The Sign of the Branch (Part 1): The Dead Stump Reborn

One of the claims that Jesus put before the critics that he faced in his day was that:

… These are the very Scriptures that testify about me… (John 5:39)

In other words, Jesus claimed that his life and career was predicted and prophesied by the Old Testament books written by the Hebrew prophets that preceded him by hundreds of years. These prophets had claimed that God inspired their writings. Since no human mind can predict in such detail hundreds of years into the future, this became a line of evidence that Jesus said his contemporaries could use to verify if indeed Jesus came as part of a Divine Plan or if the whole gospel account was the product of some elaborate human scheme. Two thousand years later, the data that Jesus referred to is still available for us to examine and consider for ourselves.

We are now in the season of Lent with Easter fast approaching. The Easter season is certainly an opportune time to consider and assess how and if Jesus fulfills the gospel and if the Old Testament prophets did indeed testify about him. So I plan to take the next few posts to see if and how the Old Testament bears on Jesus and Easter.

First let’s do some review. We had seen that Psalm 2 was where the term ‘Christ’ as a title of a specific person who was to come was first given. Psalm 2 was written ca 1000 BC. We also saw that Daniel predicted a special coming person and these two passages together predict the coming of someone who will be alternatively called: Son of God, Son of Man, Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ. The whole tone and thrust of these scriptures was future-looking. They were anticipating someone. But it did not end there. Much more was written in a prophetic, future-looking direction. Other titles and themes were developed. Isaiah (750 BC) started an intriguing title that later Old Testament books picked up on and developed into a fully-fledged theme – that of the coming Branch.

Isaiah and The Branch

The figure below shows Isaiah in a historical timeline with some other Old Testament writers.

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

You will see from the color coding that Isaiah’s book was written in the period of the

The image Isaiah used of the Dynasty as a tree
The image Isaiah used of the Dynasty as a tree

Davidic Royal dynasty (1000 – 600 BC). [see here for overview of Israelite history].  When it was written (ca 750 BC) the dynasty and kingdom was corrupt. Isaiah was written as a plea to return back to God and the practice and spirit of the Mosaic Law. But Isaiah knew that this repentant return would not happen and thus he also predicted that the country would be destroyed and the royal dynasty would be shattered.

He used a specific metaphor, or image, for the royal dynasty where he pictured it like a great tree. This tree had at its root Jesse, the father of King David. Upon Jesse the Dynasty was started with David, and from his successor, Solomon, the tree continued to grow and develop.

First a Tree … then a Stump … then a Branch

But then Isaiah wrote that this dynastic ‘tree’ would soon be cut down, reducing it to a stump. But along with all this warning came this intriguing prophetic riddle:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

The cutting down of this ‘tree’ happened about 150 years after Isaiah, around 600 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and dragged its people and king into exile to Babylon (the red period in the timeline above). Jesse was the father of King David, and thus the root of the Davidic Dynasty.Isaiah predicted the dynasty of david as a stump He would be the counterpart to the father of Elendil, the founder of the dynasty of Kings of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings. The ‘stump of Jesse’ was therefore an allusion to the (coming) shattered and broken dynasty of kings from David.

The Branch: A coming ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

But this riddle simultaneously looked further into the future then the cutting down of the tree. Isaiah explicitly predicted that though the ‘stump’ (the line of David from Jesse) would to all appearances look dead, one day in the far future a shoot, known as the Branch, would emerge from that same stump, just like shoots can regenerate from real tree stumps. This Branch isaiah predicted that a one would come from the stump as a branchis referred to as a ‘him’ so Isaiah is talking about a coming man, coming from the line of David after the dynasty was cut down. This man would have such qualities of wisdom, power, and knowledge it would be as if the very Spirit of God would be resting on him.

Jesus … A ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

We have seen how Jewish scholars, even though hostile witnesses, placed Jesus in the royal line of David, just as the Gospel writers did. Jesus fits the criterion of coming ‘from the stump of Jesse’. The very startling thing about the accounts of Jesus in the gospels is the wisdom and understanding he possessed. His shrewdness, poise and insight in dealing with opponents and followers alike in his day continue to impress both critics and followers ever since. And though he did not rule, his power in the gospels through miracles is undeniable. One may choose not to believe them; but one cannot ignore them. As well as in coming from the line of David, Jesus fits the criterion of possessing exceptional qualities of wisdom and power that Isaiah predicted would one day come from this Branch.

Jeremiah and The Branch

It is like a signpost laid down by Isaiah in history. But it did not end there. His signpost is but the first in a series of signs. Jeremiah, living about 150 years after Isaiah, when the jeremiah in timelineDavidic dynasty was actually being cut down before his very eyes wrote:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD our Righteousness“. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

Jeremiah explicitly expands on the Branch theme of the Davidic dynasty started by Isaiah much earlier. The Branch will be a King who reigns. But this is exactly what the Psalm 2 and Daniel 7 prophecies said of the coming Son of God/Son of Man/Messiah. Could it be that the Branch and the Son of God are one and the same? Notice who is making the declaration about the Branch – it is the ‘LORD’ making this declaration.

The Branch: The LORD our Righteousness

But what is this Branch to be called? Why also none other than the ‘LORD’ (the same name) who will also be ‘our’ (that is – we humans) Righteousness. As we saw with Abraham, the overwhelming problem for humans is that we are ‘corrupt’, and thus in desperate need of ‘righteousness’. And here, in the describing of the Branch, we see a hint that people in Jeremiah’s future would obtain their needed ‘righteousness’ accredited by none other than LORD – YHWH himself (YHWH is the name for God in the Old Testament). But how would this be done? Zechariah fills in further details for us as he develops further on this theme of the Coming Branch, predicting even the name of Jesus – which we look at in our next post.

Where does the ‘Christ’ in Jesus Christ come from?

I sometimes ask people what they think Jesus’ last name was. Usually they reply along the lines of, “I guess his last name was ‘Christ’ but I am not sure”. Then I ask, “If that was the case then when Jesus was a little boy did Joseph Christ and Mary Christ take little Jesus Christ to the market?” Put that way, they realize that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name. So, what is ‘Christ’? Where does it come from? What does it mean? Since we are now in the Christmas season, I hope to sharpen your Christmas experience and embark on some 1st century controversies about Jesus – namely, was he ‘the Christ’?

Translation vs. Transliteration

We do need to first understand some very basic principles of translation. Translators try to capture the best meaning. Thus a word-for-word approach is not always used. For example, in my native Swedish if I was to ask about the time I would say “Hur mycket är klockan?” which translated word-for-word is “How much is the clock?” But we do not speak that way in English so translating that phrase by meaning rather than by literal words is preferred.  But translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially when it comes to names or titles. This is known as transliteration. For example, our English name Peter is a transliteration from the Greek name Petros, which means ‘rock’ in Greek. The name was rendered to English by similar sound rather than by meaning. However, the same name in French is Pierre, which means ‘rock’ in French. So the name was rendered into French from Greek by translation (similar meaning) rather than by transliteration (similar sound). For the Bible, translators had to decide whether words (especially names and titles) would be better in the receiver language through translation (by meaning) or through transliteration (by sound).

The Septuagint

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls
Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (or LXX) was translated from Hebrew ca 250 BC

Now let’s layer these principles onto the history of Biblical translation. The first translation of the Bible was when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek about 250BC. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it has exerted an enormous influence. I described the LXX in posts I and II on the Septuagint, and I encourage you to read them because they will help you better follow me from here.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows how all this impacts modern-day Bibles where translation stages are shown in quadrants.

translation steps in development of bible from Hebrew to Greek to Modern language
This shows the translation flow from original to modern-day Bible

The original Hebrew Old Testament is in quadrant #1 and is accessible today in the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek New Testament is in quadrant #2. But because the Septuagint was a Hebrew –> Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2 so that #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language, like English, that the Bible is translated into. The translators had to decide whether words were better in the receiver language through transliteration or translation as explained above. This is illustrated with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate on either side of them, showing that the translators could take either approach. Taken together, this figure shows the process of how the Biblical texts have gone from Hebrew and Greek to modern languages of today.

The Origin of ‘Christ’

In the next figure I again follow the process as above, but this time I am specifically focusing on the word ‘Christ’ that appears in our modern-day New Testaments.

where does 'Christ' come from in the old testament of the bible
Where does ‘Christ’ come from in the Bible

We can see that in the original Hebrew Old Testament the term was ‘mashiyach’ which the Hebrew dictionary defines as an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person. Hebrew priests and kings of the Old Testament period were anointed (ceremonially rubbed with oil) before they took up their office, thus they were anointed ones or mashiyach. But certain Old Testament prophetic passages also spoke of a specific mashiyach (with a definite article ’the’) who was prophesied to come. When the Septuagint was developed in 250 BC, the translators chose a word in the Greek with a similar meaning, Christos, which came from chrio, which meant to rub ceremonially with oil. Therefore the word Christos was translated by meaning (and not transliterated by sound) from the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into the Greek Septuagint to refer to this specific person. The New Testament writers understood Jesus to be this very person that was spoken of in the Septuagint so they continued to use the word Christos in their writings to designate Jesus as this mashiyach.

But when we moved to modern-day English, there was no readily recognized word with a similar meaning so Christos was then transliterated from the Greek into English as ‘Christ’. Thus the English ‘Christ’ is a very specific title with Old Testament roots, derived by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then transliteration from Greek to English. The Hebrew Old Testament is translated directly to English and translators have made different choices in rendering the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into English. Some Translations (like King James Version) transliterated the Hebrew mashiyach to the English word Messiah. Other translations (like New International Version) translated mashiyach by its meaning and so have ‘Anointed One’ in these specific Old Testament passages. Because we do not see the word ‘Christ’ in the English Old Testament this connection to the Old Testament is not readily apparent to us. But from this analysis we know that the Biblical ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’ and that it was a specific title. The original Greek readers of the New Testament would have directly seen the Christos from the Septuagint and would have seen the direct connection, while we have to dig around somewhat to see it.

The Christ anticipated in 1st Century

Armed with this insight, let’s make some observations from the Gospel accounts. Below is the reaction of King Herod when the Magi from the East came looking for the king of the Jews, a well-known part of the Christmas story. Notice, ‘the’ precedes Christ, even though it is not referring specifically about Jesus.

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:3-4)

You can see that the very idea of ‘the Christ’ was already commonly accepted between Herod and his religious advisors – even before Jesus was born – and it is used here without referring specifically to Jesus. This is because ‘Christ’ comes from the Old Testament, and it was commonly read by Jews of the 1st century (like Herod and the chief priests of his day) in the Greek Septuagint. ‘Christ’ was (and still is) a title, not a name. From this we can dismiss right away the ridiculous notions that ‘Christ’ was a Christian invention or an invention by someone like Emperor Constantine of 300 AD popularized by movies like Da Vinci Code. The term was in existence hundreds of years before there were any Christians or before Constantine came to power.

Old Testment prophecies of ‘The Christ’

In fact, the term takes on a definitively prophetic title already in the Psalms, written by David ca 1000 BC – far, far before the birth of Jesus. Let’s look at these first occurrences.

The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Anointed One … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. …Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:2-7)

The Greek Septuagint was far more widely read than the Hebrew in the first century (for both Jews and Gentiles). Psalm 2 in the Septuagint would read in the following way (I am putting it in English with a transliterated Christos so you can ‘see’ the Christ title like a reader of the Septuagint could)

The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Christ … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying …, (Psalm 2)

You can now ‘see’ Christ in this passage like a reader of the 1st century would have. But the Psalms continue with more references to this coming Christ. I put the standard passage side-by-side with a transliterated one with ‘Christ’ in it so you can see it.

Psalm 132- From Hebrew Psalm 132 – From Septuagint
O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant,
do not reject your anointed one.11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
a sure oath that he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne—
17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
and set up a lamp for my anointed one.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”
O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant,
do not reject your Christ.11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
a sure oath that he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne—
17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
and set up a lamp for my Christ.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”

You can see that Psalm 132 specifically speaks in the future tense (“…I will make a horn for David…”), like so many passages throughout the Old Testament. This is important to remember when assessing the prophecies. It is not just that the New Testament writers grab some ideas from the Old Testament and ‘make’ them fit. It is as clear as words can be that the Old Testament, without even considering the New Testament, makes future-looking claims and predictions. Herod was aware that the Old Testament prophets made predictions about the coming ‘Christ’ – which was why he was ready for this announcement. He just needed his advisers to fill him in on the specifics of these predictions. The Jews have always been known to be waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). The fact that they are waiting or looking for the coming of their Messiah has nothing to do with Jesus or the New Testament (since they ignore that) but rather has everything to do with the explicitly future-looking predictions and prophecies in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament prophecies: Specified like a lock of a lock-n-key system

The fact that the Old Testament writings are explicitly predictive of the future makes them stand in very small company across the vast sea of literature that has been produced through human history. It is like the lock of a door. A lock is designed in a certain shape specification so that only a specific ‘key’ that matches the specification can unlock it. In the same way the Old Testament is like a lock. We saw that the specifications are not just in these two Psalms I looked at here but already we have seen others in the posts on Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, Moses’ Passover, and Daniel’s coming Son of Man (please review if they are not familiar).  Psalm 132 adds the specification that ‘the Christ’ would be from the line of David.  So the ‘lock’ has specifications that can be seen to become more and more precise as we survey the prophetic passages across the Old Testament. Given that, here is a question worth asking:  Why is ‘Christ’ so anticipated and so central in both the Old and New Testaments?  In finding the answer you will also see why ‘Christ’ is relevant to you and me today.

 

The Eeriness of Moses’ Farewell Speech echoing in Global Headlines today

The Blessings & Curses in Deuteronomy through history and into our day

This past week has seen the attention of all major news websites and networks focus on a man who has just died. While many around the globe have been reading his obituary, and as I write this heads of state from around the world are traveling to attend his funeral, few are making the connection between this man’s life, and the final words of another man who made some sweeping pronouncements about 3500 years ago – who was about to die. From the perspective of deep history, the impact of the man’s life that has just passed, though resonating so powerfully around the world right now, can be seen as just one wave in a much stronger and deeper current that was unleashed by this other man who lived so long ago.

The man in question who just passed away is Ariel Sharon, the former Prime Minister of Israel and, according to many of these news outlets, was one of the fiercest and most brilliant military leaders in our generation. Reading through some of his military exploits sounds like the toughness of Rambo, the cunning of James Bond, and the ruthlessness of Genghis Khan – all rolled into one. But his bold political moves – sometimes towards confrontation and sometimes to peace – were equally as influential as his military exploits.

Though I have found these obituaries interesting reading, it is in the context of the last words of the earlier man – Moses – that the reading of the career of Ariel Sharon shifts gears to make me feel wonder, fascination, and even a little somewhat ‘eerie’. So permit me to unpack a part of the Bible seldom read so that you too can consider the impact of Moses’s parting words through lives like that of Ariel Sharon.

Moses’ final Farewll Speech

Moses lived about 1500 BC and he wrote the first five books of the Bible – known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. In the fifth book, Deuteronomy, were his final messages given months before he died. He concludes this final book, just before his passing, by issuing a set of sweeping Blessings and Curses to the people of Israel – the Jews. They can be viewed as his Farewell Speech. These Blessings and Curses were to be in effect down through history and were explicitly to be reflected on, not just by the Jews, but also by the surrounding nations. Any way you slice it that was meant to include you and me. You can read the complete Blessings and Curses here. I highlight the main points below.

The Blessings of Moses

Moses had previously issued the Ten Commandments and the Law which are detailed in the earlier books of the Pentateuch. Moses starts his Farewell Speech by describing blessings that the Israelites would receive if they obeyed The Law. These blessings were explicitly to be from the hand of God and would be in the sight of the other nations so that they would recognize His blessing. The outcome of these blessings would be that:

Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. (Deuteronomy 28:10)

… and the Curses

However, if the Israelites failed to obey the Commands then they would receive Curses that would match and mirror the Blessings. Again these Curses would be seen by the surrounding nations so that:

You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the LORD will drive you. (Deuteronomy 28:37)

And the Curses would be for the Israelites themselves and extend through history.

They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. (Deuteronomy 28:46)

But God warned that the worst part of the Curses would come from others.

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed … until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land. (Deuteronomy 28:49-52)

It would go from bad to worse.

You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. … Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. (Deuteronomy 28:63-65)

These Blessings and Curses were then established by a covenant (an agreement) between God and the Israelites:

…to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath … also with those who are not here today. (Deuteronomy 29:12-15)

In other words this covenant would be binding on the children, or future generations. In fact this covenant was directed at future generations – both Israelites and foreigners.

Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. … nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. … All the nations will ask: “Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be:

“It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt….Therefore the LORD’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. … the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” (Deuteronomy 29:21-27)

Did The Blessings and Curses come to pass?

Wow! Nothing middle-of-the-road here. The Blessings were delightful, but the Curses were utterly severe. However, the most important question we can ask is: ‘Did these things happen?’ The answer is not hard to find. Much of the Old Testament is the record of the history of the Israelites and from that we can see what happens in their history. Also we have records outside the Old Testament, from Jewish historians like Josephus, Graeco-Roman historians like Tacitus and we have found many archeological monuments. All of these sources agree and paint a consistent picture of the Israelite or Jewish history. A summary of this history, given through the building of a timeline is given here.  Read it and assess for yourself if the Curses of Moses came to pass.

The Conclusion to Moses’ Blessings and Curses

But this Farewell Speech of Moses did not end with the Curses. It continued. Here is how Moses made his final pronouncement.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)

After Moses, successive writers in the Old Testament built on this theme that he inaugurated – that there would be a restoration after the Curses. I looked at how Ezekiel used the image of dead zombies coming to life to paint one vivid picture of this for us. These later writers made bold, troubling and detailed predictions.  I look, in my next post,  at how Ezekiel, Moses and Jeremiah combine to make an astounding set of predictions that are happening today. Predictions that the late Ariel Sharon played a forceful part in fulfilling. But for me at least, the fact that journalists and Heads of State around the world are right now reflecting on the passing of a man who played an important part in bringing this conclusion to Moses’ Farewell Speech about, coupled with the fact that this Speech was explicitly written as a sign to future generations of Jew and Gentile alike (i.e. you and me), is just a little eerie.

What was the Passover Sign of Moses?

In the previous post I looked at how the trial of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac alluded to the sacrifice of Jesus. About 500 years have now passed since Abraham and it is about 1500 BC. After Abraham died, his descendants through Isaac, now called Israelites, are a vast number of people but also have become slaves in Egypt. This happened because Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham, was sold as a slave to Egypt and then his family followed as explained in Genesis 45-46 of the Bible.

The Exodus Passover Story

So we now come to a very curious drama centered around Moses and which is told in the book Exodus (so named because it is the account of Moses leading the Jewish Israelites out of Egypt). Moses had been commanded by God to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and it results in a contest of wills between the two, producing nine plagues or disasters against Pharaoh thus far. But Pharaoh has not agreed to let the Israelites go so God is going to bring about a 10th and most fearsome plague. The full story of the 10th Plague in Exodus of the Bible is linked here and I urge you to read it because it will help you in better following the explanation below.

This 10th plague decreed by God was that every firstborn offspring would die that night except those who remained in houses where a lamb had been sacrificed and its blood painted on the doorposts of that house. Pharaoh’s loss, if he did not obey, would be that his son and heir to the throne would die. And every house in Egypt would lose the firstborn son – if they did not sacrifice a lamb and paint its blood on the doorposts. So Egypt faced a national disaster.

But in houses where a lamb had been sacrificed and its blood painted on the doorposts the promise was that everyone would be safe. Death would pass over that house. So this day was called Passover.

The Passover Sign – for who?

Many who are familiar with this account assume that the blood on the doors was a sign for the Angel of Death. But notice the curious detail in the account.

The LORD said to Moses … ” … I am the LORD. The blood [of the Passover lamb] will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. (Exodus 12:13)

So, though the LORD was looking for the blood on the door, and when He saw it He would pass over, the blood was not a sign for Him. It says quite clearly, that the blood was a ‘sign for you’ – i.e. the people. And by extension it is a Sign for all of us who read this account. But how is it a sign? After this event happened the LORD commanded them to:

Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for generations to come. When you enter the land … observe this ceremony… It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD’ (Exodus 12:27)

The Remarkable Passover Calendar

In fact we see at the beginning of this passage that this event inaugurates and launches the ancient Jewish calendar.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year… (Exodus 12:1-2)

So the Israelites were commanded to establish a calendar that celebrated this Passover on the same day every year. The Jewish calendar is a little different from the Western calendar, so the day in the year moves each year if you track it by the Western calendar.

Passover celebrated today as a result of Moses commands
This is a modern-day scene of Jewish people preparing to celebrate Passover in memory of that first Passover 3500 years ago.

But to this day, 3500 years later, they continue to celebrate the Jewish Passover Festival every year on the same day in their calendar and eat the seder meal in memory of this event in obedience to the command given then.

And in tracking this celebration through history we can note something quite extraordinary. You can notice this in the Gospel where it records the details of the arrest and trial of Jesus:

“Then the Jews led Jesus … to the palace of the Roman governor [Pilate]… to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” … [Pilate] said [to Jewish leaders] “…But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No not him…” (John 18:28, 39-40)

In other words, Jesus was arrested and executed right on the Passover day in the Jewish calendar. Now if you remember from Sign of Abraham’s Sacrifice, one of the titles of Jesus was:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world… ’”. (John 1:29)

And here we see the drama in this Sign. Jesus, the ‘Lamb of God’, was crucified (i.e. sacrificed) on the very same day that all the Jews alive then were sacrificing a lamb in memory of the first Passover that launched their calendar. This explains the annual timing of two holidays that occurs every year – a parallel that so few of us notice and even fewer ask ‘Why?’. The Jewish Passover Festival occurs most years in the same week that Easter does – check your calendar. (In some years, because of the Jewish leap month cycle they can be a month apart).

Signs, Signs, Everywhere are Signs

Back to that first Passover in Moses’ day where the blood was a ‘sign’, not for God, but for the people.  Now think for a minute about what signs do by considering these below.

What are the function of 'signs'
Signs are pointer in our minds to get us to think about the thing the sign points to

When we see the sign of the ‘skull and crossbones’ it is to make us think of death and danger. The sign of the ‘Golden Arches’ makes us think about McDonalds. The sign of the ‘√’ on tennis player Nadal’s bandana is the sign for Nike. Nike wants us to think of them when we see this sign on Nadal. In other words, Signs are pointers in our minds to direct our thinking not to the sign itself but to something else.

Now the Passover account explicitly said that the Sign was for the people, not for God, but it was established by Him – He was the author of it.  So like with any sign, what did He want our minds to think of?  With the remarkable timing of lambs being sacrificed on the same day as Jesus, and given his title ‘Lamb of God’, it must be a pointer to the sacrifice of Jesus.

It works in our minds like I have shown in the diagram here about me.

Passover is a sign to Jesus in that his death was on the day of that sacrifice
The Passover is a Sign in that it points to Jesus through the remarkable timing of Passover with Jesus’ crucifixion

The sign was there to point me to the death of Jesus. In that first Passover the lambs were sacrificed and the blood spread so the people could live. And thus, this Sign pointing to Jesus is to tell me that he, ‘The Lamb of God’, was also given to death and his blood spilt so I could find life.  The meaning of Passover is Jesus’ sacrifice that gives us life.

With Abraham’s sign the place where the ram died so Isaac could live was Mount Moriah – the very same place where Jesus was later sacrificed. That enables us to ‘see’ the meaning of his death by pointing to the place. Here in the Passover we find another pointer to the same event – by pointing to the same day in the calendar – the calendar initiated by this very event.  And a lamb sacrifice is once again used – showing that it is not just a coincidence of any event – to signify the death of Jesus.  In two different ways (through location and through timing) two of the most symbolic and important events in the Old Testament directly point to the death of Jesus. I cannot think of any other person in history whose death (or any important milestone) is so foreshadowed by two similar parallels in such dramatic fashion. Can you?  I do cover some objections in my article here.

We saw in the trial of Jesus that still another title (‘The Son of Man’) from another Old Testament book (Daniel) from another era (Daniel was ca 500 BC – a thousand years after Moses) is literally becoming fulfilled in still another age (the last 300 years or so) through a growing world-wide voluntary worship of him – in large part because of this same death.  We also saw in the background to Pentecost that the Old Testament Feast of Weeks – from that same calendar inaugurated by Moses with Passover falls on, while also pointing to, the day of Pentecost.

Taken together, these foresights should signal to us that there are reasonable grounds to consider that Jesus is the cornerstone of a Divine Plan signaled long ago when mere slaves in Egypt auspiciously inaugurated their new calendar by Signing lamb’s blood onto their doors.

[Click here for this Sign explained to those with an Islamic perspective and an interest in the Prophet Musa’s (PBUH) message.]

What was the Sign of Abraham’s Sacrifice?

Abraham is one of the most foundational characters of the Old Testament in helping us to understand the Gospel. He lived 4000 years ago traveling from what is modern-day Iraq to live as a wanderer in what is modern-day Israel. We saw in the Session on External Evidence that cities and names from his era are referenced in ancient tablets preserved for us today. So the setting of his account is entirely historical. There is no evidence from archaeology to dismiss his account and there is rather good reason to take this account seriously.

So I would like to look at a well-known part of the account of Abraham, the part where God asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, for whom Abraham had waited many years, and on whom all his hopes for his future progeny rested.  This story is also known as the binding of Isaac.

So Abraham encounters his greatest test and it gives us a ‘peek’ into the Gospel.  I encourage you to read the full account in Genesis concerning the test of the sacrifice of his son here.

The sacrifice looking to the future

We can see from the account that this was a test for Abraham, yet it is also for us.  But to ‘see’ this we need to note a few observations from the account.  Here is the pertinent portion of the account:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD Will Provide’. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

Notice the name that Abraham gave to that place where the test occurred. He named it ‘The LORD will provide’. The question we need to ask is: ‘Is that name in the past tense, present tense or future tense?’ It is clearly in the future tense. And to be even more clear the comment which follows (which Moses inserted when he compiled this account into the Jewish Torah about 500 years later) repeats “…it will be provided”. Again this is in the future tense and thus looking to the future.  But this naming occurs after the sacrifice of the ram (a male sheep) in place of Isaac. Many who read the account think that Abraham, when naming that place, is referring to the ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed in place of his son. But when Abraham names the place the ram is already dead, sacrificed and burnt. If Abraham is thinking of the ram – already dead, sacrificed and burnt – he would have named it ‘The LORD has provided’, i.e. in the past tense. And Moses, if he was thinking of the ram that took the place of Abraham’s son would have commented ‘And to this day it is said “On the mountain of the LORD it was provided”’. But both Abraham and Moses clearly give it a name in future tense and therefore are not thinking of that already dead and sacrificed ram.

Where the sacrifice happened

So what are they thinking about then? If we look for a clue we see that the place where God told Abraham to go at the beginning of this Sign was:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v.2)

This happened in ‘Moriah’. But where is that? Though it was a wilderness area in Abraham’s day (2000 BC), a thousand years later (1000 BC) King David established the city of Jerusalem there, and his son Solomon built the First Jewish Temple there. We read later in the Old Testament historical books that:

Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David (2 Chronicles 3:1)

In other words, ‘Mount Moriah’ in the time of Abraham was an isolated mountain top in the wilderness but 1000 years later through David and Solomon it became the central and capital city of the Israelites where they built the Jewish Temple. And to this very day it is a holy place for the Jewish people.

Jesus and the Sacrifice of Abraham

And here we find a direct connection to Jesus and the Gospel. We see this connection when we consider one of the titles attributed to Jesus.  Now Jesus had many titles associated with him.  In the previous post I looked at the interplay of titles ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’ used at his trial.  And perhaps the most well-known title of his is ‘Christ’. But there is another title given to him that is not as well known, but hugely important. We see this in the Gospel of John when John the Baptist says:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus (i.e. Jesus) coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I meant when I said ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’”. (John 1:29-30)

In other words, Jesus was also known as ‘The Lamb of God”. Now consider the end of Jesus’ life. Where was he arrested and crucified? It was in Jerusalem (which as we saw is the same as ‘Mount Moriah’). It is very clearly stated during his arrest that:

When he [Pilate] learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.’ (Luke 23:7)

In other words, the arrest, trial and sentencing of Jesus happened in Jerusalem (= Mount Moriah).

Back to Abraham. Why did he name that place in the future tense ‘The LORD will provide’? How could he know that something would be ‘provided’ there in his future that would so precisely mirror the drama of the scene he enacted on Mount Moriah? Think about it – in that drama Isaac is saved from death at the last moment because a lamb dies in his place. Two thousand years later, Jesus is called ‘Lamb of God’ and is arrested and dies on the same spot!  Both Abraham and Moses claimed that it was revealed to them by God.

A Divine Mind Reveals Himself

And indeed it is as though there is a Mind that is connecting these two events separated by 2000 years of history.

The prophecy in the sacrifice of Abraham on mount moriah is a pointer to jesus
The sacrifice of Abraham was a Sign – pointing forward 2000 years – to make us think about the death of Jesus.

But what makes this unique is that the earlier event is pointing to the second event two thousand years later.  We know the earlier was configured to point to the later because the name given by Abraham and Moses was ‘The LORD will provide’ i.e. it looks to the future.  The figure illustrates how the earlier event alludes to the later one and was configured to remind us of the later event.  This is evidence that this Mind is revealing Himself to us by coordinating events though separated by thousands of years.  This is evidence that God has spoken.  Take a look here for a discussion on other possible explanations.

Good News for you and me

But this account is also pertinent to us for more personal reasons. At the end of the exchange God declares to Abraham that

“…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18)

If you belong to one of the ‘nations on earth’ (and you do!) this has to concern you because the promise is that you then can get a ‘blessing’ from God himself!  Even only a possibility of a blessing from God should move us to investigate further.

But how is this ‘blessing’ given?  For starters, the word ‘offspring’ here is in the singular. It is not ‘offsprings’ as in many descendants or peoples, but in the singular as in a ‘he’, not through many people or a group of people as in ‘they’.   Again, this points to Jesus, the offspring of Abraham.  Just like the ram saved Isaac from death by dieing in his place, so the Lamb of God, by his death, saves us from the power of death.  The Good News of the gospel is foreshadowed beyond that of chance coincidences in the remarkable account of the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the same spot where 2000 years later it ‘was provided’

[Click here for this Sign explained to those with an Islamic perspective and an interest in Eid al-Adha and Ibrahim (PBUH).]

 

 

What If God were … One of Us?

In my last Post I dealt with the humanity of Jesus.  The flip-side of this coin is the question about his Divinity.  Was Jesus God? Often, this controversy is argued only from the pages of the New Testament.  But what about Old Testament prophecies?  Long before Jesus came into this world, the prophet Isaiah (again!) had

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

some remarkable things to say about this.  Embedded in the same prophecy of the Virgin birth is this remarkable statement.

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right (Isaiah 7:13-15)

‘Immanuel’ literally means ‘God with us’.  In other words, when this son of the virgin would be born, God would be with us.  There is hardly a more succinct way to predict the Incarnation – God becoming Man, than with such a title.  And just to make sure we did not misunderstand, two chapters later Isaiah explicitly predicts:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

 

Jewish Predictions in the Old Testament of the Divine Son

And so here in these short, but explicitly prophetic sentences, penned by Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus was born, in Jewish scriptures (i.e. not from the hand of anything Christian), we see that there are three distinct features to this prophecy:

  1. the virgin birth,
  2. the sinless/moral life,
  3. as well as the incarnation of God becoming man in the birth of a son. The son would be Divine.

We have already seen how the predicted ‘Christ’ of the Old Testament Psalms would also be the ‘son of God’.  It is the cumulative effect of many different predictions, on different themes, yet all still converging on the person of Jesus of Nazareth that beggars naturalistic explanations.

One of Us by Joan Osborne

One of the most poignant songs dealing with this question of God becoming one of us was written a few years ago by Joan Osborne.  What I find so intriguing is the song is not written from a posture of belief, but from one of asking some honest and human questions.  At same dinner where I was exposed as a Santa fraud, I had asked a friend, Chelsea, to sing this song.  The lyrics, with those haunting questions, are displayed along with the opening prologue from the Gospel of John.  This Gospel deals with questions that are basic to all of us, giving answers that hearken to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of this very unique Coming Son..

 

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

I wrote that hostile Jewish rabbis in the Talmud at least give a nod to the virgin birth of Jesus, and in my past post as ‘Santa’ I briefly showed the original prophecy in Isaiah (written about 750 BC) predicting the Virgin birth. There is still another point to cover on this question and it involves an observable aspect of the prophecy. Let’s start by looking at the original Isaiah prophecy in a more complete context.

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. (Isaiah 7: 13-15)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

As I mentioned previously, proofs about virgin status are just about impossible to obtain even in principle. But the complete prophecy links the virgin birth in a cause – effect manner with something that is observable – the subsequent moral behaviour of the offspring from this contested virgin birth.

The son of the virgin ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’

The amazing part of this prophecy in Isaiah is that this son ‘will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right’. What Isaiah is saying is that as soon as he is old enough to make conscious decisions this son will ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’.  In our trying to digest the ‘virgin’ part of this prophecy we often forget this other part – and really that is just as incredulous.

I also have a young son. I love him, but for sure there is no way that on his own he is rejecting the wrong and choosing the right. My wife and I have to work, teach, remind, admonish, set an example, discipline, provide the right friends, make sure he sees proper role models, etc. to teach him to reject the wrong and choose the right – and even with all our effort there is no guarantee. And as a parent while I am trying to do this, it brings back memories of my early childhood when my parents were involved in the same struggle in teaching me to ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’. What do we mean when we say that a certain child is ‘spoiled’? Basically we mean that this child does not reject the wrong and choose the right. And what do we need to do to ‘make’ a spoiled child? If the parents do not expend all that effort and work, but just let nature takes it course – the child is spoiled automatically. It is as if we are fighting a ‘moral gravity’ where as soon as we cease conscious effort it easily goes downhill.

Moral behaviour is to a large extent observable and verifiable. The interesting thing about Jesus in the Gospel accounts is that he never sins. He always ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’ – exactly like Isaiah predicts. In fact Peter, a close friend, follower and companion of Jesus said of him that:

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

The Failings of Other Biblical Heroes Openly Displayed

Now perhaps our first reaction is to dismiss this sinless portrayal of Jesus in the Bible as simply pious veneration. The thinking person must always be open to this possibility but if that is the case it is strange that other towering figures in the Bible are definitely NOT portrayed this way. If the Bible is simply a product of the human mind, we would expect this same pious veneration of other figures like Moses, Abraham and David. But this is not the case. The Bible records that on two occasions Abraham lied about his wife saying that she was only his sister (in Genesis 12:10-13 & Genesis 20:1-2). It also records that Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and on another occasion disobeyed God’s command (Numbers 20:6-12). David’s ghastly sin of adultery and subsequent cover-up murder exposed a glaring stain on his character.

In the Gospels the disciples are often seen as petty, arrogant and selfish. They argue about who among them is the most important. They want to call down fire from heaven in judgment on those who did not accept them. The amazing thing about how the Bible portrays all the characters in its pages, the important ones as well as the minor ones, is candid openness about their failures as well as their successes.

As one who has studied and seen ‘pious venerations’ in various traditions, it is not hard to see the contrast in the candid and unembellished failures consistently portrayed in the Bible to that in other traditions.  No, the pattern of revealing the failures of biblical characters is not a naturally religious tendency – yet this is how the Biblical characters are portrayed.

But not the Son of the Virgin

But this son prophesied by Isaiah, born of a virgin, rejects the wrong and chooses the right naturally and from his early age. It is instinct for him. For that to be possible he must have a different lineage. All the rest of us (including these other Biblical characters), trace back to Adam through their fathers and he did not ‘reject the wrong and chose the right’ as we saw.  Genetics passes the characteristics of the father to his offspring, so this rebellious nature of Adam was passed to all of us – even to the biblical prophets. But the son born of a virgin, by definition, would not have Adam as a father in his lineage. The parental line of this son would be different, and thus he could be different.

Jesus’ life fits this prophetic moral description to a tee – and makes sense of the reason for the virgin birth. This was not simply some random ‘miracle’ to bolster religious credulity in a story. There is a very clear reason for the need of a virgin birth. There is the need for a new man that is untainted by Adam. This new man could then have a different, though still human, nature – a nature that would be holy and thus acceptable to a Holy God.

The New Testament affirms this sinless life of Jesus in a very straight-forward and matter-of-fact manner by simply giving an account of his actions and teachings, without use of sensational superlatives or strong religious language. It presents him simply, and therefore realistically, as sinless.

Even if some cannot accept the ‘sinless’ claim, certainly, at the very least, Jesus is universally recognized as someone who lived a radically different moral life than we do.  This was a man who forgave his enemies while they were torturing him, who stood up for the weak and downtrodden, who refused to take up arms against his enemies, who refused to be seduced by the wealth, power and adulation that could have been his  – in short who treated others far differently than we do.  I have heard Richard Dawkins opine that Jesus was morally far ahead of others in his day.  I remember reading how John Lennon thought that Jesus was a moral reformer even if his disciples were not.  Mahatma Gandhi, who led a non-violent resistance to British rule in India, was inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus.  In short, even among those who do not follow him, Jesus is admired for his moral compass – this, at least, is generally not disputed about him.

But this observable effect, is linked causally to the Virgin Birth in this Isaiah prophecy.  And if one is observable and verifiable that gives a rational basis to believe the other.  The life Jesus lived is the visible signature of the Virgin Birth.  And it speaks to our need.

Flashback to Adam

The prophecy and longing for a virgin birth – the dawn of a New Man – coherently hearkens back to Adam.  We saw that the Genesis account records a Fall, much like the corruption of elves into orcs in the Lord of the Rings.  Ever since then mankind has been slaves to sin.  Though some teachings of the Bible cannot be verified by observation, the concept of slavery to sin is easily the most verifiable teaching of the Bible.  Just read a bit of history – pick any country and any time period; read a newspaper; or just reflect on your own thoughts and actions – sin is always there in its mutated and multi-faceted forms.

And the necessary link from the predicament of Adam to the solution in a Virgin Birth is why this birth was first foreshadowed and prophesied even earlier than Isaiah, it was Embedded in the Beginning.

The Virgin Birth is not some arbitrarily concocted idea to instill religious veneration.  It is logically, coherently and necessarily part of the overall Gospel – the Good News.  The recorded moral life of Jesus, lived in the open before friend and foe, attests to its reality.  That is Good News indeed, because the Gospel goes on to prophesy that those who receive this Son of the Virgin will inherit this same New Man nature.  Like caterpillars metamorphisizing to butterflies, or wooden Pinocchios into human sons, these many fallen Sons and Daughters of Adam will be transformed into this new likeness.  You have to take it on faith, but given the track record  of the other Messianic prophecies, it is a step of faith I am willing to take.

What’s so Merry about Christmas?

Recently I had the chance to crash a Christmas dinner dressed as Santa Claus, and after being exposed by the kids, embark on a short but thought-provoking discussion about Christmas entitled What’s so Merry about Christmas?  A friend videoed it all and since it fits with this series of Christmas posts I thought I would share it in this one. (15 min)

 

For more in-depth treatment of historical and prophetic aspects of the Christmas story see the following posts

Where does ‘Christ’ in Jesus Christ come from?

Jewish Rabbinical Testimony: The Son of a Virgin from the line of David

Hold the Eggnog Christmas is in trouble!  Considering Dawkins’ claims against the Gospel accounts of the Christmas Story

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

 

 

Jewish Testimony: Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season.  I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David.  You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect.  The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus.  But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment.  Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases.  But hold your verdict!  The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.

It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion.  Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident.  But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident.  Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.

In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus.  In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp.).  In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   The hostile witnesses agree on this point.

What about being born of a virgin?

Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David.  After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Virgin or Young Maiden

It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind.  If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.

Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born.  How did these Jewish

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls
Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (LXX) is translated ca 250 BC

rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’?  What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint.  When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος  (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’.  In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible.  No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

And now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.

And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this.  If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.

Mary’s Context

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.

If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him.  But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.

But the story does not even end there.  Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level.  People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality.  And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask:  Where did he get this different morality from?  The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.

The Final Countdown – Embedded in the Beginning

In my last few posts I have looked at how mankind and Lucifer fell from their initial created state. I then used the story of Pinocchio that has helped me to visualize and understand what God was hoping for His creation. But hope is one thing, an executed plan is another.  Jepetto (the creator in Pinocchio) did not have a plan to redeem Pinocchio (it happened apart from him), and here the Pinocchio analogy falls short. In the Biblical account, God has a plan that He will execute. This plan has two parts: A Promise and a Curse. Here I look at the Promise and later I look at the Curse.

The Bible – Really a Library

To appreciate the significance of this Promise we must know some basic things about the Bible. Though it is a book, and we think of it as such, it is actually more accurate to think of it as a mobile library. This is because it is a collection of books, written by a diverse set of authors, over a time span that exceeds 1500 years, which today is bound up into one volume. This fact alone makes the Bible unique among the Great Books of the world. The different books of the Bible make statements, declarations and predictions that later books pick up on. If the Bible was written by just one author, or a group of authors that knew each other that should not cause us to take note. But the authors of the Bible are separated by hundreds and even thousands of years, writing in different civilizations, languages, social strata, and literary genres – yet their messages, allusions and predictions are picked up seamlessly by later authors or are fulfilled through facts of history verifiable outside the Bible. This makes the Bible unique on a whole different level – and knowing that we should take note. Existing manuscript copies of these books are dated to about 200 BC so the textual base of the Bible is better, by far, than all other ancient books of the world.

I gave a public presentation recently entitled Does God Exist? at McMaster University and will upload the whole presentation shortly. But I have included the first 10 minutes in the video clip below which covers the diversity of authors and the manuscript texts of the books in the Bible. View it to better appreciate the points I am making above.

The Gospel Promise in the Garden

We see this foreshadowing ability clearly in the Creation and Fall account right at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Bible. In other words, though it is recounting the Beginning, it was written with the End in view.  Here we see a Promise when God confronts Satan (Lucifer) and speaks to him in a riddle:

“… and I (God) will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

This is a Promise in riddle form – but it is understandable. Reading carefully you will see that there are five different characters mentioned and that this is prophetic in that it is looking forward-in-time (seen by the repeated use of ‘will’ as in future tense). The characters are:

  1. God
  2. Satan (or Lucifer)
  3. The woman
  4. The offspring of the woman
  5. The offspring of Satan

And the riddle predicts how these characters will relate to each other in the future. This is shown below

Relationships between the characters depicted in the Promise

God will orchestrate that both Satan and the woman will have an ‘offspring’. There will be ‘enmity’ or hatred between these offspring and between the woman and Satan. Satan will ‘strike the heel’ of the offspring of the woman while the offspring of the woman will ‘crush the head’ of Satan.

Deductions on the Offspring – a ‘he’

So far we have just made observations directly from the text. Now for some reasoned deductions. Because the ‘offspring’ of the woman is referred to as a ‘he’ and a ‘his’ we know that it is a single male human – a man. With that we can discard some possible interpretations. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘she’ and thus cannot be a woman – but the ‘he’ comes from a woman. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘they’, which it could have plausibly been, perhaps a group of people, or a race, or a team, or a nation. At various times and in various ways people have thought that a ‘they’ would be the answer. But the offspring, being a ‘he’ is NOT a group of people whether that refers to a nation or those of a certain religion as in Jews, Christians or Muslims etc. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not an ‘it’ (the offspring is a person). This eliminates the possibility that the offspring is a particular philosophy, teaching, technology, political system, or religion. An ‘it’ of these kinds would probably have been, and still is, our preferred choice to fix the world. We think that what will fix our situation is some kind of ‘it’, so the best of human thinkers through the centuries have advocated different political systems, educational systems, technologies, religions etc. But in this Promise the compass is pointed in a totally different direction. God had something else in mind – a ‘he’. And this ‘he’ would crush the head of the serpent.

Another interesting observation comes from what is not said. God does not promise the man an offspring like he promises the woman (we will see further what He promises there in the Curse). This is quite extraordinary especially given the emphasis of sons coming through fathers throughout the Bible. In fact, one criticism of the genealogies in the Bible by modern Westerners is that they ignore the blood lines that go through women. It is ‘sexist’ in our eyes because it just considers sons of men. But in this case here it is different – there is no promise of an offspring (a ‘he’) coming from a man. It says only that there will be an offspring coming from the woman, without mentioning a man.

Out of all the humans that have ever existed that I can think of, historically or mythically, only two have never had a physical father (this includes the Greek demi-gods who were sired by ‘gods’ like Zeus being with mortal women). The first was Adam, created directly by God. The second was Jesus who (the New Testament claim goes) was born of a virgin – thus no human father. Is Jesus being foreshadowed here in this riddle? This fits with the observation that the offspring is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’. With that perspective, if you read the riddle some pieces fall into place.

‘Strike his Heel’??

But what does it mean that the serpent would strike ‘his heel’? I could never see it until I worked in the jungles of Cameroon. We had to wear thick rubber boots even in the humid heat – because the snakes there lay in the long grass and would strike your foot – i.e. your heel – and that would kill you. My first day there I almost stepped on a snake, and could have died from it. The riddle made sense to me after that. The ‘he’ would destroy the serpent, but the price he would have to pay, would be that he would be killed.  That does foreshadow the victory achieved through the death of Jesus.

The offspring of the Serpent?

But who is his other protagonist, this offspring of Satan? Though we do not have space here to trace it out exhaustively, the later books speak of a coming person. Note the descriptions:

“… when their sin is at its height, a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people.  He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. He will even take on the Prince of princes in battle, but he will be broken, though not by human power. (Daniel 8: 23-25; written by Daniel in Babylon ca 550 BC)

A man, with an invisible power behind him will challenge the ‘Prince of princes’ but his head too ‘will be crushed’.

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him … Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; written by Paul in Greece ca 50 AD)

Hmm … sounds like an echo of Lucifer’s challenge at the dawn of time. The old saying, ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’ may apply here. And the last book in the Bible, many pages and thousands of years removed from the Promise in Genesis, predicts:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. (Revelation 17:8-9; written by John on an island off Turkey ca 90 AD)

These later books (again note the diversity of authors, settings and eras they were written in) more explicitly speak of a countdown to a clash between the offspring of the woman and Satan’s offspring. But it is first mentioned in embryo-like form in this Promise of Genesis, at the very beginning of Biblical History, with details waiting to be filled in. So the climax of history, the countdown to a final contest between Satan and God, started long ago in the Garden is foreseen at that same beginning – the earliest Book.  It could almost make one think that history is really His-Story.

Click here to see & hear a video presentation on this in a Christmas context.