The depths of dreams

Next Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Advent in Year A. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

18 Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,  yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. 20 Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. 21 She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,  because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. 25 He had no relations with her until she bore a son,  and he named him Jesus.  (Matthew 1:18-24)

Our gospel is the traditional reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent (year A) and thus, in addition to its biblical context, this reading also carries a seasonal meaning.

A Seasonal Context. The Fourth Sunday of Advent always tells part of the story that just precedes the birth of Christ. These familiar episodes set the stage for one of the Bible’s best-known passages, the story of Christmas. This reading, as well as the gospels for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the other years, aligns well with the readings of the seven days of Advent that immediately precede Christmas.  Not only do the readings for the daily Masses just before Christmas include the beginnings of the Gospel infancy narratives (Matthew 1 on Dec. 17-18; Luke 1 on Dec. 19-24), but we again get to hear the traditional “O Antiphons,” at Mass.

Most familiar these days from the popular hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the “O Antiphons” are more than a thousand years old.  Curiously, the first verse of the familiar hymn is actually the last of the traditional “O Antiphons” while the other verses of the hymn

The gospel readings for the 4th Sunday, the gospels for those weekday readings, and the “O Antiphons” all begin to answer the question of Advent: who is coming? Our gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Year A) provides it contribution to the larger answer: Jesus Christ (v.18), son of Mary (v.18), adopted son of Joseph (v20), son of David (v.20), named Jesus (v.21), the one who will save his people from their sins (v.21), and Emmanuel…God with us (v.22).

An Old Testament Context. A key element of the biblical context is Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in v.23 of the gospel. In the Christian understanding we are called to see the prophesy given centuries before to Isaiah now come to messianic fulfillment in Jesus. The first reading for this Advent Sunday, Isaiah 7:10-14, contains the kernel of the Matthean reference: The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God (Is 7:10)

King Ahaz. Ahaz was the great-great-grandson of Saul, the first king of the tribes of Israel. Ahaz reigned as King of Judah (“the southern kingdom”) in the mid-to-late 8th century BCE. His name (˒āḥāz) is a shortened form of names such as Ahaziah and Jehoahaz, “the LORD holds.” These names probably reflect confidence in God’s imminent presence, as in Ps 73:23, “I am always with you, you hold (˒āḥaztā) my right hand.”

The opening verse of Isaiah 7 refers to the campaign of Syria (Aram) and northern Israel (Ephraim, “the northern kingdom”) against Judah during the reign of Ahaz. The campaign in question took place between 735 and 733 B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 16) and is known as the Syro-Ephraimite war. Syria and Israel had already been paying tribute to Assyria since 738 B.C.E. but had now decided to revolt by withholding payment. Judah had refused to join the alliance. As yet Ahaz had no quarrel with Assyria, and in any case hopes of success were remote. Israel and Syria then attempted to overthrow Ahaz and replace him with a king more amenable to their wishes.

What is important to our understanding is that rather than rely upon God, Ahaz submitted to Assyrian power as its protector.  While that enabled Judah to survive the catastrophe which overtook the northern kingdom in 722 b.c.e., it took the God’s chosen people farther from the covenant. It was not only in this matter that Ahaz led the people astray. The Books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles detail his reign and provide an assessment of King Ahaz:

  • He placed an altar from Damascus into the Jerusalem temple (2 Kings 16:10–16) and began to introduce Canaan indigenous cultic worship, thus perverting the worship of God. Ahaz’s sacrificial cult is described in 2 Chronicles 28:23 as being carried out in honor of the “gods of Damascus.”
  • Ahaz is also seen as reviving the cult of child sacrifice associated with Molech. The phrase “he made his son pass through the fire” is taken as a reference to child sacrifice rather than some ritual ordeal.
  • He is condemned with the standard assessment that “he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD …,”
  • Even further, as a King of Judah, is further reviled by being compared in his wickedness to the kings of the north/Israel/Ephraim (2 Kings 16:3; see 2 Kings 8:18).

Ahaz added significantly to this spiral of decline of the covenant people – so much so that 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles devote significantly more verses to his condemnation that the usual reign of a Judean king. The significance of 2 Kings 16 is that it stands immediately before the important editorial section in 2 Kings 17 detailing the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (“Israel”)  for its apostasy. The present context, therefore, highlights that the Southern kingdom is progressing at an ever increasing rate to be an apostate state, soon to meet a similar fate.

Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah. This is the “Ahaz” of Isaiah 7, our first reading.  In this context it is easy to see why the prophet Isaiah views Ahaz as one who lacks faith and trust in God, and in this way the king becomes a symbol of the people of God, who is the face of the Assyrian threats are becoming a people who also lack faith and trust in God.  The king and the people depended upon an ideology of the Davidic dynasty as the sign of their “covenant” with God. Their ideology professed a sublime confidence God would protect his chosen king and city…not matter what. This ideology can be seen in  Psalm 46:1–4:

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Therefore we fear not, though the earth be shaken
and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea . . . .
The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

Such a profession is easily made when there is no immediate danger. Faced with an actual invasion, however, “the heart of the king and the heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind” (Isa 7:2).

At this juncture Isaiah goes to meet Ahaz, who is apparently checking his water supply in anticipation of a siege. Isaiah is accompanied by his son, whose name, Shear-jashub, means “a remnant shall return” – perhaps ironically pointing to the future days of exile?  Isaiah’s advice to the king is startling. He does not suggest the course that Ahaz would eventually take, to appeal to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16:7). Instead, he tells him to “remain tranquil and do not fear” (7:4) because the attack will not succeed and the state of northern Israel will soon come to an end. The divine commitment to make the Davidic line “firm” (2 Sam 7:16) is conditional on the faith of the king.

The Birth of a Child. Isaiah then offers Ahaz a sign to assure Ahaz that if he remains faithful to God and trusts in the power and ways of God, then Ahaz’s reign will remain firm.  The king knows that to ask for a sign means he must give up control and trust God.  Isaiah proceeds to give it even when the king refuses to ask for it. The sign is that a young woman will bear a son who will be “living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good” (7:15). The mother is called an almah in the Hebrew, that is, a young woman of marriageable age, though not necessarily a virgin. The Greek translation of Isaiah used the word parthenos, which means “virgin” unambiguously, and this translation is cited in Matt 1:22–23 and formed the basis of the traditional Christian interpretation of this text as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. The Hebrew language version of Isaiah, however, does not suggest that the birth in itself was miraculous.

Since the sign was given to Ahaz, we must assume that the young woman in question was known to him. There are two possible identifications. The first is the prophet’s wife. We know that the prophet gave symbolic names to his children. The second is the king’s wife. The name Immanuel, “God is with us,” could serve as a slogan for the Davidic house. While the prophet could predict the name of his own child more confidently, a royal child would be the more effective sign for the king. While either identification is possible, it seems more probable that the woman in question was one of Ahaz’s wives.

The child about to be born will be “living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good” (7:15).  While this is a disputed point, the majority of scholars hold that “by the time” refers to a young child of 3 to 6 years old.  This gives the sign some urgency, “For before the child learns to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.” In other words, if Ahaz is patient and trusts, within a few years his two enemies, Syria and Israel/Ephraim will be defeated

The Meaning of the SignThe land of Israel was proverbially “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8; 13:5; Num 13:27; Josh 5:6). Such food would appear abundant to nomads from the wilderness; it would surely seem spartan to a king accustomed to live in luxury. The implications of the diet of curds and honey can be seen in Isa 7:21–25: those who remain in the land will have to live on its natural produce, since cultivation will be impossible. Curds and honey will be the only available food. The phrase “On that day” (7:20, 21) suggests that the coming destruction is “the day of the Lord,” but it is clear that the instrument of destruction is “the razor hired from across the River” (7:20) — the Assyrians. Isaiah not only predicts that Syria and Israel will be destroyed but also that Judah will suffer “days worse than any since Ephraim seceded from Judah” (7:17). It would seem from 7:18–20 that the real menace to Judah is seen to come from the Assyrians rather than from the Syro-Ephraimite coalition.

What, then, is signified by the birth of Immanuel? Evidently the name “God is with us” is not a promise that God will shelter the king from all harm if only he has faith; rather, it is an ambivavlent sign. The presence of God is not always protective. It can also be destructive, as on the “day of the Lord.”  Yet it is not entirely destructive. The birth of a child is perhaps the most universal and enduring symbol of hope for the human race. The newborn child does not contribute to military defense or help resolve the dilemmas of the crisis, but he is nonetheless a sign of hope for a new generation. The prophet predicts that he will reach the age of discernment, however bad the times may be. Even if cultivation becomes impossible, people will survive on curds and honey. Moreover, they can recall a time at the beginning of Israel’s history when such a diet was seen as a bountiful gift of God. Isaiah prophesies that the vineyards, worth thousands of pieces of silver, will be overgrown with thorns and briers. This would be a loss to the ruling class but not necessarily to the common people. The demise of the vineyards might mark a return to a simpler lifestyle, in which Israel and Judah would be less wealthy, but also less torn by social oppression and less entangled in international politics.

Isaiah’s advice to Ahaz, then, is to wait out the crisis, trusting not for miraculous deliverance but for eventual survival. The prophet probably feels that there is no need to fight against Syria and Israel, Assyria will take care of them. Sending for aid to Assyria is probably also unnecessary and would bring Judah directly into subjection. In the meantime Judah might be ravaged and reduced to near wilderness, but life would go on, and the society would be purified in the process.

Ahaz, of course, does not follow Isaiah’s advice. He sends gold and silver to the king of Assyria and becomes his vassal. Damascus is destroyed. Samaria survives only because a coup puts a new king on the throne, but even then it survives for a mere decade. The politics of Ahaz seem to work well enough for the present, but Isaiah would surely hold that they do not go to the heart of the matter.

The figure of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 is not presented as a messianic figure, although he probably was a royal child. Nothing is said of his future reign. Instead, he is a symbol of hope in weakness, of new life in the midst of destruction. When early Christianity read this passage as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, it implied an analogy between the two births. In the Gospels, too, a birth in inauspicious circumstances was nonetheless taken as a sign of the presence of God.

A New Testament Context. Our passage follows immediately upon Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17) – which notably says in v.9,  “Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.” Our gospel and Matthew’s genealogy are intentionally connected by Matthew.  Our translation in Mt 1:1 is:  “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A more literal translation would be – “A book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.

Matthew could have used other words for “genealogy” or “birth,” but he used this word, which is also the Greek title of the first book of scriptures. Similar wording is in the LXX at Gn 2:4 “This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth;” and in 5:1 “This is the book of the genesis of human beings. In the day God made Adam, according to the image of God he made him.” Matthew intended a connection between these two sections of chapter 1 and with the first book of scriptures. This is a new beginning, a new creation.

In this new creation there is something different. Throughout verses 1-16a, Matthew has used egennesen 39 times (aorist, active of gennao, which means: when used of the male role = “to beget,” or “to become the father of”; of the female role: “to give birth”). In 16b the grammar changes. He does not write, “Joseph begat Jesus,” which we might expect after 39 times; but rather he uses egennethe (aorist, passive of gennao) “the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.” We already have a hint that there is something different about this birth from all those that went before.

The genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel establishes Jesus’ place within the Jewish tradition. Jesus is the son of Abraham and of David as well as the continuation of David’s line after the exile of 587 B.C.E.  Israel’s history is traced from its beginning with Abraham (v.2), through its high point with King David (v.6) and its low point in the Babylonian Exile (v.11), to its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah (v.16). Thus the genealogy of Jesus stresses the continuity of Jesus with the great figures of God’s people (“son of Abraham … son of David”), and it also prepares for the very irregular and indeed unique birth narrated in verses to follow.


1 thought on “The depths of dreams

  1. Thank you so much for all your work in helping me understand and be inspired by the Gospel of Matthew. It is a great gift! God bless you!

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