Rarest & Significant Hebrew Words – Virtually Hidden

Appearing only three times in the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Old Testament, are two virtually hidden Hebrew words. They are perhaps the most significant words in the Bible.

Written as Hmleh, hmle and hā-‘al-māh, the Hebrew is comprised of two words, ha and `almah.[1] Only two Bibles literally translate all three instances of ha-almah as “the virgin” – the Orthodox Jewish Bible and Young’s Literal Translation.[2]

Easiest to translate is “ha” or “Hey” which means “the,” a definite article used to make a clear and specific reference.[3] Hebrew has a special difference; it is much more dramatic.[4]

Ancient Hebrew script representing the consonant “h” is one single pictograph letter.[5] Hebrew language expert Jeff A. Benner describes the original pictograph character in this way:

“The Hey has a “h” sound and is a picture of a man with his arms raised up, shouting and pointing at a great site as if to say “behold, look at that”.  This letter means “the” in the sense of pointing to something of importance.”[6]

Translation of `almah is one of the most controversial in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. One side claims `almah means “young woman,” “maid” or “damsel” where “young woman” does not necessarily mean “virgin.”[7] The opposite side asserts `almah specifically means “virgin” as seen in some Christian Bible translations.[8]

Strong’s Concordance of Hebrew defines `almah is “a lass (as in veiled or private): – damsel, maid, virgin.”[9] In that era, a “maid” or “damsel” was typically presumed to be a virgin by implication of her young age and single marital status whereas the word “virgin” is explicitly self-explanatory.[10]

Commonly among Jewish and many Christian Bibles,`almah is translated as “young woman” yet those two words are not part of the formal Strong’s definition exacerbating the controversy. Key to unraveling the differences is through textual analysis to determine how the word is intended to be understood by its authors.

Appearing 50 times in Bible Hebrew text is the word bethulah (bə-ṯū-lāh, bthuwlah , b@thuwlah or hlwtb), a single word for “virgin.”[11] It is used in the contexts of metaphors in judgements of peoples or nations; lamentations or blessings; legalistic references; or to describe the virginity of an actual female subject but only when the word is used in combination with na ‘arah, a girl. Some critics contend that since bethulah was not used in Isaiah 7:14, the prophecy cannot refer to a virgin.[12] 

Focusing only on Biblical references where bethulah involves an actual female subject, three usage rules emerge. The word is always used as an adjective noun or in an adjective clause to clarify the noun na `arah (girl) or another female noun within the context of na `arah. Examples: “the girl [na `arah] was a very beautiful virgin [bethulah];” “Tamar [proper noun], for she was a virgin [bethulah];” or “my virgin [bethulah] daughter [noun].”[13]

Secondly, bethulah is never used as the subject who initiates a present or future action. For example, there are no instances that say something like “bethulah shall call;” “bethulah plays;” “bethulah shall bear;nor “bethulah loves.”[14]

Most significantly, bethulah is never used as a standalone noun to describe a specific female subject.

Only 7 times in Biblical Hebrew text appears the Hebrew word `almah. Its word usage rules are strikingly different, based as much on the circumstantial setting as it is on sentence structure.

As the direct female subject of a sentence, `almah appears only in present or future tense scenarios. Biblical examples: “`almah playing tambourines;” “`almah went and called;” “`almah love you;” “`almah comes out to draw water,” and “almah shall conceive and bear a Son.”[15]

Conversely, `almah is never used as an adjective noun nor used in an adjective clause to define the female subject. There are no instances that say, for example, “a na `arah who is an `almah;” “Tamar who is an `almah;” nor “my `almah daughter.” As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification with an adjective or adjective clause – the meaning of `almah is self-evident to mean “virgin.”

Five instances of `almah occur in texts after the defining moment when the Law was given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps most revealing is that these instances of `almah appearing after the Law was handed down always appear in royal circumstances – virgins in the king’s harem, in a king’s presence, a king’s perspective, and the royalty of God’s musical worship.[16]

Only three instances appear in Hebrew texts where ha is added as a prefix to `almah, in essence saying, “behold, look at the almah.” (“pointing to something of importance”). The first two occurrences appear in references to the Hebrew matriarchs before God’s Law legally defined the purity of virginity for marriage.[17]

Rebekah and Miriam are Hebrew matriarchs according to Phillip E. Goble, Editor of The Orthodox Jewish Bible. Rebekah is revered as the “mother of the Nation of Israel” and Miriam is “the savior of the Exodus” (Moses) – Hebrew royalty. [18] They were born before the Law when the ha-almah references occurred centuries before the first Hebrew king.

For Rebekah and Miriam, the use of ha-almah places the focus on the significance of their state of virginity before entering their adult lives of greatness.[19] Only one other appearance of ha-almah occurs in the entire Bible – the only time after the Law – and it is written identically in both The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic text of Isaiah.[20]

King Ahaz refused to accept God’s offer through Isaiah to name any sign between Heaven and Hell as proof of God’s promise to protect his kingdom from their enemies. God responded with His own chosen sign which had to meet a higher standard – anything less would be unimpressive.

IS 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”(New International Version)

Standalone ha-almah in Isaiah 7:14 is used in the context of a dual presence of royalty – King Ahaz and God. The ha-almah female referenced in the prophecy is in the highest echelon of Jewish importance.

If the prophetic sign of Isaiah 7:14 was intended to refer to a female without any expectation of virginity, Isaiah would have been expected to use either na ‘arah or `ishshah; however, he didn’t. Instead, Isaiah used the rarest of Hebrew words to say ha-almah would give birth to a son to be called Immanuel meaning “God with us.”[21]

Textual analysis confirms ha-almah means “the virgin” used by God as the impossible “sign” in Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth of a boy to be called Immanuel. Was Isaiah 7:14 a Messiah prophecy fulfilled by Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated March 6, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

ASB = Amercian Standard Bible
BSB = Berean Study Bible
CSB = Christian Standard Bible
DBT = Darby Bible Translations
ESV = English Standard Version
HCS = Holman Christian Standard Bible
ISV = International Standard Version
JUB = Jubilee Bible 2000
NHE = New Heart Christian Bible
NIV = New International Verson
NKJV = New King James Verson
NLT = New Liviing Translation
OJB = Orthodox Jewish Bible
WEB = World English Bible
YLT = Young’s Literal Translation

REFERENCES:

[1] Isaiah 7:14. Hebrew text transliteration. BibleHub. 2019. <https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/7-14.htm> hā·‘al·māh. Hebrew text. BibleHub.com. n.d. <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/haalmah_5959.htm>
[2]The Orthodox Jewish Bible. 2002. BibleHub. <https://biblehub.com/ojb/genesis/1.htm Young’s Literal Translation. 2019. <https://biblehub.com/ylt/genesis/1.htm>
[3] Isaiah 7:14. Hebrew text. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Isa&chapter=7&verse=14> ‘almah <05959>. NetBible.org. 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=05959> “the.” Merriam-Webster. 2019. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/the>  “the.” Cambridge Dictionary. n.d. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/the
[4] Goble, Phillip E, ed. “The Translator to the Reader.” The Orthodox Jewish Bible. 2002. Artists for Israel International. 2012. p vii. <http://www.afii.org/ojbible/ix.pdf
[5] Benner, Jeff A. “Introduction to Ancient Hebrew.”  Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2019. <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>
[6] Benner. “Introduction to Ancient Hebrew.”
[7] Nahigian, Kenneth E.  “A Virgin-Birth Prophesy?” Skeptic Tank Files. n.d.<http://www.skeptictank.org/files/sr/2virgi93.htm> Cramer, Robert Nguyen.  “The Book of Isaiah.”  The BibleTexts.com. 1998 <http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-isa.htm>  Cline, Austin. “Who Was Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus? Was She Really a Virgin?” About.com|Agnosticism/Atheism. n.d. <http://atheism.about.com/od/biblepeoplenewtestament/p/MaryVirgin.htm>  Yosef, Uri. “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” The Jewish Home. 2011. <http://thejewishhome.org/counter/Isa714_1.pdf>  Bratcher, Dennis. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.”  The Voice. 2014. <http://www.crivoice.org/isa7-14.html>  Gill. The Complete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. n.d.   <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm>  CR Judges Chapter 13. John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible.  Isaiah 7:14 commentary. <https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/genesis-24.html
[8] Genesis 24:43 – ESV, NKJV, KJV, HCS, OJB; Exodus 2:8 – OJB; Isaiah 7:14 – NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, NKJV, CSB, HCS, DBT, ISV, JUB, NHE, WEB, OJB; American Standard Version, 1901 Edition. Perseus.Tufts.Edu. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0156:book=Isaiah:chapter=7&highlight=virgin> Robinson, B.A. “Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…”” Religious Tolerance. 2007 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_proi.htm
[9] “almah.” Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon. Eliyah.com. n.d. <http://www.eliyah.com/cgi-bin/strongs.cgi?file=hebrewlexicon&isindex=almah
[10] Net.bible.org. Hebrew text. Reference: TWOT – 1630b.  Strong. “`almah  <5959>  “damsel.”  Merriam-Webster. 2019. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/damsel
[11] “bthuwlah.” Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon. Eliyah.com. n.d. <http://www.eliyah.com/cgi-bin/strongs.cgi?file=hebrewlexicon&isindex=bthuwlah>> Strong The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “ bethulah <1330>.” <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=01330> Genesis 24:16. Net.bible.org. Hebrew text. “b@thuwlah <01330>;” footnote 1.  <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Gen&chapter=24&verse=16
[12] Nahigian. “A Virgin-Birth Prophesy?” Cramer. “The Book of Isaiah.”  Cline. “Who Was Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus? Was She Really a Virgin?” Yosef.. “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” Bratcher. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.”
[13] Genesis 24:16, 2 Samuel 13:2. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein 1935-1948. Yebamoth 61b. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/yebamoth/yebamoth_61.html> CR 2 Samuel 13:18; I Kings 1:2.  “na`arah <05291>” NetBible.org. 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=05291>
[14] CR Isaiah 7:14; Psalms 68:25; Song of Solomon 1:3.
[15] CR Genesis 24:16; Psalms 68:25; Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8; Isaiah 7:14.
[16] CR Psalms 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8; Isaiah 7:14.
[17] Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8.
[18] Goble. “The Translator to the Reader.” p vii.Goble. “The Translator to the Reader.” p vii. Net.bible.org. Hebrew text. “`almah  <5959>” <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=05959> Strong. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “almah.”
[19] Goble. “The Translator to the Reader.” p vii.
[20] Miller. Fred P.  “The Translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll.” Book of Isaiah. 2001. Column VI Isa 6:7 to 7:15. <http://www.moellerhaus.com/qa-tran.htm “hmleh.” Net.bible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/search.php?search=hebrew_strict_index:hmleh> BibleHub.com. Interlinear Bible Hebrew text. Isaiah 7:14. “5959 [e] hā·‘al·māh”.< http://biblehub.com/interlinear/isaiah/7-14.htmOrthodox Jewish Bible (OJB). Isaiah 7:14.
[21] “`Immanuw’el <06005>. NetBible.org. 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=06005> Isaiah 7.14. BibleHub.com. Strong’s Lexicon. “Immanuel.” <https://biblehub.com/parallel/isaiah/7-14.htm

Was Mary a Virgin When She Conceived Jesus?

Frankly, no one can prove Jesus was born of a virgin. Neither can anyone disprove it. Basic human biology and common sense dictates a virgin cannot naturally conceive – a miracle would be required. Believing whether Mary was a virgin who miraculously conceived Jesus, if not by faith, requires a conclusion based on the circumstantial evidence.

Jewish marriage was a two-stage process – the betrothal period, typically lasting for 12 months, followed by the wedding ceremony part of which included the bride’s virginity being forfeited in the Yihud room.[1]

A proposal was offered to the prospective bride’s father to begin the marital process. The negotiated details were eventually formally finalized in a sealed, binding contract.

Ketubah was a legal marriage contract enacted by Queen Salome (76-67 BC) and formalized by the Sanhedrin long before Joseph or Mary were born. During their life times, a ketubah was the law of the land in Judea.[2]

Family intermediaries vetted the couple’s families, backgrounds and defined the terms of the ketubah, two of whom would eventually sign it as witnesses.[3] Financial details were negotiated including the bride price, the dowry, and any contributions from both families. Monetary values for virgins and non-virgins were predefined by the Sanhedrin.[4]

For the bride, the ketubah provided a trust fund in the event of the husband’s death or a divorce excepting for the disqualifying factor of adultery. For the groom, the ketubah factually and legally established his betrothal was a virgin.[5] The contract found in the Jewish Encyclopedia twice makes specific reference to her virginity:[6]

…“And I will set aside for thee 200 zuz, in lieu of thy virginity, which belong to thee (according to the law of Moses)…”

…“We have followed the legal formality of symbolical delivery [“ḳinyan”] between _____ son of ______ , the bridegroom, and ______ daughter of ______ , this virgin, and have employed an instrument legally fit for the purpose to strengthen all that is stated above, and everything is valid and established.

…………..Bridegroom.

…………..

…………..Witnesses. [7]

During Mary’s betrothal, according to Luke, the angel Gabriel announced she would bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit to which Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[8] In addition to the ketubah and it’s two witnesses, by her own account Mary was a virgin at this point. 

Gabriel informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was also 6 months pregnant.[9] Excited by this news, she “went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah” to visit Elizabeth – Mary left almost immediately.[10]

From Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home, the trip would have taken 3 to 7 days depending on the town’s exact location near Jerusalem.[11] Elizabeth already knew that Mary was with child. At the moment of hearing Mary’s voice, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb, who would become John the Baptist, leapt with joy.[12]

In the very short span of about a week, Mary became pregnant. No human could have known she was pregnant at that point, not even Mary herself were it not for Gabriel’s message and Elizabeth’s exclamation. Today’s modern medical pregnancy tests are effective, at the earliest, 10 days after conception and most reliably not until after 3 weeks. At best, a modern medical blood test can detect pregnancy in as early as 6 days.[13] 

Joseph can be ruled out as the father based on his own reaction of wanting to divorce Mary when he unexpectedly learned months later she was pregnant. The possibility that Mary had a secret paramour is a realistic possibility if one does not accept Matthew’s account at face value.[14]

Before reaching a point in her mind to cheat on Joseph, Mary would have to overcome immense hurdles – mentally, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and the fear factor. To have a sexual encounter would be most challenging for a sheltered girl in her early teens still living at home with her parents.[15]

Mentally, Gabriel’s visit had to be a most impactful, unforgettable experience. Mary was told of her future son, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.”[16] Mary made a commitment to Gabriel and God saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.”[17] Spiritually, to then lose her virginity would be breaking her commitment to Gabriel and God.

Psychologically and emotionally, infidelity would mean betrayal. Mary would have to be willing to betray her own reputation, family, friends, and Joseph bringing them all great shame and disgrace.

Forfeiture of her future financial security was at-risk by breaking the terms of her ketubah contract. Perhaps the greatest deterrent of all was the foreboding fear of death by stoning for adultery.[18]

Physically she would have to circumvent several traditional safeguards. Betrothed girls subject to Judaic Law were under strict supervision of family and the watchful eye of the community. Unmarried girls were not allowed to be alone at any time with an adult male, not even a family member.[19] If she went anywhere, a chaperone was required. While she prepared for the spur-of-the-moment trip to visit her cousin, Mary would have had to slip away from these guardians of virtue.

If Mary didn’t have a tryst before leaving Nazareth, the only opportunity would be on the journey to visit Elizabeth. Mary would have been required to travel in a caravan with a family-chosen chaperone and her secret paramour would have had to be traveling, too.[20] They would have had to find an opportunity to safely slip away into the wilderness without being caught. If she became pregnant during the trip, she would have only been pregnant for less than a week.

One other factor closes the short period of time for Mary’s conception after Gabriel’s announcement. It was Elizabeth’s own words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[21] Would an illegitimate pregnancy have been divinely revealed to Elizabeth who exclaimed to Mary that the baby in her womb was blessed?

The circumstantial case against Mary becoming pregnant by another man is very strong – was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus?

 

Updated December 12, 2021.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Brayer, Menachem M.  The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature.  KTAV Publishing. 1986. pp 62-65, 69, 71, 143. <https://archive.org/details/jewishwomaninrab0000bray_a4j0/page/143/mode/2up>   Missler, Chuck. “The Wedding Model.” Koinonia House, Inc. 2018.  <http://www.khouse.org/articles/2003/449/#notes>  Jewish Wedding Ceremony. Chabad.org. n.d. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/476757/jewish/Jewish-Wedding-Ceremony.htm#The> “Yichud Room.” Chabad.org. n.d. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/477338/jewish/Yichud-Room.htm> Last accessed 12 Dec. 2021. Kaufman, Michael. “After the Wedding Ceremony.” MyJewishLearning.com. n.d.<https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/after-the-wedding-ceremony
[2] “Salome Alexandria.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2018. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/salome-alexandria> “Alexandria.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1167-alexandra>  “Ketubah.”  Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9290-ketubah>  “Marriage: Ketubbah.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ketubbah> Schauss, Hayyim. “Ancient Jewish Marriage.”  MyJewishLearning.com. n.d. <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Relationships/Spouses_and_Partners/About_Marriage/Ancient_Jewish_Marriage.shtml> “The Forgotten Ancient Queen: Salome Alexandra of Judea.” Ancient History. <http://etc.ancient.eu/interviews/the-forgotten-ancient-queen-salome-alexandra-of-judea/Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. “Kethuboth.”  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/talmud/index.html>  “Ketubah.”  Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. Glossary.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/tglossary.html#K
[3] “Ketubah.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  “Dowry.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5297-dowry> Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus, et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Volume 9. 1912. “Pharisees.” p 663 <https://books.google.com/books?id=lfoOtGOcIBYC&lpg=PA594&ots=6qoCfVVUz7&dq> Schauss, Hayyim.  “Ancient Jewish Marriage.” 
[4] “Ketubah” and “Dowry.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  Singer et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 9 “Pharisees.” p 663.  Singer et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. “Mortgage or Hypothec.” p 37.
[5] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Kethuboth 12a.
[6] Lamm, Maurice. “The Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah).” Chabad.org. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465168/jewish/The-Jewish-Marriage-Contract-Ketubah.htm>
[7] “Ketubah.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.
[8] Luke 1:34. NASB, NRSV.
[9] Luke 1.
[10] Luke 1:39. NASB.
[11] Luke 1:39.  “Judah.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2018. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/judah>
[12] Luke 1.
[13] “Pregnancy Tests.” 23 June 2012. WebMD. 2018. <http://www.webmd.com/baby/guide/pregnancy-tests> “Pregnancy Test.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2018. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003432.htm> “Home pregnancy tests: Can you trust the results?” Mayo Clinic. 2018. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/getting-pregnant/in-depth/home-pregnancy-tests/art-20047940
[14] Burke, Rodney Wade. Quora. “Do atheists believe Mary engaged in adultery as I do as a Jew?  2015. <https://www.quora.com/Do-atheists-believe-Mary-engaged-in-adultery-as-I-do-as-a-Jew>  “Panthera, the real father of Jesus?” The Evolving Atheist’s Blog. 2009. https://evolvingatheist.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/panthera-the-real-father-of-jesus>
[15] West, Jim. “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs.”  Quartz Hill School of Theology.  n.d.  http://www.theology.edu/marriage.htm>  Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book II, Chapter 4.
[16] Luke 1:32. NASB. NKJV.
[17] Luke 1:38. NKJV.
[18] Sanhedrin 53a, footnote #3; 59a; 63a; 66b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html>
[19] Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  Kethuboth 12a, 12b, 13a, 13b.  “Adultery.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  Brayer.  The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 142-143.
[20] Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. p 142-143.
[21] NRSV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, Berean, WEB.