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.
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.
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:
- The almah shall conceive, 7:14
- Before the child knows good and evil, 7:16
- Call his name Immanuel, 7:14
- Immanuel, 7:14
- The Lord will give you a sign, 7:14
- Before the child is old the land will be desolate, 7:16
- The prophetess conceived, 8:3
- Before the child cries father and mother, 8:9
- O, Immanuel, 8:8
- For God is with us, 8:10
- The children the Lord gave me are signs, 8:18
- 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.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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