Is “virgin” really the best translation in Isaiah 7:14?


In your article, you said that the RSV mistranslated Isaiah 7:14 by changing "virgin" to "young woman." My Baptist College and Career group visited our city synagogue and the rabbi told us that the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 meant and is translated as a young maiden and not virgin. The Gospel writers' testimony was that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus which meant the historical event was in itself a commentary of the Hebrew word translated "young maiden," but now we see it meant more than that but a virgin maiden, which of course the Jewish rabbi could not accept. What do the Hebrew lexicons say is the meaning of that word?


When looking for answers, you always must consider the source of your information. Is there a bias that might be present causing the source of information to be less than honest? In this cause you spoke to someone well acquainted with the Hebrew language but whose religion pushes for a strong denial of miracles connected to Jesus.

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).

The disagreement is over whether the word 'almah should be translated as "virgin" or "young maid." Typically the argument is that betulah, another Hebrew word, is the proper word for a virgin. But this is not solid evidence since many languages have synonyms.

The word 'almah refers to a young woman who was of marriageable age. Typically it referred to a woman who was not yet married, but it could refer to a young wife who had not yet borne children. A young woman who is not yet married is typically a virgin, so it is easy to see how 'almah and betulah can be used interchangeably in most cases. In fact, you can find several passages where betulah is translated as "maiden" (Judges 19:24; II Chronicles 36:17; Job 31:1; Psalms 78:63; 148:12; Jeremiah 2:32; 51:22; Lamentations 5:11; Ezra 9:6; Ezekiel 44:22; Zechariah 9:17). Thus, the argument that it is strictly translated one way or another is false.

In the other passages where 'almah is used:

  • "Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass that when the virgin comes out to draw water, and I say to her, "Please give me a little water from your pitcher to drink" " (Genesis 24:43). Abraham's servant was looking for a wife for Isaac, and he would be very likely looking for a virgin. And the one he found, Rebekah, was a virgin (Genesis 24:16).
  • "And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go." So the maiden went and called the child's mother" (Exodus 2:8). The maiden was Miriam, Moses' sister. Since she is living at home we are safe in assuming she is unmarried and still a virgin.
  • "The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; Among them were the maidens playing timbrels" (Psalms 68:25). The passage is too general to state for certain one way or another.
  • "The way of an eagle in the air, The way of a serpent on a rock, The way of a ship in the midst of the sea, And the way of a man with a virgin" (Proverbs 30:19). Again we can't conclusively one way or another, but if we are talking about dating couples, we generally assume the woman is a virgin.
  • "Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, Your name is ointment poured forth; Therefore the virgins love you" (Song of Solomon 1:3). Whether virgin or young maid cannot be stated from the context.
  • "There are sixty queens And eighty concubines, And virgins without number" (Song of Solomon 6:8). The list gives wives of Solomon, slaves who were his wives, and women awaiting to be his wives. While not conclusive, one assumes the pending wives were virgins.

Notice then that in every passage "virgin" could be used to translate 'almah and not cause a contradiction.

Actually, the context itself gives us a strong clue: How is it a sign that a young woman bearing a son? A sign is a miraculous event that certifies that something is from God. But young women have sons all the time! Where is the miracle? How does the birth of a boy to a young woman certify anything? But a child being born to a virgin, now there is something that doesn't happen.

Besides, the Jewish scholars in 200 B.C. translated this word as "virgin" in Greek. Thus, the contention that it only means “young woman” is false because the experts of the past said that "virgin" was a proper translation of 'almah. More solidly, Isaiah 7:14 is quoted in Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27 and the Greek word for virgin was used by the Holy Spirit to translate this passage.

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