“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”—Annie Dillard.
I’ve started reading the Delitzsch Hebrew translation of the New Testament (DHNT), which is neat because the different language transports familiar texts to me in a different way.
For instance (and I never saw this before), Matthew starts with the genealogy of Jesus, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). He then unloads a series of “begats” (hiphils of yld): So and so begat so and so, and on and on for more than 40 generations. Next comes the humdinger: “This is the manner of the birth of Jesus Christ: Mary, His mother, was engaged to Joseph but, before he came to her, she was found pregnant from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:8, my translation of the DHNT).
“Found pregnant from the Holy Spirit”? Until then, everything Matthew wrote could have appeared in a secular tome. It was a genealogy, a family tree. And what’s more human, more natural, than people begetting people? Maximilien Robespierre could have written it.
Then without apology, without justifying a syllable, Matthew opens us to a broader, grander, and more mysterious vision than Picasso’s imagination. A woman, a virgin, becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit, a concept heavy laden with radical presuppositions not self-evident or apodictically deducible. Matthew starts out where science, stretched beyond its own arbitrary boundaries, could never attain. To believe him, you have to believe in a lot of reality not obviously experiential. Yet Matthew wrote in such a matter-of-fact manner that he could have been talking about the Kardashians, not the miraculous conception of the Son of God—the Creator of the universe and Sustainer of life (John 1:1-4)—in the womb of a young Jewish virgin.
Sure, Matthew inhabited a different world than we do, but not that different. A virgin birth, in which the woman was impregnated “from the Holy Spirit” (meRuach HaKodesh), would have seemed as incredible to him, who had never heard of in vitro fertilization, as it does to us, who have.
Look at the seamless transition in Matthew from the natural to the supernatural. But isn’t that how it works? You grow a head of lettuce (an act as natural as begetting), but then pray before you eat it—believing, in defiance of all known physics, that our Father in heaven (perhaps light-years and/or many dimensions away) hears. Sick, you go to a doctor who immerses you in a million-dollar machine that, humming and flashing, pries into your innermost recesses, yet you also ask the Deity for healing.
We’re back and forth between realities. Every prayer uttered, every Bible promise claimed, assumes a transcendence, a miraculous realm where natural law is but quaint, where our mental and physical powers flounder like a blind Frenchman over Mandarin texts. That’s why we have to cry out in faith, for it takes us a few steps beyond a ladder that doesn’t quite reach the edge.
Before going to war, the Israelites were given a supernatural promise: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (Deut. 20:3, 4). However, this very natural caveat follows: “The officers shall say to the army: ‘Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it’” (verse 5).
A man could die in a war in which God has promised them victory?
We live in two realities, and it’s the desperation of the first that makes the second our only hope.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was published February 16, 2012.