The Almah of Isaiah 7:14

Posted By 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.

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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.”

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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.

  1. 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.

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24 Responses to “The Almah of Isaiah 7:14”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I had never heard of these alternate ways of seeing the verses related, very good observations (and further proof I should ask Santa for Hebrew and Greek lessons). Merry Christmas to you and yours; I pray God’s grace on your work for the coming year as you continue to honor His word.

  2. Nobunaga says:

    Only niggley thing i have is in Isaiah 7:14

    Therefore the Lord himself will give you a *sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

    If it was not a virgin its not much of a sign, although as you say in these days it was not common place for young ladies to sleep around. You have explained very well how the term for virgin can be interchanged but then i sort of get caught up on the sign…a young woman will give birth, perhaps not common but not so extra ordinary to be called a sign ?

    i’m thinking your point in the blog was to let people know the different words for virgin can be interchanged, but you have left me with another problem so can it mean anything other than virgin when the word “sign” is in the context ?

    • Timothy Guy says:

      This is so typical of a trained Christian response to these verses. It is very sad to me that Christians REFUSE to look at the actual context of the verses they “typologize” for their own reasons.

      It is CLEAR that the sign as stated is that a young woman NOT a VIRGIN. But Isaiah’s own wife! would have a child and before the child was off the mothers breast Israel would be delivered from the enemy king that was oppressing them THEN! This is clear from the text if anyone actually cares to read it.

      It always amazes me having been a fundamentalist Christian for many years and a bible student and teacher… how Christians always talk about everyone else who ignores context but never checks their own. nor the context of the new testament writers. The entire case for jesus in the new testament is 100% based on out of context hacking of bits of verses or even words and pasting them together to create a completely new idea!

      Paul and Mathew being the worst offenders.

      If anyone else does this you rightly call them deceivers or a cult. yet you are all blind to the hard truth that the entire Christian religion is based on scripture twisting, lies, legend and a good dose of fear based intimidation.

      • MSH says:

        You apparently aren’t reading the post well. I’m clear that the point of the sign isn’t the woman’s sexual status, but the birth of the child. How did you miss that? The typology is about the NT use of the passage, not the OT passage.

    • Bruce Prince says:

      Hi Nobunaga
      The sign is not so much to do with the woman, the child, or the child’s name; the text makes the sign quite clear: a child would be born, and before the child can discern between wrong and right, the enemies of Ahaz would be no more. A continual reading of the text reveals that this indeed occurred, and in Is 8.8, it can be truly said that “God is with us” (Immanuel).
      Is 7.14 is indeed a prophecy, but when it was penned by Isaiah, it had no attachment to the birth of Christ. It was Matthew, under inspiration, who made that application. Unless the author says otherwise, what they write has only one meaning, but can have more than one applications. Too often, people have a tendency to read meanings into what Biblical authors write when in fact, only one was intended.

  3. Robert says:

    I think what Dr. Heiser is saying is the BASED ON ONLY the word…then it’s not concrete…the context is what swings it…as any word.

    And I also agree heartily that it’s not the mother; but the offspring that is the focus….

  4. MSH says:

    @Robert: Yes; the word can go either way in Isaiah 7, but we just don’t know what woman was being referred to with respect to Ahaz. The major guesses — Ahaz’s own wife or Isaiah’s wife — would not be virgins (since they were married). But the larger point is that it is NOT out of place for Matthew to think that Isaiah 7 was analogous to Jesus and his virgin mother, since almah does include “virgin” as a meaning.

  5. With the greatest respect, I believe that you are mistaken. Esther 2:3 refers to virgins, but the fact that it also mentions the word ????? might indicate that ???? by itself is insufficient to denote them. Even if ???? did have that meaning, it still says nothing for ????, which might be supposed to denote virgins in Songs 6:8, but might just as easily be denoting the second group of women described in Esther 2:14.

    On the contrary, I think that the ambiguity resides in the Greek, ????????. Like the English “maiden”, it has a semantic range that extends both to “virgin” and “young girl”. To suggest that Matthew might have erred seems a bit glib to me; there are enough stories of virgin births in the ancient world to dismiss the possibility that they derive from a faulty reading of Isaiah.

    • MSH says:

      It’s pretty clear Esther is a virgin at the beginning of the process. The real point is that the terms are interchanged. Most almah’s were default virgins in the culture anyway, due to the young age. It’s absolutely wrong to say the word cannot mean virgin; that was the focus of the post.

  6. My apologies: my fonts did not display. Please excuse my double post, but here it is again with the words in English:

    With the greatest respect, I believe that you are mistaken. Esther 2:3 refers to virgins, but the fact that it also mentions the word betulah might indicate that na’arah by itself is insufficient to denote them. Even if na’arah did have that meaning, it still says nothing for almah which might be supposed to denote virgins in Songs 6:8, but might just as easily be denoting the second group of women described in Esther 2:14.

    On the contrary, I think that the ambiguity resides in the Greek, parthenos. Like the English “maiden”, it has a semantic range that extends both to “virgin” and “young girl”. To suggest that Matthew might have erred seems a bit glib to me; there are enough stories of virgin births in the ancient world to dismiss the possibility that they derive from a faulty reading of Isaiah.

  7. Yes, Esther is a virgin, but no, the words are not interchanged. In fact, the word almah doesn’t occur in the book of Esther at all. That almah can refer to somebody who is also a virgin is inconsequential; it can also refer to somebody who happens to be a cherry-picker, but to say that the word almah might therefore also mean “cherry-picker” is ridiculous.

    If you want to convince me that almah, in addition to denoting somebody who may happen to be a virgin, actually means virgin, then you’re going to need to do better than show me Songs 6:8, which may be referring to people who also happen to be virgins, but only through subjecting it to an exegetical reading. In the meantime, the Greek parthenos has a long history of being used both as “young girl” and as “virgin”.

    • MSH says:

      the point isn’t that the word occurs in Esther. There is a thing called the CANON. The words used in that canon ARE interchanged elsewhere (like Genesis). You are missing the point. What *you* need to do is convince me that in a patriarchal culture, where women were isolated and their virginity guarded to the extreme, and where an almah was any woman over 12, that an almah didn’t de facto speak of virginity. The *opposite* would be the (very infrequent) exception. So demonstrate that for me.

  8. Michael,

    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your intentions are not apologetic (your blog, after all, professes to be stripped of theological systems). I’m guessing, therefore, that by “canon” you simply mean the stock of all texts written in Classical Hebrew, and are not actually restricting yourself to those that are theologically significant.

    Whether or not this is an issue that gets trotted out every Christmas time or not is something that I don’t know (I live in Australia, and I don’t watch TV), but I’m prepared to take your word for that. I don’t really care: from what I’m given to understand, sensationalist biblical scholarship on television is pretty stupid anyway.

    If alamot were always virgins then I agree with you completely: usage of the term would, by necessity, have to connote virginity as an attribute. I am not convinced, however, that alamot always were virgins and I fail to see how you’ve proved that here. You claim that ancient Israelite society was “a patriarchal culture, where women were isolated and their virginity guarded to the extreme”. On what basis are you claiming this? From scriptural quotes? They prove nothing, save what their authors envisaged or claimed. Given that there are no references to alamot that have to, in context, refer specifically and solely to virgins, I cannot agree with your conclusion, and am still unsure as to why you feel it needs to be drawn.

    I repeat myself now: parthenos has a semantic range that embraces both “young girl” and “virgin” – like the English “maiden”, if we want a parallel. I don’t know why it’s necessary to insist on almah possessing the same semantic range but, if you want to do so, you’ll need a linguistic argument to convince me and not a social one. Or, failing that, some actual sociological evidence to back up your claim.

    • MSH says:

      You really aren’t getting this, so this will be my last response to this. (A) I never said alamot always means virgin; (B) I never said parthenos had to always mean virgin. What I said is quite defensible from the text and the culture. It is wrong to say almah cannot mean virgin, and the vast majority of alamot were practical virgins due to the culture. I can’t make it any clearer.

  9. Kate says:

    Read the rest of the chapters in Isaiah 7&8 to get the FULL story. It goes on to say that Isaiah takes a witness and goes in to the Prophetess and gets her pregnant and that their children will be for ‘signs’. This is in NO way a prophecy of Jesus.

    Prophecies are only real when the thing prophesied comes to pass in the life of the hearers and how could a child to be born 700 years later be a sign to Ahaz?! How can one prove a true prophet is you have to wait for hundreds of years to see if he is honest? This is clearly speaking of the child Isaiah and this Prophetess spawned. Isaiah tells Ahaz this is the sign yahweh will give him!!!! Think people and read for yourselves. Ahaz has two powerful armies coming after him and he needs help NOW not 700 years down the road when he is dead and rotted in his grave. What would you think if you were in dire straits, a matter of life or death and some religious lunatic told you that god was going to send you a sign and he would accomplish that sign a hundred years from now? What the hell kind of help would that be? You are still being lied to people and it is being done for a reason. Stop being sheeple.

    Also, you can’t find a more vicious and bloodthirsty creature in the entire bible than yahweh. Any diety that condones the rape of little girls and forcing his own ‘chosen’ to eat their own children is not a god but a demon. History, even religious history, is written by the winners and the hebrews butchered and lied their way to that status. Nothing has changed.

  10. Kate says:

    You really are not following my questions. Until these are answered what is the point in discussing what hebrew word denotes a virgin or young maiden. That one verse is NOT a prophecy of anyone named jesus and anyone with any grey matter between their ears should be able to read that entire tale and grasp what is being said. Why do you people always avoid what you prefer NOT to answer? That example is only one of many other such situations claimed to be prophecies but are not. The god of the OT is a manmade concocted mental case who reflected his creators to a ‘T’. There has never been one shred of physical or written proof for your jesus either. It was all created to deceive and control the sheeple by the hands of some very crafty liars and cons. These certain people never change but hopefully the world is becoming aware of these parasites and their demonic god.

    • MSH says:

      okay; can you list them clearly to save time? I actually don’t see questions that are coherent in this post (or others). I see ranting. And when it comes to “no proof for Jesus” I see ignorance. Maybe you’re just spouting Zeitgeist nonsense – perhaps it hasn’t struck you that even people with zero commitments to Jesus belief or anything else theistic haven’t come out of the woodwork to support Zeitgeist – but even atheist scholars came out of the woodwork to condemn the Jesus tomb nonsense? Why? Because Zeitgeist’s arguments have no merit, and even opponents of Christianity familiar with the material know that, so they have not supported Zeitgeist. And on the other side, even opponents of Jesus could see that the Jesus Tomb thing was based on ridiculous leaps of logic — so they knew if they supported it’s non sequiturs, they’d look silly. You can get loud, but you can’t deny this is what happened in both cases. And that means you don’t appear serious. But, if you can tell us you aren’t supporting Zeitgeist and can list specific questions for analysis and discussion, I’ll be happy to post them with responses. I’m not wasting my time on silly rants, though.

  11. [...] the most recent podcast episode of Mark Goodacre’s NT Pod. As Naked Bible readers may know, my own answer is no. Professor Goodacre (Duke University) agrees. Have a [...]

  12. Bruce Prince says:

    Regarding Is 7.14, it would be reasonable to assume that what Isaiah wrote would be understood by his intended audience. The definite article is evident in the Hebrew, ha alma, which signifies that Isaiah was referring to a person in his presence. The Hebrew word alma is derived from a root meaning “sexually mature” and can represent a young man or woman, virgin or otherwise. A word study will show its meaning doesn’t refer exclusively to a virgin. (see alem in verses such as 1 Sam 17.56; 20.22).
    When we read passages in Scripture, it is important that we read them objectively and not subjectively. The basic question we should ask ourselves is, “what is the author’s intended meaning?” Isaiah wrote about the Lord giving King Ahaz a sign that would have occurred in his day. The sign is a young woman who is pregnant with child, who is immanently about to give birth to a son, and will name her son, “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Before the boy is old enough to tell the difference between good and bad, God will destroy the enemy nations. All of this came true in the days of King Ahaz.
    There is no evidence in the record that a child was eventually named “Immanuel”, but when the sign was fulfilled, it was said that “God is with us” (Is 8.8).
    The fact that Matthew grabbed Is 7.14 and applied it to the birth of Jesus must be understood that he did this under inspiration (2 Tim 3.16). There is only one meaning to Is 7.14 and that has been explored. However, there can be more than one application of that meaning, and Matthew, under inspiration, was compelled to use Is 7.14. His application is not a fulfilment of prophecy because no prophecy was ever intended, and hence, NT translators would be better using a word such as “completion” rather than “fulfilment”.
    The fact that Matthew used a Greek word specifically meaning virgin was for two reasons: firstly, that was how the translators of the Septuagint had it, and secondly, under inspiration, Matthew was inspired to apply it to Mary, who was both a young woman, and a virgin.
    Jesus was never called “Immanuel”, although its meaning can certainly be applied to him. Also, if Is 7.14 is a prophecy, why isn’t there any evidence of God’s people, between the time of Isaiah and Jesus’ birth, of their looking for a virgin to bring forth the Saviour? Matthew, under inspiration is the first to bring this concept to light.
    This is an interesting topic, but if we could just stick to context, read passages objectively, and seek the author’s intended meaning, we would have far less controversy and meaningless discussion; however, it’s all good.

    • MSH says:

      Some think (and there is something to it in my view) that the article here might point to a title denoting the wife of the king (Ahaz’s wife in context). The reason is that such titulary language shows up at Ugarit.

      True, the “God with us” thing really wasn’t aiming (for Isaiah) to be some ontological statement or name. It was to express assurance (it’s a verbless clause that could be translated: “God [is] with us”).

      I’m not sure if you read all the posts on this one or not. I think the simplest explanation is that Matthew was thinking analogically, like he did in the case of Hos 11:1.

      Thanks.

      • Bruce Prince says:

        It is indeed possible that Matthew was thinking analogically, although I struggle with that when I consider that he wrote under inspiration. Consider for a moment Matthew’s record of the time when the Pharisees were asking for a sign. Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign, but no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah the prophet.”

        Under inspiration (I believe), Matthew quotes Jonah 1.17b and applies that to Jesus’ time he spent in the tomb as a contribution to his understanding of what Jesus was referring to when he was speaking about the sign of Jonah. However, it appears that Matthew was seeing something different to that which Jesus was intending.

        Luke appears to home more concisely into what Jesus meant (Lk 11.29-32) by stating that the sign of Jonah was his going to the evil city of Nineveh and those wicked people repenting. On the other hand, the Son of God came to supposedly more righteous people, and they rejected him completely.

        You’re right in assuming I haven’t read all the posts on the subject, but they appeared to thrash out the meaning of “ha alma”, which I don’t see as a worrying issue. Anyone doing a reasonable Bible study would have to come to the conclusion that it is referring to any young sexually mature woman, and not necessarily a virgin.

        • MSH says:

          Why would human reasoning disappear under inspiration? Inspiration wasn’t a paranormal event (though I’ll admit many evangelicals conceive of it that way). Inspiration was a process, focused on providential guidance, not dictation or automatic writing (i.e., X-Files stuff).

          • Bruce Prince says:

            I don’t believe human reasoning disappears, but as humans are not infallible, their reasoning may be faulty. On the other hand, God is infallible, and if he inspires someone, then that inspiration goes beyond human reasoning.

            God inspired Paul to write to the young Timothy – “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3.16). To me, this says to me what it appears to say. However, to someone better educated than I, it may say something differently; I can go only with what I understand Scripture to be telling me, and using my ability to reason.

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