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Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden?

The identity of the mother of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 has been a subject of debate over the centuries: Was the prophet Isaiah speaking of a virgin conceiving or not? The Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, linking Jesus' conception to the sign the prophet Isaiah had given centuries earlier. Those who believe the gospel account regard Isaiah 7:14 as a messianic passage fulfilled by Jesus. Others disagree. Did the prophet intend that word to mean virgin" or merely "young maiden"? Are Christian interpreters reading too much into this verse? Zhava Glaser presents the case for you to decide for yourself:

The word almah is rare—usually translated as "maiden" it appears only ten times in the Hebrew Scriptures, six1 of these in the plural and four2 in the singular.3 Some say the word almah is merely the feminine of elem, or "young man."4

In the few verses where almah appears, the word clearly denotes a young woman who is not married but is of marriageable age. Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a "young, presently married woman." It is important to remember that in the Bible, a young Jewish woman of marriageable age was presumed to be chaste.

The prophet could have chosen a different word had he wanted to describe Immanuel's mother as a virgin. Betulah is a more common way to refer to a woman who has never been with a man (both in biblical and modern Hebrew).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are two types of betulot—the true virgin, and the "betrothed virgin" (betulah m'orashah). In Deuteronomy 22, a betrothed virgin is referred to as a man's "wife" (ishah). The state of betrothal was just as serious and sacred as the married state5 and the difference between the two appears, in some instances, to be a mere formality. The word betulah, commonly understood as virgin, is still not precise.

Joel 1:8 presents another example of the word betulah in a context which does not convey the usual meaning of virginity: "Mourn like a virgin (betulah) in sackcloth, grieving for the husband of her youth."

Some commentators say this refers to a betrothed virgin, thus making the lamentation all the more poignant because the marriage had never been consummated. The use of ba'al (husband) in this verse, however, seems to imply the opposite. The word ba'al is never used in the Jewish Scriptures of the betrothed state, but only of a married man.

Therefore, even if the prophet Isaiah had used the word betulah, it could have been argued that he did not intend to say that this woman had never had sexual relations with a man.

A look at the Septuagint translation of almah by Semitics scholar Dr. Cyrus Gordon, provides additional insight on the matter:

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.6

Jewish and Christian scholars would be hard pressed to deny that the Greek term parthenos and the Hebrew term almah may have been used interchangeably by those Jewish communities that adopted the Septuagint.

On the other hand, J. Gresham Machen, who has done a definitive study on this passage, asserts that the translation in the Septuagint of the Hebrew word almah as parthenos cannot be used to show a Jewish doctrine of the virgin birth, for one also finds the word parthenos used in the Septuagint to translate the word na'arah, which merely means "young girl."

For Machen, the very fact that the passage does not have a history of Jewish messianic interpretation and the very unlikelihood of this passage being interpreted messianically makes the New Testament account all the more credible. In other words, the gospel writer, Matthew, was not trying to fit Jesus' life into a traditional mold, but rather turned to Scripture to explain what had taken place in the event of the virgin birth.

One cannot assert that the prophet was speaking of a virgin technically on the basis of the word almah. Nor can a serious student lightly dismiss the word as having no possible reference to a miraculous conception.


Footnotes
  1. Psalm 9:1, 46:1, 68:26; Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8; 1 Chronicles 15:20.
  2. Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Isaiah 7:14; Proverbs 30:19.
  3. For a thorough study of these passages, see Young, Edward J., The Immanuel Prophecy: Isaiah 7:14-16 (Second Article). The Westminster Theological Journal, 16:23-50 (November 1953), p. 171-177.
  4. LaSor, William Sanford, n.d., Isaiah 7:14—"Young Woman" or "Virgin," Unpublished manuscript, Fuller Theological Seminary, p. 5-6.
  5. Young, p. 33.
  6. Gordon, Cyrus H., Almah in Isaiah 7:14, The Journal of Bible & Religion, Vol. 21 (April 1953), p. 106.

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+1 # Isaac 2014-08-27 19:28
All of u have missed the point.assuming almah DOES mean virgin, there is still a problem with Matthews reference. There is an identical terminology used in genesis16:11 הנך הרה ויולדת בן and that must mean that behold u r presently pregnant, bec in verse 4 it clearly says she was pregnant before this incident. So u must say that so too here it was talking about a presently pregnant VIRGIN. So it can't be a prophesying about the bastard Jesus , unless u say the harlot Mary was ah few hundred year old virgin. I challenge any Christian leader or believer to defend the Jewish-Christian-Ein stein, Matthew.
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+1 # Rich Robinson 2014-08-27 19:32
Isaac, if you want dialogue, you need to show respect. Bastard, harlot, and Einstein show no respect to Christians or their faith. I'm sure you wouldn't want Judaism (or your faith of choice) described that way. Be a mentsch, and dialogue in a respectful, mature way.
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+1 # Isaac 2014-08-27 19:51
I have to b honest as I am with my belief and admit that u r right. I apologize to everyone and thank u for pointing that out to me.but my challenge stands nevertheless
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0 # dave meltzer 2014-01-04 18:33
My question here is this: How can Jesus be from the house of David if he was born to a virgin? Jewish lineage comes from the father's side. The prophesy says the Messiah will come from the line of David.
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0 # Rich Robinson 2014-01-06 17:13
Many believe Miriam (Mary) was physically descended from David. And/or that Jesus is legally in David's line due to Joseph being his legal father. At the end of the day there is no precedent or Jewish law for a virgin birth, so it's a unique situation.
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-2 # Rhesa B 2013-12-24 18:21
My question is how is it a miraculous sign that a young woman will have a baby. That is the most common place thing in the world. Now a virgin having a baby would truly be a sign. I understand the ambiguity of the word almah. But it looks like the context of the passage points more to the woman being a virgin than to having sex and producing a child.
The issue about the timing and it being a sign to King Ahaz only, there is much more to the explanation that does not clearly refer to Ahaz. The timing of Is 7:16 doesn't limit the sign to Ahaz's time. Those two kings had been forsaken by the time Jesus was born, so that requirement is met. Then vv. 17-25 occurr before v.16 because the two kings in vv. 17-25 are coming into Israel and carrying out judgment. Then in v.16 those kings are being forsaken. A reasonable interpretation would have the baby in vv.14-16 born after Assyria exiles Israel and then is defeated by Babylon.
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+1 # Isaac 2014-08-27 19:31
The miraculous sign was that it was a boy. Don't u know any history?this was thousands of years before the sonogram was invented. Think well before u interpret the holy Jewish bible
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-1 # tariq 2013-03-16 11:42
Emmanuel eats butter and honey in Isaiah 7: 15. When it will done? Isaiah 7:17 here talking about the captivity of the northern kingdom and the overthrow of Samaria 722 BC, Isaiah 7: 18 and intended battle Carchemish where war Neco (Pharaoh) and his army and the army of Assyria, which was the land of Judah share them, and this happened to control the king of Babylon to Assyria and underwent his armies of Assyria and fought the king of Egypt in Carchemish which occurred 605 BC and evacuated were captivity southern kingdom (Judah), Isaiah 7: 19 - 25 and this is after returning from captivity because they what return from captivity the poverty is and they shall devour butter and honey and filled with monsters of staggering to defend arc and arrow and also the ground don't give yield of it is filled with pierced and thistles, and this confirms that Emmanuel (Christ) will come after the Babylonian captivity, where poverty and eat butter and honey, and not in the days of Pekah and Rezin.
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+1 # Isaac 2014-08-27 21:00
U show great ignorance and lack of logic. The bible has hundreds of metaphors.one example is a reference to the exodus. " and I carried u on wings of eagles" this clearly didn't occur as u can c from the book of exodus. So unless god was mistaken, u must say it was metaphoric. This makes your question invalid
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+1 # Isaac 2014-08-27 22:43
U show great ignorance and lack of scriptural logic. The scriptures r filled with metaphors. An example in exodus". And I carried u on the wings of eagles". Anyone who is versed in exodus knows that didn't actually occur. Therefore it's obviously a metaphoric expression. Therefore ur question is invalid!
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0 # tariq 2013-03-16 11:37
Word Almah in Hebrew means Virgin, Miss, Girl and Nymph and all those point to a virgin. the word Owt comes a simple sign or a miracle, in Isaiah 7: 11, we find that a miracle " ask it either in the depth, or in the height above" Which means: ask a sign from the depths of the earth or from the highest of the heavens, this is a wonderful sign. text directed to the house of David not to Ahaz, the house of David includes all the sons of David over all times, so where can we find this Almah from sons of David, Hebrew text in Isaiah 7: 14 came laKen Etten Adonai Ho lakom Owt and that means but the Lord gives himself to you a sign, text gives us that the Lord's self is a sign. Isaiah realized that Emmanuel is the divine Christ in Isaiah 8: 8 - 10 is the owner of the land is not talking about normal child, but the owner of the land and not owner of the land but God and that what was announced in verse 10
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0 # Paul Jacobsen 2013-03-16 05:48
A few points. The article says, in bold, "Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a 'young, presently married woman.'" Perhaps, but on the other hand, it IS used to describe women in a harem, in Songs of Solomon 6:8. Women in harems are not generally known for being virginal, even if some translations of that verse say virgins.

But, more importantly, the passage in question couldn't possibly be Messianic, not Jesus anyway:

"Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted."

If that's about Jesus, then what land will be deserted before Jesus knew how to refuse the evil and choose the good? How did butter & honey teach him this?
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+1 # Israel 2012-01-27 09:12
Hebrew word Almah= Maiden in English

English word Maiden= Betulah in Hebrew

Hebrew word Betulah= Virgin in English

then we can acknowlege almah as virgin as well.....

That question is going in circle and going nowhere..

Almah means virgin period. Jewish corruption and arguments against the new testament simply don't have the stomic the answer to their claim. anyone can go to www.freetranslation.com and type in maiden and find that word translated as Betulah. Mind you the entire web tells christians that Almah is maiden in english. if maiden is betulah and betulah is the word for virgin. What is the problem if Mary is a Almah a virgin?
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+6 # Jay 2008-11-13 00:24
Unfortunately you all have missed it. The issue here is how well do you know your Torah? If you read in Gen in the subject of Rachel whom Eliezer is seeking as a bride for Yitzchak you will find that the word Almah, Betulah and a Naarah are all attributes given to a single woman Rachel and it is from here we derive that an almah is in fact regarded by Torah as a virgin as well. Now go and read Isaiah under the eyes of Torah and you have the prophecy which the Torah says in Gen 24:16 "a virgin and the husband will not know her."
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0 # Mordechai 2008-01-05 23:40
Gary, the absence of a father in Isaiah does not indicate anything. Would you rather he had said, "A young couple will have a child..."? The child is the inportant element, and not the mother or the father. The only reason the mother is mentioned is because it sounds like Isaiah was speaking about a woman both he and Ahaz knew, which is why Isaiah says "ha'almah", "the (specific) woman", and not just "almah", "a (random, possibly far-off-in-the-futur e) woman".
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0 # Gary 2007-11-25 09:47
More compelling than the definition of almah in Isaiah 7:14, is the deafening quiet left by the vacancy of a father, which is surprisingly never debated. Regardless of the meaning of almah, or whether that was the word used, this verse clearly depicts a husbandless mother and fatherless Messiah. In context, Isaiah accuses King Ahaz and the royal family of Davis for trying the patience of the Lord. The importance placed on fathers men, is contrasted by this prophecy that elevates an unmarried maiden and slaps down the king, the royal house of David and all Israel’s men. Isaiah 7:17-23 confirms this insult with the promise of injury. "The LORD will bring on you, on your people, and on your father's house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria."
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+2 # David 2007-11-13 03:33
Yehuda: the question is not what 'betula' meant in Jesus' time, but rather what 'almah' meant in Isaiah's time. Mark: Interesting that Christians scholars produced the Septuagint's version of the Prophets. Do you have a source on this? Whose version of Isaiah do you think the author of Matthew was using in quoting Isaiah 7:14? Mordechai: Thank you for bringing some context into this discussion. Immanuel was a sign from God for Ahaz.
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0 # Yehuda 2007-01-02 10:29
The word betulah, in the time of Jesus, meant a woman who had not begun her menstral flow, even if she were married (Mishnah Nidd. 1:4). It refers to a minor, and chastity may be assumed, but it is not implicit. For Jesus to have been born of a betulah is still miraculous, I suppose, but that would not eliminate Joseph as the biological father. Betrothal could be effected by intercourse (Mishnah Ket. 4:4) and a minor could conceive at her first ovulation, which would delay menstruation for the duration of pregnancy. There is a way to explain this story in a Jewish context. The common interpretation is not a Jewish one.
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0 # mark 2006-04-25 11:51
Please note the septugant that was written by Jewish scholars was only on the Torah and not on the prophets. The addition on the prophets was added centuries later by Christian scholars clearly for their own benefit
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-4 # Mordechai 2005-12-01 18:06
You left out a serious point that must be included; Isaiah was talking to King Ahaz nearly 500 years before Jesus was born. To say it was a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus is to say God is an idiot because HE was using that as a sign that Ahaz should not worry about two invading armies. Furthermore, the prophecy says the kid will be named Immanuel. Does "Immanuel" sound anything like "Jesus"?
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+1 # Brett Hancock 2013-03-14 00:05
Quoting Mordechai:
You left out a serious point that must be included; Isaiah was talking to King Ahaz nearly 500 years before Jesus was born. To say it was a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus is to say God is an idiot because HE was using that as a sign that Ahaz should not worry about two invading armies. Furthermore, the prophecy says the kid will be named Immanuel. Does "Immanuel" sound anything like "Jesus"?

Yeshua or Jesus comes from the greek equivalent of Joshua from hebrew. Both names are indicating he that would lead God's people into the promised land. In Genesis, God makes a covenant with Abraham that has yet to be fulfilled. He and his descendants to take possession of promised land forever. The name ImmanuEL has EL at the end signifying God and here it is God is with us. The many OT names for God like EL Shaddai are appellations of God's awesome attributes not names. Names are given from the greater to the subordinate. No one is greater than God.
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+1 # Alan C 2014-03-24 11:56
Anyone know Hebrew? Let me help you! The young woman is not only know to them but is already with child! Look at the Hebrew "לכן יתן אדני הוא לכם אות הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל". The words that come after "sign" in Hebrew "אות" we find the Hebrew words "״העלמה הרה which means in English "the" (specific) "young woman" is "already pregnant".

The word "הרה״" is in the past tense! JC is not born for almost 700 years in the future! That is one long pregnancy!

I once had a Christian missionary tell me the this was a dual prophecy. That was to say it happened now and in the future when JC was born. That was a trap he could not get out of because the just told me that there we 2 virgin births! Opps!
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