The interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel has been one of the most controversial texts among interpreters of the Old Testament because of its Messianic connotation and because of its appearance in Matthew 1:22-23 in relation to the birth of Christ.
To any interpretation that is offered to explain the passage, there will be those who disagree with a particular interpretation and those who offer a better explanation that supposedly clarifies the text and offers a final solution that solves the dispute among interpreters.
Two problems prevent most Christians who read Isaiah 7:14 and most pastors who preach from this text from arriving at a proper understanding of this oracle. The first problem is that most Christians who interpret Isaiah 7:14 fail to study the passage within its historical context.
When reading Isaiah 7:14, most Christians go from Isaiah 7:14 directly to Matthew 1:22-23 without stopping to consider the events narrated in 2 Kings 16 or how the text is related to what is said in Isaiah chapter 8. In all my years in the ministry, I have never heard a sermon on Isaiah 7:14 linked to what Isaiah said in chapter 8.
The second problem is the problem of language. Most Christians and most pastors do not know Hebrew and Greek. For this reason, they are forced to read Isaiah 7:14 from a Bible translated into English. In most evangelical circles, that Bible will be the King James Bible (KJV) or the New International Bible (NIV).
When it comes to the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, which translation of the Bible is used matters a great deal. In his book God According to God, Gerald L. Schroeder wrote:
When passages of the Bible are quoted out of context, or read in translation, whether that translation is the twenty-two-hundred-year-old Greek Septuagint or a modern English version of the original Hebrew, nuances are often lost. Meanings of words are actually changed to fit within the grammar of the “newer” language (2009:11).
In what follows I will have to deal with the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 in order to bring out what Isaiah actually wrote and how his words have been translated into English.
My interpretation of the text is based on what I have already written in Part 1 and Part 2 of this study. If you have not read my previous posts on the sign of Immanuel, I strongly recommend that you do so before you read the present post. Otherwise, you will not be able to understand the presuppositions that serve as the basis for my interpretation. The links to my previous posts can be found at the end of this study.
In my study of Isaiah 7:14 in Part 2, I wrote that there are four statements in Isaiah’s oracle that must be studied before any attempt at interpreting the text can be made. These four statements are:
1. “The young woman is with child”
2. “Shall name him Immanuel”
3. “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”
4. “The land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted”
What follows is a study of these four sentences.
The young woman. In Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word for “young woman” is ‘almāh, a word that “signifies a young woman without regard to whether she is married or single” (1972:101). The word does not mean “virgin,” but “young woman,” or “maiden.” In Exodus 2:8, the KJV translates the word ‘almāh as “maiden”: “And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maiden (‘almāh) went and called the child’s mother.”
The Hebrew word for “virgin” is bethulah. The bethulah is a woman who has never had sex with a man. When the Bible describes Rebekah, it says of her: “The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin (bethulah), whom no man had known” (Genesis 24:16). The High Priests was only allowed to marry a virgin (bethulah): “He shall marry a virgin (bethulah) of his own kin” (Leviticus 21:14).
When translating Isaiah 7:14, the NIV reads: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
The KJV has the same reading: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
If the Hebrew word ‘almāh means “a young woman” or “a maiden,” where did the NIV and the KJV get the word “virgin”? The word “virgin” was taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
In his post on the Virgin Birth, Edward Fudge wrote: “Where did the virgin come from? For once, a simple answer. When the Jews translated their Bible from Hebrew into Greek a century or two before Christ, they made the ‘young woman’ (Hebrew: ‘almah) a ‘virgin’ (Greek: parthenos).”
The Greek word parthenos means “virgin” in the same way the Hebrew bethulah means “virgin.” In Exodus 2:8, where the Hebrew text uses the word ‘almah, the Septuagint translates the word ‘almah as neanis, “young woman” and not a “virgin.” In Exodus 2:8 the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah as “young woman” is correct, but its translation of the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos, “virgin,” is not correct.
The translation of the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos in the Septuagint raises an important issue: why did the translators of the Septuagint use the word parthenos, “virgin” and not the word neanis, “young woman” to translate the Hebrew ‘almah?
Although no satisfactory answer has been proposed, I believe the reason is sociological. In a Hebrew society, a woman before marriage was a virgin, because Hebrew culture demanded the virginity of a woman before marriage, but probably that was not true in Greek society. Thus, to emphasize that the woman was a virgin before marriage, the translators of the Septuagint emphasized her virginity by using the word parthenos and not the word neanis.
Since Matthew quoted from the Septuagint, the translators of the NIV and the KJV followed the reading of the Septuagint and not the reading of the Masoretic Text and in the process created the debate about the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 that continues to this day.
Is with child. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah, there are three words that are translated “is with child” in English. The three Hebrew words are: hārāh weyōledet bēn.
The word hārāh means “pregnant.” The word is used by the Angel of the Lord to describe Hagar’s condition: “You are now with child (hārāh) and you will have a son” (Genesis 16:11). The same word was used when Tamar’s condition was reported to Judah: “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant (hārāh) as a result of whoredom” (Genesis 38:24).
The word weyōledet in Hebrew is a verb, a qal participle feminine singular. Hebrew language does not have a present tense form, thus, it uses the participle to express a verbal action in the present time. The word weyōledet bēn should be translated “is giving birth to a son.”
What Isaiah is saying to King Ahaz is that the young woman is already pregnant and will give birth to a son. The reality of the woman’s pregnancy is clearly expressed in the NRSV: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14). It is also expressed in the NET Bible: “Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14 NET).
In the Hebrew text, the event being announced is present and not future. If the Hebrew indicates that the woman is already pregnant, why do the NIV and the KJV say that the event will be in the future?: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). The answer again is found in the Septuagint.
In the Septuagint the verb is a future tense, indicating that the pregnancy will occur in the future. Although the Greek text does not say how long in the future the birth will occur, the future pregnancy of the woman contradicts the message of Isaiah who proclaimed that the young woman was already pregnant when he confronted Ahaz and gave him God’s message.
I said that today’s post would be the last on this series of study on the sign of Immanuel, but I am afraid I have been verbose and went beyond what I had intended to do at the beginning of these studies. This means that I may still need one more study (maybe even two more) before I come to the birth of Christ, to the Gospel of Matthew, and bring these series of studies to a conclusion. I just ask for your patience and indulgence on this matter.
Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Kaiser, Otto. Isaiah 1-12. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
Schroeder, Gerald L. God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along. New York: HarperOne, 2009.