A gracEmail subscriber writes: “I am in conversation with a Reformed Jew about objections to recognizing Jesus as Messiah. Can you help me understand why Christians interpret Isaiah 7:14 as referring to a “virgin” but Jews do not. I have also heard that the Hebrew Bible has a definite article before the word in question. Is that true?”
* * *
As Isaiah 7 opens, the kings of Israel and Syria have joined forces to invade Jerusalem. God sends Isaiah and his son Shear-Jashub to tell King Ahaz of Judah to trust God. God even invites Ahaz to request a divine sign for his assurance. Ahaz refuses, so God promises a sign of his own (Isa. 7:1-12). Some young woman will conceive and bear a son. Before that boy is old enough to know good and evil, Syria and Israel will have fallen to the Assyrians. Judah also will be emptied of its people. As a result, the boy who will shortly be born (and others the Assyrians will leave in the land) will eat curds (a delicacy that will become plentiful because of the low ratio of people to cows) and honey (which is found in the wild). When all this all happens, it will be a “sign” to Ahaz that he should have trusted God (Isa. 7:13-25), who always remained “with” his people (“Immanuel”) through good times and bad.
The Hebrew Bible does not suggest anything unusual about the young woman’s conception. She is an almah – a “young woman” – with no indication of her sexual experience. Centuries later, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (a version known as the Septuagint), the translators replaced the Hebrew word almah in this verse with the Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos). Even then, however, Jews who lived before Jesus was born did not read Isaiah 7 as messianic prophecy, so far as we know, or expect some virgin to conceive a child. Only after Jesus was born from a virgin did Matthew remember the word parthenos in the Septuagint and the Spirit turned on a light inside his head: “Here is one more way that Jesus ‘fulfilled’ the Jewish Scriptures!” To us, “fulfillment” usually means that a specific prophetic prediction later occurred as foretold. Matthew and the early church saw “fulfillment” much more broadly – including things corresponding, matching or being similar. When Matthew ties Isaiah 7:14 to Mary’s divine conception, he is not proving something to his audience; he is explaining the Scriptures in light of Jesus.
The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does have a definite article before almah, but that is not significant. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, almah might always refer to a virgin, but the word almah itself does not require that meaning. The Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos) appears about 65 times in the Septuagint; only twice does it translate the Hebrew word almah (Isa. 7:14 and Gen. 24:43). Nor does the Septuagint always translate almah with parthenos. In fact, Christians should hope that the almah first envisioned in Isaiah 7:14 was not a virgin mother. For, as the context makes clear, that young lady’s son was born centuries before the birth of Jesus. If that almah conceived while still a virgin, Mary’s experience would only be the second of its kind.