Virtually Hidden – the Significant, Rarest of Hebrew Words

Appearing only three times in the entire Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Old Testament, is a virtually hidden Hebrew word and yet it may be the most significant – ha-almah. Only two Bible versions translate all three instances using this exact Hebrew text, the Orthodox Jewish Bible and Young’s Literal Translation.[1]

Commonly written as Hmleh, hmle and hā-‘al-māh, it is comprised of ha and `almah translated into two English words.[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]

Original ancient Hebrew script for 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-Christian discourse. One side claims that `almah means “young woman,” “maid” or “damsel” which does not necessarily mean “virgin.”[7] The other side asserts `almah always specifically means “virgin” as seen in some Bible versions translations.[8]

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

Commonly, `almah is translated in both Jewish and Christian Bibles as “young woman.” Those two words are not part of the formal Strong’s definition exacerbating the issue. How the word is or is not intended by its authors to be understood requires textual analysis.

Some critics contend that since the Hebrew word for “virgin” is bethulah, then `almah cannot refer to a virgin.[11] Indeed, bethulah (bə-ṯū-lāh, bthuwlah , b@thuwlah or hlwtb) means “virgin” appearing 50 times in Biblical Hebrew texts.[12] It is occurs in the contexts of metaphors for peoples or nations in judgements, lamentations or blessings; legalistic references; or to describe the virginity of an actual female subject.

Focusing only on references where bethulah involves an actual female subject, three usage rules emerge. One, the word is always used as an adjective noun or in an adjective clause to clarify na `arah (girl) or another female noun within the context of na `arah (girl). 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]

More significantly, bethulah is not used as a standalone noun for a specific female subject. Nor is bethulah the subject who initiates a present or future tense action. There are no instances that say something like “bethulah shall call;” “bethulah plays;” “bethulah shall bear;nor “bethulah loves.”[14]

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

As a standalone noun, `almah, like “virgin,” is self-evident – it does not need further clarification with an adjective or adjective clause. Conversely, the word is never used as an adjective noun nor in an adjective clause to define the subject. For example, there are no instances such as “a na `arah who is an `almah;” “Tamar who is an `almah;” nor “my `almah daughter.”

As the direct female subject of a sentence, `almah is used to initiate 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.”[15]

Five instances of `almah occur in texts after the defining moment when the Law was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps most revealing is that `almah always appears 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]

Remaining are the two instances that occurred before the Law centuries before the first Hebrew king involving two Hebrew matriarchs, Rebekah and Miriam.[17] 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]

Rebekah’s story in Genesis 24 is the only passage in the Bible that contains both `almah and bethulah plus the two related Hebrew words `ishshah (woman) and na ‘arah (girl) making it the codex for all four words. Most noteworthy is that bethulah is used to define `almah as “virgin.”  

Narrowing it down further are the three instances where the Hebrew text delineates “behold, look at that” when ha precedes `almah “pointing to something of importance.” The first two appear in reference to the Hebrew matriarchs, before God’s Law legally defined the purity of virginity for marriage.

For Rebekah and Miriam, ha-almah places focus on the significance of their state of virginity before entering their adult lives of greatness.[19] Only one other instance of ha-almah, “the virgin,” occurs in the entire Bible; the only time after the Law at Mt. Sinai.

Appearing identically in both The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic text is ha-almah.[20] Isaiah responded to King Ahaz’ refusal to accept God’s offer to name any sign between Heaven and Hell as proof of God’s promise to protect the kingdom from their enemies. God’s own chosen sign issued through the prophet:

IS 7:14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin [ha-almah] shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”(NKJV)

Isaiah wrote the rarest of Hebrew words – did the renowned Biblical prophet of Judaism and Christianity make a mistake delivering God’s response when he said ha-almah would give birth to a son whom would be called Immanuel meaning “God with us”? [21]

If the sign 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. Nowhere in Isaiah’s writings is the appearance of na ‘arah (girl). Variations of `ishshah occurs 11 times in reference to an adult woman, wife, mother, or even an adulteress where in all senses virginity is neither assumed nor expected.

Isaiah used bethulah in 5 instances, always as a metaphor or judgement of a city or nation. The word does not fit the prophecy with a female subject and would have violated the Hebrew usage rules.

Instead, Isaiah chose ha-almah in a dual royal context – King Ahaz and God. Whomever he referenced in the prophecy, the ha-almah female is in the highest echelon of Hebrew importance, on the same level as the matriarchs Rebekah and Miriam.

Textual analysis confirms the use of ha-almah in God’s chosen “sign” bounded only by Heaven and Hell was the prophecy of a virgin birth to a boy to be called Immanuel. Was Isaiah 7:14 a Messiah prophecy fulfilled by the Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

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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] The Orthodox Jewish Bible. 2002. BibleHub. <https://biblehub.com/ojb/genesis/1.htmYoung’s Literal Translation. 2019. <https://biblehub.com/ylt/genesis/1.htm>
[2] 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>
[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] 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.”
[12] “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
[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.  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.”
[18] Goble. “The Translator to the Reader.” p vii.
[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

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.[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 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.[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 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7]

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 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.[6]

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.[8] In this context, Rebekah would be an adult woman who is not a virgin where the use of na ‘arahbethulah 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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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>