This is the first in a series of posts to show up now and then addressing biblical prophecy. One of the proofs earnest Christians have often used to try to bring me “back into the fold” is that of prophecy. Specifically, all the prophecies which were supposedly fulfilled by Jesus. What I find fascinating is that none of them seem to have considered the possibility that the story of Jesus could have been fabricated specifically to make various prophecies fulfilled. For the sake of argument, we’ll take as given that this is not the case. In fact, as we shall see, if it was the case, the gospel writers did a pretty horrible job if they thought their potential readers had knowledge of the context surrounding the prophecies.
Some traditions hold that biblical prophecies were meant to be taken at 3 different levels. One is the immediate or short term level, for which the prophecy is fulfilled within the context of the story. Then there is the moral lesson. Following that the prophecy is echoed later in a later far fulfillment, with the same moral lesson. Of course, the Bible does not have a user’s guide explaining that this is how one is supposed to interpret, so it’s not clear to me what justification is given. The example I’ve heard often was the virgin birth prophecy in Isaiah. So how does it work?
Apparently King Ahaz is not a good king (hint..not deserving of redemption), but God gives him the sign of a virgin birth leading to God being “with us” and saving him from his enemies. Supposedly, this happens. This foreshadows Jesus being born of a virgin and ultimately resulting in our redemption, although we do not deserve it. Obviously, this was probably not the specific example used by rabbis so long ago, but suffices to demonstrate how this method is roughly supposed to work. Of course, history often repeats itself and one can find similar events anywhere one chooses to look and draw whatever moral lessons wants therefrom. Therefore, I tend to think this interpretive method is rubbish. But since we’ve started talking about the most controversial Jesus prophecy, let’s dive right in.
This is one of the most infamous and widely discussed prophecies. See the discussion at Infidels.org, Joseph Alward’s discussion, ReligiousTolerance.org and ApologeticsPress.org (the latter added to provide some balance). I’ll be using the most convenient Bible at hand, the 2nd Edition Revised Standard Version. The relevant verses are in the 1st chapter of Matthew in the New Testament. In context, Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, just found out Mary is pregnant and is considering the possibility of quietly divorcing her. An angel comes to him in a dream and tells him everything is fine, because the child is from the Holy Spirit. Picking this up we have,
“…she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us.)
So, let’s look at what the prophet said. Ahaz is kind of Judah (the southern kingdom). Israel (the northern kindom with king named Pekah) and Syria (with a king named Rezin) are coming up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but they could not conquer it. But Ahaz is troubled by the coalition against him. God has Isaiah say that they will not succeed in Isaiah 7:3-9. Immediately after, we have (and making sure to include the surrounding context):
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord our God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah- the king of Assyria.
In that day the Lord will whistle for the fly which is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee which is in the land of Assyria. And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.
In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River- with the king of Assyria-the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.
O.K. What are we to make of this bit of prophetic inspiration? The first thing that doesn’t spring to my mind is that this is in any way a prophecy or foreshadowing concerning the birth of any Savior of Mankind 700 years in the future. If you’ve been paying attention, the next thing that you should observe is that the pregnant person in question is referred to as a “young woman”, not a “virgin”. Apparently the original Hebrew word used here was “almah”, which means “young woman”, whereas virgin is “bethula”. The mistranslation occurs in the Greek Septuagint used by the writer of Matthew. There are those who argue that “young woman” is synonymous with “virgin” in a cultural context. However, this is fairly ambiguous since really it does not necessarily always follow that a young woman will always be a virgin. Surely, a virgin birth is so miraculous and important that one would think Isaiah would have taken greater pains to distinguish that the young woman had not “known a man”. He does use “bethula” in Isaiah 62:5:
For as a young man marrieth a virgin (bethula), so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.
(King James version now).
Some, see here suggest that the word was deliberately left ambiguous so it could have both near and far “fulfillments”, as I mentioned previously. To this I suggest re-reading the prophecy. In essence it says, “This young lady is having a son and before he is too old, the land belonging to your enemies will be deserted.” In other words, in a few years, you’ll win. And then something about “whistling or hissing for the fly and bee” (hissing for the fly is the King James translation) or some such, probably having to do with how deserted the lands will be. How a prediction of enemy land being made desolate before a kid knows good from evil is in any way suggestive of a Messiah 700 years in the future who will save his people (later taken to mean all people) from their sins is anybody’s guess. Surely, this is not what Ahaz had in mind either, assuming this story actually happened. Not to mention the fact that young women give birth all the time so one could just pick anyone and claim it to be a fulfillment of something similar. One key point, that I have not seen discussed elsewhere, is the fact that Immanuel (born a few chapters later in Isaiah) does nothing to save Ahaz or make the lands of his enemies desolate. He is simply a kind of clock. On the other hand, Jesus supposedly does have everything to do with saving us. This, as a prophecy for Jesus, instead of being fulfilled on several levels utterly fails on several levels. Translation, context, and even literary foreshadowing.
One last argument oft made is that Matthew obviously knew Jesus’ name was not Immanuel, so why pick this prophecy? It is argued that he was drawing a parallel between Immanuel meaning “God with us” and Jesus who is allegedly “God with us”. He may have picked this particular passage to draw that parallel, but the scripture referenced fails as any sort of prediction. Ancient Hebrew names often had God references. Samuel, for example, means “His name is God”. Israel means “contends with God”. The Hebrew name for John is Yochanen meaning “Yahweh is gracious”. He may have been a good kid, but there’s nothing special about the name Immanuel.