“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey he shall eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will he forsaken by both her kings” (Isaiah 7:14-16).
“Virgin” or “Young Woman”?
Here is how various translators have rendered the original word “almah”: (1) Most render it “virgin” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, NLT). (2) A few render it “young woman” (RSV, NEB, NRSV). Some render it “virgin”, but footnote it with other words (ASV “maiden”; NLT “young woman”).
The original word appears seven times in the Bible (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19-ff; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; Isaiah 7:14). The KJV renders this word in these passages: “virgin”, “maid”, “damsel”, “maid”, “virgin”, “virgin”, “virgin”.
Thoughts on this word: (1) “Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman” [Edward J. Young, The New Bible Dictionary, J. A. Dougless, ed, p. 557 (quoted by Gary Workman in the Nov./Dec. 1992 Restorer, p. 4)] (2) “There is no instances where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin” [Allen Macrae, Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, ed. Vol. 2 p. 672 (quoted in the Restorer)] (3) “The precise meaning of almah remains somewhat obscure… The rarity of its use makes determining its meaning very difficult… in no case is it clear that almah is married… Possibly almah means ‘virgin’ since all unmarried girls in Israel were expected to be chaste” (G. T. Wenhen “virgin” New ISBE vol. 4, pp 989-990). (4) “Even though almah etymologically does not refer to a virgin in the technical sense (there is no word in the Hebrew that does…) There is a presumption of virginity inherent in the use of the word. In short, there was no single word available to Isaiah to convey the idea of virginity any clearer than the word he used” (Gary Workman, The Virgin Birth of Isaiah 7:14, The Restorer, Nov./Dec. 1992, p. 4).
Additional thoughts: (1) Jewish scholars who produced the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the LXX, certainly thought virginity was in view. They used the word “parthenos” to translate “almah”. “Parthenos” does denote virginity. (2) The new covenant also used the Greek word “parthenos” (Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27). (3) This pregnancy was to be “a new thing in the earth” (Jeremiah 31:22-ff).
Some have suggested that if virginity was intended, then another word “bethulah” would have been employed. Therefore, virginity must not be in view.
We disagree. (1) It is far from certain that “bethulah” is a technical word for virginity. (a) The word is translated by the KJV by the word “virgin” and “maid”\“maiden”. (b) Vine’s says “The word bethulah emphasizes virility more than virginity (although it is used with both emphases.)” (c) If the term refers technically to virginity, then why are additional words attached such as “no man had ever known her” (Genesis 24:16) and “who had not known a man” (Judges 21:12). (d) The word seems to be used of a young widow in Joel 1:8. Robert Gromacki has written “it cannot be argued that bethulah would provide a stronger word for virginity. In fact, bethulah in one instance may have connoted just the opposite impression… Joel 1:8. (The Virgin Birth p. 174). (e) The word “bethulah” literally means “separated”. It refers to “a woman living apart, ie, in her father’s house”, says the ISBE (vol. 4, p. 3051). (2) Even if the term does have reference to virginity, such would not disprove the use of “almah” for virginity. Remember, Jewish Scholars of the third century B. C. thought that it referred to virginity by translating it by the Greek “parthenos.”
Alan Highers commented, “The important question then becomes: Is the almah, the young woman of Isaiah 7:14 chaste or unchaste, pure or impure. If she is unmarried, unchaste, and impure, then is this a prophecy, or even properly applicable to the virgin Mary and the birth of Christ. If the almah of Isaiah 7:14 is pure, chaste, and unmarried, the only way she could give birth to a son would be as a virgin! That was fulfilled only one time in history! [Alan Highers, “Is Isaiah 7:14 A Messianic Prophecy?” (From “A Handbook of Bible Translations”, at the Annual Shenandoah Lectures, p. 681)].
1. Ahaz was told to ask for a sign concerning God’s words for the immediate future (Isaiah 7:1-12). Ahaz refused. He would trust in a foreign government, rather than God (cf. 2 Kings 16).
2. Nevertheless, a sign was provided. This sign was both distant and near. (a) Distant future: A virgin birth will occur. Ahaz, if you don’t want a sign, I’ll provide a sign which goes beyond your lifetime. I’ll show Judah what I will do. Note: A sign was also given to Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:1-3), which was not fulfilled for 300 years (cf. 2 Kings 23:15). (b) Near application: Before the time it would take this child (or any normal child) to know right from wrong, the confederation of Israel and Syria would come to nothing. Two or three years after this prophecy both these conspiring kings would be dead (2 kings 15:30; 16:9). Gary Workman has written: “(Isaiah) uses the infancy of Jesus marked off by the word ‘before’ in verse 16 as the measure of time between the giving of the prophecy and the overthrow of the two enemy kings” (The Restorer, p. 6).
Another possibility was set forth in the previous part to this series. Franklin Camp suggested that there was not one prophecy but two prophecies in context. The first found in verses 14-15 concerned the virgin birth and Jesus. The second found in verse 16 concerned Isaiah’s child, Shear-Jasub (Isaiah 7:3, 16 cf. 8:1-4). While I am not sure of the two prophecies theory, this theory does no violence to the virgin birth passage.