Virgin Birth of Yeshua the Messiah,
God’s True Hope and Deliverance
by Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum*
CHAPTERS 7-12 of Isaiah constitute a single unit, sometimes referred to as "The Book of Immanuel" because the name "Immanuel" appears three times in the Hebrew text (7:4;8:8,10). The first prophecy which we will look at within this section of Scripture deals with the birth of Immanuel. In the Bible, when parents name a child, the meaning of the name shows the thinking of the parents. When God names the child, as here, the name shows the very nature of the child. Immanuel means "with us, God." The character of the child will be "God among us."
As mentioned in our discussion of Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:3-14 is a prophecy concerning the virgin conception and birth of the Messiah. This is perhaps the most controversial of the messianic prophecies and therefore requires a closer textual analysis than others. The exact meaning of this passage is disputed by rabbis, liberal theologians and even by some evangelical theologians. The passage talks of "a sign: The virgin will be with child.. " There are two areas of controversy here:
1. The sign
Since the context of the chapter requires a short range prophecy - giving a sign to King Ahaz - how can this be applied to the birth of a child some 700 years later, as claimed in Matthew 1:22-23?
2. The Hebrew word “Almah"
Does it really mean a virgin, or simply a young unmarried woman? We will deal with both of these contentious issues before proceeding to discuss the passage itself.
Since Isaiah 7:13-14 requires an immediate sign to King Ahaz, many Evangelicals have taken this verse to be an example of "double fulfillment." This principle states that a prophecy may have more than one fulfillment. This verse may, accordingly, be both a sign for King Ahaz and the sign in Matthew 1:22-23 for the birth of Jesus. This author does not accept the principle of double fulfillment either here or in any other place in the Bible. If this principle were true, there would be no real need for the virgin birth at all. There is another, better principle of biblical interpretation which is "Double Reference." This principle states that one block of Scripture dealing with one person, one event, one time, may be followed by another block of Scripture dealing with a different person, place and time, without making any clear distinction between the two blocks or indicating that there is a gap of time between the two blocks. The fact of a gap of time is known only from other Scriptures. There are, therefore, two separate prophecies side-by-side each having their own fulfillment, but with only one fulfillment per prophecy. "Double Fulfillment" states that one prophecy can have two fulfillments. "Double Reference" states that the one piece of Scripture actually contains two prophecies, each having its own fulfillment.
As will be explained later, Isaiah 7:3-17 contains two quite separate prophecies with different purposes, and having different fulfillments at different times.
The Hebrew Word Almah
The major debate, of course, is over the exact meaning of the Hebrew word almah, translated here as virgin. In describing a young woman, there are three Hebrew words which Isaiah could have used:
1. Na’a’rah Na'a'rah means "damsel" and can refer to either a virgin (as in I Kings 1:2), or a non-virgin (as in Ruth 2:6).
2. Betulah This is commonly considered to mean a virgin, exclusively. It is argued that if Isaiah had really meant to say a virgin, then he would have used this word. It is true that this word is often used to mean virgin, but not always. For example:
i. In Joel 1:8 it is used in reference to a widow.
ii. In Genesis 24:6, because the word does not exclusively mean "virgin" the writer adds the phrase "had never known a man" in order to clarify what he means.
iii. Again in Judges 2:12 the phrase "had not known a man" has to be added to give the precise meaning.
3. Almah Almah means "a virgin," "a young virgin," a "virgin of marriageable age." This word is used seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures and not once is it used to describe a married woman; this point is not debated.
i. Genesis 24:43. In contrast to 24:6 mentioned above, verse 43 requires no additional qualifying remarks since the one word alone is sufficient to mean "virgin." Furthermore, it is used of Rebekah who was obviously a virgin at the time of her marriage to Isaac.
ii. Exodus 2:8. Used in reference to Moses' sister Miriam, who was a virgin.
iii. Psalm 68:25. Used in reference to the royal procession of virgins. Since the King in this context is God Himself, absolute virginity is required; it is unthinkable that God would allow unchaste, unmarried women in His procession.
iv. Song of Songs 1:3. The context here is purity in marriage.
v. Song of Songs 6:8. The word is used here in contrast to wives and concubines who would obviously be non-virgins.
vi. Proverbs 30:18-19. The word is used in verse 19 in contrast to an adulteress in verse 20.
vii. Isaiah 7:14. Since all of the above six verses mean "a virgin," what reason is there for making Isaiah 7:14 the only exception? Since everyone agrees that almah means an unmarried woman, if the woman in Isaiah 7:14 were a non-virgin, then God would be promising a sign involving fornication and illegitimacy. It is unthinkable that God would sanction sin, and in any case, what would be so unusual about an illegitimate baby that could possibly constitute a sign?
As far as ancient Jewish writers were concerned, there was no argument about Isaiah 7:4 predicting a virgin birth. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made about 200 b.c.e./b.c., 200 years before the issue of Jesus' Messiahship ever arose. The Jews who made this translation, living much closer to the times of Isaiah than we do today, translated Isaiah 7:14 using the Greek word parthenos which very clearly and exclusively means a virgin.
There can therefore be no doubt that the unique event which God is promising as a sign, is the miraculous conception of a son by a girl who is still a virgin.
The Threat to the House of David - 7:1-2
At this point in history there was an empire arising which was threatening the smaller kingdoms of the Middle East - the Assyrian Empire. Among these smaller kingdoms was Syria (or Aram), the northern Kingdom of Israel (or Ephraim), and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The kings of Israel and Syria joined forces against their common enemy (verses I-2), but still did not have enough military might to withstand an Assyrian attack. They invited Judah to join forces with them, but Ahaz, King of Judah, refused.
Israel and Syria then conspired, not only to dethrone Ahaz, when they might have succeeded, but to depose the entire House of David. This is the emphasis in verse 2. They would then establish a new dynasty in Judah more favorable to an alliance against Assyria.
This, then, is a direct attack upon God's eternal covenant with David. It is therefore doomed to failure. (The Davidic Covenant is discussed under I Chronicles 17:10b-14 in the section on The Writings.)
The Message to Ahaz - 7:3-9
Ahaz is not a worshipper of the one true God, but has fallen into idolatry and is very much afraid of the approaching attack (verse 2). In verses 3-9 God gives a message to Ahaz. In verse 3, Isaiah is commissioned to meet with Ahaz, who is inspecting water supplies in preparation for a siege. Isaiah is also to take his son with him. His son is called Shear-Jashub, meaning "a remnant will return." The reason for taking his son is not explained until verses 15-16. In verses 4-6 the message is given, describing the plot and telling Ahaz not to be afraid. The plot consists of overthrowing Ahaz and replacing him with the son of Tabeel. Isaiah was a master of the Hebrew language and loved playing word games. He does so here in verse 6. Tabeel means "God is good." By altering the vowel pattern very slightly, Isaiah changes this to mean "good for nothing." The one that means "God is good" will prove to be "good for nothing." Because of the Davidic Covenant, no conspiracy against the House of David can ever succeed. God clearly states this in verse 7, and in verses 8-9 God will judge the two kings involved in the conspiracy.
The Signs of Deliverance - 7:10-17
The Offer of a Sign - 7:10-11 Ahaz, however, is an idolater who does not trust in God and has made his own arrangements. He has sent letters and gifts to the Assyrian Emperor, asking for assistance in his defense against these two kings. He has greater faith in the Assyrian Empire than in the God of Israel. So, in verse 10, God speaks a second time. He offers Ahaz a sign - whatever it takes to convince Ahaz not to fear, not to trust the Assyrians, but to trust in God. Whatever it takes, let him ask for it and God will do it for him. The word for "sign" does not of itself mean a miracle; it could be a miraculous or a natural sign. Within this context, however, it is clear that it will take a miracle to convince Ahaz. God offers him a sign anywhere he wants - in heaven, on earth, under the earth -whatever it takes to convince him.
The Rejection of the Offer - 7:12 In response, the idolatrous Ahaz suddenly becomes very spiritual. In verse 12 he refuses to "test" God or "tempt" Him. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, but he misapplies it. Nevertheless, it is evident that even in idolatry, Ahaz was not ignorant of the true God! Deuteronomy 6:16 warns against asking for a sign, but here God is offering a sign and Ahaz is invited to respond. Ahaz does not want a sign, lest it come to pass, and he be forced to abandon his alliance with Assyria. Then come the crucial verses, 13 and 14.
The Sign to the House of David - 7:13-14 In verse 13, Isaiah turns from addressing Ahaz as an individual and addresses the entire House of David. The English language does not distinguish between "you" addressed to one person and "you" addressed to many people. In Hebrew there is a difference, and there is a clear change between the singular "you" of verses 9,11,16,17 and the plural "you" of verses 13-14. The sign therefore is not just for Ahaz, but for the whole House of David. This becomes clearer if we state the passage again with the singular [s] and plural [pl] words indicated: 7:9 . . .and the head of Ephraim is Samaria and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you [s] will not believe, you [s] surely shall not last.""' 10 Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 "Ask a sign for yourself [s] from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven." 12 But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!" 13 Then he said, "Listen now, 0 house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you [pl] to try the patience of men, that you [pl] will try the patience of my God as well? 14 "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you [pl] a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. 15 "He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. 16 "For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you [s] dread will be forsaken. "The LORD will bring on you [s], on your people, and on your father's house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria." (NASB, with comments added)
In verse 14, the Hebrew word for "behold" is a word which draws attention to an event which could be past, present or future. However, grammatically, whenever "behold" is used with the Hebrew present participle, it always refers to a future event. That is the case here. Not only is the birth future, but the very conception is future. This is not referring to a pregnant woman about to give birth.
The text specifically says "the virgin" (the NIV and NKJV are correct at this point; the NASB like most translations says "a virgin," which is quite wrong). According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, when finding the use of a definite article (the), the reader should look for a reference in the immediate previous context. Having followed the passage from chapter 7:1, there has been no mention of any woman. Having failed with the immediate context, the second rule is the "principle of previous reference," something which has been dealt with much earlier and is common knowledge among the people. Where in Jewish Scripture or tradition is there any concept of "the virgin giving birth to a son"? The only possible reference is to Genesis 3:15. Contrary to the biblical norm, the Messiah would be reckoned after the Seed of the Woman. Why? Because He would have no human father; His would be a virgin conception and birth. The key point of this should not be missed. God is promising that the House of David cannot be deposed or lose its identity until the birth of a virgin-born son. Again, this requires that Messiah be born prior to the destruction of the Temple and its genealogical records in 70 A.D.
The Sign to Ahaz - 7:15-17
Having concluded that Isaiah 7:12-14 is a long range prophecy concerning the birth of Messiah, that still leaves a problem. What about Ahaz? An event 700 years in the future is of little significance to him. There is however a second sign in verses 15-17, and this time it is specifically for Ahaz. The "you" in verse 16 is again singular, meaning Ahaz. Before Isaiah's son is old enough to make moral distinctions between right and wrong, the kings of Israel and Syria will be deposed and their threat removed. This was fulfilled within three years. Isaiah again uses the definite article before the term "boy." This time there is another boy mentioned in the context: Isaiah's son. The boy of verse 16 cannot be the son of verse 14 but refers back to Isaiah's son in verse 3. Why else was Isaiah commanded to take him?
Summary of Isaiah 7:1-17
In Isaiah chapter 7, King Ahaz, the King of Judah, is under threat of attack. This threat is not only to him personally but to the whole House of David. Through the Prophet Isaiah, God tells King Ahaz to be at peace and to be unafraid. Two reasons are given, two signs which guarantee God's promise of security. The first sign, in verses 13 and 14, is that no attempt to destroy the House of David will succeed until the birth of a virgin-born son. The term "virgin" is required both by the Hebrew vocabulary and the context. The second sign, in verses 15 and 16, is given to Ahaz personally. God promises that the attack upon him by Israel and Syria will not succeed, and before Isaiah's son, Shear-Jashub, reaches an age of moral maturity, the two enemy kings will cease to exist.
Isaiah 7:14 teaches that:
Messiah would be born of a girl who is still a virgin; the explanation of Genesis 3:15
Messiah will be the God-Man.
Messiah will be a king.
Messiah must be born prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E./A.D.
*Used for educational purposed in line with goals of the author and Ariel Ministries www.ariel.org
from Messianic Christology, 1978 © For more information contact the author or
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