Isaiah 7:14 – A Virgin Birth Prophecy?
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 be 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.
Last of the three Hebrew words referring to a young female is the rarest –`almah – appearing only 7 times in the entire Bible. It is the feminine version 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. Instead, the word is used exclusively to make reference to a special class of females. As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification from 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 had no idea how to go about finding the bride in an unfamiliar land so he prayed for a sign that led him to find Rebekah.
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.” Later, when recounting his story to her brother, Laban, and Rebekah’s family, the servant used a present tense narrative, now referring to Rebekah as the `almah.
With dual, yet different, references to Rebekah’s virginity, there can be no doubt that she is being described as a virgin. Josephus, a Pharisee expert, wrote in Antiquities saying Rebekah viewed Laban as the “guardian of my virginity” after her father had died.
At the end of the passage, the servant refers to Rebekah in the future tense as `ishshah, the Hebrew for woman, saying he hopes that she will become the wife of Isaac. In this context, Rebekah would be an adult woman who is not a virgin where the use of na ‘arah, bethulah nor `almah would not be 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 type context. The language analysis conclusion: the meaning of `almah exclusively means “virgin” – no adjectives or further clarifications is needed.
Was Isaiah 7:14 the prophecy of a virgin birth of a son or was it a prediction about a young woman to whom Isaiah was speaking known to both to him and King Ahaz ?
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. Chances the baby would be boy was a 50-50 probability. Would King Ahaz, his audience or anyone else have viewed this as a miraculous sign from God bounded only by Heaven and Hell?
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 child…and it would be a boy. Would this meet the expectations of a boundless, miraculous prophecy?
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