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The Prophecy of Isaiah 7:14

Virgin or Young Woman?

Immanuel– Jesus or Someone Else?

Donna Morley


       Years ago, I went to a Jewish synagogue to observe, for the first time, the Hebrew’s form of worship. After the service, I had a lengthy conversation with Rabbi Horowitz. He was kind, gentle and jovial. Before long we had an interesting conversation about the coming Messiah (in my view, we were talking about His second coming, although I didn't tell him). In due time, I wanted to see if I could talk to the rabbi about Isaiah 7:14 (which in my view was a prophecy of the Messiah's first coming), so I quoted it aloud,

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:

Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son,

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 ‘almah.” 15

         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 word!” 18

         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 th