Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore 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. 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.
During this season of Advent this year, we have read texts that get louder and louder with prophetic messages of what is to come. This is the thing of which Christmas’s are made. And now we read of the signs and wonders that were shown to the House of David. “Here, listen people, there is a young woman with child. She shall bear a son and the world will change.” That’s essentially what it says. But wait a minute! We always read this as a prophetic sign of what will come, a prophet’s vision of the coming of Christ, Immanuel. But, read it again. This is in the present tense. The young woman IS with child. (as in already) So, which is it? Is it a child born immediately after this writing or are we talking about the birth of Jesus? After all, the writer known as Matthew depicted it differently. Is it then or is it later? Yes. All of the above.
The sign is a child. The child’s name, Immanuel (or “God with us”) reinforces the divine promise to deliver the people from sure demise. The child is born of a young woman, the Hebrew “almah”, which means a young woman of marriageable age. Many scholars think that the young woman may have been Ahaz’s wife and her son the future king Hezekiah.If the author had wanted to depict the woman as a virgin, the word “betulah” would have been used. But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word was translated as “parthenos” or “virgin”. So the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew understood the verse as a prediction of the birth of Jesus. And then all those translators that came after that capitalized on that notion, perhaps in an effort to explain the unexplainable, to rid the text of the ambiguities that were probably meant to be there in the first place.
So, which is it? Is it a virgin or a young woman? Is it talking about Hezekiah or Jesus? Is it what the writer known as Isaiah probably wrote or what the writer known as Matthew assumed or what the later redactors translated? Yes. All of the above. The text and, indeed, the whole Bible is ambiguous at best. Who are we kidding? Faith is ambiguous. It encompasses surety and doubt, light and darkness, life and death. I don’t really get wrapped up in what “really” happened. It doesn’t bother me if this is actually talking about Hezekiah. But it was part of the Matthean writer’s tradition. It meant something to him. Somewhere in the words, in the text of his faith, he saw God. He felt God. To him, it mean Immanuel. And so what better way to depict the first century nativity story that we love? The coming of God WAS foretold–over and over and over again–through sacred stories told and shared by a waiting people. It continues to be told, the story of God who breathed Creation into being, who entered the very Creation that held the God-breath, and who comes into each of our lives toward the glorious fulfillment of all that was meant to be.
I don’t think that God ever intended to lay it all out for us like some sort of lesson for us to memorize. God doesn’t call us to have it all figured out but rather to live it, to open our eyes to all the sign and wonders of the world, to all the ways that God walks with us, to all the ways that God calls us to follow, to become. All of the above, the obvious and the ambiguous, are part of the Truth that God reveals (whether or not our human minds can fathom it as “true”). We are about to begin our journey to Bethlehem. It is a road that is filled with ambiguities–loss and finding, sorrow and joy, fear and assurance, doubts and fears, a manger and a cross. But along the way are signs of the God who is always with us, Immanuel, who carries us from moment to moment and from eon to eon with the promise of new life. Let us go and see this thing that the Lord has made known–you know, all of the above. It is this for which we were made.
If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into [God’s] superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity. (Karl Rahner)
On prisoners of darkness the sun begins to rise, the dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes, to guide the feet of pilgrims along the paths of peace, O bless our God and Savior with songs that never cease. (Michael Perry)
Reflection: What are the things that are ambiguous for you in the story? How do they really change the story for you?
Grace and Peace,