Bethlehem’s claim to fame in Bible history is that it was the location of the story of Ruth, the ancestress of King David and the city where David was born and lived as a youth. According to the prophecy of Micah 5.2 (5.1 in the Jewish Bible) something special was to happen at a future time in Bethlehem.
‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
This prophecy is linked to the Messiah in the ancient Targum of of Micah 5.1-3 (the Targum is an ancient paraphrase of the scripture that a rabbi would give in the common language of the listeners). This reads: ‘And you, O Bethlehem Ephrath, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before Me the Messiah, to exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation.’ This is significant because it means that ancient rabbis considered this verse to be about the birth of the Messiah.
The Jewish commentator Rashi agreed that Micah 5 is about the origin of the Messiah. In his commentary on this verse he wrote: ‘And you Bethlehem Ephrathah whence David emanated … You should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah because of the stigma of Ruth the Moabitess. From you shall emerge for Me the Messiah, son of David … and his origin is of old.’
The verse uses an unusual phrase for the origins of this one prophesied here. The Hebrew phrase for this is ‘me yemei olam’ which means ‘from ancient times’ or ‘from eternity’. In Psalm 90.2 God’s existence is described as being ‘me olam ve ad olam’ – from eternity to eternity. The prophecy of Micah implies that the one to be born in Bethlehem would have his origins in eternity. Only God has His origins in eternity so this raises an interesting possibility to say the least!
The Gospel of Matthew ties this together. It records the visit of the Magi from the east, who came seeking the ‘King of the Jews.’ Arriving in Jerusalem they enquire where such an event should take place. Herod interprets this as a sign of the coming Messiah (which troubles him!) and gathers together the chief priests and scribes to ‘inquire of them where the Messiah was to be born.’ Matthew 2.3-4. The response is ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘But you Bethlehem in the land of Judah are not the least among the rulers of Judah for out of you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ Matthew 2.6.
Matthew goes on to say that the one to be born will be ‘Immanuel’ Hebrew for God with us. So He will be more than just a mortal human baby, He will be God with us.
Luke’s Gospel chapter 2 shows us how God overruled events through the Roman census to bring Joseph and Miriam (Mary) down from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order for Yeshua to be born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of the prophecy of Micah 5.
Today Bethlehem is an Arab town in the Palestinian Authority area. It is unlikely that the Jewish Messiah could be born in Bethlehem today!
‘The world will exist 6000 years. 2000 years of desolation, 2000 years of the Torah, and 2000 years of the Messianic era.’ Sanhedrin 97a-b.
This is a passage from the Talmud which says that we should now be in the ‘2000 years of the Messianic era.’ The 2000 years of Torah are generally held to date from Abraham, not Moses, so according to this midrash the Messianic era was supposed to begin around 2000 years ago. So the Messiah should have come.
The Medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, gives an explanation for the non appearance of Messiah by saying: ‘After 2000 years of Torah it was God’s decree that the Messiah would come and the wicked generation would come to an end and the subjugation of Israel would be destroyed. But because our iniquities were many, all this has been lost.’ So according to Rashi, Messiah did not come because of Israel’s sins.
According to the prophecy of Daniel Messiah should have come before the destruction of the Second Temple.
‘After 62 weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for himself; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.’ Daniel 9.26.
This prophecy focuses on an event which clearly has happened – the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70CE and indicates that the Messiah should have come before this.
According to the Talmud (Midrash Bereshith p. 243 Warsaw edition) “Messiah was to exit in 33 C.E. (See also – YALKUT, Vol. II (p. 79 dahlet) & NAZIR (32 beht).
Commenting on this Maimonides said: “Daniel has made known to us the knowledge of the end times. However, since they are secret, the wise rabbis have barred the calculation of the days of Messiah’s coming so that the untutored populace will not be led astray when they see that the End Times have already come but there is no sign of the Messiah” (Igeret Teiman, Chapter 3 p.24.).
From this statement it appears that Maimonides believed that Daniel had knowledge of the time of the coming of the Messiah and that that time has now passed. Because of this rabbis should not teach about Daniel 9 in case their congregations are troubled by the fact that these events have happened and the Messiah did not appear.
The alternative is that we should conclude that Messiah did appear about 2000 years ago before the destruction of the Temple.
There is also an ancient prophecy in Genesis in which Jacob blesses his sons and gives the most significant word not to his oldest son, Reuben, nor to his favourite son, Joseph, but to his fourth son, Judah: 1. ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.’ Genesis 49.10.
In this prophecy Jacob is saying that Judah would have rulership as happened through the line of kings descended from his descendant, David. He also prophesied that through his line ‘Shiloh’ would come. There are Jewish writings, which teach that ‘Shiloh’ is a term for the Messiah, for example this one from ‘Yalkut’, a collection of rabbinic explanations of the Bible: ‘Until Shiloh shall come; He is called by the name of Shiloh because all the nations are destined to bring gifts to Israel and to King Messiah, as it is written, ‘In that day shall the present be brought to the Lord of hosts.’ Yalkut 160.
The sceptre in this verse is the Hebrew word ‘shebet’, the tribal staff which belonged to each tribe as an ensign of their authority. Thus the tribal identity of Judah would not pass away, as happened to other tribes, until Shiloh or Messiah comes. It was from the tribe of Judah that the line of kings descended from King David came. Even after the Babylonian captivity, Judah continued to have lawgivers (see Ezra 1.5 – 8).
In the early years of the Roman occupation of Judea, the Jewish people still had a king in their own land. Moreover they were to a large extent governed by their own laws, and the Sanhedrin exercised its authority. But in the span of a few years in around 11 CE, Archelaus, the king of the Jews was dethroned and banished. Coponius was appointed Roman Procurator, and the kingdom of Judea, the last remnant of the former nation of Israel, was formally debased into a province of Syria (see Josephus’ Antiquities 17, chapter 13.1-5).
At this time the Sanhedrin lost its power of passing the death sentence (see John 18.31). Rabbi Rachmon said, ‘When the members of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a general consternation took hold of them; they covered their heads and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming, ‘Woe unto us, for the sceptre has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come.’’ (Talmud, Bab., Sanhedrim, Chapter 4, fol. 37, recto). This would have been about the time that Jesus appeared in the Temple as a 12 year old boy (Luke 2.41-50). The Messiah had come!
For another half century the Jewish people retained the semblance of a provincial government structure, but in 70 AD all semblance of Jewish national sovereignty disappeared when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the armies of the Roman General Titus.
If Jesus is the Messiah, then the prophecy of Jacob way back in Genesis was fulfilled in a remarkable way. The Messiah came before Judah lost its national identity, just as Jacob foretold. He completed His mission 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, even giving a prophetic warning of that coming event in Luke 19.41-44.
For all this to happen He had to be born at the right time. At the beginning of this article we quoted Rashi who said the Messianic Age had not come ‘because our iniquities were many’. Shaul (Paul) tells us that was why he did come! To save us from our sins and make the way for God to forgive us and give us eternal life: ‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Messiah died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah, through whom we have now received reconciliation.’ Romans 5.6-11.
Jesus / Yeshua came around 2000 years ago, before the destruction of the Second Temple, to be cut off (die a violent death), not for himself (not for his own sins), but for the sins of others. In doing this He fulfilled the prophecies of Messiah suffering as an atoning sacrifice for our sins:
‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53.4-6)
‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call his name Immanuel.’ (Isaiah 7.14).
At a public debate on the issue ‘Was Jesus the Messiah?’ (London L’Chaim Society, 19/1/98), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach stated from the platform that any Christian claiming that Isaiah 7.14 is a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus is being intellectually dishonest. This would have to include the Gospel of Matthew which quotes Isaiah 7.14 in connection with the birth of Jesus and states: ‘All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’ (Matthew 1.22-23). The Gospel of Luke stresses the virginity of Miriam (Mary) in its account of the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.26-38).
There are two major objections to the use of Isaiah 7.14 in relation to Jesus:
- The Hebrew word ‘almah’ should be translated ‘young woman’ not virgin.
- The passage in context is a short term prophecy to King Ahaz about his fears of invasion by an alliance of forces led by Rezin, King of Syria and Pekah, King of Israel, not a prophecy of the virgin birth of the Messiah.
1. What does almah mean?
The word almah means a young woman of marriageable age who is not yet married. In Bible times it would be expected that a unmarried sexually mature woman would be a virgin. It is used only 7 times in the Hebrew Bible and on all occasions (except possibly one in Proverbs) implies a virgin. The word ‘betullah’ is the more common word which is generally used for a virgin but there are occasions when the woman referred to may not be a virgin, for example in Joel 1.8 where it refers to a young woman mourning for the husband of her youth or in Isaiah 47.1 where it is used to describe Babylon, a pagan nation known for its immorality.
Interestingly when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, about 150 years before Jesus came, the word almah in Isaiah 7.14 was translated by the Greek word ‘parthenos’ which only means virgin. This suggests that the translators understood the prophecy to be referring to a virgin birth. The passage also begins with a word from the Lord that this is to be a ‘sign’ (Hebrew word ‘oth’), which implies something supernatural or miraculous. There is nothing miraculous in a young woman of marriageable age conceiving a child. There is something miraculous in a virgin conceiving a child.
2. What did the prophecy mean?
In the context Isaiah is prophesying to King Ahaz, who was the legitimate king of Judah, being of the line of David, but who ‘did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord’ (2 Kings 16.2). We read about his reign in 2 Kings 16-17 and 2 Chronicles 28. He turned away from the Lord, worshipped the Baals, the Canaanite gods, and even sacrificed his children to pagan gods in the valley of Hinnom. Because of his wickedness he was out of God’s favour and trouble was coming upon the land in accordance with the warning given in the Torah to the people of Israel not to worship other gods (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28).
At the time of the prophecy of Isaiah 7 he was in the process of making an alliance with the king of Assyria to protect himself from the threat to his kingdom from an alliance of the kings of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah came to meet him with a prophecy that both Syria and Israel (Ephraim) who were plotting against him would themselves be overthrown by Assyria. (Isaiah 7.4-9, 18-25). Isaiah goes on to prophesy the invasion of Judah by Assyria (Isaiah 8.6-10) but shows that God will intervene to save Judah from the fate of captivity by the Assyrians which will come to the northern kingdom of Israel.
In fact Isaiah is giving Ahaz and encouraging message from the Lord that the kingdom of Judah will not fall. What Ahaz should have done is trust in God, as his own son Hezekiah was to do when faced with a threat to his kingdom (Isaiah 36-37), but he does not.
After Ahaz shows his mistrust in God by refusing the sign which God is offering him through Isaiah in verses 1-12, there is a significant change in the text. Instead of the prophecy being given to Ahaz in the singular, the word is spoken to ‘you’ in the plural, in other words to the whole house of David: ‘Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you (plural) to weary men, but will you (plural) weary my God also?’ verse 13.
This means that God is tired of the unbelief shown not only by Ahaz but by the house of David in general (i.e. the kings of Judah). So He gives to them the prophecy of the descendant of David who will be faithful and will in fact be the Messiah: ‘Therefore the Lord Himself will give you (plural) a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.’ There will be a descendant of David who will be faithful to the Lord (unlike Ahaz) and who will in fact be more than a fallible human king.
He will be ‘Immanuel’ – God with us. He will come by a miracle (a sign) which will be the conception of the boy to a woman who is still a virgin.
Unlike the prophecies given to Ahaz about the coming events in relation to the kings of the surrounding countries this prophecy has to do with the Messianic king who will come in the distant future from Ahaz’ point of view. Just a little later in his prophecy Isaiah gives more information about this one to be born:
‘For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.’ Isaiah 9.6-7.
This one will be born as a Son, but at the same time His nature will be that of a ‘Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Two of those phrases ‘el gibbor / Mighty God’ and av olam / Everlasting Father contain the concept of divinity in them so this one to be born is more than a human king reigning, He is divine in nature, Immanuel / God with us. He will have an eternal government, throne and kingdom.
This has already been promised to the house of David in a previous prophecy given by Nathan to David in 1 Chronicles 17.11-14: ‘And it shall be, when your days are fulfilled, when you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son; and I will not take My mercy away from him, as I took it from him who was before you. And I will establish him in My house and in My kingdom forever; and his throne shall be established forever.’
In the Gospel of Luke when the Angel Gabriel visits Miriam (Mary) to announce the coming birth of Yeshua / Jesus, his words fit in with these prophecies:
‘Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.’ Luke 1.26-38.
In Matthew’s account (Matthew 1.18-25), which sees the event through the eyes of Joseph, we learn that Miriam was found to be with child after they had become engaged. She was with child ‘by the Holy Spirit’, ‘before they came together’ (i.e. while she was still a virgin, before they had consummated their marriage).
Joseph was minded ‘to put her away secretly’ (i.e. break off the engagement but without publicly shaming her) when the angel Gabriel intervened by coming to him and telling him “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus (Yeshua / salvation), for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Joseph accepted this and took her to be his wife, and ‘did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.’ ‘Did not know her’ here means did not have sexual intercourse with her. Contrary to the Roman Catholic belief that Mary remained an eternal virgin, the text says that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary did have children by the normal means.
From these verses we learn that Miriam was a virgin, when she conceived supernaturally in her womb a boy child who was to be called Yeshua / Jesus (meaning salvation), that this came to pass by the Holy Spirit and that this one was called the Son of God as prophesied by Isaiah in chapter 7.14. He was to be given an eternal throne, an eternal house and an eternal kingdom, just as David was prophesied by Nathan in 1 Chronicles 17.
The Holy Spirit would overshadow a virgin betrothed to be married who would give birth to a son who would more than just a man. He would be Immanuel, God with us. God would enter human existence in the person of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah. In this way he would be both Son of Man and Son of God, without sin and therefore able to redeem lost humanity. Those who receive Jesus would be born again into His eternal kingdom and have eternal life.
According to the New Testament Yeshua / Jesus has fulfilled the other prophecies of the Suffering Servant Messiah by dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, rising again from the dead and ascending into heaven from where He will come again to judge the world in righteousness. Following His return He will complete the Messianic programme by reigning on earth from David’s throne in Jerusalem during the Millennium or Messianic Kingdom.