Christians around the world, following Matthew 1:22–23, read this verse from Isaiah as a prophecy about Jesus’ birth:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin [almah] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [God with us]. (Isaiah 7:14, NIV)
However, many have challenged this claim in Matthew’s Gospel. Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Outreach Judaism, sums up the main criticisms:
Matthew, however, not only changed the meaning of the word הָעַלְמָה to apply this verse from the Jewish Scriptures to the virgin birth, he also completely ripped Isaiah 7:14 out of context and utilize it to support his infancy narrative of Jesus. (Rabbi Tovia Singer, Dual Prophecy’ and the Virgin Birth)
Did Matthew change the meaning of Isaiah 7:14?
Let’s look at Rabbi Singer’s first point:
The author of the first Gospel deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word הָעַלְמָה (ha’almah) as “a virgin.” This Hebrew word, however, does not mean “a virgin.” It simple means “the young woman,” with no implication of sexual purity.
Rabbi Singer gives the impression that Matthew was deliberately trying to mislead his readers. This is unlikely. Matthew was probably quoting from the Septuagint — a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek completed around the 2nd century BCE. The Septuagint translated הָעַלְמָה (ha’almah) as parthenos — meaning “virgin”.
Since the Septuagint predates Christianity, there’s no reason to think that the translators intentionally changed the meaning. Rashi, the famous Jewish commentator, stated that some Jews understood the verse as prophecy about a virgin birth:
“And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl and incapable of giving birth.” (The Jewish Bible with a Modern English Translation and Rashi’s Commentary, Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg)
What is the meaning of almah in the rest of the Hebrew Bible?
Almah appears only 7 times in the Hebrew Bible. There is no evidence this word was used to describe a young woman who wasn’t a virgin. For example, Genesis 24 describes Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife, as betulah (virgin) and almah (young woman). Rashi interprets עֲלָמ֥וֹת (alamot, plural of almah) in Song of Songs 1:3 to mean virgins:
maidens[alamot]: virgins [betulot], since the text compares Him to a youth whose beloved holds him dear, and according to the allegory, the maidens are the nations. (The Jewish Bible with a Modern English Translation and Rashi’s Commentary, Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg)
Song of Songs 6:8 also makes the distinction between queens, concubines and alamot (i.e. young women who were not married). Exodus 2:8 uses almah to describe Moses’ sister, soon after his birth. There is no suggestion she was married at this age.
Proverbs 30:19 is more ambiguous. The key contrast was between the almah (verse 19) and the adulteress (verse 20). So the verse was specifically making the point about the sexual purity of the almah.
There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman [almah].
“This is the way of an adulterous woman:
She eats and wipes her mouth
and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’ (Proverbs 30:18–20, NIV)
But whether the young woman is married or not, virgin or not, is unclear. Additional uncertainty is that these verses are poetry so shouldn’t be interpreted woodenly. So we should not conclude the meaning of almah on this verse alone.
Should Isaiah have used betulah if he meant virgin?
In another article, Rabbi Singer expands his argument:
Had Isaiah wished to speak about a virgin, he would have used the word betulah (בְּתוּלָה) not almah. The word betulah appears frequently in the Jewish Scriptures, and is the only word — in both biblical and modern Hebrew — that conveys sexual purity. (Rabbi Tovia Singer, Does the Hebrew Word Alma Really Mean “Virgin”?)
However, it’s not as clear cut as Rabbi Singer suggests. The standard Jewish translation (Jewish Publication Society (JPS), 1985) translates betulah as maiden (i.e. young woman) in 31/51 occurrences in the Tanakh. For example:
The sword shall deal death without, As shall the terror within, To youth and maiden[betulah] alike, The suckling as well as the aged. (Deuteronomy 32:25, JPS, 1985)
There are many other examples (such as Isaiah 23:4; 62:5; Jeremiah 31:13; 51:22; Ezekiel 9:6; Amos 8:13). If the primary meaning of betulah is virgin, why does the premier Jewish translation render it this way in only a third of instances? Israeli scholar Matitiahu Tsevat made an even starker assessment:
Out of the 51 times that bethulah occurs in the OT, 3 times it clearly means ‘virgin’ (Lev. 21:13f.; Dt. 22:19; Ezk. 44:22), and once it certainly does not [referring to Joel 1:8]. … In 12 passages, almost all of which are poetic, it is connected (both in the sing. and in the pl.) with bachur(im), and the two expressions together mean the same thing as ‘young people’; here virginity plays no discernible role. (quoted in Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus; Vol 3, Messianic Prophecies)
The reality is that neither betulah nor almah can conclusively mean virgin in isolation. We need to look at the context of the passage.
The wider context: Isaiah 7–11
Rabbi Singer is right that people should read Isaiah 7:14 in context. However, while he focuses on chapter 7, he ignores the wider context of chapters 7–11.
Isaiah 7 specifically mentions the house of David (7:13)— and that a son will be born from there. In the hands of the evil king Ahaz the house of David was in danger. This sign was a promise of the survival of David’s house consistent with earlier prophecies such as 2 Samuel 7:13 which spoke of the Messiah as the son of David.
Isaiah 9 was often cited in early Jewish tradition about the Messiah (for example, Devarim Rabbah 1; Midrash Pereq Shalom; Targum of Isaiah):
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
(Isaiah 9:6–7, NIV)
Isaiah 11 is also one of the classic passages about the Messiah bringing world peace:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox…In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:6–10, NIV)
So the context of this whole section is about how the Messiah, the Son of David (that is, the “Root of Jesse”, David’s father) will be born, reign on David’s throne and then bring world peace. Isaiah 65–66 later calls this “a new heaven and new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, JPS 1985).
The time of Ahaz, the distant future, or both?
Rabbi Singer is correct that Isaiah 7 addressed the immediate situation of Ahaz:
It is clear from this chapter that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two hostile armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than seven centuries later. (Rabbi Tovia Singer, Dual Prophecy’ and the Virgin Birth)
However, Old Testament scholar, Alec Motyer, pointed out in his commentary, The Prophecy of Isaiah, that the present and distant future are interwoven in this section of Isaiah 7–11. Some verses spoke about the immediate fate of Ahaz (Isaiah 7:14–16; 10:22–11:1). Other verses of a more remote future. For example, Isaiah 8:11–22 and 11:12 are prophecies about far beyond the time of Ahaz when the people of Israel will be scattered into exile.
Michael Brown, scholar in Near Eastern languages and literature, noted the parallel between the promised child of Isaiah 7:14–16 (Immanuel) and another promised child in 8:1–4 (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz). Chapter 8 made the same promise about Ahaz’s deliverance in the time of Isaiah. The major contrast, is that the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was recorded (Isaiah 8:3) while the birth of Immanuel was not.
It is reasonable to conclude the son of Isaiah 8 was a prediction and fulfilment of Ahaz’s deliverance. Whereas the son of Isaiah 7 is speaking about a future deliverance for the house of David.
Would a young non-virgin woman giving birth be a sign?
Matthew’s Gospel famously cites Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about Jesus’ virgin birth. We’ve seen that Rabbi Singer’s claim Matthew tampered with the meaning of the text is without evidence.
It is also clear the use of almah (young woman) in Isaiah 7:14 does not rule out the prediction of a virgin birth particularly when viewed within the context of other central predictions about the Messiah (Isaiah 7–11).
A further problem for Rabbi Singer’s interpretation is that the context of the passage — as a sign from the Lord —means this would need to be something out of the ordinary. An unidentified young woman who had a baby is hardly significant —as surprising as a rainy day in Ireland. How would we distinguish which young woman?
When considering all the information, Matthew is justified in speaking about Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about a virgin birth.