Promised beforehand?

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 7.10–16; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25.

Some of my Jewish friends object to the way that Christian interpretation seems to play fast-and-loose with the promises of the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament seems willing to take any verse as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7 is a case in point. Isaiah was certainly not anticipating a virgin birth (the Hebrew can mean simply ‘young woman’, as the NRSV makes plain) nor was he thinking of events that would occur many years into the future. I take him to mean that by the time a pregnant woman gives birth and begins to teach her child, the national powers that threatened Israel would themselves be facing defeat. Whatever it is he anticipates, Isaiah thinks it will happen soon, within a few years at most. Still, Matthew feels free to adopt these verses and apply them to the birth of Jesus. In so doing, he demonstrates a kind of playfulness in his use of Scripture.

Matthew is not alone in taking up fragments of Scripture and using them for his own ends. In fact, much of Scripture, both Jewish and Christian, does the same thing. It constantly interprets and reinterprets what was written earlier, incorporating its understanding of the old into its own unfolding vision. What is objectionable though is when Christians refuse to accept that a passage like Isaiah 7 can refer to something other than the birth of Jesus. For me, it is not a case of either/or but of both/and.

If there is playfulness in Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture, there seems to be some too in relation to its presentation of obedience to prophetic commands. According to Matthew, an angel of the Lord told Joseph that Mary will ‘bear a son and they will call him Emmanuel’ (God with us), so Joseph ‘named him Jesus’! Whether or not we like the way Scripture interprets and reinterprets Scripture, the fact is that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, fulfilled the dreams and expectations of generations. Ultimately, it is the resurrection that proclaims Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom 1.4).

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