Posted By MSH on December 15, 2009
What follows is the text (pre-edit) of an article I’ve written for Logos’ print magazine, Bible Study Magazine. I thought it was worth a post at this time of year.
The Almah of Isaiah 7:14—Virgin or Not?
The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is among the most well-known passages in the book of Isaiah. It’s also one of the most controversial, for many reasons.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin (almah) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (ESV)
It’s difficult to get through the Christmas season without seeing one of the major news periodicals or educational television networks cast doubt as to the meaning of almah Isaiah 7:14. A favorite argument is that the Hebrew word almah does not mean “virgin” but instead refers to a young woman of marriageable age without respect to prior sexual activity. The more precise word for “virgin” is betulah, and that is not used in Isa 7:14. The New Testament author Matthew, we are so often told, mistakenly assumed the term meant “virgin.” His ignorance led to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. Are these assertions correct?
It is true that betulah provides more contextual clues as to sexual inactivity, but does that mean almah never means virgin? Outside of Isa. 7:14, the word almah occurs only six times in the Old Testament. In all but one of those occurrences, the context provides no clue as to the sexual status of the young woman or women. Virginity is suggested, however, in Song of Sol 6:8, where almah occurs in the plural:
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins (almah; pl: alamot) without number.
The distinction between queens, concubines, and alamot is important. A queen was a royal wife, and obviously entails a sexual relationship with the king. A concubine was a sexual partner who held certain privileges, but not to the level of a wife. This would suggest that the third category, the alamot, had no sexual relationship with the king. An almah in this text was, in essence, a candidate for become either a concubine or a wife.
This is precisely what we see in the book of Esther. In Esther 2:3, 8 we read that Esther was held in waiting twelve months with (literally) “young women, virgins” (na’arah betulah) under the supervision of Hegai while the king sought a new queen. That the description of these women involves both terms na’ar and betulah is important. It means that a na’ar could indeed be a betulah—-the more precise word for virgin.
Esther was eventually taken from the harem under Hegai to the king for an evening liaison. Afterward, she was assigned to “second harem” supervised by Shaashgaz who “was in charge of the concubines” (Esth 2:14), indicating Esther was no longer a virgin. That Esther and the king had a sexual relationship during the night is clear from Esth 2:14—“she [Esther] would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.” To “go in” to a man or woman is, of course, a common Old Testament euphemism for sexual intercourse.
The ancient cultural context shows us that every attempt was made to have a supply of virgins for the king. However, it is possible that among the third category some prior sexual activity could not be detected. But that overlooks the point of Song 6:8: each almah was construed to be a virgin. It simply is not correct to assert that almah would never have been understood as “virgin.”
But another tack: Esther is never called an almah in her story, so does that mean that almah, the word in Isa 7:14, does not mean “virgin”? Hardly. For the assertion that almah cannot speak of a virgin to be coherent, na’ar and betulah cannot overlap with almah. In other words, almah needs to be firmly distinct from these other terms. This is not the case. In Genesis 24 Rebekah is referred to with all three terms (na’ar – 24:14, betulah - 24:16, and almah – 24:43). This indicates quite clearly that these terms do overlap and, therefore, an almah could indeed be a virgin.1
But do we even need the word study? In an ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age” was a female who had at least reached her teen years. Children in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even today the vast majority of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew grew up in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should be no surprise at all that he saw no incongruity in considering almah to mean “virgin.”
There are a few things I’d add if I had a higher word count:
(1) the original prophecy given to Ahaz doesn’t require that the almah be a virgin (though as we have seen, it certainly allows for it). It’s possible that the word is cognate to Ugaritic noun that refers to a royal wife or goddess. That would be significant in that it creates another thread to a messianic flavoring — royal wife of the line of David, and hence Davidic lineage of the child — that sort of thing.
(2) Since the original prophecy, which the NT construes as messianic via typology, does not require a virgin, it’s fair to say that Mary would not have *had* to be a virgin to fulfill it. I think the NT text is clear that Mary was a virgin, but the point of the prophecy is the child, not the mother. For example, if Mary had been raped or been sexually active several years before the angel visited her to inform her she would bear the messiah, that would have been fine by Isaiah 7:14. What was necessary was a supernatural conception and birth, not the sexual history of the mother. The incarnation required that there be no human father; the vessel carrying the incarnate son of God need not be sexually whole. Sometimes I think we make too much of the mother when the point is the child.
I realize this last point might disturb catholic readers, since they make much of a temple/tabernacle/Holy of Holies analogy and the womb of Mary (both “held” God on that thinking), but I’m really only concerned with Scripture, not analogizing that isn’t brought forth by the text, however sensible it might seem.
- Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that almah “means” virgin, as though there was no ambiguity in the term. Rather, I am saying almah may mean virgin given the appropriate context. Virginity is not foreign to the term almah. ↩