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The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 6: He Spoke Through the Prophets"


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Countless centuries before the Old Covenant, our Father planned to send His Son to us-actually, His plans are as eternal as His very being. For since He cannot change, He does not have one plan or decision now, another later. Nor does some plan arise today which had not been there before. Being utterly unchangeable, He is not in time; and so, He has no past, and no future. As we said before we think of creation as past, and the return of Christ at the end as future. But to the eyes of the Eternal Majesty, all is present, present all at once.

So it is most strictly true to say that He always planned to send His Son to become Man; and of course, then, He always planned for His Mother, Mary.1

But the manifestation and unfolding of these plans came and comes in the course of what we call time, and so we may trace the unfolding of what He always designs.

The great patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, was dying in Egypt. He called together his sons, and, moved by the Spirit, told them what things were to befall them and their descendants in the last days. His words about Judah are specially significant (Gen 49:10): "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and his shall be the obedience of the peoples." Modern translators disagree much over the words which we have rendered "until Shiloh comes." But we are following the text as understood by the ancient Jewish commentators in the targums, and later Jewish tradition. The targums are ancient Jewish paraphrases, plus fill-ins, of the Old Testament. We have them for practically all the Old Testament, and in many places we have more than one. The date of composition of these targums is much debated, but one thing is sure: no matter when they were written, they reflect ancient Jewish understanding of the texts, without what is sometimes called "hindsight" through fulfillment in Christ, whom the Jews rejected. The Targum Neofiti confidently renders Genesis 49:10 thus: "Kings shall not be lacking from the house of Judah . . . until the time at which King Messiah will come."2 A prominent modern Jewish scholar, Samson Levey, comments that this supposes the restoration of the dynasty of David, and he adds that other rabbinic sources, Midrashic and Talmudic, agree that the passage is Messianic.3

The sense is obvious: a Jewish ruler of some sort will not be lacking until the time of the Messiah. And so, historically, it was.4 The Jewish state, reduced to the tribe of Judah, had its own rulers until 4l B. C., when Herod, the first non-Jewish king, began to rule. (He was half Arab, half Idumean.) Then the time was ripe to hope for the Messiah, so that when Herod wanted to answer the Magi about Him, the King had no difficulty in learning from the Jewish theologians where the Messiah was born. They told him (Mt. 2:5-6): "In Bethlehem of Judah, for so it is written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are the least among the leaders of Judah. For from you there will come forth a leader who will shepherd my people Israel." The High Priests and scribes were quoting the prophecy of Micah 5:1. Levey comments that the Hebrew of Micah itself tends to support the idea of a pre-existent Messiah, even though that idea is not found in rabbinic texts.5 The Targum Jonathan on this line reads: "From you will come forth before me the Messiah . . . whose name was spoken from days of old, from the days of eternity."6 It is quite possible that the Targum meant the same as the Hebrew, for in Hebrew usage, the name is sometimes almost identified with the person.

Right after the sin of our first parents, God gave a prophecy of the Messiah to come in Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed. He will strike at your head and you will strike at his heel." It is fashionable among many modern commentators to refuse to see any mention of the Messiah in Genesis 3:15. There is only one woman on the scene, they say, and that is Eve, who was not the mother of the Messiah. Further, they continue, the very same Hebrew word shuf is used of both the seed of the woman and the serpent. So there is no hint of any victory, just a draw.

But again, there is help fom the Targums. Targums Neofiti, Pseudo-Jonathan, and the Fragmentary Targum all interpret Genesis 3:15 as Messianic. Their interpretation is, in part, allegorical. They say that the sons of the woman will observe the commandments of the Torah, and will fight the sons of the serpent, who are disobedient. But the Targums see a victory for the son or sons of the woman. So Targum Neofiti reads: "There will be a remedy [for the wound] for the son of the woman, but for you, serpent, no remedy."7

Besides, it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to suppose that the descendants of Eve (all humans, or just all women) are special enemies of evil, and are going to conquer evil. This is simply unrealistic, if we contemplate the human race today, or in the past. So we are led to see at least an opening to understand this text as meaning the Messiah.

We, by our own mere human powers and knowledge, cannot strictly prove that the Messiah and His Mother were meant. But the providentially guided teaching authority of the Church can see things which weak human ability might not see. That is what Vatican II teaches in its Constitution on the Church. Speaking of the Old Testament, in which the history of salvation in Christ is gradually prepared, it says:

These primeval documents, as they are read in the Church, and are understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring more clearly to light the figure of the woman, the Mother of the Redeemer. She, in this light, is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise, given to our first parents, who had fallen into sin, of victory over the serpent (cf. Gen 3:15).8

Earlier documents of the Magisterium of the Church prepared the way for this declaration of Vatican II. In the Bull defining the Immaculate Conception in 1854, Pius IX wrote that,

The Fathers and ecclesiastical writers . . . in commenting on the words [of Gen 3:15] taught that by this utterance there was clearly and openly foretold the merciful Redeemer of the human race . . . and that His most Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, was designated, and, at the same time, that the enmity of both against the devil was remarkably expressed.

Pius XII, in the Constitution defining the Assumption in 1950, said that,

Since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who . . . was most closely associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the Protoevangelium [Gen 3:15] was to result in that most complete victory over sin and death.9

Pope John Paul II, in a general audience of December 17, 1986, said: "These words of Genesis are called the Protoevangelium, or the first announcement of the Messiah Redeemer. They reveal God's salvific plan in regard to the human race which after original sin is found in the fallen state which we know."

The passage of Vatican II which we cited above continues, saying: "Similarly, she is the Virgin who will conceive and bear a Son, whose name will be called Emmanuel (cf. Is 7:14; Mich 5:2-3; Mt 1:22-23)."10

The Council was referring to Isaiah 7:14: "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel." The Targums do not see a Messianic sense in this passage. However the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is usually less inclined than the Targums to see a Messianic sense, translates Isaiah's word almah by Greek parthenos, virgin.11 The Hebrew word almah means a young woman of marriageable age, who would be assumed to be a virgin. There was a more definite word in Hebrew betulah, for virgin. But the Septuagint definitely took almah to stand for a virgin here. This is important, because if we take the word for just a young woman, then an ordinary child could be meant. Jewish interpreters commonly thought it was Hezekiah, son of King Ahaz, to whom this prophecy was first spoken. If we read virgin then of course, the prophecy must refer to Christ. St. Matthew (1:23) definitely does take it that way, and quotes this prophecy to refer to the conception of Christ. So we must ask: Did not St. Matthew,12 himself a Jew, know that Jews did not see it that way? Of course he did, and yet, guided by the the Holy Spirit, he did not hesitate to see the prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. St. Matthew did a similar thing in 2:15, where he saw the prophecy of Hosea 11:1 fulfilled: "And He was there [in Egypt] till the death of Herod, and so the word of the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled saying: Out of Egypt I called my Son." Again, St. Matthew surely knew that, in context, Hosea meant the whole people of Israel by "my son," who were rescued from Egypt in the Exodus.

The key seems to be this: St. Matthew probably considered that prophecies, as divine words, could have multiple fulfillments.13 In chapter 24 of Matthew, when the Apostles had asked Jesus what were the signs of the fall of Jerusalem, and also the signs of His return at the end, St. Matthew gives a long discourse by Jesus. In it practically everything can refer to both events. Similarly, St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 says that, "In the last days, there will be difficult times. Men will be lovers of self. . . ." And he goes on to give a dismal litany of evil qualities.14 And in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 he again says: "There will be a time when they will not tolerate sound doctrine. . . ." Commentators commonly say15 that both passages refer both to all the time from the ascension to the return of Jesus, and to the time just before the end, a double reference.

In this perspective of multiple fulfillment, we could say that the prophecy of Isaiah refers both to Hezekiah and to Jesus.

We should add: There is a very solemn tone and setting to the prophecy, hard to understand if it foretells merely the birth of an ordinary heir to the throne. Further, the Hebrew has the word ha (the) with almah-the virgin. This seems to point to someone special. Also, the Hebrew says, "She will call him Emmanuel."16 Normally, though not invariably, it was the father, not the mother, who gave a child his name.17 So there could be an implication here that she was indeed a virgin, that the child had no human father.

Still futher, the wonderful child foretold in Isaiah 9:5-6 seems to be the same as the child foretold in 7:14, since it is generally agreed that both passages belong to the Book of the Messiah.18 But the glorious description of 9:5-6 hardly fits Hezekiah. Isaiah 9:5-6 reads: "For a child is born to us, a son is given to us, and the government shall be on his shoulder, and they will call his name wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of Peace." The Targums have no doubt that the Messiah is meant in 9:5-6.19 So if it is the same child as in 7:14, then the child of 7:14 must also be the Messiah. Why did not the Targums say so at 7:14? Some good modern Jewish scholars admit that the Jews, when they saw the use Christians could make of some prophecies, deliberately doctored the texts of Targums.20

The New American Bible is unwilling to render "mighty God" for Hebrew el gibbor. But el gibbor always elsewhere in the Old Testament means mighty God, never God-hero as NAB renders it. The Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version readily translate by mighty God.21

The Targum Jonathan also has no hesitation. It simply translates by mighty God. But the meaning of the Targum is disputed in another way. J. F. Stenning of Oxford renders: "And his name has been called from of old, wonderful counsellor, mighty God, He who lives forever, Messiah, in whose days peace shall increase upon us."22 S. Levey, on the contrary, avoids calling the Messiah God by turning around the structure so as to say that "his name has been called Messiah by . . . the mighty God."23 Levey claims he is just following the Targumic sentence structure. Stenning does not agree. Really, the Aramaic will stand either translation.

Obviously, the ancient Jews would have had trouble thinking the Messiah to be God. But at least, the Targums knew clearly that the child Isaiah foretold would be the Messiah.

The prophecy of Isaiah 53 has sometimes been called the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Isaiah. It is truly remarkable. There is no doubt that St. Matthew's Gospel identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah, for Mt 8:16-l8 says, "He cast out the spirits by a word, and healed all the sick, and so was fulfilled what was said through Isaiah the prophet saying [53:4] 'He took our infirmities and bore our diseases'."

Isaiah tells of the atoning, suffering and death of the Servant, who will have "no form or comeliness" who will be "despised and rejected by men," who has borne our griefs ". . . [and] was wounded for our transgressions . . . was oppressed and afflicted, yet did not open his mouth . . . like a lamb being led to the slaughter."

There is a clear indication that this is the Messiah in 53:2, which says the Servant grows up like a young plant. This plainly alludes to Is 11:1, which speaks of a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse. The Targum knows that 11:1 refers to the Messiah.24 It also says explicitly, in its rendering of 52:13, that the servant is the Messiah.25

But then a strange thing happens. This passage, which beyond any possible doubt speaks of a meek and suffering servant, who opens not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter, is made in the Targum into a proud aggressive person who subjugates mighty kings, and rebuilds the ruined sanctuary.

For example, the Scripture says in verse 3: "He was despised and rejected by men." But in the Targum we find: "Then the glory of all kingdoms will be despised and cease." Scripture has in verse 5: "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities." In the Targum that becomes: "He will [re]build the sanctuary, polluted because of our sins, [and] handed over because of our iniquities." Where Scripture says in verse 7 that he was "like a lamb being led to the slaughter," the Targum says: "He will hand over the mighty ones of the peoples, like a lamb to the slaughter."

This of course is deliberate distortion. It is likely that the Jews were becoming unhappy with the use Christians were making of this passage, and so tried to stop them with such doctoring of the Targum. But, like Shakespeare's lady "who doth protest too much," they gave themselves away with their incredible distortion.

Still, we can gather this. The Targum does assure us that the Suffering Servant is the Messiah, and St. Matthew's Gospel tell us that the he is indeed Jesus. So this prophecy becomes astounding reading, for it tells that he was marred beyond human semblance, with no form, was despised and rejected by all, wounded for our sins. But His chastisement made us whole, and his stripes healed us. We needed that, for we had gone astray like sheep. Then God laid upon His Servant the iniquity of us all.26 He was slain, and cut off from the land of the living.

But then, abruptly, verse 10 begins to speak of the Servant as alive again: He is to see the fruit of His labor, and be satisfied. He will be counted among the great. Strangely, John McKenzie finds the shift in verse 10 odd: "There is an obvious inconsistency between the death of the Servant (vss. 7-9) and what is said in these verses" (10-12).27 The matter is strange only if one does not see in these lines a prediction of the resurrection.

If it is fundamentalism to read the Scriptures as if written by 20th century Americans, then it is at least close to fundamentalism to ignore the way the Scriptures were understood by the ancient peoples of the same language and same culture. Hence the Targums are an important aid to us, even though at times they may indulge in allegory.

If, then, we read the prophecies with the help of the Targums, we will see that they tell us that the words of the dying Jacob in Genesis 49 are to be taken as a prediction that the Messiah would come when self-rule finally departed from Judah, and that He would be born at Bethlehem. With the help of the ancient Septuagint, we can see that Isaiah 7:14 really did foretell the virgin birth of the Messiah. Turning again to the Targums, we can learn that the child of Isaiah 9:5-6, who really is the same as the child of 7:14, is again the Messiah, and if we put aside the fears that insistent Jewish monotheism generated, we can even see that the Messiah is the mighty God Himself. We can also learn that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah, and, thanks to the fact that there the Targum "doth protest too much", in turning the meek servant into an arrogant conquerer, we can learn of the passion of the Messiah, and even, in verses 10-12, get at least a highly probable forecast of His resurrection.

Finally, we can get at least some help in seeing that the promise recorded in Genesis 3:15 does refer to the Messiah, and to His Mother, and the victory of both over the infernal serpent.

What we see with some difficulty with the help of the Septuagint and the Targums, we can see in full clarity with the help of the providentially protected Magisterium of the Church, thanks to which, "These primeval documents, as they are read in the Church and are understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring more clearly to light the figure of the woman, the Mother of the Redeemer," and of Her Divine Son, the Messiah, for both of whom the Father planned from all eternity, and both of whom He revealed gradually but sufficiently over the course of long ages, until the fulness of time should come.


1 Cf. Vatican II, On the Church #61: "The Blessed Virgin, planned for from eternity along with the incarnation of the Divine Word, as the Mother of God, was the loving associate of the Divine Redeemer on earth, His associate in a singular way, more than others."
2 My translation, from Alejandro Diez Macho, Neofiti, Targum Palestiniense, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Madrid, 1968. I. p. 33l. Four Targums-Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan, Neofiti, and the Fragmentary Targum-all render, substantially, "until King Messiah comes." Onkelos omits the word king-perhaps a sign it was written in Macchabean times, when the word king would be considered treason. Cf. also W. Most, "Maria Conservabat Omnia Verba Haec" in Miles Immaculatae, Rome, 21 (1985), pp. 135-69, esp. pp. 141-42 (reprinted in Faith & Reason 11 (1985) pp. 51-76. Jacob Neuser, a great Jewish scholar, gives us data that helps show the early date of the Targum on the prophets. (The same reasoning will apply to the Targum on Genesis, for Gen 3:15 and 49:10). In his Messiah in Context (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1984) he makes a great survey of Jewish literature from the Mishnah (around 200 A.D., the first great work after the fall of Jerusalem) to the Babylonian Talmud (closure 500-600 A.D.). In it we learn, step by step, that there was scant Jewish interest in the Messiah or prophecies about him until the Talmud. And even then, the only point of the major prophecies they mention is that the Messiah is to come from the line of David (Neusner, p. 175). So if the Targums were late-or at least, the portions dealing with these prophecies-it would be strange that they showed so much interest in the major prophecies of the OT on the Messiah at a time when Jewish theologians in general showed virtually no interest in them.
3 Samson Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974, p. 8.
4 If the Jews had not been so unfaithful to God, the actual line of David would have continued, instead of the tenuous rulers that actually came. Cf. 1 Kings 9:3-8.
5 Cf. Levey, p. 93.
6 My translation from the Aramaic in Brian Walton, Biblia Sacra Polyglotta, Academische Druck, Graz, Austria, 1964, III.
7 My translation from Neofiti. Cf. also Genesis Rabbah 20.5, which also sees this verse as Messianic.
8 Vatican II, On the Church #55.
9 Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, Nov.1, 1950. AAS 42.768.
10 Vatican II, On the Church #55.
11 R. Laurentin, in The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths, tr. M. Wrenn et al. St. Bede's, Petersham, 1986, p. 412 is in error in saying the Septuagint sometimes uses parthenos loosely. A check of every instance of its usage shows it is always precise, sometimes more so than the Hebrew (the context shows the sense intended). Laurentin appeals to Genesis 34:3, saying Dinah was called parthenos after being violated, but most probably this is the well-known Hebrew pattern of concentric narration. In the original French, Laurentin had tried to use Gen 34:4. Then, seeing that was a clear error-the Greek there did not have parthenos at all-he went back a step to verse 3, where one would have to suppose without proof that the Septuagint broke its consistent pattern. Actually, there are only two places in the Old Testament where the Septuagint translates almah by parthenos. One of them is in Genesis 24:43, where the context clearly shows the girl is a virgin. The other is in Is 7:14. There are several other places where the almah is at least likely to be a virgin. But the Septuagint was so careful it used unstead a more general word neanis, which means simply "young woman."
12 On the Matthean authorship of Matthew, see W. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today, Tan Books, Rockford, IL, 1986, pp. 48-58.
13 On multiple fulfillment, cf. W. Most, Free From All Error, pp. 25-30.
14 The prophecies of 2 Timothy, and similar other texts, such as Luke 18:8 definitely rule out the unfortunate speculations of Teilhard de Chardin that just before the return of Christ at the end most of the world will be united in a glorious bond of love. Teilhard seems to have gotten a mental framework in his mind, into which these prophecies would not fit: therefore he did not see them. This phenomenon also accounts for how the Apostles could hear the several prophecies of Jesus about His death and resurrection and yet be surprised when it happened.
15 Cf. Jerome Biblical Commentary on these passages.
16 The Isaiah scroll from Qumran reads: "One will call." The Septuagint reads: "He will call," referring it seems to Ahaz. However, the text of the Hebrew was not fully settled at the time the Septuagint was translated.
17 Sometimes the mother did give the name, e.g., Gen 4:1 & 25; 19:36; 32:1.
18 The Book of Emmanuel runs 7:1-12:6.
19 Cf. Levey, p. 46.
20 Cf. Levey, p. 152 n. 10 and H. J. Schoeps, Paul, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1961, p. 129. Jacob Neusner, probably the greatest of modern Jewish scholars, in his Messiah in Context tells us that the Jews once thought Hezekiah was the Messiah of Isaiah 7:14. Such was the opinion of the great Hillel, cited by Neusner on p. 173. But Neusner adds, on p. 190: "Since Christian critics of Judaism claimed that the prophetic promises . . . had all been kept in the times of ancient Israel, so that Israel now awaited nothing at all, it was important to reject the claim that Hezekiah had been the Messiah." Hence, the Talmud (cf. Neusner, p. 173) cites Rabbi Joseph as denying that Hezekiah had been the Messiah. So we can now see how it is that the Targum sees Isaiah 9:5-6 as messianic, but does not see it for 7:14, when it is clear that the child in both passages is the same.
21 A scholarly Jewish version, I. W. Slotki, Soncino Books of the Bible, Isaiah Soncino Press, London, 1957, p. 44 also renders "Mighty God," but manages by another device to avoid calling the Messiah God.
22 J. F. Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, Oxford, 1949, p. 32.
23 Levey, p. 153, n. 31.
24 Levey, p. 49.
25 Levey, pp. 63 & 67.
26 Verse 6 has all; verses 11 & 12, referring to the same persons, has many. The reason is that Hebrew rabbim has the odd sense of "the all who are many." Hence a fluctuation is possible.
27 John L. McKenzie, in Second Isaiah, Anchor Bible 20, Doubleday, N.Y. 1968, p. 132. Cf. p. 135 where McKenzie sees, but rejects, the presence of the idea of resurrection in the text.

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