In Matthew1:21, Gabriel says to Mary, “”You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” What does this sentence mean? We think it’s obvious. “Saved” means not going to hell. And that’s because we’ve adopted a story of salvation handed down to us by people who could not imagine needing a savior in a this-world, right-now kind of way. But when the Hebrew Bible talks about yeshuah (salvation), the word that cognates into Jesus’ name, it is never in the context of the plight of eternal damnation faced by the abstract everyman of Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws that have defined the last half-century of evangelicalism. Yeshuah usually describes very concrete situations of desperation, often on the battlefield, in which the Israelites were rescued by God. When the black slaves in the American South heard about Jesus, they knew intuitively that they were one with the Israel God sent a messiah to rescue, the same intuition which continues to occur for poor people throughout the Global South. The awkward thing for privileged Westerners like me about acknowledging this other dimension to the salvation that Jesus brings is that it shows God to be in solidarity with the people who have been stepped on by our privilege, which has to be part of the reason why we either want to make Christmas into a Norman Rockwell painting or else ensure that Jesus is safely strapped to His cross and bracketed into an abstract atonement equation as soon as He hits the manger hay. But is that clean, abstract salvation really the yeshuah that Jesus was named for? It’s relevant to look at how the word is used in the Hebrew scriptures by which the term was defined for Matthew’s original readers .
I. Hebrew Bible references to ישועה (yeshuah)
The word yeshuah occurs 77 times in the Hebrew Bible, most heavily in the prophet Isaiah and the psalms. I will start by looking at the Torah and the historical books.
In Exodus 14:13, right before the Israelites cross the Red Sea, Moses says, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the salvation the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” After the Egyptian army has been drowned in the sea, the word pops up again in Exodus 15:2 at the beginning of Miriam’s song of victory: “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” Deuteronomy 32 is a poem narrating Israel’s rescue from oppression by God. Verse 15 describes how Israel “abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Savior.” Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1 attributes her salvation from barrenness to God, amidst descriptions of his warrior qualities. In 1 Samuel 14:45, Saul’s soldiers talks him out of putting his son Jonathan to death because of the salvation he has brought to them in battle. In 2 Samuel 22:51, David uses the word for salvation to describe the battle victories that God has given him.
Isaiah has 19 occurrences of yeshuah: 12:2 (twice), 12:3, 25:9, 26:1, 26:18, 33:2, 33:6, 49:6, 49:8, 51:5, 51:6, 51:8, 52:7, 52:10, 56:1, 59:11, 59:17, 60:18, 62:1. I’m going to pick out the more interesting ones.
Isaiah 25:8-9 is noteworthy because it’s the first place where we see any possible connection between salvation and sin, though ambiguously through Isaiah’s reference to “his people’s disgrace.” It is also the first cosmic-sounding description of salvation. “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’”
Isaiah 49 is the first of a series of chapters that refer to a “servant of the Lord” typically associated with the coming messiah. In verse 6, God declares His intent to extend salvation beyond the people of Israel: ““It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Verse 8 talks about the “day of salvation [on which God will] restore the land and reassign its desolate inheritances [to the exiles].” It’s worth noticing that there is no direct connection to sin as such here; yeshuah has to do with restoring justice and making the world right.
The references to yeshuah in Isaiah 51 again speak of yeshuah as a restoration of justice to the Earth, e.g. 51:5, “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” There is only a very indirect link to sin in this passage in the sense that the restoration relates to Israelite exile. There are references to God’s “cup of wrath” in 51:17, but that’s really an entirely different section of prophecy, plus the wrath described there is the Israelites’ Babylonian exile itself.
In Isaiah 52, yeshuah continues to have the same quality of restorative justice. It returns to the more explicit battlefield hero motif in verse 10: “The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” Salvation happens when God flexes his biceps in the sight of the nations. It’s unclear whether the recipients of this salvation are as cosmic as in Isaiah 49 or if God is simply saving Israel from the nations.
Isaiah 59:11 describes the desperation of the people who are without salvation or justice: “We look for justice, but find none; for salvation, but it is far away.” Verse 17 makes God explicitly the battlefield hero of His people: “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.”
The final two references to salvation in Isaiah have to do with the deliverance of Jerusalem itself: Isaiah 60:18, “No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise,” and Isaiah 62:1, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”
I’m going to have to do a more abbreviated journey through the psalms because I’m running out of steam. [*Note: the verse numbers for the psalms in Hebrew are sometimes 1-2 verses different than English because the Hebrew counts the preamble to each psalm as a verse or two.] Yeshuah refers to God’s battlefield deliverance of His people from their enemies in Psalm 3:3, 3:9, 9:15, 13:6, 14:7, 18:51, 20:6, 21:2, 21:6, 35:3, 35:9, 44:5, 68:20, 74:12, 78:22, 98:2, 98:3, 118:14, 118:15, 118:21, 140:8, 149:4. It’s interesting because the NIV actually translates yeshuah as “victory” in half of these references. In Psalm 22:2, 69:30, 70:4, 88:2, 91:16, 106:4, 116:13, 119:123, salvation is described in the abstract as deliverance or protection from evil, though not necessarily on the battlefield. In Psalm 28:8, 62:2, 62:3, 62:7, 89:27, salvation is connected to the image of a rock or fortress. A refrain repeats in Psalm 42:6, 42:12, & 43:5 that I translate, “Wait upon God, for again I will praise Him whose face is salvation – My God!” Psalm 67:2, 80:3 likewise connect God’s salvation with the “shining of His face.” Psalm 96:2, 119:155, 119:166, 119:174 do not give a clear context for their references to salvation.
Yeshuah also comes up in Jonah 2:10, in the prayer when Jonah asks God to be delivered from the whale. In Habakkuk 3:8, it is battlefield victory. 1 Chronicles 16:23 repeats one of the psalms that speaks of God’s deliverance of His people. 2 Chronicles 20:17 describes the Israelite king Jehoshaphat’s battlefield victory. In Job 13:16, Job describes salvation as deliverance from “the godless,” which seem to be his friends who have been criticizing him. In Job 30:15, he says that his “salvation vanishes like a cloud.”
II. So why does this matter?
By naming Jesus using the word yeshuah, Gabriel has given us a particular meaning to what Jesus will do to “save his people from their sins.” Surveying the occurrences I found above, I would say that a savior in the yeshuah sense is a hero who rescues his people from some kind of enemy. Recognizing this will help evangelical Christians today not to superimpose an anachronistic modern individualist meaning onto this sentence. This frame of reference helps to illumine some features about this sentence. It helps us to pay attention to the pronouns: Jesus saves his people from their sins. It is a specific group of people, Israel, and their sins are described collectively, not individualistically.
Next we need to be attentive to the Greek. The Greek word for sin that Matthew uses, hamartia, is an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” Figuratively, it means “to wander” from the path of righteousness. In other words, it has a spatial connotation; it describes sin in terms of how lost or far away the sinner is. Sin can also be described in terms of debt, opheilema, the word used in the original Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, or trespass, paraptoma, Paul’s word for Adam’s original sin in Romans 5:15. Within the word hamartia, there is a connotation of scattered wandering which is translated out by the complete abstraction of the word sin. A savior brings yeshuah to his wandering people by engaging in battlefield acts of valor that rally the troops together. This is a connection that someone knowing the meaning of yeshuah and hamartia would make.
Obviously these battlefield acts of valor have a figurative meaning for Jesus’ salvation. His primary act of valor is the cross itself. But I don’t think this exhausts the yeshuah that Matthew describes in his gospel. No gospel shows Jesus engaged in more ferocious attacks on the Pharisees than Matthew, particularly in the climax of seven woes in Matthew 23. If we’re looking at the hamartia of Jesus’ people in a collective sense, then the corrupt leadership of the Pharisees would have to be the epicenter of this hamartia. When Jesus battles rhetorically with the Pharisees, it is almost always an act of yeshuah towards the people whom the Pharisees are abusing. The other place we can find yeshuah besides the cross is in the Sermon on the Mount itself. The Beatitudes in particular describe the blessedness of those who put their trust in God’s deliverance.
I’m going to have to cut this off for now without tying up the loose ends completely. Obviously, there are very legitimate canonical reasons to see the cross when we read that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” But how we understand what really happens on the cross should be influenced by the yeshuah that we see throughout the Hebrew Bible. And we must face the sobering reality that part of what Jesus came to Earth to do is to save the billions of people around the world who are suffering the consequences of our privilege. As Mary says in her Magnificat, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (1:52). If we scoff at the idea that this equalization of power and privilege should happen as part of the yeshuah provided in the life, death, and resurrection of our savior, then maybe we’re worshiping the wrong Jesus.