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]

Another patriotism? Love of the Father

Bible Knowledge Quiz

How many times does each of the following phrases occur in the New Testament?

God of hope      God of love      God of peace       God of wrath       God of judgment

[Find the answer below]

What kind of God do you serve and worship? What image of God comes to mind when you think about God? When you feel the need for something or someone beyond yourself for support or comfort, what vision of God do you have or feeling about what God is like?

For me this question was a puzzle, especially when others in the small group talked of a grandfatherly person on whose lap they could climb or a large, fearful elderly person. The only image that came to me was from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon of Calvin at school. When Calvin was not learning as expected, a large, ugly scary looking teacher grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to the blackboard to ‘teach him’. The other image I had of God was of a very large dark area with bits of light showing around the edges. Later, I realized that image of God looked somewhat like photographs of complete solar eclipse at the height of the eclipse.

What kind of God do you think of when seeing “In God we trust.” on coins? When you recite the new version of the Pledge of Allegiance using the phrase, “under God”? The God of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, is sometimes seen as a violent, revengeful and judging God. That may have been a major component of my image of God. With the benefit of teaching, reading and meditation, I realized that image needed to change. Most important was God’s image/likeness/appearance in Jesus.

From the Bible

Jesus assured us that if we have seen him, we have seen the father. The God that Jesus showed us is a God of love, compassion and justice. Through Jesus we see how God was leading his people in the past and what he was expecting of his people in the future. That includes today. At times governments have expected or required actions of the people of God that differ from our example, Jesus. Often governments have assured citizens that their duty is to kill their enemies, proclaiming the support of God for this. Political leaders declare that duty to the state or patriotism should motivate us to do whatever the commander-in-chief or king or Caesar tell us to do. But is that what the God revealed in Jesus wants us to do? Perhaps redefining ‘patriotism’ can help us think more clearly about how our actions could be guided by the image we have of God as revealed in Jesus.

Patriotism defined

The other ‘patriotism’ I would like to propose is love of our Father in heaven (not the father land). The usual understanding of ‘patriotism’ is love for or devotion to one’s country that includes love of the ‘fatherland.’ Those feeling this kind of patriotism will fly flags, have “God and Country” or “God bless America” bumper stickers and feel having “In God we trust” on our coins is important. Other believers in a more standard patriotism emphasize the importance of protecting family, friends and property and are willing to give and take lives to protect others.

Actually, the root of “patriotism” is the Latin “pater” or Greek “patria” just means father. There is nothing in the word root itself suggesting love of nation/land/country. I am thankful that I was born in the United States. God has blessed us with natural beauty and rich resources. However, at times the activities of our government, its leaders and those who support its purposes conflict with our love of the father. Our heavenly father through his son, Jesus, tells us to love our enemies so that we can share the love that the father has for us with all those who were our enemies.

Our Father, the God of peace

The other patriotism, the love of God the Father, includes living the life and sharing in the death and resurrection that the Son of God experienced. The phrase “God of peace” occurs many more times in the New Testament than the others is a clue to the kind of Father we serve. You check, but the phrases “God of wrath” and “God of judgment” do not appear. “God of hope” and “God of love”, only once each. But, “God of Peace” occurs many times. (From Willard Swartley’s book: Covenant of Peace.)

Can we connect Jesus words: “My kingdom is not of [like] the world’s kingdoms or my servants would fight” in John 18 with later words from Jesus?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (I John 2:15)

Love of the Father: Another patriotism.

 

 

Waiting On God An exploration of the basis for the new testament peace witness in the first (old) testament

The Psalmist counsels us “wait on the Lord”! What do you think of or imagine yourself doing in response to this counsel? In what situations have you recalled passages from the Bible that include this phrase? In the passages below, what is the context of the word “wait” or “waiting”? In the past I have thought of “waiting” as suggesting prayer and meditation. Is this made explicit in the text?

For the subjects of the Psalm, what would be the alternative to “waiting”? What more than prayer in suggested by “waiting”? How often does the “waiting” command come in the context of violence? What is the significance of this?

Psalm 33:  16-22

16 The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Psalm 37:(5-9) 14-15, 32-34

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

(See below for a list of similar passages*)

In Psalm 33 use of the word “wait” is preceded by description of violence against the people of God. (“Whether the king is to use his great army or not is not clarified.) Action by God’s people is not needed. Waiting leads to affirmation of God’s presence and control of the situation. Note the words “help”, “trust”, “hope” as helper words for “wait”.

In Psalm 37 the situation is bleak. Not just the people of God are the target of the forces of evil, but specifically “the poor and needy”. Violence is what evil people do. In the end “the wicked [will be] cut off”. The people of God “wait” and “keep his way”. Keeping God’s way (v. 34) refers to covenant/Torah behavior. In Isaiah 40, the setting is a bit different. While in these Psalms there is the implication that God will overpower the enemy or the evil Hebrews, that is not as clear in Isa.40:28-31. Is the vindication of the “suffering servant” what one is to wait for?  (See my blog on Isa. 40, “Exodus to Exile”)

Waiting and then what?

Are these “wait” passages behind Paul’s instructions in Romans 12:19 and following? “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19 with Deut. 32:35)? How is Paul’s reminder related to the need to wait? The normal response to violence is vengeance.  Note surrounding the “vengeance” command we are encouraged to “love”, “seek peace”, and “feed” [your] enemy”. Here we have some of the things from the life and teachings of Jesus that are to the focus the people of God while waiting for God to act.

The “First” Testament basis for the peace understanding of Anabaptists needs further exploration. While there is much violence found in the first testament, the new testament affirms the contrasting thread lifted out here that calls for us to wait on God. From God comes protection and vengeance/justice.

 

*Similar passages are:  Psalm 25:1-5, Psalm 27: 11-14, Psalm 62:1-7 (See also, Psalm 40:1-3—no suggestion of violence in this passage), Psalm 130:1-6, Proverbs 20:22, Lamentations 3:13-26, Isaiah 30:15-18 (the word “rest” is used in this passage), Micah 7:2-3, 7; Isaiah 40:28-31 (God has just “rescued” Israel from Babylon), Isa. 64:1-4, Zephaniah 3:8

Related concept:

“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).