Rev. Mathew Skariah M.A, B.D. M.Th. Auxiliary Secretary Kerala Auxiliary Bible Society of India
God of the Old Testament (OT) has revealed as being with the people and the world, from the creation narratives through the exodus event and prophetic witness, actively participating and engaging in the life of Israel. The presence of God journeyed with the people in the wilderness as the cloud and the tabernacle. In the New Testament (NT), the presence of God acquires a very personal nature as God incarnates as the Son of God assuming the form of human and living among the people. This is an entirely new manner of God’s presence with the world and is given the name “Immanuel,” which means ‘God with us.’
It is the gospel of Matthew that specifically describes the person of Jesus as Immanuel in the infancy narratives quoting prophet Isaiah’s words. The name Immanuel is carefully placed as a climax of the gospel’s opening (Matt. 1:23). It is the first of the gospel’s OT citations, which tries to establish that Jesus’s life and work is in fulfillment of OT prophesy. Matthew’s gospel can be thought as having a God-with-us Christology from beginning till the end, bracketed between Immanuel and the parting words of Jesus to the disciples “I am with you always, till the end of age,” signifying the continuing presence of God with his people.
According to Norman K. Gottwald, the proper context for interpreting the Immanuel sign is the narrative of Isaiah chapters 6-8, which he designates as the ‘Book of Waiting’ or the ‘Book of Signs.’ Immanuel is a powerful sign as Hebrew symbolic names are always very potent and effective. The situation of the prophetic speech providing the sign of Immanuel is set in the context of 8th century BC where the prophet Isaiah addresses King Ahaz of Judah under threat from imperial aggression (Isa. 7:1-2; cf. 2 Kings 16). The greater northern powers, Syria under King Rezin and Israel under King Pekah, threaten to invade Jerusalem and overthrow the king (Isa. 7:6). Faced with such an imminent crisis, Ahaz and the people tremble with fear. God instructs Isaiah to assure that the war coalition of Syria and Israel is bound for failure. Though compelled to ask for a sign that God will rescue Judah from the powerful enemies, Ahaz refuses to do so, citing that he will not test God by asking for a sign. But, the sign of the child Immanuel is given to the king, who will be born and will signify the presence of God among the people (Isa. 7:14).
Immanuel- God’s presence in the sign of a child
Caught between the powerful hostile nations and the Assyrian empire, the sign that is given to the nation under fear of defeat and imminent destruction, is the sign of a child. Child is the symbol of powerlessness and complete dependency. However, in the very birth and infancy of the child Immanuel, the power equations mighty and powerful nations begin to alter dramatically. Syro-Ephramite coalition is the coming together of nations in defiance to the purpose of God. But in the short span of the child’s infancy, the power of the nations wither away. The promise of God through the prophet to King Ahaz acquires new significance in the context of the birth of Jesus and the threat of Herod who decrees the massacre of infants. Assyria, Rome and Herod symbolize human power in its utmost violent and cruel manifestation.
Dorothy Jean Weaver points to the way Matthews gospel juxtaposes the powerful earthly king Herod with the powerless child Jesus. Though Herod has power to control religious and political leadership and can cause the displacement of people, in the child Jesus, who is powerless and a refugee, the purposes of God are fulfilled.
Sign of the child as denoting God’s salvation to the people is an alternate reading of the concept of power against the dominant symbols. Imperial powers enforced submission through the unbridled use of violent power. The public spectacle and display of violence inflicted on bodies served to perpetuate fear of the empire.
Gottwald observes that “Immanuel does not carry out the action of God, but only attends to it…he is nothing but a normal child and the whole force of the sign is precisely his normalcy.” Mowinckal points that Immanuel “becomes a sign simply by being born.” The child, Immanuel, becomes a counter narrative to the power of earthly kings and empires. It is a sign of absolute dependency and alignment on God’s purposes.
Immanuel- the sign of God’s hospitality
The conversation of the prophet with Ahaz, the Judean king, opens up new possibilities in the meaning of Immanuel. Though some scholars see the sign as the promise of continuation of the Davidic dynasty, others like Gottwald objects to the notion that it points to the perpetuation of the David dynasty. The promise of Immanuel is in fact a challenge to the existing dynasty of David. “The object of Yahweh is not to save a government or even a dynastic line, but a community of faith.” (Gottwald)
Weaver observes that the presentation of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel recasts the identity, character and vocation of the Messiah, thus challenging the conventional notions of kingship, power and social status. The Messiah is expected to come from the royal line of David. Genealogy in Matthew’s gospel begins with Abraham, includes King David and culminates in Jesus. Though the progression of genealogy reaches its climax in Jesus, there occurs a sudden shift in the pattern to include Jesus who is denoted as the son of Mary, the wife of Joseph, who was in the line of David. The gospel also goes to great lengths to explain that Joseph and Mary did not have any marital relationship till Jesus was born. Joseph “son of David” names the child born to Mary and in this way “adopts” Jesus into the line of David. Jesus becomes the adopted son and thus the bringing together of the common people into the royalty of God.
Herbert Wolf also suggests that the sign of Immanuel was a threat for Ahaz and Davidic dynasty. The new ruler would not belong to the family of David, but was a promise of salvation to the people and would come as a savior and defeat the Syro- Ephraimite coalition. Thus both the sign of Immanuel given by the prophet and the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew together opens a new narrative of ‘God-with-us’ through democratizing Davidic lineage to ‘adopt’ the whole community of faith into its line.
Immanuel- God’s presence confronting lack of trust
The war coalition of Syria and Ephraim against Judea comes as a severe test of faith in God to King Ahaz. The prospect of successfully resisting the onslaught of the powerful alliance being extremely remote, the king resigns himself to the fate of defeat. He is unwilling to heed to the God’s offer of rescue by demanding a sign. The defeat seems to be so certain that the king does not see any manner in which God can ever intervene to save. Though the king explains his refusal to demand a sign as his unwillingness to put God to test, the fact is evident in the words of the prophet that it is a loss of confidence in the power of God to save. Refusal for a sign from God is the human resistance to believe in God’s saving work. It is a tacit submission to the rulers of the world against God in controlling human life.
The world to which Jesus was born was characterized by constant fear; the mighty and the marginal were all plagued by the fear of loss of position, life or livelihood. Imperial peace operated through a culture of fear. The sign of Immanuel is the promise of God’s presence amid fearful socio political scenario that threatens to dislocate the faith in God’s ability. It is a categorical declaration of God’s presence, unconditional to the response of the king. God-with-us in Immanuel confronts the culture of unbelief and lack of trust in God that has come to characterize the people of God. The offer of God’s presence challenges us to submit to God’s ability to change the seemingly difficult course of human history.
Immanuel – the sign of God’s resistance to imperial powers
The threat of powerful nations Syria and Israel, and the Assyrian empire was real in Isaiah’s context and that of Rome, Herod in the socio-political situation of Matthew’s gospel. The audience of Matthew’s gospel had come into terms with the Roman devastation of Jerusalem by Roman Empire in CE 70. It seemed that the gods of Rome were having their way. But the presence and power of God is experienced through the child Jesus, who becomes the sign of resistance to imperial power. Warren Carter observes that the situation of imperial threat is very relevant to the socio-historical situation of the Matthean audience. Perhaps located in Antioch in Syria, the administrative capital of the Roman province of Syria, community knew daily the political, socioeconomic, legal, religious, and cultural reality of Roman imperial power and presence.
The name Immanuel contests the imperial claims that Emperor Domitian is the ‘presence of the divine’ or the manifestation of God. Jesus child manifests God’s will on earth, and that in spite of the seemingly dominant empires, God’s purposes and reign will prevail. According to Carter, ‘the child signifies God’s presence with the people and God’s resistance to imperial aspirations.” Immanuel is God’s presence actualized through the prophetic voice that becomes the discordant voice in the existing power situation controlled by the imperial powers. God’s presence disturbs and dislocates the dominant and established powers. It challenges the dominant reality and envisions an alternate reality and world, where God’s purposes are reckoned. The sign is God’s alternate and larger presence in the context of imperial presence and counter narrative to the dominant imperial narrative.
Immanuel- the sign of salvation, judgment and hope
The name Immanuel has to be understood in the context of two other names- Sheyaryashub (a remnant shall return) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (spoil speeds, prey hastes). Isaiah 8:1-4 is symbolic of the defeat of Syria and Israel, whereas 8:5-15 points to the imperial attack on Jerusalem. God’s presence in Judah will mean not only salvation but also destruction. The prophet unambiguously expresses that God would bring Judah to judgment because of its unbelief. The same sign that signify grace also signify judgment. The presence of God is ambivalent in nature; even when it marks salvation to the people in fear and distress, it cautions judgment regarding the apostasy of the people of God. But the idea of remnant in Isaiah chapters 6-8 provides hope of restoration in the future. The name of Jesus as Immanuel is double edged; promising salvation from imperial power, but delivering judgment if God’s action is rejected. Even when life under Roman rule was a punishment, there was still hope for the futsure, under the reign of God’s kingdom.
It is such a great matter of hope to experience that God’s presence is real within the turmoil and anxieties of human life. God’s presence is both saving and judging, but it carries us forward in hope towards the greater purposes of God. Christmas comes to us as the continuing presence of God and calls the Church to embody God’s presence to bring hope to the world.