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The Book of Isaiah: A Clear, Concise Overview that will Answer All Your Questions

The Book of Isaiah: A Clear, Concise Overview that will Answer All Your Questions

Note…the final edition of the Major/Minor Prophets won’t be orange….

Currently, I am devoting a lot of time to finishing up my translation of the Major and Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. One of the things I am including in my translation are short introductions to each prophetic book that will hopefully help the reader understand what that particular prophetic book is about. Consider it sort of a Cliff Notes overview of each book, if you will. In any case, I thought I’d share my introductory overview of the book of Isaiah.

My translation of the Major and Minor Prophets should be available by the end of the month, or in early February.

The Book of Isaiah

Outside of a few specific verses and passages in Isaiah, most of the book of Isaiah goes unread or is considered simply too hard to understand. The passages that people are aware of (i.e. Isaiah 7:14, 9:2-7; 11:1-2; 40:1-5; 53:1-12) are because they are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. The problem is that most never consider the original context of these passages, and they never take the time to try to understand Isaiah as a whole, on its own terms.

Admittedly, that is a hard task, for the book of Isaiah is 66 chapters long, and is really complex, especially if one doesn’t have a grasp of the historical context. Hopefully these next couple of pages will be able to provide that historical context, at least enough to get you started in the right direction. The main thing you have to realize is that the book of Isaiah really comes in three parts:

Isaiah 1-39 (sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah is set in the 8th century BC, roughly between the years 742-701 BC. The historical prophet Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, and lived through a number of incredibly significant events in Judah’s history: the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis (around 742 BC), the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (721 BC), and the invasion by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (701 BC).

The easiest way to understand this section is to realize how it is structured.

Isaiah 1-5 is essentially the prologue that sets out the major themes in Isaiah: (1) Judah is guilty of turning away from YHWH and practicing injustice and idolatry; (2) Judah will suffer judgment and punishment for its sin; yet (3) after judgment will come restoration and salvation—the judgment will serve as the means of cleansing the people of Judah of their sins.

Isaiah 6 tells us of the prophetic call of Isaiah. Essentially, YHWH tells him to prophecy to Judah, but that Judah will not listen and will suffer judgment. Nevertheless, after that judgment, restoration will come.

Isaiah 7-12 is all about the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and Isaiah’s prophecies at that time. Basically, what happened was that the northern kingdom of Israel had teamed up with another nation called Aram, and they were threatening Judah and its new king, Ahaz. Isaiah encouraged Ahaz to put his trust in YHWH, and that YHWH would protect him, but Ahaz basically said, “I don’t think so! I’m going to ask Assyria to protect me, because Assyria is the major superpower!” In response to Ahaz’s choosing not to put his trust in YHWH, Isaiah utters a number of prophecies throughout 7-12. Essentially the prophecies boil down to this:

  • The pregnant young woman will give birth to a son, and by the time he grows up, Assyria will not only have destroyed Israel and Aram, but Assyria will oppress Judah. Although the Immanuel child of Isaiah 7:14 this is later applied to Jesus, in the original context of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, it is a prophecy about the birth of Hezekiah.
  • Despite Ahaz’s lack of faith in YHWH opening the door to Assyrian oppression, it will be through Immanuel’s (i.e. Hezekiah’s) faith in YHWH that YHWH will protect Jerusalem and thwart Assyria’s attempts to destroy it.

Isaiah 13-23 then is a collection of various prophecies about the surrounding nations.

Isaiah 24-27 is an apocalyptic passage that envisions YHWH eventually doing away with death forever and bringing about peace for Israel.

Isaiah 28-35 is a collection of various prophecies about Jerusalem itself, in light of the up and coming crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion.

Isaiah 36-39 is the story of Sennacherib’s invasion, Hezekiah’s trust in YHWH, and YHWH’s salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s attack (36-37). Thus, the events of 36-37 are a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies from 7-12. After that, we are told two additional stories about Hezekiah: his sickness and how YHWH restored him to health (38), and about a visit of envoys from Babylon to Hezekiah (39).

Thus, one can make sense of Proto-Isaiah if one sees chapters 7-12 and 36-39 acting as “bookends” of initial prophecy and fulfillment of that prophecy. In fact, in light of what was said earlier about prophecy itself, seeing Proto-Isaiah in this way helps us understand why the prophecies of Isaiah were preserved: simply put, his Immanuel prophecies came true. Therefore, Isaiah was vindicated as a true prophet, and Hezekiah was seen as a godly king who put his trust in YHWH.

Isaiah 40-55 (sometimes called “Deutero-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah was clearly written much later, for these chapters highlight the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Exile. Since the Jews went into exile in 587 BC, and started to return from exile around 539 BC, that means that Isaiah 40-55 was written roughly 150 years or so after the events of Isaiah 1-39. This means they weren’t written by the historical Isaiah of 8th century Judah, but probably rather by prophets from an Isaianic school of prophets. That is why they are still in the book of Isaiah—they were still written in the Isaiah tradition.

The main feature to recognize in Deutero-Isaiah is the figure of the Servant. Scholars love to point to four specific passages known as “The Servant Songs” (found in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53) and then speculate on who the Servant could be: Is it Jesus? Is the prophet? Is it Israel? To be blunt, if you read these passages in light of the larger context of Deutero-Isaiah, the identity of the Servant is clear: it is Israel—or more specifically, the redeemed remnant of Israel. The reason why it is obvious is because there are other passages in Deutero-Isaiah that specifically say, “My servant, Israel!”

The key thing to realize with the figure of the Servant as the redeemed remnant of Israel is that reveals the purpose of the exile itself. Pre-exilic Judah was hopelessly idolatrous and sinful, and since YHWH was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, He used judgment and the exile to be the means by which He would purify them of their idolatry, so they could one day be a people who would bring blessing to all nations.

Furthermore, not every Jew who went into exile was guilty of injustice and idolatry. Nevertheless, they suffered the same fate. And although that seemed unfair, amazingly, YHWH used those faithful Jews who went into exile to be a light to the nations (think of the stories of Daniel). It was through the suffering of faithful Jews that the Name of YHWH was made known to the nations. Hence, that is what a passage like Isaiah 53 is all about: the Suffering Servant’s faithfulness leads to new life and God’s glory among the nations. And that is why passages like these are later applied to Jesus, for He is the ultimate fulfillment of that very thing.

Isaiah 56-66 (sometimes called “Trito-Isaiah”)
The final section of Isaiah seems to have been written after the Jews had come back from exile to the Promised Land, but had not experienced the full restoration that was promised in Isaiah 40-55. The Jews were still waiting for God’s Spirit to return to them, for the promises of Deutero-Isaiah had not seemed to materialize. The returned post-exilic community did not seem to be fully purified, they were still under the rule of foreign powers, sin and evil still held sway, and they had not experienced the new creation that was prophesied about in Deutero-Isaiah.

Therefore, what you see in Trito-Isaiah are passages filled with trying to make sense of what had, and hadn’t yet, happened. Near the end of Isaiah, in chapter 64, the writer says, “Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down!” clearly expressing his desire that God would act and fulfill the promises that were made. This is significant, because in Mark 1:10, at the baptism of Jesus, Mark writes, “And the heavens were torn apart” and the Spirit of God descended. What Mark was essentially saying to his audience was, “Remember that hope in Isaiah 64:1? It’s coming true here, now, with Jesus—God has come down and is making good on His promises!”

In any case, if you keep these few guidelines in mind, you will be able to better understand the book of Isaiah.

A Little Bit of Old Testament Overview–Part 2 (Getting your bearings in the Old Testament Country)

A Little Bit of Old Testament Overview–Part 2 (Getting your bearings in the Old Testament Country)

In yesterday’s post, I gave “Part 1” to my explanation as to how understand the Old Testament story. Here is “Part 2.” If you want to read the full story, let me suggest my translation of the Torah and Former Prophet.

King David and the Kingdom of Israel
In I Samuel, we find the Hebrews demanding to have a king. YHWH did not want them to have a king like the other nations, because, He warned, kings abuse and oppress their people. YHWH Himself was the king of the Hebrews, and so when they demanded to have a king like the nations, it was seen as a slap in the face to YHWH. Even so, YHWH allowed it, and chose to incorporate the kingship into His covenant. The first king, Saul, was a failure. He failed to obey Samuel the prophet, and was continually ignoring YHWH’s commands. It was the next king, David, that figures so prominently in the history of the Jews.

We know many stories about David: Goliath, David’s conflict with Saul, David and Bathsheba, as well as others. But it was the establishment of the Davidic line of kings that plays a central role in the core identity and beliefs of Israel: (1) David was anointed by Samuel to become king. The Hebrew word messiah means “anointed one.” (2) It was David and his son Solomon who fully conquered the Promised Land. This was thus seen as a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, and also Moses. (3) It was David who wanted to build a Temple for YHWH, as a place where YHWH could dwell among His people, much like He did with the Tabernacle during the Exodus. It was David’s son Solomon who actually built the Temple.

King David

These three things can be seen in II Samuel 7. It lies at the heart of Jewish belief concerning the Davidic king, the Temple of YHWH, and YHWH’s covenant with Israel. What we see in this passage is that it was David who wanted to build a Temple for YHWH, but that YHWH did not seem to want one. Nevertheless, YHWH promises to make a “house” for David. He declares that the “offspring” of David will build a house for YHWH, that YHWH will be a father to him, and he will be a son to YHWH, that YHWH will punish him when he does wrong, but that He will never take away His covenant love (i.e. hesed) from him, and that David’s throne would be established forever. This might seem a bit ambiguous, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, it was taken to mean that Solomon would build the Temple, and that YHWH would establish the throne of David forever.

Still, when one looks back at God’s covenant with Abraham, one might wonder, “How are the nations of the earth going to be blessed through Israel?” The idea seemed to be this: Israel would be a light to the Gentiles through their covenant with YHWH. Their king would be YHWH’s chosen ruler, and would in a sense be “YHWH’s son” who would rule righteously and look after widows and orphans; the people would keep YHWH’s covenant, worship YHWH in the Temple, make YHWH’s land fertile and prosperous. In doing this, the nation of Israel would be a true reflection to the Gentiles of the image of God, and the Gentile nations would then come to Jerusalem to worship the one true God, YHWH.

Baal Worship

There was only one problem: the kings and people of Israel. II Samuel shows David to be a deeply flawed king; I Kings shows Solomon to be a conniving and oppressive king who sowed the seeds of civil war between Israel and Judah; and the rest of I and II Kings tells of the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah, most of whom were miserable failures. Despite certain good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is marked by idol worship, immorality, and bloodshed. YHWH would raise up prophets to warn the kings and people of Israel and Judah that they were breaking the covenant with YHWH and that YHWH would punish them, yet most of the time they refused to listen to the prophets. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 721 B.C., and the southern kingdom of Judah held on until 587 B.C., when it was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It was 587 B.C., when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, that marked the complete and utter destruction of the nation of Judah and the people of YHWH. It was the Babylonian Exile that changed everything.

The Babylonian Exile
With the Babylonian Exile, the Jews essentially found themselves back where they began, captives in a foreign country. They were once slaves in Egypt, and now they were exiles in Babylon. The entire covenant of Abraham seemed to be gone, the curses in the covenant of Moses had happened, and now the promises God had made to Abraham and Moses seemed as if they would never come true: (1) they were no longer a national people because their nation was destroyed, (2) they had been taken out of the Promised Land, the tangible symbol of YHWH’s salvation, (3) Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH, where YHWH dwelt among His people, was destroyed, therefore He must not be with them anymore, (4) there was no longer any Davidic king. No King, no Temple, no Land = no People of God. Because of their unfaithfulness to YHWH and His covenant, the kingdom of Israel had been torn apart, the northern kingdom had been destroyed in 721 B.C, and the southern kingdom had been destroyed in 587 B.C.—there was no more nation of Israel, no more people of God. The people of Judah found themselves in exile, forced to live among the pagan nations, and Jerusalem, the holy city, was destroyed. YHWH has become an enemy to Judah, He has destroyed the Temple, abolished Jewish customs, and has rejected the Jewish kingship and the priesthood.

The Return from Exile and the Messianic Hope
Surprisingly though, the exiles found that YHWH had not completely deserted them. Even before the Exile, through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, YHWH said that although He would judge their sinfulness, that He would save a faithful remnant. In books like Daniel, Esther and Ezekiel, they find that YHWH is with the exiled Jews, even in Babylon. For the faithful Jews like Daniel who refuse to bow down to the pagan idols in the Exile, and remain faithful to YHWH, they find that YHWH is still with them. It was 50-70 years later that the unimaginable happened. King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict that allowed the Jews in exile to return to their homeland. Isaiah 40-66 is all about this. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are also books that tell of the return from the Exile, and the troubles they faced. This was initially “good news” for the exiled Jews. There was hope and optimism that YHWH would once again re-establish His people, the Jews, in the Promised Land, and fulfill the covenant.

Yet things didn’t turn out as they had expected. Yes, some Jews had returned to the Promised Land, but not all. A lot of Jews had remained in various foreign lands—the Diaspora. Yes, they had rebuilt the Temple of YHWH, but it was nothing compared to the splendor of Solomon’s Temple. And although they were back in the Promised Land, they were not their own nation. They had no king, and were under continual rule of various foreign empires. And to top it off, by around 400 B.C., it was pretty much generally agreed that the Presence of YHWH had left them. All they had left was the Torah. And, since nothing else had turned out as they had hoped, the eventual belief by many Jews from the time of the Exile onwards was that these other things—king, Temple, great nation, the Presence of YHWH—would only be re-established once they had learned to fully obey and live by the Torah.

This is the basic overview, the basic blueprint, of the Old Testament Story. This is essentially the “Meta-Narrative” of the Jewish people. If you understand this “meta-narrative” you will be in a much better position to read, understand, and interpret the smaller narratives within the Old Testament that contribute to the over-arching worldview of the Old Testament. Every individual narrative/story you find in the Old Testament somehow relates to this “meta-narrative” of Israel. Therefore, when you read and study a certain individual narrative, don’t just look at that particular narrative, but also look at how that narrative relates to and fits into the over-arching story of Israel. As you read anything in the Old Testament, and later in the New Testament, take special note of the following:

(1) Creation: not just Genesis 1, but how “creation language” permeates the Old Testament as it describes YHWH’s dealings with His people.

(2) Exodus: just like “creation language,” the Old Testament is filled with “Exodus language” to describe YHWH’s dealings with His people. Simply put, virtually everything in the Old Testament is related to either Creation or the Exodus.

(3) The significance of the Promised Land as a metaphor for salvation itself.

(4) The emphasis on Israel as YHWH’s chosen people to be the means by which He blesses all nations and brings salvation to His creation.

(5) The significance given to kingship and the Temple as vehicles through which YHWH would accomplish His salvation.

(6) YHWH’s Presence with His people, whether it be in dreams and visions, at Sinai, in the Tabernacle and later Temple, or through the prophets themselves.

The Old Testament is a vast country. I hope these two posts help provide a rudimentary map to help you navigate your journey through it.

A Little Bit of Old Testament Overview (so you can begin to understand the big picture)

A Little Bit of Old Testament Overview (so you can begin to understand the big picture)

I think it is safe to say that, outside of a few famous Sunday School versions of a few Old Testament stories, a handful of Psalms, and a number of select Proverbs, the majority of the Old Testament is completely ignored by most Christians. The reason is obvious: most don’t really know what the Old Testament is, and all those genealogies and really odd laws seem not only foreign, but ultimately needless and irrelevant.

The thing is, though, as I’ve learned from personal experience, and as I tell my students, not only will you never fully understand the New Testament without a basic grasp of the Old Testament, but the Old Testament in and of itself is worthy of study. That being said, though, it can certainly be daunting: it is so massive, seemingly disjointed, and so very confusing. Now, no written introduction can ever clearly explain everything about the Old Testament, any more than a brief introduction in high school history textbook can adequately cover the long and complex history of the United States. If you want to come to a more complete understanding of the Old Testament, there really is only one way: start reading and exploring the Old Testament world. It is only through personal interaction that one will ever even begin to make sense of the Old Testament.

The next two posts will provide you a few “exploratory aides” to help you in your journey through the Old Testament. This is part of my introduction to my own translation of The Torah and Former Prophets that I’ve just self-published. Consider them a sort of compass and map to help you navigate the Old Testament world.

The Old Testament Itself
The Old Testament is actually a collection of 39 books, written roughly over a span of 1,000 years, and it covers the entire history of ancient Israel. It contains narratives (stories), laws, poetry, prophecies, proverbs, as well as many other genres. We are going to focus our attention on Old Testament narratives and prophecy, but before we can do so, we must be sure we have a good understanding of the overarching historical story found in the Old Testament. The reason why we need to be familiar with the Old Testament story is because it defines who the people of Israel are, what they believe, and how they view the world around them. The same is true for any people or nation. If we were to put together an “American Testament” that told the story of America, we would probably include historical accounts of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War; we would include personal stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other presidents; we would include important documents like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address; we would include major cultural figures like Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King; and we would include culturally defining plays, movies, and music.

All of these things together help define what America is, what its values are, and how it views the world. The same is true of the Old Testament: it is the story of Israel; and the reason why the story of Israel is important is because Christianity has its roots in the story of Israel. Unless you have some sort of understanding on the Old Testament story, then you will never fully understand what Christianity is all about. So what is the Old Testament Story?

The Old Testament Worldview that Unfolds Throughout Israel’s History
In a nutshell, the Jews believed themselves to be chosen people of YHWH, the creator God who was the only true God. They believed that He had entered into a covenant relationship with them, and that somehow, through them YHWH was going to put the world to rights and redeem His fallen creation. Therefore, the over-arching “meta-narrative” that runs throughout the Old Testament is the story of how YHWH is slowly but surely bringing about His salvation of the world through the nation of Israel, a flawed and sinful people. Despite their sinfulness, and despite the fact they continually break YHWH’s covenant, YHWH nevertheless stays faithful to His covenant in order to bring about the salvation of the world and the renewal of His creation.

The place where this all starts is in Genesis 12, with YHWH’s covenant with Abraham. But before that, there is Genesis 1-11 to consider, for Genesis 1-11 acts as the prologue to the entire Old Testament. It tells the stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. By the end of chapter 11, the situation is this: God’s creation is lost, fallen, and sinful, scattered throughout the earth. The main question at this point is simple: How is the creator God, YHWH (the God of Israel), going to fix His good, but fallen, creation? Simply put, how is YHWH going to redeem His creation?

The answer begins with Abraham in Genesis 12-25. The key passages we need to be familiar with are Genesis 12:1-3, and 17:1-22. It is God’s relationship with Abraham that really begins the Old Testament story of the Jews, the people of God.

YHWH’s Covenant with Abraham

In Genesis 12:1-3 we find three fundamental components to God’s covenant-promise with Abraham: (1) God promises to make Abraham’s name great; (2) God promises to make Abraham into a great nation; and (3) God promises that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Then, in Genesis 17:1-14, God promises a few additional things: (4) Abraham will not simply be the father of one nation, but of many nations; (5) the land of Canaan will be the Promised Land for Abraham’s descendants; and (6) as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, God orders that Abraham and every male in his household be circumcised. This is why Abraham’s descendants, the Jews, have always practiced circumcision—it serves as the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and a sign of God’s promises in the covenant.

Moses and the Exodus
The rest of Genesis (26-50) tells the stories of the Patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and ends with Jacob, now named Israel, bringing his family to Egypt to be with Joseph. The next major figure and event crucial to Jewish identity can be seen in Moses and the Exodus. The accounts surrounding Moses and the Exodus can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Most of us know the basic story: Moses, though a Hebrew, grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but had to flee when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew.

Forty years later, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses to go back to Egypt and lead Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, out of slavery from Egypt. It was there that God revealed to Moses His name, YHWH. When Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, Pharaoh refused; therefore, YHWH sent ten plagues upon Egypt, the tenth being the Passover, when the angel of YHWH passed over every house in Egypt and killed the firstborn in every house that did not have blood on the doorposts. That night Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, but later he changed his mind tried to capture them again. It was there on the shores of the Red Sea when YHWH parted the waters to let the Hebrews pass through to the other side safely. YHWH led the Hebrews with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; YHWH’s presence was among the Hebrews in the desert—they all lived in tents, and right in the middle of them was the Tabernacle: the tent where YHWH’s presence dwelt.

The Golden Calf

Later on, they came to Mount Sinai, where YHWH made a covenant with the Hebrews and gave Moses the Ten Commandments: the Torah. It was also there where the Hebrews made the golden calf and worshiped it and were punished. It was there the Ark of the Covenant was made. In fact, all through the Exodus, the Hebrews continually rebelled against Moses and continually displayed a lack of faith in YHWH. At the end of the Exodus though, in Deuteronomy, we find Moses with the Hebrews, right outside of the Promised Land, ready to conquer it. Moses led them to the Promised Land, but it would be Joshua who would lead them in conquering it. Nevertheless, it was during the Exodus where several key things crucial to Jewish identity happened:

(1) Passover was to be celebrated every year, to commemorate Israel’s freedom from slavery.

(2) The crossing of the Red Sea became a major symbol for YHWH’s salvation and the freedom of His people.

(3) The Tabernacle was the visible proof that YHWH’s presence was among His people.

(4) The Torah was seen essentially as the “covenant charter” between YHWH and His people—if the Hebrews were being made into a nation, the Torah was basically its Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Law Code.

(5) The Ark of the Covenant held special significance because that was where the Torah Tablets were kept, and it was understood to be the very footstool of YHWH—the spot where Heaven and Earth met.

(6) The Promised Land itself represented YHWH’s salvation—as long as the Hebrews were living in the Promised Land, they were living in YHWH’s salvation.

The Ark of the Covenant….According to Indiana Jones!

When all these things are seen together, one is able to get a clearer understanding on the Jewish worldview: it was all about salvation, YHWH’s presence, the Torah, and the Land. Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea signaled YHWH’s salvation of His people, the descendants of Abraham, out of slavery into freedom; the existence of the Tabernacle in the desert, along with the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, signaled YHWH’s presence among His people; the giving of the Torah and the making of the Ark of the Covenant defined YHWH’s covenant with His people; and the Promised Land summed up YHWH’s inheritance for His people—it was their salvation, it was where YHWH would dwell with them, it was where all the promises of the covenant would be fulfilled.

In addition to these things, we need to relate this back to God’s covenant with Abraham. The Hebrews held to the practice of circumcision. We find that Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, were indeed being made into a great nation, and were on the verge of entering into the Promised Land. But exactly how they would “be a blessing to the nations” is still to be seen. If anything, when one reads Joshua and Judges, one sees war, immorality, idol worship, and slaughter—no “blessing” seems anywhere near. The reason why, we are told in these books, is because the Hebrews failed to be faithful to YHWH’s covenant. They didn’t fully conquer the land, they fell into worshipping other gods, and they oppressed the poor and needy among them. The book of Judges shows a cycle of behavior among the Hebrews: (a) they fall away from YHWH, (b) YHWH allows them to be oppressed by foreign nations, (c) they repent and return to YHWH, (d) YHWH raises up a judge (a leader) who defeats the foreign nation and frees the Hebrews from foreign oppression. Then it all starts again.

Tomorrow, I’ll post “Part 2” of my Old Testament overview.

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Over the past couple of days, I’ve shared some insights regarding Isaiah 7:14—it’s original context during the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, and then how that impacts our understanding of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in his story about the birth of Jesus. Today, though, I want to share more of a personal story of how that verse, and the famous Christmas song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has impacted my life. Biblical insights and biblical study are good things, but without the personal encounter in one’s life, such things are in danger of remaining solely intellectual exercises.

Episode One: My Epiphany in Kazakhstan
As I am guessing many can relate to, when I graduated college, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a teaching certificate, a degree in English, and no job. In fact, for my first two years after college, I lived with my parents and scrapped through life as a substitute teacher at the various schools in the Wheaton area. That could be a story in and of itself, but suffice it to say, I was miserable. Many of my friends were off getting married, getting into careers, and starting families…and I was living with my parents, unable to get a date to save my life, and routinely being called “Doogie Howser” by junior high brats. I did that for two years—and as my mom would tell you, I was “not a nice person to live with.”

Such is the angst of many kids in their early twenties. They feel they’re supposed to be “adults,” but really aren’t, and in a tight job market, they feel like they’re spinning their wheels and going nowhere, and they feel like utter failures. That was certainly me. And so, what I decided to do was to join the Peace Corps, and by the summer of 1993 I found myself in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, teaching English as a Foreign Language to Kazakhstani nationals. I had figured that since I had an English degree, why not use it to see the world?

Joel in Karaganda…Lenin statue still standing

And I had gotten to…Kazakhstan, specifically, the northern city of Karaganda, where winter came by October, and they didn’t turn the hot water on until November. Now, it certainly was an adventure, but I quickly realized one thing: I found teaching English as a foreign language really boring. And, as anyone who has lived overseas will tell you, there is a significant culture shock and the inevitable feeling of loneliness.

To make a long story short, by mid-October I found myself at my desk in my little, cold dorm-room, writing to my parents about how much I hated my life, and how I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Even though it was October, I decided to put in a Christmas tape that another Peace Corps member had given to me: A Winter Solstice, Volume 3. It was that night that I had an epiphany that changed my life.

I don’t like to over-spiritualize things, but I don’t know how else to explain it—God entered the room, through that tape. It was one of those moments in one’s life that you remember distinctly. I was at my desk, writing to my parents about how I hated my life, and then the Turtle Island Quartet’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” came through the speakers. Here is the actual recording:

I had heard that song all my life, but for some reason, that version, that particular arrangement, was light a shaft of light in my soul:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, who ransoms captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Two things immediately struck me. First, how is that about Christmas? It’s about Israel in exile, not the baby Jesus in a manger! O, I knew that yes, ultimately it is about Jesus, but having grown up in church, I had just been conditioned to “jump to the end,” so to speak, and get the “Jesus answer” without really pondering the deeper questions that the Old Testament lays out.

But the other thing that struck me at the same time is what changed my life. I knew, before that song finished playing that night, that I wanted to go back and get a master’s degree in the Bible. I had always been fascinated with biblical stories; the Bible had always fascinated me. I just had never thought of pursuing that as a mode of study, though, because I thought the only thing I could do with it was to be a pastor—and believe me, if there was one thing I knew about myself, it was that I was not suited to be a pastor.

But that night, as I listened to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I felt God saying to me, “Look, you have that interest and passion…pursue that. Even if you end up not doing anything with it, learn it for the sake of learning it. Pursue that interest because the desire is in your soul.” And so, I ended my letter to my parents by asking them to send me some college catalogs, so I can look into programs for theology or biblical studies. I stayed in the Peace Corps for that year, but then came back to the states to work full-time at anything for a year, so I could save up enough money to go to graduate school.

My two closest friends, Ian Panth and Jason Carroll, at Regent College

During that year, as I worked as both a custodian and a teacher-aide, I also took a correspondence first-year New Testament Greek class. I ended up going to Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where over the course of the next two years I took classes from Eugene Peterson, Bruce Waltke, J.I. Packer, and Gordon Fee. It was the best life decision I had ever made. I got a master’s degree in New Testament, and then, as life tends to go, I ended up getting a job teaching English and Bible at a small Christian high school in California.

Episode Two: Academic Emmanuel
After four years at that Christian school, I decided I wanted to go back and get a PhD in the New Testament. As it turned out, I didn’t get in to the programs I applied for, so I decided on a “Plan B.” I went back to British Columbia, to Trinity Western University, and got another master’s degree—this time in the Old Testament. I had figured I should “bone up” on the Old Testament before I went on and pursued a New Testament PhD.

Well, my time at Trinity Western altered my path a bit. Growing up in Evangelicalism, I thought I knew the Old Testament fairly well. Guess what? I didn’t. But far from being discouraged, Trinity Western opened the door to the world of the Old Testament for me, and as I looked through to that country, I realized I could spend my entire life exploring it, and I would never see it all. And so, I decided I would still pursue a PhD, but it would be in the Old Testament.

In any case, one of the classes I took was on the Book of Isaiah. Peter Flint, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls scholar taught the class, and it was in that class that I had first ever heard of the “Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.” As I took that class, it simply amazed me to realize that all those verses from Isaiah I had thought were just predictions about Jesus really had their own original contexts in which that actually made sense. I ended up doing my paper for that class on, you guessed it, Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

In the process of researching that paper, I realized there was a whole lot more to Isaiah 7:14 than I could fit in a 25-page paper. And so, as it turned out, a few years later, when I wrote my PhD dissertation, I chose to expand on that paper from my Isaiah class, and write on Isaiah 7:14 within its original context in Proto-Isaiah.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was the song that essentially began my path into the academic study of the Bible, and the verse that inspired that song, Isaiah 7:14, was the focus of my PhD dissertation that essentially completed my formal academic study of the Bible. Emmanuel was at the beginning, all throughout, and at the end of that particular journey in my life.

But my Emmanuel story doesn’t end there…

Isaiah 7:14: How Matthew Used It in His Gospel (Part 3–Jesus: Hezekiah 2.0!)

Isaiah 7:14: How Matthew Used It in His Gospel (Part 3–Jesus: Hezekiah 2.0!)

The Gospel of Matthew actually begins with a genealogy. It records Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph all the way back to Abraham. Most people, I assume, probably skip over those verses—all those “begats” get rather redundant. Besides, who cares? Why did Matthew put it in there anyway? Let’s just get to the story we all know and love: the birth narrative, complete with Gabriel’s announcement to Joseph, the wise men from the east, and Herod’s dastardly attempt to kill the baby Jesus. That’s the Christmas story (or at least part of it…the other part being in Luke—of course, most of us just conflate the two into one big crèche-filled scene).

Now, we pretty much know the story: Joseph is engaged to Mary, but finds out she’s pregnant. He knows he’s not the one who got her pregnant, so he plans to end the engagement quietly. Then an angel appears to Joseph and encourages him to marry Mary anyway, because “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that child would be named “Jesus” because he would save people from their sins. It’s at that point that Matthew then points out that this was to “fulfill” what Isaiah said back in Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel.” Matthew then points out that Emmanuel means “God with us.”

After that, we have the scene with the wise men coming from the east. They first stop in Jerusalem, and unwittingly alert Herod that a new king has been born. And when Herod finds out that it was in Bethlehem, he tells the wise men to send word back to him if they find the child. They do, but then are warned in a dream not to tell Herod; and when Herod finds out they went back east without telling him, he sends some soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the male children two years and younger. Joseph though has been told by an angel in a dream to take his family and flee to Egypt until Herod is dead. When Herod dies a few years later, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth where Jesus grows up.

Like I said, we generally know that story. We skip over the genealogy, and then get to familiar territory. But do we really understand what the story is about? Again, I think this is a case where we are so familiar with the story, we have actually blinded ourselves from seeing what it really is about. We generally tend to reduce the story to a few soundbites: the virgin birth, the census that gets them to Bethlehem (that’s from Luke), the wise men and the star, the shepherds (Luke again), and Herod being a bad guy. It makes for a great crèche, and a very cute children’s play at church…and we pretty much leave it at that.

But I’m pretty sure that Matthew wrote his first two chapters other reasons that reasons for a crèche and a children’s play. And, like I hinted at in the first post in this series, I don’t think his primary goal was to somehow “prove” that (A) Jesus was born of a virgin, and (B) that therefore Jesus is God. Now, don’t get me wrong, both Matthew and Luke do say she was a virgin, and both (as well as everything else in the New Testament) do proclaim that Jesus is God in the flesh. I just think Matthew’s reasons for writing his first two chapter are different than what we traditionally assumed.  (Whew…that’s a 600-word introduction!)

Matthew’s Genealogy
In order to understand Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 7:14, not only do we need to consider the original context of Isaiah 7:14 (as I did in the previous post), we also need to consider Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in the context of Matthew’s infancy narrative. And part of that context is the genealogy that we often ignore.

Here’s the point of that genealogy in brief. There are three things to take away from it: (A) Jesus is a child of Abraham—he’s a Jew; (B) Jesus is in the royal line of David—he’s the Jewish Messiah; and (C) four women are mentioned in the genealogy: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6). Why does Matthew mention these four women? It’s quite simple: all four women were associated with Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth certainly were Gentiles, and Bathsheba was married to one—Uriah the Hittite); and all four were associated with, let us say, some questionable sexual behavior. So why would Matthew go out of his way to point these four women out?

Again, it’s simple if you think about it. If you were a Jew living in Nazareth, and that local girl Mary got pregnant before she was officially married to Joseph, would you buy the “O, I’ve never had sex, I’m still a virgin” argument? I’m thinking no, you wouldn’t. The fact is, even though we don’t even question the virginity of Mary, I can guarantee you everyone back then certainly did—you probably would too, if you were there at the time. Therefore, to be blunt, Mary probably didn’t have a good reputation, and Jesus probably grew up being considered a bastard. Give that obvious stigma, Matthew goes out of his way to mention Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Why? Because these four women, even though they had all done something sexually questionable, nevertheless were all held in high regard within Judaism—it was understood: God works through the lowly and marginalized. This tends to be God’s modus operandi—and Matthew wants to remind us that this questionable conception of Jesus is just the God of Israel doing His thing.

But there’s one more thing: all four women are associated with Gentiles. Therefore, Matthew’s overall point is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who will bring salvation, not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles. Yes, all that is from Matthew’s genealogy. I’m betting you’re not going to skip over biblical genealogies so quickly now!

Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 7:14
With that set out, we finally come to the scene in question, where Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14. So why does Matthew quote Isaiah 7:14 and claim it is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy? Well, he’s not saying that Isaiah made a prediction 750 years earlier that was finally coming true. And he’s not trying to make a biological argument that “God got Mary pregnant.” Even though both he and Luke do affirm that Mary was a virgin, that fact isn’t Matthew’s focus.

Indeed, that fact isn’t the focus of any New Testament writer anywhere else in the New Testament. It’s interesting to realize that the virgin birth story gets absolutely no air-time anywhere in the New Testament outside of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives. And, as shocking as it may sound, absolutely no theological significance is given to the virgin birth anywhere in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke mention it, leave the reader to say, “Huh…that’s interesting and odd,” and then just drop it.

But then what is Matthew emphasizing? Well, if you know your Old Testament story, you would (as most Jews would) immediately recognize that Matthew is referencing the story of Ahaz, Isaiah, the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and the birth of Hezekiah. And you’d also know how that initial prophecy back at that time came true during Hezekiah’s reign, when Sennacherib invaded Judah. And I think you’d be able to put two and two together:

Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy about the birth of a Davidic king, born during a time of crisis for God’s people, and who would grow up during a time of oppression of God’s people. And it was a prophecy that God would not only be with His people (“God with us”) during those times of oppression and suffering, but that He would also save His people from that oppression and suffering through the faithfulness of that Davidic king. That’s the story Matthew is referring to by that quote of Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, Matthew is essentially saying to his readers, “You know that story of Hezekiah, and how God brought salvation to His people because of Hezekiah’s faithfulness? Well, Jesus is like that…BUT BIGGER!

Jesus was not simply a Jewish Messiah who would save the Jews from Gentile oppression, like Hezekiah did. Jesus was the savior of the whole world, who would save both Jews and Gentiles from the real oppression of sin and evil itself.

Jesus is Hezekiah 2.0, but on a much bigger scale.

That is why it is so necessary to understand the Old Testament story, and to understand how New Testament writers like Matthew are using the Old Testament. They’re not claiming these verses are centuries-old predictions. They’re telling the story of Jesus in the language and against the backdrop of the Old Testament story: Jesus is like Hezekiah, but bigger; Jesus is like Moses, but bigger; Jesus is like Joshua, but bigger; Jesus is like Israel itself, but bigger. That is how Jesus is the fulfillment of so many Old Testament stories and prophecies.

But There’s One More Thing…Let’s Get All Roman!
So, Matthew was all about emphasizing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who would bring salvation to both Jews and Gentilesthat’s why he mentions the wise men. And as well, Jesus was the true king of the Jews, not Herod…that’s why Matthew tells us about Herod.

But there’s one more thing I think you’ll find amazing. In case you didn’t know, within Judaism there was never a belief that the messiah would be born of a virgin. It simply wasn’t part of their messianic expectations. That’s why Matthew’s account of a virgin birth is so odd. The only virgin birth stories in the Greek world concerned Greek mythological heroes, like Perseus and Romulus, and rulers, like Alexander, and Augustus. And I can guarantee you that Matthew was not trying to equate Jesus with figures from Greek mythology.

So why would Matthew include this story of the virgin birth, especially if he doesn’t elaborate in it at all? Yes, hopefully now you see the connection he makes to Hezekiah, but still, taking about a virgin birth in the Roman world can bring a lot of confusion, right? Well, yes it could, but let’s consider something else.

In order to understand why Matthew included the story of the virgin birth, we need to look at the end of Matthew, namely Matthew 27:54. After witnessing the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Roman centurion stated “Truly, this was God’s Son.” That’s a very unusual confession coming from a Roman centurion. Why? Because in the Roman world, the “son of a god” was none other than Caesar himself. That’s a big deal. For what we need to realize is that in addition to his messianic claims that Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic Messiah and Son of God, Matthew is also claiming that Jesus is greater than even Caesar. Both with the virgin birth story, as well as with the confession of the centurion, Matthew is making the claim that Jesus, not Caesar, is “the Son of God.” Both scenes serve as direct challenges to the claims of Caesar.

In the Roman world, it was clear who Caesar Augustus was. He was known as “the savior of the world” who was “born of a virgin,” who “wiped away sins,” and whose birthday was described as, “the birthday of the god who has been for the whole world the beginning of good news.” Yes, you read that right: if you lived at the time, all those phrases would have been identified with Caesar Augustus. Think of it this way: If I wrote, “Jesus is the true ‘father of our country,’ not…” you would end that sentence with “George Washington,” because in America, we all associate that phrase “the father of our country” with George Washington. Now, we know that he is not literally the father of the country, but it is a title we give to him to honor him as probably the most important “founding father.” In the same way, although Augustus was call “the son of a god” and “born of a virgin,” everyone knew who his parents were. The titles were metaphorical, and since it was Augustus who ushered in a whole new era of peace to the Roman world, these designations served as titles to honor Caesar Augustus, and emphasized his political authority and power.

Therefore, when you read through Matthew from beginning to end, you can imagine how the claims of Jesus being “the savior of the world,” and “being born of a virgin,” would have been understood in the first century Roman Empire. Therefore, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus is doing two things: not only does it serve as a challenge to Herod claims of kingship, it also serves as a challenge to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus himself: Jesus is the true King of the Jews, not Herod; and Jesus is the true Savior of the World who was born of a virgin, not Caesar.

In Conclusion
That’s quite a lot of material I just laid out there. It’s a lot to chew on. Hopefully now, though, you can understand Matthew’s infancy narrative a bit more clearly, when read against the backdrop of the original context of Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and also when considered against the backdrop of the Roman understanding of Caesar Augustus. What is Matthew saying about Jesus? It’s Jesus, not Herod; it’s Jesus, not Caesar.

Therefore, while not denying the virgin birth, we need to be okay with the fact that Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 is not an attempt to explain how Jesus became the Son of God, but rather, simply the fact that he is….the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah, and the Savior of the World.

Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis…and What That Means for Jesus (Part 2)

Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis…and What That Means for Jesus (Part 2)

One of the disadvantages of growing up in church, particularly Evangelical churches, is that from the time you step foot in Sunday School classrooms, you are inundated with Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph’s coat of many colors, the Plagues of Egypt, the Parting of the Red Sea, Mount Sinai, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, Solomon’s wisdom…well…let’s face it, after Solomon, I doubt there were too many other Old Testament stories. Okay, okay, Elijah and the chariot of fire—that was always popular.

And then, of course, there is Jesus: the virgin birth, 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the various healings and exorcisms, and of course the Transfiguration, the triumphal entry on a donkey, Judas, the Last Supper, the Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Jesus before Pilate, the Crucifixion, and of course, the Resurrection—Jesus wins! Take that, you Pharisees!

So, how is all this a disadvantage, you ask? It’s simple: we grow up thinking we know all about those stories because we’ve been listening to them since Sunday School. We tend not to realize that the Sunday School versions of those stories are over-simplistic and “dumbed-down” versions suitable for children. We thus think we know what the stories about, when we really don’t know what the stories are about.

For example, if you sat in on my classes when I simply give my students a brief overview of Solomon’s reign as recorded in I Kings 1-11, you’d be quite shocked. I mean, you probably think, “Solomon: wealthy and wise; that bluff to split the baby thing; he built the Temple; got a little horny when he hit his mid-life crisis, ended up having lots of wives and concubines, and built a bunch of shrines for foreign idols—doesn’t seem to ‘wise’ at that point, but hey, we all make mistakes! Overall, Solomon was pretty good for most of his life, right?”

Well, I think the writer of I Kings might quibble a bit with that Sunday School version of Solomon’s life, to say the least. But once you realize just what kind of king Solomon ended up being, it makes more sense why the kingdom was torn apart in a civil war, seemingly as soon as Solomon’s body was laid in the ground. Simply put, I Kings is telling us, “Hey, look at Solomon, the ‘wisest’ and ‘wealthiest’ king in Israel’s history—a royal screw-up!”

My point? For many (if not most) of us, our superficial familiarity with the stories of the Bible often blind us to the fact that we have never really read the Bible, and are thus actually quite ignorant of much of what is in it.

That’s why when we read Matthew’s infancy narrative, particularly Matthew 1:23, where he quotes Isaiah 7:14, it never occurs to us that Isaiah 7:14 had an original context in the history of Israel—it’s a prophecy, therefore it is a prediction of the virgin Mary and Jesus. End of story. Move on.

But You Really Need to Know the Beginnings of that Story
Well, let’s not move on so quickly. Let’s try to understand and appreciate how that story develops first. Remember Wayne’s World, when they’d want to take you to a different time? That’s what we’re going to do in order to understand Isaiah 7:14 in its original context. We’re going to travel back in time to roughly 742 BC Jerusalem, when Ahaz, the new king of Judah, was facing a potential crisis: the northern kingdom of Israel (sometimes called Ephraim) had teamed up the neighboring country of Aram (also known as Syria) and they were threatening to invade Judah—hence, the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.

Now, there is a lot of issues and complexities to this time in Israel’s history that biblical scholars love to discuss and debate. I should know, I wrote my entire PhD thesis on these very issues that surround Isaiah 7:14 in its original context. If you want to give yourself your very own Christmas treat, grab some hot cocoa, wrap yourself up in a blanket by the fireplace, and go to this site, where you can actually read my entire PhD thesis: Isaiah 7:14—Identity and Function Within the Bookend Structure of Proto-Isaiah. If you feel reading 300 pages might be a bit too time-consuming, though, allow me to give a much briefer glimpse regarding the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.

What’s Going on in Isaiah 7 (and chapters 8-12 for that matter)?
In all seriousness, though, once you simply understand the situation regarding the threat Israel and Aram were posing to Judah, particularly to Ahaz, the new king of Judah, Isaiah 7 actually becomes quite easy to understand. In fact, Isaiah 7:1-2 lay out that very historical situation: Ahaz was scared of the threat posed by Israel and Aram.

It’s at this point that the prophet Isaiah takes his son Shear-jashub (the name means “A remnant will return”), and he goes to confront Ahaz. In Isaiah 7:3-9, Isaiah basically says this to Ahaz: “Hey Ahaz! Don’t be afraid of those two punks, Rezin and the son of Remaliah (Rezin was the king of Aram, and the “son of Remaliah” was Pekah, the king of Israel)! They won’t succeed! Just put your trust in YHWH!” Got it? That’s it: Isaiah’ message to Ahaz—Don’t worry! Trust YHWH!”

Not only that, but then Isaiah gives Ahaz a veritable gift. In 7:10-11, Isaiah says to Ahaz that he can ask YHWH for any sign at all, and YHWH would do it, just so Ahaz could have confidence that YHWH would protect him, just like He promised. Ahaz’s response in 7:12, though, is simple: “No, I’m not going to bother!” And why not? It becomes quite obvious, both in Isaiah 7-12, as well as the other account in II Kings 16—Ahaz chose not to trust YHWH, and instead appealed to the king of Assyria for protection, after all, Assyria was the major empire of the time—they could protect Judah, as long as Ahaz agreed to pledge allegiance to Assyria. The thing was, though, Assyria was kind of like the mob. You ask the godfather for a favor, O he’ll do you a favor…but then he’ll never leave you alone, and you’ll soon realize that you got more than you bargained for. (Think how Lando Calrissian felt when he made that deal with Darth Vader, to hand Han Solo over. Assyria was the Darth Vader of the time).

Needless to say, Ahaz’s complete refusal to put his trust in YHWH was not only an affront to YHWH, it was going to prove to be incredibly stupid. And it is thus in that historical context of (A) the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and (B) Ahaz’s refusal to trust YHWH, in favor of appealing to Assyria for help, that the famous Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 makes sense.

Isaiah 7:14 in the Context of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis
So what was Isaiah’s reaction to Ahaz’s refusal to take YHWH up on His offer? Quite simply, the rest of Isaiah 7:13-25 can be summed up this way: “You idiot! You asked Assyria for help? Well, Assyria will come in and help alright! Assyria will destroy both Israel and Aram, just like you asked (7:16) …but Assyria isn’t going to leave! Assyria will put you under its boot! Judah is in for a heap of trouble (7:17-20)!

In fact, once you realize that, you can read the entire unit of Isaiah 7-12, and you’ll see that Assyria is mentioned all over the place. The message is clear: Ahaz failed to trust in YHWH, and put his trust in the Darth Vader of the time—he opened the door to a whole lot of hurt on Judah, and Judah was going to suffer…a lot!

So How Does Emmanuel Fit in to All This?
In the midst of this avalanche of prophecies of doom all throughout Isaiah 7-12, though, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. First, Isaiah tells Ahaz (during the time of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, mind you), “Here’s a sign for you! Look! The almah is going to get pregnant and give birth to a son (i.e. Emmanuel). By the time he grows up Assyria’s going to destroy Israel and Aram!”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That prophecy actually doesn’t sound too hopeful! Whoever that child is, Isaiah is saying that Assyria is going to come in and terrorize Judah within that child’s lifetime!

You’re right: that prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is one of coming doom and devastation for Judah at the hands of Assyria. This is re-emphasized in Isaiah 8:1-8—at the end of yet another prophecy about the destruction Assyria would bring, Isaiah equates Assyria to a flood that will sweep into the land of Judah…and he calls Judah, the land of Emmanuel! Again, the Emmanuel prophecy seems to be associated with God’s judgment on Judah by the hand of Assyria, because of Ahaz’s display of unfaithfulness to YHWH.

Simply put, Ahaz was going to realize that God was alive and active in Judah (i.e. “God with us”), because God was going to respond with judgment upon Judah because of Ahaz’s unfaithfulness. When you’ve done something wrong, and your mom says, “Wait until your father gets home,” you are fully aware that dad is home, when you’re draped across his knee and he’s spanking your behind!

Ahaz, you’ll know God is with Judah, because He’s going to spank you with the wooden spoon of Assyria!

But Where’s the Glimmer of Hope?
That’s not the end of the story, though, because that Emmanuel child is also the means by which hope is kept alive in Judah. For it is Emmanuel who is being talked about in Isaiah 9:2-7 (another “Christmas-time” passage associated with Jesus: “Unto us a child is born; to us a son is given”)—Isaiah prophesied that it would be through Emmanuel that He would turn around and humiliate Assyria.

And then there is Isaiah 11:1-11 (yes, another “Christmas-time” passage: “There will come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of YHWH will read upon him…”). It is through Emmanuel, the “shoot of Jesse,” that YHWH would save the remnant of His people who suffered under Assyria. (Remember when Isaiah first went to Ahaz? He took his son, “A remnant will return”?).

Simply put, when you read Isaiah 7:14 and consider the fact that Isaiah made the Emmanuel prophecy during the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and when you consider it in light of the larger context of Isaiah 7-12, the fullness of what Isaiah ended up saying to Ahaz is this:

“Ahaz, because of your unfaithfulness to YHWH, you’ve opened the floodgates to oppression by Assyria. That is YHWH’s judgment on you for refusing to trust Him! This will happen by the time that child to whom that woman gives birth grows up! But YHWH is going to work through that child to eventually humiliate Assyria and save the remnant of Judah, because that child is going to be faithful to YHWH…something you have refused to be!”

So Who Is Emmanuel? Look No Further than Isaiah 36-39
In that original context, who do you think the Emmanuel child was? A child born to a woman in Ahaz’s court, who would witness the Assyrian destruction of both Israel and Aram, but also the Assyrian invasion into Judah—Judah, the land that would be known as “Emmanuel’s land”? A child who was clearly a royal figure who would put his trust in YHWH and be the means by which YHWH humiliates Assyria and lifts the Assyrian boot off from Judah’s neck?

The answer isn’t really a mystery. The first part of the Book of Isaiah (scholars call it “Proto-Isaiah”—it covers chapters 1-39) gives the answer in a very artistic, narrative fashion. Now, “Proto-Isaiah” covers the time of the historical prophet Isaiah, roughly from 750-700 BC. The first “big event” recorded is the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis in Isaiah 7-12. The last “big event” recorded is found in Isaiah 36-39: it recounts the invasion that Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, launched into Judah in order to destroy Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, because Hezekiah had rebelled against Assyria by refusing to pay any more tribute to Assyria.

Sennacherib’s Prism, in which we find his account of his campaign into Judah.

Long story short: Assyria “flooded” into Judah, destroyed 46 towns in Hezekiah’s kingdom, and put Jerusalem under siege. Hezekiah appealed to Isaiah and asked Isaiah to pray to YHWH for him and for the remnant of Judah. And, in response to Hezekiah’s demonstration of faithfulness to YHWH, Isaiah assured him that Sennacherib would never set foot in Jerusalem. Instead, he’d suffer a humiliating defeat, and would return back to Nineveh.

And lo and behold, that’s what happened. Sennacherib never took Jerusalem. His army suffered huge losses outside of Jerusalem’s walls, and he high-tailed it back to Nineveh, where he was assassinated by two of his sons.

Hezekiah, the Emmanuel child Isaiah prophesied about during the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis during the reign of his father Ahaz, put his faith in YHWH during his own crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion (something Ahaz had failed to do)—and, just as Isaiah had prophesied, YHWH honored Hezekiah’s faithfulness by repelling the Assyrian threat.

Hezekiah was the Emmanuel child of Isaiah’s prophecy. And that’s why we have a Book of Isaiah to begin with: Isaiah’s prophecies regarding Emmanuel during the time of Assyrian oppression came true, and Isaiah was vindicated as a true prophet of YHWH. His prophecies were preserved by the Jews, because what he had prophesied had come true.

This identification of Hezekiah with passages like Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-6, and 11:1-11 is actually nothing new. It’s found in Jewish rabbinic writings known as the Targums, and there is even an account of a debate between a certain Jew named Trypho and the early Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, in which Trypho basically says, “We Jews have always known Isaiah 7:14 is about Hezekiah,” to which Justin replied, “No! It’s a prediction about Jesus!”

Well, I think Trypho was right: Isaiah 7:14 is originally about Hezekiah. But I also think Justin Martyr is right: Isaiah 7:14 is about Jesus…but Justin Martyr is wrong about one thing: it’s wrong to think of Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction about Jesus.

Now I know…you’re probably thinking, “But Hezekiah’s mother couldn’t have been a virgin—are you saying that that Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean virgin?” Basically, yes. The Hebrew word that specifically denotes “virgin” is betulah. Now, almah can be used to refer to a virgin, but that must come from the context of the passage, and in the original context of Isaiah 7, there’s nothing that would suggest the almah is a woman is a virgin.

The ambiguity of the word, though, does have an impact on Matthew’s infancy narrative. Tomorrow, I’ll explain what I mean. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how knowing that these famous “Christmas-time” passages of Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-6, and 11:1-11 were originally about Hezekiah actually help us understand Jesus better.

Isaiah 7:14: Misconceptions and False Assumptions…and What that Means for Jesus (Part 1)

Isaiah 7:14: Misconceptions and False Assumptions…and What that Means for Jesus (Part 1)

It’s Christmas, and if you have grown up in church (and probably even if you haven’t), no doubt you are familiar with Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse and claims that Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Matthew also goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of the name “Emmanuel”—it means “God is with us.”

Unfortunately, I think too many Christians (and virtually everybody, for that matter) don’t fully understand what Matthew is doing when he quotes Isaiah 7:14. If you are like me, chances are you grew up essentially being told that (A) Isaiah predicted the virgin birth of Christ 750 years earlier, (B) Matthew was claiming that Isaiah’s prediction finally came true when Mary miraculously conceived, and eventually Jesus was born, and (C) this “proved” Jesus was God because, after all, that’s what “Emmanuel” means; Jesus couldn’t have been conceived the “natural” way, because then that would mean he wasn’t God.

And if you have been involved in any arguments regarding Isaiah 7:14, perhaps you are familiar with the dust-up over the word in question: almah in Hebrew (the one that’s used in Isaiah 7:14), and parthenos in Greek (the word that’s used in Matthew 1:23). Does almah mean “virgin” or does it mean “young woman”?

Let Me Make You A Bit Uncomfortable
Well, let me state up front that I am not going to go that route in this post. But I do want to say that there are a host of assumptions in the typical understanding regarding Isaiah 7:14 that are simply misguided. Let me throw out a few things that might made you step back and feel slightly uncomfortable:

  1. In the Old Testament, what determined whether or not a prophet was a true prophet or a false prophet was whether or not what he said would happen actually happened, either in the prophet’s lifetime or shortly after. If it didn’t happen, the prophet would be considered a false prophet, and the Jews would certainly not preserve his writings and prophecies. So, why would the Jews have kept Isaiah’s prophecy of 7:14 for 750 years? If it didn’t come true during Isaiah’s lifetime, wouldn’t he have been considered a false prophet? [Spoiler alert: Yes, that’s exactly what he would be considered!]
  2. For that matter, is it correct to assume that the proper understanding of “prophecy” is simply “prediction of far off future events”? [Spoiler alert: No, it’s not correct to assume that!]
  3. Is Matthew just trying to “prove” that Jesus is God by claiming a 750-year-old prediction (one that the Jews would not have kept that long) finally came true? [Spoiler alert: No, that’s not what he’s trying to do!]
  4. Today, we are aware of how conception works: a man’s sperm gets into a woman’s egg. Therefore, to make sense of Matthew 1:23 (and Isaiah 7:14), we assume Matthew is claiming that man’s sperm wasn’t involved in Jesus’ conception, and that God somehow did something miraculous to Mary’s egg in order to conceive Jesus. Therefore, on a mysterious level, somehow God the Father is really Jesus’ “biological father.” But Matthew, as all people back then, had no notion of sperm and eggs—so are our assumption as to what Matthew is claiming correct? In other words, is Matthew saying what we think he’s saying? [Spoiler alert: I don’t think he is!]

Now That You’re Uncomfortable…
Don’t worry, I’m not going to argue that Jesus was not born of a virgin. I do want to suggest, though, that by assuming that Matthew’s primary concern is about predictions and modes of procreation, we might not be really listening to what Matthew is actually saying. We might be reading Matthew’s infancy narrative (and by extension Isaiah 7:14) through modern lenses that are actually the wrong prescription, and therefore are blurring the message that Matthew is trying to clarify.

You see, like Mark and John, Matthew is telling the story of Jesus and His Gospel of the Kingdom of God against the backdrop of the larger story of Israel’s history. That’s why they are constantly quoting or referring to so many passages and prophecies in the Old Testament. They aren’t saying, “Hey, these predictions from hundreds of years ago are now coming true in Jesus!” For that matter, many of those prophecies were never even considered by Jews to be messianic in the first place.

The reason Matthew, Mark, and John aren’t saying that is because they didn’t view those prophecies as far off predictions. [Just for clarification’s sake, the reason I’m not including Luke is because Luke was writing to a Gentile audience, and therefore purposely left out most of the quotes and references to the Old Testament—his Gentile audience wouldn’t have understood them.]

Gabriel Appears to Joseph

Instead, Matthew, Mark, and John, by quoting or referring to so many Old Testament passages and prophecies, were purposely trying to get their readers to understand Jesus in light of Israel’s story in the Old Testament. Or, as I tell my students, they are saying, “You know that passage in the Old Testament (like Isaiah 7:14)? Well, this episode in Jesus’ life is like that…but bigger!” Therefore, if you want to really understand what Matthew, or Mark, or John is saying about Jesus, you have to take the time to look back at the passage or prophecy to which they are referring, and understand what it originally was about. Only then will you be able to understand what they are trying to say about Jesus.

Trying to Come to a Fuller Understanding of the Gospel Narrative
So if you’re up for a challenge, come with me on a brief tour back in time to an event in Israel’s history that you probably have little or no idea about. Trust me, it will have the effect of deepening your understanding of the New Testament story.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t learn about this event until I was 32 years old. I grew up in church, went to a Christian high school, went through an entire master’s program in the New Testament, and I had no idea this event ever took place. Well, let’s put it another way: I never really paid attention to it. After all, it was the Old Testament—and the only thing the Old Testament is really good for was to point out those “prophecy-predictions” and show how they “prove” Jesus is God!

Needless to say, I don’t feel that way anymore. That’s not the way to understand the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament; that’s certainly short-changing the value of the Old Testament itself; and by extension, that ends up presenting a rather anemic and shallow understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.

I often tell my students that if you don’t know your Old Testament, you’ll never fully get the New Testament. In this Christmas season, therefore, over the next couple of days, allow me to take you on a short journey in three stages: (A) to an extremely important event in Israel’s history, (B) to Matthew’s story of Christ’s birth, and then (C) to a personal story of my own involving Emmanuel. What more can you ask for? A little bit of Old Testament, a little bit of New Testament, and a personal story of my own.

All About MYTH: A Quick Response to a Facebook Discussion on Myth, the Gospels, and Jesus

All About MYTH: A Quick Response to a Facebook Discussion on Myth, the Gospels, and Jesus

I have not been posting too much this month because I have been busy with other things. Nevertheless, in light of a recent extensive Facebook discussion (and since I had to get my mind off the Cubs meltdown in the World Series), I thought I’d write this quick post. Let me say up front, I know it probably is not completely thorough, but hopefully it is worth the read.

When using the term “myth,” you have to be clear on HOW you are using it. If you are using it in the modern-slang sense, then “myth” is going to mean whatever you want it to mean, and you’re going to use it liberally to as a way to disparage any story or claim you deem false or impossible.

But if you are going to seriously try and understand ancient literature, you have to use the term “myth” the way it is used in scholarship when discussing ancient literature. As far as that is concerned, the fundamental question for any ancient work is “What is its LITERARY GENRE?” When you ask that question, you realize that the term “myth” is simply a genre of ancient literature, as opposed to ancient law code, poetry, legend, biography, etc.


Generally speaking, the literary genre of myth (A) involves “the gods,” and (B) is NOT considered to be about historical events. The events of Marduk, Baal, Zeus, etc. all take place in a mythic realm, outside of time and space and history. The purpose of ancient myth is not to convey history, but rather to establish the basic “worldview” of that given culture.

In ancient pagan times, despite different cultures having different gods/goddesses and stories, the basic pagan worldview was the same: (A) the gods were associated with nature and were wholly unpredictable, immoral, and dangerous; (B) creation itself was made from the dead carcass of defeated gods (i.e. a rotting corpse); and (C) human beings were made to be worthless slaves of the gods, often created out of the blood or excrement of defeated gods.

Those myths taught and reinforced that worldview; they weren’t trying to convey historical events. Incidentally, that’s why ancient pagan cultures didn’t write “history.” Time was seen as cyclical, with events on earth just corresponding to the mythological stories of the gods. Even when ancient pagan kings wrote of their deeds in their annals, they were not written as “history.”

With the Old Testament, a radical shift in worldview and writing occurred. In the Old Testament, although we find similar mythological language in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as a few passages in Isaiah (27:1), Job (9:13; Ch. 41), and the Psalms (74:13-14; 77:16; 89:9-10; 104:7), the OT writers do something radically different: in Genesis 1-11 they actually blow up that ancient pagan worldview by insisting (A) there is one God, who is good and concerned with justice; (B) creation is good and orderly, and not the result of a battle between gods, with it being made out of the carcass of the loser; and (C) human beings are made in the image of the true God, and therefore have dignity and worth. And then they take that radically different worldview that is laid out in Genesis 1-11, and they proceed to tie it in to actual history.

alterThat insistence on the dignity and freedom of human beings is what inspired the writers of the Old Testament to relate the history of their people. In fact, Robert Alter calls much of the Hebrew narrative “fictionalized history” or “historicized fiction,” meaning that the Hebrews’ insistence on the dignity of human beings inspired them to want to tell stories of the human beings in their history as a people. In that sense, it was the Old Testament that essentially created a whole different genre of writing by breaking away from the standard pagan writing of myth, and focusing on telling actual stories about human beings who are worth writing about. And when you consider that, it would be wrong to equate “myth” with “fiction,” because “fiction” is still nevertheless set within time and space and history. Pride and Prejudice is fiction; Atrahasis is myth.

The unique thing about the Old Testament is that, even though it starts out with its own mythological stories about creation and the reality of the human race (Genesis 1-11), it then weaves those early chapters into actual historical time and place, with real people and events. Although it still often uses certain mythological imagery when describing certain historical events, the stories from Abraham onwards are not considered “myth.” After all, they purport to be about historical people in actual history.

When you get to the New Testament, it would also be incorrect to describe the gospels as “myth.” Biblical scholars will tell you that they are ancient historical biographies (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke…John is somewhat different). They are filled with historical people and places, and therefore are clearly purporting to convey real historical events.

Here is where the confusion comes. Skeptics point to the miracle stories and the resurrection, and say, “Those cannot happen, therefore the gospels are a ‘myth.” But what those skeptics are really saying is, “We don’t believe miracles or a resurrection are possible, therefore the gospels aren’t true.”

But a story containing a claim that one doesn’t think possible does not make that story a “myth.” The gospels are still ancient historical biographies, even if they contain some claims that one might think impossible.

lewisNow yes, as with various passages in the Old Testament, the gospels contain a number of things that parallel certain myths. This is what makes them unique, for despite that, the writers are still purporting that these things actually happened in history, not some timeless mythic realm. This is the thing that ultimately helped convince C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. He was a literature professor, and he knew myth when he read it, and he knew a historical account when he read it. What struck him with the gospels is that they were claiming that these things really happened. It was “myth invading history,” if you will.

For example, in the Canaanite mythological Baal cycle, Baal at one point dies, then is brought back to life—this was understood, not as a historical claim, but as a mythical way to understand the change of seasons (think also of the Greek myth of Demeter). But in the gospels, the claim is that Jesus died and rose again in history; it wasn’t some mythical story to explain agriculture and harvest.

Having said all that, even if one doesn’t believe the claims made in the gospels regarding Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, one should not call the gospels “myth,” or the story of Jesus a “myth.” That would be mislabeling the genre of literature that it is. One can certainly say, “The gospels are historical biographies, and Jesus was a real person who seems to have led a messianic movement, but who was crucified by Pilate after he ran afoul of the Jewish religious leaders in the temple—but I just don’t believe those claims of miracles and the resurrection.” But one cannot be careless with the use of the term, and just label the gospels “myth” simply because you don’t believe some of the claims found in them.

So to sum up:

  1. Myths aren’t about historical events; they take place outside of time and space.
  2. Myths are intended to put forth the general worldview of a given culture. In regards to the Old Testament, if “all the world (and world history) is a stage,” the founding myths in Genesis 1-11 provide the backdrop to the stage of world history, so that the events and characters that come across the stage are viewed and understood against that mythic backdrop on the back curtain.
  3. Therefore, the stories of Abraham, the Exodus, the judges, and the kings are not “myth.” They purport to be about real historical people, albeit written as a highly creative story (i.e. “fictionalized history”).
  4. The gospels are understood to be ancient historical biographies about the real historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
  5. Even if one does not believe the claims of miracles and resurrection, that does not change the fact that the gospels are not “myths.”

I’m sure much more can be said. This post is just a quick response to a discussion I took part in on Facebook. But hopefully this post has been able to clarify a few misconceptions about what “myth” means and about what the gospels are.

Ray Comfort, Answers in Genesis, and Baraminology…It’s Kinda Ridiculous, Exegetically and Scientifically!

Ray Comfort, Answers in Genesis, and Baraminology…It’s Kinda Ridiculous, Exegetically and Scientifically!

About a week ago in one of the “creation/evolution debate” Facebook groups I am in, a young earth creationist (I’ll call him “Bob”) asked the question, “Can anyone point any example that proves evolution can change one kind of animal into another kind?” I have heard this question (or variations of it) many times before. If you want to get a taste of what this question looks like in real time, just watch a Ray Comfort video (pay attention around the 7-9 minute mark). In the one I’ve linked here, he goes around asking various people, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” And time and time again, Comfort emphasizes, “Kindskinds…a change in kinds.”

Well, there’s more going on with this question than I previously realized.

Kinds…Kinds….a Change of Kinds…
If you’re like me and have heard this kind (whoops…let’s say “type”) of question before, you have probably assumed the question is getting at something like, “Is there evolutionary evidence that a monkey has turned into a human, or a whale has turned into an elephant?” And, if you’re like me, you want to say, “That’s not how evolution works…it doesn’t happen all at once.” And that’s correct—that’s not how evolution works.

But when “Bob” asked this question last week, a light bulb went off in my head. This question, however ridiculous it may seem on the surface, is actually another YEC shell game, much like AiG’s “explanation” of the difference between “observational science” and “historical science.” What I realized was that the very way the question is framed makes it impossible for anyone to come to any other answer than the one young earth creationists want. There’s only one possible answer to that question, and young earth creationists know it: there is no example that proves evolution can change one kind of animal into another kind.

“A-ha!” young earth creationists will then triumphantly declare, “You see? Evolution can’t show one kind changing into another kind! Therefore, evolution is a lie!” And from there, they take (to put it kindly) the “highly questionable leap” and declare, “Evolution is the anti-god religion the government is using to indoctrinate our children into atheism and moral degeneracy!” Score one for the young earth creationists!

hamcomfortFor the purposes of this post, I’m going to ignore that “highly questionable leap” that often happens in YEC and instead focus on the problematic question itself. To cut to the chase, this typical YEC question, whether it comes out of the mouth of Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, or any young earth creationist for that matter isn’t asking the question you think he is asking.

Current Answers in Genesis literature readily acknowledge genetic mutations and natural selection can happen between various species. What they deny is that there can be genetic mutations and natural selection between various “kinds.” The whole young earth creationist scientific enterprise is based on it, actually. Answers in Genesis will say, “We believe natural selection occurs. We believe speciation occurs. We believe adaptation occurs. But none of that is evolution, because evolution states all life came from a common ancestor, and no one has ever observed one ‘kind’ evolve into another ‘kind.’

I think we need to get some clarity on what YEC means by “kinds.” And yes, I’m sure many who are familiar with YEC will know what they mean by “kinds,” but I’m wondering if we have really thought about the deeper implications of this YEC claim. So let’s first take a clarifying glance at what YEC means by “kinds.”

No, that’s not a typo. It’s a real word—well, not really. It’s a made-up word YEC has created to try to make their really bad exegesis of Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25; 6:19-21 and 7:14 sound “scientific” and therefore legitimate. (In reality, you can’t truly call what they do with these verses “exegesis” in any way, shape or form. In reality, it’s simply Scripture-twisting).

baraminologyNow, the Hebrew word translated as “kinds” in these verses is min. The Hebrew word meaning “to create” is bara, so therefore bara-min would be “created kinds.” And hence, YEC then adds the -ology and (oh the irony) creates its own scientific-sounding word, baraminology, and claims that their baraminologists scientifically study the biblical/scientific category of animals of “kinds.”

You can read some of AiG’s explanations here. For that matter, you can simply google “Answers in Genesis, kinds, baraminology” and find more than enough articles and posts to read. Allow me to save you the trouble, and simply sum up their main points. They say the modern scientific categorization of animals is “man-made,” and, in fact, the modern categories of genus and species were originally used in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate to translate the Hebrew word min. Later, secular scientists changed the meaning of the words genus and species from referring to the “biblical kind” to now referring the modern, man-made scientific classifications, and this somehow paved the way for the acceptance of godless evolution. (I’ll be honest, I still don’t get the logical coherence in that argument, but that is not the point of this post).

In any case, the fact is that the modern classification system is Kingdom–Phylum–Class–Order–Family–Genus–Species, and there is (obviously) no “kind” or min. Why not? That’s simple—AiG claims those are man-made classifications, and God’s scientific classification of animals is that of min…the “biblical kind.” According to AiG, God’s classification of “kind” would be akin to the current man-made category of “family.” Hence, there was an originally created “cat-kind,” “dog-kind,” and “elephant-kind” (we’ll overlook the fact that the category of Elephant is actually that of “order,” and not “family”—AiG isn’t known for being consistent).

In any case, YEC claims that natural selection does indeed happen at the genus and species level—there’s clear “observational” evidence for that. But natural selection doesn’t happen at the level the “biblical kind”—there’s no “observational” evidence for that.

So what baraminology basically claims is:

  1. In the early chapters of Genesis, the Hebrew word min was God’s scientific classification of animals
  2. The biblical classification of “kind” corresponds to the modern classification of family
  3. Natural selection, speciation, and adaptation only happen  within the categories of “kind.”
  4. Therefore, there can be no “common ancestor” of all life because the Bible tells us that God created everything “according to their kinds,” and “kinds” is God’s scientific classification of animals.

So What’s the Problem?
Everything. And this is why Ray Comfort’s question, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” is actually quite insidious.

First, let’s start with those verses in Genesis that talk about plants and animals being made “according to their kinds.” AiG would have you believe that those verses are telling us about God’s scientific classification of plants and animals. They just throw it out there, move on, and hope that you don’t pause and ask a really basic question, “How do you know that Genesis is trying to give a scientific classification when it says, ‘according to their kinds’?”

Indeed, let’s play the game AiG insists we play with the Bible, and ask, “What is the ‘plain reading’ of the text?” I am willing to bet that if someone who had never read YEC literature had just picked the Bible and read Genesis 1:25 (“God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds…”), that person would interpret Genesis 1:25 as simply saying in a plain and general way, “God made all kinds of animals.”

Let’s be honest, the only person who would think those verses are conveying God’s “ancient-scientific classification” of animals is a person who had already been told by groups like AiG that those verses are conveying God’s “ancient-scientific classification” of animals.

In a similar vein, the only way someone would come to the conclusion that I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is about a “secret rapture” right before a literal seven-year tribulation period at the end of history would be for that person to be told ahead of time “this is about a secret rapture.” There’s absolutely nothing in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 that would indicate such a thing, and there’s absolutely nothing in Genesis 1:25 that would indicate “kind” is some sort of scientific classification.

Second, if it is clear that min is not God’s scientific classification of animals, but is rather used much in the same way we use “kinds” in everyday language (i.e. God made all kinds of animals), then it is obvious that YEC is, in fact, misinterpreting the biblical text. Simply put, such a claim about “kinds” isn’t biblical. And since it isn’t biblical, and YEC claims that min is the scientific classification of “biblical kind,” then it goes without saying that such a claim isn’t scientific either…in any way, shape or form.

So Let’s Go Back to the Original Question
With all that said, let’s go back to the YEC question at hand: “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?”

Do you see why the only possible answer to that question is, “No”? It’s simple. Of course there’s no “observable” evidence for Darwinian Evolution producing a “change of kind”…because there’s no such scientific category of “biblical kind.” It would be like asking, “Is there any evolutionary evidence for ogres changing into goblins?” Of course not, because there are no such things as ogres and goblins.

Even if we were to acknowledge (for argument’s sake) YEC’s definition that “kinds” were some sort of original animals from which modern species have come about via natural selection, the fact would still be that those “original kinds” no longer exist. Even if there was an original “dog kind,” that “original kind” is long gone, and all that is left are the varieties of species that natural selection has produced. Therefore, still, there would be no “observable evidence” for evolutionary change of “kinds,” because the “kinds” that YEC is talking about no longer exist, and therefore it is impossible to “observe change” in the present of something that doesn’t exist in the present.

If there is one thing I’ve realized as I’ve researched the YEC of AiG over the past two years, it is this: they are very clever in their presentations. What often happens is that they throw something out, make some claim that sort of sounds right, but also seems a little off, but then quickly jump to another point or topic, never allowing you to take a breath and actually think about the claim they have just made. If you do, if you subject their claims to a little bit of critical thinking, you will soon be able to unravel the twisted tales they spin.

So next time, if you’re in a conversation with a young earth creationist, or find yourself in New Zealand talking to Ray Comfort, or in Kentucky talking to Ken Ham, and they ask, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” You can now respond with:

What are all these SPECIES doing, getting on the Ark? Ken Ham has assured us that only KINDS went on!

“Of course not, because your claim that min is God’s scientific classification of animals is not only not supported by the Bible, it isn’t a recognized scientific category, period. And even if somehow you were to make the exegetical case that min really is God’s ancient-scientific classification of animals (but of course you can’t), the answer to your question would still be ‘of course not,’ because you define ‘kinds’ to mean some sort of ancient animals that no longer exist—and given your (false) distinction between ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ science, and your definition of ‘observational’ science as being something that can be tested, observed, and repeated—you’re asking for ‘observational evidence’ for evolution changing one sort of ancient ‘animal-kind’ that no longer exists into another sort of ancient ‘animal-kind’ that no longer exists is fundamentally dishonest and misleading, for you are asking for supposed present observable evidence of evolutionary change of past extinct (and therefore unobservable) animals.

I’m pretty sure if you gave that answer, Ray Comfort or Ken Ham would probably just walk away, convinced that you were a “scoffer.”

Now, is that a little convoluted? Probably, but the arguments and claims of YEC are (I believe) designed to be convoluted, making it hard to follow them, and therefore catch them in their manipulative shell-games and double-speak. But it’s something you have to do if you ever hope to call them on their manipulation.

So to sum up: the typical YEC question regarding “observational evidence that evolution causes a change in kinds” is a bogus question for two reasons:

  1. The Hebrew word min (“kind”) is not some ancient-scientific classification of animals, therefore the question (not to mention the whole supposed field of baraminology is a sham;
  2. Even if you grant YEC the existence of these supposed ancient “kinds,” the question is asking the impossible: present, observable evidence for evolutionary change in past, extinct “kinds” (and again, the fact that in reality there were no “original kinds” make the question even more impossible…as if that were…possible!).

Yes, the notion of “created kinds”—it’s kinda ridiculous.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 7): Early Christianity–a Fulfilled Judaism

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 7): Early Christianity–a Fulfilled Judaism

It was into this world of Greek philosophy, Roman imperial might, and rampant paganism that Jesus of Nazareth was born. Of course, the “genesis-point,” if you will, of the Jesus movement was in backwater Palestine…Galilee to be specific. This Jewish Messianic movement that emerged around Jesus of Nazareth eventually grew beyond its Jewish roots and then evolved by taking on, addressing, challenging, and eventually defeating the ancient pagan world of Greece and Rome.

In order to understand this, though, we must first understand what Jesus’ message to Judaism was and how his followers came to be convinced that it was in Jesus that all the messianic hopes within Judaism were fulfilled. After that, we can then seek to understand how this “fulfilled messianic movement” was translated to speak to the larger Greco-Roman world.

The Jewish Worldview: God, Creation, Mankind, and History
All too often, in their attempt to talk about Jesus and his Gospel, people gloss over the critical worldview of Second-Temple Judaism. Instead, far too many Christians reduce the concept of Jesus’ fulfillment of Judaism to nothing more than, “There were a bunch of predictions in the Old Testament about a coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled those predictions! Now you can accept him into your heart, get saved, and go to heaven when you die!” Such a depiction should be deemed over-simplistic to anyone who takes Jesus and Christianity seriously.

The Jews of the Old Testament were not just people sitting around, trying to keep God’s rules, and waiting for a future god-like superman to take them away to heaven. They viewed themselves as the people with whom the Creator God of the universe entered into a covenant, with the sole purpose of working through them in order to redeem His creation from sin, death, and decay. That one sentence opens the door to a radically different worldview by the standards of the ancient world. This is extremely important to know: the Jews viewed God differently, the natural world differently, and mankind differently than any society or culture at the time.

Abraham CovenantPerhaps the most basic difference between the Old Testament Jewish worldview and those of the ancient world is that it declared that there was one Creator God, and that He had revealed himself within history. Unlike the polytheism of the ancient world, Judaism declared that there was only one God, and that He was all-powerful, above nature, and the creator of a good created order. There were no warring gods of nature whom human beings had to appease in order avoid their petty and vindictive punishment. YHWH was just, righteous, merciful, compassionate, and good, and He cut a covenant (i.e. made a deal!) with Abraham and his descendants.

Therefore, the sacrificial system outlined in the Torah was not aimed at appeasing an angry god, but rather highlighting YHWH’s compassion and love: the worshiper would sacrifice, let’s say, a lamb, by offering it to YHWH. This act, done as a confession and admission of sin, would then be accepted by YHWH and turned into a celebratory meal: one which the worshiper would eat in the Temple, in the presence of YHWH. The meal would signify and celebrate the restoration of the worshiper’s relationship with YHWH.

TabernacleThe revelation of the purpose of not only the sacrificial system, but also the Torah itself, coupled with YHWH’s redemptive actions during the Exodus and throughout Israel’s history, testified to YHWH’s power, compassion, justice, and intention to redeem, remake, and transform, not only all of mankind, but the entire creation. Therefore, the Jewish worldview was radically different than what was found in other ancient societies, for it declared a number of things:

  1. There was one God, YHWH, the Creator of the natural world. He was good, just, and compassionate.
  2. Furthermore, He was also a personal being who revealed Himself in history and communicates with mankind.
  3. Creation itself—the natural, material universe—declares the glory of God. Creation is good, and worthy to be redeemed from death and decay.
  4. Mankind, being made in God’s image, has dignity and worth. He is not just a part of the natural world; he is unique and has a purpose: to act as God’s king, priest, and custodian of creation, to rule over God’s creation by caring for it and offering it back to God. He is to reflect and live out God’s justice, mercy, compassion, righteousness, and love in his creation.
  5. History, therefore, has a purpose, for it is in history that we see the Creator God communicate with mankind and empower the one He has made in His image to care for and ultimately redeem His good creation.

But if this is what Old Testament Judaism taught concerning God, mankind, and creation, the actual history of ancient Israel revealed something else: things weren’t as they should be. Corruption, sin and death seemed to rule the day. In fact, no one was immune from it, not even God’s people. Despite God’s self-revelation to His people, something obviously wasn’t right. This leads us to the fifth tenet of the Jewish worldview:

  1. Yes, YHWH was working through history and was in the process of bringing mankind and creation itself to their full fruition. Old Testament Israel, though, had failed to be the kind of people God wanted. Nevertheless, despite the inevitability and reign of sin and death throughout creation, YHWH was still in control. He was still building everything up to what he purposed all along. He was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, and somehow He would work through Israel to accomplish His purposes.

Indeed, everything in the Old Testament, everything in the history of ancient Israel, looked forward to God’s revelation as to how He would actually fulfill his purposes for mankind and creation itself. By the time of Jesus, the Jews, therefore, develop these views into the general, over-arching worldview of Second Temple Judaism.

The Jewish Worldview and the Two Ages of History
The Jews of Jesus’ day viewed history in terms of two distinct ages. The present age in which they currently found themselves was under the rule of Satan, and it was evidenced by the presence of sin, death, demon-possession, sickness, the oppression of pagan rulers, and the general absence of the Spirit of God among his people. The future age that they looked forward to was an age in which God would fulfill his purposes for mankind and creation. It would be, in fact, the Kingdom of God, and it would be characterized by righteousness, eternal life, health and peace, the rule of God’s anointed Messiah, and the out-pouring of God’s Spirit on His people.

The “turn of the ages,” so the Jews believed, would happen all at once: the Messiah would appear, defeat the pagan rulers and purify the Temple. There would be a resurrection of the righteous dead into eternal life, and God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh—and thus, the New Creation, the Kingdom of God itself, would be ushered in. Now obviously, there is a lot more to the Jewish worldview, but for our purposes, this general outline will suffice in order to lay out precisely what the proclamation of the early Church (which was, don’t forget, essentially Jewish) really was.

The Christian Proclamation: The turn of the ages has happened (just not how we thought!)
The early Christian proclamation that we see being declared throughout the New Testament was that the long-awaited “turn of the ages” expected in the Jewish Worldview had, in fact happened…just not in the way they had been expecting. In a simplified fashion, here’s what the earliest Christians in the first century declared:

  1. The Jewish worldview declared the present age to be evil; the early Church agreed.
  2. The Jewish worldview looked forward to the coming of God’s Messiah; the early Church declared that Jesus was, in fact, God’s Messiah. But instead of coming to defeat pagan rulers like Rome, Jesus had come to defeat Satan himself, because evil was not just among the pagans, but among the Jews as well. And shockingly, instead of coming to purify the Temple, Jesus had come and condemned the Temple as being hopelessly corrupt. Much like Jeremiah 600 years earlier, Jesus had prophesied that God would destroy the Temple, ironically, by the hands of Rome.
  3. The Jewish worldview looked forward to an instantaneous “turn of the ages,” signified by the resurrection of the dead. The early Church declared that the “turn of the ages” had begun, but that it was not a one-time instantaneous thing. It had begun with the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the only true righteous one. And that the power revealed at his resurrection (which was, in fact, the power of God’s Spirit) was now given to Jesus’ followers. And they, as God’s people, as God’s true Israel, were given a mission: to bear witness to God’s power and God’s Messiah throughout a world still in subjection to the “Old Age.” There would be a future full resurrection of dead, and that would signal the consummation of God’s purposes.
  4. The Jewish worldview believed that the dawn of the Kingdom of God and the New Creation would be evidenced by the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh. The early Church declared that that very outpouring of God’s Spirit had happened at Pentecost, and part of their mission as God’s Messiah/Kingdom of God people was to further that outpouring of God’s Spirit, indeed, on all flesh…throughout the world, even among the Gentiles.

resurrection2007Simply put, the early Church proclaimed that in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the long-awaited “turn of the ages,” the Kingdom of God, the New Creation itself (as evidenced in Christ’s resurrection) had begun. It is in that sense that we must understand the idea of Jesus “having fulfilled” the Jewish hopes and worldview. It is not simply a matter of a number of predictions finally happening. It signaled the culmination of all the Jewish hopes (albeit in a way they had not envisioned), and the end of that “chapter” in God’s story.

But when the followers of Jesus went out to the Gentile world, complete with all its polytheism, superstition, and pagan philosophy, the question became, “How does the fulfillment of the Jewish worldview now translate to the pagan world?” Although what lay at the heart of the Christian proclamation was, in fact, the declaration that certain things really had happened (i.e. the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit), how those things affected our understanding of the natural world and mankind itself had to be worked out. In short, the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changed everything. And the mission of the Church was thus to explain and effect that change.

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