7

Isaiah 7:14b (WLC)

הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמֹ֖ו עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃

Very roughly, "Behold, the-young-woman [to-be] pregnant and-bearing son..."1

The majority of English translations and the LXX include an unambiguously future tense verb to translate "to be pregnant", indicating that conception has not yet taken place.2

RSV

Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.

LXX

ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ·

However, it has been suggested that it should instead be translated using an attributive adjective:

...the pregnant young woman3 is about to give birth to a son…

or with a predicate adjective using a present form of "to be":

...the young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son…

A recent answer here apparently preferred something along these lines and triggered the present question.

My Hebrew is fairly rudimentary, but in some languages the zero copula construction such as this would indeed by default indicate present tense. I also note that הנה (“behold”) + participle (וילדת “and bearing”) can indicate immediacy4 which may favor a present status of "pregnant." However, I am hesitant to draw this conclusion given the strong preference toward future in published translations.

  • Is it clear whether הרה is a predicate or an attributive adjective?
  • If predicate, is there enough information to determine whether the pregnancy is current or future?

1. Ug, I was trying to avoid doing this but was having a hard time explaining my conundrum without it. Please edit if you see a better way.
2. As does Matt 1:23, possibly an influence on English translators, but note that the CJB also translates Isaiah as future here also and Rashi seems to agree.
3. This confuses me because the adjective has no article, which I think makes it unlikely to be attributive to a noun with an article. ?
4. Arnold, Bill L. (2003) A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Section 4.5.1a.

  • You are referring to the Masoretic Text, I assume. Are there any alternate vocalizations that would lead to something more similar to what is in the Septuagint? – user15733 Sep 6 '16 at 18:11
  • @TheNonTheologian The as-vocalized Hebrew could be interpreted that way if the null copula is taken as future; this is just unusual. To indicate "will conceive" the more normal (although still not ambiguous) way to do it in Hebrew would involve a prefixed ת, so not a mere vocalization change. A finite verb there would also yield an unexpected word order. – Susan Sep 6 '16 at 21:36
4

Context virtually demands the future

Obviously if Isa 7:14 is taken primarily as a prophetic statement referring to Jesus Christ's birth (so Mt 1:23, being a prophetic message to "the house of David," v.13, not Ahaz himself, who did not want a sign, v.12), it would be future.1

However, even if taken as referring to the only other possible referent in the immediate context (as some commentators do), it must still be taken as a future. This is contra the argument you linked to, where Dennis Bratcher asserts:

All this says that much of Hebrew syntax, and therefore accurate translation, is established by context not by the specific form of words. In the context of the Isaiah passage, especially in the context of the births of two other children in the immediately surrounding passages, the grammar would best be translated as an English past or perfect tense: "is [already] pregnant." This is followed by an emphasis on imminent action, something that is "about to" take place in the near future: "about to give birth."

The problem is he does not follow his own advice, because the only clearly contextual referent for those who do not hold this as a prophecy of Jesus is Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz of Isaiah chapter 8.2 Of particular note is v.3:

וָאֶקְרַב֙ אֶל־הַנְּבִיאָ֔ה וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֵלַ֔י קְרָ֣א שְׁמ֔וֹ מַהֵ֥ר שָׁלָ֖ל חָ֥שׁ בַּֽז׃

The NKJV translation is good:

Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz;

Though here, the NIV's less literal (and more dynamic) translation brings out more explicitly the euphemization that starts the verse:

Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the LORD said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.

Thus, if Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is the perceived referent, his conception was also yet future from Isa 7:14.

Grammar Considerations

So while the grammar may be vague in Isa 7:14, the context is not vague (looked at from the perspective of either of the two most popular referents in the larger literary context of Scripture itself).

Given that even Bratcher in his article noted that the "'participle of the imminent future'" could mean "is going to" (rather than "about to"), having less imminence—even the Gen 6:13 and 17 parallels he notes are when God gives instructions to Noah to build the ark, so the whole time of beginning the ark construction (v.22), much less completing it, is between statement and actualization of the judgment. So too, the beginning (pregnancy) and birth (finish) of the Isa 7:14 prophecy can still be considered imminent even if over nine months away (i.e. prior to conception).

However, Bratcher struggles with the waw before the participle, stating:

So at this point we have to admit that we do not know the significance of this connective

Yet a Christological view can be more emphatically maintained (my view, see note 1 below) when translated like so:

Behold, the pregnant young woman [or virgin], namely her giving birth to a Son and she had called His name Immanuel.

Here "namely" is the translation of the waw Bratcher struggles with, being viewed as an explicative use clarifying exactly which young pregnant woman is in view.3 So namely, the woman who at the time of her son's birth already had (the verb for "called" is perfect tense) that Son named Immanuel. This views the first waw as the explicative to help qualify the woman being named, the participle as simply indicating a characteristic action (pregnant women characteristically give birth),4 but this characteristic action is accompanied by an antecedent circumstantial clause began with the second waw,5 noting the fact that she had already titled her son Immanuel prior to the birth (cf. Joseph's knowledge of this fact, Mt 1:23, and Mary's basis for understanding God with us by His act of conception with her, Lk 1:35).

So the whole thing may be viewed as a description of how to identify the particular young woman (even more so if a virgin) in question, who will bring forth the son that fulfills v.15-16. Note how this views the whole initial statement as merely descriptive of how to identify the woman (it does not indicate her future actions, but assumes since it is prophetic, that the hearers must behold and look for this sign that the Lord will give, which sign is v.14-16, and v.14 being only a reference to identifying the woman).

Conclusion

Whether Christ or Isaiah's son, both referents in the context of Scripture's revelation would be future. Only if one seeks to argue for a non-contextually referenced person could it be taken otherwise.

Postscript: Lack of Article on the Adjective

Hebrew normally has concord of definiteness between adjective and substantive in the attributive position, but there are exceptions (and Isa 7:14 appears to be one, see note).6 It is also true that a predicate adjective normally lacks the article, and that such an adjective can exist in a verbless construction, but it will normally precede the subject in this case.7

So here we have lack of concord but also not normal structure for a verbless predicate adjective. The grammar rules alone really do not help resolve the best translation, as exceptions can exist on both counts. Context still answers best, and with that pointing toward future, the typical translations placing it as a future conception are not bad in conveying meaning, but do not reflect the word as an adjective, but rather a verb.


NOTES

1 For more on the future aspects of this prophecy, see what used to be the content of this footnote now part of this answer related to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.

2 Fully unclear referents in the context would be a damsel from Ahaz's harem, or one standing nearby in the immediate context, and simply referred to by a hand motion. The commentaries discuss the unlikelihood of either, and the difficulties with seeing it as Isaiah's son as well.

3 Ronald J. Williams, Willams' Hebrew Syntax, 3rd. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), §434.

4 Ibid., §213.

5 An antecedent circumstantial clause "explains circumstances that precede the main clause. Its predicate is a perfect verb" (Ibid., §495a).

6 Ibid., §73. In Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, eds. E. Kautzsch and Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley, 2d English ed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), it is noted in a few places that the article is ommitted for "euphony" (easing or making more pleasing the sound) with some of the gutturals, of which ה is one (see §126.x), though it is my understanding that normally the vowel pointing and accent change on the article (which is itself a ה). Both Williams (§82e) and Gensenius (§126.h) note that in poetry, the article is far more frequently ommitted—I have not explored whether Isa 7:14 is considered poetic in its form or not.

However, of particular note is another point of Gensenius' that relates directly to Isa 7:14. He states:

Peculiar to Hebrew is the employment of the article to denote a single person or thing (primarily one which is as yet unknown, and therefore not capable of being defined) as being present to the mind under given circumstances. In such cases in English the indefinite article is mostly used [for translation]. (§126.q)

Note this easily fits Isa 7:14—being prophecy, it stands possible that the young woman is "yet unknown," but is here set forth "as being present to the mind under [the] given circumstances" of offering the prophecy, and it is certainly a "single person" being referenced. And in fact, Gensenius classifies the particular use here under that:

Is 7:14 (הָֽעַלְמָה, i.e. the particular maiden, through whom the prophet’s announcement shall be fulfilled; we should say a maiden [cf. Driver on 1 S 1:4, 6:8, 19:13]; Jb 9:31.

This probably best explains the lack of article on the adjective, as the articular use here is expressing this indefinite definitness (i.e. definite in that a single individual is in view, but indefinite, in that the individual is yet unknown). If Gesenius is correct (and I would tend to agree with him), this also further argues that (1) the referent is not someone standing nearby and known to Ahaz or Isaiah (the quality of being unknown is important here), and (2) infers a future pregnancy rather than a currently pregnant female, because the pregnancy and attendant circumstances noted are in fact what is going to identify and make this female known as the sign.

7 Ibid., §75.

  • Thank you! Regarding your translation, "Behold, the pregnant young woman...." - is my hangup with the lack of an article on הרה unfounded? (i.e., not a barrier to translating it as attributive to the articulate noun העלמה?) – Susan Aug 24 '14 at 0:02
  • @Susan: I added a discussion about the article. The lack of article is not a barrier, but can complicate the discussion (however, see Gesensius' insights in my expanded note 6). – ScottS Aug 24 '14 at 2:38
  • Ha! That strengthened your argument and satisfied my curiosity both; thanks for looking into it. Hope you don't mind that I added a link to Gesenius. (Roll it back if you do.) – Susan Aug 24 '14 at 3:54
  • But if the child of Isaiah 7 is to be named Immanuel, why did Isaiah name his own son Maher-shalal-hash-baz? Is it possible these are two different children? – Bruce Alderman Mar 8 '15 at 6:18
  • @BruceAlderman: I agree. That Isaiah did not name his son Immanuel tells me his son is not the one referred to. I very much believe two different children are in view, Christ and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, with the Isa 7:14 prophecy referring to the former (read my 1st paragraph and note #1, tying as well to the Isa 9:6 child). My mention of Maher. is purely because many will argue he is the referent of Isa 7:14, but he would still be future to the prophecy (which the future aspect was the question focus). Regarding yet a different child in view, see my note #2. – ScottS Mar 8 '15 at 17:20
1

The word ‎ הָרָה is an adjective that is in the predicate. It must be in the predicate because the next verb ‎ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת "and is bringing forth" starts with "and".

almah means innocent young woman, including virginity.

The phrase means that a young female virgin, while still in the state of being a virgin, will become pregnant, and while still in the state of being a virgin, is bringing forth a son.

0

The setting and context of Isaiah 7:14 is not indicative of a far off; in the future prophecy of a (supposed)'Virgin Birth, otherwise there would be two "Virgin Births". This is because the young woman spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 is already pregnant, with child. To all intents and purposes it appears that she is alone without a husband, so the child has likely been conceived out of marriage. The likely result of a soldier and virginal/maiden brief sexual encounter. Hardly surprising as the City is compassed with numerous soldiers and under strict military lockdown. So, the sign (prophecy) to King Ahaz is that before the maiden's (firstborn make child) comes of age to know to choose right from wrong,the two Kings Ahaz fears and their Kingdoms will be swept away.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references and/or explain how your interpretation arises from the text. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – James Shewey Sep 15 '16 at 0:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.