This article is just one in a long series addressing questions posed by agnostic blogger Larry Simons in his article entitled, 31 Questions Christians Can’t Answer. For the rest of series click here. Enjoy!
25. Why did the prophet Isaiah [in Isaiah 7:14], in his foretelling of the birth of Jesus, use the Hebrew word “almah”, which means “young woman” and not use the word “betulah”, which means “virgin”, when describing Jesus’ mother?
This question is not, strictly speaking, an apologetic question, at least not in the form of questions we’ve seen so far. This is primarily an exegetical question. Exegesis is a fancy word that just means “how to interpret a text.” In this case, and in almost every case where you’ll ever actually hear exegesis brought up, the text we’re talking about is scripture. Now that we know what exegesis is, how do we exegete? An important first step is to define terms. This requires the use of a good precise English translation. A translation like the King James Version (KJV), New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), or the New American Standard Bible (NASB) will usually be adequate to allow you to both understand what you’re reading and have confidence that you’re reading a faithful translation. For the purpose of exegesis stay away from bibles like The Message (MSG), The Living Bible (TLB), or The Easy-To-Read Version (ERV) as these are paraphrases only and not faithful translations of original language texts. BibleHub and BibleGateway are two websites that allow you to search specific passages and either compare versions side-by-side or transition easily between versions. Next you want to have access to Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. In almost all cases these resources are available online for free. In past times to have access to this information would have required hundreds or thousands of dollars or hundreds or thousands of hours at the library.
Once we look at meaning of the words we look at syntax and context, how the words fit together and create thoughts and narratives. This sometimes calls for reading more than just the passage in question. Many is the time that I’ve been trying to interpret one verse and ended up on a hours long journey through a whole chapter and multiple other passages in other books. One of the most common methods scholars use to define words in the Bible is to find every occurrence of that word and use the context to find common meanings. We have one verse and two words that are at issue here. The verse is Isaiah 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.”(NIV)
The word that the NIV translates as virgin is the Hebrew word “almah” and it only occurs six other times on the Bible, all in the Old Testament. As you’ll soon see only two of these other occurrences help us clear up our confusion.
Let’s start with the verses that don’t help and why. These are Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, and Song of Solomon 1:3. These word almah in these verses is always translated as some form of “young woman” and there isn’t a lot of cultural or literary context surrounding it to make it matter if it’s translated either way. For example Exodus 2:8 says,
“‘Yes, go,’ she answered. So the girl [almah] went and got the baby’s mother.” (NIV, emphasis mine)
In this verse the almah is a character significant only for being the one to fish baby Moses out of the Nile river. Nothing in the story would be enhanced or doctrinally changed if we substituted the word virgin for the word girl. This is not the case with Isaiah 7:14 because it is a prophecy. Prophesies have lasting significance even after they’ve come to pass, but especially before. Every word could signify a benchmark by which to know when the prophesy has come to pass. Lack of context excludes these verses from consideration in our exegesis at all. If even one of them, due to context, required the use of some for of “young woman” and excluded the use of “virgin” we would be required to consider it up against verses that support the “virgin” interpretation.
The first verse that encourages the use of the word “virgin” a translation of almah is Song of Solomon 6:8,
“Sixty queens there may be,
and eighty concubines,
and virgins [alamot, the plural of almah] beyond number;” (NIV)
This verse only makes sense if the word is interpreted as virgins. Queens aren’t virgins, presumably because they’re married to kings. As we’ll soon see consummation was an important part of ancient marriages. Concubines aren’t virgins, they’re actually the opposite of virgins, it’s in the job description. So if the last category of women is not virgins why are they even mentioned? Are they random nondescript young women milling around?
Next we come to the verse(s) where we’re going to spend most of our time. Genesis 24:43,
“See, I am standing beside this spring. If a young woman [almah] comes out to draw water and i say to her,’Please let me drink a little water from your jar,’ (NIV)
The context for this is the entire chapter where we see that Abraham has sent his servant to the homeland of his people and get a wife for Isaac. Interestingly this verse is simply Abraham’s servant retelling the story to Rebekah’s family of how he came to offer her the opportunity to go and be married to Isaac. In the verse that describes the event as it happened (verse 16) the Hebrew word that is translated in English to be “young woman” is actually betulah, the other word at issue here and, supposedly, the more accurately translated word for virgin.
Considering marital traditions of the time it’s not surprising that Abraham’s servant went looking for a virginal bride for Isaac. Certainly non-virgin women could marry, but they were much less esteemed. Chalk it up to patriarchy or what have you but the fact is the chances that Abraham’s servant would have accepted a non-virgin as the wife that God had provided for Isaac is diminishingly slim.
We now have two instances where the word almah can very faithfully be translated to mean virgin in English and four instances that are not sufficiently contextual to consider. Now let’s go back to our original verse, Isaiah 7:14, and apply some of the same methods we’ve used on these others. If we change the word “virgin” to “young woman” does it change the meaning or significance of the verse? Of course! Now it’s barely even a prophesy. What would it really say, “a random, not very special, unidentifiable young woman is going to have a baby and the only way you’re going to know that the prophesy has been fulfilled is see will name him or refer to him as Immanuel”? Does that make any sense? How many guys do you think were running around when that prophecy was given named Immanuel? If there was more than one it would virtually invalidate the prophesy under this interpretation. Only if the young woman is also a virgin is there even any sign to be looked for in the prophecy. Add to this that the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Torah (Jewish scriptures, most of which we know as the Old Testament) created by Jewish scholars from all twelve tribes in the third century before Christ, translates the Hebrew almah to pathenos a word that unambiguously means virgin showing that even the pre-Christian Jews expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin. Finally add the comment from imminent semantics scholar Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon who said,
“The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean “virgin” here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.”
And I think at a minimum you must admit that virgin is the much more consistent interpretation in this context if not that it is an open and shut case.
What questions do you have that you’ve struggled with or that you think Christians can’t answer? Have an idea for the next series of issues/ questions/ subjects I should address? Comment below and let me know.