This blog continues my commentary of Isaiah using the Complete Jewish Bible
During the days of Achaz the son of Yotam, the son of ‘Uziyahu, king of Y’hudah, Retzin the king of Aram and Pekach the son of Remalyah, king of Isra’el, advanced on Yerushalayim to attack it but were unable to conquer it. 2 It was told to the house of David that Aram and Efrayim had become allies. Achaz’s heart began to tremble, as did the hearts of his people, like forest trees shaken by the wind.
3 Then The Lord said to Yesha‘yahu, “Go out now to meet Achaz, you and your son Sh’ar Yashuv, at the end of the aqueduct from the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderers’ Field; 4 and say to him, ‘Take care to stay calm and unafraid; don’t be demoralized by these two smoldering stumps of firewood, by the blazing anger of Retzin and Aram or the son of Remalyah; 5 or because Aram, Efrayim and the son of Remalyah have been plotting against you, thinking, 6 “We will invade Y’hudah, tear it apart, divide it among ourselves and appoint the son of Tav’el as king there.”
7 “‘This is what The Lord God says:
“It won’t occur, it won’t happen.
8 For the head of Aram is Dammesek,
and the head of Dammesek Retzin.
In sixty-five years Efrayim will be broken
and will cease to be a people.
9 The head of Efrayim is Shomron,
and the head of Shomron is the son of Remalyah.
Without firm trust
you will fall to dust.”’
10 The Lord spoke again to Achaz; he said, 11 “Ask The Lord your God to give you a sign. Ask it anywhere, from the depths of Sh’ol to the heights above.” 12 But Achaz answered, “I won’t ask, I won’t test The Lord.”
13 Then the prophet said,
“Listen here, house of David!
Is trying people’s patience
such a small thing for you
that you must try the patience
of my God as well?
14 Therefore the Lord himself
will give you people a sign:
the young woman will become pregnant,
bear a son and name him ‘Immanu El’, God is with us,
15 By the time he knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
he will have to eat wartime rations,
curdled milk and wild honey.
16 Yes, before the child knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
the land whose two kings you dread
will be left abandoned.
The kings of Aram and Israel wanted to force Y’hudah to join their alliance against Assyria, which it had refused to do. Eventually they besieged Jerusalem. Doubtless King Achaz was checking his water supply when Isaiah met him. The detail is just a little hint that the prophet is going to speak about what will constitute security for the people; indeed his word from God is true water of life. The king favoured alliance with the Assyrians, and proceded to enter into it in spite of Isaiah, who was trying to persuade him that non-alignment might work. He called this faith in the Lord. He may have indeed believed that God would protect his people if they trusted God enough, and/or he may have considered that non-alignment was their best chance. At face value, a policy of trusting in God’s intervention, may have looked like a non-starter even to a pious king. Apart from some old stories was there any evidence that God was a good insurance policy? Yet the prophets, and the editors of the books of Deuteronomy and Kings, did proclaim a theology in which faith in Yahweh God meant blessing, and faith in anything foreign meant disaster. Who can say if calm statesmanship and non-alignment might not have averted the disaster which came from playing politics? Isaiah saw the destruction of Israel in 721 BCE, after it had entered an alliance against Assyria, which would have strengthened his faith in his message.
He emphasises practical trust in God and God’s Teaching, not just as a personal commitment, but as a policy for both home and foreign affairs. From this point he ridicules the power of Israel and Aram. Who are they, he asks, and answers that they are petty kings of petty kingdoms, whereas, although he doesn’t need to say it, The Lord of Armies is King of Y’hudah. This Lord reassures Achaz that the threat from these kingdoms is a busted flush: it won’t happen. Trust in God is recommended by the prophet in a pun: if they have no tha’ameeenu (trust) they will have no the’amenu (power to stand).I have altered the CJB as above, which is a bit clumsy, but at least tells the reader that Isaiah is making his point with a linguistc trick. It’s hard to do better in English. The Scottish scholar James Moffat suggested, “no faith; no staith” which is great, but unfortunately “staith” isn’t recorded in Scots. Moffat’s translation however shows that for Isaiah the staying power of faith could be expressed almost as a popular proverb. God, for him is the Lord of history, working through nations to secure his justice. We may find it hard to share his faith but we should notice its challenge to modern privatised versions of faith in God.
The wavering Achaz is encouraged to seek a sign from God, which he resists by piously refusing to put God to the test. God is having none of it, says the prophet. He will give the King a sign: one of his wives is pregnant and will bear him a successor son, who will be a reassurance that God is with his people. The child will grow up amidst war and will eat wartime food, but before he grows into adulthood, the kingdoms of Aram and Israel will be no more. All their threats will have come to nothing. Yes, this prophecy has been used by Christians because the Hebrew almah, young woman, was translated into Greek as parthenos, which can mean virgin. This cleared the way for the Greek speaking Matthew to identify Isaiah’s virgin with the Virgin Mary. Clearly this is mince and should be rejected by all sensible believers. Of course, this also gave Matthew the name Immanuel which was applied to Jesus. To see Jesus as “God with us” is a profound theology which has its roots in a linguistic mistake.
In modern interpretation of the Bible this kind of thing is called “intertextuality” which draws attention to a fact which was well-known to an older generation of those whose bibles were cross- referenced, that almost every sentence in the Bible has connections with some other sentence. Given that almost all those who wrote or edited scripture were acquainted with other bits of scripture in oral or written form, this network of connected statements and stories is not surprising. But to modern believers whose minds are not stocked with scripture – many clergy now are woefully ignorant of scripture- it may seem strange. As can be seen from the example of the name Imannuel, a writer like Matthew can call up a whole history of faith, just by mentioning one word first used seven centuries before.