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 some 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 versus 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 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. To say “the girl (na`arah) is wearing a pink blouse,” for example, does not specifically indicate virginity unless additional clarification is added.
Just the opposite of na`arah is betulah explicitly meaning “virgin.” It commonly appears as a metaphor of a virgin in judgements, lamentations, or blessings. A separate category of betulah is used in a legalistic context in the Law always used in the strictest sense of a virgin.
In the remaining few instances, betulah is always used as an adjective or in an adjective clause to clarify na `arah or a noun within the sentence; or immediately prior to the sentence within the context of na `arah. For example: “the girl [na `arah] was a very beautiful virgin [betulah]” or “Tamar [noun], for she was a virgin [betulah];” or “my virgin [betulah] daughter [noun].”
Just as important is when betulah is not used. The word is not found as the direct subject of a sentence who initiates a present or future tense action nor does it appear as a standalone noun to represent a specific female subject in the sentence. For example, there are no instances that say something like “betulah shall call;” “betulah plays;” “betulah shall bear;” or “betulah loves.”
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 betulah, 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 virgins only in a royal context – of God or Hebrew royalty.
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. For example, there are no instances such as “the girl [na `arah] was a very beautiful `almah; “Tamar, for she was an `almah;” nor “my `almah daughter”.
In five instances, `almah is the direct subject who initiates an action only in the present or future tense: “`almah playing tambourines”, “`almah went and called”, “`almah love you”, “`almah comes out to draw water,” and “`almah shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call.”
In the two remaining instances, one is where the virgins available to the King are being quantified: “`almah without number.” In the other, the King expresses wonderment of “the way of a man with `almah” when it comes to love.
By contrast is the word `ishshah used in reference an adult female, a woman, a wife or even an adulteress. With the use of this word, virginity is no longer assumed or expected.
Only one place in the Bible contains all four words in reference to the same female figure, Rebekah, and it is the earliest appearance of `almah. The passage in Genesis 24 makes it the codex for unlocking the meaning of all four Hebrew words.
Abraham had sent his servant back to his previous homeland to find a bride for 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 [betulah]; 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 betulah. 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 triple, 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 saying he hopes that she will become the wife of Isaac. In this context, she would be an adult woman who is not a virgin where the use of na ‘arah, betulah 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 setting. The language analysis conclusion: the meaning of `almah exclusively means “virgin” – no adjectives or further clarifications is needed.
Was Isaiah 7:14 a prophecy of a virgin birth of a son or was it a prediction about a young woman known to Isaiah and King Ahaz to whom he was speaking?
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