The name of this tiny village of Nazareth tells us something about the people living there and offers a clue to the identity of the child Mary would bear. Nazareth may come from the Hebrew netzer, which means “branch” or “shoot.” Sometimes when a tree is chopped down, a shoot will grow from the stump, allowing a new tree to spring up where the old one has died. That shoot is called, in Hebrew, a netzer. Why would the people who founded this village have called it “the branch”?
Much of the Old Testament was written predicting, or in response to, the destruction of Israel. The northern half of the country was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C. The southern half of the country, known as Judah, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 587 or 586 B.C. The prophets, in speaking about the destruction and re-emergence of Israel, used the metaphor of Israel being like a tree that had been cut down, but which would sprout up once again. Israel would be led by a messianic figure called “the branch,” so Isaiah 11:1-4, 6 says:
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
The LORD ’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.
He will delight in fearing the LORD.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. ...
[And in those days] the wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
The netzer was a promise of hope. The word as used in Isaiah 11 pointed to the promise that, though Israel had been cut down like a felled tree, she would rise up once again. Fifty years after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, the Jewish people would return to the city of Jerusalem. Judah would rise up like a shoot. And the people hoped for the coming of the “branch” that the prophets foretold would lead the people—a messiah. (Jeremiah and Zechariah also use this same imagery, though they use a different word for “branch” than netzer.)
When the village founders named their village Nazareth they may have chosen this name as a way of expressing hope that God would once again restore Israel—that though Israel had been cut down by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and then the Romans, a branch would come up from the stump. They may have chosen this name because, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, it was a sign that there are no hopeless causes with God. They may have chosen this name as a way of articulating their hope that one day the Messiah would come to Israel. It was as if they were saying, “We believe there is always hope. We believe God will deliver us. We believe the day will come when God will send a new king who will deliver us.”
Little did they know that the branch foretold in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah would be a child who would grow up in their own village!
Today's video tells and shows you more about Nazareth and the area surrounding it.