Immanuel

 

Some “What ifs” of a familiar Christmas passage

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]

What if the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz of the consequences of not trusting “God with us”?  Then we might conclude that an important 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, a quick decision about 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 violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, writer/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. 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 Jews 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 practices.

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 worked with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because the Jewish leaders, 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?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time including with 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 is 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).   Also, Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.  Ahaz as well as the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time also sought to protect their control of the political and economic order.  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.]

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Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.