The Messiah Would Be Born of a Virgin
More than most others, this prophecy has occasioned seemingly unending debate: was it fulfilled in Isaiah’s time, or was it for a later time? Does the Hebrew word almah refer to a virgin or a young woman? Was Matthew in the New Testament misquoting it and distorting its meaning?
Two of the four gospels refer to the virgin birth; only Matthew cites Isaiah. Here are both passages in their larger context:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Two comments can be made at the outset. First, for those who say a virgin birth is physically and scientifically impossible, Luke remarks that “nothing will be impossible with God.” If we can believe that God made the universe out of nothing, we can certainly believe as well that He can suspend the usual physical laws that apply.
Secondly, some people point out that Jesus was never called “Immanuel” by anyone in the gospels. However, we find that this same phenomenon happened with King Solomon:
Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the LORD loved him and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the LORD.
Yet Solomon is never actually called Jedidiah. Rather than being labels, these “extra” names (Immanuel and Jedidiah) tell us something about the nature of the people they were given to even though they were not used in daily life.
The primary points of debate on Isaiah 7:14 concern (1) the meaning of the Hebrew word almah, (2) the person to whom the prophecy refers, and (3) Matthew’s use of the prophecy.
The meaning of almah
Michael Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus who has studied ancient Near Eastern languages, offers the following helpful point about the word almah: “While the word ‘almah can refer to a virgin, it does not specifically mean ‘virgin.’ Its basic meaning is primarily related to adolescence, not sexual chastity.” (For his detailed reasons, see Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, section 4.3.)1
Some may think this line of reasoning destroys the case for a virgin birth. But it does not. If we translate almah as a “young woman of marriageable age,” in the culture of Isaiah’s time, it was assumed that she would be a virgin! In other words, rather than needing to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that almah linguistically means “virgin,” we can simply point out that an almah in that culture was a virgin.
The meaning of the word betulah
Some have argued that there is another Hebrew word that clearly does refer to a virgin: betulah. If Isaiah really meant “virgin,” the argument goes, he would have been better off using this alternate word.
But Brown shows that betulah, while it could refer to a virgin, often simply means a young woman. Some of his observations:
- Genesis 24:16 includes the phrase, “a betulah whom no man had known.” Here, the qualifier, “whom no man had known” (which means “whom no man had slept with/had sexual relations with”), is added, showing that betulah by itself was not enough to indicate virginity.
- In the following verses, “young woman” makes sense while “virgin” does not: Isaiah 23:4; Ezekiel 9:6; Job 31:1; Joel 1:8 (referring to a widow); Isaiah 47:1 (the betulah loses her husband and her children in verses 8 and 9).
- In cognate (related) ancient languages, the equivalent of betulah often can refer to someone who is pregnant or has had intimate relations.
Thus, the word betulah would not have worked for Isaiah if he meant to indicate virginity. (Again, for more detail, see Brown’s book referred to above.)
To whom does the prophecy refer?
The context of the prophecy in Isaiah
The context of Isaiah 7 is the attack on Judah by the Arameans and the northern tribes of Israel. Note these things:
- The aim of the attack was to depose the king of Judah, a descendant of David, and thereby to end the Davidic dynasty, which God had established and promised to always sustain. In essence, it was an attack on God Himself.
- The current king of Judah, Ahaz, was a man of superficial faith. God’s promise in Isaiah 7:7-9 that both His adversaries (the Arameans and the northern tribes of Israel) would come to an end is met with no response of faith on the part of Ahaz. God even offers to give Ahaz a sign, but Ahaz refuses to take God up on His offer – “I will not put the LORD to the test,” he replies, using Deuteronomy 6:16 as an excuse. It is as though someone warmly invited you to their home for dinner and you responded, “I won’t come because I don’t want to impose!”
- With some exasperation, God then addresses the entire house of David (using plural pronouns, which means He is not addressing only Ahaz). God takes the initiative and gives the sign of the almah who will give birth to a son and call him Immanuel.
Because the sign of Immanuel is meant to be a sign to Ahaz of God’s deliverance of Israel, we can say that it was fulfilled in Ahaz’s day in the birth of a particular person who was born to a young woman of marriageable age – after she was married. The person, though not named Immanuel (see discussion above), was a sign that God was with His people in delivering Judah. It almost does not matter who this person would have been. Ahaz and his court would have known. Yet the prophecy doesn’t end there because it was given to the entire house of David as well. And so…
How did Matthew use the prophecy?
Sometimes a prophecy ends up being far more complex than it first appears. In Exodus 3:16-17, God tells Moses that he will bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. But it was not a straight shot by any means as God’s promise was not fulfilled without the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the death of the first generation to leave Egypt, and an assortment of other obstacles and incidents along the way, none of which were mentioned when the original promise was given.
Another example is God’s promise to David that He would set David on the throne and that his kingdom would last forever (see 2 Samuel 7:13-18 and 1 Chronicles 17:11-14). And yet, as commentator Craig Blaising notes, “Nothing was said about a line of kings, a later division of the kingdom, trouble with Gentile powers, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and an interruption of Davidic rule for over four hundred years…. Note that throughout that history each of the Davidic kings found legitimacy in the original covenant promise, while subsequent prophecy spoke of one yet to come who would fulfill the promise forever.” Blaising calls this “a divinely directed historical complexification of prophetic patterns.”2
Something similar can be seen with the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy. There was a child born in Ahaz’s day who served as a sign that God would deliver Israel. But – “complexifying” matters, in Blaising’s terminology – the deliverance did not last. Israel again came under oppressive rulers and continued to do so with only brief respites up through the rule of Rome in the first century. Similarly, though David’s rule was prophesied to last forever as a time of peace and prosperity, many of the following Davidic kings proved to be evil, bringing destruction rather than deliverance. The messianic hope was for an ultimate descendant of David who would finally fulfill the original promise God gave to David.
And so Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, a promise made not just to Ahaz but to the whole “house of David” – the entire Jewish people. In Matthew’s time, Judah is still oppressed and in need of deliverance by an Immanuel, someone known as “God with us.” This time, the prophecy is fulfilled in all its fullness: Jesus – if you accept the teaching of the New Testament – was indeed God with us as He became incarnate in a human being. And for good measure, Mary literally remained a “young woman of marriageable age” – without having relations with her husband – up through the time of Jesus’ birth. Ahaz may have had his “Immanuel” in his own time as a sign that God was then with Israel, but, with the incarnation of Jesus, the entire Jewish people have now had the ultimate “Immanuel,” God literally with us in Yeshua.
Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 has been a source of lively discussion. The above comments are not intended to be the last word on the subject but rather to point to one way of understanding the prophecy.
1. Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), section 4.3.
2. Craig Blaising, “Biblical Hermeneutics: How Are We to Interpret the Relation Between the Tanak and the New Testament on This Question?,” The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, ed. Gerald R. McDermott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 100.