Isaiah and Ahaz
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16
What happened in Isaiah: Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there. He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods. Israel became a dependent of Assyria. During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation. (See the story of Asa for the prophet’s pronouncement of judgment because Asa made a military alliance with a foreign nation, rather than trusting God as he had in the past. 2 Chron. 16:7-10)
What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?
Five hundred years later
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,” which means “God with us. Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]
Was the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz of the consequences of not trusting “God with us”?
We might conclude that part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”
For Isaiah, Immanuel meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence). The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by a violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, compiler of the Daniel experiences, called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history.
However, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class which gained power after the successful revolt against the Syrian (Seleucid) government. The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship. After the Hebrews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah. Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious freedom.
Later, the legal experts were frequent opponents of Jesus during his teaching ministry. At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests collaborated with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel. Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because they, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with a pagan nation of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?
This collaboration of the religious leaders with political shows up in another part of the birth of Jesus events. The Persian priests came following a star, looking for a king. But, then they went to Jerusalem. It is not clear that the star led them to Jerusalem. I wonder if it was their assumption that religion and government/politics (a king) went together led them there, not the star. When Herod consulted “the chief priests and experts in the law”, they gave him the location information he requested. Surely, they found the passage about “Immanuel” as well as the Micah passage they quoted for Herod and the Persians? When they left Herod the text of Matthew is “once again they saw the star” which suggests to me that they did not see it on their way to Jerusalem. The bias (only the political/governmental capital would house a king) of the Persian priests about a king which may have led them to go to Jerusalem, rather than keeping the star as their guide. That and the Jewish leaders’ alliance with Herod, the Romans ruler, resulted in the death of many young boys in Judea and forced Jesus’ family to be refugees. Could it be that the rest of Isaiah’s words (not quoted in Matthew) warned Joseph? He knew that the rulers of his time, like Isaiah’s, would prefer a foreign military alliance to trusting Immanuel, so he was ready to flee to Egypt