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

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 debate.[1] 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 birth of a son to a virgin vs. those who believe the prophecy is a short-term prediction about a young woman, not necessarily a virgin, who was to bear a son.[2]

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.[3]

Language analysis, a more in-dept version of literary analysis, is a scientific study of word usage by the speaker or author.[4] 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.

Deciphering the meaning of `almah brings into play three Hebrew words. Lowest common denominator of the words is na`arah meaning “girl” or “young woman” where there is no specific implication of virginity.[5] Isaiah never once used this word.

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 involving the strictest sense of a virgin. Isaiah only used bethulah 5 times as either a metaphor or judgement of a city or nation. The word is also used to describe a type of na`arah; however, since Isaiah never used na`arah, he did not use bethulah in this context.

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.”[6] 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 – Hebrew royalty. As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification by an adjective or adjective clause. Similarly, `almah is never used as an adjective or within an adjective clause to define the subject.[7]

Only one place in the Bible contains all these Hebrew 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 homeland to find a bride for his son Isaac, but he did not give the servant any qualifications for a bride except that she had to willingly 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 plus a forth when recounting the story to her family:

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 (girl/young woman) with bethulah (a virgin). Her virginity is further emphasized by saying that “no man had known her.” At this point, it has been explicitly stated that Rebekah is a virgin. Josephus, a Pharisee expert, wrote in Antiquities that Rebekah viewed Laban, her uncle, as the “guardian of my virginity” after her father had died.[6]

Later in his account, the servant used a present tense narrative, now referring to Rebekah by simply using a single Hebrew word, hmleh or `hā-‘al-māh  (the virgin) – the same Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14. She is not referred to as a na ‘arah who is a bethulah. It is defined for the reading audience that `almah unambiguously means virgin.

A fourth Hebrew word provides further validation when the servant referred to Rebekah in the future tense as `ishshah, meaning “woman,” hoping she would become the wife of Isaac.[8] In this context, Rebekah would be considered a married adult woman who is not a virgin, thus the use of na ‘arahbethulah nor `almah would 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 context, either Hebrew or Godly. 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 who may already be pregnant, or will soon be, has a 50-50 chance of giving birth to 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 and giving birth to a boy child.

Which interpretation rises to the level off a boundless, miraculous prophecy? 

 

Updated December 9, 2021.

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

REFERENCES:

[1] Net.bible.org. Isaiah 7 Hebrew text.
[2] 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?” <http://atheism.about.com/od/biblepeoplenewtestament/p/MaryVirgin.htm>  Yosef, Uri.  “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” 2011. <http://thejewishhome.org/counter/Isa714_1.pdf>  Bratcher, Dennis. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.” The Voice. 2014. <http://www.crivoice.org/isa7-14.htmlThe Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary. Yeshayahu- Isaiah 7:14.  “Who is the Almah’s son?”  Teshuvas HaMinim. 2011. <http://web.archive.org/web/20120425022737/http://www.teshuvashaminim.com/isaiah714.html>  Robinson, B.A. “Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…”” 2007 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_proi.htm> “Isaiah 7:14-Deception In The Name Of Jesus.” Agnostic Review of Christianity. 2011.  <http://ihuanedo.ning.com/group/religiousskeptism/forum/topics/isaiah-7-14-deception-in-the-name-of-jesus>
[3] Benner, Jeff A.  “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2013.  <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>
[4] Sapir, Avinoam. LSI Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation. Language analysis courses.  <http://www.lsiscan.com/id37.htm>  “Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN).” Personal Verification LTD. Updated 15 November 2016. <http://www.verify.co.nz/scan.php>  Last accessed 7 Dec. 2016.
[5] “na`arah <05291>” NetBible.org. 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=05291>
[6] BibleHub.com. Isaiah 7:14 Hebrew text. 2018. <https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/7-14.htm>  “5959. almah” BibleHub.com. 2018. <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5959.htm>; “5958. elem” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5958.htm>; “5956. alam.” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5956.htm>.  “`almah  <5959>” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/5959.html>  “`elem <5956>” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/5956.html>
[7] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Book I, Chapter XV.2. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[8]“802. נָשִׁים (ishshah) BibleHub.com. 2018. ” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_802.htm> “H802.” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/080.html#02>