Note of the Day – Advent Season (Isaiah 7:14, part 3)

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Having discussed the translation of the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ in Isaiah 7:14 (see previous day’s note), 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 a supplemental 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 days’ notes, 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 day’s note).
  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 last note on Isa 7:14 tomorrow.