Typology in Matthew’s birth narrative
During Advent, millions of Christians read Matthew’s much-beloved account about the birth of Jesus. But skeptics sometimes use the opportunity to point out a perceived instance of Matthew playing ‘fast and loose’ with Scripture. They argue that some of the things Matthew cites as prophecies weren’t prophecies at all. Is this accusation valid?
Some preliminary thoughts
Matthew, according to church tradition, was writing a Gospel for a primarily Jewish audience. His interest in Old Testament references and debates about the Law seem to corroborate this. If Matthew was writing to Jews who would know their Old Testament, surely they would be the first to call him on it if they thought he was misusing their sacred Scriptures! So he would have an incentive to get it right. So, whether or not Matthew’s use of Scripture fits some modern methods of Bible interpretation, the way he used the Old Testament was in line with first-century Jewish methods.
There are two types of Old Testament texts that Matthew uses to claim prophetic fulfillment, and two of each of these are used in his birth narrative.
Straightforward predictive prophecy
Matthew’s first citation of prophecy in 1:23 comes from Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and will call his name Emmanuel.” Isaiah is clearly making a predictive prophecy, but some people argue that Isaiah isn’t talking about Jesus at all. Are they right?
In the context of the Isaiah passage, Rezin and Pekah, the kings of Syria and Israel, form an alliance against the Assyrian empire, but together they aren’t strong enough to withstand an Assyrian invasion. So they invite Ahaz, king of Judah, to join their alliance. When Ahaz refuses, Rezin and Pekah conspire to overthrow Ahaz, and to replace Ahaz with a king more favorable to them. Ahaz was terrified of them, and planned to appeal to Assyria.
Overthrowing Ahaz would have far wider repercussions, because it would mean the extinction of the Davidic dynasty, through which the Messiah would come. So God sent Isaiah, with his young son Shear-Jashub, to Ahaz with a message not to be afraid; God would protect them. As a sign that God would not let Syria and Israel overthrow Judah, God invited Ahaz to ask for a sign—anything, as an assurance. Ahaz, with false devoutness, claimed that he did not want to test the Lord. But really, he didn’t want any sign to come true, meaning he would have to abandon his plans to appeal to Assyria (a cruel and idolatrous nation, cf. the book of Jonah). Isaiah’s angry reply makes it clear that Ahaz isn’t answering with true piety….
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