Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent
With Christmas on Sunday, thoughts turn to the Christ child, born between 6 and 4 B.C. in Bethlehem. While the baby Jesus is the focus of most of the debate surrounding the innumerable nativity scenes that dot lawns and yards across the United States, His mother, Mary, is a divisive figure in her own right. In his purported “translation” of the Bible, Thomas Jefferson, for instance, left out the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. As with many others, Jefferson disbelieved in miracles. Before IVF, such an unconventional conception would have been unthinkable for the erudite of the Age of Enlightenment. However, some Christian groups today don’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. One way that the latter rationalizes their view is to point out that the word translated as “virgin” (almah) can likewise mean a young woman.
There seems to be no reason it can’t mean both “virgin” and “young woman.” Those preoccupied with the debate over the virgin birth of Christ miss the other point of Isaiah 7.14. Aram and Israel threatened King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz’s fear was palpable. God instructed Ahaz to request a sign to indicate Judah’s deliverance. God told Ahaz that he could even ask for something extraordinary. Ahaz was not a righteous king, but he pretended to be godly here by saying he would not test God. To this, God replied with the words most commonly associated with Jesus: “Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will name Him Immanuel” (NASB). God revealed that this was a sign He would send to Ahaz. Moreover, God would remove the danger posed by Aram and Israel before this child reached adulthood (Isaiah 7.16).
I’ve seen well-intentioned brothers argue that this prophecy can only refer to Jesus’ virgin birth and that we must not permit others to interpret it as referring to a young woman. However, I wonder what good a sign concerning Christ would have done King Ahaz. Ahaz was a historical figure who existed more than 700 years before the birth of Christ. How could a messianic prophecy promise Ahaz that Judah would not fall? The answer is that it couldn’t. Ahaz required immediate fulfillment. In the following chapter, Isaiah documents the event as having been accomplished. Isaiah and his wife had a son, and his birth foretold that the Assyrians would plunder those who opposed Judah (Isaiah 8.1-4). The prophetess was not a virgin since she and Isaiah were married and had given birth to at least one of Isaiah’s children (Isaiah 7.3). Thus, a young woman was the immediate realization of the sign, but a virgin was the ultimate fulfillment.
The sign’s demands tested the faith of Joseph and Ahaz, but Joseph succeeded where Ahaz did not. Ahaz needed to trust God and wait for the sign He promised. But Ahaz sought out the Assyrians and allied with them (2 Chronicles 28.16). Joseph was well aware that a virgin could not normally conceive a child. Therefore, he was going to dissolve his relationship with Mary privately. But an angel announced to Joseph that Mary was carrying a child the Holy Spirit conceived. Joseph believed the prophetic sign from God and acted accordingly. Joseph’s response should be ours today. Rather than quibble over the precise definition of “almah,” we should believe that God means what He says.