The famous American painter, Robert Rauschenberg once said, “An empty canvas is full.” I think he was crazy, but I am not a big fan of minimalism. But even though I am not now nor ever have been a member of the minimalist art movement, I am a huge fan of a minimalist experiment conducted by Bell Labs in the 1970’s. In 1971, Leon Harmon wanted to identify the least amount of visual information a picture may contain and still be recognizable. Harmon took a picture of Abraham Lincoln and divided it into 200 squares with each square shaded a different intensity of gray. The picture is very blurry, very gray with a few darker blobs and consists entirely of blocks; but as soon as you see it, you know that’s Lincoln. Honestly, it is shocking how little information one needs to identify someone in a picture. Here’s today’s question: how little information do we need to have in the Old Testament to see Jesus? If we ask Matthew, the answer is not much! Case in point, Matthew 1:22-23:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”
Question: what was the Old Testament passage Matthew is quoting here? If you guessed Isaiah 7, you’re a true Bible whiz. Isaiah writes (7:10-17):
“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.’ Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: 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. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.’”
Now granted, Matthew didn’t have a lot of choices, but it does seem odd that he would choose this passage as prophesying the virgin birth, because it doesn’t seem to move in that direction. Isaiah 7 is a historical text set in the Syro-Ephraimite War (and if you can tell me four things about the Syro-Ephraimite War, I’ll admit it, you’re a better person than I will ever be!). Plus, Isaiah seems to be saying that the virgin that he is talking about, while being a virgin at that specific moment, won’t be a virgin for long because she will get married, conceive a child, and give birth to a son. This son will be called Immanuel; and before he can tell right from wrong, the two kings that are threatening Ahaz will be vanquished and, when he is mature, he will be eating curds and honey as a result of the invasion of Assyria. None of that seems very relevant to us today; and if it wasn’t for Matthew’s citation, few of us would even remember these words. Levine and Brettler write:
“Isaiah 7:14 plays no significant role in Judaism. It does not appear in the liturgy, nor is it ever chanted as a prophetic reading. This verse has no special significance in the Dead Sea Scrolls or in other Second Temple literature. It is only in Christians texts where this prophecy takes on a special meaning.”
Levine and Brettler go on to argue that the apostles, needing to legitimize Jesus’ virgin birth, went searching deep into the Old Testament to come up with a proof text. And when they stumbled upon this 700-year-old story, they knew they had their text! It wasn’t much, but it mentioned a sign, a virgin, a birth and the name Immanuel; and that was enough. And so, Matthew asked, “How much do we need to see in the Old Testament before we see Jesus?” And Matthew answered, “Not much!” And since that time, all Christ followers read this passage as a prediction of the virgin birth. Just two slight problems. First, such an interpretation disregards Isaiah’s context. Second, Jesus’ miraculous birth is not close to what this passage is about. See, Isaiah 7 is really rooted in the 8th century and was only really interested in “helping” King Ahaz navigate a rather dire 8th-century political crisis. (Grab some coffee; this might get boring).
Here’s the history behind Isaiah 7. Assyria was coming to ransack Palestine. That meant that Syria and Israel and Judah were in deep doo, and they all knew it. Now, Syria and Israel had a plan. They would form a coalition to fight against Assyria; but they needed help, and so they invited Judah to join them. Now, King Ahaz of Judah knew that even if all three of these nations joined together, they would still not stand a chance against Assyria; and so, he refused to join the coalition. Now, this decision enraged Syria and Israel who quickly took the approach that “if he won’t join us, let’s beat him.” And so, they decided to attack Judah and King Ahaz. A one-front war is bad. A two-front war is miserable. But a three-front war means almost certain defeat. Ahaz is in a world of hurt and all Judah with him.
It is into this awful situation, Isaiah comes to Ahaz with a message from God, saying (Is. 7:4-7):
“Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger [of the kings of Syria and Israel who] have plotted your ruin, saying, ‘Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.’ Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘It will not take place; it will not happen. . . .'”
God says to Ahaz: “Don’t worry about these puny smoldering pieces of firewood (Israel and Syria). They are nothing. In fact, in 65 years Israel won’t even exist. Instead, hold fast to me and I will deliver you.” But then God adds a warning in verse 9: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.'”
Now this should have been good news to Ahaz. All he had to do was trust God, and God would deliver the nation. God was even willing to add a sign to boost Ahaz’s faith, but Ahaz says he doesn’t need a sign. That sounds really spiritual, but it is not. Ahaz refuses the sign, not because he has this great faith, but because he has a signed treaty with Assyria. He joined a coalition, but not with Israel and Syria, but with the true enemy!
And apparently you don’t need God when you have Assyria on your side. But God says to Ahaz, “I’m going to give you a sign anyhow!” And so, Isaiah points to a specific woman standing in the courtroom with him and Ahaz, a woman who is currently a young, unmarried virgin, but who will soon marry, conceive and give birth to a son, and says (14-17):
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But 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. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
“Ahaz, here’s the sign. I know you have enemies surrounding you, enemies that are ready to take the crown off your dead head; and within days, they will bust through the gates and kill us all, but I have good news. 700 years from now, a virgin will give birth to our true Immanuel. Have a great day!” I’ll say it. If that was Isaiah’s message to Ahaz, it was not very helpful. But that’s how we read it, isn’t it? But what if that is not what Isaiah is saying at all?
Go back to what Isaiah says. He says a young woman of marriageable age (who is currently a virgin) will soon marry, and she will give birth to a son. When he is mature, he will eat the curds and honey that is left in the land after the Assyrians have decimated the countryside. But before the boy can speak, the two nations that Ahaz is so worried about will be defeated and will become nothing. Now, if we only had Isaiah to consider here, we would be forced to say that the young woman in question is Isaiah’s future wife and that Immanuel will be their son. This son is mentioned in chapter 8 where he is named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (which means, “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”). In other words, if all we had was Isaiah, we would say that it is clearly Isaiah’s son who fulfills this prophecy.
Now, I know some of your heresy meters are going off, but if you read the text in context, you cannot escape that conclusion. The text clearly points to Maher-shalal-hash-baz as the fulfillment of all that Isaiah is saying. Not only does he fit the flow of the text, but he also fits the chronology of verses 14 and 15. Compare this passage to its historical counterpart in 2 Kings 15, and you will see that this prophecy would have happened around 735 BC. Ahaz reigned from 736 to 715. Israel and Syria fell in 734. And Assyria decimated Judah in 701 where everything was destroyed except for Jerusalem. Maher-shalal-hash-baz was born in 735. In 734 (before he knew right from wrong), the coalition between Israel and Syria fell. In 701, the land would have been decimated by Assyria, and Maher would have been a fully-grown man (he would have been mature). But since all crops and livestock would have been destroyed and killed by the Assyrians, he would have been forced to eat the only things that were left, curds and honey. In other words, it all fits; chronologically, historically, contextually and biblically. The only place it doesn’t fit is Matthew!
To further complicate things, Matthew says this woman is a virgin, but in Hebrew the word only means “a young woman who is of marriageable age.” When Abraham’s servant is looking for a wife for Isaac, he prays that he would find the perfect “young woman.” When Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ sister who is a “young woman” runs back to tell her mother. Clearly, the intent in these stories is on the marriageability of these women and not their sexual experience. Plus, had Isaiah wanted to emphasize that this woman was a “virgin,” there was a perfect Hebrew word available for him to use, but he chose not to use it. He chose to use this word which means, “a young woman of marriageable age.”
And that raises all sorts of questions. Is Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7 proper? How much or how little information do we need to see Jesus in the OldTestament (for instance, is seeing the word “Immanuel” enough to make us see Jesus here? Or do we need more than that)? Would Isaiah have approved of Matthew’s interpretation? How does Isaiah 7 fit in with Isaiah 9 and 11 (which are clear messianic passages?)? And what is Matthew doing with Isaiah 7?
Now, if we wanted to be minimalists, we could quote Rauschenberg again and say, “An empty canvas is full.” If we did that, the meaning would be clear. The answer is, whatever you see. But I am not a minimalist, and so I’ll end with this quote from da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (meaning, more next week!).