Matthew 1:17-25 SIGNS AND WONDERS

The virgin birth is foreshadowed in the prophecy Matthew quotes, but the Hebrew often translated here as “virgin,” almah, can also simply mean “young girl.” The NIV translation renders it that way in five out of seven places, and the King James in three places. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation never renders almah as “virgin” at all. Rabbinic Jews maintain that another word for virgin, b’tulah, is more specific and so would have been Isaiah’s choice if “virgin” was his intention. Many Jews consider this an argument against the virgin birth, and by extension, the divinity of Jesus. However there is evidence that almah also sometimes had the “virgin” meaning. For example, we find almah used of Rebekah, shortly after she has been specifically described as a b’tulah, or virgin. This implies the terms might be used synonymously. Also, in the Song of Solomon almah is used to distinguish certain women from others who have engaged in sex as wives or concubines.

But even if the rabbis are correct about the language in the prophecy (and I do not say they are), and in spite of the fact that we have this from the virgin’s very lips, we must not be distracted by a detail.


After all, virgin or not, it is God the Father, not Mary the mother, who has worked the miracle. Far be it from us to assume the marvel of Jesus’ birth depends on Mary’s virginity. All miracles depend on God alone, who requires nothing from creation, not even faith. Remember, “Sarah laughed,” which the Lord equated with a lack of faith, yet still He drew Isaac from her barren womb. He could do the same and more with Mary. To look at this another way, if a man parted the waters of a sea, who would quibble if it turned out he had swum in those waters previously?

It must also be remembered the New Testament does not claim Mary was a virgin because first century Jews expected a messiah by way of a virgin birth. On the contrary, the very fact that almah does not usually mean “virgin” means that particular part of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy would not be widely understood until the miracle predicted had occurred. In other words, it was only afterwards, in the full light of the unexpected fact, that people saw it as a prophecy fulfilled. So even if the prophesy were misconstrued by Matthew, the accomplished fact remains.

Here is a valuable lesson for life in a non-Christian world. Mary tells the angel she has never known a man, and we believe her, because the Bible gives no reason to suspect a lie. But this belief is not essential to our faith. True, it stems from an essential thing—the inerrancy of Scripture—but it is not that thing itself. No soul was ever lost because it lacked faith in the Virgin Mary. It is faith in Jesus Christ alone that saves, so when our faith is challenged, let us bypass lesser things (for a time) to focus unbeliever’s hearts and minds on Him.

Speaking of faith in Jesus, Isaiah sets us in pursuit of the most compelling reason for the miraculous conception. In one of his well known messianic prophesies, he says a “child is born,” (yeled yelad) and a “son is given” (ben nitan). It is a common Hebraic device—a form of ancient poetry—to restate ideas in different ways, but this hint (remez) goes much deeper than mere literary form. The word yelad (“born”) is the usual term for childbirth, found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, used about 700 times. On the other hand, the Hebrew word nitan (“given,” as in the name, “Nathan”) is used in reference to childbirth very seldom, and almost always in connection with God’s miraculous intervention. Indeed, nitan is a verb of choice when the Torah touches on the miraculous “giving” of Israel’s central promise. Consider: 1) Abram asks God to “give” an heir; 2) God promises to make Abraham the father of nations (literally: “father of many nations have I given you”); 3) God promises to “give” a son to the barren Sarah; 4) The barren Rachel is “given” sons Simeon and Dan; 5) God promises to make Jacob the father of many descendants (literally: “give you many people”).

Thus we see Isaiah links this messianic concept—a gift from God—with the central story of the Torah: God’s unfolding self revelation in a series of miracles revealed through His chosen people. Although all children are blessings from God, Isaiah has not prophesied about the usual kind of “gift” we associate with a newborn. He writes of a messiah who is “given,” who comes to us miraculously, much as did the first generations of God’s most treasured possession, a “nation of priests” derived from barren women.

But why connect the Messiah’s birth with these other gifts at all?

We find one answer in Isaiah’s earlier prophecy, the one quoted by Matthew, which says “the Lord Himself will give you a sign.” This sign arrives by virtue of the same word (nitan) which describes the "giving" of the son, who is elsewhere called “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God.” Take careful note of this. The sign that is given is the given son, himself. A sign is usually a hint, a symbol, a signal, notification, or proof of something else, but in the Lord’s economy (“I who I am”), just as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus himself is proof of himself.

Lest we miss the hint, Jesus leads us closer in a classic d’rash, unveiling even his own self-symbolism as something which was itself previously symbolized. In possibly the most memorized verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, he directs us to the enigmatic story of the bronze serpent. But this is seldom noticed, because this famous verse is usually committed to memory in isolation from its context.

For millennia Jewish scholars have tried to understand this little story. Just four verses long, the incident seems to come from out of nowhere and is not mentioned again in Scripture until we reach the Gospels. As with Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth, we cannot clearly see the meaning of the tale until the thing foreshadowed has occurred. Jews easily connected the serpent high upon the pole to the ones that killed below, but guided here by Jesus’ own d’rash, finally we see the symbolism’s fullest meaning expressed in the purpose of his sacrifice. Less obvious still is the meaning of the pole on which the serpent hangs. Jesus leaves no doubt it signifies the cross of course, but consider this:

In the ancient Hebrew story, this pole is called a "neec." Every other place this Hebrew word is used we see this word “neec” as a warning sign, or as a sail, or a banner—the kinds of things one hangs upon a pole, never the pole itself. Always elsewhere the neec is the thing up front, the thing on which we focus, the center of attention, the featured item. Yet here in this one story, the neec steps back. Here the symbolic neec appears behind the symbol. With this strange fact we enter a level of scriptural meaning the rabbis still call sod today: a mysterious, divinely concealed message. Because Jesus has spoken of the neec in direct connection with the Father’s love for "the world," we know it must signify much more than just the divine justice of the cross, bathed in the all too human blood of mercy shed for you and me. It is as if the Sign of all Signs were lifting up a sign Himself, as if the Proof of everything had proved Himself by virtue of Himself. We lift our eyes to this serpent and this pole, and we see wheels within wheels, signs within signs, and, remembering that this is God Almighty’s work we watch, we find the endless layers just what one would expect if all of it is true.

With Matthew’s oblique references to prophesies fulfilled in ways no one had ever dreamed before, he gives us hints of who this child of Mary really is. Son of Man, so that he could die. Son of God so that he could rise. Born of woman and the Holy Spirit, Immanuel, God with us, a sign of mysteries unspeakable, who will remain a sign until the end of days.

Next week we move on to the Nativity story. In the meantime, you may wish to contemplate the similarities between Israel’s fabrication of the golden calf of Exodus 32:2-4 and the construction of the bronze serpent. Israel was punished in the first case, and saved in the second. What can be learned from this?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:59 PM  

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