The Birth of Immanuel

In a previous post, I wrote that the proper understanding of the Immanuel prophecy must focus on four statements in the oracle given by Isaiah to Ahaz during the crisis the Southern Kingdom faced as a result of the Syro-Ephraimite War. These four statements are the focus of Isaiah 7:14:

1. “The young woman is with child”
2. “Shall name him Immanuel”
3. “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”
4. “The land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted”

In my previous post, I dealt with the first statement. In the present post I will deal with the remainder of the statements.

Shall name him Immanuel. This statement, as it appears in English translations, is clear and unambiguous. However, there is a textual variant that complicates the interpretation of what the prophet says.

The Hebrew text clearly says that the young woman shall name the child “Immanuel.” In Hebrew, the verb is a third person feminine, “she will call.” This reading is followed by the Targum and some manuscripts of the Septuagint.

However, there is a variant textual tradition that reads “you will call his name Immanuel.” This variant text is found in some manuscripts of the Septuagint and it is followed by Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and the Old Latin (1958:40).

This variant tradition indicates that early interpreters of Isaiah 7:14 believed that the young woman was Ahaz’s wife and that Immanuel was one of the king’s sons, possibly Hezekiah. However, both the context of Isaiah’s words and the chronology of the events show that this interpretation is not correct. Isaiah is saying that it is the young woman, not the king, who will name the child.

In addition, the naming formula appears in other passages in the Old Testament and in these texts, it is the mother who names the child. For instance, the naming formula in Genesis 16:11 is very similar to Isaiah’s oracle:

Genesis 16:11: “The angel of the LORD also said to her: ‘You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael.’”

Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Immanuel. The name Immanuel is a combination of three Hebrew words, which literally means “With Us God” or “God is With Us.” In Matthew 1:23 the name appears as “Emmanuel.” The reason Matthew uses the name Emmanuel is because he is following the reading of the Septuagint and not the reading of the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew text into Greek, has greatly influenced the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew used “young woman.” The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word as “virgin.” The Hebrew text says that the woman is already with child. The Septuagint says that the pregnancy will happen in the future. The Hebrew text says that the name of the child will be “Immanuel.” The Septuagint uses the name “Emmanuel.”

Thus, in most interpretations of Isaiah 7:14, the translation of the Septuagint has taken priority over the language of the Hebrew text. And it is the Septuagint that is behind the text of Matthew 1:23 and not the Hebrew text, as we will see in my next post.

Another issue that becomes important in understanding Isaiah’s prophecy is whether the name Immanuel is the actual name of the child or is a symbolic name that reflects God’s promise of deliverance to Ahaz. As it will be shown later, in the context of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, the name Immanuel is a symbolic name which served to affirm that God was with his people to deliver them from the threat posed by Ephraim (Israel) and Syria.

For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. This statement reflects the length of time between the giving of the oracle and the fulfillment of the oracle. This reflects a short period of time, probably two or three years. This is reflected in the historical events that followed Ahaz’s treaty with Assyria.

The land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. According to John Bright (1981:274-75), the events that led to the war began in 735 B.C. In 733 B.C., Tiglath-pileser invaded Galilee and deported part of the population to other sections of the Assyrian empire:

“In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29).

This sad event in the history of the Northern Kingdom is described by Isaiah as a time of anguish and gloom:

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1).

In 732 Tiglath-pileser invaded Damascus, killed Rezin, and deported part of its population:

“The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir; then he killed Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9).

Thus, everything that Isaiah had predicted and everything that God had promised to Ahaz were fulfilled within a few years of the birth of the child.

The king failed to trust in God and his promise of deliverance. Ahaz’s refusal to wait upon God’s deliverance brought Judah to a crisis that would affect the political and religious life of the nation for many years.

It was Ahaz’s belief that in order to save his nation he had to make a military alliance with Assyria that prompted Isaiah to give the king a divine sign, the sign of Immanuel. As Gottwald wrote: “The refusal of Ahaz to believe in signs, to trust in the potent presence of God in the hidden ways of the world, means that Isaiah withdraws the option of choice from the king and gives a declaration unconditional upon the monarch’s response” (1958:46).

If the birth of Immanuel in the days of Isaiah was a sign to Ahaz as he faced the dangers of war, and if the sign of Immanuel found fulfillment a few years after Isaiah gave the oracle to the king, that is, “before the child knew how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” how then can Isaiah’s prophecy find fulfillment in Christ? Or, how are Christians to understand the words of Matthew that the prophecy of Isaiah found fulfillment in Christ?

These are important questions that Christians ask when they read Isaiah 7:14 and relate the prophet’s words to the gospel of Matthew and the birth of Christ.

My final post of Isaiah 7:14 will deal with Isaiah 8 and seek to provide an answer to the two questions above.

Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel

The Virgin Birth — And More

The Sign of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) – Part 1

The Sign of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) – Part 2

The Virgin Shall Conceive: A Study of Isaiah 7:14

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Bibliography:

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia”The Westminster Press, 1981.

Gottwald, Norman. “Immanuel as the Prophet’s Son.” Vetus Testamentum 8 (1958): 36-47.

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