The Virgin Shall Conceive
No other word in the Bible – no other word in all world literature receives the scrutiny of “virgin” as it appears in Isaiah 7:14. For any other word in the Bible, the Christian community defers to the translation team and their expertise of the Hebrew language. The Christian community accepts that sometimes judgments must be made and that their judgments will not always match their own. But on September 30, 1952 when the Revised Standard Version was released, and Isaiah 7:14 read “young woman,” this long-standing deference was suspended. The Christian community insisted that the verse read “virgin.” The conservative Churches were quite disinterested with any rationale, and they served notice that in the future, a translator who does not print “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 would not earn a dime from his translation efforts. Personally, I believe that abandoning RSV was a tactical error. For it left the liberal churches as the only clients of RSV, which means they could update the version with New RSV (for they had no vision of marketing to conservative churches anyway). And NRSV takes several interpretation liberties that extend well beyond a reasonable understanding of a translation.
Today, modern translators who hope to market to conservative Churches begin their translation efforts by hard-coding the word “virgin” in ink in Isaiah 7:14, and building the translation of the remaining 774,745 words in pencil around the pre-inked-in word in Isaiah 7:14. On one hand, it is good to see the Church community take a stand. On the other hand, if the translator doesn’t think the word is “virgin,” he has no business lying to us about what he thinks just so people will purchase his Bible. Yet the translator is keenly aware that when his translation hits the streets, the reviewers will go straight to Isaiah 7:14.
The issue is so impassioned that many Churches do not want their congregations pondering all that is really happening in this verse. The message to the congregation is that 7:14 reads “virgin” and any thought you have that doesn’t align with that conclusion is treated as rebellion against the Church. The fear is that those who think about it might come down on the wrong side. And I suspect that happens, but the Holy Spirit is true. That mindset might keep the congregation in line as regards how the verse should read. But there is so much more to see in Isaiah 7:14 that doesn’t show up in a just-read-virgin approach. And when it reads “virgin” to the exclusion of all other possibilities, many verses surrounding 7:14 are left with no generally accepted meaning.
Now, the word is “virgin.” The only reason it is a controversy is because the normal Hebrew word for virgin is “bethulah” and Isaiah uses the word “almah.” The year is 732 BC, and the Greeks of 250 BC translated the Septuagint (sometimes referred to in commentary as LXX) used the word “parthenos,” which no one disputes is the Greek word for “virgin.” Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14, and uses “parthenos,” and RSV reads “virgin” in the Matthew passage. The charge that Matthew was copying a Greek misunderstanding of the Hebrew falls short, if only because Matthew’s words are not lifted straight from LXX.
The doctrine of the virgin birth is indispensible to our faith; it is vital that the Holy Spirit be the Father of our Lord. First as a matter of our salvation: with both a human mother and father, the child would have inherited a corrupt nature, He would have been incapable of a sinless life, and would not have been qualified to die for our sins. Second, as a matter of the integrity of prophecy: Joseph in particular could not be the physical father because Jeremiah 22:30 prophesies that no descendant of Jeconiah will sit on the throne of David. Joseph was a descendant of Jeconiah. Therefore, if Jesus had been the natural son of Joseph, Jesus would have not been permitted to be King of Israel. When the Bible refers to Jesus as the heir to the throne of David, it is Mary, and not Joseph, who descended from David (Luke 3). Third, as a matter of the accuracy of scripture: Three times in Luke 1:29-34, the virginity of Mary was recorded.
Now Mary evidently knew more about God’s plan than the scripture records. Legend dates Mary as 13 years old. Let’s assume that is accurate. An angel appears to a 13-year-old girl, and he presents that girl with such a message as Gabriel presented to Mary, and omits when this is scheduled to take place. I would think that the girl would project this out say ten years, assume she’d be married by then, and think “Cool!” When she pointed out this rather inconvenient (in her eyes) detail about herself, Luke 1:36 does not read, “Give it time, Girl.” Rather, Luke 1:36 reinforces this by dismissing her virginity as a roadblock to achieving Gabriel’s message – which evidently will occur quite quickly.
Those who charge that Matthew copied a misunderstanding of the Greeks are in essence telling me that Matthew 1:23 is the only verse they ever read in Matthew 1:18-25. Matthew’s account is far too crisp to believe he thought otherwise. “Before they came together (Matthew 1:18). “ Joseph was ready to divorce her (Matthew 1:19). Matthew testifies that the Holy Spirit is the Father (Matthew 1:20). Mary and Joseph did marry (Matthew 1:24), but they remained celibate until Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25). If Matthew can provide that much detail independently, then it would be obvious to him that this was done to fulfill Isaiah 7:14. He was persuaded of the virgin birth whether or not Isaiah 7:14 had ever been penned.
So the doctrine of the virgin birth is secure even if Isaiah does not prophesy it. But as a matter of integrity, we should know something about the terms “almah” and “bethulah.” While it is undisputed that “bethulah” is the definite Hebrew word for “virgin,” I remain unconvinced. Sometimes I get stubborn. Joel uses “bethulah” in 1:8, and he is discussing a once-married woman, likely not a virgin: “Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.” It is possible that “almah” is the more definite word.
But I will defer to the tradition that “bethulah” is the more specific word. I think Dr. John N. Oswalt1 handles these terms very well. Both words refer to a virgin. In an “almah” the focus point is her being of marriageable age but unmarried; virginity is implied in her standing as a young unmarried girl in a Jewish culture. Even in our own day with sexual activity rampant, when you address a seventh-grade class about such matters, you presume that few among them have participated actively.
By the time we get through chapter 7 up to Isaiah 7:14, Ahaz had already rejected the sign from God, and Isaiah was now speaking to the nation. By addressing the nation, the sign was understood as a sign to the nation, and not to any one person. Now, the fulfillment of this sign could be into the distant future, contingent only on Judah’s continued identity as a people. Ahaz was excluded from this sign.
Dr. Oswalt1 explains that the placement of this verse is strategic. When Ahaz refused to trust God, the entire line of Kings from Solomon through (ultimately) Jeconiah was then downgraded. Jeremiah sealed the downgrade by prophesying that the line would end with Jeconiah, and that no descendent of Jeconiah would be King – ever. By addressing His words to “the House of David,” he was addressing the people descended of David through a son other than Solomon: Nathan – son of David, not Nathan the prophet.
When Isaiah says, “Therefore – [now that the line of Solomon has been relieved of its privilege of bearing the Christ-child] – the Lord Himself will give you a sign,” the emphasis should be placed on the word “you.” “You” is plural. “It is to YOU the people of the House of David, not to King Ahaz, that the Lord will give a sign.” The house of Solomon, through the rejection of King Ahaz, has rejected the sign. And Ahaz stands in the crowd alone as the single person who did not receive the sign. For he was of the house of Solomon.
It is imperative in the highest form that Mary be descended from David, and it is imperative in the highest form that Joseph not be part of the conception. For if either one of these details prove untrue, Jesus would be disqualified, first from becoming King at all (per Joseph), but even once King, He would have been disqualified from being the eternal King (per Mary). All in a single verse, Isaiah was simultaneously rejecting King Ahaz, trivializing the Solomon-to-Jeconiah dynasty, and assuring those who might have been confused about whether discontinuing the Solomonic line might revoke the previous promises of the eternal King, the son of David. The sign that the promise remains in force is that a virgin shall conceive, and the product of the virgin’s conception will carry the title “God is [physically living His life] among us.”
But Isaiah was not addressing Ahaz at all. It is not to be assumed that Ahaz heard the whole thing, and it can be assumed that what Ahaz did hear, God had blocked Ahaz from understanding. By 7:16, Isaiah’s speech was once again returned to an audience of one. I believe that 7:15 connects with 7:16 and was likewise addressed to Ahaz alone, though the size of the audience of 7:15 is not specified. And Isaiah’s words continued against what God allowed Ahaz to understand of Isaiah’s words.
Ahaz was rejected. The sign to Ahaz that Ahaz was rejected will be fulfilled in his lifetime, as discussed in Chapter 8. Consider Isaiah 8 to be a parody of the sign – a spoof, a satire, soon to appear on Saturday Night Live. Isaiah 7:14 concluded the words to the (plural) house of David. And Isaiah 7:15-17 continues the sentiment of 7:14 TO Ahaz AS HEARD BY Ahaz.
I am not a fan of the hermeneutic of Double Fulfillment, and I am excepting this passage to allow for the theory to govern even some prophecies. And I grieve when I consider the number of good people who have been persuaded of Double Fulfillment for lack of ability to explain Isaiah 7:14 all the way to 7:17.
Isaiah’s prophecy was not fulfilled twice. It was fulfilled once and that one fulfillment was when Mary conceived. Ahaz rejected the sign and Isaiah turned his back on Ahaz to deliver the sign to the rightful audience. To Ahaz, the son born in Isaiah 8, that is, the parody of the sign, was the sign that he had indeed been disqualified from being the line to the Messiah. And parody indeed: the wrong person named Isaiah’s son. The prophecy of 7:14 was that the mother would name the child; but Isaiah 8:3 says that Isaiah himself names his son. To the House of David, the virgin’s conception was the sign that the son of David who would reign forever is now walking among us – flesh and all. To Ahaz, the “almah” stressed the just-barely-legal status of the mother with regard to consent. To the House of David, the “almah” stressed the virginity of the mother. God had no other word available to Him that would have simultaneously fulfilled the prophecy that a virgin shall conceive, and kept the one who rejected the sign from perceiving the Truth.
And I ask myself, How can anyone even think that a human mind - even a brilliant human mind – was capable of designing such a plan? And following through to assure its fulfillment? In every detail? The capacity even to design this plan requires a Divine mind.
1 Dr. John N. Oswalt, NICOT Series (Isaiah), Eerdmans, 1996.