A winter chill seeps through the chinks in the wall unnoticed. No icy wind can cool the glistening brow of the woman in labor. Several other women huddle over her makeshift bed. She does not notice the concerned expression of the midwife nor the anxiety of the helpers surrounding her.
“I can’t continue,” she moans. “I’m too tired; I can’t take it!” But this day there will be no rest until her work is complete. Then the top of the baby’s head emerges. The midwife springs into action, coaxing, guiding, pulling the baby out of the birth canal so the newborn can greet the world. The umbilical cord is cut, the child’s throat is cleared and its eyes rinsed. Then the call of joy and triumph rings out: “The baby is born; you have a son!” Thousands of times a day that scene happens with a perpetual newness that defies banality. The birthing of a child is one of life’s greatest dramas, presenting a window through which we may gaze at the wonder of creation. It was the hope of every Jewish mother that her child might be the key to Israel’s future. With the pain of labor came the comforting thought, “Maybe my child will fulfill God’s promises to the nation. Maybe my boy will be Messiah.”
In ancient times the women of the town carried the news from one another, and soon a number of them gathered at the house of the confined woman to bless her in the name of God.1
In Isaiah’s prophecies we see the drama of one particular child and his birth—the prediction of a son like no other entering the world. In chapters 7-10, there are repeated references to the birth of a child who will make a difference in the history of Israel. The prophet Isaiah went beyond the borders of the usual hope surrounding a birth. He challenged his readers to grapple with the concept of a child in the role of redeemer. Yet to grasp the significance of Isaiah’s prophecies it is necessary to understand the pivotal time in Israel’s history in which they were given.
Israel’s Troubled Times
During the reign of young King Ahaz of Judah in the years 735-715 B.C.E. storm clouds hung over the nation. To the north, Assyria was growing in power under Tiglath-pileser III who, after his conquests in the east, turned his forces toward Israel. Tiglath-pileser was plucking up the small nations that dotted the Mediterranean coast, which included Israel and much of Judah. The northern tribes of Israel were on the brink of being devoured by the ferocious war machine of the powerful Assyrian armies.
Tiglath-pileser was a ruthless despot who seemed unstoppable. No military might in the Middle East had been able to withstand the Assyrian conquerors. The fate of Israel’s armies seemed hopeless. Meanwhile, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel waged war against Ahaz of Judah, perhaps in an effort to force him into an alliance with them against Tiglath-pileser. As he had in times past, God raised up a person for those troubled times, the prophet Isaiah. That prophet would speak to the needs, fears and hopes of God’s people for almost 50 years. Isaiah confronted King Ahaz in the forthright manner that characterized his ministry. Speaking to the king’s fears, the prophet delivered God’s message of reassurance:
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller’s field, and say to him, ‘Take care, and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands, on account of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah.'” (Isaiah 7:3-4)
A Sign of the Times
Ahaz was confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, Rezin and Pekah were threatening the Davidic dynasty by placing the son of Tabeel on the throne. On the other hand, Assyria was vanquishing one kingdom after another. The greatest question in the minds of the royal family must have been: “What will happen to God’s promise that David’s throne shall be for all time?” But the worried King Ahaz simply would not trust in God.
Isaiah assured him that God would give a sign to the nation of Judah that would command their trust. Since the dynasty was threatened, the people would need confidence to trust God to maintain the throne of David for “all generations.”2 Therefore, the impending sign had to answer in some way the question of what was to become of the house of David.3 God offered to give Ahaz a sign, either as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven, but Ahaz refused. “I will not tempt the Lord,” he seemingly protested. The fact was, Ahaz had his own way of handling the situation, through an ungodly alliance with Tiglath-pileser.4
Clearly, King Ahaz was not interested in a sign nor in a prophetic word from the Lord which might interfere with his own course of action. And so, from Isaiah came the sharp rebuke, “Is it too little that you weary men, that you also weary my God?” The prophet continued, and addressed the entire house of David:5
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the almah (young woman or virgin) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
Isaiah’s prophecy was to remind the king of Judah that the fate of the nation didn’t rest in the designs of opposing armies or in the temporary alliances of monarchs. The destiny of the Jewish people rested securely in the hands of the Lord God of Israel. The crisis with the Jewish people and with King Ahaz was one of faith. And what exactly was this sign, as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven, that was given by God to his people?
A Child Is Born
Our leaders had failed. They allowed the people to stumble into idolatry, which was the path to doom. King Ahaz, in his pursuit of military alliances, was sending a message to the people that there was no God in Judah who would watch over his people. Ahaz’s behavior indicated his belief that the future of the nation depended upon the alliances he could forge and the cunning he could exercise in the political arena. King Ahaz had forgotten the words of King David who came before him:
Behold, He who keeps Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps. (Psalm 121:4)
The future of the nation appeared grim. When the leaders fail, the people are without hope. Where does a people go when they cannot trust their leaders? Societies throughout the ages have been faced with this problem of leadership without a mandate. A nation without sound leaders is left to drift in a sea of tyranny and folly.
Against that backdrop Isaiah declared that God himself would intervene in the future of the nation, and the prophet directs our focus—away from the dealings of kings and princes—to the activities of children. Chapters 7-10 of Isaiah have been called, “The Book of Immanuel.” This portion has also been referred to as “The Discourse of the Three Children.” The three children mentioned are: Shear-Yashuv (Isaiah 7:3), Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8,10) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:1,3,4).6 Why children? How can a child prevail in the face of a war? After all, we expect children to be innocent and vulnerable. They are ones we must protect and nurture. While they can be pleasant and lovable and teachable, they are seldom regarded as the solution to national threat. And the enemies of Israel were terrifying foes. The answer just might be that sometimes God chooses to reveal his strength through a child. This is characteristic of our Creator, who can triumph over all adversities and can solve the troubles of a people through the frailty of a child.
Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble, the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.7
A child would be born in Ahaz’s court. This child would grow and develop under normal circumstances, but before he was old enough to choose right over wrong, the Assyrians would lay waste Syria and Israel, as happened in 733-732 B.C.E. The sign of the child was an indication that God had the situation completely under control. Opposing armies could not threaten the Lord of Hosts. Nor did the lack of faith of God’s chosen people cause him to abandon them. While the prophecy was a rebuke to King Ahaz for his lack of faith, it was also a message of hope that God’s divine intervention in the affairs of the nation would not in any way be hindered.
The Meaning of Immanuel
Traditional Jewish teaching on the significance of Immanuel is seen in the following description:
“With us is God,” the name to be given to a still unborn baby boy according to Isaiah 7:14, apparently as a symbol which verse 16 is intended to explain. The name is commonly supposed to be apostrophized; but in fact the words immanu’el here are, as they are universally admitted to be in 8:10, not a proper name but a simple statement to the effect that “with us is God.” The name Immanuel does not appear at all in the talmudic or midrashic literature.8
The medieval Jewish commentator, David Kimhi, commented on the Isaiah 7:14 passage that the sign was only to strengthen the conviction of the prophet’s message. He believed that the sign (the child) had to be a contemporary of Ahaz and not a symbol for a future occurrence.9
But what does the Scripture indicate? Remember, that Ahaz had refused the sign of Immanuel and turned to the King of Assyria. The sign was for the benefit of the Jewish people—then and in the future. God was restoring the lost faith, not only for Ahaz’s generation, but for future generations of Jewish people. It’s reasonable to consider that the prophecy had an application beyond the time that it was given. The prophet told the king that the sign would be something miraculous. And if this birth was to be something unusual, it would have to be more than just a name an optimistic mother would choose for her firstborn son in order to express her hope for a more secure future. Nor was the prophecy a mere word of comfort to the king. This was God’s promise to change the course of history—a sign that would transform the way God related to humanity.
The Identity of Immanuel
If this prophecy was to have more than a local reference—if this pronouncement was to be the revelation of God to his people—the child would have to be someone outstanding. Some have suggested it was Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, the most prominent person of the period. However, he is disqualified from being the child since “when Ahaz ascended the throne, Hezekiah had already attained his ninth year.”10 Some say the child was Isaiah’s or another of Ahaz’s children. However, since the mother in the prophecy is referred to as “almah,” (a young woman of marriageable age) both these suggestions are untenable. The mother is not the wife of Isaiah or Ahaz.
Could the mother refer to all mothers in Judah, who will give their offspring names which symbolize hope in God? Or could she be a royal contemporary of the prophet and her child’s name symbolize the presence of God with the people? Could her child’s name allude to a coming Messiah? If so, is the mother, as Christians believe, Miriam (Mary) and her child Y’shua (Jesus)?
The basis for the teaching of the virgin birth is in the birth accounts of Y’shua in the New Testament, which state that Mary had not had sexual relations with a man. Matthew 1:23 quotes the Isaiah 7:14 verse and sees it being fulfilled in Y’shua.11 It is a legitimate application, since Isaiah had spoken of God’s sovereign intervention in the affairs of Israel. The Matthew passage implied God’s miraculous intervention to the advent of the long-awaited Messiah. The ultimate protection of the nation of Israel would not come through tenuous treaties nor through the might of armies. Rather it would be from the hand of God through the Messiah.
Immanuel, God’s Messiah
God commissioned Isaiah to bring a message of hope at a crucial time in the history of Israel. The time was coming when God would draw close and dwell amongst his people. As a nation, Israel needed the assurance that despite coming judgments, the promise of God’s presence remained. That presence was not to be apparent in some intangible or abstract manner, but in a very visible way, as Immanuel—Y’shua.
In sending his son to earth, God caused eternity to invade time. This was not a temporary visit; when Jesus came, he wedded dust and deity—time and eternity into one. The eternal Word was made human flesh, and that union will last forever. As the perfect man here on earth, Jesus Christ showed us what it is like to live by the eternal.12 As Immanuel, Y’shua also gives us the promise of his abiding presence which means he will be with us always, “…even to the end of the age.“13 The words of assurance that were lost on King Ahaz, have found their final meaning in the lives of the followers of Y’shua.
The announcement Isaiah made to Ahaz was a great opportunity for the king to reverse a bleak situation. He should have eagerly sought God’s guidance, not only for the good of the nation, but also for the good of his soul. Ahaz needed the prophetic word of Isaiah to resolve the crisis in his own spiritual life. But Ahaz made a baleful choice. He insisted on seeking security on his own terms and his land was crushed by his alliance with the Assyrians. Ahaz in his show of piety wouldn’t ask God for a sign. God said, “Is it a little thing?” God, in a day, created the sun and stars and then made that sun to stand still in the day of battle. He opened the sea to the Israelites and drowned the Egyptians. This same God who can do anything, anytime he wants, isn’t going to be stymied by the seeming impossibility of a virgin-born child. The greater part of the wonder is that this promised child is not only a human, but Immanuel—God with us—as well.
Indeed, is anything too difficult for God?
God is with us because he loves us. God became one of us because he wanted to show us what he was like. God wants to be with us even now. The question is, do we want to be with him?
by Efraim Goldstein
Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden?
The identity of the mother of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 has been a subject of debate over the centuries: Was the prophet Isaiah speaking of a virgin conceiving or not? The Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, linking Jesus’ conception to the sign the prophet Isaiah had given centuries earlier. Those who believe the gospel account regard Isaiah 7:14 as a messianic passage fulfilled by Jesus. Others disagree. Did the prophet intend that word to mean “virgin” or merely “young maiden”? Are Christian interpreters reading too much into this verse? Zhava Glaser presents the case for you to decide for yourself:
The word almah is rare—usually translated as “maiden” it appears only ten times in the Hebrew Scriptures, six1 of these in the plural and four2 in the singular.3 Some say the word almah is merely the feminine of elem, or “young man.”4
In the few verses where almah appears, the word clearly denotes a young woman who is not married but is of marriageable age. Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a “young, presently married woman.” It is important to remember that in the Bible, a young Jewish woman of marriageable age was presumed to be chaste.
The prophet could have chosen a different word had he wanted to describe Immanuel’s mother as a virgin. Betulah is a more common way to refer to a woman who has never been with a man (both in biblical and modern Hebrew).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are two types of betulot—the true virgin, and the “betrothed virgin” (betulah m’orashah). In Deuteronomy 22, a betrothed virgin is referred to as a man’s “wife” (ishah). The state of betrothal was just as serious and sacred as the married state5 and the difference between the two appears, in some instances, to be a mere formality. The word betulah, commonly understood as virgin, is still not precise.
Joel 1:8 presents another example of the word betulah in a context which does not convey the usual meaning of virginity: “Mourn like a virgin (betulah) in sackcloth, grieving for the husband of her youth.”
Some commentators say this refers to a betrothed virgin, thus making the lamentation all the more poignant because the marriage had never been consummated. The use of ba’al (husband) in this verse, however, seems to imply the opposite. The word ba’al is never used in the Jewish Scriptures of the betrothed state, but only of a married man.
Therefore, even if the prophet Isaiah had used the word betulah, it could have been argued that he did not intend to say that this woman had never had sexual relations with a man.
A look at the Septuagint translation of almah by Semitics scholar Dr. Cyrus Gordon, provides additional insight on the matter:
The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean “virgin” here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.6
Jewish and Christian scholars would be hard pressed to deny that the Greek term parthenos and the Hebrew term almah may have been used interchangeably by those Jewish communities that adopted the Septuagint.
On the other hand, J. Gresham Machen, who has done a definitive study on this passage, asserts that the translation in the Septuagint of the Hebrew word almah asparthenos cannot be used to show a Jewish doctrine of the virgin birth, for one also finds the word parthenos used in the Septuagint to translate the word na’arah, which merely means “young girl.”
For Machen, the very fact that the passage does not have a history of Jewish messianic interpretation and the very unlikelihood of this passage being interpreted messianically makes the New Testament account all the more credible. In other words, the gospel writer, Matthew, was not trying to fit Jesus’ life into a traditional mold, but rather turned to Scripture to explain what had taken place in the event of the virgin birth.
One cannot assert that the prophet was speaking of a virgin technically on the basis of the word almah. Nor can a serious student lightly dismiss the word as having no possible reference to a miraculous conception.
- Psalm 9:1, 46:1, 68:26; Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8; 1 Chronicles 15:20.
- Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Isaiah 7:14; Proverbs 30:19.
- For a thorough study of these passages, see Young, Edward J., The Immanuel Prophecy: Isaiah 7:14-16 (Second Article). The Westminster Theological Journal, 16:23-50 (November 1953), p. 171-177.
- LaSor, William Sanford, n.d., Isaiah 7:14—”Young Woman” or “Virgin,” Unpublished manuscript, Fuller Theological Seminary, p. 5-6.
- Young, p. 33.
- Gordon, Cyrus H., Almah in Isaiah 7:14, The Journal of Bible & Religion, Vol. 21 (April 1953), p. 106.
Copyright 2009 Jews for Jesus | by Zhava Glaser