Isaiah 7:14 and the TNIV Reconsidered

On October 28, 2006 I posted a link to Christopher Heard’s post in which he described the problems he had encountered in the TNIV translation of the Bible. In my post, I included Chris’ interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 and his criticism of how the TNIV translated that verse.

In response to my post, Peter Kirk chided me for accepting uncritically the way Chris interpreted Isaiah 7:14. Peter pointed out some problems with Chris’ interpretation and the way he interpreted the text.

In response to Peter’s comments, I have decided to review some of the issues in the biblical text in light of Chris’ interpretation and Peter’s comments.

הרה (harah):

Chris said: “הרה (harah) is a perfect aspect form of the verb ‘to conceive, to become pregnant.’”

Peter said: “But in fact it cannot be, because the perfect form with a feminine subject would have to be הרתה (haretah), so this must in fact be the feminine adjective הרה (harah) ‘pregnant.’”

Peter is correct. According to BDB (p. 248), the word הרה (harah) is indeed an adjective derived from the verb הרה (harah). As Peter pointed out, and as BDB also shows, the Qal perfect third feminine form of the verb הרה (harah) is הרתה (haretah), as it appears in Genesis 16:4, 5.

וילדת (weyoledet):

Chris said: “She has not delivered the child yet, as indicated by the use of ילד (yalad, ‘to bear, to give birth’) in the imperfect aspect.”

Peter said: “also he claims that וילדת (weyoledet) is “the imperfect aspect”, when in fact it is clearly a participle, and cannot even be repointed as a finite verb.”

Peter is also correct. According to BDB (p. 408), the word is a Qal active participle feminine singular of ילד (yalad). The form for the Qal imperfect third feminine is תלד (teled), as it appears in Genesis 17:17.

Peter also mentions the use of הנה (hinneh) to introduce the clause. In this he is also correct. Gesenius, in his discussion of the perfect with waw consecutive (§ 112 t) said: “this use of the perfect consecutive is especially frequent after a participle introduced by הנה, e. g. … Is 7:14.”

A grammatical study of the text reveals the following:

1. The definite article that follows the world עלמה (‘almah) indicates that the maiden was a specific person known to both Isaiah and Ahab. Gesenius (§ 126 r) says the use of the definite article may also indicate a person who was unknown. Thus, according to him, the word could be translated a maiden.

2. The adjective form of the word הרה (harah) indicates that the woman is already pregnant.

3. The participle form of ילד (yalad) indicates that the woman will give birth in the near future.

The translation of Isaiah 7:14 should read:

Behold, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and she will call his name Immanu-El.

Thus, the proper understanding of Isaiah’s words to Ahaz must include the context of the Syro-Ephraimite War. If the word ‘almah is correctly understood as a young woman of marriageable age who is already with child, then the birth of the child must be also understood as a natural conception.

If Isaiah’s oracle is to have any meaning to Ahaz and his contemporaries, that within two or three years both Israel and Damascus would be carried away to exile, then Immanuel must be identified with Isaiah’s son and the events narrated in Isaiah 8.

The exile of parts of the Northern Kingdom is introduced in 2 Kings 15:29:

In the days of Pekah king of Israel Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria.

The exile of Damascus in the days of Rezin is narrated in 2 Kings 16:9:

The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin.

The deportation of Israel and Damascus came in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 7:16:

For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

The following are the parallels between Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 8:

Isaiah 7
  1. The almah shall conceive, 7:14
  2. Before the child knows good and evil, 7:16
  3. Call his name Immanuel, 7:14
  4. Immanuel, 7:14
  5. The Lord will give you a sign, 7:14
  6. Before the child is old the land will be desolate, 7:16

Isaiah 8

  1. The prophetess conceived, 8:3
  2. Before the child cries father and mother, 8:9
  3. O, Immanuel, 8:8
  4. For God is with us, 8:10
  5. The children the Lord gave me are signs, 8:18
  6. Damascus and Samaria shall be carried away, 8:4

How can Christians reconcile Isaiah’s message to Ahaz and the people living in the eighth century B.C. with the New Testament teaching that the prophet’s words found fulfillment in Christ? John N. Oswalt, in his book, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 211, provides an explanation that helps Christians reconcile how the oracle could be applied to Ahaz and to the birth of Christ. Oswalt wrote:

On the other hand, the very two-sidedness of the sign in Ahaz’s time demanded something more. Yes, the disappearance of Syria and Ephraim could be seen as evidence that God was with them. But what of Assyria, foolishly trusted and soon to turn on its hapless client? Was God still with them in that? And suppose even greater powers than Assyria strode onto the world’s stage, what then? If we can believe that the transcendent One is really immanent, and the immanent One truly transcendent, then there is reason to live courageously and unselfishly. But no child born to a young woman in Ahaz’s day is proof of God’s presence in all times. But if a virgin overshadowed by God’s Spirit should conceive and give birth, it would not only be a sign of God’s presence with us. Better than that, it would be the reality of that experience. So Ahaz’s sign must be rooted in its own time to have significance for that time, but it also must extend beyond that time and into a much more universal mode if its radical truth is to be any more than a vain hope. For such a twofold task ‘almah is admirably suited.

In his comment to my post, Jeremy asked: “Why did the LXX translators translate [‘almah] the way they did, then?” The answer to this question has always been given in terms of explaining the different forms and meanings of the words for “virgin.” However, I believe that the use of the Greek word parthenos (virgin) in Isaiah 7:14 has more to do with sociological issues than with semantics.

In Hebrew society, a young woman of marriageable age would be a virgin, but the same would not be true of many women in Greek society. The translators of the LXX could have translated ‘almah with the Greek word parthenos (virgin) in Exodus 2:8 and Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8, but they did not.

The use of parthenos in the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 was probably to emphasize that the woman who would bear a son was still a virgin, thus the emphasis that she “shall conceive in her womb and will give birth to a son.” According to the translators, all the events in the life of this young woman are still future, therefore, she was a virgin. However, the view that the pregnancy is still in the future departs from the message that Isaiah preached to Ahaz.

In conclusion, Chris’ interpretation of the grammar of the text was not correct. Peter is correct in saying that Chris made “elementary errors” in his discussion of Isaiah 7:14. Chris’ conclusion about the interpretation of the text was correct but his exegesis of text was not.

I apologize to my readers for following Chris’ exegesis uncritically.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to Isaiah 7:14 and the TNIV Reconsidered

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    >Thank you, Dr Mariottini. I am glad of the confirmation that I was correct on the grammatical issues here.I am still a little uncertain on one point. In fact you seem to contradict yourself. You state that “The adjective form of the word הרה (harah) indicates that the woman is already pregnant”, but also in your summary “The almah shall conceive, 7:14”. Later on, however, you object to the LXX translators for translating this as future; Christopher Heard criticised the TNIV translators for doing the same.But are the LXX and TNIV translators wrong? There is a close parallel in Genesis 16:11, הִנָּךְ הָרָה hinnakh harah (Gesenius in §116n seems to think that harah here is a participle), where we know that Hagar is already pregnant. However, the identical words in Judges 13:5,7 seem to refer to a future pregnancy, as referred to also with וְהָרִית weharit “and you will conceive” in verse 3. Also, Gesenius lists Isaiah 7:14 in §116p as an example of hinneh with a participle in an imminent future sense; but it is not clear if the participle he has in mind is harah or yoledet. In fact, if harah is not a participle, this is in Gesenius’ terminology a noun-clause, §141. Unfortunately Gesenius does not deal with the rather common noun-clause with hinneh but no participle, but he does write that “to what period of time the statement applies must be inferred from the context”, and in this case the context is the following future.So, I conclude that we cannot be certain whether the girl was already pregnant when Isaiah spoke or whether she was about to become pregnant (and in the latter case she might still have been a virgin without anything supernatural happening). Therefore it is wrong to criticise LXX and TNIV for choosing the latter option.Your quotation from Gesenius §112t is relevant only to the translation of וְקָרָאת weqara’t “and you shall call”, concerning which there seems to be no doubt about the tense, although there is doubt about the exact verb form.But I agree with you that this verse refers primarily to events in Isaiah’s own time. Matthew’s use of this passage, as in his other prophetic quotations in chapters 1 and 2, is not to be understood as the OT author’s intended meaning and the primary intention of the OT passage, in other words not as exegesis in the modern sense, but rather as Matthew’s typological reapplication of the principles of the OT passage to the person of Christ.

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  2. >Peter,Thank you for your comment and observations about what I intended to communicate in my post. The summary in which I said that “the almah shall conceive” was designed to show the English parallels between chapters 7 and 8.The LXX takes the view that all the activities in 7:14 are still in the future and this view has influenced English translations. If the almah is Isaiah’s wife, then the question is whether the marriage in Isaiah 8:2 occurred before or after the oracle in 7:14. Since Isaiah’s children are “signs whom the Lord has given” the prophet (8:16), then it is possible to say that the almah was already with child and that the birth of the child would occur in the near future, a few month after Isaiah’s oracle in 7:14.I apologize for being late in responding to your comment.Claude Mariottini

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  3. Peter Kirk says:

    >Thank you for pointing out the link with 8:2. I note a number of parallels between 7:14-17 and 8:1-4, including the verbal one between הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת in 7:14 and וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד in 8:3. The woman who was הָעַלְמָה in 7:14 is now married to Isaiah and so has become הַנְּבִיאָה in 8:3. The other main difference is the name: note that it is the woman who calls the child Immanuel, but God and Isaiah who call him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. But that it is the same child seems clear to me from the close parallel between the prophecies of 7:15-17 and 8:4, the latter being simply a summary of the former. Of course all of this implies that 7:14 precedes 8:3, and so that הָרָה in 7:14 should be understood as referring to the near future, i.e. “she will be pregnant”.

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  4. John says:

    >This is an amazing study on the pregnancy issues of the text. I’m searching around looking for a solid theory on the linkage that Matthew saw between this sign from Isaiah and Jesus being born of a virgin. I understand the concept that “God with us” should mean more than a child born in Ahaz’s time, but is that the only arguement for the link?Another theory (that seems to be a longshot) is that the son in verse 14 is completely different than the boy eating curds and honey in the very next verse. This would be a very abrupt transition from one boy to another it seems to me. Thank you for any help. Sorry if this has already been addressed.John Blackwell

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  5. >Dear John,Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments. Here are some brief answers to your questions:1. I believe that the linkage between Isaiah and Matthew is this: In Isaiah’s time God was with them spiritually to save the people. Matthew believes that God was with them physically to save the people. The emphasis then is not on the virgin but on the child.2. If the child of verse 14 is not the child of verses 15-16, then the oracle has no meaning. The message to Ahaz was: before the child was old enough both Syria and Israel would be defeated.I hope these words have addressed the issues raised in your comments.Claude Mariottini

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  6. shaha says:

    >all are very informative comments

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