertaining to 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)

Isaiah 7:14 is a passage often used during Advent. We hear songs and sermons about the creator of the universe coming to earth in kenotic fashion and robing himself in human clothes.

“The eternal Son of God, Jesus, actually became a baby. God became an embryo. Deity in diapers!”[1] 

Christians attempt to maintain vigilance in apotheosizing the romanticism of such an act amid the cultural roar of commercialism. The Christian traditions in varying forms have used the same general passages and interpretations for ages, which act for some as an argument against any who insinuate the text and/or context may actually communicate otherwise. But could a text, such as Isaiah 7:14 have another meaning, less popular than the interpretation with which so many are familiar?

If in fact Isaiah’s oracle was only a far out prophecy concerning what much later commentators and apologists would come to see as pertaining to a miraculous messianic conception, and the God of Israel incarnating himself as a human, why don’t any other Hebraic writings mention the “prophetic virgin” who would deliver a son to save all Israel? Why was it not mentioned in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, DSS, Targums, Mishnah or other writings? If this was a major point to be understood about the coming one, the messiah, shouldn’t there have at least been a brief mention of it somewhere? This is not to say that the Matthean tradition did not have reasoning for including the symbolic sign of Immanuel, nor does it mean there is no typological precedent present in Isaiah, but what that precedent is may not be what has been the traditional focus.

There are many today who hold the Scriptures in high esteem, as God’s message for man. But what seems to have gone unnoticed is that while an attitude of honor may be present, use of the Scripture outside of original intent is to do it great injustice. It is often made to say something it was never intended to communicate and/or something the original hearers would have not known, whether it be a later idea, development or even revelation. In order for solid exegesis that is true to the text and the intention of the writer, what must continually be guarded against is the use of passages outside of their proper context. For instance, to eisegete a later developed Christology (high or low) into a text (such as Isa. 7:14) is to miss the intention of the passage. This is of utmost importance for not only misuse of the text, but also finding the proper meaning when New Testament (hereafter NT) authors quote from a particular passage.
The passage being discussed at present is no exception. In speaking of this travesty Gerald Schroeder remarked:

“When passages of the Bible are quoted out of context, or read in translation, whether that translation is the twenty-two-hundred-year-old Greek Septuagint or a modern English version of the original Hebrew, nuances are often lost. Meanings of words are actually changed to fit within the grammar of the “newer” language.”[2]

In any given biblical book, it is not just that language and culture need to be translated, but also any modern reading or context outside of the one for which it was originally intended must be discarded or the original meaning can possibly be distorted. This is not to say prophecies are not relevant to a time future from when they were written, but to get any author’s message, his world must be entered. For example, Ps. 110:1 is the most quoted text in the NT pertaining to who Jesus is, and it is very evident (from the lips of Jesus himself) what the prophetic origins of that specific passage imply. Of course this does not nullify or propose that Ps. 110:1 had no significance at the time in which it was given, but it is clear that the greatest realization of this passage did not come to fruition until many years later. This is the nature of prophecy.

John Walton, in the introduction to his book The Lost World of Genesis One, which deals with understanding Genesis as an ancient book, prepares the reader by emphasizing and illustrating the importance of reading an ancient book as an ancient book: 

“The minute anyone (professional or amateur) attempts to translate the culture, we run the risk of making the text communicate something it never intended. Rather than translating the culture, then, we need to try to enter the culture. When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am still always faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation. Truly learning the language requires leaving English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. They must understand the Hebrew as Hebrew text. This is the same with culture. We must make every attempt to set our English categories aside, to leave our cultural ideas behind, and try our best (as limited as the attempt might be) to understand the material in its cultural context without translating it.”[3] 

In the next post, the passage and its historical context will begin to be discussed.

[1] Greg Laurie, Start: The Bible for New Believers, New Testament Edition (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2010), 1051.
[2] Schroeder, Gerald L., God According to God, A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along (Harper Collins, 2009), 11.
[3] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, (IVP Academic, 2009), 9.

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