And all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."
Matthew 1:22-23 (NAB)

In the biblical passage above, Saint Matthew is quoting from the Old Testament Book of the prophet Isaiah.  It is a quote from the "sign" Isaiah gave to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14.  The Greek Septuagint translation in use during Jesus' lifetime translates the Hebrew words ha almah into the Greek as "the virgin," using the Greek word parthenos.  Since the Christian era, Jewish scholars have maintained that the Hebrew word almah does not mean "virgin" but instead refers to a young woman recently married.  The Septuagint translation of this Hebrew word as "virgin," however, is an important witness to an early Jewish interpretation of this word as "virgin", a translation accepted by Saint Matthew and applied to the virgin birth of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. 

According to Christian tradition, Saint Matthew was a Levite who, because of his Temple education, understood how to both read and write Hebrew. In using the prophecy from Isaiah, he clearly understood that the interpretation of the prophetic words "ha almah" in Isaiah 7:14 to referred to the sign of "the virgin" and the miraculous birth of the virgin's son, since he links that prophetic utterance to Mary of Nazareth and Jesus' virgin birth in Matthew 1:23.  In the book Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary's Queenship, author Edward Sri notes on page 140 that the Hebrew word almah is used nine times in the Old Testament; however, he does not list those passages.  The references to almah I found are:

  1. Genesis 24:43
  2. Exodus 2:8; 3
  3. Isaiah 7:14
  4. Song of Songs 1:3
  5. Song of Songs 6:8
  6. Psalms 68:25
  7. Proverbs 30:19

In each case the Hebrew word almah explicitly means "virgin" or implies it; in each case almah always refers to an unmarried woman of good reputation.  It is never used to refer to a married woman in Scripture.  In Genesis 24:43, the word alma is used for Rebekah, Isaac's future bride.  The passage also records that she was a young girl and that "no man had touched her" (24:16).  In Exodus 2:8 almah describes the infant Moses' older sister, Miriam.   In Psalms 68:25, almah describes maidens being courted, while in Proverbs 30:19, almah is used to suggest the mystery of marriage and procreation-a virgin giving herself to a man.  In Song of Songs 1:3 and 6:8, the Hebrew word almah is applied to virgins of the royal court as opposed to women who are sexually experienced.

Rabbinic Judaism maintains that the word bethula is the Hebrew word for "virgin."  It is true that this word is also used for a girl or young woman, and in the passage about the young Rebekah, both bethula and almah are used (see Genesis 24:16 = bethula; 24:43 = almah).  However, while bethula may refer to a young girl who is a virgin, it is also used in the Old Testament Scriptures to refer to a young married or a young sexually active woman as it is in Joel 1:8 (bethula is found at least 50 times in Scripture).  Most translations in English render Joel 1:8 as "mourn as a virgin [bethula] bride in sackcloth mourns for the bridegroom of her youth," accepting the revised Jewish rendering of the word bethula and adding the word "birde", which does not appear in the Hebrew text.  But this translation does not make sense in the context of the passage-bridegrooms have brides, but brides are no longer virgins.  A young girl will mourn her bridegroom, but if it is a virgin who mourns, she is mourning her betrothed and not her bridegroom.  If this passage was referring to a betrothed young woman and not a young woman whose marriage was already consummated, the Hebrew would have been bethula meorasah (The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, volume I, page 288).  Also, in Aramaic translations of Scripture, the Aramaic equivalent to bethula refers to a married woman.  Isaiah did not use the word bethula because he did not want to confuse his readers.  Isaiah's prophetic statement clearly intends us to understand that "the virgin" with child is the force of the sign connected to the "House of David" (Is 7:13)-the use of the plural "you" in verse 14 indicates that the sign is not just for King Ahaz.  The use of the words ha almah, "the virgin" and not "a virgin", are deliberate.  This virgin is a woman chosen by God to bear a son who will be a sign to the House of David and all of Judah.


The prophetic sign ends with the prophecy that the child born from "the virgin" will be called Immanuel, "God with us"-the promise Jesus made to His disciples in Matthew 28:20b: "And look, I am with you (plural) always; yes, to the end of time."  With the end of the giving of the prophetic sign to King Ahaz, Isaiah then turns to his own little son who he has brought with him as God commanded him: "Go out with your son Shear-Jashub, and meet Ahaz ... (Is 7:3).  He then answers King Ahaz of Judah's fears concerning invasion of the combined forces of King Razon of Aram and King Pekah of Israel by revealing Yahweh's message of encouragement (Is 7:1-9).  Indicating his son, Isaiah tells the king that in a short period of time, before his little son is old enough to discern between good and evil, Judah's enemies will no longer be a threat.  

In defense of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 being applied by St. Matthew to Mary and Jesus in Matthew 1:23, the Protestant leader Martin Luther pledged to a pay a hundred pieces of gold [gulden] to the scholar who could show any passage where almah referred to a married woman in the Old Testament.  So far, to my knowledge, no one has collected on the pledge (The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, volume I, page 287, note 35).  For more information on the use of bethula and almah see The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, volume I, Edermans Publishing, 1996, pages 286-288.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2009 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.