A Virgin Birth Prophecy – Isaiah 7:14?
Translation of one word – `almah – is the cause for one of the most controversial prophecies in the Bible, Isaiah 7:14. Jewish Bibles and a few Christian Bibles translate the word as “young woman” while most Christian Bibles translate the word as “virgin.” Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus was born of a virgin fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 
“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. Based on the context of the story in Isaiah, the sign had to be a boundless, miraculous prophecy from God.
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 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. 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.” Unlike bethulah, none of the instances of `almah are used in metaphors, legalistic definitions, as adjectives or in adjective clauses.
Exclusively, `almah is used only 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.
Only one place in the Bible contains all three 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. Having no idea who he was searching for and being in a unfamiliar land, the servant prayed for a very specific sign. When he recognized the sign pointing to Rebekah, later 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.
In his account, the servant used a present tense narrative 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. Verse 43 now defines for the reading audience that `almah unambiguously means “virgin” as she is defined in verse 16.
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. In this context, Rebekah would be considered a married adult woman who is not a virgin, thus the use of na ‘arah, bethulah nor `almah would not 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? In the scenario when 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 offered on behalf of God?
Updated Oct 13, 2022.
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