Who Is Immanuel in Isaiah 1-39? (I)


Dado que se viene la Navidad, se me ocurrió que quizá sería interesante compartir con ustedes un paper que escribí recientemente sobre la venida del Emmanuel. Este, sin embargo, no es un post que pretende dar un mensaje de paz y amor en estas fiestas, sino un estudio de exégesis bíblica. No obstante, creo que dicha exégesis ayuda a iluminar las relaciones entre Antiguo y Nuevo Testamentos y, en ese sentido, ilumina también las fiestas de navidad para los cristianos. El post viene en tres partes, como de costumbre. Se encuentra íntegramente en inglés, espero no sea problema.


In Isaiah 6-12 we are confronted with a linkage between historical, political and theological reflections that inform the question about the meaning of the prophecy of the Immanuel. In order to respond properly to this interrogation, then, we should read carefully the text as a coordinated construction that takes into account the three historical, political and theological realms. However, as Christopher Seitz suggests in his Isaiah 1-39[1], we must keep in mind that Isaiah is, over all, a theological book. The prophecy of Immanuel should be read, then, through the lens of theology, particularly through the lens of the history of the salvation of Israel, in which YHWH is always faithful to His promises. In order to do so, I will structure the paper in three sections. In the first, I will read Isaiah examining the historical context in which the prophecy of the Immanuel is situated. In the second, I will analyze in detail the theological context which the prophecy is related to, i.e., the oracles of Isaiah 9 and 11 and the role of Hezekiah at the end of first Isaiah (Is 36-39). My goal in establishing these connections is to show the eschatological dimensions of the oracle, beyond its historical dimensions. Finally, I will consider the Christian understanding of the prophecy to see how the vision of the Immanuel was part of a history of interpretation and how it is part of the same history today.


Who is Immanuel? The most straightforward way to answer this question is to direct our attention to the text itself. In the book of Isaiah, the first mention of the Immanuel is found in chapter 7, particularly in verse 14. The historical setting of chapter seven tell us that Ahaz was the King of Judah at that time and that two other kings, Aram and Pekah (king of Israel) were marching against the most important city of Judah, Jerusalem, in order to attack it. Verse two makes explicit what is implicit in verse one, namely, that Ephraim (another name for Israel) and Aram are allied against Jerusalem. The people of God is divided; one portion of YHWH’s sons is attacking the other. In this context in which the hearts of the people of Judah are trembling “as trees of the forest sway before the wind” (Is 7:2), the Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz. The prophet must deliver a message to the king: “Be firm and be calm. Do not afraid and do not lose heart […]” (Is 7:4). Isaiah invites Ahaz to be faithful, because God promises that the plans of Aram and Pekah “shall not succeed” (Is 7:7). Nevertheless, the grace of God demands faith, as the last verse of this Isaiah’s intervention makes clear: “If you will not believe, for you cannot be trusted” (Is 7:9). The annotation in the Jewish Study Bible clarifies that the translation: “you cannot be trusted” can be translated also as “you shall not be established”[2]. Thus, even though there is a promise, its fulfillment requires faith. If the king decides to reject God, he will not be established. This is exactly what happens (7:12). I will analyze the consequences of this rejection in the second section of this essay.

With these antecedents we are in better conditions to situate the prophecy of the Immanuel. As I have said, Isaiah tried to convince Ahaz: “Be firm and calm […], do not lose heart” (Is 7:4). YHWH has promised, through the word of his prophet, that Assyria is not going to succeed (Is 7:8). Moreover, aware of the weakness of His people, the Lord offers a sign:

“Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel. (By the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good, people will be feeding on curds and honey.) For before the lad knows to reject the bad and choose the good, the ground whose two kings you dread shall be abandoned. The Lord will cause to come upon you and your people and your ancestral house such days as never have come since Ephraim turned away from Judah—that selfsame king of Assyria” (7:14-17).

This passage is crucial by itself, but it is also connected with some of Isaiah’s other prophecies. For this reason I will hold my comments on it, mentioning only a couple of things now. On the one hand, it is very important to keep in mind that this is a prophecy inserted in history. I have tried to show this point by tracing the historical remarks at the beginning of Isaiah 7, but this point needs further development. I will expand it in the following lines. On the other hand, this is a passage that transcends historical accounts. The best evidence to support this claim is the Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s vision: the boy is associated with Jesus; the woman, with the Virgin Mary. Consequently, we can maintain two lines of interpretation regarding Isaiah’s prophecies: they have a certain level of fulfillment in Judah’s history but they have, also, an eschatological dimension. This second dimension implies a kind of fulfillment that goes beyond our present theo-political discussion and comprehends the whole history of Israel. I will return to this point at the end of the essay.

Now, let me try to contextualize the passage quoted before in order to address the issue of the Immanuel in a better way[3]. First Isaiah, chapters 1-39, is located in the context of the hegemony of the Assyrian empire (8th Century). Like any other hegemonic kingdom, Assyria exerted pressure over the surrounding small kingdoms in order to expand its domain. Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom) were part of the victims of this pressure. In this setting, two options appeared as suitable to preserve the kingdoms. On the one hand, accept the hegemony of Assyria acceding to be a vassal kingdom; on the other, resist. Nevertheless, given the clear military superiority of Assyria, resisting in solitude was not a good option. Logic required the establishment of political and military concordats. The beginning of Isaiah 7 narrates the historical configuration of this necessity of an alliance: the Syro-Ephraimite crisis. Given that the power of Assyria was so dangerous, the kingdom of Damascus in Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (also known as Ephraim) attempted to create a coalition against Assyrian empire (735 BCE). Ahaz refused to be part of the alliance. In a gesture of revenge, the Syrians and Ephraimites marched against Judah in order to depose Ahaz replacing him with a new king loyal to their purposes: his son Tabeel (Is 7:6). Afrightened, Ahaz appealed to the Assyrian king Tigalth-Pileser who conquered Ahaz enemies. The price for Tigalth-Pileser’s help was, predictably, becoming dependant on Assyria. It is in this context of sin and uneasiness in which we should read Isaiah’s prophecy about the Immanuel.


[1] Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 253.

[2] See Michael Fishbane (ed.), The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 798, footnote e-e.

[3] I am following the introduction to Isaiah provided by Benjamin D. Sommer in Fishbane, The Jewish Study Bible, 780-784.

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