BORN OF A VIRGIN
Reference: Isaiah 7:14
Fulfillment: Matthew 1:22-23; Luke 1:31-35
Perhaps more than any other prophec]y, the prophesied virgin birth of the Messiah, undergoes continual dialogue. Not because it didn't happen, but because it is so supernatural that it is difficult to wrap one's mind around the concept. But the question is, does the Hebrew word almah refer to a virgin or a young woman? While two of the four gospels refer to the virgin birth, and only Matthew refers back to our major prophet, Isaiah, let's try and understand more.
From Mathew 1:20; "But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Of course, everything that was spoken was fulfilled in what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Matthew 1:20-25: And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Luke 1:30-37:Two comments can be made at the outset. First, for those who say a virgin birth is physically and scientifically impossible, Luke remarks that “nothing will be impossible with God.” If we can believe that God made the universe out of nothing, we can certainly believe that He can suspend the usual physical laws that apply.
But the primary debate on Isaiah 7:14 concern the meaning of the Hebrew word almah,
The word almah
Michael Brown, a Jewish believer, and scholar has studied ancient NearEastern Languages, offers the following helpful point about the word almah: “While the word ‘almah can refer to a virgin, it does not specifically mean ‘virgin.’ Its basic meaning is primarily related to adolescence, not sexual chastity.” (For his detailed reasons, see Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, section 4.3.)1
Some may think this line of reasoning destroys the case for the virgin birth. But it does not. If we translate almah as a “young woman of marriageable age,” in the culture of Isaiah’s time, it was assumed that she would be a virgin! In other words, rather than needing to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that almah linguistically means “virgin,” we can point out that almah in that culture was a virgin.
The word betulah
Some have argued that there is another Hebrew word that clearly does refer to a virgin: betulah. If Isaiah really meant “virgin,” the argument goes, he would have been better off using this alternate word. But Brown shows that betulah, while it could refer to a virgin, often means a young woman. Some of his observations:
Genesis 24:16 includes the phrase, “a betulah whom no man had known.” Here, the qualifier, “whom no man had known” (which means “whom no man had slept with/had sexual relations with”), is added, showing that betulah by itself was not enough to indicate virginity.
In the following verses, “young woman” makes sense while “virgin” does not: Isaiah 23:4; Ezekiel 9:6; Job 31:1; Joel 1:8 (referring to a widow); Isaiah 47:1 (the betulah loses her husband and her children in verses 8 and 9).
In cognate (related) ancient languages, the equivalent of betulah often refer to pregnant or has had intimate relations.
Thus, the word betulah would not have worked for Isaiah if he meant to indicate virginity. (Again, for more detail, see Brown’s book referred to above.)
To whom does the prophecy refer?
Isaiah 7 is the attack on Judah by the Arameans and the northern tribes of Israel. Note these things: The attack aimed to depose Judah's king, a descendant of David, and thereby to end the Davidic dynasty, which God had established and promised always to sustain. In essence, it was an attack on God Himself.
The current king of Judah, Ahaz, was a man of superficial faith. God’s promise in Isaiah 7:7-9 that both His adversaries (the Arameans and the northern tribes of Israel) would come to an end is met with no response of faith on the part of Ahaz. God even offers to give Ahaz a sign, but Ahaz refuses to take God up on His offer – “I will not put the LORD to the test,” he replies, using Deuteronomy 6:16 as an excuse. It is as though someone warmly invited you to their home for dinner, and you responded, “I won’t come because I don’t want to impose!”
With some exasperation, God then addresses David's entire house (using plural pronouns, which means He is not addressing only Ahaz). God takes the initiative and gives the almah's sign, who will give birth to a son and call him Immanuel.
Because the sign of Immanuel is meant to be a sign to Ahaz of God’s deliverance of Israel, we can say that it was fulfilled in Ahaz’s day in the birth of a particular person born to a young woman of marriageable age – after she was married. Though not named Immanuel (see discussion above), the person was a sign that God was with His people in delivering Judah. It almost does not matter who this person would have been. Ahaz and his court would have known. Yet the prophecy doesn’t end there because it was given to David's entire house as well. And so…
How did Matthew use the prophecy?
Prophecy can be complex. In Exodus 3:16-17, God tells Moses that he will bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. But we know that it was the farthest from a direct route. Imagine how they felt when they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Only following the death of the first generation that left Egypt and an array of obstacles and incidents along the way did the original promise be fulfilled.
Consider God’s promise to David that his kingdom would last forever (see 2 Samuel 7:13-18 and 1 Chronicles 17:11-14). Nothing was said about a line of kings, the later division of the kingdom, and host of troubles from Gentile powers, let alone the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and an interruption of Davidic rule for over four hundred years. This is often the nature of prophecy. Prophets often spoke too real-time events in real-time but often came with overarching time points well beyond their life. The prophecy is correct, but its fullness for a later time.
In the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, a child was born in Ahaz’s day, who served as a sign that God would deliver Israel. Yet, the deliverance did not last. Israel again came under oppressive rulers and continued to do so with only brief respites up through Rome's rule in the first century. Similarly, though David’s rule was prophesied to last forever as a time of peace and prosperity, many of the following Davidic kings proved to be evil, bringing destruction rather than deliverance. The messianic hope was for David's ultimate descendant, who would finally fulfill the original promised God gave to David.
And so Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, a promise made not just to Ahaz but the whole “house of David” – the entire Jewish people. In Matthew’s time, Judah is still oppressed and in need of deliverance by an Immanuel. Someone is known as “God with us.” Its fullness will come in Jesus if you accept the New Testament's teaching. There you find the fullness as God sent His Son as our Messiah. For a good reason then, Mary literally remained a “young woman of marriageable age” – without having relations with her husband – up through the time of Jesus’ birth. Ahaz may have had his “Immanuel” in his own time as a sign that God was then with Israel, but, with the incarnation of Jesus, the entire Jewish people have now had the ultimate “Immanuel,” God literally with us in Yeshua.
1. Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), section 4.3.
2. Craig Blaising, “Biblical Hermeneutics: How Are We to Interpret the Relation Between the Tanak and the New Testament on This Question?,” The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, ed. Gerald R. McDermott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 100.