A Virgin Birth Prophecy – Isaiah 7:14?
Of all the Isaiah prophecies about the Messiah, Isaiah 7:14 is probably the most controversial. Why? Because Judaism and others say the prophecy made to King Ahaz is not about a virgin birth, yet Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus was born of a virgin fulfilling this prophecy.
One single Hebrew word – `almah – is the source of the controversy. Most Christian Bibles translate the word as “virgin” whereas Jewish Bibles and a few Christian Bibles translate it as “young woman.”
“Virgin” vs. “young woman” – those who believe that Isaiah 7:14 is a messianic prophecy pointing to a miraculous virgin birth of a son vs. those who believe it is a short-term prediction about a young woman, not necessarily a virgin, who was to bear a son.
Translation of ancient Hebrew text into English is not an exact science where there is not a word-for-word translation equivalent. Hebrew words can serve as either a noun or a verb requiring the translator to take a more wholistic view of the text to understand the context.
Language analysis, a more in-dept version of literary analysis, is a scientific study of word usage by the speaker or author. Word choice and its intended meaning are determined by the speaker (or writer) which may not necessarily carry the same meaning applied by the listener (or the reader or translator). The key is unlocking the word definition code of the speaker or writer.
Four Hebrew words come into play in deciphering the meaning of `almah. Lowest common denominator is na`arah meaning “girl” or “young woman” where there is no specific implication of virginity. Isaiah never once used this word.
Just the opposite of na`arah is bethulah explicitly meaning “virgin.” It commonly appears as a metaphor of a virgin in judgements, lamentations, or blessings. A separate category of bethulah is used in a legalistic context in the Law always used in the strictest sense of a virgin. It is also used to describe a type of na`arah; however, since Isaiah never used na`arah, he did not use it in this context. He only used bethulah 5 times as a metaphor or judgement of a city or nation.
Next is the rarest of Hebrew words, `almah, appearing only 7 times in the entire Bible. It is a feminine noun stemming from the Hebrew word `elem meaning “something kept out of sight.”Unlike bethulah, none of the instances of `almah are used in metaphors, legalistic definitions, as adjectives or in adjective clauses.
Exclusively, `almah is used to make reference to a special class of females. As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification by an adjective or adjective clause. Similarly, it is never used as an adjective or in an adjective clause to define the subject.
Only one place in the Bible contains all these words in reference to the same female figure, Rebekah, and it is the earliest appearance of `almah. As such, the passage in Genesis 24 makes it the codex for unlocking the meaning of these Hebrew female words.
Abraham had sent his servant back to his previous homeland to find a bride for his son Isaac, but he did not give the servant any qualifications for her except that she had to willing agree to marry Isaac. The servant prayed for a very specific sign and when he recognized the sign pointing to Rebekah, he used all three Hebrew words:
Gen. 24:16 “Now the young woman [na ‘arah] was very beautiful to behold, a virgin [bethulah]; no man had known her.”
v. 43 “behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass that when the virgin [`almah] comes out to draw water, and I say to her…”
v. 44 “let her be the woman [`ishshah] whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.” (NKJV)
Rebekah is first described in the past tense using the combination of na ‘arah with bethulah. Her virginity is further emphasized by saying that “no man had known her.” At this point, there can be no doubt that Rebekah is a virgin. Josephus, a Pharisee expert, wrote in Antiquities saying Rebekah viewed Laban as the “guardian of my virginity” after her father had died.
Later, when recounting his story of the sign to Laban and her family, the servant used a present tense narrative, now referring to Rebekah simply with a single word, `almah. She is not referred to as a na ‘arah who is a bethulah. It is clearly understood by the audience that `almah means virgin.
Using the fourth Hebrew word, the servant later refers to Rebekah in the future tense as `ishshah, meaning “woman” hoping she will become the wife of Isaac. In this context, Rebekah would be considered a married adult woman who is not a virgin, thus the use of na ‘arah, bethulah nor `almah would not be applicable nor accurate.
Comparing the Genesis codex definition of `almah as “virgin” to the other 6 uses of `almah in the Bible, in all instances `almah is always used as a standalone noun in the context of a virgin in a royal Jewish or Godly context. The language analysis conclusion: the meaning of `almah exclusively means “virgin” – no adjectives or further clarifications are needed or expected.
One other consideration. If `almah is translated as “a young maiden” where the state of virginity is not certain, how unimpressive is that prophecy? The female subject may already be pregnant, or will soon be, and there is a 50-50 chance it would be a boy.
On the other hand, if `almah is translated as the “virgin” who would conceive a son, that possibility would be unthinkable – a virgin conceiving a boy child. Would this meet the expectations of a boundless, miraculous prophecy?
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