Our reading at Mass today is taken from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, that wonderful prophecy about the child Emmanuel, born of a virgin. It is one of those passages where the traditional interpretation, based on Matthew’s Gospel, conflicts terribly with modern interpretations, leaving one seemingly to choose between tradition and scholarship. Some years ago, a friend wrote to me during Advent with a heartfelt question about this chapter, and I offered him my own approach to solving the age-old debate. This year, I have decided to share that reply with you.
Your whole family, you say, has been wondering about Isaiah 7:14-15:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
What a joy to hear that your whole family grows anxious over Scripture, when most of the world is anxious over shopping lists, tax deductibles, and gaining weight on holiday goodies! When most of us hesitate over which Christmas chocolates and cookies and meats to serve, your mind hovers over a more puzzling menu: what can it mean that Jesus will eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good?
Unfortunately, my answer can be neither short nor simple. Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most controverted passages in all of Scripture, and I do not know any other scholar who holds exactly my position, but I am happy to share my reflections, and your family can take or leave them. In essence, I hold that we must depart from the traditional interpretation in order to return to it more forcefully; so I am estranged from traditional interpreters on the one hand and from modern exegetes on the other. Let me explain.
Because of the inherent logic of the story in Isaiah 7, the moderns are inevitably right when they say that the “young woman” is a natural mother and “Emmanuel” a child of the eighth century BC. The historical situation presupposed by Isa 2-12 can be summarized as follows. At a point when Israel and Damascus had been reduced to Assyrian vassalage, Rezin the ruler of Syria put together an anti-Assyrian alliance including Israel and Tyre. Ahaz of Jerusalem refused to join the alliance, so Syria and Israel invaded Judah in an attempt to replace Ahaz with one Tabeel, who would—so the plan went—bring the resources of Judah into the anti-Assyrian coalition. Despite Isaiah’s intervention, recorded in chapter 7, Ahaz appealed to Assyria for help. The empire struck back, and Syria was absorbed into Assyria along with the northern parts of Israel, including Galilee and the upper Transjordan region. Judah and what was left of Israel became Assyrian vassal states. When Tiglath-pileser III died and Shalmaneser V took the throne, Hoshea king of Israel attempted to cast off Assyrian rule. This led to Israel’s devastation and the deportation of most of its inhabitants.
At the crux of the story, Isaiah confronts Ahaz as he is out inspecting water supplies for a potential siege. He reminds Ahaz that the house of David does not depend on merely human strength, but on Yahweh and his promises to David; when Ahaz refuses to listen, Isaiah offers to perform any sign he might want in confirmation of the promises, but Ahaz persists in his unbelief. Since Ahaz refused a sign that would show him the future, Isaiah gives him instead a sign that will show his folly after the fact: a young woman will conceive and bear a child, and before the child reaches the age of reason the kingdoms whom Ahaz so fears will be destroyed and Judah itself reduced to a wasteland. This puts a time limit on Isaiah’s prophecy: he not only says it will happen, but that it will happen within the time required for a child to be born and grow to the age of reason. Then Ahaz’s error will be apparent to all.
Given what the Emmanuel sign was supposed to show, it does not make sense to say that the child in question is Jesus of the first century AD. That would have Isaiah say, “You doubt me? I tell you that within 700 years these kingdoms you fear will be gone”—hardly a spectacular claim. The child must be contemporary with Isaiah for the prophecy to have any rhetorical force.
And the controversy over the word “virgin” is needless. Even if we go with the Septuagint’s stricter parthenos—which does not always signify “virgin”, by the way—all this would mean is that the woman in question was a virgin at the time of Isaiah’s prediction, not that the mode of conception would be supernatural. To Jerome’s objection that a natural conception would not be considered a “sign,” one can point to Mahershalalhashbaz in Isaiah 8, who was naturally conceived. Whether or not he is considered to be the child promised in 7:14, Isaiah says of him explicitly that “I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from Yahweh of Hosts…” (Isa 8:18), implying that to be a “sign” does not mean “to offer proof” but “to signify,” and that the sign does not consist so much of the child’s conception as of the child himself.
Now we can see what the curds and honey are about. The key is found in Isaiah 7:21-25:
In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep; and because of the abundance of milk which they give, he will eat curds; for every one that is left in the land will eat curds and honey. In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows men will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns; and as for all the hills which used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns; but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.
The child will eat curds and honey because the land of Judah will be a wasteland: where formerly were cultivated fields and vineyards will be grazing land for animals and a habitat for bees. For a long time now Israel has pursued a policy of expansion and accumulation of wealth, but the hard truth is that “God is with us”—and God does not mix well with greed.
So far I sound like a cynical, acid-critical exegete, do I not? But then we have to pay attention to what Isaiah says about this Emmanuel. The child is explicitly said to be a sign—but a sign of what? Ultimately, the child is a sign that Isaiah is right and that “God is with” the house of David. Let me say it again: the child Emmanuel is a sign that, despite all appearances, the house of David shall not lack a king on the throne.
To push it a little further, we should note that the prophecy about “Emmanuel” is inevitably associated with the direct prophecies of the Messiah in chapters 9 and 11, and especially with the description in chapter 9 of the “child” who is “born for us”. This indicates that Isaiah understands Emmanuel himself as a sign of another child, the Christ. While modern exegetes have put their finger on the literal sense of the text, they have missed that Isaiah himself urges us beyond the literal sense by saying explicitly that this child is a sign, and is to be understood accordingly. And under the influence of inspiration, Isaiah chooses words that are actually more applicable to the thing signified than to the sign: Mary will not only be but remain a virgin, and no one is “God with us” more than Jesus.
This is one of those delightful places where literal and spiritual senses seem to touch and almost to overlap. The words point to an Old Testament reality, but the words themselves tell us that the reality itself is a sign of a further reality! But for the sake of clarity I will continue to say that the moderns have seen the literal sense of the text while the traditional interpretation has detected the spiritual sense.
Matthew picked up on what the critics have missed, because Matthew was an exegete of the spiritual sense of Scripture. His citations of Hosea 11:1 and Jer 31:15 show the same pattern: the text does not apply literally to Jesus, but transparently applies to Jesus at the allegorical level, and in fact is worded in a way that applies better to Jesus than to the literal meaning. If you take a few moments to look at these texts and Matthew’s use of them, you will see what I mean.
How long you have endured with me, and still I have not answered your question! At the level of the spiritual sense, whereby “Emmanuel” refers to Jesus, what does it mean that he will “eat curds and honey before he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”?
Your patience has its reward. Now that we have uncovered the literal meaning of the text, we can explicate its spiritual sense more easily, because the spiritual sense rests on the literal sense. In the literal sense, the child will eat curds and honey because of the decimated condition of the land of Judah. As the child signifies Jesus, so the condition of the holy land signifies the condition of the world at the time of Jesus’ coming—completely overthrown by the enemy and reduced to spiritual poverty. All the world was weary and feeling its weariness, hungry and aware of its hunger, by the time Christ came: the Jews were restless and supported various messianic pretenders, while the Gentiles had all but given up on life. Satan, who is signified by Assyria and Babylon, held all in his grip.
In the midst of this, Jesus brought the spiritual development of Israel to its completion. The best strand of Jewish piety was the devotion of the “anawim”, the poor of the land, exemplified by Psalm 23, a kind of spiritual poverty and littleness before God. Jesus both inherited this devotion from his parents and brought it to perfection by his anointing with the Spirit. While “the world”—both Jewish and Gentile—sought to feast on power and gold and pleasures, Jesus ate the curds and honey of a simple and chastened virtue, of one who trembles before the God who is with us. With reference to his full human powers, of course, he did this when he reached the age of reason and his divinely illuminated soul was fully engaged with his bodily organism.
In recent conversation with you, I attempted to draw a distinction between a spiritual exegesis that is based squarely on the text and a further spiritual interpretation which goes “beyond the evidence”, so to speak, to wonder about the details of the text. I called this further interpretation the “legitimate playground of the Spirit”, alluding to Augustine’s notion of the Spirit author who knows what every reader will draw from the text and approves of what is good, and I argued that this use of the text is not embarrassing but essential for Christian reading. If you will bear with me, I would like to press the text just a bit further, along the lines suggested to me by charity, and I ask that no man despise what I say because I will not despise what he says.
It seems to me that curds, which are a bulking together of the food of infants, refer to what Jesus received in his needy human nature from his human parents and culture. Though he was God himself, he needed someone to teach him the word “God”; though he loved more than any man has ever or will ever love, he needed to have his physical memory stocked with stories of love to express his soul’s unmatched understanding. But even as he ate the “curds” of human piety, he constantly savored the sweetness of honey, an uninterrupted feeding on the food of angels—the vision of God. This marriage of the human and the divine shows us Jesus as our true Joshua, the one who brings us into a land “flowing with milk and honey”.