Isa 7:10-25

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Home > The Old Testament > Isaiah > Chapter 7 > Verses 7:10-25
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  • Isa 7:10. The chapter's narrative suddenly makes a rather large leap. Verses 1-9 narrate a prophetic event: the Lord speaks to Isaiah, and gives him a commandment (with some specific words to speak). Verses 10 and on narrate a more complicated prophetic event: the Lord speaks to Ahaz, through Isaiah, having a whole conversation and then offering a rather complex oracle. The narrative leaves off entirely any description of Isaiah's response to the commandment of verses 1-9, almost suggesting that an editor has patched together two disparate events, but the obvious connection between verse 11 and the oracle of verses 7-9 makes it clear that this is probably not the work of an editor: the narrative is built on the lacuna, and the lacuna is for that reason of great interpretive importance. In short, one is forced to ask: how is this narrative affected by its immediate leap from Isaiah's reception of the commandment to prophecy to the conversation between the Lord and Ahaz, which Isaiah mediates?
At least this much must be said in response: the lacuna at once marks the two narrative events with a sort of immediacy to each other, and with a sort of mediate character. In other words, the "Moreover" and the "again," as well as the obvious temporal space between the two events, mark quite explicitly that the two events are separate. But at the very same time, the oracle of verses 7-9 is, because all the "unimportant" events between the two narrated events are left out, tied immediately to the Lord's commanding Ahaz to ask a sign. This immediate tie suggests that the business of the sign in verse 11 is a response to Ahaz's unrecorded (perhaps unrecorded because unspoken) response to verse 9's "If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established [or trusted]." This "immediate" tie, brought up against the mediacy of the unrecorded events, perhaps explains the somewhat paradoxical nature of the lacuna: the king's unfaithful response does not rise to language, does not constitute an event (until the Lord speaks his own response to it). Curiously, this also implies that Isaiah's faithful response (he obviously made it over to speak with Ahaz, and he obviously spoke the words commanded him) does not rise to language, at least to the language of the narrative. There is something curious at work in the duality: Isaiah's faithfulness and Ahaz's unfaithfulness are paired in that they are narratively ignored. Why this is, or what this accomplishes, must still be worked out.
If Isaiah's faithful response and Ahaz's unfaithful response are together suppressed, kept back from the language of the narrative, then it might at the very least be said that the narrative de-emphasizes human response. In fact, the narrative emphasizes divine activity precisely by de-emphasizing human activity. Now, while it might be pointed out that Ahaz is allowed to respond in verse 12 to the commandment to ask a sign, it might just as well be countered that verse 14 overcomes that human activity: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign." The emphasis of the narrative is on divine activity, and not on human response to it. It might be pointed out that this same emphasis/de-emphasis is at work throughout the oracle, or at least until chapter 12. Assyria, for example, oversteps its bounds in trying to act, and as soon as it does, its very ability to act (its agent-cy) is canceled, and the emphasis returns to the Lord's ability to act. The theme is highlighted by the repeating refrain "his hand is stretched out still." Throughout the oracle, that is, the realm of human activity becomes a sort of puppet show, a play of forces that merely are the surface of the much more real play at work behind it: the Lord's activity. In short, the omnipotence of God, His ability to shape and mold history, is at work here. It might be precisely for this reason that chapter 12 reduces man's response quite simply to praise.
But there might be more still to the story. This underlying theme of relativized human activity well connects up with a far subtler theme that runs through the same six-chapter oracle: the theme of signs. As early as verse 14 of this first chapter, the word itself appears, but the introduction of the first sign comes even earlier, when Shear-jashub is to go with Isaiah to meet Ahaz (in verse 3). The defacement of the realm of human activity might well be set in parallel to--if not equated with--the defacement of a presence at work in the sign: just as what becomes a sign is defaced so as to be, as it were, broken open (so saturated, so filled, that it can only make reference to its referent by bursting) in pointing to what it signifies, so the realm of human activity is constantly being frustrated, defaced, taken up, and changed by the almighty hand of God, the ultimate Referent, the absolute Pole of all reference. And precisely in the constant defacement of the realm of human activity, the reality of divine activity is signified.
All of this suggests that a sort of semiological approach be taken to Isaiah 7-12.
  • Isa 7:11. In a moment that for most readers of scriptures can only amount to a reversal, the Lord's commands Ahaz to ask a sign. Based on Ahaz's refusal in verse 12, this passage is commonly read as a test of obedience: in something like Abraham's sacrifice (on a much less radical level), Ahaz is asked to do something he knows he should not do, and his pathetic attempt at piety marks the awful distance between him and the Lord. But, based on the commentary at verse 10, there may be reason to reread this commandment: the Lord's commandment to Ahaz is far more complex than it might at first appear.
It must be admitted from the very beginning that there is an implicit connection between this commandment and the oracle of verses 7-9. The sign to be asked for is apparently to confirm the oracle. Put more precisely, since the oracle announces an event that may be as far away as sixty-five years, the sign is to draw the reality of that eventuality into the present. The relation between the present sign and the eventuality of the oracle's fulfillment puts on display the very nature of the sign, and it is this nature that forces a closer reading of the commandment here being made to Ahaz. Quite simply put: the sign amounts to a defacing of the present, precisely so that a presence points to (signifies, refers to) something still future. Even to state things in these terms is interesting, if one is speaking of the Old Testament, because "the present" and "a presence" in Hebrew would be pnym, the Hebrew word for "face." In other words, there is at least the hint here that the sign is precisely a defacing, a marring of the face. In that a sign is given, some face is marred, someone is defaced, and precisely so that the future (in Hebrew `hr, literally "the foreign" or "the other") can come to play in the present. In so many words, the sign amounts to this: someone present is defaced precisely to allow for the presence (the face) of the other.
Perhaps this reading is confirmed by a verse in the Book of Mormon. After Korihor is struck dumb as a sign to him that God exists, the chief judge writes to him: "Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign?" (Alma 30:51) The reality of what remains entirely other only becomes present, only is shown in a sign, in that God "afflict[s] others." In fact, that Korihor himself is struck dumb is significant: he is marred precisely in that he now becomes a reference to God's reality. It is highly significant that the sign that there signifies God is Korihor's inability to speak: with stammering lips and a foreign tongue, Korihor loses power over communication with others in the realm of the same. It is moreover significant that when Korihor then asks Alma to heal him, Alma refuses (or, at least, turns the question over the Lord to take care of) to do so because Korihor would then cease to be a sign, and he would therefore "again lead away the hearts of th[e] people" (Alma 30:55). It might also be noted that the text there mentions also that the people were generally "all converted again unto the Lord" (Alma 30:58).
But all of this general discussion of signs only turns the matter back over to this verse, where what is being commanded of Ahaz might be explored more particularly. If Ahaz is commanded to ask for a sign, he is told quite plainly that he is petition the Lord to deface the present in some way or another: Ahaz is commanded to seek a disfigurement of the familiar. Read this way, the Lord's commandment does not seem to be a test like Abraham's sacrifice; or rather, neither this experience nor Abraham's sacrifice should be read as a test any longer. Both of these experiences should rather be read as a call from God to participate in the disfigurement/sanctification of the present. What is rather curious about this reading, then, is that Ahaz's participation in the defacing of the present is an asking. Unlike Abraham, who is commanded to perform the disfigurement, Ahaz is simply to petition the disfigurement. Hence, though there is an obvious similarity between Abraham's sacrifice and this story, in the end, the latter is a reversal of the former: whereas in the Abraham story, God comes as a petitioner, as One who calls upon Abraham to do something, here Ahaz is set up as the petitioner, and the Lord becomes the interlocuted. But this is too simplistic: the Lord commands as petitioner, but precisely to accomplish a reversal of roles, precisely to make Ahaz the petitioner. This might be seen as the Lord providing Ahaz with the opportunity to do something far nobler than his wont.
A word concerning the depth/height business of the verse. It should be pointed out that "either" translates nothing in the Hebrew here, and that "ask it" reflects a Hebrew word that follows "depth," not precedes it. The word translated "ask it" (sh`lh) might well be a variation of sh`l, Hell. On this reading, the verse might better be translated: "Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God, as deep as Hell or as high as Heaven." At any rate, there doesn't seem to be any particular reason to read the verse as saying that Ahaz was only to ask a sign either in the depths or in the heights, that the sign was to be removed spatially.
  • Isa 7:12. Ahaz quite clearly recognizes the reversal of the petitioning role at work in verse 11 when he says "neither will I tempt the LORD." The Hebrew means "try, prove," and it is the very word used to describe what the Lord does in commanding the sacrifice of Isaac (in Gen 22:1). In other words, Ahaz's refusal to request a sign does not seem to be based so much on the warning that sign-seekers are of an adulterous generation, etc., but rather on the explicit recognition of the interlocuting role he is being asked to fill. Ahaz refuses to take up the role of petitioner to the Other who should stand always as petitioner. His refusal marks his inability to recognize the workings of the Lord: precisely in that Isaiah has confronted him with a commandment from God marks him as the absolutely interlocuted, and his responding to the word of the Lord will never reverse that. Though he call upon the Lord, yet the call is only a response. His refusal to call is his refusal to be called. The point might be broadened: any petition man makes to God is a responding call, a counter-call, and never an originary call; but this implies precisely that any refusal to call amounts to a refusal to respond to the originary call from God. The Great Petitioner petitions man to petition.
  • Isa 7:14: Virgin. The Hebrew word translated as "virgin" in verse 14 is almah, which can refer either to a virgin or to a young woman. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, this word is translated as parthenos, which means "virgin." It was the Septuagint that was used as the basis for Matthew 1:23 and its account of the virgin birth of Christ.
  • Isa 7:14: Immanuel. The name Immanuel in verse 14 means "God is with us" in Hebrew.
  • Isa 7:14. After a word of weariness, the prophet announces that "the Lord himself shall give you a sign." It should be recognized that the oracle never returns to third-person narrative after this point. If the narrative beginnings of the story should be read as an introduction to an oracle, the oracle begins here with "Behold." The text never leaves off the oracle, and there is no concluding narrative to wrap things up. From here on out, one simply hears the voice of Isaiah/YHWH. But before that "Behold," is this most important announcement: the Lord Himself now gives the sign. The language is rather careful. The Hebrew is not "YHWH" here but "Adonai," the Master, the One-in-Control. In other words, the Lord is identified as a lord here, as the One who remains in charge even if Ahaz will try to run from His power. Beyond this, it is important that the verb used is "to give." Though the gift of the call has been rejected, yet the Lord continues to give (even if this gift is poison). The Lord Himself will disfigure the present, even at the rejection of Ahaz.
The sign is peculiar for a number of reasons. It must be recognized that it stretches through verse 16, and when it is read as such, one recognizes the the primary thrust of the sign is the rapid dethronement of Rezin and Pekah. But the sign is never so simple: the sign is bound up inevitably with Immanuel, Isaiah's second son to enter into this oracular story. Put quite simply, a child, as yet unconceived, will not arrive at an age to "know to refuse the evil" before both kings have been dethroned. But if this is the overall thrust, some careful attention deserves to be paid to the curious manner in which this verse gets the sign started: why is there such a profound emphasis on the conception and birth of the son, if the point is merely that two kings will lose their places within a couple of years?
At least one possible way to answer this question is to recognize the rather constant nature of the sign. Rather than telling Ahaz just to wait for a couple of years to see one promise fulfilled, the very present is marred, and the marring continues right through to the point of the two kings' dethronement. In other words, Ahaz does not have to wait for long, because he can find out soon enough that the maiden is pregnant, that she has been delivered of her child, that he has been named Immanuel, that he eats butter and honey, and so forth, while the fullness of this sign works towards fruition.
The real benefit of this last reading is that it recognizes the absolute presence of the sign, the marring of the immediately present by the imposition of the sign. Or again, the real power of this reading is that it recognizes the role of the maiden and her labor because it is she who brings the sign into the very present. But it too easily overlooks the profundity of the sign offered. Why, in the end, is there so much focus on the maiden and her labor?

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  • Isa 7:21-25. What do these verses have to do with the rest of the chapter? Are these describing the conditions in Judah after Assyria has come and destroyed nearly all of it? What's all this talk of a cow and sheep, butter and honey, briers and thorns about?

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