Monday, April 4, 2005

Isaiah 7:10–14

This year the Annunciation has been delayed to avoid colliding with Holy Week and Easter Week. Fitting, isn’t it? I read the psalmist’s expression of patient waiting for salvation to Ahaz, who in desperation and fear was approached by Isaiah, who wanted to promise deliverance. But Ahaz wouldn’t have it, feigning a religious attitude, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

It’s a fake; Isaiah has come to announce deliverance, and he’s going to, whether Ahaz is ready or not. The promise to Ahaz was about his son, presumably Hezekiah, who did in fact secure freedom for Judah and kept Judah at least functional as a semi-independent state, instead of falling under Assyrian direct rule as Israel did. Because Assyria was scary, and Ahaz was sure that there was no hope. For this reason, Ahaz seeks help from Egypt, but it won’t do any good (and didn’t); but the intervention of God did. According to 2 Kings, the Assyrians got all the way to the gates of Jerusalem when they were struck with a plague and fled. Not long after the Assyrian empire fell under the rise of the Neo-babylonian empire.

Hezekiah wasn’t too smart; while he got the kingdom on a stable footing and started a solid religious revival, he also showed emissaries from Babylon all the treasures of the kingdom. And in a few generations, the Babylonians had taken over everything and came and stamped out the independence of Judah too, carting the inhabitants off just as the Assyrians had done to the northern kingdom Israel.

So this deliverance announced by Isaiah to Ahaz was short-lived; it survived his life indeed, but it wasn’t the kind of freedom and security the country really needed.

Of course, this prophecy was quoted by Matthew to explain the birth of Jesus, which is why it’s appointed for the feast of the Annunciation. But once we get clear on the context of this verse, it’s harder to understand it. For it’s pretty clear that the deliverance was temporary, that the Immanual Isaiah speaks of is Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. I think this is ok, however. Yes, Matthew is pulling a verse out of nowhere for his own purposes; it’s crazy to think this was what was in Isaiah’s head. (By contrast, the more clearly messianic prophecies in deutero-Isaiah would get a very different treatment from me!)

Yet Matthew is canonical text, including the quote. What can we get from it? I’m not sure. I want to understand Isaiah 7 all by itself first, without trying to force it into being a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. But having done that, it does seem as if part of the message is about accepting deliverance. Joseph is who is being addressed in Matthew 1, and Joseph is reluctant to take Mary as his wife, and surely would be even more unwilling to take her son as his own. It just may be that this is Matthew’s comment on Joseph, that Joseph is a bit like Ahaz, but a better one: one who accepts the promised deliverance, one who is willing to be told Good News (even though it’s scary), one who is faithful and obedient and truly religious, rather than the pretended religiosity of Ahaz’s “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

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