Immanuel - Our God is With Us - Part IV - Exegetical Details

This is the fourth installment of the series on Isaiah 7

Exegetical details.

Without getting overly technical, there are a few different thoughts for reading this passage.

 “This is the most vexing question of all. Three basic approaches have been suggested: the non-fulfillment view, which asserts that the almâ and Immanuel were people living in Ahaz’ time only; the one-fulfillment view, which understands Isa. 7:14 as only a prediction of the virgin birth of Christ; and the double-fulfillment view, which sees a near fulfillment in the days of Ahaz and a remote fulfillment in the NT period. The first theory is unsatisfactory because of its refusal to take Mt. 1:23 seriously, and the second is unsatisfactory because it fails to do justice to the context of which Isa. 7:14 is an integral part. Only the third, which provides contemporary fulfillment as a sign to Ahaz and fulfillment centuries later as a sign to the ‘house of David’ as a whole, is worthy of our consideration here.”[1]

In 7:14 (the text in question), virgin (Hebrew almah עַלְמָה) means young woman or maiden but does not strictly imply her sexual status.[2] The word for “virgin” as we understand (not having been with a man) is bethulah (בְּתוּלָה), such as in Gen 24:16. The NIV and KJV translate this passage as “virgin”, but where did they acquire this idea?

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (LXX – Septuagint, around 250 B.C.) they translated the “young woman” (almah) to “virgin” (Greek parthenos). This word (parthenos) means virgin in the same way that the Hebrew word bethulah means virgin. In a study on this subject, Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary noted: 

“Two problems prevent most Christians who read Isaiah 7:14 and most pastors who preach from this text from arriving at a proper understanding of this oracle. The first problem is that most Christians who interpret Isaiah 7:14 fail to study the passage within its historical context. When reading Isaiah 7:14, most Christians go from Isaiah 7:14 directly to Matthew 1:22-23 without stopping to consider the events narrated in 2 Kings 16 or how the text is related to what is said in Isaiah chapter 8. In all my years in the ministry, I have never heard a sermon on Isaiah 7:14 linked to what Isaiah said in chapter 8…The second problem is the problem of language. Most Christians and most pastors do not know Hebrew and Greek. For this reason, they are forced to read Isaiah 7:14 from a Bible translated into English. In most evangelical circles, that Bible will be the King James Bible (KJV) or the New International Bible (NIV)…In Exodus 2:8, where the Hebrew text uses the word 'almah, the Septuagint translates the word ‘almah as neanis, ‘young woman’ and not a ‘virgin.’ In Exodus 2:8 the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah as “young woman” is correct, but its translation of the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos, ‘virgin,’ is not correct. The translation of the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos in the Septuagint raises an important issue: why did the translators of the Septuagint use the word parthenos, ‘virgin’ and not the word neanis, ‘young woman’ to translate the Hebrew ‘almah?”[3]

It is possible that when this was told to Ahaz, this woman was a virgin, shortly thereafter to become married and bear a son. It is also possible that this was Isaiah’s son (because of 8:3 and 18).

“This larger context makes it probable that Immanuel was a son of Isaiah. However, because Isaiah laconically says that Immanuel will be born to “the young woman” (Isa. 7:14), some suggest that the mother is someone other than Isaiah’s wife, whom he refers to elsewhere as “the prophetess” (Isa. 8.3). Some propose that the mother is a queen (a wife of king Ahaz, to whom Isaiah is speaking), an unidentified bystander to whom Isaiah points, or a cult figure. The traditional Christian interpretation that “the young woman” is an intentional reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus does not do justice to the immediate prophecy, which required fulfillment in the eighth century BCE.”

“Numerous suggestions have been made concerning the contemporary identification of Immanuel, the two most popular being a son of Ahaz or a son of Isaiah. The former, however, flounders in a sea of difficulties both theological and chronological. Arguments favoring the latter proposal are much stronger. We begin by noting that many have observed the similarity of form between Isa. 7:10–17 and 8:1–4. So similar are they that Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz may be two names for the same child, the former given by his mother, the latter by his father. Just as Shear-jashub (7:3), the name of Isaiah’s other son, has a double significance (‘a remnant will return’ and ‘only a remnant will return’), so also Immanuel (‘God is with us’) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (‘the plunder hastens, the prey speeds’) represent salvation and judgment respectively. Alternate names are common in both the OT (cf. Isa. 62:4; Jer. 20:3; and esp Ruth 1:20) and the NT. The interplay between promise and threat in Isa. 7–8 corresponds to the alternation between Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz in the same section…The term ‘sign,’ referring to Immanuel in Isa. 7:14, is echoed in the summary statement of 8:18 where Isaiah refers to himself and his children as signs and portents in Israel. All the contextual evidence indicates that Immanuel is to be regarded as one of Isaiah’s sons.”[5]

The investigation naturally has to include the words “is with child” (hārāh weyōledet bēn). The word harah means pregnant (e.g. Gen 16:11, 38:24). It is very straight-forward. The word weyōledet is a Hebrew qal participle feminine singular verb. There is no present tense in Hebrew as we are accustomed in English. Instead, it uses verbal action to express its meaning in relation to time. Thus the action word weyōledet can be translated “is bringing forth”, “is bearing” or “is giving birth to” a “son”.[6] The JPS Tanakh (1985) renders the text,

“Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel.”

Again from Professor Mariottini: 

“What Isaiah is saying to king Ahaz is that the young woman is already pregnant and will give birth to a son. The reality of the woman’s pregnancy is clearly expressed in the NRSV: ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son’ (Isaiah 7:14). It is also expressed in the NET Bible: ‘Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son’ (Isaiah 7:14 NET). In the Hebrew text, the event being announced is present and not future. If the Hebrew indicates that the woman is already pregnant, why do the NIV and the KJV say that the event will be in the future?: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son’ (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). The answer again is found in the Septuagint. In the Septuagint the verb is a future tense, indicating that the pregnancy will occur in the future. Although the Greek text does not say how long in the future the birth will occur, the future pregnancy of the woman contradicts the message of Isaiah who proclaimed that the young woman was already pregnant when he confronted Ahaz and gave him God’s message.”[7]

In the Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) the word is almah, and is translated, 

“Therefore the LORD himself will give y[ou a sign. Loo]k, the young woman has conceived and is bearing a son, and his name will be Immanuel.”[8]

The reason for addressing this is that the “sign” includes the information that the child will become old enough to eat solid food and then the northern threat will be removed, i.e. the Syrian-Israel alliance. Judah however, will be presented with a more substantial threat than the current one. We have to first read this passage in its historical setting before we read it in a prophetic one (relating to Jesus).

“The Christian tradition identified the ‘almah’ with the virgin mother Mary, and Immanuel with Jesus (Math. 1:20ff). The medieval Jewish commentator David Kimhi (on Isaiah 7:14) comments that the sign was to strengthen Ahaz’s conviction in the truth of the prophet’s message. This would imply that the sign be contemporary with Ahaz and not a symbol for a future occurrence. The birth of Immanuel therefore could not take place, as Christianity has it, in the distant future after the period of Isaiah.”[9] 

The woman” (in the text) seems to be a person known by Ahaz and Isaiah himself. Additionally, the child’s life fits with events of the next few years. The sign or pledge mentioned in Is. 7:14 is inextricably bound up with the name given in conjunction with it, “Immanuel”, with us is God. How do we know he is with us? The sign or pledge he promised is here, or has come to fruition. This is also how it connects to Jesus, the promised one (think back to Abraham, and the promise made by God).


End Notes:
[1] G. W. Bromiley, “Immanuel,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:807.
[2] Almah is a rare noun (used 7x in Hebrew Bible) and signifies a young woman, a girl, or an unmarried maiden (Gen. 24:43; Exo. 2:8; Isa. 7:14; Ps. 68:26; Prov. 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8). The focus of almah is on youth, not virginity. But the spiritual and moral ethics in Hebrew culture assumed that young unmarried girls had no sexual experience. It was assumed that an almah was a virgin. An almah can be a bethulah.
[3] Claude Mariottini, “The Virgin Shall Conceive: A Study of Isaiah 7:14” Studies on Isaiah 7:14, Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament: (January 13, 2014).
[4] Samuel A. Meier and Bruce M. Metzger, “Immanuel,” The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1993), 300.
[5] G. W. Bromiley, “Immanuel,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:807.
[6] It must be pointed out as well that the verb qara't (“call") is also perfect (thus reading “she has called”).
[7] Claude Mariottini, “The Virgin Shall Conceive: A Study of Isaiah 7:14” Studies on Isaiah 7:14, Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament: (January 13, 2014).
[8] Martin G. Abegg Jr., Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English (Harper One, 2002), 281.
[9] Harold Louis Ginsberg, “Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 2d ed., 22 vols. (Thomas Gale, 2007), 9:738.

The next segment will deal with the Matthean application.

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