Yesterday’s post on the Virgin Birth was written by my friend Edward Fudge. As I mentioned in the introduction to his post, I republished his article because I agree with him.
The Virgin Birth has become one of the most important teachings of the church, even though, as Fudge mentioned in his article, only two books out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament mention the virginal conception of Christ.
One of the items Fudge mentioned in his article was Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel. In his article, Fudge made a statement that caught my attention. He wrote:
But what of Isaiah 7:14.and its mention of a virgin who becomes pregnant and delivers a son? Didn’t anyone think of`that? Apparently not-at least not before the fact. Not in the Mishnah, the Targums or the Talmud. Not in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. Not in the Apocrypha or the Pseudepigrapha. Not in any of the Jewish writings between Daniel and the birth of Jesus.
Fudge’s statement that all Jewish sources are silent about Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth deserves an explanation. The question is: why are all the Jewish sources, including the Mishnah, the Targums, the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha and all the Jewish writings between Daniel and the New Testament, silent about the prophecy of the virgin birth as mentioned in Isaiah 7:14?
To answer this question, it becomes necessary to study Isaiah 7:14 in its historical context as well as the meaning and the symbolism of the sign of Immanuel mentioned by Isaiah.
The prophecy of the coming of Immanuel took place in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war. And the reason for the Syro-Ephraimite war was the rise of Assyria in the eighth century B.C. and the desire of Tiglath-pileser III to establish an empire that would extend from what is known today as the Persian Gulf all the way to Egypt. Thus, a little review of the events is in order.
Tiglath-pileser III was one of the most aggressive Assyrian kings in the long history of the nation. When Tiglath-pileser III came to the throne in 745 B.C., his desire was to enlarge the Assyrian empire and establish complete domination of the Middle East. His quest for domination brought Israel into the sphere of his influence. Israel simply had to be conquered in order for Tiglath-pileser to fulfill his dream.
In order to establish his empire, Tiglath-pileser established a policy of permanent conquest. This means that each nation conquered by Assyria became a province of the empire. Each conquered nation had to pay an annual tribute to Assyria.
An administrative system of regional governors was set up by Assyria to rule over the provinces and each province had to provide for the needs of the Assyrian army in case of war: food, soldiers, and slaves. Each citizen of the provinces became an Assyrian citizen. Assyria reenforced these policies by instituting brutal reprisal in case of revolts. In case of revolt by the vassals, Assyria would punish them by inflicting much pain and suffering, including the mass deportation of a vast amount of people.
The fear of Assyria brought political anarchy in Israel. For many years, since the days of Jehu, the Northern Kingdom had been in some kind of vassal relationship with Assyria. Jehu paid an annual tribute to Assyria and it is possible that all his descendants were paying homage to the Assyrian kings.
When Jeroboam II died in 746 B.C., his son Zechariah became king of the Northern Kingdom. According to 2 Kings 15:8-10, Zechariah, the last king of the dynasty of Jehu, was assassinated after having ruled in Israel for only six months. He was killed in 745 B.C., in the same year that Tiglath-pileser became king of Assyria.
Shallum, an usurper, killed Zechariah in 745 B.C. and reigned in Samaria one month (2 Kings 15:13-15). He probably represented an anti-Assyria sentiment present at that time in the Northern Kingdom. However, Shallum did not have enough popular support to keep him on the throne of Israel for very long.
In 745 B.C., Menahem killed Shallum (2 Kings 15:14) and became king of the Northern Kingdom. Menahem came to the throne with the help of Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:19). In order to punish those who rebelled against Assyria, Tiglath-pileser imposed a tribute of 1,000 talents of silver. This money was exacted from 60,000 wealthy men who paid 50 shekels of silver each for their freedom.
When Menahem died in 738 B.C., his son Pekahiah, became the new king of the Northern Kingdom. Pekahiah continued his father’s policy of cooperation with Assyria. However, the burden of the tribute paid to Assyria convinced many Israelites that the time was ready for a change and for independence from Assyria.
So, Pekah, a man who represented the anti-Assyria sentiments of the Northern Kingdom, assassinated Pekahiah and became king of Israel in 737 B.C. Pekah had the support of the anti-Assyria faction in the Northern Kingdom and of those who advocated cooperation with Syria.
In order to prepare for war with Assyria, Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, formed an alliance in order to resist Tiglath-pileser. Acting in partnership, Pekah and Rezin turned their efforts to the south, to Judah, hoping to increase the strength, proximity, and size of their coalition.
Since Jotham (740-735 B.C.) and Ahaz (735-715), kings of Judah, refused to join the alliance, Pekah and Rezin invaded Judah in order to place on the throne of Judah a man whose name was Tabael (Isaiah 7:6), a man who would favor an alliance against Assyria.
It is in the midst of this political conflict that Isaiah announces the sign of Immanuel. The seventh chapter of Isaiah begins as follows:
In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind (Isaiah 7:1-2).
The same event is also related in 2 Kings 16:5: “Then King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel came up to wage war on Jerusalem; they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him.” Thus, for the proper understanding of the sign of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14, it is important to study the oracle in Isaiah 7 together with the narrative of 2 Kings.
When the Bible says that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” these words reflect the fear that Ahaz and his leaders had about the coming war against Syria and Israel (or Ephraim, as the text calls the Northern Kingdom, thus the name “The Syro-Ephraimite War”).
The study on the sign of Immanuel and on Isaiah 7:14 will continue tomorrow.
Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary