and she will call His name Immanuel.”
The rabbi immediately became quite disturbed and said, “You Christians
always recite that verse with the word, “virgin!” The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is
‘almah. It means, “young woman,” not “virgin! And, I know what you are
getting at. I’ll tell you right now, this Immanuel.... does not refer to Jesus Christ!
Why can’t you Christians see that?!
Rabbi Horowitz shook his head in disgust and said, “You Christians have this
all wrong! This verse is about King Ahaz’s wife, and His son, Hezekiah!”
The rabbi’s remarks didn’t surprise me. I was expecting him to say what he did, and hoped to
talk to him about his thoughts. I had hoped we could also talk about the messianic possibilities of the verse. But, that wasn’t to be. He quickly walked away.
In the rabbi’s defense,
there are Christian scholars, such as Walter Kaiser, the late Gleason Archer, Ray
Ortlund, Robert Chisholm, and others, who hold their own views. Like the rabbi,
Walter Kaiser believes that Isaiah 7:14 speak of Hezekiah.1 Gleason Archer,2 Ray
Ortlund,3 Robert Chisholm, 4 John Joseph Owens 5 and others believe that Isaiah
7:14 speaks of Maher-shalal-hash-baz.6
There are Christians who believe that Isaiah 7:14 was only “near term” (just
like the rabbi), and others who believe the passage has both a present and a future
meaning--a meaning for the time of Ahaz and a meaning for the time to come
(messianic).7 In other words–they believe Isaiah 7:14 has a dual-meaning. Some
Christians don’t even believe that Isaiah 7:14 is messianic whatsoever.
For obvious reasons then, Isaiah 7:14 has become quite controversial and
heated debates have indeed surfaced. The late theologian, Dr. Charles Feinberg,
had seen how emotional his own colleagues could get over opposing views and thus
remarked, “Many Christian scholars have refused to admit any other interpretation
for Isaiah 7:14: 'almah must mean "virgin," and Immanuel, "God with us," and
Matthew clinches the identification with Mary and Jesus.” 8
Dr. Feinberg may have a point. So many Christians are very set in their own
presuppositions that they are unwilling to look at opposing views, perhaps out of
fear that their views could possibly be challenged. Challenge is good, in that it can
actually strengthen the viewpoints we have, or, eliminate viewpoints we may have
that aren’t consistent with Scripture. So, let’s now take a look at some of the
viewpoints regarding Isaiah 7:14, starting with the
controversial view of ‘alma.
Who Is ‘Alma?
Young Woman or Virgin?
Isaiah’s Wife....or someone Else?
In the year 1953 the Revised Standard Version Bible hit the bookstores.
William Irwin and others who had put together the RSV translation were quite proud
that their labors were finished and their translation was now getting into the hands
of the people. Little did they know of the heated debate they had before them over
their translation of one little verse, Isaiah 7:14. The committee had decided to use
in their translation the words “young woman” rather than virgin.9 This caused such
an uproar that in the years ahead, Irwin and others on the RSV committee would
have to defend themselves with the following question, “why didn’t you use the
word virgin”? 10
Reasons Why Some Believe
‘Alma Means ‘Young Woman’
In the days and years that followed, Irwin gave the following reason for why
the RSV committee did not use the word “virgin” in the RSV Bible: “the primary idea
is that ‘alma does not mean “unspotted virginity.” 11 He further explained, that
the Hebrews have a special word for the word virgin: bethulah , which would be
found in Song of Songs 6:8 and Proverbs 30:19. 12
Irwin went on to say that, “those whose faith in Christ hangs precariously on
the rendering of a Hebrew word in a single passage are surely in a sad
plight....Actually,....Isaiah 7:14 in it's original intent could have referred only to
some event between 734 and 732 B.C.; it's application to doctrines of Christology is
a totally different matter, having only the most tenuous connection with the issue of
whether the 'almah was a virgin or not." 13
During this same time, John Joseph Owens defended the committee’s use of
the word and said that ‘alma in Isaiah 7:14 means “a girl, maiden, young woman,
sc. Of marriageable age.” 14 Owens added that many interpreters have
disregarded the actual text of Isaiah 7:14 in their haste to prove the virgin Birth of
Jesus Christ. The virgin Birth of Jesus is a fact whether Isaiah said bethulah or
Owens wanted others to understand him further, by pointing out that the
famous lexiconist William Gesenius (1888), also referred to alma as simply “young
woman” 16 and included that if the birth of Isaiah 7:14 was to be a virgin birth, then
the word used would have been bethulah rather than ‘almah. 17
To further defend his view he exclaimed, “if the translator uses the word,
“virgin” in the text of 7:14, he would be including his own implications and biases
into the translation which any Hebrew scholar would tell you is simply not in the
While we’ve heard from the “young woman” side, what about those who
believe ‘almah means “virgin.” Do they have any intellectual weight on their side?
Scholar John H. Walton doesn’t think so. He simply says, “the upshot of all of this
is the conclusion that there is no defensible linguistic logic for suggesting the
meaning “virgin” for the Hebrew ‘alma.”19 Is Walton accurate on this point? Or are