“Virgin” or “Young woman” in Isaiah 7:14?
Isaiah 7:14, KJV, says:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14, KJV)
Matthew 1:21-23, KJV, records the fulfillment of the prophecy:
"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." (Matthew 1:21-23, KJV)
Some critics argue that the word translated as "virgin" at Isaiah 7:14 in the KJV ought to be translated as "young woman". However, words are to be translated in its context. Here the context requires “עלמה (almah)” to mean “virgin.” The verse says the conception of the עלמה is “a sign” from the Lord. The word for “sign” (אות) is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to miracles or extraordinary displays (e.g. “signs and wonders”). The word may sometimes refer to non-supernatural signs, but it still refers to something that is worthy of note. Thus the conception in Isaiah 7:14 must be something that is different from a normal conception. The conception becomes extraordinary only by translating “עלמה” as “virgin.” A conception by an "old woman" would be a "sign" (such as the conception of John the Baptist, Luke 1:13-18), but a typical conception by a “young woman” is hardly a “sign.”
Some would argue that Isaiah 7:14 is not even referring to the virgin birth of our Lord. Even some Christians believe that Isaiah 7:14 is addressed to King Ahaz and that the prophecy was fulfilled in his lifetime, perhaps with the birth of his son Hezekiah. These critics believe that the Gospel writer Matthew appropriated the prophecy in Matthew 1:20 but the prophecy was primarily for Ahaz. If this "almah" is just Ahaz' wife, then she was not a "virgin"; it follows then, that this "almah" was just a "young woman". However, this line of thinking is based on a reading of Isaiah 7:14 in a deficient translation that does not distinguish between the singular and plural second-person pronouns. Pay attention to the second-person pronouns used in the KJV at Isaiah 7:10-14:
"Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:10-14)
Notice that the LORD begins with the focus only on Ahaz, addressing the audience as "thee". "Thee" is a singular second-person pronoun, which means only one person is being addressed - that is, Ahaz. Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the LORD, then proceeds by addressing not only Ahaz but the "house of David". The pronouns used in this latter part are "ye" and "you" - plural second-person pronouns - which means multiple people are being addressed. So the grammar does not support the theory that Isaiah 7:14 is addressed to Ahaz alone and had its primary fulfillment during Ahaz's reign. Isaiah 7:14 says that the Lord himself shall give a sign to "you". This "[to] you" is לכם (la kem) in Hebrew, which is a plural second-person pronoun. Hence the prophecy of this virgin birth was given not only to Ahaz but to all the descendants of David, referred to as the "house of David". In fact, Luke alludes to the Isaiah 7:10-14 prophecy in stating, "And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary." (Luke 1:26-27). Both Joseph and Mary, who saw the fulfillment of the prophecy, belonged to the house of David (Matthew 1:6-16, Luke 3:23-31). Thus it is wrong to think that Isaiah 7:14 had to be fulfilled during Ahaz's lifetime. The focus comes back to Ahaz's time at verse 17 ("The LORD shall bring upon thee...."), but everything from verse 13 to 16 looks beyond Ahaz's immediate circumstances.
Lastly, critics claim that Isaiah would have instead used “בּתוּלה (bethûlâh)” if he were intending to convey a virgin conception in more certain terms. These critics fail to see that even “בּתוּלה” is not a word that exclusively means “virgin”. In Joel 1:8, “בּתוּלה” refers to a married woman. Hebrew does not appear to have a single word that exclusively means "a woman who has had no sexual experience". However, that does not mean one could just pick and choose whatever rendition of "עלמה"or "בּתוּלה" that suits a theological (or anti-theological) perspective. The context is key. An unbiased reader reading Isaiah 7:14 in its historical and literary context would see that “עלמה” refers to a virgin. Furthermore, Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 in support of Mary’s virgin conception (Matthew 1:20), using the Greek word "παρθενος" which means "virgin". Even if the meaning of “עלמה” is ambiguous at Isaiah 7:14 if read in isolation, the Holy Spirit has made it clear that Isaiah 7:14 is speaking of a virgin birth.
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