γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
missing the mark
Advent is upon us. Christmas is coming.
It's that time of year we read and re-read the birth stories of Jesus. We hear multiple versions, we see various depictions—whether from budding playwrights or artistic paintings—and we hear diverse messages from varying traditions all based upon the Nativity.
The focus, very often, is on the miracles present during the narratives. The miracles of the conception and the incarnation; the miracles of the angels and of protection; the miracles of the star and of the prophetic visit by the Magi.
We know these stories inside and out. We know the messages, the Christmas sermons, and all the Christmas songs by heart. We are steeped in the traditions, and we feel we know the point of it all.
But what if, over the years, the focus has been shifted?
What if the point of the biblical stories aren't quite what we thought they were?
There's nothing wrong with recognising the miracles for what they are presented to be—as miraculous events—but what if we are not fully acknowledging what the authors are trying to say with those miracles?
There is a clear allusion in Matthew's version of the birth story (1:19-25) where the author directly references back to a story in Isaiah (7:10-17) where the prophet tells King Ahaz that God will give a sign of God's providential activity and divine presence.
That sign would be that a young woman1 would give birth to a child and that child will be called Immanuel.
We are conditioned to read these passages as declarations of the incarnation—that the angel came to announce the miracle of God becoming man, that the child Mary would birth would be a paradoxical combination of divine and human.
But by bringing in the story of Isaiah the author of Matthew is telling us something else. This miraculous birth isn't meant to contribute to the Council of Nicea's debate about whether Jesus' substance was the same (homoousios) or similar (homoiusios) to God's substance—it isn't meant to end abruptly at the content of the miracle or how that miracle was accomplished—but instead, I believe, it is meant to prophetically point to the purpose of the pregnancy.
What or who the child is was not as important as what the child represented.
In Isaiah, the child would be known as Immanuel. This was in no way to say the child would be divine—nobody would've understood this to say the child was God. Instead, it was simply to say the child would be a sign that 'God is with us'—that 'us' being Israel.
Mary's child was not of course named Immanuel, but was instead, as we know, named Yeshua.2 Yeshua is a Hebrew name which is a derived from the word yasha meaning 'to deliver' or 'to rescue,' and is combined with a placeholder for God's name, Yeho. Therefore Yeshua means 'God saves.'
The author of Matthew spells the name's significance out clearly and with specificity in 1:21 where he states that Yeshua will 'save his people from their sins.' (Emphasis mine)
For King Ahaz, Isaiah's prophecy meant that even though there would be a period of Assyrian oppression, God would still protect Israel and eventually the nation would experience deliverance and a time of peace—and that time of deliverance and peace would be imminent because Isaiah declared it would be at hand before the child is old enough to know right from wrong.
So it would be, according to the author of Matthew, for Israel under Rome's rule—the sign of Mary's child would indicate that God was preparing to rescue the nation and absolve them from their covenantal failures.
Therefore, the birth of Jesus, in the vein of Isaiah, was to be a prophetic sign to Israel that God was with his people in a time of trial and tribulation, and that, as with Isaiah, the child was a sign that God was preparing to act in judgment as well as in salvation.
In Isaiah 9:1-7, the prophet says a new king will be born that will free the people from Assyrian rule—the king will bring about Israel's liberation, releasing them from their oppression. The author of Matthew makes reference of this passage and ties it to Jesus' ministry. That is, the author is declaring Jesus as the king who will once again—and finally—free the people Israel and at last unite them.
The original audience would have clearly heard that the message—the meaning—of Jesus' birth was that the time of Israel's liberation and redemption was imminent. Jesus declared, right at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew 4:17—and thereby giving us a lens as to the purpose of his preaching and teaching—that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
All these details serve to show that the Nativity narrative is ultimately an enthronement narrative—even the Christmas story is politically subversive.
So Merry Christmas. Jesus is King. ✤
1. Most scholars would argue that the Hebrew word, almah, is in fact translated as 'young woman' and not 'virgin,' since 'virgin' has its own Hebrew word, betulah. Additionally, there is a definite article in the original Hebrew indicating the young woman was a specific young woman living at the time of Ahaz and Isaiah. Some Jewish scholars believe Isaiah was in fact talking about his own wife and their child was the prophetic sign.
2. Yeshua is transliterated into Greek as Ίησοΰς and in turn into English as Jesus.