This article investigates the claim that Jesus birth fulfills ancient prophecies in the Torah and the Nevi’im Acharonim, the Law and Latter Prophets of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). We shall consider prophetic pronouncements of Isaiah of Jerusalem, his contemporary (and colleague?) Micah, and the enigmatic seer / shaman Balaam.
"Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 'Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.' But Ahaz said, 'I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.' Then Isaiah said, 'Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.'" (Isaiah 7:10-14)
The Sign of Immanuel pericope (a "pericope" is a discreet unit within a passage) is part of the historical narrative and prophecies delivered by Isaiah of Jerusalem during the time of Ahaz, king of Judah (c. 735-732 BCE). Jerusalem was being threatened by Syria and Israel (Ephraim) for refusing to join them in their resistance against Assyria. Ahaz and Judah were tempted to seek help from Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. Isaiah was used by Yahweh to encourage Ahaz and his nation to trust in Yahweh, but also to anticipate the time in which Yahweh would provide ultimate deliverance for Judah.
Chapter seven describes the Syrio-Ephraimite crisis in which Yahweh sent Isaiah to encourage Ahaz and offer a sign from the Lord. Though rebuffed by Ahaz, Yahweh provides a sign related to a son to be born of a virgin whose name would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” The Sign of Immanuel was intended to show that Judah would be safe from the threatened invasion by Syria and Israel. Walter Brueggemann, retired professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, suggests that this confrontation between the prophet and the king is a one of “faith versus fear” and of “the two worlds that result from faith or from fear.”
I will paraphrase Isaiah’s message to Ahaz: "You do not need to cut a deal with the king of Assyria, because God is with you and he says, ‘I am going to prove it by giving you a sign—the virgin shall be with child and that child shall be called God-with-us.’” Yahweh’s immediate promise to Ahaz is that by the time Immanuel is old enough to make decisions, the land of the two opposing kings will be devastated. Dr. John Watts argues, “The sign is simple, it has to do with a period by which the present crisis will no longer be acute or relevant.”
Some commentators suggest that while this prophecy had an initial fulfillment during the time of Ahaz, but was intended by Yahweh to offer hope for a time yet in the future. According to Old Testament scholar Dr. Edward J. Young (1907-1968), the passage “sets forth a promise of deliverance from Syria and Israel which is also set forth in symbolic form by the announcement of the miraculous conception and nativity of the Messiah.”
That the Sign of Immanuel find its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus birth becomes evident in Matthew’s application of it in his gospel (Matt. 1:18-23).
The Hebrew word translated “virgin” in 7:14 is almah, refers either to a young women or a virgin of marriageable age or newly married. It is not known exactly how this prophecy was fulfilled in Ahaz’s day. Brueggemann argues that the immediate application of the Immanuel prophecy is the convergence of the three motifs of the woman, the named child, and the time “to offer the king assurances that may override his panic and his dangerous misreading of the military-political reality.”
As we have already indicated, Young points to a broader and ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy. This broader fulfillment of this prophecy took place 730 years later in Jesus birth narratives as found in Matthew and Luke:
"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel'-which means, 'God with us.'" (Matt. 1:22-23)
"In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary." (Luke 1:27)
The Hebrew word betula is used many times in the Old Testament as a specific word for “virgin.” Harris, Archer and Waltke in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament contend that almah “is not a technical word for a virgin but represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity.” Bible language scholar Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948) disagrees; he writes, “Certainly there is no emphasis on virginity” in almah.
The Septuagint (Greek version of the Tanakh translated, c. 250-130 BCE) translates almah with the Greek word parthenos, which means a virgin or woman of marriageable age. According to Strong, it means “a woman who has never had sexual intercourse with a man.” The New Testament writers applied this prophecy to Jesus birth and used parthenos as the appropriate description of Mary. Many contend that this is a specific prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in the Nevi’im Acharonim.
Jesus birth is the greatest sign of all that God-is-with-us, Immanuel!
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." (Isa. 9:6-7)
This pericope presents one of the most beautifully poetic promises of Jesus birth and the Messiah’s coming reign. In his commentary on Isaiah, Barry Webb insists, “there can be little doubt...that this oracle points directly to the coming of the Messiah, the great Son of David and the true light.” For centuries the church has recited and sung this text as she celebrates Christmas. Yet this text also contains a reference to one of the great, incomprehensible truths in biblical theology, the Incarnation, “a child is born...a son is given.” Yahweh would become a human being.
Brueggemann asserts that this well-known series of royal names for the new king “is likely ritualized hyperbole.” This means they indicate that the new king will meet every expectation of the people and will perform every responsibility of the royal office well. Brueggemann insists that these royal titles are conventional is similar displays of dynastic authority, which are derived from antecedent Egyptian liturgies.
Dallas Theological Seminary past President John Walvoord (1910-2002) and Roy Zuck argue that these descriptive names will reveal the Messiah’s character.” Taking a middle position, Watts argues that in the sense that Jesus was understood to be the Messiah, “these motifs or kingship and dominion had to be radically reinterpreted to fit the crucified carpenter’s son.”
That a newborn baby would be called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father” is the theological significance of Jesus birth according to Isaiah's prophecy. Believers from all Christian traditions throughout the history of the church have affirmed this truth by faith, but none can fully grasp what it means for the Son to shed his eternal state and put on flesh.
The Nevi’im Acharonim consisted of four scrolls: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. This last scroll was a collection of twelve smaller prophetic writings, which taken together are approximately the same in length as one major prophets. In the second century BCE, Jesus Ben Sira spoke of “the twelve prophets” (Ecclesiasticus 49:10) as a body of prophetic writing parallel to the great prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He thereby affirms that these twelve prophecies were considered as a unit and were likely to have already been written together on a single scroll. St. Augustine in the fifth century CE called the collection the “Minor Prophets,” (The City of God, 18.25).
Some scholars contend that one of the Twelve, Micah, contains prediction of the precise location of Jesus birth made seven centuries before the event. Micah was contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem and prophesied in the eighth century BCE during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
The Bethlehem prophecy in Micah 5:2 is a familiar part of the narrative of Jesus birth: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” (NKJV).
Matthew 2:5-6 records how the scribes in Jerusalem told King Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (NKJV).
Up to the time of Micah, most of David’s offspring were born in Jerusalem. The only importance of Bethlehem was 300 years earlier David had been born there. Micah predicts that the "The One to be ruler in Israel" would be born there, in this little one-horse town, contrary to all expectations. Bethlehem Ephrathah was the smallest, most insignificant clan in Judah. The prophet uses a rare word, tsa‘ir, meaning trifling or insignificant. Dr. Ralph L. Smith concludes, “Deliverance will come from the least expected place.”
Left: The Prophet Balaam and the Ass, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626.
One of the most enigmatic characters in the Torah is the shaman Balaam. His story occurs towards the end of the Book of Numbers. Every ancient reference to Balaam considers him a non-Israelite, a prophet, and the son of Beor. Some sources describe the apparently positive blessings he delivers upon the Israelites; he is generally reviled as a "wicked man" in the major story concerning him. Balaam attempted to curse God's people. He failed all three tries, each time producing blessings, not curses.
Each of the seven prophecies that Balaam makes take the form of a Hebrew poem. One poem refers to the coming of a king who will conquer Edom and Moab. Some scholars claim is a remarkable predication about Jesus birth.
"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. A ruler will come out of Jacob and destroy the survivors of the city." (Numbers 24:17-19)
Numbers is part of the authoritative Mosaic literary tradition. The renowned German biblical scholar and form critic Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), ascribed most of the composition of Numbers to an unknown priestly source in the 6th century BCE. However, it contains additional material, including the Balaam story, from the earlier Elohist document (c.850 BCE) and Yahwist document (c.950 BCE).
An inscription found in modern Jordan, the Deir Alla text, is dated c. 850–675 BCE. It also tells a story of "Balaam Son of Beor," a seer apparently famed in the region at this time, and whose prophecies regarding Israel are found in Numbers. The inscription demonstrates that Balaam the Shaman was a well known figure in the region in the first millennium BCE.
What does an utterance attributed to a mysterious shaman in Ancient Near Eastern tradition tell us about Jesus birth, which occurred nearly a millennium later? One thousand years before Christ, Balaam predicted the rising of a star and the rising of a Scepter (i.e., a ruler or king) of the Jewish people.
Only Matthew's narrative of Jesus birth includes the well-loved, often dramatized, visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12). What might account for the remarkable motivation of these "wise men" from Persia (modern day Iran). What prompted their journey of nearly 700 miles to Judea around 2 BCE? A star in the sky? Yes, but why?
By the first century BCE the Torah was widely known throughout the Ancient Near East. Since the fifth century BCE there had been a sizable Jewish community in Persia, which had introduced its sacred texts to the intellectual and cultural life of its adopted home. The Magi were probably Persian scholars, familiar with the Hebrew Torah.
The term “magi” (from the Greek magos), has been used since at least the fourth century BCE to denote a follower of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. The Hellenistic world associated Zoroaster with the ability to read the stars and manipulate the fate that the stars foretold. In the Christian tradition, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found Jesus by following a star, which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem.
Various theories have been presented as to the nature of this star traditionally associated with Jesus birth. Some suggest that the star was a comet. Halley's Comet was visible in 12 BCE and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BCE. This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded. Ancient writers described comets as "hanging over" specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have "stood over" the "place" where Jesus was.
Whatever the nature of the astronomical event, it would seem plausible that familiarity with the ancient Star Prophecy in the Torah provided religious significance to the stellar phenomenon observed by the Magi. According to Matthew's narrative, guided by the Star of Bethlehem, the wise men found the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, worshiped him, and presented him with "gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh." (2.11)
Notified of the birth of a king in Judaea by the appearance of the star, the Magi went to Jerusalem. Upon their arrival they visited King Herod to determine the precise location of where the anticipated king of the Jews had been born. Herod, disturbed, told them that he had not heard of the child, but the Rabbis informed them of a prophecy (Micah 5:2) that the messianic ruler would be born in Bethlehem.
Micah’s prophecy expands our understanding of Jesus birth. This is the One who predates all human history, something the earlier Star prophecy did not reveal. This was not just a human ruler, but divinity in human flesh. From the Torah’s Star Prophecy the Magi would have concluded they were coming to honor a regional king. Micah's later subsequent Bethlehem Prophecy reveals that he is not just a regional king, but king and God of all creation.
In the statement “When the saw the star...” (Matt. 2:10), the Gospel writer does not use the verb blepo, meaning to see with the eye; rather he uses eido, which denotes to perceive or understand. “Oh, I see!” that is, to understand something one didn’t understand before. Thus, the Magi only fully understood the Star Prophecy after they had been introduced to the Bethlehem Prophecy of Jesus birth.
In 2:11, the writer uses the verb pipto to describe the Magi's act of worship before the infant Jesus. This term means to fall down, to prostrate, to thrust down (comp. John 18:6; Rev. 1:17; Acts 9:4); rather than the neat dignified kneeling position of the typical Christmas pageant we are familiar with. The Magi came on the basis of a promise, but they found more than a promise; they found a divine presence.
And their response to Jesus birth? “They opened their treasures” (2:11). They gave away what they carried to use in bartering for provisions for their return journey to Persia. Thereafter they would depend on the providence and provision of God because they had given all in an act of worshipful sacrifice.
The Star Prophecy of Jesus birth includes an additional prediction: The Scepter will shatter the dominion of Moab. In biblical history Moab was a neighboring nation in constant conflict with Israel.
What does Moab represent spiritually?
It was around the mountains and the plains of Moab that Israel wondered for forty years. Moses said to them, “You have circled this mountain long enough!” (Deut. 2:3). You may have promises from God that you haven’t participated in due to either to circumstances or deliberate resistance.
According to the Genesis narrative, the Moabites were result of an incestuous relationship between a man and his daughter (Gen. 19:36-37). This represents a people born of perverted practice, which produces sense of complete unworthiness. What today we call the victim / abuse cycle, which produces brittleness and bitterness of personality - evidence that something unholy, perverted, or of sinful failure is in one's past.
Moab was the geographic location to which a family moved to escape famine, only to find more famine and death, as recorded in the Book of Ruth. Moab becomes a symbol of places to which people take flight only to find more futility (Ruth 1:21). When Naomi and Ruth go back to Judah, they went back to Bethlehem!
The message of Jesus birth is the promise of the breaking of the oppression of Moab. Perhaps this is a cryptic reference to the power of Jesus to break the wanderings of the human soul, to break the bondage of guilt, and to break the existential tendency to futility.
God’s timeless message through the Star prophecy is that he breaks through the oppression of guilt and futility with the rising of the rule of his Son.
And Bethlehem, the traditional place of Jesus birth, represents your insignificance and smallness, which is no obstruction to what the Lord wants to do in and through you. You might feel small in your own strength, ability, and resources, but this puts no limitations on what he can do.
Just as the Magi left Bethlehem by a different way (Matt. 2:12), as you have reflect on these ancient prophecies of Jesus birth, your will proceed on your spiritual pilgrimage "by a different way" - changed by your act of worship and meditation in the presence of he whom the Magi worshiped.
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