Born of a Virgin Contemporary accounts of Immanuel gain little and lose much
“Immanuel!” We are all familiar with this title as referring to our Lord. It occurs in magazine titles, missionary society logos, or in lines of hymns (“Jesus, our Immanuel”). The name is Hebrew, from Isaiah 7:14, meaning “God with us”. However, when Isaiah first used the term, the kingdom of Judah was facing a crisis: the kings of Israel and Aram were planning to invade. The term “Immanuel” (God with us) seems here to denote simply God’s reassuring providence: in the face of the current threat “God is with us”.
Indeed, many scholars are convinced that the prophecy of Immanuel must relate to the immediate circumstances in Isaiah’s day. “Look at Isaiah 7:16”, they say: “But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” This can only refer to the time of king Ahaz in the eighth century BC, they say. Further, Jewish and more lately Christian scholars have urged that the prophecy is not a virgin birth at all because the word “almah” (“young woman”) is employed. Had Isaiah been thinking in those terms, they claim, he would have used the word “bethulah” (virgin).
However, there is still that troublesome quotation in Matt 1:23, which refers the prophecy to the virgin birth of Christ. Has the evangelist, in over-zealous proof-texting, merely wrenched it from its context and “massaged it” to achieve this outcome? In an effort to defend the teaching of the virgin birth in Matthew many have argued that although the prophecy is basically about the Syro-Ephraimite war in the eighth century BC there is a secondary meaning which may well refer to the Messiah. This procedure, called “double fulfilment”, is often invoked as a way of saving a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. I must confess that for a number of reasons I have never been happy with this kind of approach. My main difficulty with it is that Christ has said quite plainly that the prophecies in the Law, the prophets, and the Psalms (ie the Old Testament) were written about him (Luke 24:44).
When we look carefully at the context of Isaiah 7, we discover a variety of subtle overtones which go well beyond the immediate events. What was the significance of Isaiah’s son She’ar-Yashub (“a remnant will return”) whom God instructed to accompany the prophet in this encounter with King Ahaz? Why is the prophecy addressed both to Ahaz and to “the house of David” (Isa 7:11-17), using respectively singular and plural verb forms (these do not come out in English translation)? Why is the birth, which on the contemporaneous view is just a normal occurrence, called a “sign”? Why is the Assyrian invasion brought into the picture (7:17), and why talk of 65 years if the scope is a mere three or four years in the future (7:8)?
In view of these signals that the prophecy may happen sometime in the distant future, the “contemporary only” view is far too superficial. Let us therefore dig a little deeper.
First of all let us look at the meaning of “almah”. Does it mean “virgin”? Both “almah” and “bethulah” are used of Rebekah in Gen 24:16, 43, and it’s specifically stated that “a man had not known her”. Again, in Prov 30:19 “almah” refers to a young unmarried maiden; in Exodus 2:8 Miriam, probably in mid-teens, is designated an “almah”, and in Song 6:8-9 the plural “alamoth” stands in contrast to the other categories who are clearly married or sexually active. In short, “almah” never refers to a married woman. Martin Luther once offered 100 gulden to anyone who could prove otherwise. No-one ever collected!
At the same time “almah” always refers to a chaste girl. Efforts have been made to make Prov 30:19 refer to an illicit sexual relationship, but the context clearly requires that we understand it as the beauty and purity of young romantic love. Hence when Isaiah announces his prophetic vision of an unmarried but chaste girl who is yet pregnant, it is a miraculous “sign” indeed!
What then of “bethulah”? Contrary to widespread belief, it does not mean “virgin”, even though it may be translated that way in our English Bibles. Consider the following:
- In Hebrew poetry “bethulah” forms a coordinate pair with the corresponding masculine word “bachur” (Deut 32:25; Amos 8:13), and the latter simply means “young man” and nothing more. By inference the feminine equivalent likely means only “young girl” (ie a teenager).
- Hebrew is a Semitic language, and that being so, it is proper to look at the corresponding word in other ancient Semitic languages. In Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia, the equivalents “batultu” (fem.) and “batulu” (masc.) likewise denote simply a young girl or man in teenage years. If one is to indicate a virgin girl a qualifying clause must be added, “who is not deflowered”. Likewise, Ugaritic (North Canaanite) has the word “btlt” which from all accounts simply means “teenage girl”.
- As to the need for a qualifying clause, the same is true in Hebrew as in Akkadian. Note how in Gen 24:16 we have both “bethulah” and the clause “a man had not known her”. Why this addition if the word already means virgin? On the contrary, on the understanding proposed here the whole description reads much more simply and succinctly: Rebekah was “beautiful, young and eligible.”
To sum up, “bethulah” should be translated in each occurrence as “teenage girl”.
Therefore, Hebrew has no single word which means inherently “virgin”, yet of the available vocabulary the word which best approximates to this is “almah”. Hence, if Isaiah wished to express a coming virgin birth, the best word he could have used was the one he did use!
But what about the contemporary reference? Here the boundaries are clearly set by the wording of verse 16. Most of our English Bibles translate this as follows: “For before the boy will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.” On this rendering the two kings are those of Aram (Syria) and Israel. Since within three years of this prophecy (735 BC) the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser eliminated the Aramaean king, the coalition’s threat against Judah evaporated. It all seems cut and dried: Immanuel is born when the threat first arises, and comes to maturity when it disappears.
But who then is Immanuel on this view? Here there emerges a kind of scholastic game of musical chairs: he is either the future king Hezekiah; or he is Isaiah’s own son in ch 8, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (imagine being loaded with that); or he is some unknown contemporary child. When scholar A sees problems with the second and third views he opts for the first; then scholar B sees problems with one and three, and opts for the second, and so on around. Space forbids a refutation of each of these positions, but there are insuperable difficulties with each of them. This “contemporary-only” approach has here reached an impasse.
To escape this bind a fresh translation of v 16 is offered: “For before the boy will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land which you (Ahaz) are tearing apart (by your unbelieving policies) will be forsaken of her two kings.”
This translation is similar to that in the old King James version, with the exception of the verb rendered “tearing apart”. This same verb also occurs in Isa 7:6, albeit in a different stem, where it must take the same (quite permissible) meaning. Now, on this rendering a very different understanding emerges: The land (singular!) is not Aram and Israel (which are two lands, cf 7:8-9), but the land of promise, Immanuel’s land (8:8), currently disrupted under two kings, as Isaiah notes (v 17). Both people and kings will eventually go into exile and the land be forsaken: Israel within 65 years; Judah after an undefined period. Thus in the immediate perspective lies the Assyrian invasion, but beyond that time the as-yet-unspecified Babylonian exile (cf Isa 39:6-7). Because of Ahaz’ unbelief, his line is doomed! However, beyond the Exile a faithful remnant will return, and from that remnant will come the divine Immanuel child. In him will be realised all the promises to the line of David (9:7; 11:1; cf 2 Sam 7; Psalm 89). Meanwhile, Ahaz and his ilk will not inherit the blessing.
Furthermore, Isaiah’s own son, who stood by silently, underscored this prophetic vision. His name said it all: “a remnant shall return”. Immanuel’s advent is described in terms of both his birth, and his attainment of maturity. In his prophetic vision, Isaiah sees a number of motifs pass before him: a pregnant girl, a newly-born, a toddler etc., who comes in a setting of poverty and devastation, cf 8:22-9:1. This dismal prospect will come about because at this crucial point God’s representative chose his own devices rather than faith in the LORD.
On the understanding presented above there is no need for “double fulfilment”. There is the single perspective of the divine person of Immanuel who comes beyond the dissolution of the Israelite theocracy and the line of David in human hands. Yet this child who inherits the throne of David is the rightful heir: he is, as Paul insists, the one “descended from David, as preached in my Gospel” (2 Tim 2:8).