It 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.
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.