Immanuel: A warning to Joseph about power politics

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 if Ahaz (king of Judah) had believed Isaiah’s word from God that God was with him?  Isaiah gave Ahaz a timeline for the future of the kings of Israel and of Aram.  A young woman/virgin would conceive, give birth to a son who would be named “God with us”.  That boy would reach the age of knowledge of right and wrong, probably twelve years.  By that time the neighboring kings of Israel and Aram, who Ahaz feared, would no longer be a threat. But, only if Ahaz believed God was with “us” [and not trust in a military alliance with Assyria].  Read verses 17 and following to discover the terrible things that would happen if Ahaz did not listen to the word from God.

What happened:  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.

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 (Joseph’s ancestor) of the importance of trusting “God with us”?  (I am not dealing in this essay with the questions of the nature of Jesus’ birth and the incarnation.) Then 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.”

Warning about power politics

For Isaiah, “Immanuel” meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    Joseph was in Bethlehem because of the Roman occupation of his country.  The occupation came in part because of a choice of violence over trusting God.  The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by 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, opposed that call to violence.  The Daniel writer called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history. The “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class that gained power after the successful revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) 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.

During Jesus ministry, the legal experts or “chief priests and rulers” were frequent opponents of Jesus.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests worked 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 the superpower of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

What if the Persian astronomers had continued to look for the star they had seen in the East and gone directly to Bethlehem, rather than to Jerusalem?  Although Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, it is possible to plot a path from “the East” directly to Bethlehem.  One could conclude that they gave in to popular notions of kingship and went Jerusalem because it was the center of political and military power.  If the Persian astronomers had continued to seek the star’s guidance, would the deaths of the boy children around Bethlehem have been avoided?  The “chief priests and keepers of the law” were more concerned with maintaining their alliance with Herod than seeking “God with us”.  Could the astronomers have refrained from telling Jesus’ location to Herod?  What did Joseph learn from the Persian astronomers that prepared him to quickly respond to the Spirit’s warning to leave Bethlehem ahead of Herod’s search?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time and to Herod.  It continues through Caiaphas and his allies who were willing to allow the Romans to kill Jesus to protect the place of the ruling classes in Palestine.  We are compelled to ask whether it extends to “collateral damage” of drone strikes and assassinations by order of governments ostensibly seeking peace, freedom and order.  Does it extend to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and Syrian Arab Christians from land owned by their families for many generations?  The question must be asked even if we acknowledge some moral distance between Herod’s massacre of Judean boys and drone strikes.

Consider, then, the line, connecting Isaiah’s understanding of Immanuel with the wisdom teachers in Daniel-who anticipate shining like stars if death came (Dan. 12:3)-rather than doing violence.  The line extends to the angel’s challenge to Joseph to trust Immanuel and to the angel’s message of peace at Jesus’ birth. The line extends to and beyond Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem: “If only they knew what made for peace.” *

For Joseph, the “Immanuel” message was a warning of difficulties leading to violence, but also the assurance that God was with him.  But he was encouraged to be faithful.  Today many people of God argue that goodness/justice/freedom of worship can only continue through ultimate reliance on military solutions (although some acknowledge the need for development and diplomacy).   Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.   The consequences of this choice in Isaiah’s time, in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ time should challenge us to reexamine these texts for guidance today.  The answer begins with our willingness to hear the Isaiah and the angel’s message, Immanuel:  God with us.

 

*[Isaiah, the Daniel editor and the gospel writers see faithful covenant living as an essential base for trusting Immanuel.  I hope I have not obscured that base by focusing on the issue of political/military alliances and the reliance on violence versus trust in God.]

[revised blog reposted from November 2017]

Laughing at leaders/respecting leaders Two Biblical perspectives

Laughing at leaders

Making fun of those in authority has been long a way of disguising political criticism.  In our day, little effort is made to hide the criticism such as Saturday Night Live, but in the times of autocratic rulers, open satire could bring banishment, imprisonment or death.  Setting the events in long ago and far away provides additional disguise for the criticism of contemporary rulers.  There is Biblical precedent for laughing at rulers.  For the Hebrews who suffered under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE) the choices were accepting suffering in silence, accepting the Antiochus’ brutal efforts** to make them become like the Greeks or join the guerilla activity leading to active rebellion.  The later leaders of this rebellion were known as the Maccabees.   Making fun of leaders was part of the scheme by the Daniel editor to bring down the oppressive ruler.  One group of Jews relied on the stories and visions of Daniel for guidance.  That guidance included ridiculing the rulers; showing the examples of faithfulness to the Torah of Daniel and friends; and affirming the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the teaching of wisdom.  Hope in the resurrection completed their arsenal of weapons against the oppressor.

In Daniel one food offered to idols brought wisdom according to the king.  Vegetables, Daniel’s health food, God’s food, did just as well.  The lack of details about the connection between details here and in the Levitical Code suggests that this was more than faithfulness to the food code of Leviticus.

Why would the king kill all of his of his advisors?  Did this ruler decided to fire (kill) all his advisers instead rather than being embarrassed by his forgetfulness?  The experts listed in chapter two were the king’s chief advisors, religious experts, the spokesmen of the king’s gods.  The king later praised the God whose diet gave more wisdom to the dream’s interpreter than the king’s diet.

Arrogant and boastful leaders seem to be present in all ages.  The Babylon king had been warned about taking credit for the blessings of God and the accomplishments granted him.  Our Hebrew writer (chapter three) sees God reducing this braggart to a cud-chewer for a year to help him learn humility.

Simple worship characterizes Hebrew ritual.  In chapter four, the odd statue and the variety of participants, plus the repeat in naming of them suggests that this is a weird, highly complicated worship setting.  The Hebrews would find this amusing.  This contrasts with the simple presence of the four in the furnace.  The humor of the contrast of the wild commands of the kings—contradicting his earlier threats—versus the silent power of the fourth one in the furnace is clear.

Chapter five brings the five-finger terror to the ruling classes of Babylon.  The Babylonians desecrated the temple vessels by using them in a pagan banquet.  (This paralleled the pig sacrifice at Jerusalem in 168 BCE.)  The overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty affirmed the message of the visions that God would overthrow the evil empires. Violent revolt such as the Maccabees promoted was not necessary.

The foolish Babylonian leaders jealous of Daniel thought that the “god for a month” plan (Chapter 6) would bring down their enemy. The Babylonian leaders sought the rank and status that Daniel was given.  But if they could trick the king, Daniel would be fed to the lions. Daniel’s prayers to the eternal God continued, so, it was the schemers that the lions consumed.

How God works

Throughout these accounts we see God exposing the arrogance and foolishness of lords and kings. God exposed and defeated them by various means. Faithfulness to God (and in chapter 11, the teaching wisdom), not violent action was required of Daniel and friends.  Whether violence was an option is not the question here.  The reality was that God showed how puny and helpless rulers were in the presence of God’s power.  The Daniel writer used humor (as well in the later chapters visions of God’s power) to remind his fellow sufferers that God would defeat their enemies.

 

(*My speculations about humor in Daniel were provided some scholarly support when I discovered an article on court jesters.  David M. Valeta, Court or Jester Tales? Resistance and Social Reality in Daniel 1-6, PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 32(2005) 309-324.) On Daniel and opposition to Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, see Apocalypse against empire: theologies of resistance in early Judaism.  Portier-Young, Anathea, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011

 

Respecting leaders

Psalm 72

What model do we have for understanding what a leader should be?  This psalm provides important principles.  In the New Testament Mary confirms these principles in her prophecy before Elizabeth.

Actions worthy of respect:

May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure[a] as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Respect will come

May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.

More actions worthy of respect

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.

Respect and prayer

This Psalm was likely written for David, a military man and apparently a ruler with administrative ability.  The book of Samuel and Kings detail his battles and efforts to establish control over Israel and the areas conquered.  But military and administrative skills are not mentioned here.  Compassion is the main theme for which the King is praised.   We will want to respect leaders who achieve greatness by caring for the poor and helpless.  These verses should also be the content of our prayers for our leaders.