Last week, I wrote about how my Hebrew Bible professor’s lecture on the Book of Isaiah caused an uproar in our class. She boldly told a room full of young, mostly conservative seminarians that the Immanuel prophecy should not be interpreted as a foretelling of Jesus’ birth. There was a great deal of pushback from the students during her lecture, with some of them even accusing her of being a “heretic” after class.
This week, my professor opened her lecture by explaining her position on the scriptures. “Yes, we should love our tradition, but it would be wrong to ignore sound scholarly criticism…” She talked about how we’re all called to struggle in the tension between faith and reason. It was convincing. And I’m glad she began that way because it gave her some traction with her skeptical hearers as she moved into the next phase of her Isaiah lectures, which included an exploration of Isaiah 9:6-7:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Emphasis mine.)
I am basically transcribing my class notes into this blog post, but here’s how she explained the parts of this prophecy that are shown in bold:
A child is born: When we hear “a child is born,” we automatically assume these words were uttered in anticipation of a future event with an unknown date of fulfillment. However, the language in this text reveals that this child was ALREADY born, hence the word “is” in the phrase “a child is born.” (H/T to Thom Stark who pointed out the same thing in the comments section of my post about the virgin birth…) The child in this prophecy is probably King Hezekiah. He was born during the time of the prophetic utterance and he was someone the hopeful Israelites believed would usher in a time of peace. The words “Unto us…” highlight their view that this king would be a gift to them after many years of turmoil.
A son is given: It’s hard for us to escape the theological baggage surrounding the word “son,” but the word “son” was not meant to carry any special significance in its original context. It was meant to clarify the nature of the word “child” by communicating the gender of the baby in question. A similar sentence would be: “Bring me the bag in my bedroom– Yes, the suitcase in the closet.” Suitcase is just a clarification of the word bag.
And he will be called wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace: I have removed the capitalization of the first letters in these terms for a specific reason. We (Christian translators) capitalize certain letters in our Old Testament texts because of our theological assumptions about their meanings. But these words represent an ancient tradition in which new kings were given glorious titles in anticipation of their great works. For instance, a certain pharaoh in Egypt was famously given 115 new names at his coronation… (Sorry, I didn’t get the pharaoh’s name. My professor talks at the speed of light. lol) As for the reference to “god”, pharaohs and kings were often regarded as gods by their citizenry. There were even “virgin birth” legends surrounding some of them, but I won’t go down that road today.
He will reign on David’s throne… and over his kingdom… forever: The explanation of this section was the subject of four lectures last semester… Here’s the reader’s digest version: There are two conflicting traditions surrounding the Davidic line. In the first tradition, God promised David that one of his descendants would always be king. When the Davidic line was overthrown, ancient Israel made sense of it by developing a second tradition: The second tradition says that because David screwed up, God allowed people other than David’s descendants to become king. So, these verses about “David’s throne/forever” were designed to give the Israelites hope that someone from Davidic line would return to the throne.
A Few Closing Comments from Me:
In the comments section of my first post I explained that I think it’s OK to reuse these prophecies, but I also think we should explain their original contexts to our congregations. I think it’s dishonest to tell people that these words were solely about Jesus when they obviously were not… I believe in giving people ALL of the information and allowing them to draw their own conclusions.
If Jesus is the “Word” in the sense that he’s the “scriptures in motion,” then we must understand the scriptures to have very human elements just as Jesus had very human elements. I think most Christians are afraid of scholarly criticism because it humanizes Jesus… This fear has turned Christianity into a faith filled with people who [in my best Jack Nicholson voice] “can’t handle the truth”. We must overcome this– particularly as our information-driven society is becoming more and more suspicious of claims made by Jesus-based religions. I really do view this as the church’s future mandate. Either we’ll rise to the occasion, or we’ll eventually go the way of the dodo. Don’t believe this can happen? Ask Europe. The ball is in our court.
Note: I had originally included a video about the decline of religion in Europe at the end of this post. The first 80% of the video offered a great intro to the changes in Europe’s religious landscape, but I somehow missed that the last 90 seconds of the video was a warning against Islamic growth in Europe. I obviously would never support such bigotry… In fact, I thought I was posting a news broadcast. Thanks to David for drawing my attention to the message at the end of the video and I apologize to anyone I offended.