The Sign of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 is the single most debated text in scripture. Dozens—literally dozens—of PhD dissertations have been written on it. There are three main questions inherent in the text but the center of the storm revolves around a single word: elem or alma.
The story begins with Ahaz, King of Judah, and the coalition formed between the King of Israel, Pekah and the King of Syria, Rezin to depose him. Very unfriendly of them, but when God is on your side, who can stand against you? God assures Ahaz the enemies of Judah will be frustrated and invites Ahaz to ask for a sign to assure him of that. Ahaz foolishly declines, so God picks a sign of his own: the “young woman/virgin” will have a child, and before certain stages of growth are reached in the life of the child, both Syria and Ephraim will no longer be a threat to Judah.
The big question is, how is this passage to be understood in the immediate and/or the larger context? And in order to answer this, it’s necessary to answer some lesser questions first by treating the individual terms of the passage separately.
First, what exactly is meant by the word sign (oth)? If there were agreement among interpreters it would be a good start, but the variety of views on this is disconcerting. This word occurs 79 times in the Old Testament.
In our passage it relates to a sign which
“takes place before the promised event happens, and serves as a pledge to those to whom it is given that the event suggested by it will come to pass. We shall expect, then, to find in the sign given to Ahaz something which occurred prior to the deliverance foretold in the same passage, and became a pledge to him of that deliverance.” (Charles R. Brown, “Exegesis of Isaiah VII. 10-17,”JBL, 9, no. 1 (1890): 119).
J.A. Alexander reasons that
“it seems very improbable that after such an offer (directly from God), the sign bestowed would be merely a thing of everyday occurrence, or at most the application of a symbolical name. This presumption is strengthened by the solemnity with which the Prophet speaks of the predicted birth, not as a usual and natural event but as something which excites his own astonishment, as he beholds it in prophetic vision.” (Joseph A. Alexander, Commentary on Isaiah (1865; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 167.)
Following other examples from scripture reveals God’s modus operandi: Get a prophetic promise from God and God always means it for more than just you and just right now. For example, Abraham’s son Isaac; Abraham got a son from God, but that son was more than just for Abraham and Sarah; he was also meant to be the father of many nations and impact the whole world—and he has.
Again, David offers to build a house for God— and God says instead, I will build a house for you, and that house will always have someone on the throne, meaning the Heavenly throne and not the earthly one. God established David’s immediate kingdom, but God’s promise was also meant in the eschatological sense, for it is from the house of David that the Messiah will come. And that promise has always been understood in this manner.
In light of God’s other acts in scripture, it is only reasonable to conclude God is acting consistently with Himself here in Isaiah. It would be expecting God to be inconsistent with Himself to expect otherwise.
The second question to ask about this prophecy is whether it is about the past, the present or the future? The key to answering this is the word hinneh (behold) with its following participle; it is always presenting something in the future, and the thing presented is a real thing. The same term hinneh (see) and grammatical construction is found in Genesis 6:11–13, Genesis 17:19-20 and Judges 13:5,7 where the future is also forecast.
And now this sign was to be given—the Messiah should be born of a virgin. Therefore a “behold” is affixed to it, What else could be a sign of wonder? That a young married woman, Isaiah’s wife, should be with child which is not at all surprising and of which there are instances repeated every day? The wonder does not lie in the truth of the prediction but in the greatness of the thing predicted. (Gill).
And you shall call him Emmanuel; “God with us.” (Mat.1:23; John 1:14; 1 Tim. 3:16)
The third small point to be made in this section is based on comparing the construction of the text to the literature found at Ras Shamra; and here we see
“the phrase assumes a birth of unusual importance.” (Edward J. Young, Studies in Isaiah (London: Tyndale, 1955), 159.
Young’s conclusion is:
“Isaiah, therefore, because of the tremendous solemnity and importance of the announcement which he was to make, used as much of this ancient formula of announcement as suited his purpose.” (160).)
The sign would precede the event; the event would be something extraordinary and probably supernatural and maybe even eschatological; it might well involve God working on two levels of reality just as he had done before: the immediate human reality and the eternal spiritual reality; “the sign” was something that would happen in the future--but maybe also immediately, but the whole future possibility absolutely astonished Isaiah.
And what exactly is the sign? The sign is a young woman—a virgin—and a baby: God with us. And even the stars in the sky noted His arrival.
The eye of this storm revolves around that young woman and the word used to describe her, the word alma. Reams have been written on it already and, doubtless, reams will be written on it in the future. What is the exact translation of this pivotal word? Is there an element of ambiguity, or has the vagueness been imported through bias?
As N.T. Wright advocates, for a hypothesis to be valid it must encompass all the evidence yet still offer the simplest most straightforward explanation.
Toward that particular end, it must first be noted the noun in question in Isaiah 7:14 has a definite article—the—which points to a specific person. This indicates the prophecy has a definite woman in view. My Jewish friend Yechiel in Israel assures me this is Isaiah’s wife and this disproves the entire foundation of Christianity: alma means “young woman” not virgin, and if Isaiah had meant virgin, he would have used the term betula. This is not a new position. Is it correct?
I do not argue the point with him (given Christianity’s negative past with “converting” Jews), and aside from the fact that Christianity is not founded on one principle, not even this one, it seems clear my friend has this one wrong. Yes, alma means young woman, but that must include virginity by inference. There is no other option.
Looking at it from what other alternatives were available in the language of Isaiah’s day and their cultural context quickly reveals why.
The most common terms used for ‘woman’ in a wide general sense was either ‘enowsh’, which generally refers to any mortal, or ‘nashiym’, which is also often translated ‘wife’ and is most associated with married women in, for example, Exodus 21:3. If Isaiah were referring to his wife in this prophecy, he would have used either nashiym or the term he used in Isaiah 8:3, ‘nebiyah’, “the prophetess” (which means a prophet’s wife.)
Alma is used 7 times in the Old Testament and in every instance it refers to a young unmarried woman; Isaiah would not have picked a term associated with a young unmarried woman to refer to his very married wife. If the prophet were referring to his wife in Isaiah 7, why would he change and use a different word to refer to the same woman in chapter 8? No, these points are all against the “alma” of Isaiah 7 being Isaiah’s wife.
The other word choices available for use by Isaiah at the time were limited. Bethuel was available, but why shouldn’t Isaiah use the more common term if it still encompassed the concept of virginity within it? And it did; it had to because there is no other choice. Let me demonstrate.
The ancient Hebrews had a couple of words describing young unmarried women who were not virgins; one of those terms was —zanah—which is taken from the term for well-fed/well developed and means wanton; it’s often translated harlot in the English.
None of these other terms is used in Isaiah 7:14. The woman referred to here is not a wife, or a wanton, or just any mortal. She is specifically a young woman who is not married yet—not a wife—and though she is young and unmarried she is not referred to as zanah either, she is not wanton—so by ancient Hebrew standards, there is only one choice left; by inference she is still a maid: a virgin.
Alma is used 7 times in the Old Testament. The first is in Genesis 24:43 where Isaac first meets Rebekah. “…if a maiden (alma) comes out to draw water…” and out walks Rebekah. Let’s be blunt. Let’s be direct. Let’s be completely honest. Is anyone—Jewish, Christian or otherwise—going to suggest or even imply that Rebekah was anything other than a virgin? Of course not.
She was not a married woman. She was not a wanton. She was a young woman of marriageable age—an alma—therefore it is inferred—the only other option left in ancient Hebrew society is, she was a virgin: a maiden.
The next use of alma is Exodus 2:8 in referring to Moses’ sister when she was still a girl, and not even of marriageable age yet. This young girl is clearly still a maiden as well.
These two are sufficient to indicate the inference was not unusual. It doesn’t matter whether alma is always translated virgin or not; it only matters if was ever assumed to include that idea; because in that ancient society those were the only options for women. That was the cultural reality of the day.
Culture matters when interpreting. How the Hebrews saw women matters when interpreting a concept revolving around a woman. There were three kinds of women in Isaiah's day: maidens, wantons and married ones. Those were the cultural choices; pretending otherwise from our modern view is disingenuous.
Culture supports the translation of the word alma as virgin, but there is also linguistics to provide the most powerful support for this translation.
There are about 5000 languages spoken in the world today but scholars group them into about 20 families of languages linked by shared words, sounds and grammatical constructions. The theory is, originally, there was one “mother tongue,” and as people spread, language evolved and adapted and changed and spread just like people did. This is certainly consistent with the Biblical record.
By about 3000 B.C. the Semitic family of languages were spoken over a large tract of desert territory from southern Arabia to northern Syria. The Hebrew language arose in that part of the world where the city of Ugarit in Syria was. The fact ancient Hebrew is so similar to the Ugaritic language is good evidence the Israelites origin was somewhere in the region of upper Syria which is consistent with Biblical accounts.
Cyrus Gordon is the best reference here as he is a Jewish Semitic scholar:
the commonly held view that “virgin” is the Christian translation of alma and “young woman” is the Jewish one, is not accurate. The fact is, the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes alma to mean virgin. Accordingly the New testament follows the Jewish interpretation.
Modern Jews now claim that Septuagint translation made a “mistake” and for Christians to hold to that earlier “error” simply prolongs the problem. What the study of linguistics reveals is that the Septuagint was following the older linguistic tradition which is closer in time and more consistent with Isaiah’s day, than that which the moderns seek to impose upon it today 2700 years after the fact.
From Ugarit of around 1400 B.C. there’s a text celebrating the marriage of two of the male and female lunar deities. It is there predicted the goddess will bear a son… the terminology is close to Isaiah 7:14. However the Ugaritic statement that the bride will bear a son is —fortunately—given in parallelistic form. She is called by the exact etymological counterpart for the Hebrew word alma in 77:7, and in 77:5 by the exact etymological counterpart for betula—effectively equating the terms.
This means the New Testament rendering of alma as virgin actually rests on the older Jewish interpretation; which is now born out for precisely the annunciation formula we have taken it to be by a text that is not only pre-Isaiah but even pre-Moses and is in the form we now have it in on a clay tablet.
(Cyrus H. Gordon, “Almah in Isaiah 7:14,”JBR21, no. 2 (April, 1953): 106.
Some have overlooked or minimized the fact that Joel 1:8 indicates a betula has been married and lost her husband. See the interesting reference of William S. LaSor in his “Isaiah 7:14—‘Young Woman’ or ‘Virgin’?” (Altadena, CA: By Author, 1953), 3–4; especially the larger issues involved at the end of his treatment.)
The “mistake” did not begin with the Septuagint because there was no mistake; Isaiah and the Septuagint both used alma in the older tradition consistent with its day and time. Imposing modern word usage on ancient language is where the mistake begins.
The fact that alma and bethuel have come to have separate meanings in our modern day proves nothing about their use in Isaiah’s day. The number of examples that can be offered to exemplify this and the changes in meanings and word usage that occur over time are multiple:
Chaucer—though it was written in what is the English language of it’s day—in the original it has more in common with High German than it does with modern English. Another example is amusing story about Christopher Wren, who may be the greatest architect of all time, at the completion of St.Paul’s Cathedral when Queen Anne told him it was “awful, artificial and amusing.” Wren, however, was pleased by the royal compliment, since 400 years ago awful meant “full of awe,” artificial meant “artistic,” and amusing meant “amazing”.
We can only begin to imagine the kinds of changes that have occurred in a language so old it is no longer spoken 2700 years later.
There is divergence of thought on the identity of the mother, though Matthew 1 asserts it is Mary, but after alma, the next tempest is over the identity of the child.
It cannot be Hezekiah. The chronology doesn’t work. He would have been 9 years old when the prophecy was delivered. Some assert verse 14 applies to Jesus while verses 15 and 16 apply to Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, and that is certainly a possibility.
That the Messiah would be born of Judah, of the royal line guarantees the line will continue on into history, but it is not problematic if there is no immediate fulfillment in a child for that time.
It does seem likely Isaiah’s third son was the immediate partial fulfillment of the promise even if the promise is also primarily Messianic; one does not need to necessarily negate the other as has already been shown: God always works one two levels.
There seems no sufficient reason to doubt Isaiah intended “virgin” by his use of the word alma and every reason to believe that is exactly what he meant. Even though alma does mean young woman, the cultural realities of the day, the older traditional linguistic history of the term, and the term’s original translation all stand as evidence of its intent and meaning as a virginal one.
Attempts to impose a modern meaning on it now are attempts to change an ancient view to suit a modern one. That in itself is a fallacy and is certainly insufficient to prove alma is mistranslated or that it is in anyway misapplied to Jesus.