The Syro-Ephraimite war (Isaiah 7)

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Illustration: Ahaz during the Syro-Ephraimite war

The great promise of Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would give birth to a son and call Him Immanuel, did not arise in a vacuum but from within a specific historical context. In approximately 734 B.C. Israel (the northern kingdom, also called Ephraim) and Syria (also called Aram) formed a military alliance in defiance of the growing power of Assyria. The king of Israel was Pekah, who had apparently assassinated his predecessor, Pekahiah, son of Menahem, seized power and instituted an anti-Assyrian policy in Israel. The king of Syria was Rezin. Syria had for a long time been a major opponent of the Assyrian empire, which was at that time under the control of Piglath-Pileser III.

Assyria (located in what is now Iraq) was strategizing an approach from the east against Damascus, the capital of Syria, and then Samaria, the capital of Israel. Pekah and Rezin realized that their position would be that more difficult if Judah, to the south of Samaria, was against them. In such a situation, they would have to fight a two-front war against Ahaz of Judah to the south and the Assyrians to the northeast. They decided to launch a preemptive strike against Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a puppet king, an individual referred to simply as “the son of Tabeel” (7:6).

A historical problem in this story is that 2 Kings 15:30 reports that Hoshea, the last king of Israel, assassinated his predecessor, Pekah, in the twentieth year of Jotham, father of Ahaz. If so, how could Pekah have led a wat against Ahaz? The probable solution is that Ahaz was at the time of war a coregent with his father, Jotham.

At the opening of Isaiah 7 the prophet found Ahaz at the conduit of the Upper Pool, perhaps inspecting the city’s water supply in anticipation of a siege. The coalition of Syria and Israel had already devastated the territory of Judah. Isaiah offered Ahaz assurance from God that the city would not fall and urged him to ask for a sign from God, but Ahaz curtly refused. It appears that Ahaz did not want to be bothered with religious talk because he had already sent an appeal to Tiglath-Pileser for help. The Assyrian king did indeed respond and moved swiftly against the Syro-Ephraimite coalition.

But Isaiah was furious that Ahaz was placing his hope in Assyria rather than in God. He informed the king that Jerusalem would indeed survive but that the Assyrian troops would pass through the land like a flood, decimating everything in their path. The Assyrians would sweep the land clean, like a razor that shaves all the hair from a man’s body (7:20). The people of Judah would be reduced to near starvation. Since farming would be impossible under these conditions, the land would revert to pasture and wilderness (7:23). People would have to live off whatever they could hunt or gather in the wild, as well as the dairy products of whatever cattle they could manage to retain (7:21-25).

Just as Isaiah had predicted, the coalition of Syria and Israel came to nothing. Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, and Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 B.C. Hoshes would ultimately lead Israel to resist Assyria again, and in 722 B.C. Samaria would be destroyed and the northern kingdom would come to an end. But Assyrian power nearly brought down Jerusalem as well. Ahaz’s rejection of the sign had nearly cost Judah everything, but it did lead to God’s giving a much greater sign in 7:14.


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