…(Pope Benedict’s) last book, and his announcement of his retirement, were an affirmation of the Virgin Mary’s predestination, and her child’s virginal conception at the Annunciation. … Pope Benedict had great trust in the continued maternal solicitude of the Virgin, who, at Lourdes, confirmed the Church’s teaching of her Immaculate Conception
Pope Benedict XVI’s third and final installment of Jesus of Nazareth, which centered on the virginal conception of Christ and the infancy narratives, was released just months before his retirement announcement which he gave to the surprised cardinals on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Clearly, he waited to publish the work as a final witness of his personal faith in Christ’s virginal conception, while still serving as Pope; a personal faith which witnessed to the Church’s faith and tradition. It is appropriate that both his last book, and his announcement of his retirement, were an affirmation of the Virgin Mary’s predestination and her child’s virginal conception at the Annunciation. Clearly, Pope Benedict had great trust in the continued maternal solicitude of the Virgin, who, at Lourdes, confirmed the Church’s teaching of her Immaculate Conception and, thereby, its providential ordering to the Annunciation.
As the Gospels of Matthew and Luke draw upon the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 to support the Virgin Birth of Christ, part of Pope Benedict’s summary exegesis in his final book drew upon modern scholarship to evaluate Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. At the heart of that matter was the question as to whether Christians reappropriated a text already realized in the contemporary hearing of King Ahaz in the 8th Century B.C. Pope Benedict XVI, a well-reputed biblical scholar in his own right, summarized: “Exegesis has, therefore, searched meticulously, using all the resources of historical scholarship, for a contemporary interpretation—and it has failed.” 1 Turning to Rudolf Kilian’s commentary on Isaiah for support, Pope Benedict ends the discussion with Kilian’s conclusion to four major interpretations: “As a result of this overview, it turns out that no single attempt at interpretation is entirely convincing. The mother and child remain a mystery, at least to the modern reader, but probably also to the contemporary audience, perhaps even to the prophet himself.” 2
This essay would like to address Benedict’s questioning which follows his observations of modern exegesis. He asks: “Should Christians not hear this word as their own? On listening to this verse, should they not come to the conviction that the message, which always seemed so strange, waiting to be deciphered, has now come true? Should they not be convinced that God has now given us this sign in the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary?” 3 Addressing this allows us to address four important areas: how the original audience may have understood the prophecy; how the audience of Jeremiah would have understood it; why redactions to the Torah and history books would have been accepted by the people of God as inspired (before and during the Exile); and finally, why Matthew’s numerology of 14 gives insight to the final deciphering of Isaiah 7, and Christian convictions. Minimally, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can establish that the prophecy was directed to the distant future based on precedence.
The Original Audience
Kilian is right. Much like King David pondering God’s promises in his heart (cf. 2 Samuel 7:19), Isaiah probably did not initially comprehend what he had uttered in relation to David’s contemplation of the “law for man” 4 … even though Isaiah was certainly familiar with David’s contemplation of God’s promises, as we read 2 Samuel 7:19. No sooner had the oracle passed Isaiah’s divinely purified lips, before he pondered it aloud through what we read today as chapters 9 and 11 of his scroll: “a child is born to us … and the government upon his shoulder”; and, a “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” The original audience of these verses would have heard, not only prophecy of the end of a dynasty (dead tree stump) already clearly stated in Isaiah 7:17, but also God’s promise of something prodigious. So the apparently dead family tree would not be ultimately left for dead, as God had promised King David (cf. Psalm 89:30-37). However, they would have heard much more, and it would have been full of irony.
Aside from the fact that the prophecy cannot be removed from the context of God’s promises to David and the context of Chapters 6-11 of Isaiah, the original audience were Judeans listening to a Southern Kingdom prophet warn a Southern King of David that he was playing a dangerous game of politics; seeking worldly solutions to political power instead of trusting in God. The priestly and prophetic class may very well have heard an absolute irony! Two hundred years earlier, one of their fellow Judean prophets had stood before the first Northern Kingdom leader, Jeroboam, and prophesied about a child to be born of the house of David (1 Kings 13:2) when Jeroboam, like Ahaz, sought worldly solutions to keep his political power, and began his apostasy. Contrary to the solely midrashic and interpolative interpretations some would give this prophecy (1 Kings 13:2) 5, it will be argued it was redacted because the prophecy of 930 B.C., in 1 Kings 13:2, was realized, and thus readmitted to public revelation.
At the very start of Jeroboam’s reign (circa 930 B.C.), an unnamed Judean prophet gave a warning of a future Son of David, letting Jeroboam know, in no uncertain terms, of coming desolation for his unfaithfulness. The prophet fell into anonymity in the South most likely due to a cursed death in the North. The announcement of Isaiah to the Southern Kingdom parallels the style of the announcement of 1 Kings 13:2 when the Judean prophet told Jeroboam: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall …” In both announcements (1 Kings and Isaiah 7), a child is promised, and the child is named, because a future desolation is coming. The solution to both coming desolations in both instances is the promise of a future Son of David … God’s law for mankind or wisdom for mankind (cf. 2 Samuel 7:19).
For the Jerome Biblical Commentary (JBC) to propose: “The explicit naming of a future individual, so contrary to prophetic practice, is obviously the interpolation either of a writer in the time of Josiah, when the midrashic story may have been composed, or of D himself” 6 is awfully narrow in only leaving it as midrash, and even denying prophets naming future persons. Minimally, it neglects that it was done by Isaiah in 7:14 and 44:28. Cyrus’ clear support would not have been granted if records could not be demonstrated before his reign of his prophetic naming. His non-Judean advisors would have had to verify it. It also neglects angels foretelling the birth of children, and the names they should be given. The more canonical exegetical 7 question is whether Isaiah is influencing a redaction in 1 Kings 13, or whether an oral tradition, which is later reincorporated by those with Jeremiah (D), was already influencing Isaiah since that prophet of 1 Kings 13 was recorded on a grave (cf. 2 Kings 23:17) in the Northern Kingdom. It may be both, but the latter will be argued. Isaiah was most likely aware of, and influenced by, the obscure prophet of 1 Kings 13 almost 200 years earlier.
Curiously, the child promised in 1 Kings 13:2 does not arrive for 14 generations after Rehoboam (using the listing in 1 Chronicles 3:14); Rehoboam being the son of David when the schism between North and South began. The promised child, Josiah, is the one who initiates reforms, and republication (public recitation) of the previously lost scroll of the covenant, renews the law and the covenant, and is the last King of Judah to reign freely before the Babylonian invasion and exile. He is a promised child that is slain in the service of the Lord, after renewing God’s covenant for the people, and practicing the greatest Passover in the history of Israel since Moses (cf. 2 Kings 23:22). Sounding so much like Jesus of Nazareth, the ultimate Son of David, it raises a very curious question to be addressed later: was the geneaology of Matthew’s Gospel based only upon 14 generations to emphasize the numeric value of the name of David; or was he demonstrating something more related to God’s providence which he discovered in relation to promised children of David? To pretend God does not give signs in dates, numbers, and events would somewhat belittle the memorials of Tesh B’Av and the sensus fidelium of the people of God.
In Isaiah’s time, Josiah had not yet arrived, the prophecy of 1 Kings 13:2 had not yet been fulfilled. But it had been uttered, and was still awaiting fulfillment, a fulfillment that was announced in 2 Kings 23:17, and was kept amongst the Levites, private chroniclers, and ultimately, a public monument which the inhabitants of Bethel were able to explain upon Josiah’s arrival. Until then, a disobedient prophet that died in disgrace in Samaria, whose words had not been fulfilled, would not have made it into Southern Kingdom official histories—thus appearing as midrash to late 20th century commentators, who sometimes a priori dismiss the validity of prophecy due to presuppositions of methodology. It is no surprise a monument headstone did exist based on the enormity of the signs the anonymous prophet performed before Jeroboam, and the effect he had upon Jeroboam.
The promise of 930 B.C. (cf. 1 Kings 13) had been fulfilled by 609 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 23), and it took exactly 14 generations of the sons of David, according to the listing in 2 Chronicles 3. Isaiah announced something new during this time and just before the fulfillment of the 1 Kings 13 Josiah prophecy. Unlike God’s correction of the Northern Kings, and end of their line, Isaiah announced God’s impending correction of the Southern Kings, and the seeming end of their line. The kings of David and Judea would experience desolation of their land and exile, but once they experienced it, they should remember God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7), and hope in Immanuel to come (Isaiah 7-11).
In the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah was only proclaiming in the Spirit God’s original promise to King David that David’s line would never fail, adding that it was ultimately shrouded in mystery 8; especially for those not seeking God’s law or wisdom. Yet, it is no surprise, therefore, that the LXX—knowing already of the fulfillment of 1 Kings 13 and the yet to be realized prophecy of Isaiah 7 (and Jeremiah 31:22-31)—would interpret the Hebrew “almah” for the Greek “parthenos” because of the context of Chapters 8-11 of Isaiah. For King Ahaz’s poor judgment and unfaithfulness (cf. Psalm 89:29-37) when God offered help, God would chastise David’s line, but through a hidden descendant (underground “roots” of Isaiah 11:1 and Isaiah 6:13), God would reestablish the true Davidic Kingdom because God is faithful. In hindsight, Christians see that God gave the true “Adam,” born of virgin earth, the true “torath ha’adam” (law or wisdom for man), which is a descendant of David capable of restoring man to God.
When would the Davidic dynasty appear to be a dead tree stump? How long until a shoot should sprout from its roots (the “Branch” of Isaiah 11:1 and Jeremiah 33:15-17)? It was only in the first announcement of a promised and named “Son of David” (1 Kings 13:2), who had yet to arrive as the promised Josiah, that the answer to the length of the duration of the wait would be foreshadowed, and give a precedence. If it took 14 generations of the sons of David before the prophecy given to Jeroboam would be realized (a time frame that did not yet exist for Isaiah’s hearers), it is fitting that the same kind of promised child to come after the desolation of David’s line begins (marked by the enslavement of Josiah’s sons) should be allowed to take about 14 generations, as Matthew’s Gospel also depicts (cf. Mt 1:17) even though it uses another genealogy. The desolation of the line is not an arbitrary starting point, since the prophecy of 1 Kings 13 is given at the time of Rehoboam, when the kingdom is first split, and in need of reconciliation. How much more so is there not a need for a Son of David once the Babylonian captivity begins? Fourteen generations is the first precedent for fulfillment of prophecy related to a promised child of David’s line. Why not 14 generations for a more important Son of David?
The Audience of Jeremiah
Only Jeremiah the prophet was in the right position to begin putting these pieces together (cf. 2 Chronicles 35:25). Jeremiah was keenly aware of the fulfillment of 1 Kings 13:2 in Josiah, and knew of God’s promise to Josiah that the desolation foretold by Isaiah would not begin until after Josiah died (cf. 2 Kings 22:20). His influence should even be assumed behind the redactions that ensured 1 Kings 13:2 be included in the official histories because he was witness to the monument headstone at Bethel (cf. 2 Kings 23:17). The testimony of the people of Bethel, the prophetess who confirmed mysteries, and prophecy to Jeremiah’s father (2 Kings 22:14-20), and the prophetic spirit Jeremiah received, were signs of his authority to do so as one who sat on the seat of Moses (cf. Matthew 23:2). Thus, due to all the prophecies that he himself could confirm, Jeremiah fully understood that Jerusalem and the Temple would soon be destroyed (cf. 2 Kings 23:27) after the death of Josiah, and so Jeremiah began prophesying the destruction of the Temple as early as 605 B.C. 9
All the more does the prophecy of Isaiah 7 take on deeper meaning to Jeremiah: a son of David, much greater than all of the other previous sons of David, would be required to gather all Israel after Jerusalem is made desolate, as the Northern Kingdom had been during Isaiah’s time. A new covenant would be needed. Jeremiah’s father, the high priest, Hilkiah, had rediscovered the book of the law (2 Kings 22:8). Considering Jeremiah’s father, and the other leaders, went to a prophetess to verify the book of the covenant, and King Josiah receives from a woman the promises of God (2 Kings 22:14-20), Jeremiah’s prophecy in 31:22 of his book, just before the central prophecy of a new covenant in 31:31, also takes on greater light. A woman will clearly take on a great role, much as was already seen in Isaiah 7:14, and hoped for by the exilic community.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (JBC) and Orchard’s Catholic Commentary, help shed light on Jeremiah’s prophecy of 31:22: “For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman protects a man.” After mention of St. Jerome’s mariological interpretation and mention of John Paterson’s hypothesis (from Peake’s Commentary) of “the feminine replaces the masculine,” the JBC ultimately sides with an interpretation “where ‘woman’ personifies Israel and ‘man’ personifies Yahweh,” 10 but again the implications remain tied to Isaiah 7:14, of God’s initiative to save through a woman. It is C. Lattey, S.J.’s commentary on Jeremiah 31:22 which makes the ties:
And then a great sign is promised, so great that it is even called a creation. The verb is in the perfect tense (“hath created”), but it is generally admitted that this is merely another example of the well-known idiom, the “prophetic perfect,” a vivid manner of representing a prophecy as already fulfilled. The present writer accepts Knabenbauer’s explanation in CSS, which he regards as far more plausible than any other, but of course it presupposes that miracle and prophecy are possible. Instead of the initiative being taken by the man, as is emphasized by the word used for “woman” being an unusual one, which stresses the sexual character. The word for “man” (that found in Gabri-el “man of God”) is also an unusual one, implying the strength and power; a cognate word (a fact significant in the present context) is applied as a name to the Messiah in Isaiah 9:6 (“God the Mighty”), and directly to God himself in Psalm 23:8 (twice); Deutoronomy 10:17; etc. This explanation of the passage is confirmed by the fairly obvious reference to which it contains to Isaiah 7:14, which can reasonably be supposed to have been familiar to Jeremiah’s hearers and readers, as to those of Micah 5:3, immediately after the mention of Bethlehem. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah passes easily by a process of compenetration from the temporary deliverance to the full Messianic deliverance of which it is a type. 11
All the more, might one ask, are we not then seeing a reference back to Genesis 3:15, and the promise of a woman and her seed? Are not Genesis 12: 1-3, and Isaiah 7:14 and 19, showing us how to trace the ultimate line of the promise?
An Issue of Prophecy and Redactions for Catholic Exegetes
With so many advances in biblical studies, and the attention to sources and redactions, we see better how to understand multiple authors and editors over time as not undermining traditional understandings of prophecy. We need to continue to discuss why we can trust that later redactors are being faithful to the original authors, and their intent; otherwise, they are innovators and not successors of Moses. We should be demonstrating that in the question of when redactions are done, that these successors of the tradition (prophetic office) did not invent stories, prophecies, or midrashes in order to accomplish political ends (or, God forbid, conspiracies). These redactors are people who have received from God the prophetic spirit and authority, as representatives of God, to represent God’s authentic covenant as the revelation of God develops in his purposes and plans to fulfillment in his Son (cf. Ephesians 1:9-10). The priestly-prophetic redactors are filling in the gaps at key points in history, showing God’s faithfulness in times of trial, and reincorporating previously ignored material as the self-consciousness of God’s covenant people progresses towards the Messiah. Christ himself testifies to this authority in Matthew 23:1, as does Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18-19. The “Old Testament” canon could not be determined as finally set until all was fulfilled in Christ, and the covenant was no longer administered by the Levitical priesthood. Until then, it could be redacted in faithfulness to Moses and the prophets; especially by Levite prophets.
Otherwise, pretending a priori that prophecy can not be specific, and ruling it out in the process of exegesis, rules out what gives firm conviction and motivation for the prophets to be willing to suffer for God. It is most likely the prophecy itself of Josiah’s birth, hundreds of years earlier, and the prophecy of the destruction to follow his death, that fills Jeremiah with the conviction of the coming destruction of the Temple. Jeremiah was a witness to the monuments and validity of the prophecies. This conviction of Josiah’s prophesied birth inspires Jeremiah to imitate the suffering servant passages of Isaiah, suffer humiliations, write his Lamentations, and witness to the future hope of an eternal kingdom, because he knows the desolation foreseen in Isaiah 7:17 and 11:1 of a “stump” must take place before the next promised child of David; a child who will be greater than Josiah. As God so provided in Josiah, Jeremiah was certain God would also provide and fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:22 and 31:31 all in view of Isaiah 7:14. Jeremiah’s faith in the coming Messiah, and his sufferings for the people of God, are a participation in Christ, and merit the coming fulfillment as did Abraham’s faith. Thus, Christ Jesus could speak of the blood of the prophets, and accountability for that blood in his rejection.
The Numerology of Matthew’s Gospel
The meaning of the numerology of Matthew’s Gospel is not an either/or matter, but a both/and matter. No doubt, in the proclamation that Jesus is the son of David, which opens the Gospel, the numeric value of David’s name, according to the Hebrew alphanumeric system, is shown with the number 14. 12 Thus, being the third fulfillment of 14 (DWD=14), there will be no greater fulfillment of a promised Son of David as the thrice emphasis signifies “ultimate” in Hebrew culture.13 What is particularly interesting is the emphasis Matthew’s Gospel gives to the cycle of generations since each ending is emphasized to be a promised child. We seem to have that the number 14 also points to a coming promised child.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the first set of 14 generations connects the promises of a son of Abraham to David, being the first movement after Isaac to fulfillment of a “law for mankind” (cf. 2 Samuel 7:19). Certainly, Isaac is the first promised son of Abraham, but clearly the son of David becomes the line within Isaac (through Jacob) to watch for future promised children to whom the “name” and promises go as the representative “First-Born” of the human race. Otherwise, Jesus could not be called both the son of David, and the son of Abraham (cf. Mt 1:1). God promised Abram to make Abram’s name great (cf. Genesis 12:2), and this clearly seems to be fulfilled in David, once the promise of “the land and nation” (Genesis 12:1) has been secured at the end of the time of Judges, with David’s capture of Jerusalem, and God’s promise of a name and dynasty (cf. 2 Samuel 7:13). 14 Thus, the first Temple is initiated at God’s covenant with David by the son of David, Solomon. Thus, ends the point of Matthew’s first cycle of 14 with David.
The second set of 14 generations actually ends with the next greatest king, Josiah. This is not taken from the order of the listings in Matthew, but from Matthew’s summary in verse 17: “and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations.” What is actually at the center of Matthew’s Gospel, when one pays attention to his summary of the meaning of three cycles of 14, is the Temple, God’s dwelling with men. It is from the time of David until the time of David’s faithful son Josiah, that God dwells with man at the Temple. After Josiah (the promised child of prophecy in 1 Kings 13 at the time of the first divide of Israel), the Temple and the sons of David are lost for 14 generations until the next promised child, the child promised in Isaiah 7:14. “God with us” is born of the Virgin—also fulfilling Jeremiah 31:21 as discussed earlier.
It was after 609 B.C. that Jechoniah, the son of Josiah, came to power “and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon” (Matthew 1:11). The destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. ensued, and is intimately connected with the deportation and the prophecies given to Josiah of the desolation which God had delayed because of Josiah’s faithfulness. By marking Jesus with the third numbering of 14: “from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17), not only is Matthew marking Jesus as the ultimate David, he is marking him as the restoration of the ultimate Temple, which the ultimate son of David would bring. Thus, the 14 generations depict both Jesus as the ultimate son of David, and the ultimate Temple in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, that through his seed, all the nations of the world should enter God’s blessing. Jesus is the ultimate Isaac.
While some scholars point out that St. Matthew skipped various generations to draw his point of emphasis to the number 14 in order to emphasize David’s name, this article desires to emphasize that Matthew’s spiritual insight is exactly right about the importance of the number 14 with God’s promises to David’s line, which is ultimately about a promise of “… wasoth torath ha’adam” (2 Samuel 7:19). From the time of the split of the Davidic kingdom under Rehoboam, to a promised child (Josiah) to unite Israel under authentic worship, it was exactly 14 generations, according to the listing of 1 Chronicles 3:14. It is fitting that from the time of the last promised child (Josiah), the number 14 should be employed again to describe the generations until the fulfillment of all prophecy. From the time of the actual desolation, which was foretold by Isaiah (destruction of Judea), to the promised child of Isaiah 7:14, it was exactly 14 generations.
Biblically speaking, a generation is usually associated with 40 years. Fourteen generations could, therefore, cover a span of basically 560 years (14 x 40 = 560). The Book of Daniel basically tries to establish that the prophecy of 70 years of 7 (490 years in Daniel 9:24) is given as the time after the 70 years of exile (Jeremiah) is complete. Do the math: 70 years of exile followed by 490 years (under 4 governing beasts until the time of the Messiah)—about 560 years. Just as interesting, we can see the depths of that exile, the darkest moment being not just the destruction of the Temple, but also the stoning of Jeremiah by his own countrymen, in about 570 B.C. 15, after the fact of his prophecy being established. How dark to stone the prophet while seeing that his prophecies were true! Are not the deaths and births of prophets the real beginning and closing of ages? Is it not interesting that 14 generations is also the basic time from Jeremiah’s death to the birth of the Christ, based on one generation being 40 years?
Matthew’s 14 generations are not arbitrary, and Christians can find a lot more conviction about the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 in association with the numerology. The line of prophets pointed to a son of David who would be born miraculously of a Virgin. The 14 generations for the prophecy of Josiah to be fulfilled is precedence that the same pattern of prophecy in Isaiah 7 pointed to a distant future. Already at the moment of Isaiah’s call, God told him to warn the people: “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9). It is no wonder the contemporary audience of the prophecy did not understand, and later generations would struggle until the knowledge of God’s full plan in Christ. With Benedict XVI, we can assert, “Should Christians not hear this word as their own? On listening to this verse, should they not come to the conviction that the message which always seemed so strange, waiting to be deciphered, has now come true? Should they not be convinced that God has now given us this sign in the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary?” 16
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. P. Whitmore (New York: Image Books, 2012), 49. ↩
- Ibid., 49-50. ↩
- Ibid., 50. ↩
- 2 Sam 7:10 “… wasoth torath ha’adam”. Transliteration and discussion on translation in: Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Cincinnati: Servant Press, 1998), 211-212. ↩
- See: P. Ellis, “1-2 Kings”, in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968), 191-192. ↩
- Ibid., 192. ↩
- Cf. Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Verbum Domini, 30 September, 2010, #34-36. ↩
- See Isaiah 6:9: “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.” ↩
- Cf. G. Couturier, “Jeremiah”, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, op. cit., 329. ↩
- Ibid., 326. ↩
- C. Lattey, S.J., “Jeremiah”, in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1953) reformatted by Di Carlo and Egan, 2009, Vol. 1, pp. 418-437, at 429. ↩
- See: T. Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 1999), 21. ↩
- See: Ibid. ↩
- Cf. S. Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, op. cit. ↩
- See: J. Phillip Hyatt, “Jeremiah” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/302676/Jeremiah, Feb. 28, 2013: “Even in Egypt he continued to rebuke his fellow exiles. Jeremiah probably died about 570 bce. According to a tradition that is preserved in extrabiblical sources, he was stoned to death by his exasperated fellow countrymen in Egypt.” ↩
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth:The Infancy Narratives, 50. ↩