What follows is a version of an article I've written for Logos' print magazine, Bible Study Magazine.
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 a sexual 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 in Isa 7:14 meant “virgin.”” His ignorance led to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. Are these assertions correct?The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth: The Wording in Isaiah 7:14
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; plural: 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 becoming 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 the “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 and concubines 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 a sexual virgin.”
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 the biblical text. 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. 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.
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 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.The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth: Mary was a Virgin
Some scholars argue that Mary’s status as a sexual virgin isn’t clear. They suggest (akin to the argument about almahin Isaiah 7:14) that the New Testament description of her as parthenos(“virgin”) is also a misunderstanding. This term, so we are told, may refer to a temple priestess or, more normally, to a young woman who isn’t yet married (who may or may not have been a sexual virgin). In other words, the term may refer to a sexual virgin but doesn’t have to.
This is also poor thinking. While it is true that parthenos doesn’t require the meaning of sexual virginity, Matthew is clear that Mary was a virgin. Matthew calls Mary parthenosin Matt 1:23. He later says that when Joseph took Mary as a wife (i.e., when their betrothal period ended) he “did not know her” until she had given birth to Jesus. “Knowing” a woman is a well understood idiom from the Old Testament and biblical culture for “having sex” (e.g., Gen 4:1; 4:25). Matthew’s intent is clear. He’s making sure readers understand that this particular parthenoswas a sexual virgin.
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John H. Walton, “Isa 7: 14: What’s in a Name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987):289-306
Charles L. Feinberg, “The Virgin Birth in the Old Testament and Isaiah 7: 14,” Bibliotheca Sacra 119,no. 475 (1962):251-58