HomeArticlesA Defense of the Virgin Birth Prophecy (Isaiah 7:14)

A Defense of the Virgin Birth Prophecy (Isaiah 7:14)

“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)

This famous verse is commonly read in Christmas cards during this season, but how many Christians believe it as it stands translated into English? Many modern Bible version reject the translation of the word “virgin” swapping the word “maiden” or “young woman” in its place (see for example the RSV, NRSV), or they may reserve the word virgin and put the other options in a footnote (see NIV, NASB, ASV).

The most common argument against the translation of the word “virgin” is the claim that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 does not properly depict the status of virginity. The Hebrew word used is עַלְמָה (‘almah) but they claim that the word properly denoting virginity is בְתוּלָה (bethulah). Edward Young comments,

At the outset we may confidently assert that the word ‘almah is never employed of a married woman….

Often it has been said that had the prophet desired to designate the mother as a virgin, there was at his disposal the word bethulah. At first sight this might seem to be a perfectly good word; upon closer examination, however, it proves to be most unsatisfactory. True enough, bethulah may designate a virgin, but it may also refer to a betrothed virgin (bethulah me’orasah). In Deuteronomy the laws make clear that betrayal of the state of betrothal was a heinous as adultery and punishable with death. In Joel 1:8 the bethulah is clearly a married woman, and in later Aramaic incantation texts, the Aramaic equivalent of bethulah refers to a married woman. If Isaiah had used this word bethulah, he would have left us in confusion. We would not have known precisely what he had in mind. Would he have been speaking of one who was truly a virgin or would he have had in mind one who was betrothed or one who was actually a wife? In the light of these considerations it appears that Isaiah’s choice of ‘almah was deliberate. It seems to be the only word in the language with unequivocally signifies an unmarried woman.1)Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI: 1965), Vol. 1, pp. 287-288

This comment is accurate portrayal of the word choice, though his mention of Joel 1:8 should be corrected. Joel 1:8 says, “Lament like a virgin [bethulah] girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Here the word bethulah is used and translated as “virgin” which has had a husband. At first glance it would seem that the bethulah obviously is not a virgin since she had a husband, but it is important to understand that ancient Jewish culture considered betrothals as binding as marriage and engagements could only be broken by legal divorces. The Mishna makes a number of statements to indicate this fact:

  • “Three months [of her widowhood] must pass by before the wife of the deceased brother may perform halitzah or contract levirate marriage. So, too, other widows mat not [again] be betrothed or married before three months have passed, whether they are virgins or not virgins, whether they are divorced or widows, whether they were married or [only] betrothed.”(brackets in original)2)Yebamoth 4.10; in The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p.224
  • “A High Priest may not marry a widow whether she had become a widow after betrothal or after wedlock…”3)Yebamoth 6.4; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 227
  • “The Ketubah of a virgin who after betrothal [only] became a widow or was divorced or performed halitzah is 200 denars, and a virginity suit may be lodged against her.”(brackets in original)4)Ketuboth 1.2; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 245
  • “If a man gave his daughter in betrothal and she was divorced, or if he gave her in betrothal and she was left a widow, he Ketubah falls to him.”5)Ketuboth 4.2; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 249

It is clear that the Mishna expresses that a betrothed woman may be divorced or left a widow but having never consummated her marriage would remain a virgin. Granting the fact that the Mishna dates after the New Testament, earlier evidence is useful to reference. The apocryphal book of Tobit says, “It came to pass the same day, that in Ecbatane a city of Media Sara the daughter of Raguel was also reproached by her father’s maids; because that she had been married to seven husbands, whom Asmodeus the evil spirit had killed, before they had lain with her.”6)Tobit 3:7-8; in The Apocrypha (ed. Manuel Komroff), Barnes & Noble Books (New York, NY: 1992), p. 78 Tobit, predating the New Testament depicts Sara as a widow to seven husbands, but remains a virgin.

Even earlier then Tobit, Scripture addressed a betrothed woman as a man’s wife. Deuteronomy 22:23 says, “If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband…” Note she is betrothed to an husband and the rest of the passage (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) demands a death penalty for this woman if caught in the act of adultry which is the exact same judgement on the married woman committing the same sin (Deuteronomy 22:22). In the same passage, the word bethulah is clearly used as a non-virgin. Discussing a woman who is not betrothed to a man but gets raped, the law demanded, “and they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.” It states “he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin (bethulah)” though this woman has been raped and is obviously no longer a virgin. Again, in Lamentations 5:11, the word bethulah could not possibly mean “virgin.” “They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah.” The word translated “maids” is the word bethulah. The invading army of Babylonians ravished the Israelite women so they cannot be virgins. When bethulah is used for a virgin the Bible makes it clear because the word itself is does not insinuate virginity, making it necessary to clarify whether the woman is a virgin or not. For example, Genesis 24:16 says, “And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her[.]” Here the word bethulah needed to be elaborated on to identify that no man had been with her.

Marcus Jastrow provides the definition of bethulah in his lexicon for later Rabbinic Hebrew, “(in a legal sense) a girl between twelve and twelve and a half years is meant[.]”7)Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, Judaica Press, Inc. (New York, NY: 1971, 1996), p. 200 The Mishna further articulates, “Who is accounted a bethlah? She that has never yet suffered a flow, even though she was married.”8)Niddah 1.4; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 745 Keep in mind that being married can and does include the betrothal, this indicates the bethulah depicts a girl who has not menstruated, confirming Jastrow’s depiction that the word has more to do with the age of the girl and not her virginity. Thus, when Edward Young was quoted above to say there is no better word to communicate the virginity than the word ‘almah, he is correct. Those who argue that bethulah is the word that means virgin are wrong.

Furthermore, the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scripture into the Greek Septuagint during the third century B.C. used the word παρθένος (parthenos) denoting properly a virgin. These Jewish scholars understood the Hebrew word ‘almah to mean virgin. This Greek word was also used by Matthew who quoted the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. Matthew is emphatic in depicting Mary as a virgin mother (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23, 25). Matthew writing the inspired word of God used the Greek word that properly denotes a virgin to translate ‘almah should be enough evidence to settle the debate. Luke also stresses the state of virginity using the word parthenos twice in one sentence when he wrote, “a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27).

Other points to consider is the context of Isaiah 7. Those who reject ‘almah being the Hebrew word which accurately depicts virginity will generally argue that the prophecy was to be fulfilled in Isaiah’s day, claiming that the prophecy was directed to either Isaiah himself, or king Ahaz. The problem with this explanation is the text refutes the claim. In the context, Isaiah speaks to king Ahaz and offers him a sign from God (Isaiah 7:11) which Ahaz rejects (Isaiah 7:12) so Isaiah redirects the opportunity for a sign, not to Ahaz nor to Isaiah himself. Isaiah says, “Hear ye now, O house of David” (Isaiah 7:13). The word “ye” is plural, and it is the “house of David” which is to receive the sign. The virgin birth prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 begins with the words, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign[.]” Again, the “you” whom are to be given the sign is plural so it refers to the “house of David,” not Ahaz or Isaiah. The fact that this is a sign being offered implies something miraculous, not a common birth through natural events. It must be a miraculous sign significant enough for the plural entity of the “house of David” to recognize God is working. Also, the name of the virgin born child is “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.” This child is said to be the owner of the land Israel in Isaiah 8:8; but it is Jehovah who says, “the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23). This is the child who is called “the mighty God, The everlasting Father,” and is said that “the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6). It is the eternal God who is to be born of a virgin and rule over His land. Isaiah 7:14 cannot be properly unerstood as a prophecy to king Ahaz, Isaiah, nor should it be thought of as a dual prophecy fulfilled in Isaiah’s days and secondly as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

The fact that Isaiah reveals an eternal God being born of a virgin would logically mean the pre-existence before the incarnation. The Lord Jesus Christ declare His pre-existence, “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The Jews have mocked the idea of Jesus Christ being virgin born, but what other sign could be given for a pre-existing being other than a virgin birth? A natural conception would never give logical credibility to the claim of pre-existence. Interestingly, there exists a number of ancient Jewish texts that speak of the pre-existing Messiah. For example, 1 Enoch speaks of the pre-existing “Son of Man.”

  • “At that place, I saw the One to whom belongs the time before time. And his head was white like wool, and there was with him another individual, whose face was like that of a human being. His countenance was full of grace like that of one among the holy angels. And I asked the one—from among the angels—who was going with me, and who had revealed to me all the secrets regarding the One who was born of human beings, ‘Who is this, and from whence is he who is going as the prototype of the Before-Time?’ And he answered me and said to me, ‘This is the Son of Man, to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells. And he will open all the hidden storerooms; for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him, and he is destined to be victorious before the Lord of Spirits in eternal uprightness.”9)1 Enoch 46.1-3; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 34
  • “At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, the Before-Time; even before the creation of the sun and moon, before the creation of the stars, he was given a name in the presence of the Lord of Spirits.”10)1 Enoch 48.2-3; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 35
  • “For the Son of Man was concealed from the beginning, and the Most High One preserved him in the presence of his power; then he revealed him to the holy and the elect ones.”11)1 Enoch 62.7; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 43

Likewise, 4 Ezra speaks of the Messiah in similar terms such as being “kept” until he is “revealed.”

  • “this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings.”12)4 Ezra 12.32; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 550
  • “this is he whom the Most high has been keeping for many ages, who will himself deliver his creation; and he will direct those who are left.”13)4 Ezra 13.26; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 552
  • “And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea.”14)4 Ezra 13.32; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 552
  • “He said to me, ‘Just as no one can explore or know what is in the depth of the sea, so no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day.”15)4 Ezra 13.52; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 553

A later Rabbinic text entitled Pesikta Rabbati also speak of a pre-existing Messiah.

  • “But where is the proof that the king Messiah existed before the beginning of God’s creation of the world? The proof is in the verse And the spirit of God moved, words which identify the king Messiah, of whom it is said, “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (Isa. 11.2).”16)Piska 33.6; Pesikta Rabbati (trans. William G. Braude), Yale University Press (Dallas TX: 1968), Vol. 2, pp. 642-643
  • “What is meant by in Thy light do we see light? [Psalm 36:9] What light is it that the congregation of Israel looks for as from a watchtower? It is the light of the Messiah, of which it is said And God saw the light that it was good (Gen. 1:4). This verse proves that the Holy One, blessed be He, contemplated the Messiah and his works before the world was created, and then under His throne of glory put away His Messiah until the time of the generation in which he will appear.”17)Piska 36.1; Pesikta Rabbati (trans. William G. Braude), Yale University Press (Dallas TX: 1968), Vol. 2, p. 677

So we find in ancient Judaism, before and after Christianity arose, taught that the Messiah was pre-existing, and God kept him concealed from the beginning of creation until the generation which he was to be revealed to the world. What kind of miraculous sign would have been better to reveal this pre-existing Messiah other than a virgin birth? This was the sign the prophet Isaiah gave to the house of David, and it was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

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Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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