Isaiah 7:14 does not prophesy a virgin birth! And it has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, since it dealt with a crisis seven hundred years before he was born.
Although biblical scholars of varied religious backgrounds continue to debate the precise significance of Isaiah 7:14 (Jewish scholars disagree among themselves, as do Christian scholars), the overall meaning is clear: The prophet speaks of a supernatural event of great importance to the house of David, apparently the birth of a royal child. When read in the larger context of Isaiah 7–11, it is not difficult to see how Isaiah 7:14 was taken to be Messianic. Matthew therefore had good reason to cite this passage with reference to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. But you have raised some fair questions, so let’s look at them in a little more detail.
Isaiah 7:14 is often attacked by the anti-missionaries as a “central” prophecy of the New Testament, as if it were quoted dozens of times by the New Testament authors and as if it were grossly misinterpreted there. In fact, it is quoted only once in the entire New Testament, and when understood properly—in terms of Isaiah’s original prophecy and Matthew’s quotation—you will see that the Messianic interpretation makes good scriptural sense.
Let’s begin by looking back to the original context, dating to more than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The people of Judah had a crisis on their hands. They were being attacked by their brothers in the north, the Israelites, who were joined by the Arameans. These enemy armies were heading toward Jerusalem, and their goal was to take the city, remove the reigning king (remember that in Judah, the king was always a descendant of David), and place their own man on the throne.
How real was the threat? So real that it is the “house of David” that is addressed twice in Isaiah 7 (vv. 2 and 13), something that takes on real significance when we realize that outside of this chapter of Isaiah, the phrase occurs only three other times in the remaining 165 chapters of the Major Prophets (two other times in Isaiah, namely, 16:5; 22:22; once in Jeremiah, namely, 21:12; not at all in Ezekiel).
This attack was nothing less than a frontal assault on God’s established dynasty, the dynasty from which the Messiah would come. Unfortunately, the current king in David’s line, Ahaz, was a faithless man who was more prepared to hire a foreign army to help him fight than to rely on God. And so it was that the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to this weak Davidic king, urging him to put his trust in Yahweh alone and assuring him that Judah’s enemies would be defeated:
Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“It will not take place,
it will not happen,
for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.”
But Ahaz refused to stand firm in his faith, even when the Lord offered to give him a sign of supernatural proportions: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights” (Isa. 7:11). Faithless Ahaz wanted nothing to do with this. So the Lord rebuked him with these words: “Hear now, you house of David! [Notice that Ahaz is not simply addressed as the king, but rather as the representative of the house of David; the Hebrew here and in the next verse is in the plural, so Ahaz is not being addressed alone.] Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin (ʿalmah)will be with child [or “is with child”] and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:13–14).31
That is the famous prophecy! The following verses, which clearly contain elements of judgment as well as deliverance, are not quoted as often but are certainly relevant:
He [namely, Immanuel] will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria. [Bear in mind that Ahaz was looking to this very same Assyria, rather than to the Lord, to deliver him from the present military threat; how ironic!]
Who is this Immanuel? Some say a child to be born to Isaiah; some say a child to be born to Ahaz; some say a child to be born to one particular Judean woman at that time, although she is not specifically named in the context; some say a child to be born to an unidentified Judean woman at that time. The context does not make this matter clear (in spite of Isaiah 8:8; cf. also 8:10; both verses have the words ʿimmanu ʾel in the Hebrew text).32
It would be fair to say, however, that the birth of the child has something to do with the future of the house of David, since (1) the main threat of Israel and Aram, Judah’s enemies in this chapter, was that they would oust the Davidic king and put their own man on the throne; (2) the Lord specifically says he will give a sign to the unbelieving house of David, and that sign has to do with the birth of a son; and (3) the following chapters, especially 9 and 11, contain some of the most significant Messianic prophecies in the Bible, focusing on the birth and supernatural reign of a new Davidic king. We will return to the larger context of this passage after addressing several more questions.33
What is the supernatural sign given by God?34 Some say Isaiah is simply predicting that the child born will be a boy (not the most supernatural sign, since the chances of being right are fifty-fifty); some say the sign is to be found in the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (and will deliver us); some say the sign is that the mother would prophesy for the first time (giving her son the name Immanuel by divine inspiration, which, of course, is hardly a sign if she already knew about this prophecy!); some say the nature of the sign is found in verses 14 to 17—in other words, a child will be born soon, bearing a significant name, and before he reaches a certain age, God will defeat Judah’s enemies; some say the nature of the sign is exactly the opposite, namely, that before the promised child reaches a certain age, Judah will be devastated; some say the sign consists in the supernatural nature of the birth, since the woman who will conceive Immanuel will be a virgin.35
This much is obvious from the context: The sign must clearly bear the marks of divine activity and intervention, since Ahaz grieved the Lord by refusing to ask for a sign, “whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” as a result of which the Lord said that he himself would give Ahaz a sign. What a sign it needed to be!36
This leads to a question that has received almost endless discussion for close to twenty centuries: Does the word ʿalmah mean “virgin”? My answer—as a committed believer in Yeshua the Messiah—may surprise you: While the word ʿalmah can refer to a virgin, it does not specifically mean “virgin.” Its basic meaning is primarily related to adolescence, not sexual chastity.37 The evidence is actually fairly clear: (1) There is a masculine equivalent to ʿalmah, namely, ʿelem, occurring twice in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Sam. 17:56; 20:22).
It simply means “youth, young man,” with no reference to virginity at all. Just substitute “male virgin” in either of these two passages, and the absurdity of such a translation will be seen at once. (Cf., e.g., 1 Sam. 17:56, where Saul wants to learn more about David after he killed Goliath. Did Saul say, “Find out whose son this male virgin is”? Hardly! He simply said, “Find out whose son this young man is”—because ʿelem meant “young man,” not “male virgin.”)38
(2) The words ʿelem (masc.) and ʿalmah (fem.) should be derived from a Semitic root meaning “to come into puberty, to come into heat (for an animal),” not from a Semitic root meaning, “to hide, be hidden” (with a supposed reference to virginity).39
(3) In the other Semitic languages, ʿalmah does not specifically mean “virgin.”40
(4) Within the Tanakh, ʿalmah does not, in and of itself, clearly and unambiguously mean “virgin.” Outside of Isaiah 7:14, ʿalmah occurs six times in the Old Testament, and in four of these cases, the NIV—a conservative Christian translation—does not render the word as “virgin.” Why? Because that is not the primary meaning of the word.41
(5) The related noun ʿalumim, occurring in Isaiah 54:4 and Psalm 89:45, is correctly translated as “youth” (not “virginity”) in the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, and the NIV, all of which translate ʿalmah in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.”42 Again, youthfulness, not sexual chastity, is the basic meaning of the word.
(6) In Aramaic, ʿalmah (i.e., ʿulemtaʾ) sometimes refers to women who have been sexually active.43
To put it simply, there are women who are fifty years old and have never been with a man, making them fifty-year-old virgins, and this is perfectly acceptable English usage, since virginity has to do with sexual chastity, not age. But it would be incorrect to speak of a fifty-year-old ʿalmah in biblical Hebrew usage, since the root ʿ-l-m has more to do with age and sexual development (i.e., adolescence) than with sexual chastity.44
“Exactly!” you say. “If Isaiah wanted to speak of a virgin birth, he would have used the Hebrew word betulah, a word that clearly and unequivocally means ‘virgin.’ ”45
Not at all! Actually, there is no single word in biblical Hebrew that always and only means “virgin” (called in Latin virgo intacta).46 As for the Hebrew word betulah, while it often refers to a virgin in the Hebrew Scriptures, more often than not it has no reference to virginity but simply means “young woman, maiden.”47 In fact, out of the fifty times the word betulah occurs in the Tanakh, the NJPSV translates it as “maiden”—rather than “virgin”—thirty-one times!48 This means that more than three out of every five times that betulah occurs in the Hebrew Bible, it is translated as “maiden” rather than “virgin” by the most widely used Jewish translation of our day.49 Not only so, but the Stone edition of the Tanakh, reflecting traditional Orthodox scholarship, frequently translates betulah as “maiden” as well.50 Even in verses where the translation of “virgin” is appropriate for betulah, a qualifying phrase is sometimes added, as in Genesis 24:16: “The maiden (naʿarah) was very beautiful, a virgin (betulah) whom no man had known.” Obviously, if betulah clearly and unequivocally meant “virgin” here, there would be no need to explain that this betulah never had intercourse with a man.51 Just think of normal English usage; we would never say, “The young woman was a virgin, and she never had sexual intercourse in her life.” How redundant!52 What other kind of virgin is there?
Just consider the absurdity of translating betulah with the word “virgin” instead of “maiden” in some of the following verses. (Note that all of the verses cited here use “maiden” or the like—rather than “virgin”—in both the NJPSV and the Stone edition, which are leading Jewish, not Christian, translations.)
- “Be ashamed, O Sidon, for the sea has spoken, the fortress of the sea, saying: ‘I have neither labored nor given birth, I have neither reared young men nor brought up young women’ ” (Isa. 23:4 NRSV). Could you imagine translating this with “brought up virgins”? What parent says, “I’ve raised young men and virgins”?)
- “ ‘Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.’ So they began with the elders who were in front of the temple” (Ezek. 9:6; cf. 2 Chron. 36:17. It is very common for betulah to be parallel with bahur, “young man”—not young male virgin—as it is in this verse. There is no thought here about virgins being a special category of those who would be slain. Rather, the command is comprehensive: Slay the old men, the young men and young women, the mothers and children. Virginity is not an issue here.)
- “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1; this was Job’s personal pledge of piety. Obviously, he was not promising never to look lustfully at a virgin. How could he know which attractive young lady was a virgin and which was not? Rather, he had promised not to lust after a young woman.).53
- In Joel 1:8 betulah refers to a widow: “Lament—like a maiden girt with sackcloth for the husband of her youth” (NJPSV). A widow is hardly a virgin!54
- Even more clear is Isaiah 47:1, rendered in the NIV as, “Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, Daughter of the Babylonians. No more will you be called tender or delicate.” Yet a few verses later we read that this “Virgin” will lose her husband and her children on the very same day! “Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.’ Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells” (Isa. 47:8–9).
Of course, Israel, Zion, or the surrounding nations could be referred to as a betulah, always translated as “Maiden” in such contexts by the NJPSV (see n. 55).55 The point, however, is clear: Betulah did not immediately convey the image or meaning of “virgin.” Otherwise, the usage would be totally inappropriate in these verses in which the betulah is married and with children. Once again, virginity was not the issue.56 In fact, an ancient Aramaic text even makes reference to a betulah who is pregnant but cannot bear!57
All this is of great importance when we remember that anti-missionaries commonly tell us that if Isaiah had intended to prophesy a virgin birth clearly, he would have used betulah rather than ʿalmah.58 Not so! Rather, neither word in and of itself would clearly and unequivocally convey the meaning of virgin.59
“Well then,” you say, “you’ve shot yourself in the foot with your own argument! Even if you’re right about betulah not always meaning ‘virgin,’ you’ve said that ʿalmah doesn’t necessarily mean ‘virgin’ either. What then has happened to your major Messianic prophecy? What has become of the prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus?”
That’s a very good question, and it leads me to explain the real meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy, especially as Matthew looked back at it more than seven hundred years later. It’s a lot deeper and more profound than you may have realized! In reality, it is the very fact that the original prophecy is so obscure and difficult that provides the key to understand the depth of Matthew’s insight. Let me take a few minutes and explain all of this to you.
For almost thirty years now, I have been reading commentaries on the Book of Isaiah, often with the goal of seeking to understand the meaning of this famous prophecy found in chapter 7. At this very moment, as I write these words in my office, I am surrounded by commentaries and special studies dealing with Isaiah 7:14, including the classic Jewish commentaries in Hebrew (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Metsudat David, Metsudat Zion, among others, along with the later commentary of Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, and also Targum Jonathan in Aramaic) and Christian commentaries from every perspective, both conservative and liberal (J. A. Alexander, F. Delitzsch, B. Duhm, G. A. Smith, G. B. Gray, G. Fohrer, O. Kaiser, H. W. Wildberger, J. W. Watts, J. N. Oswalt, E. J. Young, B. S. Childs, J. Blenkinsopp, and others); studies on Messianic prophecy (including E. W. Hengstenberg, C. A. Briggs, E. Riehm, F. Delitzsch, F. F. Bruce, J. Smith, A. W. Kac, R. Santala, G. Van Groningen, W. Riggans, A. Fruchtenbaum, and others); and whole books or articles written just on this subject (E. A. Hinson, A. H. Bartlett, J. B. Payne, J. H. Walton, G. Miller, R. Niessen, and many others)—not to mention the treatment of this passage in biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias. I have really thought about this prophecy and considered carefully what others have written.60
What is my conclusion? Simply this: From our current vantage point, it is impossible to determine exactly what the prophecy meant to the original hearers when it was delivered, other than that it was a promise of a supernatural sign, a birth of great importance to the house of David, a token of divine intervention and deliverance, and a rebuke to unbelief and apostasy.61 Many commentators also point out that the wording of the birth announcement in Isaiah 7:14 follows the pattern of several other major birth announcements in the Hebrew Bible, underscoring the importance of the announcement here:
- To Hagar, Abram’s concubine: “The angel of the Lord also said to her: ‘You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery’ ” (Gen. 16:11).
- Regarding the birth of Samson: “The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son.’ … ‘you will conceive and give birth to a son.’… He said to me, ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son’ ” (Judg. 13:3, 5, 7).
All three of these birth announcements—concerning Ishmael, Samson, and Immanuel—are of great significance in the Hebrew Bible, and all three are introduced with similar words and phrases. Also relevant is an ancient pagan text from the city of Ugarit (north of Israel, in modern-day Syria), written roughly five hundred years before Isaiah and announcing the birth of a god to a goddess in words very similar to those used in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the maiden [Ugaritic ġalmatu, the equivalent of Hebrew ʿalmah] will bear a son.”62
All this points to the fact that a birth of great importance was being announced by the prophet, especially for David’s house. It was God’s answer to the attack on the Davidic dynasty, and it was meant as a demonstration of his power and reality. As Matthew looked back at this prophecy in context, this is what he saw: The birth of Immanuel is highly significant in Isaiah 7–8; there are two major Messianic prophecies found in Isaiah 9 and 11;63 Yeshua’s birth truly was a supernatural sign (part of the sign being that the ʿalmah was in fact a virgin, yet she gave birth to a son); and Yeshua was Immanuel—a name found nowhere else in the Bible or the Ancient Near East (see n. 32)—in the literal sense of the name (God is with us!), as seen clearly in Isaiah 9:5–6[6–7] (see below, 4.4).64 Therefore Matthew could say that this prophecy reached its “fulfillment” with the birth of Jesus the Messiah since (1) the meaning of the text in its original historical context is somewhat veiled from our eyes, and not enough is said in the context to interpret the verses in a definite and dogmatic way; and (2) as a prophecy regarding the line of David and the coming Davidic king, and as part of Israel’s ongoing sacred Scriptures, we can see that its full and complete meaning was reached with the birth of the Messiah.65
But this is not only true of Isaiah 7:14. This is also true of other Messianic prophecies that were originally spoken regarding the birth or reign of Davidic kings who lived at those times—in other words, contemporaries of the prophets who were delivering the messages. It was only decades or even centuries later, when the writings were recognized as Holy Scripture, that these prophecies were understood to be still unfulfilled Messianic prophecies (see principles 2 and 4 in the appendix for further explanation).
Put another way, Isaiah 7:14, when read in the context of Isaiah 7–11—one of the key Messianic sections in the prophetic books—ultimately pointed to Jesus/Yeshua, our Messiah and King. In Isaiah 7 he is about to be born; in Isaiah 9 he is already born and declared to be the divine king (see below, 4.5, and see also vol. 2, 3.3); in Isaiah 11 he is ruling and reigning (in the supernatural power of the Spirit, at that). As Matthew looked back at these prophecies hundreds of years later, it would have been apparent to him that (1) these chapters were clearly linked together, and (2) the promises of a worldwide, glorious reign of the promised Davidic king were not yet realized. Something must have happened in Isaiah’s day relative to the birth of an Immanuel figure, but its greater promise—elaborated more fully in chapters 9 and 11—did not reach fulfillment in any sense of the word.66
And how do we know that Matthew had these other chapters of Isaiah in mind? He cited them or made reference to them elsewhere in the first four chapters of his book! So, in Matthew 1:23 he quotes Isaiah 7:14; in 4:15–16 he quotes Isaiah 9:1–2[8:23–9:1]; and in 2:23 he makes reference to Isaiah 11:1 (see vol. 4, 5.3). This means Matthew was not looking at Isaiah 7:14 in isolation, but rather in the larger context of the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah 7–11 (some would also include chapter 12 in this Messianic section).
We ask again, Who was this Immanuel? He was a king promised to the line of David—with an important, symbolic name—whose birth would serve as a divine sign. And if Immanuel is also the king spoken of in Isaiah 9 and 11, he was to be the Messiah, seen prophetically as emerging on the immediate horizon of history (see again principle 4 in the appendix). In that light, it is interesting to note that the promise of yet another child of promise, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in chapter 8, seems to take the place of the Immanuel prophecy in chapter 7 in terms of the immediate historical context spoken of there. In other words, Isaiah declares that before Immanuel reaches a certain age, Judah’s enemies would be destroyed, and then God would bring judgment on Judah as well. But the birth in Isaiah 8 seems to repeat this very same promise, with one important exception: The text indicates the child was actually born, whereas there is no record of Immanuel being born in Isaiah’s day.
The Catholic Old Testament scholar, Joseph Blenkinsopp, even suggested that
the very close structural parallel between 7:10–17 and 8:1–4 would suggest the hypothesis … of alternative accounts of one sign-act, the first addressed to the dynasty, the second to the Judean public. The parallelism may be set out as follows:
• Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1, 3)
• The Young Woman
• The Prophetess (8:3)
• “the young woman is pregnant and about to give birth to a son”
• “she became pregnant and bore a son”
• “she will give him the name Immanuel”
• “call him Maher-shalal-hash-baz”
• “before the child knows how to reject what is bad and choose what is… good”
• “before the child is able to say, ‘my father’ or ‘my mother’ ”
• “the king of Assyria” (7:17)
• “the king of Assyria” (8:4)
To round it off, the declaration of the meaning of the sign-act is followed in both cases by a threat of punishment for Judah to be administered by the Assyrians as agents of Yahveh (7:18–25; 8:5–10). I conclude, then, that within the prophetic world view, Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz represent different aspects of the divine intervention in human affairs at that critical juncture. They are, so to speak, the recto and verso of the same coin.67
How interesting! Two birth prophecies with similar subject matter and similar time frames following one after the other, but with different names for the boys to be born (Immanuel and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) and with the birth of the latter actually described (as would be expected), while the birth of the former is not. It seems, then, that for Isaiah’s contemporaries, the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz virtually took the place of the birth of Immanuel, leaving this important prophetic announcement without any record of fulfillment for more than seven hundred years.
I am fully aware of the standard, quite logical, Jewish argument against any fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy hundreds of years after Isaiah’s day. As summarized in the Encyclopedia Judaica:
The medieval Jewish commentator David Kimḥi (on Isa. 7:14) comments that the sign was to strengthen Ahaz’s conviction in the truth of the prophet’s message. This would imply that the sign be contemporary with Ahaz and not a symbol for a future occurrence. The birth of Immanuel therefore could not take place, as Christianity has it, in the distant future after the period of Isaiah.68
However, this argument fails to take into account that (1) it was a promise to the house of David as a whole (addressed, significantly, in the plural in verses 13–14), and the promises to the Davidic kings often had meaning beyond their own generations (see appendix); (2) the Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz prophecy becomes the more prominent in terms of Isaiah’s own day, serving as the time setter; (3) the prophecy is shrouded in some degree of obscurity, allowing Matthew to look at it afresh and inquire as to its deeper meaning.69
It is also fair to point out that Matthew’s interpretive method, throughout his writings, is quite typical of the best of ancient Jewish interpretation, reflecting literal interpretations, allegorical interpretations, plays on words, and midrashic allusions.70 Thus, in the first two chapters alone, he cites Micah 5:1–2 (in Matt. 2:5–6), interpreted as a direct prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem; Hosea 11:1 (in Matt. 2:15), interpreted as a prophetic parallel (in other words, as it happened to Israel in its infancy, so also did it happen to Yeshua in his infancy; see vol. 4, 5.2); Jeremiah 31:15 (in Matt. 2:18), where Rachel is heard allegorically and poetically weeping for her children once again; and then, in all probability, Isaiah 11:1 and several other prophetic passages (in Matt. 2:23) as a play on words related to a title of the Messiah in the Tanakh (see vol. 4, 5.3).
For Matthew—rightly so—the Hebrew Bible was the Messiah’s Bible, and therefore, given that (1) Yeshua was literally Immanuel, God with us, (2) the Immanuel prophecy was clearly directed to the house of David, (3) Miriam, Yeshua’s mother was an ʿalmah who had never known a man, and (4) the surrounding context in Isaiah contained highly significant Messianic prophecies, it is no wonder that Matthew pointed to Isaiah 7:14 as being “fulfilled” in the birth of Jesus the Messiah.71 Who else fulfilled it? Or put another way, since Matthew knew beyond a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah and since he knew that Yeshua was born of a virgin, was he wrong to quote Isaiah 7:14 in reference to Yeshua’s miraculous birth? Was it not another important link in the chain of promises and prophecies given to David and his line?
It is also interesting (and extremely well known) that the Septuagint translated the Hebrew ʿalmah with the Greek parthenos (normally rendered “virgin”) more than two hundred years before the time of Jesus. This has been cited for the last two millennia as a further proof that ʿalmah really meant “virgin.” Otherwise, why would the Jewish translators of the Septuagint render the Hebrew in that way before Jesus was born? Anti-missionaries have recently countered by pointing out that parthenos does not always mean “virgin” either, as evidenced by the Septuagint’s rendering of Genesis 34:3, where Dinah is still called a parthenos even after being raped.72
Actually, I agree in part with this anti-missionary argument. While it is not absolutely decisive (for a number of reasons), we cannot, as I have stated, argue that Hebrew ʿalmah would have clearly and unequivocally conveyed the meaning of “virgin” to Isaiah’s hearers and (later) readers.73 Yet I believe there is something of importance in the Septuagint’s rendering, leading me to the fascinating comment on this passage made by none other than Rashi himself.
Am I saying that Rashi claimed that ʿalmah meant “virgin”? Actually, he has been misquoted to this effect, as Rabbi Tovia Singer points out quite passionately:
One of the most well known missionary books to flagrantly misquote Rashi in this manner is David Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary. On pages six and seven of his book, Stern writes,
The most famous medieval Jewish Bible commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (“Rashi,” 1040–1105), who determinedly opposed christological interpretation of the Tanakh, nevertheless wrote on Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the ʿalmah shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuʾel.” This means that our Creator will be with us. This is the sign: The one who will conceive is a girl (naʿarah) who never in her life has had intercourse with any man. Upon this one shall the Holy Spirit have power.” (Mikraʾot Gʾdolot, ad loc.)
The fact is Stern’s quote of Rashi simply does not exist. What Stern has done is deliberately change the words of Rashi in order to provide his readers with a completely distorted, christological version of Rashi’s commentary. In essence, these missionaries are walking in the path of Matthew who tampered with the text of Isaiah 7:14 in order to present his readers with a christological rendition of the prophet’s words.
Here is what Rashi actually says on this verse.
Immanuel… Meaning, that our Rock will be with us, and this is the sign: She is a young girl and has never prophesied (nitneviet), yet in this instance, Divine inspiration shall rest upon her …
Missionaries have mistranslated the Hebrew word nitneviet in Rashi’s commentary to mean “sex” or “intercourse.” This is a preposterous translation. This Hebrew word means “prophesied,” not “intercourse.” The Hebrew word nitneviet is a common word in the Hebrew language. It is related to the Hebrew word navie which means “a prophet,” a word with which most students of the Bible are familiar.
It is unfortunate, yet predictable, that missionaries do to the words of Rashi what Matthew did to the words of Isaiah. 74
Now, Rabbi Singer is completely right to point out the serious error in Dr. Stern’s extremely valuable commentary, although Stern did not deliberately alter a single word of Rashi’s commentary. (He would no more deliberately mistranslate a text than he would bow down to Buddha.) Rather, the source that he used in this one particular case was not accurate, and Dr. Stern, being a serious scholar and a man of the highest integrity, promptly corrected this error when it was brought to his attention. Thus, beginning with the 1996 printing, his commentary reads:
Victor Buksbazen, a Hebrew Christian, in his commentary The Prophet Isaiah, quoted Rashi as writing that in Isa 7:14 “ʿalmah” means “virgin.” In the first four editions of the Jewish New Testament Commentary I cited this Rashi. It has been pointed out to me that Rashi did not write what I represented him as having written, so I have removed the citation from the main body of the JNTC and herewith apologize for not checking the original source.75
To his credit, Stern not only corrected this erroneous citation, but he actually added an appendix in which he translated Rashi’s commentary to Isaiah 7:14 in full, even stating candidly, “I am embarrassed by a mistake uncorrected in the first four editions of this Commentary, in which I misquoted Rashi. … I regret misrepresenting Rashi.”76
There is, however, something Rabbi Singer failed to tell his readers. It is he who has not been totally forthcoming. He actually left out Rashi’s closing comments on verse 14, in which that illustrious Jewish commentator said something of great interest to Christians. As rendered by Rashi’s “official” English translator, Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg: “And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl [ʿalmah] and incapable of giving birth.” So the birth itself was unusual and perhaps even supernatural!77
Does Rashi say that ʿalmah means “virgin” here? Absolutely not. Does he say that Isaiah prophesied a virgin birth? Not at all. Does he apply the text to Jesus? Of course not. Yet despite his strong dislike for Christian interpretation of Messianic prophecy, he acknowledges that some Jewish commentators interpret the text to indicate that God’s sign to Ahaz had to do with the highly unusual nature of the birth: She would be only an ʿalmah—a young girl!—and for such a woman to give birth would not be normal.78 How interesting! Not only so, he also notes that the plural ʿalamot in Song of Solomon 1:3 means “virgins” (betulot).
With this in mind, we return to the Septuagint’s rendering of Isaiah 7:14, where no less an authoritative source than the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that
on purely lexical grounds it is impossible to say whether the translator is expressing true virginity when he uses parthenos at Is. 7:14. The total picture of LXX usage demands no more than the sense of a “woman untouched by man up to the moment of the conception (of Immanuel).” … [However o]n the basis of LXX usage it is also possible that the translator of Is. 7:14 envisaged a non-sexual origin of the virgin’s son.79
In other words, while the evidence is not entirely clear, it is possible that the Septuagint rendering indicated an expectation that the birth spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 would be virginal (and, hence, supernatural), just as the Hebrew could point to the unusual nature of the birth. In the fullness of time—to use a New Testament expression (see Gal. 4:4)—it became apparent that the ʿalmah of whom the prophet spoke, this unnamed maiden, was in fact a parthenos—a virgin—bearing the very Son of God. If a different word had been used (e.g., a specifically designated woman/wife, rather than just “the ʿalmah”), then a later virginal conception would have been impossible. The miraculous nature of the sign ultimately becomes clear in light of its fulfillment, whatever the original expectations and overall understanding might have been.80
To reiterate: Rashi’s closing comment is of importance, since some Jewish interpreters felt that it was striking to read of an ʿalmah being pregnant and soon to bear a child. Centuries after Isaiah’s day, this uniqueness came to the fore, quite possibly reflected in the Septuagint’s parthenos, and then certainly reflected in Matthew’s Greek text. So, the deepest meaning of the prophecy became apparent as the fullness of time dawned. This is the kind of thing where you look back at the Word and say, “This is amazing. It was hidden in the Scriptures all along.”
There are some who still claim that Yeshua did not fulfill the prophecy because he was never called Immanuel (in particular, by his mother, as spelled out in Isaiah 7:14). But this objection can be easily refuted: (1) According to 2 Samuel 12:24–25, Solomon was to be called Jedidiah, but he was never referred to by this name once in the Tanakh.81 (2) The Talmud and a number of Rabbinic commentaries claim that the birth of Hezekiah fulfilled Isaiah 9:6, referring all the names of the child to him (see below, 4.4). But when was he ever called by any of these names, let alone called by all of them? Yet that did not stop these traditional Jewish sources from claiming that this passage referred to him. How then can the argument be made that Isaiah 7:14 cannot refer to Jesus because he was not called Immanuel in the New Testament? (3) The fact is that Yeshua the Lord is praised and adored as Immanuel by millions of his followers around the world. Many of the great hymns of the church center in on that one key name, including the medieval classic beginning with the words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”82
To conclude, then, there is no substance to the argument that Matthew misinterpreted Isaiah 7:14 when he claimed that the prophecy was fulfilled in Yeshua’s virgin birth. To the contrary, his interpretation reflects genuine insight into a difficult passage of Scripture, an insight that bears the mark of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.83
31 Matthew 1:23 agrees with the Septuagint here, reading, “will be with child” (Greek, en gastri exei); other translations understand the text to say, “The ʿalmah is pregnant and about to give birth to a son.” Both views are supportable by the grammar and context, the primary question being how one renders the participial harah (“is pregnant” versus “will conceive”). Delitzsch recognizes the grammatical issues but argues for a future understanding of the prophecy (the virgin conceives and bears a son) because, he claims, the Hebrew word hinneh, “behold,” “is always used by Isaiah [seventy-eight times in total] to introduce a future occurrence.” See F. Delitzsch, Isaiah, in C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin and others, CD ROM ed. (Albany, Ore.: AGES Software, 1997), 183. Note that the Orthodox Jewish Stone edition renders the verbs as future: “Therefore, my Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the maiden will become pregnant and bear a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” The grammatical explanation for this rendering is that a predicate adjective and/or participle derives its tense from the surrounding verbal context, and in this verse, that context seems to be future (the Lord will give you a sign). See further Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1–12, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 286, n. 14d, where Wildberger notes, “Whether the participle is to be translated in a present or a future sense can be determined only on the basis of a full treatment of the entire section” (referring to the Septuagint and other Greek recensions). G. B. Gray, The Book of Isaiah, 1–27, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), 127, presents both translations (“is with child and shall bear” and “shall be with child and bring forth”) as possible.
32 There is dispute whether either or both of these occurrences are proper names (“Immanuel”) or rather the words “God is with us”; for discussion, see the standard commentaries and cf. Jacob Licht, “Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Miqra’it (in Hebrew), (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1950–82), 6:292, where it is pointed out that the name Immanuel is unique, found only here in the Scriptures, and otherwise unattested in ancient Near Eastern sources.
33 It is interesting to note that the Haftorah (or Haphtarah) selection from these chapters (meaning the weekly reading in the synagogues from the prophetic Scriptures) links chapters 7 and 9 together with the Torah portion called Yitro (i.e., Jethro, consisting of Exodus 18:1–20:26). The specific passages from Isaiah are 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6[6–7]. A cursory reading of these verses would indicate that God’s answer to the threat to remove the Davidic king in Isaiah 7 is the birth oracle in Isaiah 9. How interesting! I would only add that God’s first answer to the threat is found in Isaiah 7 itself, the Immanuel prophecy, which then ties in with the birth oracle in chapter 9. We will take this up in more detail in our ongoing discussion.
34 According to Delitzsch (Isaiah, 179–80, on Isa. 7:10–12), “A sign …was something, some occurrence, or some action, which served as a pledge of the divine certainty of something else. This was secured sometimes by visible miracles performed at once (Ex 4:8–9), or by appointed symbols of future events (Isa 8:18; 20:3); sometimes by predicted occurrences, which, whether miraculous or natural, could not possibly be foreseen by human capacities, and therefore, if they actually took place, were a proof either retrospectively of the divine causality of other events (Ex 3:12), or prospectively of their divine certainty (Isa 37:30; Jer 44:29–30). The thing to be confirmed on the present occasion was what the prophet had just predicted in so definite a manner, viz., the maintenance of Judah with its monarchy, and the failure of the wicked enterprise of the two allied kingdoms. If this was to be attested to Ahaz in such a way as to demolish his unbelief, it could only be effected by a miraculous sign.”
35 This, of course, represents the traditional Christian view. For statements to this effect from early Christian leaders, see David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Belief: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998).
36 One of the most respected Jewish scholars of the last generation, H. L. Ginsberg, longtime professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, actually questioned the Hebrew text in its current form, since in his judgment there was no real sign recorded. “Immanuel,” in the Encyclopedia Judaica, CD ROM ed. (Israel: Judaica Multimedia, 1997), states Ginsberg’s views as follows: “It will become obvious, on reflection, that where the sign stands in the received text, between verses 10–14a and 17, it is inapposite, for two reasons: first, verse 11 leads us to expect here a sign ‘down in Sheol or up in the sky’; and second, the tone of verses 13–14a and verse 17 leads us to expect an omen that bodes ill for Judah, not for Aram and Israel. The [Talmudic sage] R. Johanan (Sanh. 96a) rightly inferred from Isaiah 38:8 that prior to abruptly receding ten steps in the reign of Hezekiah the shadow has abruptly advanced ten steps in the reign of Ahaz (for us that involves regarding be-maʿalot, ‘on the steps of’ before Ahaz as a contamination, due to the four other occurrences of maʿalot in the same verse, of an original bi-Yme, ‘in the days of’). Taking a hint from R. Johanan, Ginsberg inferred that this is the ‘sign’ that was originally related between 7:14a and 7:17. In summary, Ginsberg claims “the Immanuel sign is unhistorical.” This again indicates the thorny problems of interpretation that surround Isaiah 7:14.
37 For a scholarly evangelical perspective on the evidence, cf. John H. Walton, “Isaiah 7:14: What’s in a Name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987): 289–306; idem, “ ʿalûmîm,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:415–419 (henceforth cited as NIDOTTE). For full citations from lexical and theological articles, arguing for the meaning of “virgin,” cf. Glen Miller, “Response to ‘The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah,’ part 2, The Isaiah 7:14 Passage,” <http://www.christian-thinktank.com/fabprof2.html>.
38 The masculine noun is also common in various Semitic languages; cf. B. Dohmen, “ʿalmâ,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green and others (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 11:155–56 (henceforth cited as TDOT). Referring primarily to evangelical writing on this subject, Walton rightly asks, “Why is it never mentioned that there are two masculine occurrences of this noun (ʿelem)? In 1 Sam 17:56 David is described as an ʿelem, and the same term is applied to Jonathan’s servant in 20:22. In neither of these cases is the sexual chastity of the individual a viable issue” (“Isaiah 7:14,” 292). Walton, however, may have overlooked the fairly thorough 1980 article by Richard Niessen, “The Virginity of the ʿAlmah in Isaiah 7:14,” Biblotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 133–50 (see 135, where he notes that “the masculine derivative ʿelem ‘young man,’ is used in 1 Samuel 17:42, 56, and possibly 16:12. … First Samuel 20:22 uses ʿelem to describe the servant whom Jonathan sent out to chase arrows”).
39 The derivation from the root ʿ-l-m, “to hide, be hidden,” has been suggested for centuries and remains popular to this day. However, there is no compelling reason to connect the concept of “being hidden” with that of being a virgin, especially since some of the ʿalmah’s referred to in the Tanakh went about freely in public and were anything but hidden (see, e.g., Gen. 24:43 and esp. Ps. 68:25; I am aware, of course, that there were other alleged aspects of the ʿalmah’s “hiddenness,” but none are worthy of serious consideration). More importantly, there is a strong reason to connect Hebrew ʿelem/ʿalmah with the Arabic root ġ-l-m, since both the verbal and nominal forms occur there (relating to coming into puberty and/or adolescence; or for animals, being in heat), and the nominal forms correspond to this root in Ugaritic (a Northern Canaanite language very close to Hebrew), in which the noun ġlmt (probably pronounced ġalmatu) occurs in the context of a goddess giving birth to a son (see below, n. 62, for further discussion), as well as in the context of the marriage of a king (the masculine form of this noun, ġlm, occurs frequently and simply means “young man”). Readers who have studied the Semitic languages know that in ancient Hebrew, the letter ʿayin (which is the first letter of the words ʿelem/ʿalmah) represented two distinct phonemes, namely, ʿayin and ġayin, just as several letters in our English alphabet represent two distinct phonemes (e.g., the letter c can be pronounced as s or k even in the same word, like “circus,” while the letter g can be pronounced g or j as in the word “garage”). So, e.g., the Philistine city of Gaza is spelled ʿazzah in Hebrew and would be pronounced azzah, not gazzah, by any Hebrew reader today. However, we know that it was originally pronounced ġazzah, as evidenced by its transliteration in the Septuagint as gazza (the Greek gamma being the closest sound available to represent Semitic ġ). So, based on the fairly clear evidence of the Semitic languages, we should recognize that the Hebrew ʿayin in ʿalmah was originally a ġayin, and is to be derived from the root ġ-l-m rather than ʿ-l-m, ruling out even the possibility of a connection between ʿalmah and the root ʿ-l-m, “to hide, be hidden” (although, as stated, there is no good semantic reason to connect ʿalmah to ʿ-l-m). According to G. B. Gray, a careful Semitic scholar writing before the discovery of Ugaritic (The Book of Isaiah, 126–27), ʿalmah means “a girl, or young woman, above the age of childhood and sexual immaturity … , a person of the age at which sexual emotion awakens and becomes potent; it asserts neither virginity nor the lack of it; it is naturally in actual usage often applied to women who were as a matter of fact certainly (Gn 24:43, Ex 2:8), or probably (Ca 1:3, Ps 68:26), virgins. On the other hand, it is also used in Pr 30:19 where the marvels of procreation and embryology (cp. Ps 139:13–16, Ec 11:5) seem to be alluded to, and the corresponding term (or terms) is used in Aramaic of persons certainly not virgin, as, e.g., in [Targum] Jg 19:5 of a concubine who had proved unfaithful; in Palmyrene [an Aramaic dialect] it is used of harlots, and in a bi-lingual inscription ʿlwmt’ [Aramaic for the ʿalmah] apparently corresponds to [Greek] [hē]tairo[n].” Despite this detailed analysis, however, Gray oversimplifies his next statement by claiming, “The Hebrew word for virgin is btwlh …” (ibid., 127). For further treatment of betulah, see nn. 47–59, below. The section on the etymology of ʿalmah by Dohmen, TDOT, 11:158–59, is supplemented and rightly corrected by H. Ringgren, ibid., 11:159.
40 Of relevance is the fact that ancient Semitic legal documents never use the equivalent of ʿalmah for “virgin.”
41 Note the use of ʿalmah in these verses: “See, I am standing beside this spring; if a maiden (ʿalmah) comes out to draw water …” (Gen. 24:43); “ ‘Yes, go,’ she answered. And the girl (ʿalmah) went and got the baby’s mother” (Exod. 2:8); “In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens (ʿalamot) playing tambourines” (Ps. 68:25); “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden (ʿalmah)” (Prov. 30:18–19); “Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the maidens (ʿalamot) love you!” (Song of Songs 1:3); “Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins (ʿalamot) beyond number” (Song of Songs 6:8). Could ʿalmah mean virgin in each of these verses? Quite possibly (in some cases, quite certainly, although there is much dispute about Proverbs 30:19), and the fine Messianic scholar Walter Riggans expresses the predominant evangelical view in his Yeshua ben David (349–62), also noting, “In Hebrew legal documents and contracts …the term ʿalmah is never used of married women.” He argues, “If we cannot find any places in the Hebrew Bible where this term is used of non-virgins, then we have a very strong case for arguing that indeed a virgin birth is being prophesied by Isaiah” (356–57). However, John Walton points out, “In English a fiancée is often also a virgin (though the percent of semantic overlapping of these two words is in sad decline). That does not mean that the word ‘fiancée’ means ‘virgin.’ Someone could show me a thousand passages where ‘fiancée’ was used to refer to a virgin, but that would not change the meaning. It is the same with ʿalmah: The word primarily describes an adolescent, or a young woman of marriageable age, who is presumably a virgin, but who is not by semantic definition a virgin” (“Isaiah 7:14,” 292).
42 According to Walton, “Isaiah 7:14,” 292, ʿalmah in Isaiah 54:4 “is used to describe a rejected barren wife.” Niessen, however, comes to the opposite conclusion, stating that the “most significant and illuminating usage” of ʿalmah “is in Isaiah 54:4–5 where the word essentially means to be ‘unmarried’ and ‘without children’. The term ʿalûmîm is placed in a position of contrasting parallelism with ʿalmanût, ‘widowhood,’ so that it can only mean ‘maidenhood,’ and is further opposed to ‘marriage’ and ‘many children’ in the preceding context of 53:1–3” (“The Virginity of the ʿAlmah,” 135). Both arguments, however, may be overstated, since ʿalmah in Isaiah 54:4 simply means “youth, youthfulness,” referring back to the widow’s younger years, but without specifying whether or not she was married and therefore not proving or disproving virginity.
43 See the discussion of Gray, above, n. 39; cf. further the comments of Harry Orlinsky, below, n. 47.
44 It is often argued that in the culture of that time, a woman who was an ʿalmah—in particular one who was the subject of a prophecy concerning a significant child she was to bear—was presumed to be a virgin, since, it is argued, there is no record of a married ʿalmah in the Bible. There are, however, several problems with this argument, including: (1) If the goal of the prophecy was to clearly and unambiguously declare that there would be a virgin birth, a qualifying statement would need to be made (see the comments of J. A. Alexander, n. 46, below); (2) The cognate evidence (i.e., the word ʿalmah in other Semitic languages) does not support this premise (see below, n. 39); (3) Many scholars believe that Proverbs 30:19 speaks of an ʿalmah having sexual intercourse (although this interpretation is disputed; cf. Niessen, “The Virginity of the ʿAlmah,” and Miller, “The Isaiah 7:14 Passage,” for good arguments to the contrary; see also above, n. 41).
45 This is the standard anti-missionary position, raised almost without exception when Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth of Yeshua are being discussed.
46 More than 150 years ago, Joseph Addison Alexander, one of the leading Christian scholars of his day, expressed the possibility that in Hebrew “the idea of a virgin could not be expressed except by a periphrasis” (J. A. Alexander, Isaiah [repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974], 1:168). According to the Israeli biblical scholar Matityahu Tsevat (“betûlâ,” TDOT, 2:340), in the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world, “in early linguistic stages the concept of virginity, with all the meaning that belongs to it in early linguistic associations, can frequently be expressed only negatively,” hence, “it is best to conjecture that there was an original common Semitic word batul(t), and that it meant a young girl at the age of puberty and the age just after puberty. Then very gradually this word assumed the meaning ‘virgo intacta’ in Hebrew and Aramaic, a development that ended in Middle Hebrew, to which the German ‘Jungfrau’ offers an instructive parallel. It is not surprising that this process of narrowing the meaning and of making it more precise is discernible in legal language.”
47 In the words of the respected Jewish biblical scholar Harry M. Orlinsky, “Although the term btwlh basically means ‘maiden,’ it is often used in contexts whose intent is to specify virginity,” see “Virgin,” in Keith R. Crim, ed., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supp. vol. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 939. Orlinsky concurs with the observation of the Assyriological scholar J. J. Finkelstein, namely, that the Akkadian term batultu (equivalent to Hebrew betulah) denotes “an age distinction …and only implicitly, therefore, untouched. She is then more explicitly described as not yet having been deflowered, nor taken in marriage.” In other words, in the ancient Near Eastern culture, it would be expected that a maiden would be a virgin simply because of her age. But this observation would also apply to Hebrew usage of ʿalmah. According to Orlinsky, ʿalmah “means simply ‘young woman, girl, maiden’ ” (ibid., 940).
48 In the NJPSV, betulah is translated as “maiden” in Deut. 32:25; Isa. 23:4; 62:5; Jer. 31:13; 51:22; Ezek. 9:6; Amos 8:13; Zech. 9:17; Ps. 78:63; 148:12; Lam. 1:18; 2 Chron. 36:17 (all the previous verses contain bahur, “young man, youth”); 2 Kings 19:21 (= Isa. 37:22); Isa. 23:12; 47:1; Jer. 14:17 (fn.); 18:13; 31:4; 31:21; 46:11; Amos 5:2; Lam. 1:15; 2:13 (the preceding twelve verses contain betulat bat, “Fair Maiden”; or simply betulat, “Maiden”); Jer. 2:32; Joel 1:8; Ps. 45:15; Job 31:1; Lam. 1:4; 2:10; 5:11.
49 Note that virtually all of the translations of betulah as “virgin” in the NJPSV occur in (1) specific legal contexts (e.g., Exod. 22:15–16), (2) verses with explanatory comments (e.g., Gen. 24:16), or (3) contexts in which the meaning is certain because of the nature of the narrative in question (e.g., Esther 2:2–3, 17, 19). According to Tsevat (“betûlâ,” TDOT, 2:341), “Out of the 51 times that bethulah occurs in the OT, 3 times it clearly means ‘virgin’ (Lev. 21:13f.; Dt. 22:19; Ezk. 44:22), and once it certainly does not [referring to Joel 1:8]. … In 12 passages, almost all of which are poetic, it is connected (both in the sing. and in the pl.) with bachur(im), and the two expressions together mean the same thing as ‘young people’; here virginity plays no discernible role.”
50 Cf., e.g., Isa. 23:4; 62:5; Jer. 2:32; 31:12; 51:22; Ezek. 9:6; Joel 1:8; Zech. 9:17; Pss. 78:63; 148:12; Job 31:1; Lam. 1:4, 18; 2:10; 5:11.
51 Messianic Jewish scholar Daniel Gruber notes that even in Talmudic language and law, there are discussions about the precise meaning of betulah. See his God, the Rabbis, and the Virgin Birth (Hanover, N.H.: Elijah Publishing, n.d.), 8–16, for extensive references. In keeping with this, classical scholar Adam Kamesar pointed out that “the possibility that a woman might conceive with her virginity intact, though by means of normal fertilization, is an occurrence which is conceded in the Talmud” (quotation is taken from <http://www.jfjonline.org/apol/qa/almah.htm>). See Kamesar’s important article, especially in terms of ancient Christian polemics, “The Virgin of Isaiah 7:14: The Philological Argument from the Second to the Fifth Century,” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 41, part 1 (1990): 51.
52 The rendering of the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001) is therefore an improvement on most other English versions: “The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden [the footnote reads, “or a woman of marriageable age”] whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up” (Gen. 24:16).
53 Some commentators have suggested that Job pledged never to gaze at one particular virgin, meaning “the virgin Anat” (a Canaanite goddess), thus he was committing himself to never engage in idolatry; see, e.g., Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 431–32, for discussion and refutation of this view.
54 Some have argued that the betulah spoken of here was only espoused to be married, and thus there would have been no sexual consummation of the marriage (cf., e.g., Radak; see further John H. Walton, bətûlâ,” NIDOTTE, 1:782–83). But this argument, which is purely speculative, is only necessary if one first assumes that a betulah cannot be married. Tsevat, TDOT, 2:341, correctly notes that “this interpretation [namely, that betulah does not mean “virgin” at Joel 1:8] can be avoided only by the singular assumption that baʾal means not only ‘husband,’ but also ‘fiancé.’ ”
- 55 As for using epithets such as “Daughter of Babylon” or “Fair Maiden Zion” to prove a semantic point, I accept the cautions of Walton, NIDOTTE, 1:783 (his comments also apply to the term “Maiden Anat”; see n. 56, below). My point, however, is simply that betulah in and of itself does not mean “virgin” in biblical Hebrew.
56 As is commonly noted, in the Ugaritic language (closely related to biblical Hebrew), the goddess known as Betulat Anat, “the Maiden Anat,” is infamous for her promiscuity. Her description as “Betulah” hardly signifies a virgin.
57 The text comes from Nippur and was originally published by James A. Montgomery (Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur [Philadelphia: University Museum, 1913]). This text is discussed by Shalom Paul, the highly respected Israeli scholar of Semitics and the Bible, in his article on “Virgin” in the Encyclopedia Judaica. He makes a number of important observations, including the fact that “the biblical betulah … usually rendered ‘virgin,’ is in fact an ambiguous term which in nonlegal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state. Cognate Akkadian batultu (masculine, batulu) and Ugaritic btlt refer to ‘an adolescent, nubile, girl.’ That the woman who is so called need not necessarily be a virgo intacta is shown by the graphic account in a Ugaritic myth of the sexual relations of Baal with the goddess Anath, who bears the honorific epithet btlt (see Pritchard, Texts, 142). Moreover, in an Aramaic incantation text from Nippur there is a reference to a betultaʾ who is ‘pregnant but cannot bear’ (Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts, in bibl. 13:9, 178). The male counterpart to betulah in the Bible is often bahur. … ‘young man,’ e.g., Jeremiah 31:12 and Amos 8:13 (cf. Joel 1:8, where a betulah moans for her bridegroom); and the word betulah interchanges with the somewhat synonymous age term ʿalmah … which also describes a young woman. Thus, in Genesis 24:16, 43, Rebekah is first called a betulah and then an ʿalmah. (Exactly the same interchange of the two words appears in a Ugaritic text.)” Paul also discusses the usage of ʿalmah, noting that “despite a two-millennium misunderstanding of Isaiah 7:14, ‘Behold a young woman [LXX: parthenos, “virgin”] shall conceive and bear a son,’ indicates nothing concerning the chastity of the woman in question. The only way that the term ‘virgin’ can be unambiguously expressed is in the negative: thus, Sumerian and Akkadian, ‘undeflowered,’ and Akkadian, ‘not experienced,’ ‘unopened,’ and ‘who has not known a male.’ The description of Rebekah (Gen. 24:16), who is first called a betulah, ‘young woman,’ and then ‘whom no man had known’ (cf. Judg. 21:12), is similar. In legal contexts, however, betulah denotes a virgin in the strict sense (as does batultu in certain Akkadian legal contexts).” See further Walton, NIDOTTE, 1:781–84 (who defines betulah as a “girl under the guardianship of her father”; note also the oft-cited article of Gordon J. Wenham, “Bətulah, ‘A Girl of Marriageable Age,’ ” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 326–48. Wenham points out, among other things, that in Esther 2:17–19, the young women who are chosen to spend the night with the king are referred to as betulah both before and after they have sexual relations with the king.
58 On the flip side—actually, the exact opposite of the anti-missionary view—I find insupportable the common evangelical argument that if Isaiah intended to prophesy a virgin birth in clear and unambiguous terms, he would have used ʿalmah rather than betulah. A simple reading of the relevant verses in the Tanakh (see above, n. 41)—as translated in leading Christian versions—demonstrates that ʿalmah did not clearly and unequivocally mean “virgin.”
59 Walton, NIDOTTE, 1:783, makes the following distinctions between the two words: “The lexical relationship between bətûlâ and ʿalmâ is that the former is a social status indicating that a young girl is under the guardianship of her father, with all the age and sexual references that accompany that status. The latter is to be understood with regard to fertility and childbearing potential. Obviously there are many occasions where both terms apply to the same girl. A girl ceases to be a bətûlâ when she becomes a wife; she ceases to be an ʿalmâ when she becomes a mother.” As nuanced as his argument is, in my opinion some of the biblical evidence would seem to challenge his conclusions. According to Delitzsch (Isaiah, 184), “The two terms could both be applied to persons who were betrothed, and even to such as were married (Joel 2:16; Prov. 30:19: see Hitzig on these passages). It is also admitted that the idea of spotless virginity was not necessarily connected with ʿalmâh (as in Gen 24:43, cf., 16), since there are passages—such, for example, as Song of Sol. 6:8—where it can hardly be distinguished from the Arabic surrîje; and a person who had a very young-looking wife might be said to have an ʿalmah for his wife. But it is inconceivable that in a well-considered style, and one of religious earnestness, a woman who had been long married, like the prophet’s own wife, could be called hâʿalmâh without any reserve. … On the other hand, the expression itself warrants the assumption that by hâʿalmâh the prophet meant one of the ʿalâmoth of the king’s harem (Luzzatto); and if we consider that the birth of the child was to take place, as the prophet foresaw, in the immediate future, his thoughts might very well have been fixed upon Abijah (Abi) bath-Zechariah (2 Kings 18:2; 2 Chron. 29:1), who became the mother of King Hezekiah, to whom apparently the virtues of the mother descended, in marked contrast with the vices of his father. This is certainly possible.” The next comments of Delitzsch (Isaiah, 184–85), turning to the Messianic significance of Isaiah 7:14, should also be cited: “At the same time, it is also certain that the child who was to be born was the Messiah, and not a new Israel (Hofmann, Schriftbeweis, ii. 1, 87, 88); that is to say, that he was no other than that ‘wonderful’ heir of the throne of David, whose birth is hailed with joy in ch. 9, where even commentators like Knobel are obliged to admit that the Messiah is meant. It was the Messiah whom the prophet saw here as about to be born, then again in ch. 9 as actually born, and again in ch. 11 as reigning—an indivisible triad of consolatory images in three distinct states, interwoven with the three stages into which the future history of the nation unfolded itself in the prophet’s view. If, therefore, his eye was directed toward the Abijah mentioned, he must have regarded her as the future mother of the Messiah, and her son as the future Messiah. Now it is no doubt true, that in the course of the sacred history Messianic expectations were often associated with individuals who did not answer to them, so that the Messianic prospect was moved further into the future; and it is not only possible, but even probable, and according to many indications an actual fact, that the believing portion of the nation did concentrate their Messianic wishes and hopes for a long time upon Hezekiah; but even if Isaiah’s prophecy may have evoked such human conjectures and expectations, through the measure of time which it laid down, it would not be a prophecy at all, if it rested upon no better foundation than this, which would be the case if Isaiah had a particular maiden of his own day in his mind at the time.”
60 For good bibliographies on Isaiah 7:14, cf. the Isaiah commentaries of Wildberger, Watts, Blenkinsopp, Childs, and Oswalt, along with the works cited in the article of Niessen. Cf. also Tan Kim Huat, “Christmas in Isaiah 7:14—Sensus Literalis, Sensus Plenior aut Felix Culpa?” Trinity Theological Journal 9 (2000): 5–33, arguing for the sensus plenior approach, which is similar to, although not identical with, the approach that I advocate here.
61 Cf. Riggans, Yeshua ben David, 337. Wildberger, Isaiah 1–12, 310, notes that while the prophecy may be obscure to our ears, it was probably not obscure to the original hearers (although Martin Buber called Isaiah 7:14 the “most controversial passage in the Bible,” cited in ibid., 307). This, of course, is presumably correct, since as Wildberger states (310), “it is not normal for prophetic oracles that they would not have an understandable meaning.” The issue, however, is whether there is a purpose to the Immanuel prophecy as part of Scripture. If so, what is that purpose? Also, if it is an oracle concerning a child born to the house of David, then by its very nature, it takes on greater meaning in the larger picture of the Messianic hope.
62 When this Ugaritic text was first discovered, there was a misreading of this line due to its poor preservation, and it was thought that for the first time, the Semitic equivalents of betulah and ʿalmah occurred in parallelism. This was then taken as evidence that ʿalmah meant “virgin,” and Christian and Messianic Jewish writers have often pointed to an article of the influential Semitic scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, “Almah in Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 21 (1953): 106, to buttress this view (see, e.g., <http://www.christiancourier.com/questions/virginProphecyQuestion.htm> [15 January 2002]). A more careful analysis of the Ugaritic tablets, however, indicated that this reading was clearly in error, and scholars since then have transcribed the lines as hl ġlmt tld bn, the translation of which I have cited in the text. For examples of scholars who pointed to Gordon’s article in defense of the virgin birth interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, cf. Edward E. Hindson, Isaiah’s Immanuel: A Sign of His Times or the Sign of the Ages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979); David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary 7 (henceforth cited as JNTC) in editions up to 1996; Stern subsequently corrected his discussion as soon as the matter was brought to his attention; Riggans, Yeshua ben David, 356–57, although, as expected, his conclusions are sober. For discussion of the Ugaritic text, see Wolframm von Hermann, Yariḫ und Nikkal und der Preis der Kuṯarāt-Göttinen, ein Kultisch-Magischer Text aus Ras Schamra, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 106 (Berlin: A. Topelman, 1968).
63 Gruber points out that “the ancient Rabbis found at least 16 Messianic prophecies in chapters 7 to 12 of the book of Isaiah. Some of these are transparently Messianic, others are embedded in the context. All of these rabbinically acknowledged Messianic references are part of the scriptural context of Is. 7:14” (God, the Rabbis, and the Virgin Birth, 23–24). He adds, quite tellingly, that the ancient rabbis “considered this a very Messianic portion. In fact, the only portion of Scripture in which the ancient Rabbis found more Messianic prophecies is Isaiah chapters 49–54” (ibid., 24). For all who know the content of those chapters in Isaiah, this is a highly significant observation.
64 I should emphasize here that it is possible that Isaiah’s sign was understood by the original hearers as a prophetic announcement of a virgin birth, however: (1) The word ʿalmah in and of itself does not prove that point, even if it was argued that an ʿalmah, by presumption, was a virgin (being unmarried) and that it is certain God would not give a sign through an illegitimate birth (i.e., an unmarried ʿalmah being pregnant). While that reasoning is logical, we simply do not have sufficient textual or linguistic evidence to argue that an ʿalmah had to be an unmarried, never pregnant, young woman. (2) If, in fact, Isaiah indisputably prophesied a virgin birth, would that not mean that a virgin birth was expected at that time? (Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, counters this argument by suggesting that the first fulfillment—in Isaiah’s day—was a partial one, meaning a child who was not truly Immanuel born to a nonvirgin, whereas the true fulfillment—the birth of Jesus—was the complete one. But this is hardly compelling.) If so, were there two virgin births? The only way around this is to understand the Hebrew grammatical structure (predicate adjective + participle) in light of an apparently still-future sign, hence, “The ʿalmah will conceive and give birth to a son,” as reflected in the (Jewish) Septuagint and many translations, both Christian and Jewish. While this is possible (see above, n. 31, with the observation of Delitzsch, that hinneh, “behold,” in Isaiah always introduces a future event), a strong argument can be made that the words announce an imminent birth.
65 According to John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1985), 102, who interprets the sign with reference to the days of Ahaz (i.e., not with future reference to Jesus), “The entire setting shows a positive attitude toward the House of David. hʿlmh must be someone in sight to whom Isaiah points. The most likely women to have been present with the King would have been the Queen and her escort. If this is true, the son that is to be born would be the heir apparent to the throne, i.e., the Anointed One. In this sense, at least, the passage is ‘messianic.’ It related to the fulfillment of God’s promises to David and his dynasty.… It is significant that all the passages that explicitly deal with messianic themes related to the Davidic dynasty occur in the Ahaz section of the Vision (7:1–16; 9:5–6[6–7]; and 11:1–5, 10)” (my emphasis). Note also that Dohmen, whose attempt to define ʿalmah in the Hebrew Bible as an “alien woman” is quite forced, is still able to observe that with a reinterpretation of this prophetic oracle beginning in the days of Hezekiah, “the sign described in v. 14 becomes a symbol, and Immanuel becomes a savior figure expected in this sense. In the postexilic period Isaiah 7:14 was interpreted messianically in this sense” (TDOT, 11:162; the entire article, with a massive bibliography, runs from 11:154–63).
66 Note again Delitzsch on the progression from Isaiah 7–11: “The Messianic prophecy, which turns its darker side towards unbelief in ch. 7, and whose promising aspect burst like a great light through the darkness in Isa 8:5–9:6, is standing now upon its third and highest stage. In ch. 7 it is like a star in the night; in Isa 8:5–9:6, like the morning dawn; and now [approaching Isa 11] the sky is perfectly cloudless, and it appears like the noonday sun” (Isaiah, 235).
67 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1–39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 238–39. According to Orlinsky (speaking of Isaiah 7:14), the text indicates that “before the baby that the pregnant woman will soon bear has grown significantly [7:16] the invaders will themselves be invaded. This is related to what the prophet says in the next chapter (8:1–4),” see “Virgin,” in Crim, ed., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supp. vol., 940.
68 “Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Judaica; the force of this is recognized by Alexander, Isaiah, 166–73.
69 According to Delitzsch (Isaiah, 187), “the sign in question was, on the one hand, a mystery glaring in the most threatening manner upon the house of David; and, on the other hand, a mystery smiling with which consolation upon the prophet and all believers, and couched in these enigmatical terms, in order that those who hardened themselves might not understand it, and that believers might increasingly long to comprehend its meaning.”
70 Cf. the standard work of Robert H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope, Supplements to Novum Testamentum, vol. 18 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967); more broadly, cf. Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); see also the comments throughout Stern’s JNTC on Matthew; and cf. further Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), which contains extensive references to the primary sources.
71 It is also possible that Matthew considered the fact that the prophecies contained in Isaiah 7:14–25 were also fulfilled (namely, that before Immanuel reached a certain age, the lands of those who were attacking Ahaz and Judah would be abandoned), and since he read the prophecy as future (the virgin will conceive …), and since the Maher-Shalah-Hash-Baz sign took the place of the Immanuel sign as a time setter, he might well have felt fully justified in citing Isaiah’s prophecy with reference to Yeshua. It is also fair to ask why Isaiah declared that “within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people” (7:8) if the sign later given by God was to be immediate, reaching total fulfillment just a few years later (“before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” [Isa. 7:16]). Cf. J. Barton Payne, “Right Questions about Isaiah 7:14,” in Morris Inch and Ronald Youngblood, eds., The Living and Active Word of God: Studies in Honor of Samuel H. Schultz (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 74–85.
72 According to Greek scholar Gerhard Delling, “In a special instance parthenos can even be a girl who has been raped, Gn. 34:3 for naʿarah [Hebrew],” Delling, “parthenos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel for Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 5:833 (henceforth cited as TDNT). Note also that the Septuagint renders ʿalmah with parthenos at Genesis 24:43.
73 It could be argued that the meaning of parthenos was developing and becoming more narrow, so that when the Torah was translated into Greek, the word still carried meanings beyond that of virgin, but by the time Isaiah was translated—several decades later—the meaning had become more narrow. This, however, is somewhat tenuous (although anti-missionaries would certainly argue that by Matthew’s day, parthenos meant “virgin”—otherwise, where is the controversy about Matthew’s alleged misinterpretation of ʿalmah if parthenos did not clearly mean “virgin” even in his day? Another possibility is that Genesis 34:3 is making reference to the situation before the rape recorded in 34:2, but this is certainly not the most natural reading of the text. Also, it fails to explain why the Septuagint would translate the Hebrew naʿarah, “girl, young woman”—with no reference to virginity—as parthenos. Most interesting is the statement of Bruce Chilton, a New Testament and Aramaic scholar, who claimed that neither the Hebrew ʿalmah (in Isa. 7:14) nor the Greek parthenos (in the Septuagint to Isa. 7:14 and in Matt. 1:23) meant “virgin”! See his Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 23. If that is the case, then most of this objection, along with some of my answer, has no relevance at all!
74 Tovia Singer, <http://www.outreachjudaism.org/rashi.html>.
75 Stern, JNTC, 7.
76 Ibid., 929–30. He further notes (930), “A friend says that Rashi did write the paragraph as quoted, but it is not in Mikraʾot Gʾdolot. However, until someone directs me to a genuine Rashi source for it, the matter remains as I have left it in this Appendix note.” This speaks volumes for the integrity of Dr. Stern as both a scholar and a Messianic Jew, and one can only ask why Rabbi Singer still claims Stern deliberately misrepresented Rashi. Since Stern made his corrections in 1996, what else but a deliberate attempt to misrepresent Stern would motivate Singer to fail to update the discussion on his web site?
77 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Rashi’s Bible commentary are from Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg, Judaica Press Complete Tanach with Rashi, CD ROM ed. (New York: Davka Corporation and Judaica Press, 1999). Stern, JNTC, 930, is actually more conservative in his translation of Rashi, translating the key word rʾuyah as “appropriate”: “she was an ʿalmah for whom it was inappropriate that she give birth,” noting that “some interpret this to mean either that it was improper for her to give birth (presumably because she was unmarried, in which case what would be proper is that she would be a virgin), or that she was too young to be physically capable of giving birth (in which case, unless she had been abused, she would be a virgin).”
78 When Rashi simply says, “Some say” (literally, “some interpret,” potrin), he is citing a possible interpretation, otherwise he would not quote it at all (or he would quote it to refute it). In this case, he offers no refutation, but rather closes with this comment. For more on Rashi’s methodology, see the series by Avigdor Bonchek, What’s Bothering Rashi? 5 vols. to date (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1997–).
79 Delling, “parthenos,” TDNT, 5:833. The discussion concludes with, “Historically, even in his narrow circle [i.e., the narrow circle of the Septuagint translator of Isaiah], this might arise if historical value can be accorded to the stricter statements of [Plutarch] … about Egypt.”
80 Riggans, Yeshua ben David, 355, is correct in rejecting Fruchtenbaum’s argument here, namely, that the reference to the ʿalmah in Isaiah’s prophecy specifically had in mind Genesis 3:15.
81 Cf. Riggans, ibid., 339.
82 The words were originally composed in Latin by an unknown author in the ninth century (“Veni Emmanuel”); the first English translation was by John M. Neale in 1851. The words of the first stanza are: “O come, O come, Emmanuel / And ransom captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear,” followed by the refrain, “Rejoice! Rejoice! / Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
83 According to Dohmen, a critical—as opposed to evangelical—Old Testament scholar, “The NT taking up of Isa. 7:14 … is not a piece of theologizing inspired by the LXX translation of the verse; on the contrary, it stands solidly in the tradition of the uses made of this verse within the OT itself, which lead up to a messianic interpretation” (TDOT, 11:163).
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (17). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.