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In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the Judean king, is surrounded by the armies of Aram and Israel and things look bleak. At Isaiah 7:13-17, the prophet tells Ahaz that God will give him a sign that the seige will be broken. The sign, according to the NIV is that a "virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." The NIV footnote on the word "virgin" notes that the original Hebrew word could be read to be a "young woman" rather than "virgin." But given that Christian Bibles mostly say "virgin" the question arises: Did Ahaz find this sign? How would he have found a virgin who had just given birth? How would he know she was a virgin? Of all the signs God could have given Ahaz that the seige would be lifted and his enemies destroyed, this seems difficult. If you accept that this prophecy was meant for Jesus alone, then why was it given to Ahaz at that moment in time?

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migrated from Mar 18 '13 at 17:54

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Hi Bruce and welcome Biblical Hermeneutics! This is an interesting question. So interesting, in fact, that I think its been asked before: In light of Isaiah 7:15-16, how could Jesus be the promised child born of a virgin? Do the answers to that question help? –  Jon Ericson Mar 18 '13 at 19:58
@JonEricson: The question is slightly different. Directed to a Christian audience, the gist of the question is why would G-d give a sign that is impossible to find? Any indicia of virginity would be lost in childbirth. Moreover, would you expect a king to do a physical exam on every new mother to find the sign? Then the question does turn on whether the translation of the Hebrew word "almah" in Isa. 7:14 is "virgin" or "young woman." –  Bruce James Mar 18 '13 at 20:46
Good point. In a way, your question is the inverse of the other one. –  Jon Ericson Mar 18 '13 at 20:54

4 Answers 4

The following explanation assumes the unity of Isaiah. That is, the Babylonian Talmud in Baba Batra, Folio 14B and Folio 15A (1:6, IV.11A ff.) indicates that Hezekiah and his contemporaries were responsible for committing the words of Isaiah to writing. That is, notwithstanding that Hezekiah used various scribes to capture the words and prophecy of Isaiah, the explanation that follows still assumes the complete unity of Isaiah as from the one and same author--Isaiah.

In this regard, then, the explanation of this maiden (virgin mother) requires that we integrate three events that occurred within the Isaiah narrative.

Three Events

The first event was the meeting of Isaiah with Ahaz "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field" (Isaiah 7:3). Isaiah's son was in attendance, and his name was A-Remnant-Shall-Return ("שְׁאָר~יָשׁוּב"). The significance here was that the geographical location of this meeting place was now associated with the turning (and therefore returning) of a faithful remnant to Yahweh (Isaiah 10:21). That is, the precise idea behind the A-Remnant-Shall-Return was correlated to this particular place "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field."

The second event at this time was the prophecy conveyed by Isaiah to King Ahaz concerning the maiden (virgin mother), whose child would be God-with-us ("Immanuel"). The word for virgin is עַלְמָה, and refers in the Hebrew Bible to chaste women (Gen 24:43; Ex 2:8; Ps 68:25; Pr 30:19; Song 1:3; and Song 6:8). In other words, King Ahaz would countenance the birth of the child by a chaste woman, who would name the child God-with-us ("Immanuel"). The text does not state the identity of this woman or child. However, there are two prophecies concerning this boy which are noteworthy.

First Prophecy: Before the child was to became an adolescent (when he would be capable "of refusing evil and choosing good"), the two kingdoms of Aram and Israel (10 northern tribes) would have fallen (Isaiah 7:16).

Second Prophecy: This same child is now addressed in the second person singular in Isaiah 8:8, where he is told that a "flood will reach the neck" of Judah, but that repentance will follow (Isaiah 8:9), and then the plans of evil devised will be thwarted because "God is with us," which is the literal meaning of "Immanuel" (Isaiah 8:10).

So the tell-tale sign in order to recognize this child, was that the child would be eating curds and honey (Isaiah 7:15), which would be the specific point of adolescence when he would be capable "of refusing evil and choosing good." (The otherwise natural disobedient tendency of pre-adolescent children is to choose evil and to refuse good.) At that precise point of time for this child, the kingdom of Aram and the 10 northern tribes will have already been defeated. That was the "sign" to King Ahaz.

Again, the identity of this child and his mother are not revealed to the readers of the text.

Now fast forward to Isaiah Chapter 22 with the continuity and unity of the Book of Isaiah in mind. In this chapter the two chief executive assistants to King Hezekiah are mentioned: Eliakim the son of Hilkiah (chief of the royal household) and Shebna the scribe. Shebna is a "shame" who, it is prophesied, will be cast out and will die in captivity (Isaiah 22:18-19). On the other hand, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah (chief of the royal household) "will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah" (Isaiah 22:21). In addition, Yahweh was going "to set the key of David on his shoulder" and "he would be driven like a peg in a firm place" (Isaiah 22:23). In other words, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah appears a righteous man in marked distinction to his companion Shebna.

Now here is where we tie it all together.

The third event occurs in Isaiah 36:3, when Eliakim the son of Hilkiah and Shebna the scribe meet the Assyrian Rabshakeh "by the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field." Now there is the connection with the earlier mention of this geographical location in Isaiah 7:3, when King Ahaz was met by Isaiah and his son A-Remnant-Shall-Return ("שְׁאָר~יָשׁוּב"). So what is the significance?

The significance is that Jerusalem is NOW "up to its neck in the flood" (Assyrian invasion). Up to this time, Hezekiah was plundering the temple and paying tribute to placate, appease and stave off the Assyrians (2 Ki 18:13-16). It was not until Rabshakeh appeared at the doorsteps that King Hezekiah finally turned to the Lord for help (Isaiah 37:21). That is, up to that point, tribute and appeasement (human solutions) were the means of addressing the problem.

So what of this child Immanuel? Who is Immanuel in the context and unity of the Book of Isaiah?

Conclusions on the identity "Immanuel"

The child could not be Hezekiah, because Hezekiah was born at the time when Ahaz was 12 years old (compare 2 Ki 16:1-2 with 2 Ki 18:1-2). That is, Hezekiah would necessarily have been eight years old when King Ahaz had started as king of Judah at twenty years of age. The only other candidate that appears in the context of the narrative and unity of Isaiah, 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles is Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was the head of the royal household in Judah.


As noted, above, the prophecy of the sign of Immanuel was given "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field" to King Ahaz (Isaiah 7:3). Isaiah's son was also present, and his name was "A-Remnant-Shall-Return" ("שְׁאָר~יָשׁוּב"). The so-called Immanuel would witness the "flood up to the neck of Jerusalem" (Isaiah 8:8). It was therefore Eliakim the son of Hilkiah who later met the Rabshakeh "by the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field" (Isaiah 36:2). Rabshakeh was the flood rising to the rising to the neck of Judah, which, we have noted (in the Second Prophecy of the child) that Immanuel would witness (Is 8:8-9).

Secondly, according to 2 Ki 19:2, he (Eliakim the son of Hilkiah) was the voice who had petitioned Isaiah to plead to Yahweh "on behalf of the remnant" (Isaiah 37:4). In other words, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah was the intermediary--he was the "key"--and his role resulted in the REMNANT of Judah now residing in Jerusalem to turn (and return) to God for help. Please recall that The Remnant Shall Return "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field" was the name of Isaiah's son! (See previous paragraph.)

Third, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah becomes the "key" of David in the narrative, who mediated repentance and the turning to God of the REMNANT. It was thus not righteous Hezekiah, but Eliakim the son of Hilkiah who is the one with the "key of David" on his shoulder (Isaiah 22:22). As the "key" he provided the entrée to salvation; he was the "father" or progenitor of the national repentance, which had resulted in deliverance from the Assyrians. (This same "key" of David is mentioned in Revelation 3:7-9, where the context is the repentance of rebellious Jews during a similar period of apocalyptic Jewish tribulation.) Eliakim the son of Hilkiah was therefore the "firm peg" upon which "the throne of glory" of the house of his father David would rest (Isaiah 22:23). But that at some point the peg would break (Isaiah 22:25, which appears to be a reference to the later Babylonian captivity in the year 586).


If we assume the complete unity of the Book of Isaiah by one single author (but written by different scribes under employment to Hezekiah), then King Ahaz would have identified Eliakim the son of Hilkiah as the one blessed with the Presence of God ("Immanuel"). That is, King Ahaz would have identified Eliakim the son of Hilkiah as the child eating honey and curds at the time when the Assyrians and destroyed Aram and the ten Northern Tribes of Israel. His later appointment and emerging role in the government of Hezekiah would therefore be more obvious, since King Ahaz would have identified him as one chosen by God for service.

Second, there is no surprise then that Eliakim the son of Hilkiah then appears later in the Isaiah narrative at the same geographical rendezvous point, where Isaiah had previously prophesied that Judah and Jerusalem would "be up to the neck" in the Assyrian invasion. That is, "Immanuel" would herald the people with his call to repentance. This leader will be the "key" or physical link who rallies the REMNANT to national salvation to God, who saves them from the Assyrians.

Last, from the perspective of the Christian New Testament, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah would finally point to Jesus the Nazarene, whose mother was also the chaste maiden (עַלְמָה) according to Matt 1:23. Like Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, Jesus would call for the repentance of the Jewish people. Thus "God with us" suggests the mediator, who is the "peg" that provides the tabernacle (or presence of God to man). This "peg" in the Book of Isaiah was Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who mediated and was the physical link (right place at the right time) for this reconciliation and deliverance by the Presence of God, and the Christian New Testament parallel continues with Jesus as the means (mediator) by whom mankind in the widest sense is reconciled to the Presence of God (2 Cor 5:20 and Col 1:22).

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How did Ahaz know the mom was a "maiden" (virgin)? Also, are you sure Hezekiah wasn't already born by that time? Check your sources. –  Bruce James Mar 20 '13 at 9:10
Hezekiah was born when Ahaz was 12 years old. I now think that it was Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who was in view since it was he who met the Rabshakah "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the Washer's field". Isaiah ascribes the key of David to him (Isaiah 22:22), which is the same key ascribed to Jesus in Revelation 3:7. By the way, his name means "raised up by Yahweh": the pieces of the story still fit. I will edit later today accordingly. –  Joseph Mar 20 '13 at 11:39
there is also speculation that the child of the almah was Isaiah's grandson through his daughter, and that she actually named him Emanuel. Why should we ignore that part of the verse (regarding the name chosen for the baby)? –  Bruce James Mar 20 '13 at 13:56
@Bruce: okay... here are the edits to make the corrections from yesterday. –  Joseph Mar 21 '13 at 7:07
Do you think the way of the adulterous woman with a man of Pr 30:20 (fourth thing too amazing to understand) is synonymous with the way of a man with a chaste woman of Pr 30:19 (third thing too amazing to understand)? –  Joseph Mar 21 '13 at 14:39

My reading of Isaiah 7 is a little different - as I understand it, the sign is not the birth of a child from a young woman (fairly unremarkable in itself), but rather that before this young child grows up - while he is still "eating curds and honey" and doesn't yet know between good and evil - G!d will break the siege of the two kings. This is not the only time this kind of prophecy is made; e.g. compare Isaiah 8:3-4.

To me it seems that this is a rhetorical technique — that G!d will save them "before you can say Jiminy Cricket" or something like that.

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That sign would not be too helpful to Ahaz, either. The sign really was that despite the absence of hope that existed for the Judeans, a mother had faith enough to name her child Emanuel -- G-d is with us. It is a sign that is immediate and identifiable. Finding out what a child will eat after its weaned is not. –  Bruce James Mar 19 '13 at 13:37
I've reconsidered accepting this answer. While I think the second paragraph is a reasonable rationalization, there is still much left unanswered. –  Bruce James Jan 15 at 20:33

I don't want to rehash discussion that should be placed with this question. Therefore, let's assume that Isaiah 7 had a near fulfillment. If it didn't, then the answer would obviously be no.

I believe the answer to this specific question may lie in Isaiah's use of the the article which can have the force of a near demonstrative. Isaiah says "the virgin," which (if you hold to a near fulfillment) could imply that the virgin/young woman was present when the prophesy was given. Perhaps Isaiah even pointed her out to Ahaz.

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There's no explicit use of the demonstrative adjective. It simply says הָעַלְמָה (ha-almah), "the maiden" (or "the virgin," depending on which translation you prefer). And, he is a prophet, so in theory, he could very well speak of something or someone using a definite article or even a demonstrative adjective and yet they could be unfamiliar to him. The Holy Spirit is speaking through the prophet. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 19 '13 at 12:10
Sorry, I should have been more clear regarding the article usage. I edited the question to make it clearer –  parap Mar 19 '13 at 13:14
@parap please compare the use of almah in Proverbs 30:18-20 where it appears to speak of a woman who is very sexually active. If Isaiah wanted to mean virgin, why didn't he use the more common word betullah? Putting a definite article before a vague word does not sharpen it's meaning when a better word exists. (restated to direct questions to parap). –  Bruce James Mar 20 '13 at 18:10

The answer to this question is that the sign given to Ahaz was not that there would be a virgin who would give birth. There are several facts that support this:

  1. A virgin birth is a sign too difficult to recognize -- As the question poses, establishing that the prophecy of a virgin birth would be impossible for Ahaz to determine given the fact that all signs of virginity would be lost on the birthstool.
  2. No evidence that the people of the era knew of the prophecy Matthew 1:18-25 tells us that Joseph and Mary were betrothed but had not consumated the marriage. So, if Joseph knew of the interpretation, that a virgin would give birth to the messiah, Joseph as a descendant of David, should have been elated. Instead, he is embarrassed and seeks to put his bethrothed bride away secretly as to not shame her.
  3. Virgin birth contradicts other scripture Scripture states clearly that the Messiah is to be from the Tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) and a direct descendant of Solomon numerous places, but see I Chron 22:9-10). Determining one's tribe is determined by paternal lineage only (Numbers 1:18; 2:2). Although Joseph may have been of the tribe of Judah, Jesus was not his son, so his parentage cannot be used. Even if we assume Mary's tribal status could be used, the NT does not tell us whose tribe her father belonged to, but suggests that she might have been descended from Aaron due to the fact that Luke identifies her as a relative of Elizabeth, who was a "daughter of Aaron...." (Luke 1:6, 1:36). A virgin birth, accordingly upsets the entire structure of the prophecies describing the criteria for the Messiah.

King Ahaz didn't need a sign with regard to a future Messiah hundreds of years, hence. He needed an immediate sign that he would survive the day. The sign God promised was that there would be someone in the beseiged community with the confidence and faith in God's salvation and protection that she chose the name for her son, "God is with us" i.e. "Emmanuel." People who are beseiged do not normally reflect such positive attitude; knowing that at least one of his subjects believed that God would get them through this difficult time was the reassurance that Ahaz needed.

In fact, the sign was fulfilled and Ahaz saved. In the next two verses, Isaiah tells Ahaz he won't have to wait long for military victory after receiving the sign:

"[The baby] shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows 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." (Isaiah 7:15-16).

In the next chapter, Isaiah identifies himself as this baby's father and tells us the result for the kingdom:

"3 And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; 4 for before the child knows how to call 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria." (Isaiah 8:3-4).

Thus, the real sign to King Ahaz is that Isaiah’s child will be born quickly and before he matures (knowing the difference between good and evil and father and mother) the nations who threaten the Kingdom of Judea will be defeated.

Interestingly, Isaiah’s children are specifically referred to as a “signs” from God.

“Behold I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel.” Isaiah 8:18

King Ahaz was told to trust in God for assistance and to ask for a sign as proof that his enemies would be defeated. He is told that the sign will be the birth of a child from the young woman who will call the child (Emmanuel –עמנואל). Although this name mean ‘God is with us” it does not mean that the child will be divine. It is very common for biblical personality to have names that include God and part of their name. For example (Daniel –דניאל) means “God is my Judge.”

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