Almah Conceives and Gives Birth to a Son
There is a great deal of misunderstanding of two Hebrew words — almah and bethulah. Both words can overlap in their meaning, but they can also differ significantly.
Most notably, this difference and misunderstanding are seen in the usage of the word almah in Isaiah 7:14, whose interpretation may lead to drawing a quick conclusion of either being a messianic prophecy or a fulfillment of a historic event, all depends on who reads and interprets the verse.
In the following, we will explain to the best knowledge and ability the polemical subject in Isaiah 7:14: “Almah conceives and gives birth to a son”.
In order to approach our verse, we would like first to clarify certain misunderstood passages that are not independently explained by the Jewish commentators or completely avoided by others. It is the object therefore of this work to explain the Hebrew text of Proverbs 30 and Isaiah 7 to which we now turn, as we will explain the matter in the following vein.
Four marvelous things for the wise man
Three things are too marvelous for me, and four which I do not know: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman. Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, “I have done no wickedness”. (Pro 30:18-20)
Although most Jewish commentators have already treated this proverb exhaustively or totally dismissed in the Christian commentaries, there is some room left for our comments. With that being said, we are asking the reader to consider what we intend to say, as we will explain the matter without preconceived ideas and denominational bias.
We will try to show that the proverb above is far from being trivial and hope to provide a more complex answer below.
The three things that cannot be understood, “The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea”, is in expression of perplexity like in Job 42:3.
Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore, I uttered that which I did not understand, things too marvelous for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak. I ask You, and You make it known to me? (Job 42:3-4)
Iyov acknowledges before YHVH that there are marvelous things, which he did not know. And just as YHVH had called for answers from him, so Iyov had been seeking answers from Him. Iyov’s argument had been that rational answers should be given to the great marvels which if man is unable to find, the Master of the universe ought to provide them. Just as David admits that knowledge, which was too wonderful for him, he could not attain (Psa 139:6).
Looking to the heavens, one cannot say that an eagle has passed there; to the rock, that a snake has curved its way over it; to the sea, that a ship has been sailed through it; to the maiden that a man has been with her.
The wisest man, Shlomo, is perplexed as to how a heavy bird like eagle flies so high in the air (see also Job 39:27); how a snake moves over the smooth rock, and how a ship splits high waves. These three natural things have this in common, namely, that they leave no trace of their pathway behind them.
Shlomo thus acknowledges that four things are beyond him; he has no understanding of them. With this the wise man means that the ways of the Omniscient One in this world are beyond his ability to understand, and this is why he has included in a seemingly accidental examples the marvels in the air, on the earth, and in the water, and on the other hand, the deeds of humans.
But does this interpretation not carry in itself its own disproof?
To the two ways which leave no traces behind them (the ways of the eagle and the snake), there cannot be compared the third one (of the ship) which leaves temporary traces in the water, and much greater extent the fourth one whose consequences are not invisible.
The point of comparison is then either the wonder of creating a new life as expressed in Job 10:8-12 and Ecc 11:5, or the invisible consequences of the sexual act.
The turning-point thus lies in the fourth perplexing matter to which the other three (which do not have an object in themselves) gravitate: “the way of a man with a maiden”. Because of the fourth perplexing thing that cannot be said, for the trace is left after “the way of a man with a woman”, and it becomes manifested in a possible pregnancy. As a result, בּתוּלה betulah, “virgin”, has become עַלְמָה almah, “a young woman”, through the act of coition.
The way of a man with a woman
We will take issue with the way verse 19 above is translated above. The traditional translations read, “the way of a man with a young woman” (JPS) or “with a maiden” (KJV). What is the issue with them?
While the phrases בַּשָּׁמַיִם, ba’shamaim, “in the heavens”, and בְלֶב־יָם, be’lev yam, “in the heart of the sea”, the expressions used by Shlomo, עֲלֵי צוּר aley tsur is used for “upon the rock”, because here “upon” is not the same as “in”.
For this same reason the expression, “with a maiden” is not the same as בְּעַלְמָה be’almah, “in almah”, for the preposition be means “in” or “within”. Therefore, בְּעַלְמָה be’almah is not to be understood of unshared love of a man toward a young woman implied by the use of the preposition “with”, but of sexual intercourse on account of the prefix ב “in” or “within”, which is the literal meaning of the preposition.
As we argued in the article How Hebrew Addresses Delicate Matters-2 – Time of Reckoning Ministry, the Hebrew Scripture and the Jewish translators for that matter tend to avoid the direct reference to sexual context and specifically to intercourse and say the same thing in a different way. Refer to the source for a further explanation.
But why then did Shlomo use the word בְּעַלְמָה be’almah, “in a maiden” and not rather בִּנְקֵבָה bi’nekeivah, “in a female” or בְּאִשָּׁה be’ishah, “in a woman”, which seem more suitable if woman in general had been meant? Because for this reason, he meant the act of coition, as it takes place particularly in youth as a consequence of love, which may not always be in accordance with the way of heaven. Hence, the use of almah, which means “young woman” versus “female” or “woman”, in which no reference to age is implied.
And indeed, the mark of maidenhood belongs to עַלְמָה almah (young woman), not in the same way as to אִשָּׁה ishah, (woman or wife), because ishah cannot as such be called almah, on account of her age and marital status and because only the marks of puberty and youth belong to almah.
With all that being said, we are ready to explain our passage in Proverbs 30 in its entirety.
As far as the grammar is concerned, כֵּן kein, “such”, “as”, or “thus”, with which verse 20 begins, “Such is the way of an adulterous woman, etc.”, points back to the preceding statement, “the way of a man with[in] a young woman” in order to explain it. Then we should hold this verse as a continuation of it and not as a separate proverb, as many have viewed it. That it is so, it is confirmed by the usage of כֵּן kein in another proverb, wherein it logically connects the second to the first statement as we read,
The wicked earns deceitful wages, but he who sows righteousness has a sure reward. Such righteousness leads to life, and he who pursues evil, pursues it to his own death. (Pro 11:18-19)
Verse 20, with its kein, “such”, therefore confirms that the intention of the fourth way, by which Shlomo has been perplexed, refers to the concealment of the consequences of a sexual act of a man with an adulterous woman, אִשָּׁה ishah, who excuses herself by saying, “I have done no wickedness”, expressed by the euphemism, “she eats and wipes her mouth” for “she consumes the sin and cleanses herself from the male’s impurity”.
Therefore, if verse 20 explains verse 19 of Proverbs 30, then Shlomo has used the word almah in this particular case with its meaning of a young woman, i.e., maiden, with a questionable moral behavior, not with its other meaning of virgin for the simplest reason that almah always refers to a young woman whether a virgin or not.
We have therefore to accept that the phrase “such is the way of an adulterous woman” in verse 20 explains what is meant by “the way of a man with[in] a maiden” in the preceding verse by the strong example of comparison. For “the adulterous woman” not only can refer to a young but also to a mature woman, who can conceive the consequences of the sin of the flesh.
If we correct in this line of reasoning, then the proverb can be translated thus,
Three things are too marvelous for me, and four which I do not know: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man in a young woman. Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, “I have done no wickedness”. (Pro 30:18-20)
Therefore, the point of comparison of “in a maiden” with “in the air”, “on a rock”, and “in the sea” is not the secret of the act of conception, but the tracelessness of the sexual intercourse, namely, the intercourse, not the pregnancy, remains concealed from human knowledge.
Now it is clear why the way of the snake on the rock over which it has glided is invisible but visible among the grass, and particularly in sand. And it is clear why it is said of the ship “in the heart of the sea”, while the trace of the ship is still visible through the water-furrows. The unchastity can be masked, and the marks of chastity be deceitful, but only the all-seeing YHVH Elohim perceives that which is done in secret under the heavens. Thus, “the way of a man [with]in a maiden” does not refer exclusively to carnal intercourse but altogether to ethical significance, as verse 20 proves the point.
Almah conceives and gives birth
Let us compare עַלְמָה almah (young woman) in Isa 7:14 to בּתוּלה bethulah (virgin) in Gen 24:16.
Therefore, Yehovah* Himself gives you a sign: “Look, almah conceives and gives birth to a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa 7:14)
Note: *The Masoretic text reads Adonai, “Lord”, but the Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) reads the Tetragrammaton “YHVH” instead.
In his effort to counter the reading this verse as a prophecy of virgin birth, the medieval Tanak commentator Rashi claims that the almah was Isaiah’s own wife who would conceive that very year, the fourth year of the reign of King Ahaz. Here Rashi thus interpreted the prophecy in a specific historic moment in order to change the messianic reading of Isa 7:14, as he has done this also to Chapter 53 of Isaiah and to the messianic psalms which the earlier rabbinic interpreters understood as referring to the future Mashiach.
Although Rashi has his arguments for such an interpretation, he seemingly avoids altogether the possibility that Isa 7:14 may have a layered background, as we believe this to be the case. For the Hebrew Scripture describes passages as having layered background, in which characters and incidents must be read not only in the immediate context, but also with a sense of what has happened before or will happen after the narrative.
On the subject of Isaiah 53, the rabbis of old understood and clearly stated in Sanhedrin 98b that the whole chapter was a prophecy referring to the Mashiach. They differ though as to who Mashiach was. We read,
About the Messiah, the Gemara asks: What is his name? … And the Rabbis say: The leper of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is his name, as it is stated: “Indeed our illnesses he did bear and our pains he endured; yet we did esteem him injured, stricken by God, and afflicted”.
The rabbis quoted the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4. It is evident why a broad consensus had developed among the rabbis that the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 reflects the plain sense of the chapter.
This statement thus testifies that before the time of Rashi the prophecy in Isaiah 53 was understood to refer to the Messiah. But it was Rashi who changed the messianic reading of Isaiah 53 from Messiah to Israel, and since then this new interpretation has replaced the original teaching in the Talmud. Rashi commented on Isa 53:4 thus,
But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he [Israel, Ed.] bore. Isaiah 53:4 with Rashi
Faithful readers of Time of Reckoning Ministry need no reminding of what we have written in the articles on the subject of the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53: Who is the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53? Part I and Part II.
No other outcome is therefore left than to assume that the prophecy in Isa 7:14 meant by almah a maiden belonging to the house of David. However, on the other hand, the objectivity behooves us to say that the prophecy neither thought of any particular woman, nor associated the promised child with any particular [human] father. The prophecy is silent on this matter.
What the prophecy however states in Isa 7:15-17 is at odds with the Gospel account. The prophet wrote that “he (the child) eats curds and honey when he knows to refuse evil and choose the good”, and even further, “for before the child knows to refuse evil and choose the good, the land that you abhor shall be forsaken by both her kings”: this is something the disciple has not stated and difficult to apply to the first century Judea.
Almah and bethulah: a young woman
The Hebrew word for virgin is בְּתוּלָה bethulah, and this word has always been used in the Hebrew Scripture with the meaning of “virgin”, i.e., a woman who has not known a man. But can almah be synonymous with bethulah?
The meaning and use of the word almah are not in accord with the interpretations given to it in the commentaries. For while bethulah (from the verb to separate) signifies a maiden living in seclusion in her father’s house and still a long way from matrimony, almah (from the verb alam, to be strong, full of vigor) is applied to a woman approaching the time of her marriage, hence a young woman. Therefore, almah and bethulah can both be applied to young females who are betrothed.
It is also admitted by the early Christian commentators, such as Keil and Delitzsch, that the idea of spotless virginity was not necessarily connected with almah (see the use of almah in Son 6:8).
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and innumerable young women. (Son 6:8)
But if some were to argue that almah could mean “virgin” exclusively, it is inconceivable to think that a virgin would be numbered among “queens” and “concubines” without any reservation or objection.
In such passages as Gen 24:43 (where almah appears) and Gen 24:16 (where bethulah appears), we see, however, that almah can mean “virgin” because both words refer to Rivkah, the future wife of Yitschak.
The word almah is also applied to Miriam, the sister of Mosheh when she was still a young girl, as seen in Exo 2:8. But in such passages as Son 1:3 and Psa 68:25, almah may refer to virgin or non-virgin alike, with no reference to virginity, because this word simply means “young woman”.
On the other hand, although, bethulah means a virgin, in Hebrew this word can also mean a young married woman who is not a virgin as such but pure in her marriage as the word bethulah is used in Joe 1:8,
Wail like bethulah girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth. (Joe 1:8)
Disagreement remains unsolved until Messiah’s return
A solid foundation is thus established for the conclusion of what we have started to explain. At the beginning of the passage in Pro 30:18-20 , Shlomo says, “which I do not know”, i.e., as he does not understand the ways of the eagle, the snake, and the ship, so does he not understand whether a woman remains virgin if she has had intimacy with a man, for it has been concealed from him. And most certainly, “virgin” in the context of Proverb 30 is not the term Shlomo could use for “adulteress woman”, as the common sense does not allow us to say that.
An alternative explanation of the proverb is that Shlomo has referred to the duty to procreate, something which cannot be done openly, or while he has understood the natural phenomena, what he did not understand was the formation of a human fetus: “the way of a man in a maiden”; this wonder of creating human life remained hidden from his knowledge, hence, he says, “which I do not know”.
And if such is the case, then in general the word almah can mean not only a virgin, but any young woman one of whose characteristics could be virginity. In the former, almah is synonymous with bethulah, virgin, and in the latter, with ishah, woman, wife. The two words bethulah and almah could both be applied to women who are betrothed and even married. The immediate context and the historic culture will show how to translate almah. It is the present author’s opinion that it is safe to render almah always “young woman” in order to avoid any religious bias which this word does not carry.
With this explanation we hope we have concluded the controversial matter of almah and bethulah, and we will leave the rest for the reader’s consideration. And when Mashiach comes, he will explain all obscure prophecies starting with Isaiah. Amein!
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