The Lord promised a sign to the house of David, a virgin bearing a son, who would represent the presence of God with his people—God with us. Isaiah 7:14 does not stand in isolation, but must be read in light of Isaiah’s broader outlook. The whole scenario and context points to something quite special which may indeed lay beyond the horizon of Ahaz.
In an article well worth reading, the late Christopher Hitchens makes the common claim—somewhat in passing—that the term “virgin” as found in most English translations of Isaiah 7:14 is wrong or, at best, misleading. In the ESV that verse reads:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The claim that Hitchens and others make is that the Hebrew word behind “virgin” (עַלְמָה alma) in this text simply means “young woman.” The implication is that nothing miraculous is being promised, and that therefore, universal Christian tradition regarding the virgin birth of Christ is based fundamentally on an illegitimate reading of the Old Testament Scripture.
Is that the case? What does the Hebrew text really imply? Is Matthew the Evangelist wrong to see Jesus’ virgin birth as the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaiah? Does our faith regarding Jesus’ miraculous conception rest ultimately on the translation of that particular word anyway?
God’s Word to Ahaz
In Isaiah chapter 7, King Ahaz of Judah is scared. The massive Assyrian Empire in the northeast is beginning to assert itself in the coastal regions, making vassals of as many smaller states as it can. Assyria has both Israel and Judah in its sights, and these nations—and others—have to decide whether to submit to Assyrian rule and crushing tribute payments, or whether to try and maintain their independence. The latter option was a move which, if unsuccessful, could result in your head on a spike if you were lucky. This is the course that Israel in the north and Syria have chosen, and now together they are laying siege to Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. It is not entirely clear whether they are trying to pressure Ahaz into joining their anti-Assyrian coalition, or whether they suspect that Ahaz already has pro-Assyrian sympathies and are trying to take Judah out as a potential threat. In any case, they are outside Jerusalem laying siege.
That is the situation, and it is into this political minefield that Isaiah is sent with a word from the Lord for Ahaz. The message is, “Watch yourself, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (7:4). The prophet’s counsel was to bow neither to Assyria nor to the northern coalition, but to wait for the Lord’s salvation. Yahweh was commanding quiet faith as Judah’s foreign policy. To help strengthen Ahaz’s wavering trust, the Lord even offers a sign, which Ahaz refuses under a cloak of false piety: “I will not ask, and I will not put Yahweh to the test” (7:12). The accounts in II Kings and II Chronicles present Ahaz as a profoundly wicked man, willing to sell his status as the Davidic and messianic son of God in order to instead be a son to the Assyrian king. His refusal of the offered sign therefore is not sincere, and that’s confirmed by the fact that his refusal is met with rebuke:
And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7:13-14).
So we have the Lord promising as a sign to Ahaz that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The Gospel of Matthew claims that Jesus’ conception by the virgin Mary is the fulfillment of this promise, citing Isaiah’s prophecy explicitly (Matthew 1:23). Unbelieving scholars of course do not take it for granted that Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah is valid. Being anti-supernaturalists, they maintain that Jesus was born like anyone else, with a human mother and father, that his virgin conception was a later legendary embellishment, and that Matthew the Evangelist (who they doubt was Matthew anyway) plucked out Isaiah’s prophecy as a way of giving scriptural authority to the legend. Unfortunately for “Matthew,” these scholars will say, the Hebrew text of Isaiah only says that a “young woman” would have a child. That is the first argument: That the Hebrew alma does not mean “virgin.” But in addition, secondly, it is pointed out that the Lord offers this sign to Ahaz, but Jesus would not be born for another 700+ years, so it is supposed that it would not make any historical/contextual sense for the baby Jesus to be the sign.
Those then are the things we need to examine: 1) Did Isaiah really speak of a virgin, or simply of a young woman? 2) How could the birth of Christ serve as a sign to Ahaz?
Alma: Virgin or Young Woman?
Is Isaiah really speaking of a virgin conception? It is often argued that if Isaiah meant “virgin,” he would have used the Hebrew word betula (בְּתוּלָ֕ה). The word betula occurs 50x in the Old Testament. Sometimes it does clearly refer to a virgin, for example:
If a man seduces a [betula] who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for [betulot, plural] (Exodus 22:16).
In this and similar examples, betula clearly refers to a virgin, but the context tells us this as much as the word itself, and “virgin” is not necessarily the essential meaning of the word. In fact, it seems not to be, since in a few cases the virgin-status of the betula is further spelled-out, for example:
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young [betulot, plural] who had not known a man by lying with him, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan (Judges 21:12).
If betula by itself means “virgin” the clause “who had not known a man by lying with him” here seems redundant. But a more telling and illuminating case occurs in Genesis 24, because both betulaand alma are used, and so more direct comparison is possible. Abraham’s servant has gone to find a wife for Isaac, and while sitting at a well he sees Rebekah. Genesis 24:16 says,
The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a [betula] whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up.
Here again, the word betula by itself does not seem to be enough to indicate virginity, since the narrator specifies that no man had known her. But further down in the chapter, in vv. 42-43, when the servant is recounting the story to Rebekah’s family, he says,
I came today to the spring and said, ‘Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the [alma] who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink…”