’Almah in Isaiah 7:14
By Hallvard Hagelia
Ansgar College and Theological Seminary
Any Bible translator knows that Bible translation is a risky business. The Bible is a book many people have a close and often emotional relation to; it speaks to people’s innermost feelings. The Bible is also the basic source for Christian theology. There are some biblical sayings that are very basic for Christian theology.
Isaiah 7:14 is one of these verses that has been held to be of basic significance for the dogma of the virgin birth of Christ through its interpretation in Matthew 1:23.
Norwegian Bible Society has recently published a new translation of the Bible into Norwegian, called Bibel 2011. In general, the new translation has been very well received. It has topped the bestseller lists from its publication in October 2011 through the winter. I was myself a member of the ecumenically compounded translation committee, together with 8-10 others, theologians, and philologists.
The translation committee functioned very well together but faced some challenges; one of them was the translation of the Hebrew term ‘almah Isaiah 7:14. Previously this word has been translated into Norwegian jomfru (virgin). The former translation from the Norwegian Bible Society (1978) also had jomfru, but opinions had been divided; a strong fraction wanted ung kvinne (young lady). After a long process and discussion in our committee, the translation ended up with den unge jenta (the young girl). There also was some public debate about the case, but not as much as could have been expected.
The term ‘almah is on the one side easy to translate, but on the other side, it has some tricky theological implications. The term ‘almah occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible, five times as object (Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Ps 6:1; 68:26; Prov 30:10; Song 1:6; 6:8; Isa 7:14 and 1 Chr 15:20). In HALOT these cases are translated as “marriageable girl,” a “girl who is able to be married” and “young woman,” the latter with reference to Isa 7:14. The point at issue is that the term does not refer explicitly to virginity. To this, some will argue that young ladies at that time were supposed to be virgins until marriage. The term for virgin is the much more frequent betulah, which occurs 50 times in the Hebrew Bible. This term refers exclusively to virgins. So, with this point of departure, the translation “young woman” in Isa 7:14 should seem obvious.
The theological problem comes up because Septuagint translates Isa 7:14 with parthenos, which is the Greek word for virgin. Could it be that the Vorlage for the translation in the Septuagint actually was a Hebrew version with betulah? Or does the Septuagint translator consciously have perceived ‘almah as a virgin because young girls were supposed to be virgins until marriage? Those questions are impossible to answer for certain.
The New Testament citation of Isa 7:14 (Matthew 1:23) has the Greek parthenos, and all translations render it with “virgin” – in whatever languages. Here is the biblical basis for the Christian dogma of Christ born by a virgin. This brings Isa 7:14 into theologically deep water, as the root of the virgin birth dogma. The important question is: can “virgin” in Isa 7:14 be exchanged with “young woman” without serious theological implications?
Why does Matthew render Isa 7:14 with parthenos? For the simple reason that he cites the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Isaiah scroll – there was not yet a canonical Hebrew book called “The Bible.” Matthew cites the Septuagint literally, except for rendering the verb “call” in third person plural instead of the Septuagint’s second person singular. Luke is more indirect or subtle; he calls Mary a parthenos (1:27) but cites Isa 7:14 more as a paraphrase, without mentioning parthenos (1:31).
Normal translation procedure is that a translator translates an original text, which for modern Bible translators usually are Hebrew Bible and Novum Testamentum Greace. The text of the Hebrew Bible is Codex Leningradensis, which was produced around AD 1009 in Jerusalem or Cairo and is now kept in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. A translator should not deviate from his original text in any case, except if words are unknown or enigmatic or for critical textual reasons. In the case of Isa 7:14, there is no lexical or textual problems. Even though ‘almah does only occur nine times in the Hebrew Bible, there is no problem with it or its meaning. The translator should translate straight forwardly “young woman,” without any dogmatic side glance or considerations of how it is translated by Matthew because Matthew cites the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text. In Matthew, the translator should, likewise, translate parthenos with “virgin,” without any regard to Isa 7:14 Hebrew.
Another thing is how important the virgin-young woman question actually is in Isa 7:14. In my opinion, this is a question raised by implication from the virgin birth dogma, as related to Isa 7:14 Septuagint, not by the Hebrew text of Isa 7:14 itself. The point at issue in 7:14 is not whether the lady in question is a virgin or not, but the name of the child she should give birth to, Immanuel. Modern people think that Immanuel was a regular male personal name, like it is in Judeo-Christian tradition today. But nothing indicates that Immanuel was used as a personal male name in biblical times. On the contrary, Immanuel lines up with Shear-jashub (“a remnant shall return”) in Isa 7:3 and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“the spoil speeds, the prey hastens”) in 8:1. The parallel with Immanuel becomes clearer when written the Hebrew way: Immanu-el (“with us is God”). These “names” were no male names; they were symbolic, indicators of a divine message, part of the prophet’s symbolic language. There are more cases of such symbolic “names” in Hosea 1, another 8th- century prophet. The point at issue in Isa 7:14 is not the question of virgin birth but a divine message of God being with his people at an actual historic crisis.
Any text has to be interpreted according to its textual and historical context. Isaiah 7:14 is part of chapter 7 where the historical background is a political crisis, usually dated to 734-733 BC. The Assyrians advanced westwards and had become a threat to the Arameans of Syria and Damascus and the northern kingdom of Israel, who together sought a military alliance with the southern kingdom of Judah to raise a military force strong enough to face the Assyrians. This situation caused terrible fear in Judah (cf. 7:2), and the somewhat enigmatic aphorism in 7:9b is obviously used as a comforting word to the Judeans. This is the background for the pericope of 7:10-17, where verse 14 is a central part.
According to verse 10, the Lord, obviously through Isaiah, talked to king Ahaz, who was challenged to ask for “a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (verse 11). The king played pious and refused, he would “not put the LORD to the test” (verse 12). Then Isaiah talked to “O house of David,” the dynasty itself, charging it for “weary my God’”– not Ahaz’ God; the king is now considered out of question (verse 13). With this background, Isaiah announces: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’ (verse 14). When Ahaz refused to ask God for a “sign,” God would nevertheless give it, and the sign was the child with the symbolic name ‘Immanu-el’, with us is God. This boy would come in place of the divinely refused Ahaz; he would be another king of the House of David, another davidide.
Verse 16 clearly indicates that this child would be born within a short time because he is related to the end of the actual political crisis: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” The historical name of this child is not given. No king with the name of Immanuel occurs in the Davidic dynasty of Jerusalem. The text just announces his appearance, without further historical information, except for relating him to the end or solution of the actual historic crisis. A series of historic figures have been proposed. The best candidate seems to be king Ahaz’s son, king Hezekiah, who followed his father as king of Jerusalem and gets generally a good reputation after his death (cf. 2 kings 18-20), even though this also implies a series of problems which cannot be commented upon here.
What then about Isa 7:14 as a messianic prophecy? Shortly, mediated through Matth 1:23 and Luke 1:31, the Immanuel figure should be read typologically. Matthew and Luke read the Septuagint Isa 7:14 as a prophecy, in reality using Immanuel as a prototype for Jesus as Messiah.