Isaiah 7:14

Few verses have been disputed more that this verse when it comes to Bible translation and theology. I’ll try to keep myself to linguistics.

One of the ways to study the range of meaning of any word or phrase is to look at how it is used in context. When the dictionaries say one thing and the usage of the word suggests something else, I am not certain what to trust the most.
The Hebrew word ‘almah occurs the following places in the Hebrew OT. I’ll quote the RSV translation and indicate how the LXX translated the word:

Gen 24:43-44: behold, I am standing by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Pray give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
LXX: ἡ παρθένος – the young woman/virgin

Exo 2:8
So the girl went and called the child’s mother. LXX: ἡ νεᾶνις – the young woman/girl

Psa 86:26
the singers in front, the minstrels last, between them maidens playing timbrels
LXX: νεανίδων – of young women/girls

Pro 30:19
the way of a man with a maiden
LXX: ὁδοὺς ἀνδρὸς ἐν νεότητι – the way of a man in youth

Sng 1:3
the maidens love you LXX: νεάνιδες – young women/girls

Sng 6:8
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.
LXX: νεάνιδες – young women/girls

Isa 7:14
a young woman LXX: ἡ παρθένος – The young woman/virgin

In all cases the word refers to a young, unmarried woman, probably a teenager. From the cultural background they would all be virgins, but that aspect may not be in focus in each instance. In four cases, the LXX used the general Greek word for a young woman, but in two places the translators chose the more specific virgin. In these two cases, a marriage is imminent, so it was important for the LXX translators to emphasize that in their understanding of the Hebrew text this young woman was clearly a virgin.

Another Hebrew word, betulah, is related. It occurs 50 times in the OT, and the LXX always translates it by the specific word for virgin (parthenos), except in 3 cases where it is used as a metaphor for a city or a group of people. There the word is translated by “daughter.”

So, comparing the two words, we can conclude from the usage that their meanings overlap.
Betulah is more specific for virgin and implies the sense of an unmarried woman (usually, but not necessarily young).
‘almah is a young woman, who is also a virgin, but this aspect may or may not be in focus, depending on context. Someone might say that if Isa 7:14 was intended to convey the sense of virgin, it should have used betulah. That kind of argument is not based on linguistic reasoning, since ‘almah can also refer to a virgin, especially if she is soon to be married.

Now, I have heard that a related word in a related language may refer to a young, married woman, but I don’t remember the details. Is that really enough to overthrow the meaning established by usage in the Hebrew Bible as well as the LXX?

Of course, translation does not mean simply substituting one word in one language with a corresponding word in another language. One needs to look at how the words weave together an overall meaning in view of its cultural context.
A very literal rendering of the Hebrew text is something like:
Therefore the Lord himself, he will give you(plural) a sign: Look/Listen! The young woman/virgin pregnant and bearing a son and she will call his name “God with us!”
The predicates here are first an adjective (pregnant), then a participle (bearing/giving birth to) and then a verb that most people understand as future (she will name him). The Hebrew verb system is complex and somewhat disputed. Does the future sense of the last verb carry over to the adjective and participle? LXX obviously decided that it did, since they translate: “Therefore Lord himself he will give you(plural) a sign: Look/Listen! The virgin will have in stomach (she will become pregnant), and she will bear a son and you (Ahaz) will call his name Emmanuel.”
One question is why there is a definite article before “virgin”. I assume it means that the reference is to a young woman, not yet married, who is known to both the speaker and hearer, possibly present. Maybe a virgin to be married to the king?

The prophecy relates to future happenings, and if the woman was already pregnant, it does not need prophetic inspiration to predict that she will give birth. This reduces it to predicting that it will be a boy. Since the word apparently does refer to a virgin, a present tense does not fit. You cannot say: “The virgin is pregnant,” even though CEV did so! King Ahaz did not witness a virgin birth. That came later with Mary as a secondary fulfilment of this small part of the prophecy. One may argue that the lack of a verb implies a present tense in English, but I find this hard to accept for two reasons. It goes against the normal meaning of ‘almah, and it implies that we know Hebrew better than the LXX translators. I know that I do not.
Those were my thoughts from a linguistic and contextual viewpoint.

29 Comments

  1. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    A few comments

    I don’t see any reason to suppose young unmarried women are virgins from “cultural context”. This might take us far afield of translation, but from what we know of human breeding patterns culture has limited influence. What might be the case is that carries the connotation of “unmarried” not “never had intercourse”, which is not at all what the word means in modern English. Virgin in modern English is even losing it’s moral meaning at all which is why there is a debate as to whether sexual active homosexuals, or teens that do everything but intercourse are “virgins”.

    As for how the LXX translated it, translators have to make a choice whether they want to be consistent with the Hebrew MT or the Greek LXX when they differ. There isn’t any argument over what the Greek meant, which is virgin, there is frankly a limited argument over what the Hebrew means. The real argument is how much weight to give Matthew’s quote in the NT. Stripping out the theology it is hard to make the case. You end up arguing we should defer to the LXX.

    As an aside quoting the RSV is probably a bad idea. That translation is influenced by the LXX, and Christian tradition. Which is a limited version of begging the question. Better would be to use something like the NJPSV which makes use of other Hebrew / Aramaic sources.

    Finally in terms of the prophecy argument:
    The sign is a girl getting pregnant is puny but that’s not the point of the passage. First read 2Kings 16 so you have the context. Now read all of Isaiah 7. King Ahaz of Judea is freaking out that he is going to get attacked by a Syrian, Israeli alliance. God wants to prove to him that he is going to be fine, but Ahaz would rather bribe the king of Assyria into helping him. So God sends Isaiah who essentially tells him that within 15 years Syria and Israel will be over, so this is a short term problem and he should put his faith in God not Assyria. The way he does this is quite dramatic, he points to a young woman in Ahaz’s court (likely a daughter of Ahaz) and tells him she is going to get pregnant and give birth to a child. Before that child turns 13 Syria and Israel will be gone. That’s a pretty strong promise, nothing puny about it at all. The miracle is not that she is going to give birth but rather how short the political alliance will last.

  2. Iver Larsen
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi, CD-host.

    Thanks for commenting and the added background from 2 Kings. It appears from your last paragraph that you agree that the pregnancy is a future rather than a present event. Who the young woman/virgin is we have no way of knowing.

    The Jewish translation (Tanakh) is understandably biased against Matthew and Christian interpretations. I could have quoted David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible. He says: “The young woman (footnote: virgin) will become pregnant.”

    My reason for using the LXX and seeing how they translated the Hebrew word is not a matter of following the LXX or the Hebrew text, but rather that the Hebrew text is to be understood as future “the virgin/young woman will get pregnant” rather than present “is pregnant”. There is no present tense in the text. All verbs show imperfective aspect which in this context translate into English futures.

  3. Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    There is no present tense in the text.

    Well, if you are talking about the biblical Hebrew text, of course not, because there is no such thing as a present tense. But there is two present participles, הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת harah weyoledet, literally “being pregnant and giving birth”, which in modern Hebrew are read as present tense verbs. But the tense of these two linked verbs is the same. So the choice really is between “is pregnant and is currently in the process of giving birth” (possible, but not a prophecy of the birth of Jesus) and “will be pregnant and will give birth”.

    CD-Host, it might be instructive to consider how modern languages from the same cultural context classify women. In the middle eastern language I know best, there is a two-way distinction between a “girl” and a “woman”, the former meaning unmarried and generally presumed virgin, and the latter married (or widowed or divorced) and presumed not virgin. Of course not every “girl” was actually a virgin, and a qualifying word could be added to specify virginity where necessary. But I think a prostitute was always an “immoral woman” rather than an “immoral girl”, suggesting that someone known not to be a virgin was considered a “woman”. I would expect that in the generally rather similar ancient Hebrew culture the distinctions would be similar. And it seems that Hebrew `alma works rather like “girl” in that other language.

  4. Iver Larsen
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Peter,

    I agree that classical Hebrew did not have tense, only aspect. When I said there is no present tense in the text, I was trying to show that there is no clear grammatical reason to use a present tense in English. If Hebrew did not have tense, it did not have present participles either, just (qal etc) participles. I have been reading Levinsohn’s article on Aspect and Backgrounding in (Classical) Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is fairly irrelevant.

    Levinsohn says in section 1: “The verbal participle in Hebrew has imperfective aspect because it portrays events as in process or as not completed at the point of reference.”

    Harah is supposed to be an adjective, and the following participle encodes imperfective aspect. This young woman cannot possibly be in the process of getting pregnant at the time of speaking or habitually getting pregnant, and she is not in the process of giving birth, so the linguistics of Hebrew point to a future occurrence as far as I can see. Of your two options, I can only see the second as being reasonable.

  5. Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Peter –

    I think we agree that alma doesn’t mean “virgin” in modern English.

    CD-Host, it might be instructive to consider how modern languages from the same cultural context classify women.

    I’d argue such a thing doesn’t exist. We just don’t have any evidence for cultural continuity. And certainly from European history, where we do have cultural continuity and do understand the mating / breeding patterns; these changes happen very rapidly from generation to generation. To pick the USA:

    In the 1890s women were regulated births and median age of first marriage for females was over 22. As the economy improved that fell to almost late teens by 1950s. Then as we starting shifting wealth up the socio-economic ladder it is has climbed back up to over 26. So in 120 years we’ve had an up down up cycle play out.

    These sorts of shifts generation to generation are not unusual. We see them all the time European history. I think the evidence is that human breeding / mating patterns are highly influenced by environmental factors like crowding and not so much by religious attitudes. Word usage on ties between “young” and “virgin” would likely shift dramatically depending on whether the population is growing or shrinking. In a shrinking population women are encouraged to regulate births, which means later marriage and more premarital sex, what we observe today in the western world. In a growing population women are encouraged to breed heavily which means early marriage and more adultery. [NB: I'm using growing and shrinking here a bit loosely. There is a actually about a 1 generation lag between changes in fertility and the direction of changes in population, or a 2 generation lag between changes in fertility and population. I'm oversimplifying in the above]

    Obviously in all cultures and all times, intercourse is a rite of passage. Things like:
    1) First menstruation
    2) Financial independence (moving out of father’s house)
    3) Engagement
    4) Marriage
    5) Having had intercourse
    6) Birth of a first child
    7) Legal majority.
    8) Demonstrates adult maturity
    … are all possible distinction between “girl” and “woman”. I don’t see any reason to believe that (5) is particularly distinguished. Amanda Knox who has been in the news lately was at the time of the charge a 20 years old and sexual active (met 1,2,5,7). Yet people freely use “girl” for her because she doesn’t meet 4, 6, 8.

  6. Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    It appears from your last paragraph that you agree that the pregnancy is a future rather than a present event.

    Yes I do agree with you there. I have problems with using the word virgin, which in 2011 English has an exclusively sexual meaning. I don’t have any problem with the future part. I think the context in Isaiah and Kings is definitive. Further since there is strong support and this reading is consistent with Christian tradition…. There is no reason to go out of one’s way.

  7. Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Iver. I had understood hara as the participle of a stative verb HRH “be pregnant”, not “become pregnant”. But this is from memory so I may have got it wrong. A woman can simultaneously be pregnant and be in labour, and we don’t know that she wasn’t at the time Isaiah spoke, so I don’t see the present tense as ruled out. But I agree that the future interpretation is more likely.

    The point about modern Hebrew is simply that many exegetes, especially Jewish ones, read the Bible as if it is modern Hebrew, and in this case they would misunderstand this verse as specifying the present.

    CD-Host, it is easy to demonstrate a large degree of cultural continuity between ancient Hebrew culture and today’s more traditional Middle Eastern cultures. Of course some things have changed, but many things have not. One thing that has not changed is the strong taboo against pre-marital sex, as enshrined in the Torah and the Qur’an. Another is the cultural requirement that first intercourse is demonstrated to take place on the wedding night – the practices of Deuteronomy 22:13-19 are still alive, although women know how to fake the proof. So I stand by what I wrote.

  8. Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, it is easy to demonstrate a large degree of cultural continuity between ancient Hebrew culture and today’s more traditional Middle Eastern cultures.

    Really? And who has done this easy task?

    Of course some things have changed, but many things have not. One thing that has not changed is the strong taboo against pre-marital sex, as enshrined in the Torah and the Qur’an.

    First off the Torah is written several hundred years after these events, the Qur’an almost 1500 years. There is as much difference between the people in the Isaiah 7 story and the people of Qur’an as between yourself and Attila’s people.

    Lots of cultures have fairly strong prohibitions against pre-marital sex. It is not clear that the torah makes any distinction between marriage and committed sexual intercourse. But assuming it did, that doesn’t change much. There are plenty of cultures that have strong prohibitions against pre-marital sex and it has almost no correlation (and if anything the data show a mild negative correlation) with the frequency and regularity of pre-marital sex. What the frequency of pre-marital sex has a lot to do is with the marriage age, and that has a lot to do with conditions like crowding.

    Another is the cultural requirement that first intercourse is demonstrated to take place on the wedding night – the practices of Deuteronomy 22:13-19 are still alive, although women know how to fake the proof. So I stand by what I wrote.

    And again that exists in plenty of cultures today too. And the men who have often been one of the bride’s earlier lovers are just as anxious to fake the results as she is. So you can you stand on what you wrote, but that doesn’t change the reality.

    ____

    Of course this takes us far afield. The vast majority of middle-schoolers are virgins in the USA. If I wrote “Jenny is in middle school” it would still be inaccurate to translate that as “Jenny is a virgin”.

  9. Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, have you read anything by Kenneth E. Bailey? (Affiliate link, UK only)

  10. Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, I could also ask which scholars hold that the Torah was written several hundred years after Isaiah, and on what evidence they base their speculation.

  11. Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I could also ask which scholars hold that the Torah was written several hundred years after Isaiah, and on what evidence they base their speculation.

    Pretty much all of them, unless they date them all late. That was the basis of the entire Copenhagen School. Many would have dated it later than that. John Van Seters, Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, and Philip Davies. You also have modern versions of the documentary hypothesis: Rolf Rendtorff, Erhard Blum.

    CD-Host, have you read anything by Kenneth E. Bailey? (Affiliate link, UK only)

    No. But but glancing at his body of work he seems mostly new testament. Which book in particular?

  12. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, I thought the basis of the Copenhagen School was that there was no evidence for the dating of the Torah and so no one can be sure that it is earlier than the Hellenistic period. I don’t know precisely what they would say about Isaiah but their method would imply that they can’t date that definitely either. So to use their two sets of admittedly speculative dates to make a definite and unqualified statement on the relative dating is speculation twice over. That’s why I asked for evidence.

    The work of Bailey I know best is his older Poet and Peasant. But I have seen good recommendations of the more recent Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (that’s a US affiliate link). Yes, more New Testament, but his method demonstrates the general link between the cultures.

  13. Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    For obvious reasons, I looked at this in great detail for And God Said. Among my conclusions were that (as in many other places) the LXX translators weren’t careful enough with their lexical translation choices to support the kind of analysis you’re trying to do here.

    Particularly telling is Genesis 24:16, where two Hebrew words — na’arah and b’tulah — are both translated as the Greek parthenos. The result in Greek is “the parthenos was … a parthenos” (“the virgin was a virgin”) for Hebrew that reads, “the na’arah was a b’tulah” (“the young woman was a virgin”).

    Because most young women were virgins, and vice versa, the LXX used the terms interchangeably, much the way I might use “teenager” and “high-school student” interchangeably. But I don’t think there’s any more reason to think that alma means “virgin” than there is to think that “teenager” means “high-school student.”

    -Joel

  14. Iver Larsen
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Joel,

    In my view you are making several linguistic mistakes here.

    The first one is that you do not distingush carefully between sense and reference. The sense of na’arah is a young woman. The reference in Gen 24:14,16 is to a young woman who is a virgin. When this young woman/virgin was introduced in v. 14, the LXX translator decided to focus more on her being a virgin than the Hebrew did, but both the Hebrew and Greek contexts assert that she was both a virgin and a young woman.

    The second is that you cannot expect a translator to be tied to a simple word-for-word correspondence. Such lack of correspondence does not mean that they were not careful. The translator here decided to focus on the fact that she was a virgin from the start, because that was important to him. He could have called her a neanis, which is a common translation for ‘almah when marriage is not imminent or in focus, and it is also a common translation of na’arah, except that the translator of Genesis did not use that word. Translators have their idiosyncracies.

    The third is that you are producing somewhat of a caricature of the LXX translation. The beginning of v. 16 has a back reference and says: The (aforementioned) young woman/virgin was very praiseworthy in appearance/face. She was a virgin. I cannot do justice to the Greek text by using English words, so I have tried with the slashes. That there is a substantial overlap between the semantic ranges of young woman and virgin in both Greek and Hebrew means that when the reference is to a young woman who is a virgin, one can choose either word. It does not mean that the LXX treats the two words as exact synonyms just like your teenager and high-school student are not exact synonyms. They are not interchangeable in general, but when the reference is to a young woman who is also a virgin, both words may be used depending on the desired focus.

  15. Don Fisher
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I don’t think we should forget about the earliest human commentary on Isaiah 7.14, namely the prophecy found in Micah 5.2,3 which shares the motif of the pregnant woman who is to give birth, specifying that it will be to one whose origin is from eternity. As for the term `alma, I don’t find any place where it means “young married woman” (as the Isaiah context requires); the presumption is that every `alma is a virgin until she is proven not to be. Thus the RSV elsewhere translates the word as “maiden” (Prov 30.19). For those of us who believe in predictive prophecy, if the events recorded in Matthew and Luke are true and the Holy Spirit actually overshadowed the virgin Mary, any difficulties with Isaiah 7.14 are removed as to the meaning intended by God in that passage.

  16. Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Don, I believe in predictive prophecy, but that does not compel me to believe that at this point Isaiah was predicting events more than 500 years in the future, rather than ones about 15 years in the future.

  17. Posted November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad we have the Holy Spirit and are not dependent on the varying views of disagreeing scholars.

  18. Iver Larsen
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I just looked up Gen 24:16 in the NETS translation of the LXX. They say: “Now the maiden was very beautiful in appearance; she was a maiden – no man had known her.” Brenton translates the same verse: “And the virgin was very beautiful in appearance, she was a virgin, a man had not known her.”

    The Greek text uses parthenos twice in this verse but with different meanings. A translation that respects the context and these meaning differences could be: “Now the young woman was very beautiful in appearance, and she was a virgin – she had not been with any man.”

    The Hebrew text uses two different words where the second is specific for virgin, while the first is more general for a young woman. Greek parthenos covers both to some degree, so the LXX translator used the same word, but the context indicates a different sense, and this difference was not handled properly by Brenton or NETS. For some reason the Genesis translator never used the Greek word I would have expected for young girl (neanis), but throughout the book used only parthenos and 3 times he used pais, including a reference to Rebekka in 24:28, where NETS has “girl” and Brenton has “damsel”.

    One of the problems we often meet is that people tend to want to equate words across language boundaries and make what is called a concordant translation, i.e. always translate the same word in the original with the same word in the new language. It is easier to say parthenos=virgin or betulah=virgin or na’arah=young woman, but words are almost never equal in meaning across languages. They have semantic overlap, but the area of meaning of any word is best understood by looking at how the word is used within the language it belongs to, not by jumping to a “corresponding” English word and then think about how that word is used within English.

  19. Posted November 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Peter

    CD-Host, I thought the basis of the Copenhagen School was that there was no evidence for the dating of the Torah and so no one can be sure that it is earlier than the Hellenistic period.

    No, what they argued was there was no evidence for a late dating or a precise dating. There is a lot of evidence for imprecise staged datings. For example, there are archeological mistakes that make for major plot points in Joshua, that is it could not possibly have come from the “time of Joshua”. The society that wrote Joshua must have come well after the events that led to changes in the archeological landscape that created those records.

    On the other hand we have references to Torah materials as we get further and the form of the religion seems heavily Babylonian influenced. So you end up with something fairly close to the Torah having existed at least by the Greek/Syrian occupation, with most materials dating back to Babylonian occupation.

    This isn’t much different for the textual reconstruction that was done for the NT, except there is less material to work with, but we are vastly more experienced than we were 2 centuries ago.

    but his method demonstrates the general link between the cultures.

    How can his method possibly do that if it focuses on the NT period? There is cultural continuity between the pilgrims and current day America. There is no cultural continuity between the people who were here 1000 years ago and current day America. A later period just doesn’t prove the point in question.

    I don’t know how you can make those assertions, that he proved things without having read his work and the criticism. And everything I’ve read is that he assumes the continuity and uses it to develop an interpretive hermeneutic. Which falls far short of being able to do the sorts of detailed analysis of human mating patterns we can do for Europe where we know these things changed generation to generation and place to place.

  20. Posted November 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think we should forget about the earliest human commentary on Isaiah 7.14, namely the prophecy found in Micah 5.2,3

    What evidence do you have that Micah is a commentary on the character in Isaiah? This seems to be an entirely different prophecy about a new Jerusalem, a new Exodus, a new David, a new Jacob, a new judgement, and a new worship.

    Micah is obviously messianic, but the question is whether Isaiah 7 is messianic in its original intent.

  21. Posted November 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, if your claim concerning the Torah of “most materials dating back to Babylonian occupation” is true, that contradicts your claim that it was written “several hundred years after” the events of Isaiah 7.

    As I said, I have read some of Bailey’s works, but not his most recent one. Your parallel with North America is irrelevant because since the time of Jesus, or of Isaiah, the Middle East has not been taken over by a people with an alien culture who almost wiped out the original inhabitants. But just as the surviving Native Americans preserve a culture similar to that of their pre-Columbian ancestors, so despite many invasions the common people of Palestine preserve much of the culture of their ancient forebears.

  22. Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, if your claim concerning the Torah of “most materials dating back to Babylonian occupation” is true, that contradicts your claim that it was written “several hundred years after” the events of Isaiah 7.

    Ahaz 736 – 716 BCE
    Events in Isaiah 732 BCE
    Babylonian captivity 597 – 538 BCE
    primary authorship of torah (my theory) 520-440 BCE

    Your parallel with North America is irrelevant because since the time of Jesus, or of Isaiah, the Middle East has not been taken over by a people with an alien culture who almost wiped out the original inhabitants.

    The issue isn’t the middle east it is Palestine. And yes that area has been taking over multiple times with most of the original inhabitants scattered. One such event is the one Isaiah and Ahaz are responding to. Ahaz is going to ignore Isaiah’s prophecy (as well as others by Isaiah, Hosea and Micah) and trigger the Assyrian conquest under Tiglath-Pileser III. During Ahaz’s rein he destroys the House of Pekah brings in the House of Hoshea the Assyrian captivity and then poof Israel is gone forever.

    Moreover as I mentioned vague cultural continuity is not enough. We do have records from Europe and they do have a continuous culture and still breeding patterns change.

  23. Don Fisher
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Isaiah speaks of the Messiah’s incarnation and His birth as a little child (9.6), with his younger contemporary Micah adding the place of His birth (5.2). Both prophets connect the Messiah’s deity with His birth. For Isaiah, that birth is the means by which God keeps His covenantal promise to be present with humanity (the son will be called “with-us-God”), a fact presented as a threat (“sign”) not merely against Ahaz, but against the whole “House of David”. That is, the Messiah would be born in a land under deprivation (the meaning of “eating butter and honey”) with the implication that the House of David would have lost its power. The Messiah would then replace the merely human kings of the royal house.

    As to the question of whether a lapse of time (whether 15 years or 500+ years) diminishes the contemporary relevance of such a threat: the prophets regularly described, as if in immediate succession, events that later proved to be separated even by millennia. A threat may act as a motivation no matter how distant its actual fulfillment may really be, provided that the contemporary audience doesn’t know when the fulfillment will take place (even as our Lord’s second coming should motivate our faithful conduct no matter how distant it may in fact be). I think the push for a sense of immediacy in the fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is a bit overplayed (see 7.8 “within 65 years Ephraim will be shattered”, hardly giving a sense of immediacy to Isaiah’s hearers).

    In the same way, Isaiah’s contemporary, Micah, links the Messiah’s deity with His birth, predicting how the people of the one “whose origin is from eternity” would be abandoned “until the time when she who is in labor has given birth”. See Helmut Ringgren (The Messiah in the Old Testament, p.34) who points out that the Micah passage “is in full agreement with the Immanuel passage in Isaiah”.

  24. Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host, first this is your theory, not unqualified fact as you first presented it, then you have less than 200 years from the events to the end of the captivity, which doesn’t count as “several hundred”. You now seem to be back-pedalling on your “most materials dating back to Babylonian occupation” claim.

    I suppose what you are really trying to claim through all of this is that the pre-exilic Israelite community that Isaiah knew had very different moral standards from those reflected in the Torah, and also attested as far as is documented in all ancient and modern Middle Eastern cultures. Well, the difficulty with ruling that picture out is that your method allows you to pick and choose which parts of the Hebrew Bible you accept as historical. But I would want to look for some positive evidence of that radical shift, not just the absence of compelling evidence against it.

  25. Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    and also attested as far as is documented in all ancient and modern Middle Eastern cultures.

    Actually if that were true it would be pretty easy to make those assertions. Lets pick Egypt where we have a semi-stable culture.

    Over the 1000s of years we have:
    * heavy female genital mutation — the goal is to ensure female monogamy
    at one extreme

    while at the others:

    * widespread cult of Hathor (planet Venus) where girls on “first blood” served in the temple (or on full moon festivals) till they had their first live child proving they were fertile and thus marriageable. A society which structurally prohibits female monogamy.

    There is quite a bit of diversity in documented Middle eastern cultures.

  26. Mike Sangrey
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Speaking to the Gen 24 observation…

    The English ‘virgin’ is a very specific word today. παρθένος is not. To take up Joel’s point, the Greek word is similar to how we use man or boy in the senses depicted by the following sentences:

    1. “That man is a man.”
    2. “That boy is a boy.”

    I do not know whether the construction “X is /indefinite marker/ X.” forms a language universal, and the Greek of the LXX is a bit more complex than simply X is X, but it seems to me this construction presumes the noun has two senses and the generates a specific semantic result. The latter sense is understood to be a potential attribute of the former sense. I do think we have that same connection with the two senses of παρθένος. So, one can say παρθένος is a παρθένος, and it makes sense. It would be very semantically similar to our English sentence, “The young woman is a virgin.”

    I think the more fundamental problem is much of the exegesis present in the vast amount of literature focused on Matthew 1:23 doesn’t take into consideration what linguists call presuposition and focus.

    Basically, at the point in the discourse where Matthew 1:23 occurs, Mary’s virginity is very well established. Matthew has made that point. So, the virginity of Isaiah’s young woman is irrelevant. She couldn’t have been a virgin and pregnant, anyway. There is no miraculous signal in Isaiah. For Isaiah, the miraculous is not in scope, the baby’s name is.

    For Matthew, the virginity of Mary is presupposed when the reader gets to verse 23. Given the ambiguity of παρθένος, Matthew had to well establish this before he cited Isaiah, or readers would not have presupposed Mary’s virginity in the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The presupposing of the miraculous energizes the seriousness of who this baby is as related by the Isaiah citation. The miraculous means something, and Isaiah tells us what that means.

    Since the information is presupposed when reading verse 23, the virginity is not the focus.

    The focus speaks to new information. And that new information, the information Matthew pulls in from Isaiah, is that this miraculous event signals an Emmanuel event–a God with us event. Matthew places this as focus in order to stress it and to generate a large amount of interest. The reader is to rivet their attention on this new information–God has arrived.

    We focus on the virginity. It’s Emmanuel which holds the importance.

  27. Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Mike, in Matthew I suspect the focus is not so much on Emmanuel as on its interpretation With us, God. After all it is only a modern typographic convention which often puts the latter in parentheses and so makes it look less important. For Matthew this was the climactic and in focus end of the sentence, and his subtle way of attesting to the divinity of the child.

  28. Mike Sangrey
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Peter,

    Yep. I agree.

  29. Iver Larsen
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Mike,

    Thanks for your comments. You seem to agree with me that because of the various senses of parthenos, a more accurate and context sensitive translation of Gen 24:16 is “The/that young woman was very beautiful, and she was a virgin.” Of course, that is clear from the Hebrew, but it is still possible to get the same meaning from the Greek translation when read in context and in recognition of the various senses of parthenos as used by the translator of Genesis. This is somewhat different from the use of the same word by the translator of Isaiah. In Isaiah the word appears to be restricted to “virgin young woman”. The word occurs five times in Isaiah, four of these translate betulah (female virgin of any age), while the one in 7:14 translates the more specific almah (young woman/virgin). But then, the Hebrew na’arah (young woman) does not occur in Isaiah, and only once in all the prophetic books.

    We also need to be careful about equating the meaning of a word in older Greek and how it was used in the NT. This is expressed by BDAG in their entry where they make a distinction between the general sense and how it is used in “our literature”:

    παρθένος, ου, ἡ (s. prec. entry; Hom.+, gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, with or without focus on virginity; s. esp. PKöln VI, 245, 12 and ASP 31, ’91 p. 39) and ὁ (s. reff. in b) in our lit. one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person.

    In terms of Isaiah 7:14, I agree that there was no miracle intended in the prophetic sign to king Ahaz nor in its first fulfillment in that context. It is the context of Matthew that makes the secondary fulfillment miraculous. Both passages emphasize that God does want to be with his people, although Ahaz was not a person who wanted to seek that presence and help from God.

    Sentences like “That boy is a boy” makes no sense to me, but they apparently do to you.

    One point of disagreement. Whether the young girl in Isaiah is pregnant at the time of speaking or not is a matter of interpretation. The Hebrew is fairly open. The adjective harah carries no tense or aspect, so it could refer to a past, present or future state. The following verbal participle implies an event that has not yet taken place, so it becomes future in Greek and English.

    There are two other other places where we have harah followed by the same verb for giving birth:

    Gen 16:11 You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. (NLT) The preceding context makes it clear that Hagar is already pregnant. It does not come from harah in itself or the verb for giving birth.

    Jdg 13:5 for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. (RSV), You will become pregnant and give birth to a son. (NLT)

    In Isaiah 7:14 it is a combination of lexical and contextual factors including the predictive, prophetic genre that suggest that the most likely intended meaning is as NIV has it: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son.” That is how the LXX translator understood the text and there is no good reason to claim that he was wrong.


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