10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 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. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 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.”
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile ended.
Chapter 7 is an account of Isaiah’s involvement in the politics of the Kingdom of Judea in the years preceding the Assyrian conquest of Northern Israel in 722 BCE.
The King of Judea (Ahaz) was considering entering an alliance with Assyria against Northern Israel and Syria (Aram) – the “two kings you [Ahaz] are in dread” (v.16). Isaiah urged Ahaz not to enter the alliance. To strengthen the force of his advice, YHWH (through Isaiah) offered Ahaz a “sign” that Isaiah’s advice was sound. Ahaz refused (“I will not put the LORD to the test” v.12), but Isaiah persisted in giving a sign.
The sign was that a “young woman” (v.14) would bear a son whose name would be Immanuel (God is with us). Notwithstanding Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz became a vassal of Assyria.
The “young woman” is sometimes identified as one of Ahaz’s wives and as the mother of Hezekiah, the king of Judea who succeeded Ahaz and successfully resisted the Assyrians until 701 BCE.
The Hebrew word “almah” (young woman in v.14) was translated into Greek in the Septuagint (LXX) as “parthenos” (generally translated as “virgin”). The version of the Hebrew Scriptures that the Gospel writers used for their quotations of scripture was the LXX, which is why Matt. 1:23 quoted Isaiah 7:14 as “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
The New Oxford Annotated Bible says that “curds and honey” (v.15) are foods that would have been obtainable only during a time of peace. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary disagrees and cites 7:22 to support the idea that these would have been the only foods available to a defeated nation.
Verse 16 is understood to mean that before the child that was borne by the “young woman” reached maturity (had the ability to choose between good and evil), the lands (Syria/Aram and Northern Israel) will be deserted (v.16).
1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among other messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. His successor, Nero (54-68 CE), allowed Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers) to return to Rome, and this created tensions about leadership and worship within the Jesus Follower Community. (They were not called “Christians” until the 80’s.)
Paul died in 63 or 64 CE. Accordingly, the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70) was in full operation all during Paul’s life. As a Jew who was also a Jesus Follower, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism and continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ.
Today’s reading consists of the opening verses of the Letter. The Letter is explicitly addressed to both Jewish Jesus Followers and Gentile Jesus Followers (“all God’s beloved in Rome,” v.7).
Paul referred to himself (v.1) as an “apostle” – one who is sent forth to bring good news — and as “set apart” – a phrase used to describe prophets (those who speak for God). Paul connected the Jesus Follower Movement to the Hebrew Scriptures (v.2) and stated that Jesus the Christ was descended from David (v.3).
Paul asserted that Jesus was “declared to be Son of God” by resurrection from the dead (v.4). In the Gospels (all of which were written later), the declaration that Jesus was the Son of God was said to occur earlier and earlier. In Mark and Matthew, it was at Jesus’ Baptism (Mk.1:1 and 1:11; Matt 3:17) In Luke, it was at the Annunciation to Mary (“He will be called Son of the Most High.” Luke 1:32). In John 1:18, the LOGOS/Word and Jesus the Christ were conflated from “the beginning.”
Paul also stated that Jesus the Christ is our “Lord” (“Kyrios” in Greek, the same word used in the Septuagint to translate “YHWH”). The Jewish Annotated New Testament says that calling Jesus “Lord” would have caused those familiar with Jewish Scriptures (particularly 2 Sam. and Ps.2:7) to understand that Jesus (as “Lord”) had an obligation to reign righteously. Saying Jesus is “Lord” would also have been a challenge to Roman Emperors such as Claudius and Nero, both of whom claimed to be “son of a god.”
The JANT also analyzed resurrection as follows: “Resurrection bears witness to God’s action in a way that defies the nature of the present age, declaring thereby that the age to come has begun in the present age, the dawning of the awaited age of the Creator God’s reign on earth over all the nations, through Israel’s king.”
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’s genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Having been written well after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is aimed primarily at the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars). There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than to Mary by an angel as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Today’s reading is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth narrative. According to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, in Judea In the First Century, 12 was the most common age for a girl to become engaged, and it was customary for the engaged couple (whose relationship involved a contract) to live together. The NJBC adds that this might not have been the custom in the Galilee.
Under Jewish Law, Joseph (described as a “just” or “righteous” man) would have been within his rights to divorce Mary and subject her to a trial by ordeal before the priest as prescribed in Numbers 5 where she would drink a potion of water, dust, and ink. If she miscarried or her uterus fell, she would be an outcast. Alternatively, if guilty of adultery, she could have been stoned as provided in Deuteronomy 22. But Joseph decided to “dismiss her quietly” (v.19).
Similar to Joseph the son of Jacob, Joseph had a dream – a frequent method in the Bible by which God communicated to humans. The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Jewish name Joshua, which means “The LORD saves or helps” thereby identifying the mission of the child.
As noted above, Matthew quoted the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14.
The JANT adds that v.25 “does not preclude Mary and Joseph’s having relations after Jesus’ birth” and “the view of Mary’s perpetual virginity developed in the second century.”
Joseph’s naming of Jesus would have been an adoption of Jesus as his son.