Virgin Israel: Mother of Messiah
Every year around Christmas, TV programs, blogs and print media have interviews with liberal Bible scholars at prestigious schools who declare the Virgin Birth of Jesus to be a fable foisted on the gullible by the Catholic Church.
These debunkers don't accept the New Testament at face value. Some simply deny its authenticity. With their confident, authoritative airs and barbed comments, they send a not so subliminal message that to be a rational person and believe in the Virgin Birth is absurd.
Judaism and Islam also deny that Yeshua/Isa was given birth by a virgin — it's idolatry and blasphemy.
Why all this furor?
What is it that triggers such contemptuous ridicule of this New Testament story?
Regardless of its source, disbelief about Yeshua's birth tends to obscure the fact that the New Testament (not merely the Church) unambiguously teaches this story. And it does so without apology or embarrassment.
The Real Source of the Doctrine
[Grammar note: Betulat is in the construct or bound form and could mean "virgin of." But I'm taking it as an appositional genitive: "the virgin Israel"; Gesenius's Hebrew Grammar, GKC 128k.]
The relationship of God as husband, Israel as bride is often metaphorical in the Bible. But not always (see below). In Miryam's case, it was both spiritually symbolic and materially factual.
The Son and Bride of God
There are two metaphors in the Hebrew Bible about Israel's relation to the Creator. Israel is depicted as God's son and God's bride or wife. The nation has a male and a female identity. And their Lord is both father and husband.
In her role as wife, Israel gives her Husband children. She has within her national womb chosen individuals whose conceptions and gestations were supernaturally orchestrated. Notice how . . .
• God created and knitted the psalmist inside his mother:
It was you who created [qanah] my inward parts;
Before I formed [yatzar] you in the womb I knew you.
• God formed his Servant Messiah inside his mother:
"The LORD ... formed [yatsar] me from the womb to be his servant." (Isaiah 49:5)
These are children of Mother Israel and of God their Creator, Weaver, Former, Father.
But there is a more dramatic — more astonishing — story in the prophetic literature. One that sets up a comparison and contrast to the story of Miryam, mother of Yeshua.
God's Bride Story
Israel was unique in the ancient world because she worshiped no Mother Goddess or consort alongside YHVH, her God. Instead, the "companion" close to God was the nation herself. This imagery is most poignantly decribed by the prophets Hosea and Ezekiel.
Blending portions from Hosea 11 and Ezekiel 16 & 23, we hear the following story about Israel:
One day God came upon a newborn girl who had been abandoned by her mother to die in the dirt. He picked her up, washed her off, clothed her, and nourished her (Ezek 16:4-7). He then spent years raising her through childhood. Eventually, when she became a young woman, he courted her himself (Hos 11:4). He gave his oath to marry her and she became his wife (Ezek 16:8).
The story then moves to a tragic climax. The prophets go on to tell how God's Bride decided to leave her Husband for other men (foreign deities) (Ezek 16:32). And by these alien lovers she bore "strange sons" (banim zarim, Hos 5:7).
Her guilt over her adultery, however, turned into unrepentant rage. She couldn't attack God, so she viciously turned on her children and burned them on altars to other deities. Her Husband was outraged:
You even took the sons and daughtersMother Israel killed God's children.
This stunning depiction of adultery ripping apart a marriage emerged as a prophetic explanation to Israel of why she would descend into exile in 586 BCE. Her disloyalty would bring severe punishment from her husband. If she chose unfaithfulness, he would divorce her. She would be called Lo Ammi ("not my people"; Hosea 1:9).
And yet, divorce would not end the marriage between God and Israel. Spurning his vows would not ruin God's original purpose to love her and to bless the people of earth through her. The Abrahamic Covenant remained in force.
With some future unspecified generation, the tainted relationship would change. One day God's persistent, loyal love (hesed) toward his companion will eventually draw her back. Abused and longing for her first love, she will quit her many husbands and come home.
And so transforming will be God's forgiveness for her that he will change her name from "Harlot" to Betulat Yisrael — "Virgin Israel" (Jer 31:4). So delighted will God be that he will remarry her as a young man marries a maiden (Hosea 2:16-22; Eng=14-20).
In time, the Father will — once again — have offspring with her. They will be known as benei El Chai, "children of the living God" (Hosea 2:1/Eng=1:10).
This metaphorical language is open to ridicule.
A cynic will scorn such crude imagery of God begetting children by his human "wife." But the Hebrew prophets risked talking this way for a life-changing reason.
They portrayed this relationship in the most graphic terms in order to break Israel's heart, so that she wouldn't leave her Husband. It failed. But even after she left him, the prophets revived the marriage imagery to give her hope that her Lord, like a forgiving husband, would cleanse and take her back.
Miryam as Betulat Yisrael
The story of Miryam, the mother of Yeshua, is also open to mockery. It too is rather embarrassing: God having a child by a Jewish woman.
But for keen listeners — for those who have the prophetic imagery of God and Virgin Israel in mind — this story is strikingly familiar. Against the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures it fits in.
In her story, Miryam of Nazareth reenacts the part of Israel, God's Bride. It's as if she is responding to the ancient prophetic call:
Sing aloud, O Daughter Zion;
In contrast to Israel's shameful acts, Miryam is not a disloyal fiancée and never was. She's overjoyed to play a role in God's plan to redeem "Israel his servant" (Luke 1:48, 54). She loves and explicitly trusts her Lord:
Here I am, the bondslave of the Lord.
The outcome of Miryam's love for God was Ben Elyon: "Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32). She embraced the reality of the ancient promise. She both was and became Betulat Yisrael, and her child was God's first-born, his One and Only (yachid, John 1:14). (See the study Immanu El.)
While Mother Israel only gave sons figuratively, Miryam literally gave a son. But the reality of both is identical. God is the source of all life — whether physical or spiritual — he fathers a son in the womb of "Israel."
Thus the story of Virgin Miryam can be understood within the larger story of Virgin Israel. It points out that we are not dealing with foreign mythologies. We enter into something very Hebrew, something very deep at the heart of biblical faith.