The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (part 2)

In the first part of this study, I discussed briefly the original context of Isaiah 7:14. Now I must address the most notorious points of translation and interpretation in the verse: (1) translating hm*l=u^ (±almâ), and (2) identifying the woman and son of the prophecy.

To begin with the translation, I should first point out that dozens of studies on this verse (and the translation of it) have been made, in recent decades alone; I am breaking no new ground here. The feminine noun hm*l=u^ occurs 6 times in the Old Testament, apart from Isa 7:14:

Three references in the plural (all from poetry):

  • Psalm 68:26 (English v. 25)—describing a ritual procession in the Sanctuary, women (toml*u&) are among those playing instruments following the singers.
  • Song of Songs 1:3—the bride/beloved sings: “your name is oil [i.e. perfumed ointment] poured out, upon this [i.e. therefore] toml*u& love you”.
  • Song of Songs 6:8—the man/lover/bridgegroom sings of the beloved: “sixty queens they (are), and eighty <yv!g=l^yP!, and (of) toml*u& there is no counting, [v. 9] (but) one she (is), my dove…”. The second plural noun in the series is usually translated “concubines”, but the exact derivation is uncertain.

One reference in the single, without the article:

  • Proverbs 30:19—One of a list of three/four things ‘too wonderful to understand’ is the way of a rb#G# with an hm*l=u^. rb#G# here refers to a “strong” (in the sense of vibrant, virile) young man, and hm*l=u^ may have something of the same basic meaning (see below).

Two other references in the single, with the article (as in Isa 7:14):

  • Genesis 24:43—the servant of Abraham, looking for a bride for Isaac, prays to God for a sign, “…it shall be [i.e. let it be] the hm*l=u^ coming out to draw water, and I say to her…”
  • Exodus 2:8—the reference apparently is to Moses’ sister Miryam, who upon her request of Pharaoh’s daughter is told to “go” and fetch the child’s [that is Moses’] mother; the narrative simply states “and the hm*l=u^ went and called…”.

Several points can be determined from the data:

First, that the instances in the plural all appear to represent at least semi-technical terms (ritual musicians, women in the royal court or harem); the term[s] may correspond to “virgins”, but not necessarily specifically so (except perhaps in Song 6:8). Instances in the singular, on the other hand, appear to be used in the more general sense of a girl or young woman, especially in the case of Exodus 2:8.
Second, with the exception perhaps of Exodus 2:8 (and Ps 68:26?), the references have a clear sexual implication. At the very least, the idea of sexual maturity (and attractiveness) seems to be implied. Proverbs 30:19 may draw upon an original sense of “strength”—that is, the sexual strength or virility of a young woman, parallel to the word rb#G#. There is a corresponding male term <l#u# (±elem) for a ‘strong’ young man (1 Sam 17:56; 20:22, etc), and abstract noun <ym!Wlu& (±¦lûmîm) with the sense of “youthful strength/vigor” (Job 20:11; 33:25; Psalm 89:46; Isa 54:4).
Third, all references using the singular form can be understood in terms of female youths who have reached, or are just coming into, adolescence—that is, of physical/sexual maturity. In Genesis 24:43, and presumably Prov 30:19, an age suitable for marriage is indicated. Whether these conditions apply equally to the technical usage in Psalms and the Song of Songs is not as readily apparent.
Fourth, while a marriageable age may be implied, in no instance (singular or plural) is hm*l=u^ clearly and specifically used of a married woman.
In conclusion, I would say that hm*l=u^ (in the singular and/or general sense) most accurately refers to a young teenage girl, sexually mature, who, according to the cultural norms of the period, is at the age suitable for marriage.

From this, it should be clear that “virgin” in modern English is not a suitable term overall for translating hm*l=u^; the word hl*WtB= is the correct term for a virgin per se (as countless Jewish, Christian, and secular scholars have pointed  out). However “virgins” may, perhaps, fit the technical sense of the plural, at least in Song 1:3; 6:8, but even this is by no means certain. On the other hand “young woman” or “(young) girl”, while correct in the most generic sense, is more appropriate for translating hr*u&n~ (as Jerome [Against Jovinian 1:32] and others had already pointed out many centuries ago). “Maid(en)” is perhaps better as a compromise translation, but it is still not entirely accurate. The fact is, no term in English properly captures the meaning of hm*l=u^, which leaves the translator in something of a quandary.

Let us consider how the word was rendered in the Greek:

In the Septuagint (LXX) version, in 5 of the 7 instances hm*l=u^ is translated by nea=ni$ (pl. nea/nide$), which in turn would be translated “young girl/woman”, “female youth”, etc. Prov 30:19 uses the cognate word (fem. of neo/th$). parqe/no$ more commonly translates hl*WtB=, to indicate a (chaste) unmarried woman or “virgin” per se. Interestingly, parqe/no$ originally seems to have much the same basic sense as hm*l=u^, that is, for a young sexually mature girl of a marrying age. The LXX does translate hm*l=u^h* with h( parqe/no$ in Gen 24:43, presumably to indicate a chaste girl (a “virgin” as such).

Famously, the LXX also translates hm*l=u^h* with h( parqe/no$ in Isa 7:14. Subsequent Greek versions (Symmachus, Aquila, Theodotion), attempting to keep closer and more consistently to the Hebrew, use h( nea=ni$ instead. It is difficult to know the intention of the translator here, particularly since the LXX books were almost certainly translated by different people (in different places?) over a considerable number of years. It is possible that in Gen 24:43 the ‘original’ sense of parqe/no$ is meant (see above), and perhaps also in Isaiah 7:14. Since the Isa 7:14 prophecy speaks of a “sign” (shmei=on, for Hebrew toa), which can, occasionally refer to a wondrous event or omen, the translator may have a miracle in mind (certainly this is how Matt. 1:22-23 and the early Church understood it). Scholars have occasionally suggested that parqe/no$ is a gloss by later Christian scribes. More likely, I think, is that it is an “interpretive gloss” by the original (Jewish) translator, in order to clarify the chaste condition of the “young woman” in question. The same may be true in Gen 24:43—the purity of the mother of Israel, just as that of mother of the prophesied child, is being safeguarded, to avoid any possible misunderstanding. It would be as if to say “the young girl, who is chaste”. Indeed, if Matthew had used nea=ni$, early Christian scribes almost certainly would have modified it to parqe/no$ themselves, in order to avoid having readers misconstrue the meaning. In the any event, the Gospel writer (Matt 1:22-23) uses h( parqe/no$, as in the LXX, clearly indicating a miraculous (virginal) birth (cf. vv. 19, 25 and also the wording [and variants] in v. 16).

In conclusion, I would make two fundamental points:

  1. “Virgin” does not seem particularly appropriate to translate hm*l=u^ in Isaiah 7:14 (nor exactly does “young woman”)
  2. This fact, in and of itself, does not affect the traditional Christian understanding of the verse (in spite of frequent protestations to the contrary).

To demonstrate this more clearly, it is necessary to delve deeper into the identity of the woman and child in the prophecy, as well subsequent Messianic (including Christian) interpretations of the verse, which I will do in part 3.

English Translations which departed from the traditional rendering of “virgin” in Isa 7:14 have endured sharp criticism and protest at times from religiously and theologically conservative circles, including publicized incidents where copies of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) were burned. According to a certain level of religious logic, using another word or phrase (instead of “virgin”) to translate hm*l=u^ is tantamount to denying the virgin birth of Jesus. However, this need not (and certainly ought not) to be the case.

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