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The "Virgin" of Isaiah 7:14

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[Isaiah 7:14b. 1QIsa1/Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran]
almah
[right to left: "...ha'almah harah veyoledet ben veqara shmo immanuel"]

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     by Paul Sumner
  Matthew 1:23 quotes the 2nd century BC(E) Greek Septuagint text of Isaiah 7:14:
The virgin shall be with child
and shall bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanu-El.
The Greek word for "virgin" in both the Greek Septuagint and Matthew is parthenos, which means a virgin female.

The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is almah. This rare noun (used 7x in Hebrew Bible) signifies a young woman, a girl, or an unmarried maiden (Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Isa 7:14; Ps 68:26; Prov 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8). The focus of almah is on youth, not virginity.
betulat

However, the spiritual and moral ethos in Hebrew culture assumed that young unmarried girls had no sexual experience. It was assumed that an almah was a virgin.

What is an Almah?
The verbal root of the noun almah [alam] often means to be concealed, hidden, or covered.

For example, God hides his eyes from looking on the sins of his people (Isa 1:15). God hides certain facts from his prophet (2 Kings 4:27). And the psalmist asks why God hides himself in times of trouble (Ps 10:1).

Moses' sister, Miryam, is an almah or "girl" (Exod 2:8) who followed her brother's basket-ark down the Nile. The Bible doesn't say how much older she was than Moses, but the story implies Miryam was not yet a teenager who had reached puberty. Presumably, she was a virgin, concealed by her family from inappropriate experiences before marriage.

Just after killing Goliath, the shepherd boy David is called an elem, the masculine form of almah (1 Sam 17:56). English Bibles render the word "young man, youth, young fellow, stripling [adolescent]." Whether the word, in the case of males, denotes virginity is not clear. But it connotes a measure of innocence or lack of adult experience, perhaps even in battle.

Twice, the Jewish translators who produced the Greek Septuagint (LXX) in the 2nd century BCE rendered almah as parthenos:

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Gen 24:43 — Isaac's future wife Rebekah is called "the maiden/virgin" [Heb. ha'almah]

Isa 7:14 — the mother of Immanu-El is "the maiden/virgin" [Heb. ha'almah]

In the five other occurences of almah the LXX translators used neanis (young girl) (Exod 2:8; Ps 68:26; Prov 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8).

[Click for a complete PDF Septuagint Text. It's 2.7 MB]

At Isa 7:14 the Great Isaiah Scroll (pictured at top) reads ha'almah harah, "the maiden has conceived" or "shall conceive" [prophetic perfect]:

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Is an Almah a Parthenos?
Genesis 24 describes the young, pre-married Rebekah using three Hebrew terms.

And the girl [na'arah] was very beautiful, a virgin [betulah],
and no man had relations with her. (v. 16a)

...the maiden [almah] who comes out to draw (water) (v. 43a)

But in these two verses, the Septuagint reads: "'the parthenos was very beautiful ... she was a parthenos, a man had not known her...; the parthenos who comes out to draw water."

In Hebrew there are semantic differences between the three words used for Rebekah:

• girl (na'arah) — relates to gender
• virgin (betulah) — relates to sexual experience
• maiden (almah) — relates to marriage status
These descriptive nouns for Rebekah are conceptually identical: a na'arah is a betulah is an almah — and is (in Greek) a parthenos.

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Who is the Almah in Isaiah 7:14?
Full discussion of this prophecy about the Almah who will bear a son is beyond the scope of this word study. But its wider context is noteworthy.

In this chapters 7 and 8, we read that Isaiah's wife gives him two sons with symbolic, prophetic names:

Shear-Yashuv — a Remnant shall return (7:3)
Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz — Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil (8:3).

Perhaps the almah in 7:14 who bears the son named Immanu-El [With us is God] is also Isaiah's wife, though the usual definition for almah as unmarried female does not apply to her. The text says she was a "prophetess" (nevi'ah, 8:3): a declarer of the word of God, and her sons were prophetic signs or messages to Israel.

If Isaiah's wife is the almah in 7:14, her son Immanu-El was not born to a virgin mother.

Of course, Isaiah may have been describing another almah, who was indeed a betulah. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint thought she was. Her giving birth to a son would indeed be a miracle "sign" (ot).

But the prophecy here doesn't make her identity clear. This is why commentators still differ about the meaning of almah in this passage.

It may be that Isaiah's wife prefigures or images the other Almah at this turning point in the nation's history. His wife bears two sons with specifically, historically pertinent names. The Almah bears an even more significant name, because it affirms an ancient, long-standing promise of God's loyal presence among his people.

[See the study God is With Us (An Ancient Promise)]

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Theological Evolution in Jewish Versions of Isaiah 7:14

Modern Jewish commentators point out that the verb harah ("be with child") is in the perfect tense and should be rendered "she has conceived" or "is with child" — not "will conceive."

Secondly, the verb qara't ("call") is also perfect (lit. "she has called"). Thus, they say, Isaiah's message concerns his wife and her son, not some future messianic figure, such as Yeshua of Nazareth.

Note this rendering in the 1985 edition of Tanakh: A New Translaton of the Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society:

Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord!
Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son.
Let her name him Immanuel [with us is God].

Compare it with the original 1917 Jewish Publication Society The Holy Scriptures:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
behold, the young woman shall conceive
and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel.

Also note the translation The Holy Bible by Rabbi Isaac Leeser from 1845:

Behold, this young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,
and she shall call his name 'Immanu'el, (God with us).

The older Jewish translators viewed the perfect verb forms as imperfects.

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Prophetic Verb Forms
Many passages in the prophets employ what grammarians call a "prophetic perfect."

This means that verbs existing in the Hebrew text as perfects (usually denoting completed, past action), can be rendered as imperfects (incomplete or future action). That is, a prophecy, because it comes from God, is so sure of being fulfilled it is done — in God's mind, on His time scale.

Thus we could read Isaiah 7:14a: "she will conceive."

Secondly, the middle verb in the passage, yoledet ("give birth") is a present tense feminine participle, not a perfect or past tense. It can be read as "she is giving birth" or even "she will give birth."

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will conceive, bear a son, and name him Immanu-El.

Interestingly, the verb "call" in the Great Isaiah Scroll (shown at top) is a masculine perfect [qara], meaning "he called" or "he will call" (prophetic perfect). This implies that the father of Immanu-El, at God's command, names the boy.

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Miryam: Almah & Betulah
Like Isaiah's wife, Yeshua's mother was a prophetess as well, in the sense that she too declared God's message. Luke 1:46-55 contains Miryam's soaring words of praise for God's loyalty to his covenant promises to Abraham and his children, to her fellow Jews.

Since Miryam was a prophetess (like Isaiah's wife), her Son was also a prophetic sign to Israel.

Neither she nor anyone else in the NT ever called him Immanu El ("with us is God"). His angel-given name was Yeshua ("the LORD saves") — a symbolic name describing what his presence on earth entailed for God's people: "he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21). (See Shem Yeshua Mashiach: Hebrew Roots of "Jesus Christ".)

We need to remember the obvious point about Miryam's story (Matthew 1, Luke 1).

She was literally an Almah — an unmarried young woman — within whom God created, by his Spirit, the male embryo who grew to become her baby named Yeshua. She was an unmarried Hebrew virgin who became pregnant, not by her husband-to-be, Joseph.

When the angel told Miryam she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" and son of "his father David" (Luke 1:32), her response proves she knew what the announcement meant: "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" (v. 34).

In other words, she fulfilled both the prophetic Hebrew word that an almah would bear a son, as well as the Greek Bible prophecy about a boy who would be birthed by a parthenos.

Representatively, Yeshua's mother would be Virgin Israel, the faithful, unsullied bride of God, who would bear a son for her Lord. (See the links between Israel and Miryam: Betulat Yisrael: Virgin Mother of Messiah.)

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