Isaiah 9:1-6 according to Some Jewish Interpreters

In my reading today of Messianism Within the Scriptural Scrolls of Isaiah, on pages 112-113, Randall Heskett discusses Isaiah 9:1-6 (“For under us a son is born…and his name shall be called…).  In this post, I want to discuss the statement in Isaiah 9:5 that the son shall be called “mighty God”.  Christian apologists have argued that this verse predicts that the Messiah will be God incarnate.

Randall states the following:

“When 9:1-6 operated independently from the book of Isaiah within an original social context of a royal enthronement ceremony, the exaggerated language functioned ‘figuratively’ to describe an historical Davidic king such as Hezekiah or Josiah.  Since kings in ancient Israelite religion were not considered divine, the exaggerated language of the original oracle (‘Almighty God’) must have been ‘figurative’ rather than ‘proper.’  However, within a later context of the book as a whole, the attributes of the ‘child born to us’ in Isa 9:1-6 describe more than just an earthly king.  The language itself begins to be heard as ‘proper’ language because, after the monarchy has ended, messianic expectation includes eschatological elements whose exaggerated features can be attributed to this character’s description.  Although Christians may have traditionally understood the ‘proper’ usage of ‘Almighty God’ to speak of the incarnation, the Jews have not shared the same view but have assumed that the Messiah is invested with powers from God that past kings have not possessed.  Therefore, the latter formation of the book presents hope in a superhuman royal figure who will fulfill the promises made to David in the eschatological era.  Features that were originally intended to be ‘figurative’ now have become ‘proper’ and must describe a Davidic Messiah if his name really is called ‘Almighty God.'”

Randall’s point is that Isaiah 9:5 in its original context was part of a royal enthronement ceremony for a newborn Davidic king, and the name “mighty God” for the king was figurative.  As post-exilic editors shaped the Book of Isaiah, however, the name “mighty God” came to be understood more literally—not in the sense that the Jews believed the Messiah would be God incarnate, but rather in the sense that they thought he would have more divine powers than previous kings.

I’m not sure if I agree with Randall that “kings in ancient Israelite religion were not considered divine…”  A while back, I read and blogged through Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism.   In this post, I said the following, based on what I learned from Smith’s book:

“Isaiah 9:5 calls the Davidic king ‘mighty God,’ and Psalm 45:7 refers to the king as Elohim. This is significant in debates between Jewish and Christian apologists, for Christian apologists have argued from such texts that the Messiah would be God (cp. Hebrews 1:8), a view that Jewish apologists deny.  Smith points to Ugaritic passages in which a king is portrayed as a representative of the divine, with divine characteristics (159). And he refers to a comment by J.R. Porter, who states: ‘[A]t 2 Sam. xiv.17, David is called the Angel of God because he is able to [hear good and evil]: this recalls Gen. iii. 22 [to know good and evil], and it was precisely this knowledge which placed Adam among the [gods]’ (161). Are Isaiah 9:5 and Psalm 45:7 saying that a future Messiah would be God, or is there a way to understand them within their ancient Near Eastern context: they mean that the Davidic king is a representative of God, who executes the divine mission to defeat evil and bring forth justice, and who also possesses certain divine attributes (e.g., the ability to distinguish good from evil)?”

Randall says that post-exilic Jewish editors may have conceived of the Messiah as “mighty God” in the sense that he would have divine powers.  But maybe such a notion about the Davidic king existed in pre-exilic times, as Smith appears to argue.  Randall himself (on page 58) quotes Thomas Cheyne, who affirms:

“Isaiah held the metaphysical oneness of the Messiah with Jehovah, but he evidently does conceive of the Messiah, somewhat as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians regarded their kings, as an earthly representation of Divinity…No doubt this development of the Messianic doctrine was accelerated by contact with foreign nations; still it is in harmony with fundamental Biblical ideas and expressions.”

 But Jewish exegetes have offered other interpretations of Isaiah 9:5, probably to distance themselves from Christians who hold that the Messiah would be God incarnate.

One Jewish rabbi I heard a while back, a counter-missionary, said that “mighty God” in Isaiah 9:5 refers to Hezekiah’s name, which means “Yahweh is my strength.”  “Mighty God” and “Hezekiah” contain a notion that God is strong.  Is Isaiah 9:5 saying that the Davidic king would be God, or is it saying that the king would have a name that makes a statement about God: that God is mighty? 

Here, the Jewish commentator Rashi goes another route.  He translates the verse differently:

“[T]he wondrous adviser, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, called his name, ‘the prince of peace.'”

For Rashi, “mighty God” is not a name for the king; rather, for Rashi, the passage is saying that the mighty God is calling the newborn king a “prince of peace.”  I suppose that can work in the Hebrew, but, if the author of Isaiah 9:5 wanted to make such a point clear, then he should have put “the wondrous advisor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father” before the word shemo (“his name”), not after it.

Rashi makes another point that deserves note.  This concerns Isaiah 9:6, which states that God will establish the newborn king’s reign “from now and forever”:

“from now and to eternity: The eternity of Hezekiah, viz. all his days. And so we find that Hannah said concerning Samuel (I Sam. 1:22): ‘and abide there forever.’ And, in order to refute those who disagree [i.e., the Christians, who claim that this (Prince of Peace) is their deity], we can refute them [by asking], What is the meaning of: ‘from now’ ? Is it not so that the ‘deity’ did not come until after five hundred years and more?”

First, Rashi argues that olam in the Hebrew Bible doesn’t necessarily mean “forever and ever”, for Samuel didn’t abide in the Tabernacle for all eternity: rather, Samuel stayed there for the rest of his life, which was “forever” for him.  Consequently, for Rashi, Isaiah 9:6 could be saying that Hezekiah will rule for all of his life, not that a coming Messiah will rule for all eternity.

Second, Rashi notes that Isaiah 9:6 says that God will establish the rule of the newborn king “from now”, meaning the time that Isaiah delivered the prophecy.  Jesus wasn’t born yet at that time, so Rashi concludes that Isaiah 9:6 isn’t about Jesus, but rather Hezekiah. 

I wonder how Christians interpret “from now”?  An option that may be available to them is to say that Isaiah 9:6 speaks about the future, and that God is saying that he will establish the Davidic king’s reign from the time of the prophecy’s fulfillment (which will be “now” at that time) and forevermore.  Micah 4:7 uses “from now” in that sense: “The lame I will make a remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forevermore” (NRSV).  “From now” refers, not to the time of Micah, but to the “now” that will exist at the point that God will restore Israel, which was in Micah’s future.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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