Back-reading or Fore-telling?

A week ago my sister read one of the readings for the Carol Service at her local church – she was given one of the readings from the Old Testament to read – it might even have been the one from Isaiah we read as our first reading this morning –   the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him ‘Immanuel.’  ..  and she probably said something like  ‘the prophet foretells the coming of the Saviour.’  at the beginning, and Thanks be to God at the end.    

But later during the week, she began to think about what she had read and what she had said – and, as you can expect, – being my sister – she decided that she should telephone her brother and ask for a bit of theological advice.

Was the prophet really foretelling the coming of Jesus?  she asked?  Is that how Jewish scholars read the text?    A good question – and the answer is a definite ‘no’.

In fact – no serious biblical scholar thinks that Isaiah was sitting in his study writing down his prophecy and all the while thinking of a virgin birth in Bethlehem and a baby Messiah called Jesus some 700 years later.  –  but to understand what actually was in Isaiah’s head you have to know what was going on in his life.

What had happened is that the King of Syria and the King of the Northern parts of Israel had both ganged up together and launched a war on the King of Jerusalem, and Isaiah – a Jerusalem prophet – was given a word of prophecy by God to go to the king of Jerusalem – King Ahaz – and tell him not to worry – everything was going to be all right.  The two kings from the north would fail in their attempt to conquer Jerusalem – even worse – Isaiah said – the two kings were themselves going to be destroyed. 

So – fear not.

Not surprisingly King Ahaz is not completely convinced…  the armies of Syria and the north were great and powerful, and only a hundred or so miles away –  and his army was small in comparison – and they were very real, and Isaiah’s words were just words.  It takes a certain amount of courage to sit calm and trust in God.

And so God sends Ahaz a sign – and the sign is this ….  in the time it takes for a child to be conceived, – 9 months –  to be born and weaned – 2 years – and to grow sufficiently to understand what is right and what is wrong –  about 12 years maximum –  the whole situation will be resolved.

The child that shall be conceived tomorrow will live happily in a prosperous land and the two kings from up north will be long dead and buried.   –  And this is in fact what happened.  As the king of Syria and the King of North Israel were busy plotting how to invade Jerusalem and kill King Ahaz, an even mightier King, the King of Assyria came in and destroyed both of them… and down in Jerusalem the children ate, and drank and all was well.   And God was with them …. Immanuel.

And nothing of all this has anything at all to do with Jesus the Messiah being born of the virgin Mary some 700 years later.  The Rabbis and even Isaiah himself would look on with a certain amusement at how we Christians have read the text.

But of course, this text does mean Jesus for us. And it certainly meant Jesus for St Matthew, who knew his Old Testament better than you or I do.

So when Matthew first heard stories about how Jesus was born, – perhaps long before he set pen to paper – about how Jesus was called ‘God with us’  and how Mary was a virgin and how this was all a sign …  he did what all Hebrew scholars do – he sifted through his head to find a bible verse somewhere in the Old Testament that had these three words all together in the same place –  signyoung girlimmanuel –  and bingo,  he found Isaiah 7.14  – the jackpot.

And so – I told my sister –  it is not so much that Isaiah was actually foretelling the birth of Jesus,  it’s more that St Matthew, and we Christians back-read the birth of Jesus into an old text.

Now that thought might surprise you, or it might make a lot of sense, or it might just make you feel a bit sad – a bit as if St Matthew was just making the whole thing up and then finding obscure bible texts to back up his story.

But actually I think back-reading into the Bible is much more useful for us, than fore-telling from it. In fact I think we pretty well always make a mess of it when we try to use the Bible to foretell what is going to happen in the future –  earthquakes, lakes of sulphur and second deaths. – look at how many times the Seventh Day Adventists have had to move the date of the end of the world.

But when we back-read, we can sometimes learn new insights about our own lives and about how God acts with us.  

There are no stories of general elections or impeachment of American presidents in the bible – of course – but there are lots of stories about bad kings and governors who make bad decisions, make bad alliances and who do bad things – and we can read about what they did and how the people and God reacted.  

There are no stories about looking forward to Christmas or dreading the family get-together –  but there are lots of stories about looking forward to festivals and about family celebrations and family feuds where it all goes wrong.  

So for the past 50 years people in South America and in Africa have looked back at the story of the Exodus – the story of the Israelite slaves being rescued from Pharoah, and they have seen their own story about God setting them free from oppressive regimes and slavery.

People have looked back at the story of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she is going to have a baby – and they have seen their own story of God telling them about their own vocations and how they would serve God –  and people have looked back at today’s Gospel where St Joseph is told in a dream to do something daring, unconventional and against normal society’s morals, and they have seen their own call to be daring, unconventional and sometimes against normal society’s rules.    Suddenly back-reading opens up a whole new way of understanding how God works here and now for us.

And so – is Isaiah 7.14 a prophecy about the Virgin Birth?  well, yes, of course it is –  for us, and yes of course it’s also a prophecy for King Ahaz about how soon God will act, and perhaps it’s also a prophecy to every new mother and father that all children are born in the image of God are named ‘Immanuel’ …..   and perhaps it will tomorrow be a different prophecy for someone who picks up their bible and hears the Word of God.