Isaiah 7:14 (KJV) "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Christians say this verse predicts the virgin birth of Jesus, who they maintain is the deity come down to earth to be with us. However, this citation has been poorly translated, taken out of context, and is not messianic in any event. (Note, by the way, how the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible misquotes this verse).
Poor Translation: The Hebrew word for virgin is "betula". The root of the word is so specific that the Hebrew scriptures mention it with reference to stained bedsheets. However, the word used in Is 7:14 is "alma" which most dictionaries translate as "young woman." The word "alma" is found only seven times in scripture. In some places, it could mean either "virgin" or "young woman" but two verses suggest that an "alma" need not be virginal (Proverbs 30:19 -- "the way of a man with an alma", which is usually sexual -- and Song of Songs 6:8 -- "queens, concubines, and almas", the first two clearly not virginal, which suggests the third also is not.) To think the prophet would have used "alma" rather than the unequivocal "betula" strains credulity.
Also, "will conceive" is unlikely. The Hebrew "hara" is most likely present tense and is better read "is pregnant."
Context: This verse concerns a specific political problem of that era, and has no messianic significance at all. Isaiah writes in a highly flowery style, which makes it difficult to follow his point. However, if you read verses 1-15 slowly and carefully, you will see that Isaiah is telling his king, Ahaz, not to worry about two neighbors, Rezin and Pekah, who threaten the kingdom, because these two "firebrands" will be vanquished. How long will that take? A few years -- i.e. in the amount of time it takes a young woman to bear a child, and raise him to know the difference between good and evil.
As for the name of the child, Emanuel, though Christians render it as "G-d with us," it should be rendered as "G-d is with us," a statement to King Ahaz that he will defeat his two neighbors because he, Ahaz, has a divine ally. The name is a comment about G-d, not a description of the person so named. (See also comments on Isaiah 9:6).
What the text says is simple. To paraphrase -- look, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a boy and she will call him "God is with us" he will be eating butter and honey before he knows to choose good from ill. Before he knows how to choose good from ill the lands of those people you fear will be forsaken.
Parenthetically, Jesus was never called "Emanuel".
To wade through the first 15 verses of Isaiah 7 can be difficult, both because modern readers are not familiar with the people and places named in the chapter, and also because Isaiah frequently refers to the same person in many ways, making it hard to keep track of who he is talking about. Below on the left is the KJV text of these verses, and my explanation on the right. The people involved are:
Pekah - son of Remaliah, King of the northern Kingdom of Israel (after King Solomon's death, his kingdom was divided into two separate and often hostile countries, Judah in the south and Israel in the north), in the tribe of Ephraim, in the area of Samaria
Rezin - King of Syria, whose capitol is Damascus
Ahaz - King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, of the House of David, son of Jotham, grandson of Uzziah, and, of course
Isaiah - the prophet himself.
For ease in understanding, I have replaced references like the name of the tribe Ephraim with the name of the person indicated -- in this case Pekah. If you disagree with any of these changes, write me and tell me specifically where and why.
|1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.||While Ahaz was king in Judah (the southern country), Pekah of Israel (the northern country) and Rezin of Syria attacked Judah, but could not defeat it.|
|2 And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.||Ahaz heard how the countries of Syria and Israel had joined forces, and he and his subjects were upset.|
|3 Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;||Hashem told the prophet Isaiah to to meet with Ahaz in a specific place ("at the end of the conduit") ...|
|4 And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.||...and to tell Ahaz not to be afraid of Rezin and Pekah ...|
|5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying,||... even though they are plotting against him saying ...|
|6 Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:||..."Let's conquer Judah and put in our own King."|
|7 Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.||Hashem God says this (conquest of Judah by Pekah and Rezin) will not happen.|
|8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.||Rezin can rule (only) in Syria, (i.e. not in Judah - Rashi), and Israel, the northern country will be destroyed within 65 years.|
|9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.||Pekah will rule Israel - only. If you don't believe, it is because you will not be believable. (Rashi).|
|10 Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying,||HaShem said more to Ahaz (through Isaiah, obviously)|
|11 Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.||"Ask me for a sign"|
|12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.||Ahaz answers, "No" (see Deut 13:2-7 and 6:16)|
|13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?||Isaiah says, "I'm getting tired of this, and so is God ...|
|14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.||"So HaShem himself will give you a sign; a young pregnant woman will have a son and name him Emmanuel ...|
|15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.||"He'll live well and learn how to choose between good and evil,|
|16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.||"But before then (say about 10 years) Rezin and Pekah will be gone."|
As one can see, this chapter has nothing to do with Messiah, and the concept of a virgin birth doesn't even fit into the plain meaning of the text. Missionaries often say that the virgin prediction is a secondary meaning, but there is no support for that idea either in history or in other sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.
With reference to the Hebrew word "alma" one of the missionary assertions is that because "almah" is translated into the word "parthenos" in the septuaguint (properly speaking, the septuaquint, or LXX, is Greek translation of the Torah, but the word is often used to indicate the Greek translation of the entire Hebrew scripture), and "parthenos" means "virgin", then "alma" must also mean virgin. Of course, to try to determine the meaning of a word from the meaning of a translation is risky at best. The big problem is that "parthenos" does not necessarily mean "virgin." To give one example, in the Illiad,2:514, the word "parthenos" is translated "maiden" in the following passage.
"Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Mars, led the people that dwelt in Aspledon and Orchomenus the realm of Minyas. Astyoche a noble maiden bore them in the house of Actor son of Azeus; for she had gone with Mars secretly into an upper chamber, and he had lain with her."
Can't get more specific than that -- Parthenous can refer to a woman who has "lain" with someone (in this case, Mars). So it need not mean virgin.
You can check it yourself (and check the other examples) at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/lexindex which has the transliterated texts. Look up the word "parthenos". Even if you don't know Greek, there are enough proper names to find where you are at in the text.
It's difficult to proclaim the Greek translation of the Hebrew as being more accurate than the Hebrew itself because there were several different Greek translations. Wilipedia mentions eight. Jerome makes mention of three different versions of the Septuagint in Preface To Chronicles:
"Alexandria and Egypt in their Septuagint acclaim Hesychius as their authority, the region from Constantinople to Antioch approves the copies of Lucian the martyr, the intermediate Palestinian provinces read the MSS which were promulgated by Eusebius and Pamphilius on the basis of Origen's labors, and the whole world is divided among these three varieties of texts."
Also, see http://www.livius.org/se-sg/septuaginta/septuaginta.html
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