One of the themes that has emerged in this Advent series on Isaiah’s oracles of hope has been new life appearing where you least expect it — lush green in the desert, a sapling emerging from a burned out stump — and from the most humble of beginnings — a seed, a remnant. The Old Testament reading assigned for today, Isiah 7.10-17, the Immanuel oracle, puts forth a similarly small and unexpected beginning of national restoration: a baby. But as we shall see, these curious words also formed the equally small and unassuming beginning to what would later become messianic expectation — the hope for a special, God-anointed figure to come and save God’s people — which we as Christians believe was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Today, I’d like to play a bit with the ways this text’s ambiguity has made it so ripe for theological reflection and expectation.
Isaiah 7 is squarely in the middle of the section, stretching from chapter 1-12, that is explicitly about the Syro-Ephraimite War. Within this section, 7-12 represent a distinct sub-unit that focuses its hope on a coming king. Chapter 7 starts this section by having the prophet address the hapless King Ahaz directly: In 7.1-9, he offers him words of assurance: Ahaz doesn’t need to worry about the invasion from Aram and Israel; not only will it come to nothing, but it will also wipe the two off the map. Now, in today’s text, God tells the king (presumably through the voice of the prophet) to “Ask a sign of the LORD your God.” In an act of false piety, Ahaz demurs: “I will not ask and I will not put the LORD to the test.” To this Isaiah offers the exasperated response, “Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God too?” This is Ahaz’s point of no return as far as God is concerned. Not only has Ahaz not gone to seek out God’s guidance, but even when God comes to him he refuses divine counsel. At this point the whole axis of the story turns away from Ahaz, as though the camera pans away from the king never to return. He is giving a sign despite his refusals, and it has nothing to do with him:
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.
He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good,
the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7.14-17)
The core of the oracle is quite straightforward: a young woman of marriageable age (to get the question out of the way, virginity would be culturally implied by the term (’almah) but is not its point) will conceive a son and name him Immanu-el, ‘God-with-us’. By the time he comes to maturity, the threat to Judah will have passed.
But, the details of the oracle are more difficult to interpret. Important questions (beyond the scope of a Sunday morning reflection) abound: Who is this young woman? How does the sign function in relation to the king and Judah’s dire straits? Is his name a confident claim — “God is with us!” — or a desperate prayer — “May God be with us!”? Are the “curds and honey” a sign of divine blessing (as in the descriptions of the land “flowing with milk and honey”) or curse (as food consumed in the wilderness when agriculture has collapsed)? What is the time frame for ‘rejecting the wrong and choosing the right? — three years, when moral development begins, or adolescence when we generally judge children to be responsible for their actions? The text simply offers us no clues to answer any of these questions. Indeed, Brevard Childs put it best: “No one who has worked closely with this passage will underestimate the extreme difficulty of this chapter” (Isaiah, 63). He goes on to add that hardly a word of the Hebrew text doesn’t raise questions.
If we can say anything about what the oracle actually says it’s something like this: A woman – quite possibly but not necessarily a virgin – will give birth at some time in the future. At some point in his youth, the land will undergo a period of severe judgment; the agricultural economy will collapse but the boy will still have food. While the immediate crisis will subside with the fall of Aram and Ephraim, the solution to this problem will be worse than the problem itself: Once you invite an Empire into your country, it’s unlikely to leave voluntarily.
The ambiguity here is confounding, but is also what has made the text so fruitful for the faithful over the centuries. This is particularly so when coupled with the way the rest of Isaiah 7-12 talks about a future leader of God’s people. Chapter 9, for example contains the magnificent oracle Christians know from the Christmas and Epiphany seasons: “For us a child is born, to us a son is given; authority is upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9.6). And as we saw the other week, chapter 11 describes a leader emerging from the stump of David’s line who will embody the seven-fold Spirit of God and reign in justice and peace.
If we think about how such words might have played in the original context, the ambiguity would likely be both frustrating and helpful; frustrating in that it would have been impossible to pinpoint who this child of promise might be, but helpful because that very ambiguity renders the oracle pregnant with possibility: Immanuel could come from anywhere. The ‘young woman’ could conceivably be any teenage girl in Judah.
For a variety of reasons, the most likely immediate fulfillment to the Immanuel oracle is Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. He indeed lived to see the end of the Syro-Ephraimite threat and ascended to the throne despite his father’s incompetence. And, by the admittedly lame standards of the divided monarchies, he was a ‘good’ king. But, his was far from a reign of eternal justice and peace. As I like to think of it, it’s as though Hezekiah fills the cup of the prophecy enough to keep the people going, but not enough to quench their thirst. And so, the faithful sat with and meditated on this oracle for generations, and through their reflection, they came to see just how vast the gulf between the ways of God’s messianic kingdom and the ways of this world’s empires really is. We see this heightened contrast abundantly in the later portions of Isaiah, which address the end of the Babylonian Exile. Isaiah 42, for example — which we Christians tend to think about during Holy Week, but which is assigned for Morning Prayer on this fourth Sunday of Advent — describes Judah’s saviour like this:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or lift up his voice
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
This vision is so starkly different from the warrior gods and kings of the Ancient Near East it’s scarcely believable that it emerged from that context. As James Alison sums it up, “it has become clear organically, from within the vision, that the Lord in question is not another god among the gods, but is in fact God who is not-one-of-the-gods, more like nothing at all than like a god” (Jesus the Forgiving Victim, 150). We might call this conception of God an “antigod,” and therefore this God’s servant will be an “antiking.”
From these reflections arose two different, but I believe harmonious, lines of interpretation about these oracles in Isaiah that were fulfilled in their immediate aim but not in their full potential. The first is collective, holding, for example that Immanuel is the faithful remnant of God’s people who will come through the desolation, who were indeed a miraculous sign that God truly was and is with them. In this line of thought the Servant likewise refers to the faithful of Israel, who persevere in the ways of shalom in the face of opposition and oppression. The second approach is individual, or, ‘messianic’. There were all kinds of messianic speculations over the centuries — would he be a king? a prophet? a priest? some combination of all three? But for Christians, of course, this messianic hope is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin, the incarnated “God with us,” whose commitment to God’s ways of justice and peace led him ultimately to the cross, killed by this world’s power structures. I say these views are harmonious, for, Jesus’ way of life embodied (recapitulated, in the language of the early Church) the ways of the faithful of every age; and those of us who are faithful to him are likewise called and empowered to live out that faithful commitment to justice and peace in him.
All of this is to say that the very ambiguity of the Immanuel oracle, and the other oracles of hope that follow it, is part of what made and makes it so compelling and rich for men and women of faith over the centuries. And I wonder if we could take a lesson from that history for our own, confounding and ambiguous lives. What if we were to think of our lack of clarity not as a problem, but as a source of creativity? After all, nothing has been decided. Nothing is certain. To go forward in life with faith doesn’t mean having all of the answers; it means “to live the questions” (as Rilke put it), or “to stay with the discordant notes of our lives with alertness and sensitivity” (as Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au put it).
This week, as we enter into the home stretch of Advent and our final Christmas preparations, may we all see God in the ambiguity of our lives, resting secure in our faith that God is indeed with us.