The First Immanuel: Good news to a frightened people
As we approach the season for carols and Christmas cards you will probably come across one of the names of Jesus that is particularly associated with Christmas; Immanuel or in some translations that follow the Greek it is written as Emmanuel. However few people are quite so familiar with the first Immanuel whose birth had been announced some 700 years earlier during a very dark period in Israel’s history. For those living through these desperate times the future looked extremely bleak. They faced the very real prospect of imminent of captivity and death. These were people who needed good news; to know that their God had not deserted them. They were a frightened people in need of hope to take them through the devastation they were facing. Learning a little more about this period might provide an extra layer of texture and colour to the story that many of us celebrate at Christmas.
The name Immanuel can be found in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth (Matt 1:23). Joseph has just learnt that, although they were still unmarried and before “they lived together” (συνελθεῖν – lit. ‘come together’), Mary has been found to be pregnant (1:18). Matthew’s readers would have known that a circumstance like this placed Joseph in a very difficult position.* Consequently, Matthew explains to his audience that the instruction by the angel to Joseph that he should not break off the engagement with Mary, but that what was happening was all part of God’s plan. Furthermore, it was all taking place in order to “fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22).
22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
Matthew 1 (NRSV)
Those who are familiar with Matthew’s Gospel will know of his tendency to embed his account of the life of Jesus within the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament). Rather surprisingly, Matthew also feels the need to explain to his readers what the name Immanuel actually means; ‘God is with us’. Perhaps he wanted to make sure that his readers fully understood the significance of the name. He was writing to a people who are facing a very uncertain future. They were living in turbulent times that was testing their faith. Parts of his Gospel address the problem of how to deal with members of the church (ἐκκλησία – ekklesia) who have ‘fallen away’, others the problems of persecution and ostracism. They have known the brutality of state violence. Jerusalem is becoming a war zone and the temple destroyed. The assurance that ‘God is with us’ would be very welcome news.
Remembering a past voice
The prophet to whom Matthew is referring is Isaiah and he is quoting from Isaiah 7:14. This one of the few biblical passages that we can date with a certain degree of confidence. It belongs to part of a sequence of texts referring to instructions from Yahweh (the God of Israel) to the Judahite king, Ahaz, residing in Jerusalem, through the prophet Isaiah in 734 BCE.
10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7 (NRSV)
The mid 8th century BCE was a good time for the Assyrians. It was a pretty bad time for everyone else living in that region… but a pretty great time to be Assyrian! Assyria lay to the north-east of Israel (think modern day southeast Turkey and northern Iraq). Following the ascension to the throne by Tiglath-pileser III in 745 BCE, Assyria began to embark on its final (and greatest) phase of empire expansion. Fairly quickly Tiglath-pileser III’s eyes turned to the territories to the south. Although not large, this small strip of land, bordered by the sea to the west and desert to the east, was an extremely valuable resource, both economically and militarily. Ownership of this land-bridge meant control over the vital trade routes between the south (Egypt) and north (Assyria and beyond) and their concomitant taxes and tolls. Furthermore, it would take the Assyrian empire right to the door of the only other superpower that could be seen as posing any sort of viable threat; Egypt. It is therefore not surprising that those living in this region began to feel distinctly uneasy and increasingly under threat.
The clouds of war gather
By 741 BCE, the tremors of Assyria’s march westward was being felt by its southern neighbours as news of fallen cities spread down the Levant (see Is 37:8-13). The burning question was how could the small nations that occupied this strip of land, some little bigger than tribal communities, resist the advance of a superpower like Assyria? Spurred on by the increasingly threatening situation, the kings of two of the nations that were closest to Assyria were goaded into action. Strength, particularly military strength, could only come through unity and the forging of some kind of coalition. The creation of an anti-Assyrian alliance would enable them to pool their military resources and muster an army large enough (hopefully) to deter Tiglath-pileser III’s ambitions .
The anti-Assyrian league comprised two of the nations, Syria (Aram in the text) and Israel (Ephraim in the text). For a short while, Israel was pro-Assyrian and was, therefore, viewed with suspicion (and hostility) by Syria. However, following his assassination of Pekahiah (the Israelite king) in 740 BCE, his murderer Pekah took the throne. Pekah reversed the kingdom’s pro-Assyrian policies and forged an alliance with the Syrian king, Rezin. Fearing that they would not be able to muster a large enough army, they made overtures to Ahaz, king of Judah (on the southern border of Israel), to join them and help in their efforts to resist the advances of Assyria. However, Ahaz had already received assistance from Tiglath-pileser III and did not want to upset him further. Consequently, Ahaz rejected the offer made by Pekah and Rezin and refused to join their alliance.
This placed Rezin and Pekah in a precarious position. By now, Tiglath-pileser III’s Syrian-Palestinian campaign was taking the Assyrian army closer and closer. Land was being annexed – this would soon include parts of Pekah’s kingdom (most of Galilee and Gad). The two kings of the anti-Assyrian league became even more desperate to secure a large enough army to protect their territories. If Ahaz refused to join their coalition, the only solution was to attack Judah, remove the ‘troublesome’ Ahaz and install in his place a king who was more sympathetic to their cause. As a result, Pekah and Rezin moved south to attack Judah with the intention of deposing Ahaz. This began what became known as the Syro-Ephraimite war or the Syro-Ephraimitic Crisis.
Ahaz now finds himself in an intractable situation. Assyria is advancing and Tiglath-pileser is commencing his campaign against the Philistines down the western flank of Israel and Judah. Pekah and Rezin annex some of Judah’s territory and begin to lay siege to Jerusalem (where Ahaz is residing). The first century (CE) Jewish historian Josephus (Ant. 9.12.1) – who had very little time for Ahaz as a king – describes the city as being under siege for “a long while” but because of the strength of its walls failed to gain entry. Seizing the opportunity of Judah’s weakened state, the Philistines and Edomites make border incursions to the south and west. Ahaz is cornered. Judah is much too small to defend itself. Its only potential allies have now become its enemies.
When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Isaiah 7:2 (NRSV)
This is when Isaiah enters the stage. He tells Ahaz that he has been sent by God to tell him not to worry, but remain faithful and trust him. Isaiah states that Pekah and Rezin’s plan to dethrone him will not succeed. They are in fact nothing more than “two smouldering stumps of firebrands” (7:4) – or in (relatively) modern terms; ‘the smoking dog-end of a discarded cigarette butt.’ Ahaz is assured that both countries will soon by lying in ruins. Ahaz is not to seek help elsewhere.** The siege is biting deep. Ahaz has difficulty believing this and sees his (and Jerusalem’s) situation as utterly hopeless. However, Isaiah appeals to Ahaz to stand firm against his enemies and to trust God. Ahaz is unconvinced by this strategy and so Isaiah offers to give Ahaz a sign from God to show that what he is saying can be trusted. But Ahaz refuses.
Nevertheless, Isaiah persists and states that all will be well, Jerusalem will not be destroyed by the nation will survive. Furthermore, despite Ahaz’s reluctance, he will be given a sign that what Isaiah has said has been accomplished. That sign will be that a pregnant young women (עַלְמָה – almah), possibly Isaiah’s young wife (it has also been argued that it might refer to a member of Ahaz’s court or even one of his wives),*** and who is also enduring with them the deprivations of the siege, will not only survive with the rest of them, but she will go full term and produce a son. They will watch him grow and mature in an environment of peace and plenty.**** That baby will be the physical symbol, to Ahaz and the people of Judah, that their God is always with them and can be trusted because the mother will give to him the name Immanuel.
The message continues
A small boy, born in the squalor of war and the desperation of starvation, brings a message of hope to a frightened people; this is not the end. This is a beginning. עִמָּנוּאֵל … Immanuel.
Some seven hundred years later, Matthew contemplating the birth of a new king and how best to convey its significance to a people who are also facing a future filled with uncertainty and fear. Blood among the dust and broken stones of Jerusalem, the temple desecrated and ruined. Old friendships and families torn apart by ideological violence. Their faith daily tested in the crucible of disappointment and the vulnerability of living in the turbulence of a violent world. In Matthew’s mind dance the figures of Herod and the gift bringing Magi… and the brute power of Rome… the dark cynical dance of the politics of power… and the birth of a baby boy. Yes, this too is not the end. This too is a beginning. The birth of a small boy brings hope to a frightened people… “Now the birth of Jesus the messiah happened this way…” … Ἐμμανουήλ…. Immanuel.
2000 years later? To a world that is uncertain of its future and the new threats it brings; a people facing the darkness of the unknown…. we are reminded once more of the birth of a baby boy, small and vulnerable, born into a world darkened by fear, and then, once again, we hear that he is to be called…
Choir of Kings College Cambridge (2016)
*The predicament that Joseph faced by this situation is discussed in an earlier post: The dark reality of infanticide behind Matthew 1:21
** Ahaz rejects Isaiah’s advice and uses treasure from the temple and his palace to buy a treaty with Tiglath-pileser III (see 2 Kings 16:7-8), turning Judah into a vassal state.
***There is a very good discussion on this question that also includes a helpful review of ancient Jewish interpretations in Blenkinsopp (2000:233-234). Motyer (1993:86-87) argues that it could refer to a young girl who will marry and subsequently give birth.
****Although we must also take note of suggestions by commentators, such as Motyer (1993:86), that ‘curds and honey'(Is 7:15) refer to the monotonous diet of a city under siege and should not be too closely associated with the term ‘milk and honey’ denoting plenty. There are two ways of reading this prophecy. In its present form it is more of a warning; Pekah and Rezin will be defeated, but Judah will also, eventually, feel the force of the Assyrian onslaught (see for example, Oswalt 1986:212-214). However, at the moment, I am inclined to the reading that ” – king of Assyria” (v.17) is a later gloss turning the prophecy of hope into one of warning and aligning it more closely with subsequent history.
Blenkinsopp, J (2000) Isaiah 1-39: New translation with introduction and commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.
Motyer, J. A. (1993) The Prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction and commentary. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Oswalt, J.N. (1986) The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament series. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.