Isaiah’s Four Sons

220px-IsaiahIt doesn’t take much interaction with biblical criticism to understand that the New Testament writers do some crazy things with their Old Testament sources. Probably the most notorious of these is when Matthew 2:15 turns Hosea 11:1, which clearly is talking about the exodus, into a prophecy for Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt.

We ended our class on Monday talking about that and one other particularly egregious “misuse” of the Old Testament, this one less well known. Hebrews 2:13 cites Isaiah 8:18, which says this:

Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.

Before we get to how Hebrews uses the verse, what does Isaiah mean when he says, “the children the Lord gave me”? Our professor, an Old Testament scholar, pointed us to four verses.

First, the context for this verse is the Syro-Ephremite War, in which Judah’s King Ahaz is unsure what he should do in the wake of a joint attack on Jerusalem by Syria (Arem) and Israel (Ephraim). Isaiah comes in chapter 7 to give him counsel and in the course of his prophecy, four children are mentioned.

First, God in 7:3 tells Isaiah to bring his son Shear-jashub (meaning The Remaining Few Will Return) with him to meet Ahaz. Then Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign. After Ahaz declines, Isaiah gets testy and gives him one anyway, the famous verse in 7:14 that Matthew saw fulfilled in the birth of Jesus but which has a far closer horizon in mind:

Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.

Is the young woman Isaiah’s wife? Ahaz’s? Someone else known to both men but lost to history? No one knows. Isaiah then prophesies the destruction of both Israel and Syria, punctuated by another sign in 8:3-4:

I then had sex with the prophetess, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Before the boy knows how to say ‘my father’ and ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.”

I’m sure Isaiah’s wife was thrilled to have their sex life immortalized for the next several thousand years, probably almost as much as their son was to be named Spoil Hastens, Plunder Hurries. After a doom-and-gloom chapter, Isaiah’s prophecy turns hopeful in chapter 9: “Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted.”

The hope of this chapter revolves around the birth of a fourth child, in 9:6. Unlike the previous three, translators do not give us the Hebrew words for this name, rather just the English translations – perhaps because the verse has become so well-known and well-loved:

A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

Four children, two of them definitely Isaiah’s, the other two probably so, all of them given as signs for what God plans to do as a result of Syria and Israel’s aggression. It’s interesting that two of these verses have been appropriated to become prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, but it seems clear in the original context that Isaiah had no such distant messiah in mind.

This is probably why Walter Bruggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament made this rather startling (at least to me) assertion:

It is clear on my reading that the Old Testament is not a witness to Jesus Christ, in any primary or direct sense … unless one is prepared to sacrifice more of the text than is credible.

I look forward to seeing how he defends that statement; nevertheless, the New Testament writers found such a witness, whether it’s clear in the original context or not. For example, Hebrews 2:13, which takes Isaiah’s statement about his children being signs and wonders and uses it this way, starting in v. 11:

This is because the one who makes people holy and the people who are being made holy all come from one source. That is why Jesus isn’t ashamed to call them brothers and sisters when he says,

I will publicly announce your name to my brothers and sisters.
I will praise you in the middle of the assembly.

He also says,

I will rely on him.

And also,

Here I am with the children whom God has given to me.

So the author of Hebrews ties Isaiah 8:17-18 with Psalm 22 and argues that Jews and Christians are brothers and sisters with Jesus! Isaiah, clearly the speaker in Isaiah 8, is turned into Jesus in Hebrews 2, and the message itself is completely ripped from its context of Isaiah’s children being signs of God’s protection over Jerusalem.

There are many things we could say about this, but the primary takeaway for me is this: These texts don’t do what we think they should. Born and raised in a modernist 20th century context, we simply don’t think texts should be treated this way. I spent almost a decade as a newspaper reporter; I have a strong aversion to misusing quotes, whether that’s taking them out of context or changing their meaning entirely. But I have to realize that my culture is not the culture of the first century Christians, who read and interpreted their Hebrew scriptures in radically different ways thanks to their reality-altering confrontation with the Messiah.

Passages like these should be a warning, I think, that when we think we know what the Bible should do, we should take a step back. Are we imposing our cultural need for clarity, consistency and historical accuracy on a text written well outside such norms? Is our demand for literal factuality foreign to the text itself? The answer provided by Isaiah’s four sons and their reappearance in Hebrews seems to be yes.


7 thoughts on “Isaiah’s Four Sons”

  1. One recent comment I heard from a wise teacher was that “Isaiah didn’t have Matthew in mind, but Matthew had Isaiah in mind,” regarding Matt. 2:11 and Is 60:6. Also, I read a book not long ago called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes that is helping me reconcile some of the issues surrounding clarity, consistency, and historical accuracy of Scripture. One area of interest for me currently is Jewish midrash, or their methods to “deeper interpretation” (there are also three other methods they use to interpret the text which I can’t find or name right this sec). Surely these methods color the writings of the New Testament. It’s a fairly new thought for me to carefully examine how the newer text interprets the older texts, but it feels there’s some richness to be mined in that.

  2. Lots of the OT texts are elliptical, that’s why the crucifixion and resurrection were not clearly obvious to ANE Israel as necessities and realities. There’s probably a super good reason for that.

    The “western mind” thing is huge. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that ancient people may not have thought, spoke or expressed things like we do.

    Same with these specific examples of “ellipitical” messages about Christ. IF the text is interpreted as a western document, then Walter Bruggemann is very close to accurate. Not always, there are OT texts that it is hard NOT to see Christ in, but, lots that are hard.

    On the other hand, if we use the hermeneutic the Gospel writers used and how ANE Jews thought, including Jesus as prophet, Walter Bruggemann is wrong.

    Like Ty stated, the OT prophet may not have always understood what he was writing, the NT writer aware of Christ’s resurrection had the veil lifted and they naturally applied all sort of things to Christ.

    There are OT examples whereby a passage has a double fulfillment. One for the type of Christ, one for Christ.

    BTW, that “My son out of Egypt” thing is a typical ANE device . Elsewhere in the OT(Isaiah) we learn that Messiah is Israel, so when Hosea said , ” When Israel was a child,I

    brought My son out of Egypt”, it shouldn’t be that difficult in the NT era to get what Matthew did, IMO.

    In that passage, Hosea was looking forward to Jesus, IMO. He probably didn’t understand what he wrote.

    In the Exodus passage, Moses was discussing corporate Israel/Messiah, Israel the people.

    That’s Christ, an individual and a corporate “Israel of God” containing the church.

    1. It’s difficult to discern whether the NT writers had “the veil lifted,” as you say, or actively participated in the reinterpretation of texts they knew did not organically prophesy to the events they had witnessed. Or perhaps it’s a distinction without a difference. Either way, we’d excoriate a preacher who did to biblical texts what the NT writers do to the OT. Our culture is just so much more different than theirs. NT writers aren’t “wrong” to use the texts this way any more than the Bible is “wrong” for telling a creation story that is contradicted by nearly all available evidence.

      1. I’m always amused and horrified by claims that without “Science!” ancient and non-European people live[d] in some fluffy narrative state and didn’t understand the concepts of lying and weaseling. It seems a little convenient, and not a little paternalistic. Chinese and Indian history are full of it, Egyptian myth and history…the Greeks wrote down their arguments about it a couple thousand years before, the Romans certainly did, but I guess the Gospel writers, writing in Greek under the fading Roman empire just never got any of that, the little scamps. Wait, isn’t there a, whadyacallit, commandment about that among their people from a millennium or two before? Oh well.

  3. Paul,

    Christ interprets and re-interprets the scriptures for us, IMO. He not only fulfilled the Torah, He filled it full. The word we often translate “fulfilled” also means “filled full”. He helps us understand it more properly, IMO.

    If an OT text says something obscure about a final universal restoration of Israel or a king ruling the nations or a unique servant of God, it automatically means Christ to the NT authors because Jesus explained the OT was ” about Me”.

    The fact Jesus made that claim added to their confidence when these obscure texts are applied to Christ.

    If we personally saw Jesus murdered and were one of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection or a close friend of one who was, we’d think all these passages were about Him as well w/o doubt I think.

    The writers were that type of believer, they had 0 doubts after the resurrection, IMO. If Jesus said the OT was about Jesus, it was to them. They didn’t use our hermeneutic, they used the hermeneutic of Jesus.

    That’s why a non believer can honestly say Isaiah 53 is about Israel as a people group and I can say they’re wrong, it’s all about the only faithful Israelite, the Israel of God, Jesus The Lord suffering for us all as a single human man, God’s suffering servant.

    Who can prove either way? No one. I just assume it’s about Jesus because He said the OT was all about Him, not all about ANE Israel.

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