Response to...

"The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah"

Part II - The Isaiah 7.14 passage... [Back to the Main Menu fabprof0.html]

[update: Mar 30/2K-- "is the tense of the verb in Is 7.14 really PRESENT, instead of FUTURE?"
[Major Update/draft of the linguistic data: Jan/2002]
[Update April 2014: added massive more material on the issue of the definite article]

Birth Prophecies
There are a number of alleged messianic prophecies about Jesus' birth: prophecies about the location, manner, and time of his birth, about his genealogy, and about events which were to occur at the time of his birth. Probably the most famous of these prophecies is the prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin.

"Controversial"--YES!; "famous"--Maybe. I personally think the Bethlehem one is more 'famous' because the Pharisees try to use it AGAINST Jesus in the gospel of John. Just my opinion, though.

Before we get too far into this, let me first comment on the significance of this prophecy for the Christian belief-system, and then for its significance in 'apologetic' endeavors.

I accepted this passage as being Messianic initially on the testimony of Matthew. I consider him to be a MUCH BETTER JUDGE of the prophetic 'status' of an OT passage than I, due to his cultural continuity with the OT, his closeness to the 'sources' of that understanding, his special 'status' in Jesus' establishment of the early church--that of a major recorder, and his superior knowledge of the languages (relative to mine). If he understands 'almah' as 'virgin', I am not sure I have a better base of data from which to 'argue him down'.

Without his remarks on Is 7.14, I am not sure that I would have seen a very close connection between the virgin birth of Jesus and the Immanuel passage. (As I will show later, this 'lack of perception' on my part would probably have been INCORRECT, due to the exegetical clues in the passage itself.). Many evangelical (even conservative evangelical) scholars do NOT see a "close" connection, but neither do they see that as (a) critical; or (b) Matthew's intent. Opinions are divided on this passage, and I hope to show both sides of the understanding.

So, WITHIN the Christian worldview (which for me is validated by other means than the fulfilled prophecy of Is 7.14!), I accept the messianic status of the passage on reasonable grounds, relative to my paradigm community.

Now, OUTSIDE the Christian worldview, in perhaps the realm of apologetic discussions, Isaiah 7.14 is NOT A PASSAGE I would adduce to PROVE either the supernaturalness of the Bible (from fulfilled prophecy) NOR the messiahship of Jesus. The data it gives us is too easily 'suspended' on the basis of general exegetical considerations, some of which Jim will articulate below. To at least my Western mind, the connection does 'jump out at me' like perhaps Micah 5. 2 or Zech 11. So, although I will interact with Jim on this passage (for I DO think the data is AGAINST his grounds for dismissal of it), I do NOT want to give the impression that I consider this passage a STRONG ARGUMENT for Christian claims.

The gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-35) both claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, but only Matthew (1:23) appeals to the Hebrew scriptures as an explanation for why this should be the case. The verse appealed to is Isaiah 7:14, which reads: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."

Actually, Matthew doesn't supply a very causal 'why' in this passage, just as many of his other OT citations are more 'loose' than 'tight'. Matthew's reference to "all this" (totou de holon) has a wider reach than just to the conception: his narrative starts after Mary has become pregnant, and ends with the declaration that "He will save His people from their sins". The 'all this' seems to refer to the group of events (conception, prophecy, announcement) rather than just the conception. Even the verse citation might have NOTHING to do with the virginity aspect, but only with the 'Immanuel' aspect.

Of course, we need to discuss this further, but we should note already that Matthew may not be focusing on the virginity aspect at all. He might be only interested in the 'God with us' part (perhaps indicated by his translating that specific word).

In fact, in the Luke account, the virginity of Mary is only an 'oddity' for Luke the Physician--the passage focuses on the Davidic heritage and Ruling Sonship (messianic themes, present in our Isaiah passage). His emphasis is on the identity of the son--as the promised messiah--as Matthew too seems to be focused on the Divine Visitation aspect.

So, although most discussion on this topic/passage focuses here on the 'virginity' aspect of the prophecy, this might be out-of-synch with what Matthew was all about.


There are a number of difficulties with this passage. As many have noted, the Hebrew word translated as "virgin" in this verse is "almah," which is more accurately translated simply as "young woman." The Hebrew word "bethulah" means "virgin." In the book of Isaiah, "bethulah" appears four times (23:12, 37:22, 47:1, 62:5), so its author was aware of the word. In the New American Standard translation of the Bible, all other appearances of "almah" are translated simply as "girl," "maid," or "maiden" (viz: Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8). Thus the claimed fulfillment adds a biologically impossible condition which is not even present in the original prophecy.[2]

Here we get into the first issue.

This is not as obvious as it seems (although Jim's overall position is not really dependent on it); nor does the significance of the passage diminish if Jim is correct linguistically. As I mentioned earlier, there are evangelical scholars on both sides (or rather, all sides--since there are a number of options on this one!) of the question.

Let me start first by giving the opinion of the excellent OT/Tanaach scholar John Walton (in NIDOTTE) who takes a less-traditional view (i.e. the virginity aspect of the word is not important), even though the lexical data is supportive of the 'alma as virgin' position:

"We conclude, then, that applied to a female, the term [almah] refers to one who has not yet borne a child and as an abstraction refers to the adolescent expectation of motherhood. This would be captured in Eng. by a combination of the terms “nubility” and “fertility”—a woman so described is full of childbearing potential. When applied to a male it [elem] describes a virile young man, (or, more neutrally, “a strapping young man”) and as an abstraction refers to youthful virility. None of the overlapping near synonyms refer as explicitly to childbearing interests and status. The passage that is least compliant with this profile is Exod 2:8, for neither this nor any other specific nuance serves any purpose to the narrator.


 "The most significant theological issues surrounding this term center on its use in Isa 7:14. The citation of this verse in Matt 1:23 and the nature of the doctrinal affirmation at stake have greatly hindered objective lexical analysis through the centuries. It must be immediately recognized that though Matthew cites Isa 7:14 in support of the virgin birth of Christ, he does not depend on the meaning of almah to establish that doctrine. Likewise parthevno" , as with almah, does not refer specifically to a virgin.


 "It is evident that the primary meaning of the word has to do with sexual maturity and, by extension, the age of the young woman, not with sexual experience or the lack of it. That the word may be used of a virgin is evident: it is not used, however, to define her virginity, but to define her capacity for marriage. So . . . it may also refer to a married young woman (until the birth of her first child) (Bratcher, 98).


"That the parthevno"  used by Matthew and by the LXX in Isa 7:14 can mean virgin and that an almah can be a virgin are sufficient for the fulfillment to be identified. The OT need not anticipate in its prophecy every specific element that finds fulfillment in the NT. One only needs to analyze Matthew's quotations of the OT in 2:15, 18, 23 to confirm the loose association that is often sufficient for the identification of fulfillment to be made…The fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in the time of Ahaz concerned the birth of an individual who may not have had a recognizable role to play in the events of his time, but whose name represented the hope of deliverance. That hope was realized in a fuller way in the coming of Jesus, born of a virgin, God with us in incarnate form. This is in every sense a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, but that does not require that Isaiah anticipated the nature of the fulfillment.


"Consequently, our lexical study need not be hampered by theological mandates. We are not obliged to find the meaning “virgin” in the lexical profile of almah in order to justify the NT or our theological creeds.


Under this understanding of Matthew's use of Isaiah 7.14, we could understand Is 7.14 in the way set forth in the conservative, evangelical EBCOT:

"Interpretation 5 above seems the most promising. An unmarried young woman within the royal house would shortly marry and conceive. Her son would be called Immanuel ("God is with us"), probably in ignorance of the prophecy (which may have been given in the presence only of Ahaz) and possibly even as a presumptuous gesture to give the support of a complacent piety to the king's pro-Assyrian policy. Before the child is old enough to eat the characteristic food of the Land of Promise in its solid form (and so, if this is meant, well before the age of moral discretion), the Assyrians would lay waste the lands of Aram and Israel, which they did in 733-732 B.C., only a year or two after the prophecy was given.

"The "sign" of the child, therefore, constitutes an indication that the all-sovereign and all-knowing God has the situation completely in hand, and it rebukes the king's lack of faith in him. It is true that the instrument of this devastation was to be Assyria, the very power Ahaz was courting instead of relying wholly on God. But in fact the events of 733-732 not only heralded the downfall in 722 of Samaria--the capital city of the northern kingdom that was a large part of the domain of the house of David in its earlier days--but within a generation led to the devastation of Judah itself (cf. 1:7).

"The prophecy was given to the house of David and not simply to Ahaz ("you" in v. 14 is plural). In the fullness of time, the messianic Child would be born of that house. He was to be a symbol of God's salvation of his people, not simply from physical foes like Rezin and Pekah, but ultimately from sin (cf. Matt 1:21). He represents the final purpose of God in his person as well as his work. For he is, in fullness of meaning, God with us; and his mother was a virgin at the time of her conception and not simply, as in the case of the earlier royal mother, at the time of the prophecy. Matthew's concept of fulfillment is very wide-ranging and flexible and embraces many different kinds of correspondence between an OT passage and a NT event (cf. G.W. Grogan, "The New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin 18 [1967]:54-59).

"It is characteristic of Isaiah to introduce a messianic theme at a somewhat general level before spelling it out in unambiguously messianic terms (cf. comments at 4:2 and 42:1). This interpretation, therefore enables us to see the passage as part of a wider pattern in the book. So, we are contending, Isaiah predicted the coming of a boy who would be a sign from God to his contemporaries and who would foreshadow Christ, in whom the terms of the prophecy--abstracted from its historical situation--would be fulfilled in fullest measure. In terms of his heavenly origin and his destiny of suffering, death, and burial, as well as his exaltation to the highest place, where he fills the whole universe (Eph 4:9-10); the ultimate fulfillment in Christ of the sign given to Ahaz embraces in principle the whole range of options presented to that king (Isa 7:11). It is noteworthy that Matthew's next OT quotation (Matt 2:5-6) comes from a prophecy of Isaiah's contemporary Micah. This contains mysterious hints of preexistence, makes reference to the child's mother (Mic 5:2-3), gives Bethlehem as the place of birth, and stresses its insignificance, thus providing a possible spiritual link with the Midian-Gideon theme (cf. comment at 9:4).

Personally, I find this explanation reasonable and very supportable, but I suspect that the link might be 'tighter' than that. So, I will try to 'defend' the 'older' traditional understanding first, and then see where we end up. But, even if I can 'defend' the traditional view, that would not necessarily mean that Matthew depended on the connection--he might still have just seen the 'looser' connection described by the scholars above.

There are three words involved in this equation: bethulah (Heb), Almah (Heb), and parthenos (Gk), and we will start by looking at the lexical data for these.

So, as for the traditional view:

Bethulah is often connected with 'virginity' in the lexicons, but TWOT points out that this is now questionable:

"Virgin, maid, maiden; probably from an unused verb baµtal “to separate.” Although Hebrew lexicons and modern translations generally translate bethulah as “virgin,” G. J. Wenham (“Betulah ‘A Girl of Marriageable Age,’ ” VT 22:326–48) and Tsevat (TDOT II, p. 338–43) contest this as the general meaning but prefer “a young (marriageable) maiden.” But whereas Wenham does not concede the meaning “virgin” in any text, Tsevat allows this meaning in three out of its fifty–one occurrences (Lev 21:13f; Deut 22:19; Ezk 44:22). In any case, a strong case can be presented that bethulah is not a technical term for virgo intacta in the OT, a conclusion that has important bearing on the meaning of almah in Isa 7:14.


First the data from the ANE cognate languages...


From [TWOT]:

The Cognate Languages. A study of the word in the cognate language sustains C. H. Gordon’s contention that betulah in the near eastern languages by itself does not mean virgo intacta (JBR 21:240–41).


The Egyptian word especially parallel to our Hebrew word is h\wnt. While the word may denote “girl,” “virgin,” it can also denote a young marriageable woman, or a young woman who has had sexual relations. Thus the word is used in the Pyramid Texts of the king’s protectress who is explicitly called his mother, and of Isis, of whom it is said in a sarcophagus oracle that she is mysteriously pregnant. Tsevat concluded:It can be stated that h\wnt is not used to denote biological virginity, but rather youthful vigor and potential motherhood (P. 339).


The Akkadian cognate, batultu, denotes “primarily an age group: only in specific contexts … does it assume the connotation ‘virgin’ ” (CAD II:174). J. J. Finkelstein (“Sex Offences in Sumerian Laws,” JAOS 86:355:72) and B. Landsberger “Jungfräulichkeit: Ein Beitrag zum ‘Thema Beilager und Eheschliessung’ ” in Symbolae juridicae … M. David … edid. J. A. Ankum … , II (Leiden, 1968, pp. 41–105) have underscored in independent studies that the word is normally best understood as “young (unmarried) girl.” In fact, there is no one word for “virgin” in Sumerian or Akkadian; that concept is expressed negatively by “who is not deflowered.


In Ugaritic btlt is a frequent epithet for Anat, Baal’s wife, who repeatedly has sexual intercourse (cf. A. van Selms, Marriage and Family Life in Ugaritic Literature, London, 1954, pp. 69, 109). [Tanknote: the promiscuity of Anat has been called into question recently…]

In a Shiite tradition, Fatima, though the mother of Hasan and Hussein along with other children, bears the title batuµl (C. Virolleaud, Le Theatre Persan, Paris, 1950, p. 37). And in an Aramaic text from Nippur, Montgomery interprets the phrase, btwlt “travailing and not bearing,” to denote a hapless wife suffering from miscarriages and other female complaints (Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur, Philadelphia, 1913, p. 131).


Tsevat concluded that the word “does not mean ‘virgin’ in any language exclusively (Aram.), mainly (Heb.), or generally (Akk. [and Ugar.?])” (p. 340).


From [HALOT]:

"Jewish Aramaic. ... virgin :: .... who is in labour and does not give birth (Montgomery Inc. Texts. 13, 9); masc. Syriac. chaste, Mandean. bachelor; Syriac. denom. pa. to violate; Arabic. batuµl sacred virgin; Ugaritic. btlt epithet of >Anat, also n.m. (UTGl. 540); Akkadian. batuµlu young man, fem. virgin (in marriage contracts Meissner Bab. Ass. 1:402, cf. Driver-M. Ass. Laws 518): usually still secluded from married life."



"ANE Akk. m. batlu, young man; f. batultu, adolescent, nubile girl (CAD, B, 173a; in neo-Babylonian marriage contracts the word takes on the more specialized connotation of virgin, ibid, 174a.); Ugar. btlt, used most often as an epithet of Anat, the wife of Baal; Aram. , young girl. More specifically,In an Aramaic text from Nippur, a spell by a barren wife seeking children, there occurs the phrase, adly alw albjmyd atlwtB, ‘a “virgin” travailing and not bearing’” (Wenham, 326-27). It is Wenham's conclusion that the cognate occurrences consistently refer to a girl of marriageable age (326-29).


[Comment: A couple of these references are to 'sacral' virginity, which might not be virgo intacta in any sense, but we are not sure. We do know that some Sumerian 'sacral virgins' used 'alternate forms of intercourse' to avoid getting pregnant, so the terms MIGHT still be applicable, physiologically. But this is not central to the case here--there are plenty of 'ordinary' uses of the term, applying to ordinary pagan people, to demonstrate that bethulah's cognates meant something other than 'virginity' per se.]


Now let's turn to the use of Bethulah in the OT...

From [TWOT]:


OT usage. Whether betulah is used in a general sense, “young woman” or a more particular sense “virgin” cannot be decided for Ex 22:16f [H 15f.]; Deut 22:28–29; Lev 21:2–3; etc. But in Lev 21:13–14 and Ezk 44:22 where betulah is contrasted with various classes of women who have had sexual experience, it seems probable that the concept of “virgin” is in view.

Wenham’s argument that qualifying clauses of betulah, such as “that has had no husband” (Lev 21:2–3) or “whom no man had known” (Gen 24:16; Jud 21:12), are pointless if the word means “virgin” is less than convincing, for it cannot be decided whether these are non-restrictive or restrictive clauses, cf. II Sam 14:5 for a somewhat similar repetition.


But Wenham does call into question the conclusion that our word must mean “virgin” in Deut 22:13–21 because he offers a plausible interpretation assuming the general meaning of “nubile adolescence.” In the first place, betulém “tokens of virginity” (vv. 14, 15, 17, 18) is morphologically the regular form for abstract nouns in biblical Hebrew designating age groups (cf. neáurém “youth” zeáquném “old age”). Moreover, according to him, the “tokens of virginity” called for by the elders are not the sheets of the wedding night but garments stained by blood during her last period, and by producing these the girl’s parents could refute the jealous husband’s complaint that his wife was with child by another man while she was still in her father’s house. Finally, he argued that this interpretation admirably suits the sentence that if such tokens could not be produced she should be stoned to death “because she wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house” (Deut 22:21). Thus the “tokens” served as a test, proving that she was not pregnant when she was married. If she was not pregnant, she was presumed to be a virgin. If this interpretation of betulém is correct then this would further sustain the thesis that betulah is a “girl of marriageable age,” since the onset of menstruation would be the clearest sign that she had attained that age.


Since Wenham has presented a strong case that the interpretation test is not one of virginity but chastity, one must concede that betulém or betulah does not clearly speak of virginity in this disputed text.


In eight places our word betulah is contrasted to or combined with the Hebrew word for young man (Deut 32:25; II Chr 36:17; Ps 148:12; Isa 62:5; Jer 51:22; Lam 1:18; 2:21; Zech 9:17). In these places the phrases signify no more than young men and women. In Ezk 9:6 it (in plural) refers to girls together with little children and women who will be killed because of Israel’s wickedness.


But in Joel 1:8, where the betulah is called upon to lament the death of her ba>al “husband,” it probably does not mean “virgin” for elsewhere ba>al is the regular word for “husband” and its usual translation by “bridegroom” in the versions is otherwise unattested. Likewise in Est 2:17 the betuloµt who spent a night with King Ahasuerus are not virgins, unless it is a “shorthand” for “those who had been virgins.” In a parable Ezekiel speaks of Oholah and Oholibah playing the harlot and their betulém breasts being handled (23:3). Here too the notion of virginity would be inaccurate. Finally in Job 31:1 even the neb translated our word by “girl” because it would not be sinful for Job to look on a virgin. Unless it is an epithet for a Canaanite goddess it probably designates a young married woman (cf. vv. 8ff).


Like Greek parthenos, Latin virgo and German Jungfrau, betula originally meant “young marriageable woman” but since she was normally a virgin it was not difficult for this meaning to become attached to the word. This more technical meaning is a later development in Hebrew and Aramaic and is clearly its meaning by the Christian era. When the change took place is not clear.


What is clear is that one cannot argue that if Isaiah (7:14) in his famous oracle to Ahaz had intended a virgin he could have used betulah as a more precise term than almah.


"betulah is used in a number of figurative expressions referring to cities or countries as young women: Zion (Isa 37:22); Babylon (Isa 47:1); Israel (Jer 18:13) etc. Cf. the frequent expression “the daughter of Zion.”

From [HALOT]:

"1. grown-up girl without any sexual experience with men Gn 24:16, who has no husband Lv 21:3 Ju 21:12
(:: widow and repudiated wife Lv 21:14 Ezk 44:22); Dt 22:23, 28 1K 1:2 Est 2:3, pl. 2:2; Dt 32:25 Jr 31:3 51:22 Ezk 9:6 2C 36:17, pl. Is 23:4 Am 8:13 Zech 9:17 (gloss) Ps 78:63 148:12 Lam 1:18 2:21; Ex 22:15, 22:16, Is 62:5: [--] Jl 1:8 (married at a young age?); my virgin daughter Ju 19:24; ? 2S 13:2, 18 Jr 2:32 Ps 45:15 (virgins as a bride’s companions) Jb 31:1 Lam 1:4 2:10 5:11 Est 2:17, 19;
"2. Personification; the virgin Israel (not: the virgin of Israel) Dt 22:19 Jr 18:13 31:4, 21 Am 5:2; the virgin daughter Zion 2K 19:21 / Is 37:22 Lam 2:13; with [--] Is 23:12, with [--] 47:1 with [--] Jr 46:11, with [--] Lam 1:15, with [--] Jr 14:17.


From Swanson [Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997, 2001]:


"virgin, i.e., a mature young woman that has never had sexual intercourse, and under the authority and protection of the father (Ge 24:16; Ex 22:15[EB 16]; Est 2:2)…young women, i.e., a class of young female, though the class may be virgins, the focus is on the youth group (Dt 32:25; Ps 148:12; Jer 31:13; Am 8:13), cf. also 1436…unit: ---...dear one, one cared for, loved one, formally, virgin daughter, a young woman who is loved by the father, with the associated meaning of being pure, innocent, and under the protection and care of the father (2Ki 19:21(2xs); Isa 23:12; 37:22, 22; 47:1, 1; Jer 46:11; La 1:15; 2:10, 13(2xs) 



( betûlâ), girl under the guardianship of her father (H1435); ---( betûlîm), adolescence (H1436).

"Turning to the OT material, Wenham maintains that the lexical profile is identical to that of the cognates. One of the principal arguments supporting this conclusion is the fact that in their respective legal materials, Assyr. and Heb. law share nearly identical formulations of certain laws each using this cognate. If the laws are the same and the cognates are used, Wenham argues that the meanings of the cognates must be the same (330). Additional reasons he lists are as follows:


  1. In Esther bethulah] is applied to the new members of the harem both before and after they have spent their night with the king (Esth 2:17-19).


  2. bahrem; (young man) and bethulah often occur as a fixed pair, and the former shows no evidence of referring to sexual status.


  3. In Joel 1:8 the bethulah has a ba'al, presumably a husband.


  4. Job 31:1 is much more easily understood if the bethulah he is referring to is married; otherwise it would be difficult to understand why this would be an offense in a polygamous society.


 "On the other hand, 2 Sam 13:18 speaks of Tamar tearing the garment indicative of her bethulah status after she had been raped by Amnon. If, as argued by Wenham, this is nothing more than tearing one's clothing in grief, the text would not have needed to go into detail concerning the significance of the garment. Rather, it is likely that Amnon's act has caused her to lose her status as a bethulah. Even so, however, that does not mean that bethulah means virgin.


From [BDB] (abridged):

 "virgin — one living apart in her father’s house as a virgin; --- a virgin damsel; personification of nations.


From [WBC] (on Gen 24.16):


"of 'marriageable age' (the term --- denotes a girl’s age range, approximately a teenager, rather than her virginity; see G. J. Wenham, “Betulah,” VT 22 [1972] 326–48; ISBE 4:989–90). Her virgin status is affirmed by the next remark, lit. “whom no man had known.” It may well be that her virgin status was obvious from her dress, but it could be that the reader is again being vouchsafed information that was not so immediately obvious to the servant (cf. v 15). 


From [NBD, s.v. "Immanuel"]:

"Why did Isaiah designate her by this particular word alma ? It is sometimes said that had he wished to teach a virgin birth there was a good word at his disposal, namely, bet_ula. But an examination of the usage of the latter word in OT reveals that it was very unsatisfactory, in that it would have been ambiguous. The word bet_ula may designate a virgin, but when it does the explanatory phrase ‘and a man had not known her’ is often added (cf. Gn.24:16). The word may also designate a betrothed virgin (cf. Dt.22:23ff.). In this latter case the virgin is known as the wife (ishah ) of the man, and he as her husband (ish). But the word bet_ula may also indicate a married woman (Joel 1:8). On the basis of this latter passage a tradition arose among the Jews in which the word could clearly refer to a married woman. [TankNote: later Jewish tradition made this word into 'non-menstruating', applying even to menopausal women--cf. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pp.218ff] Had Isaiah employed this word, therefore, it would not have been clear what type of woman he had in mind, whether virgin or married. Other Heb. words which were at his disposal would not be satisfactory. Had he wished to designate the mother as a young woman he would most likely have employed the common term narah (‘girl’). In using the word alma, however, Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in the other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman. This unmarried woman might have been immoral, in which case the birth could hardly have been a sign. We are left then with the conclusion that the mother was a good woman and yet unmarried; in other words, the birth was supernatural. It is the presence of this word alma which makes an application of the passage to some local birth difficult, if not impossible."


From [ISBE],

"Bethulah  The RSV most frequently translate Bethulah   “virgin,” but sometimes it prefers “maiden” (e.g., Ps. 78:63; 148:12); rarely the NEB translates it “girl” (e.g., Jer. 2:32; 31:13; 51:22). None of these translations is really accurate. “Girl” is too general, as it covers any female from birth to adulthood. “Virgin” implies that the female in question is sexually chaste. In biblical society sexual chastity would certainly be assumed of a woman who was not married; but a  Bethulah   could be married, so this suggests that another English term is required. Closest in semantic range to Bethulah  is Eng. “maiden,” although this term is archaic.  Bethulah   denotes a girl of marriageable age, one who has recently passed puberty and is therefore at the height of her strength and beauty. An approximate English equivalent would be a “girl in her teens,” although this definition is probably overly chronological and may well suggest connotations of psychological and other problems that are not present in the Hebrew term…That the right meaning of  Bethulah   is “girl of marriageable age” rather than “virgin” is demonstrated by several considerations. First, this is the likeliest meaning of similar words in other Semitic languages. Akk batultu means “adolescent, nubile girl.” In Ugaritic Baal’s wife is called btlt. An Aramaic text speaks of a btwlt× in labor…Second, in Hebrew poetry  Bethulah  _ often stand in parallel with “young men” (bahrém) as opposed to young children on the one hand and the elderly on the other (Dt. 32:25; Isa. 23:4; 1:18; 2:21). This suggests that the distinction of age is primary here…Third, Joel 1:8 (“Lament like a Bethulah   … for the husband of her youth”) shows the inappropriateness of rendering  Bethulah   as “virgin.” The  Bethulah   is young widowed wife, not merely a fiancée as English versions misleadingly suggest by translating ba<al here as “bridegroom” instead of “husband,” its normal meaning…Finally, the reference to  Bethulah  in the legal texts (e.g., Ex. 22:16f [MT 15f]) make just as much sense rendered “marriageable girl” as “virgin.” Of course, in biblical society girls married young and premarital sex was viewed with contempt, so girls were expected to be virgins when they married; but that is not what  Bethulah   refers to. It indicates age and eligibility for marriage. Similarly, when cities (e.g., Jerusalem, Isa. 37:22; Babylon, 47:1) or nations (e.g., Egypt, Jer. 46:11) are apostrophized as “virgin daughter of …” the allusion is to their beauty, strength, and maybe their fecundity, not their purity.


From [REF:ABD]:

"The writers of the OT use the word in a variety of situations. From significant passages, one sees that the word’s meaning is not that of the modern English word, one who has not experienced sexual intercourse. The Hebrew word is usually qualified by a phrase such as “who has never known a man” (e.g., Gen 24:16, Num 31:18) when the word is used specifically to mean what the word “virgin” means today. The Hebrew word designates a young woman who has not yet married, although in Joel 1:8 it seems to refer to a woman who has already had a husband. In later legal terminology, the Bible’s usage approaches the modern use. One can compare that development to the gradual specialization of the German word  “Jungfrau” from “young woman” to “virgin.”This lack of a word for the condition suggests that physical virginity held no special role in ancient Israel. Israel, indeed, shares a linguistic phenomenon with other ancient languages, as put by C. Gordon (UT, 378): “There is no word in the Near Eastern languages that by itself means  virgo intacta.” The word frequently simply suggests “youth.” One can see this emphasis on youth when the word is paired with the word for young man (bahr), about 12 times.


Motyer summarizes:


"bethulah occurs fifty times in the Old Testament. Of these, twelve are metaphorical (e.g. Is. 37:22) and, therefore, their evidential value is patchy. Many could refer to the plight of any young woman, whatever her status, violated in war. Fourteen other cases are non-committal, mainly where bethulah is linked with 'young men' (always bahur) in the general sense of 'young people' (e.g. Dt. 32:25; Am. 8:13). The largest group (twenty-one cases) virtually certainly refer to 'virgins' (Ex. 22:16< 15> 17<16>; Lv. 21:3, 14; Dt. 22:19, 23, 28; Jdg. 19:14; 2 Sa. 13:2, 18; 1 Ki. 1:2; Est. 2:2-3, 17, 19; Ps. 78:63; Is. 23:4; 62:5; Je. 2:32; Ezk. 44:22; Joel 1:8). We note that it is not the word itself but its context which indicates its meaning. According to G. J. Wenharn (Bethulah: 'A girl of marriageable age', VT, 22 (1972), 325-348), the word has no more reference to virginity than the English word 'girl'. His survey of Akkadian and Ugaritic cognates supports this conclusion. 'It is not until the Christian era that there is clear evidence that bethulah had become a technical term for "virgin" . . . it is not easy to know when this semantic shift took place.' In the three remaining references (Gn. 24:16; Lv. 21:3; Jdg. 11:39) it is clear that without a descriptive clause added bethulah does not convey a precise meaning." [Isaiah, at 7.14]


Now, the data up to this point about bethulah indicates that virginity is not an implication from the word, with the core meaning of the word being that the woman still lived under her father's sponsorship, roof, and legal authority. In that day and age, this would sometimes imply virginity (with the concomitant notions of respectability and chastity), but it would not have been the main focus of the word at all. Modern scholars tend to accept the arguments of Wenham and Tsevat, and see bethulah as referring to a 'girl of marriageable age, living in the household of her father'.

The two main passages that are generally used to "prove" that virginity is NOT the core concept (or even an implication from the word) are Gen 24.16 and Joel 1.8.


Gen 24.15-16 reads thus: "Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor.  16 The girl (na'ar) was very beautiful, a virgin (bethulah); no man had ever lain with her."


Commentators normally point out that the clause "no man had ever lain with her" strongly argues that bethulah cannot mean 'virgin' in itself or it would NOT need such qualification. [The same situation can be seen in Judg 21.12: "They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women (bethulah) who had never slept with a man"] They also point out that she is called almah in verse 43, without the qualification of "not having slept with a man"…


The 'redundancy argument' is pretty strong, but not invincible--we do have an occasional redundancy usage, as noted by Hamilton [NICOT]:


"One argument against taking bethulah as virgo intacta is that such an understanding makes the following expression (No man had known her) redundant. But this is not necessarily the case, for the Hebrew Bible provides other instances of redundant or idem per idem constructions. Thus Job 24:21 refers to "the sterile female who does not bear children." One would think that 'the sterile female' would be sufficient. Of course sterile women do not bear children. Cf. also Isa. 54:1, "Sing, barren one, who did not bear." Or 2 Sam. 14:5, "I am a widow and my husband is dead." ..A clearer indication that bethulah does not necessarily mean "virgin," as we use that word today, comes from verses like Joel 1:8, in which a bethulah mourns 'the husband of her youth'. Looking again then at the two phrases in v.16, I suggest that bethulah designates Rebekah as a marriageable woman. The following sentence, No man had known her, specifies her premarital virginity."


Let me point out here, however, that Hamilton's cautions about the 'redundancy issue' need to be considered, but also that the examples he gives are in context of hyperbolic, dramatic speech, in which redundancies are 'piled up' for emotive power. In these types of speech, redundancy is expected, in contrast to 'flat narrative' like we have in Genesis 24 and Judg 21. So, I think his cautions would need to be looked at more closely, before they should 'soften' our conclusion.


In his comments, though, he referred to the 'clearer indication' in Joel 1:8,


Wail like a virgin (bethulah) girded with sackcloth, For the husband (ba'al) of her youth.

All commentators understand ba'al to refer to a husband (or pre-marriage 'bridegroom'), but some understand this to refer to the period of betrothal, in which the woman was still 'virginal'. The word bethulah could presumably be understood this way, but the other words in the verse seem to suggest otherwise:


"However, Joel 1:8 seems to be an exception to the absolute virginity of the bethulah. This verse refers to the desolation of Israel. “Lament like a virgin [bethulah] girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Some view this verse  in the context of the betrothal period as in the case of Mary and Joseph before they were legally married (Matt 1:18–19). They hold that the woman was called a bethulah because she had not yet had sexual relations, and her “husband” (bridegroom) died before the marriage had actually been consummated. However, the problem with interpreting this Hebrew word in Joel 1:8 as a betrothed but unmarried virgin is that the expression “husband of her youth” is an expression of longevity. It is parallel to the phrase “wife of thy youth” in Proverbs 5:18 and Isaiah 54:6 which can be translated, “a wife you have had since your youth.” The Septuagint reflects the idea of actual marriage rather than just betrothal by translating bethulah in Joel 1:8 as numphe ("bride, married woman") instead of parthenos ("virgin"). Furthermore the use of ba'al in the passage seems to require that an actual marriage rather than a mere betrothal had taken place. In Deuteronomy 22:23 the husband of a betrothed woman is called an ish  (cf. Judg 19:27), but the husband of the married woman in that same passage is called a ba'al (verse 22).. The word ba'al  is never used in the Old Testament of the betrothed state. It always refers to a married man when describing the relationship between a man and a woman [Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3, 22; Deuteronomy 24:1–4; 2 Samuel 11:26; Esther 1:20; Proverbs 12:4; 31:11, 23, 28 ; Hosea 2:18.]." [Niessen, "The virginity of the Almah in Isaiah 7.14",  BibSac—V137 #546—Apr 80—146]


But why is she called 'bethulah' then? Probably to highlight the return to living in her father's house…younger widows (without sons) would often return to their father's house, for reasons of economic survival. The Bethulah word in the prophecy would therefore be highlighting the severity of the coming judgment and the destitution of its wake.


Bethulah, then, looks to be a word denoting a marriageable woman, living in the household/authority of her father.


This might even fit the possible Anat references, btw:


"Epithetical usage. Epithets, by their very nature, must be considered in isolation from the rest of the semantic field. Epithets tend to represent frozen forms and may, as such, fail to offer a reliable guide to the current usage of the word. Additionally they may be applied in an honorary, idealist, or even patronizing spirit. The Canaanite goddess Anat is most frequently given the epithet btlt in the Ugar. texts. Though she is the consort of Baal, she is also his sister and so is still technically within the household of her father, El. She is a goddess of war, whose bloodshed is wanton but whose sexual conduct is not addressed in the literature. Anat is poorly attested in the literature. For more information see A. Kapelrud, The Violent Goddess: Anat in the Ras Shamra Texts (1969), and U. Cassuto, The Goddess Anath (1971)…There are allusions to the beauty and fertility of Anat, but no preserved text clearly depicts her as giving birth to offspring. However, Anat can be viewed as a fertility goddess in this sense: she is Baal's partner, zealous for his cause, aiding him, and by her defeat of Mot, enables Baal to come back to life (W. A. Maier III, “Anath,” ABD 1:226). Consequently, the Ugar. epithets cannot serve to inform the details of our study. [NIDOTTE, bethulah; but also note that we have iconographic images showing her having sex with Baal.]


[This meaning of bethulah, by the way, would explain why there is no 'male version' of this word form in Hebrew (but there is in some of the cognates, btw--e.g. Akkadian). With alma, there is a masculine elem form, since they are words dealing more with non-social or biological characteristics. With sons (ben, bene); there are daughters (beth, benoth). But bethulah is a social word, denoting a woman still living in her father's house. Is there a corresponding Hebrew 'social' word for young men, still living in the father's house? Yes, bachur, and these are connected 12 times in the OT/Tannach. Isaiah, for example, uses the bachur/bethulah pair in this way in 23.4 and 62.5, so he was well aware of the usage of bethulah.]

Interestingly, this also might help clear up a strange ambiguity over the related term rendered in many English bibles as 'evidence/proof of virginity' (Deut 22.13ff):

ISBE gives the background and understanding:


"Tokens of Virginity ( The phrase “tokens of virginity” (NEB “proofs of virginity”) occurs five times in Dt. 22:13–21; . The RSV translates the same Hebrew word (.., an abstract plural of…) three time “virginity” (Lev. 21:13; Jdg. 11:37f) and twice “virgin breasts” (Ezk. 23:3, 8). Its use in Deuteronomy gives the clearest clue to its exact meaning…A brief summary of the context in Dt. 22:13–21; is necessary. A newly wed man claims that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Commentators have usually supposed that premarital intercourse is being alleged. V. 21 makes it clear that the charge is unfaithfulness by a betrothed woman while she was still living with her parents before her wedding. Unfaithfulness at this stage was considered adultery and warranted the death penalty (cf. vv 23f). In proof of the charge of unfaithfulness, the husband claims that he has found no “tokens of virginity” in his wife. The young woman’s parents then produce the tokens if they can. Their production disproves the charge and leads to the husband being whipped and having to pay crippling damages. But if the parents fail to produce the tokens, the young woman is executed…Often commentators have supposed these tokens to be the blood-stained sheet of the wedding night. But such an explanation is inadequate. Not only would blood stains on this sheet be a poor proof of virginity, but if this were the garment in question, the husband would surely know whether his father-in-law had it. More likely btlm should be translated “evidence of menstruation.” Thus the husband is claiming that his new wife was already pregnant when he married her. He has found in her no “evidence of menstruation” (v 14). So her parents try to produce a garment stained with blood from her last menstrual cycle before her marriage. On this view btlm means “(tokens of) nubility” rather than “(tokens of) virginity.” The rootagain indicates primarily a girl’s age rather that her chastity." [ISBE]

The New Bible Commentary points out that it is more likely the proof of recent menstruation:

"The proof of her virginity may be the blood-stained sheet from the marriage-bed on the night of the consummation, or alternatively a sheet which showed evidence of recent menstruation and, therefore, that the woman was not pregnant at the time of marriage. The latter is more likely to be available to the parents to produce.

One writer (Wenham) argued convincingly that since a derivative of bethulah was used here (alternately translated 'virginity' or 'adolescence'), it would be much more probable that the 'garment' (not 'sheet', btw) was the last menstrual cloth from the betrothal period, kept while under the father's guardianship (the basic meaning of bethulah). This makes perfect sense, since this would be evidence under the control of the father-in-law and NOT in the hands of the would-be-character-assassin. This also would account for why the crime is said to be 'against her father's house'. This, of course, further ties this world to the father, and only obliquely, to 'proof of non-pregnancy':

"But Wenham does call into question the conclusion that our word must mean “virgin” in Deut 22:13–21 because he offers a plausible interpretation assuming the general meaning of “nubile adolescence.” In the first place, betulém “tokens of virginity” (vv. 14, 15, 17, 18) is morphologically the regular form for abstract nouns in biblical Hebrew designating age groups (cf. neáurém “youth” zeáquném “old age”). Moreover, according to him, the “tokens of virginity” called for by the elders are not the sheets of the wedding night but garments stained by blood during her last period, and by producing these the girl’s parents could refute the jealous husband’s complaint that his wife was with child by another man while she was still in her father’s house. Finally, he argued that this interpretation admirably suits the sentence that if such tokens could not be produced she should be stoned to death “because she wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house” (Deut 22:21). Thus the “tokens” served as a test, proving that she was not pregnant when she was married. If she was not pregnant, she was presumed to be a virgin. If this interpretation of betulém is correct then this would further sustain the thesis that betulah is a “girl of marriageable age,” since the onset of menstruation would be the clearest sign that she had attained that age. [TWOT]




In short, it is incorrect to say that "bethulah" is the word that would have been used, if 'virginity' was a major issue of the passage. It generally means 'young woman, living in the household of her father' (with OR without virginity)…



Now, let's turn to the word Isaiah used...almah...


The linguistic data is fairly straightforward. This word, in contradistinction to bethulah, is NEVER used of a non-virgin (either in the OT or in ordinary cognate usage). It STILL GENERALLY means 'young woman' but always includes the notion of virginity and non-marriage.

Let's dredge up a little data on this one, too:


"The rarity of its usage makes determining its meaning very difficult. The masculine <elem occurs only twice and is translated, “lad,” “stripling,” or “youth.” This may suggest that almah is another term denoting a girl of a particular age — but of what age is uncertain. In Ex. 2:8 the girl could be younger than a teenager, but in Gen. 24:43 Rebekah is already of marriageable age (cf. v. 16 [bethulah]). In no case is it clear that an almah is married: indeed, Cant. 6:8 contrasts the king’s wives (“queens” and “concubines”) with the “maidens [alamoth] without number.”. So possibly almah means “virgin,” since all unmarried girls in Israel were expected to be chaste. Often it has been argued that since bethulah denotes “virgin,” almah cannot have this technical sense. But if bethulah means “teenage, nubile girl,” then it is not impossible that almah means “virgin.”…It would certainly help the discussion if the meaning of almah were clearer. Unfortunately, the evidence is too meagre to be decisive. It is not certain what differentiates almah from other Hebrew terms for younger females. Elsewhere almah is never used for girls who are definitely married (Prov. 30:19 is equivocal), so this may weigh against interpretations that suppose that Isaiah was thinking of the king’s wife of his own wife. But the lexical evidence is not strong enough to rule out such possibilities. Certainly Isaiah’s use of almah contributes to making this a striking and mysterious prophecy. [ISBE]


"Third, the term almah is never used in the OT of a married woman, but does refer to a sexually mature woman. There are no texts in the OT where almah clearly means one who is sexually active, but it is possible that Song of Solomon 6:8 (cf. Prov 30:19) implies this. It would appear then that almah normally, if not always, implies a virgin, though the term does not focus on that attribute. Fourth, several of the Greek translations of the OT (i.e., Aq, Sym, Theod) translate almah with neanis;  however, the LXX clearly translates it with parthenos. It is probably correct to say that if almah did not normally have overtones of virginity, it is difficult if not impossible to see why the translators of the LXX used parthenos as the Greek equivalent. [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Birth of Jesus"]


"The Hebrew text says almah (“the virgin”) suggesting that a definite woman is in view. The Hebrew word almah is used seven or nine times in the Old Testament (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8; Prov. 30:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8; Isa. 7:14; Ps. 68:26 [1 Chron. 15:20 and the heading of Ps. 46 are uncertain]) and is the only Hebrew word which without qualification means a mature young woman of marriageable age, but unmarried and presumably a virgin. In Song of Sol. 6:8 the word stands in contrast with queens and concubines, and in Prov. 30:19 “the way of a man with an almah” contrasts the infatuation of youthful love with the infatuation of an adulterous woman (v. 20). Some have suggested that the word bethulah would more accurately suggest a virgin, but this term sometimes requires a qualification such as “neither had man known her” so that it cannot merit serious consideration as a quasi-technical term for virgo intacta  [The Emmaus Journal—V8 #1—Sum 99— David J. MacLeod]


"The translation virgin (alma) is widely disputed on the ground that the word means only 'young woman' and that the technical word for 'virgin' is bethulah.' Of the nine occurrences of 'alma' those in 1 Chronicles 15:20 and the title of Psalm 46 are presumably a musical direction but no longer understood. In Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19 and Song of Solomon 1:3 the context throws no decisive light on the meaning of the word. In Genesis 24:43 and Exodus 2:8 the reference is unquestionably to an unmarried girl, and in Song of Solomon 6:8 the "alamoth ' contrasted with queens and concubines, are unmarried and virgin. Thus, wherever the context allows a judgment, `alma is not a general term meaning 'young woman' but a specific one meaning 'virgin'. It is worth noting that outside the Bible, 'so far as may be ascertained, 'alma was 'never used of a married woman'.  [Motyer, Isaiah]


"1. a) marriageable girl Gn 24:43 Ex 2:8 Ps 68:26, as a description of the beloved Song 1:3 6:8;
b) a girl who is able to be married Pr 30:19;
c) a young woman (KBL: until the birth of her first child :: Wildberger BK 10:290) Is 7:14 Sept. parthenos (< Matthew 123), Aq., Symm., Theodotion neanis
"2. (unknown meaning... Ps 46.1)" [HALOT]


Now, let me comment on a couple of the seven almah verses. There are two verses that are sometimes advanced as evidence that almah is used of non-virgins: Proverbs 30.19 and Song of Solomon 6.8. The scholarly data sources listed above indicate that these two verses either (a) support the 'unmarried' meaning; or that the passages are (b) too unclear to contribute to the discussion. Let me briefly look at the two verses:


First, Proverbs 30.19:


“There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: 19 the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden (almah). 


Now, by itself it doesn’t contribute anything to our discussion--this could be referring to various aspects of romantic love--which is how it is taken by many/most commentators, as a celebration of romantic love. For examples,


"The fourth mystery is "the way of a man with a maiden" (see Notes). The term `almah ("maiden") does not in and of itself mean "virgin" but rather describes a young woman who is sexually ready for marriage. What is in view here is the wonder of human sexuality, for the preposition be suggests that the "way of a man" is either "with" or "in" the `almah. This mystery might begin with the manner of obtaining the love of the woman but focuses on the most intimate part of human relationships. So the most intimate moments of love are at the heart of what the sage considers to be wonderful. All of it is part of God's marvelous plan for his creation and therefore can be fully enjoyed and appreciated without fully comprehending it. [EBCOT]


"These verses are another graded (3/4) numerical saying. The understanding of this proverb is not as easy as it appears to be at first sight. Many different solutions have been proposed to explain the wonder occasioned by the four examples. 18 The introductory formula notes that there are four wonderful things in all, with the fourth carrying the main emphasis. These are not objects of investigation, but rather of admiration because they surpass human understanding. The choice of the examples seems to be dictated by what the author felt were truly worthy of wonder. But note that it is not the eagle, serpent, ship, or man that is the real target; it is the “way” (ûrd), repeated in each of the examples. Commentators have proposed various solutions to the “wonder.” One is “how”—how does the eagle stay up; how does the serpent move without legs—in other words the mystery of movement. Others have seen something marvelous in that supposedly no trace is left by these objects. This solution resembles superficially the words in Wis 5:10–12, which deals with human transience. That understanding, the absence of any trace, seems to be reflected also in the following v 20. However, one must evaluate better the fourfold repetition of the “way.” The saying underscores the course of an action—that is “the way.” It is not that these objects—eagle, serpent, ship—leave no trace. Rather, their course is not recoverable. At any given point one cannot describe the path of the eagle to where it is, or that of the serpent, or the course of the ship in its traversing the water. But the way has not been without its goal. If we follow this lead to contemplating the way of a man with a woman, there is marvel and astonishment at the course of the attachment that has made the two one, the mystery of how this was accomplished. After many encounters and years, they are to become one. This refers not only to the “yearning” of the woman for the man (Gen 3:16), or of the man for the woman (Cant 7:10), but to the whole mystery of their relationship: how it came to be and what brought them together finally. An observation like this is singular in the book of Proverbs. One wishes that more of the numerical sayings would have been handed down. In view of the not uncommon charge that the sages were simplistic in their observations and teachings, this openness to wonder and the contemplation of one of the deepest mysteries in human relationship is not to be forgotten." [WBC]


"What do the ways of an eagle in the sky . . . a snake on a rock . . . a ship in the ocean, and a man with a woman have in common? Some writers say the ways of these four are mysterious; others say their ways are nontraceable; others suggest that they each easily master an element that is seemingly difficult. Another suggestion is that they each go where there are no paths. “The way of a man with a maiden ” refers to a man’s affectionate courting of a woman." [BKC]


If it is talking about how two lovers find each other and end up married, the almah would clearly be a virgin. But the virginity is not the focus of this at all--it is the beauty of the dance and the interplay of the man's 'strength/virility' (geber) with the young woman's nubility and blossoming (almah).


However…some try to tack verse 20 onto to this: This is the way of an adulteress: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’  And they argue that the adulteress (obviously not a virgin) is the same woman as the almah of verse 19…this makes the beauty and wonder of verse 19 into something sinister and sneaky (like the untraceable nature of snake, maritime, and bird movements?)…


There are a number of observations that count against this, and only one that I can find for it.


The main argument for it is that this verse 20 has to be included in the 'four things', since another numerical saying starts in verse 21. But this argument cannot stand in this case, because we have the exact same situation in the numerical saying immediately before this one! The 3/4 things in 15b-16 are followed by a 'random' verse in 17, so there is obviously no 'legalistic genre constraint' here…


In fact, commentators argue that verse 20 is meant specifically to contrast the adulteress (a common warning in Proverbs, remember--always smuggling this theme in wherever possible) with the purity of God-designed love:


"However valid in itself the observation in this verse may be, it is not a harmonious sequence to vv 18–19. It goes beyond the numerical saying which closed with the fourth item in v 19d. Moreover, it betrays no wonder, which was a key to the previous verses, and it also seizes upon the misleading issue of no trace being left by the eagle in the air, etc. It is better to translate “so” at the beginning as “such,” introducing a new theme independent of vv 19–20. The theme is familiar from chap. 7: the “way” of an adulteress. She regards her wrongdoing so lightly that it can be compared to wiping away any fragment of food from her mouth. The symbolism of eating to indicate a sexual encounter appeared already in the invitation issued by Woman Folly in 9:16–17. [WBC]


"Equally amazing is the insensitivity of the adulteress to sin. That this verse was placed here lends support to the idea that the previous verse is focusing on sexual intimacy in marriage; for just as that is incomprehensible (filling one with wonder), so is the way that human nature has distorted and ruined it. Carrying forward the use of derek the verse describes "the way of an adulteress." She is 'ishshah mena'apet; she may be married but certainly is unchaste. The portrayal is one of an amoral woman more than an immoral one (McKane, p. 658). Kidner notes that the act of adultery is as unremarkable to her as a meal (Proverbs, p. 180). The imagery of eating and wiping her mouth is euphemistic for sexual activity (see 9:17). It is incredible that human beings can engage in sin and then so easily dismiss any sense of guilt or responsibility, perhaps by rationalizing the deeds or perhaps through a calloused indifference to what the will of the Lord is for sexuality. [EBCOT]


"An adulteress contrasts with the woman in verse 19. Here it is not the man’s way with a woman, but an immoral woman’s way with men (cf. 2:16-19;  5:1-14; 7; 22:14; 23:27-28). She takes a casual approach to her sinful ways, treating them as lightly as eating a meal and asserting that nothing is wrong (cf. 28:24) with adultery. [BKC]


A good discussion of the evidence for the disjunction is made by Niessen:


“There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; the way of a man with a maiden [alma].” This is the text cited by more commentators than any other as the coup de grace to any idea of virginity in almah. Lattey argues for the idea of virginity in the other six passages where alma is used, but he places this verse  in a category apart from the others and views the study of it as “a distasteful task.” A Jewish writer [Joseph Jacobs, 1907] proclaims confidently, “The fact that it alma is used in Proverbs xxx.19 , of ‘the way of a man with a maid,’ is sufficient to prove that there is no idea of virginity attached to the word. This is now recognised [sic] by all scholars, Christian as well as Jewish.”


"It should first be recognized that there is a textual problem with the verse . Instead of 'with an alma' some manuscripts read 'in his youth' so that the translation would be “the way of a strong man  in his youth.” This is supported by the Septuagint’s oJdou;" ajndro;" ejn neovthti.. The Syriac, Vulgate, and Arabic versions agree with the Septuagint; and they are also supported by the manuscript on which the Wycliffe translation was based, for it reads, “the weie {sic} of a man in his waxing youthe {sic}.” If this is valid, then those who object to the view that almah means young virgin will have to appeal elsewhere for proof. But it is not necessary to retreat behind a textual variant, though the literature is replete with emendations based on far less evidence.


"A closer look at the proverb shows that four things are placed in a position of comparative parallelism. Verse 20  is often erroneously joined to verse 19  which reads, “So is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness.” The improper conclusion that is formed by joining verses 19  and 20  is that the way of the man and his girl friend are compared to the way of an adulteress; hence it is a sinful and sexual relationship outside of marriage. But if the two proverbs are joined, the interpretation may just as well be that the alma  is contrasted to the wanton wife.


"Delitzsch recognizes the disjunctive nature of the two proverbs (30:18–19  and 30:20 ) when he suggests that verse 20  “does not appear to have been an original part of the numerical proverb, but is an appendix thereto.” Therefore, it appears that the proverb about the adulterous woman is an independent cognate proverb and its ken  points forward into itself, as in Proverbs 11:19, rather than backward to verses 18–19 , which are actually a separate proverb.


"The problem will be well on its way toward a solution with the uncovering of a common denominator to the four “ways.” Since this is quadruple parallelism, what is common to the first three would also apply to the fourth, and vice versa. If the way of the man with his alma is a reference to sinful fornication then there would be something inherently evil about the first three “ways.” However, there is nothing evil about the soaring of an eagle, or a ship sailing on the open waters. Serpents are ceremonially unclean creatures and occasionally carry evil connotations (Gen 3:1–15), but lizards are just as unclean and they are spoken of in a commendable way in this same chapter (30:24–28 ). Because evil is not a common denominator to the first three, it cannot apply to the fourth. Therefore, sexual impurity is not in view in 30:19 .


"What is there about the way of an eagle, a serpent, and a ship that inspired the awe of the writer? One possibility is their tracelessness, but how does this apply to the way of a man with his alma? Delitzsch sees the connection in “the tracelessness of illicit intercourse,” but it has already been shown that this is inappropriate to the context. A better solution is the idea of fascination—ways that capture the attention and inspire the imagination because of the mysteriousness of their actions. The majesty of a giant eagle soaring effortlessly in the sky, borne aloft by invisible air currents; the unpredictable meanderings of a serpent on a rocky hillside; the listlessness of a ship floating on the high seas—in each of these cases the “way” refers to the three objects in a particular kind of action that is awe-inspiring. There is nothing particularly captivating about an eagle in its nest, a serpent in its lair, or a ship in port; but when the three things perform in the ways described, their activities are such as to hold the thoughtful spectator spellbound for extended periods of time.


"Considering the morality of ancient Hebrew ethical standards, a scene of fornication would be revolting rather than awe-inspiring and would hardly fit the parallels of the first three “ways.” Obviously what is being described here is the courtship and infatuation of youthful love between a young man and his young girl friend. While the passage does not specifically make a point about the girl’s virginity, it may be presumed.


Secondly, Song of Solomon 6.8/9:


Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins (almaoth) beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique, the only daughter of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her. The maidens (banoth, lit. 'daughters') saw her and called her blessed; the queens and concubines praised her. [NIV, other translations use damsels, maidens, etc]


Who are these alamoth?


Solomon's harem is described in I Kings 11.3, dividing his wives into two groups: (1) wives of royal birth (i.e., princesses from foreign countries, typically for diplomatic marriages) and (2) concubines of common birth (marriages without the possibility of royal heritage):


And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. [NASV]

He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. [NIV]


Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.[NRSV]


He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned his heart away [Jewish Pub Soc]


[Note: there are not three groups here, only two: royal wives (queens) and concubines.]


The alamoth in 6.8--distinguished from the queens and concubines in the text--could be one of three groups: (1) virgin "daughters" of the realm;  (2) virgin pre-wives in the royal harem; or (3) virgin attendants to the wives (or possibly to the general court, as in cooks, perfumers--cf 1 Sam 8.13--and singers, the latter of which certainly had to be virginal since they would have participated in the processional to the Temple).


If they are in the royal harem, they are still distinguished from married women:


"A royal harem consists of (1) women who are designated as “queens” and whose sons are automatically in the line of succession; (2) concubines who have a lesser status and whose sons may not inherit without the direct command of the king; and (3) maidens who may be either women who have not yet been presented formally to the king (see Esther 2:8–14) or those who have not yet borne children. [REF:BBC]


"Apparently three categories of women are mentioned here for the sake of completeness. The queens were quite obviously married, and the concubines were like the common-law wives of today. The almaoth are apparently in contrast to these two groups of wives and as such would be unmarried women. They were in the service of the queens and destined to be chosen eventually as wives by the king. Thus it would be quite natural to expect them to be virgins. This is confirmed by the events in Esther 2. King Xerxes had gathered together a great number of virgins (bethulah, tanknote: from their father's households) for the purpose of selecting a new queen (2:1–4 ). Purity was so essential that the women were to go through a process of ceremonial purification for an entire year (2:12–13 ) before going into the king’s chamber. Their biological virginity was not open to question; it was assumed. [Niessen]


If they are the "daughters" of the realm (as suggested by the parallelism in verse 9, and comprising 'aspirants' to concubinage?), they are still virginal too.


"queens . . . concubines . . . virgins. The reference is either to Solomon's harem or to all the beautiful women of the realm." [NIV Study Bible Notes; note that the only other use of alma in SS is in 1.3, where it seems to describe these young girls of the 'general public'. They are never said to have known Solomon sexually, but that his perfume makes them love him.]


So, in any case, we have references to groups that are clearly virginal.



Okay, let's check where we are…we have seen that bethulah is a social word, describing a woman's relationship to patriarchal authority, and that alma is a biological word, describing a woman's reaching the age/ability of childbearing. NIDOTTE can summarize part of this:


"The lexical relationship between (bethulah) and (almah) is that the former is a social status indicating that a young girl is under the guardianship of her father, with all the age and sexual inferences that accompany that status. The latter is to be understood with regard to fertility and childbearing potential. Obviously there are many occasions where both terms apply to the same girl. A girl ceases to be a  (bethulah) when she becomes a wife; she ceases to be an (almah) when she becomes a mother.


Thus, I have to conclude--on the basis of lexical and usage information that:


"The word yalda would have been inappropriate in Isaiah 7:14 because it refers to a child. Likewise na'arah would have been the more normal choice if a young woman had been the object of Isaiah’s thought, for it is used of both married and unmarried women. Some say that if Isaiah had really wanted to denote virginity he would have used bethulah which primarily denotes virginity. However, bethulah was used of widows and others who had experienced coitus. Furthermore, a bethulah can be a woman of any age, making the word difficult to qualify as a specific sign. The evidence supports both the traditional translation of “virgin” and the modern translation of “young woman,” but each must be qualified. The English term “virgin” does not suggest age limitations while the English phrase “young woman” does not suggest virginity. The word almah demands both, and so a more accurate translation would be “young virgin.” [Niessen]



Finally, the word used by Matthew--parthenos:


(This word can be used of males as well as females):


Louw-Nida (on semantic domains in the Greek NT):


"an adult male who has not engaged in sexual relations with a woman - ‘virgin, chaste.’ ou|toiv eijsin oi} meta; gunaikw`n oujk ejmoluvnqhsan, parqevnoi gavr eijsin ‘these are men who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins’ Re 14.4. It is very rare that the same term can be applied to a man who has not engaged in sexual relations with a woman as is used in speaking of a woman who has not had sexual relations with a man. In fact, in English the use of ‘virgin’ as applied to a man seems strange. In many languages there is simply no term for a man who is a virgin, since such a state is regarded as being rather unthinkable. However, the first part of this statement in Re 14.4 indicates clearly the state of the persons in question.


"a female person beyond puberty but not yet married and a virgin (though in some contexts virginity is not a focal component of meaning) - ‘virgin, young woman.’ ‘a virgin will conceive’ Mt 1.23…In Ac 21.9 ( ‘he had four virgin daughters’) the  emphasis seems to be upon the fact that the daughters were not as yet married. (See 34.77.) Similarly, in Mt 25.1-11 the ten parthenoi are unmarried girls desirous of participating in a wedding party, and the emphasis would seem to be more upon their being unmarried rather than upon their being virgins.



From [BAG]:


"1. virgin Mt 25:1, 7, 11; 1 Cor 7:25 , 28, 34; Pol 5:3; Hv 4, 2, 1; s 9, 1, 2; 9, 2, 3; 5; 9, 3, 2; 4f; 9, 4, 3; 5f; 8 a1. After Is 7:14 (hr;h; hm;l]x'h; ;  Mt 1:23 . Of Mary also Lk 1:27a, b;  Of the daughters of Philip parqevnoi profhteuvousai Ac 21:9.—On 1 Cor 7:36-8 cf. gamivzw 1 and s.  (parq. often means [virgin] daughter… refers to one’s ‘sweetheart’;  as well as the fact that parq. can mean simply ‘girl’ [e.g., Paus. 8, 20, 4]). —The Christian Church as parqevno" aJgnhv (aJgnov" 1) 2 Cor 11:2  2. Also used of men who have had no intercourse w. women; in this case it is masc. gender chaste man


From [TDNTa] (little Kittel):


"Of uncertain origin, parthenos means a “mature young woman.” According to context the stress may be on sex, age, or status. By a process of narrowing down the more general sense yields to the more specific one of “virgin,” with a stress on freshness, or on physical or spiritual purity…. The Meaning of parthenos in the LXX. As the usual rendering of Heb. bethulah, parthenos means “girl” in many instances, with chastity implied. A stress on virginity occurs in Lev. 21:13-14; Dt. 22:23, 28; 2 Sam. 13:2. When used with place names, the thought is that of not being forced, or, in the case of Israel, of nonpollution with idolatry. Only twice is parthenos used for alma. Although the LXX gives to parthenos a stronger emphasis on virginity, it may be used for the young woman who is raped in Gen. 34:3, and on purely lexical grounds one cannot say for certain that it means “virgin” in Is. 7:14, where it might simply denote a woman who is inviolate up to the moment of conception. On the other hand, the use of neanis in other renderings may well be polemical, and on the basis of LXX usage the translator of Is. 7:14 could well have had a nonsexual origin in view for Immanuel…The virgin birth is by a natural process and is not meant to explain either the deity, the sinlessness, or the power of Jesus. In Luke the birth of Jesus plainly differs from that of the Baptist. Mary conceives a son by the creative act of God (1:27, 34). Mt. 1:18, 20 says that the generation is by the Holy Spirit, but in the sense of a new work of creation (cf. Gen. 1:2) rather than a divine begetting. The idea of a sacred marriage is wholly absent."


Essentially, the data indicates that the vast majority of times it is used parthenos denotes a 'virgin'. It can, however, be used of 'young person', but it not so used in the New Testament. [Note however, that some of the lexical data we listed at the beginning of this article indicated that this word had undergone a narrowing from general girl->virgin, just like bethulah had done by the close of the biblical canon. This suggests, as the scholars note, that while parthenos clearly meant 'virgin' for all New Testament authors/readers, it did not necessary do so for all the LXX translators/readers--hence some fuzziness about the distribution of the word in the LXX. But even there, the overwhelming preponderance of meanings, as noted by TDNT, were of virginity.]


"The LXX renders the word by parthenos which almost always means "virgin." Yet even with this word there are exceptions: Genesis 34:4 refers to Dinah as a parthenos even though the previous verse makes it clear she is no longer a virgin. This sort of datum prompts C.H. Dodd ("New Testament Translation Problems I," The Bible Translator 27 [1976]: 301-5, published posthumously) to suggest that parthenos means "young woman" even in Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27. This will not do; the overwhelming majority of the occurrences of parthenos in both biblical and profane Greek require the rendering "virgin"; and the unambiguous context of Matthew 1 (cf. vv. 16, 18, 20, 25) puts Matthew's intent beyond dispute, as Jean Carmignac (The Meaning of parthenos in Luke 1. 27: A reply to C.H. Dodd, The Bible Translator 28 [1977]: 327-30) was quick to point out. If, unlike the LXX, the later (second century A.D.) Greek renderings of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 prefer neanis ("young woman") to parthenos (so Aq., Symm., Theod.), we may legitimately suspect a conscious effort by the Jewish translators to avoid the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14." [EBCNT]


Looking back now (after the 5 years between my first draft of this article and now in 2002), the lexical data still looks overwhelmingly in favor of the original, traditional position about the words alma, bethulah, and parthenos, although the means of getting to this conclusion are different than the original lines of argument laid down decades ago by the lexicographers. One can see in the lexicon entries above that 'virgin' still shows up for bethulah, and that 'young girl' still shows up for almah, but the modern climate/consensus (reflected in many of the later sources cited above) is that both words have been somewhat misunderstood until now. Now, from both cognate and fresh studies of the social context, NEITHER are words specialize in a focused, core meaning of virgo intacta. Bethulah has come to be understood to apply to a marriageable woman, living in her father's house (generally a virgin, but not so in the case of widows or the divorced); and almah has come to be understood as a 'young, fertile, unmarried--and hence chaste in that culture--woman'. What this means is that IF any notion of virginity were intended--even as only an 'implication'--almah was the best/only word to do that job. And hence, parthenos in the New Testament (the ONLY word that could be used for 'virgin') was the correct word for Matthew to use (as well as Luke).


One additional curious point: There is an "interesting, but not powerful" line of additional evidence to support the meaning of 'virgin' as a core idea in this passage: the dream of Joseph. In Matt 1 there is good evidence (from other Announcement passages in Mt.) that it was THE ANGEL that gave the Isaiah quote in the dream to Joseph (in spite of how most English Versions render it as an editorial comment by Matthew). The force of the perfect tense in v. 22 ("all this has happened...") would HAVE BEEN the BEST WAY to assure Joseph to continue the marriage to a pregnant virgin (!)...with its pointing to an awesome prophecy of this exact situation. And Joseph, as a son of David himself (v. 20) would have seen himself in a far-reaching stream of God's actions in history.


To sum up: the linguistic data argues quite strongly that almah is a better word to use (and probably the only word that will do, actually) than bethulah, if the aspect of virginity is an important part of the semantic intent in Isaiah 7.14 (as would be indicated by Matthew's use of 'virgin' and, circumstantially, the LXX translation).  



Another problem is that nowhere in the New Testament does Mary, Jesus' mother, refer to him as "Immanuel." Thus we have no evidence that one of the conditions of the prophecy was ever fulfilled.

I am surprised this argument is used here--it actually carries little force. A couple of quick pieces of evidence to show this:


People and groups in the OT were OFTEN getting special 'place' names and temporary names, to be used for a specific purpose. Solomon, for example, got TWO names at his birth (II Sam 12.25)--Solomon and Jedidiah. No reference is ever made to Jedidiah after that, but it doesn't seem to be an issue. See also the story about Pashur in Jer 20:1-6.


         ·            Israel and Judah consistently receive 'temporary' and symbolic names in the Prophets (cf. Ezek 23 and Is 62.3-4)

         ·            Matthew is the one who quotes the 'Immanuel' passage one verse AFTER the he reports the angel's command to name the son JESUS, AND four verses BEFORE reporting that his parents called him 'Jesus'...he doesn't show the SLIGHTEST concern over this "problem"! (in other words, it WASN'T an issue in that culture). This is even more striking in that Matthew is the one arguing that the passage was fulfilled! --the name issue wasn't an issue.

         ·            If you had to call the kid 'Immanuel" for the prophecy to be fulfilled, what in the world are we gonna do with Is 9.6--where the child gets 4 names (i.e. wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace)?!

         ·            And actually, we don't think it was his mother who had to call him 'Immanuel' anyway. Most modern bibles have a footnote at the 'she shall call him...' text, that explains that in the MSS, we have a couple of variants (he, she, they)...Matthew quotes it as 'they'...This could apply to ANYBODY who acknowledged that Jesus was God walking among his people--even John 1 would qualify for this.


This is just not generally considered a problem:


"There is no problem in referring the names Jesus and Emmanuel to the same person. This may well be the reason Matthew spells out the meaning of the name Emmanuel, meqÆ hJmw`n oJ qeov", “God with us” (LXX Isa 8:8, 10). Indeed this is not a personal name but rather a name that is descriptive of the task this person will perform. Bringing the presence of God to man, he brings the promised salvation—which, as Matthew has already explained, is also the meaning of the name Jesus (v 21b). “They” who will call him Emmanuel are those who understand and accept the work he has come to do. Matthew probably intends the words of Jesus at the end of his Gospel—“Behold I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20)—to correspond to the meaning of Emmanuel. Jesus is God, among his people to accomplish their salvation (see Fenton, “Matthew,” 80–82). [WBC]


This is where the discussion gets good...the two points above are easily 'disposed of', but the REAL CHALLENGE (as Jim indicates) is in the relationship between the historical context and the possible prophetic content--an issue that has to be worked through in EVEN the most straightforward of messianic announcements (e.g. Deut 18.15 -- questions about fulfillment in THEIR lifetime, "among your brothers", '"like unto me"--surround even such a 'vanilla' prophecy), and even fulfillment details of strictly "local" prophecies (e.g. I Kings 20:13-21 -- there is no mention of "Ahab" going first; does that mean the prophecy was NOT fulfilled 'in full'?...not at all...we have the same issue of summarization and selection of 'which details are important' we have in ALL the text.) So let's dive into this fascinating text...


But the most serious problem with this alleged messianic prophecy is that it has been taken out of context. Looking at the entire seventh chapter of Isaiah, it becomes clear that the child in question is to be born as a sign to Ahaz, King of Judah, that he will not be defeated in battle by Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, son of the King of Israel. Jesus' birth was some seven centuries late to be such a sign.


Jim is quite right to point out that passages MUST be taken in context. What is NOT clear is that Jim's understanding of the context is entirely accurate (or at least, complete).


[2002 Note: I should point out that there are MANY ways to construct these events and relationships--the one below is dependent on Motyer, as explained in EBCOT, more or less.]


His understanding of the HISTORICAL situation IS accurate. Rezin and Pekah, in alliance, ARE threatening Judah, and it is clear that Jim's statement is correct when applied to 7.1-9. The section of 7.1-9 is God's reassurance to him that IF (and ONLY IF!) HE STANDS FIRM IN FAITH, his kingdom will endure (otherwise, "NOT"). Ahaz was not known for his faithfulness to YHWH (see the DRAMATIC context below!), so this is a gracious offer on God's part, in honor of Ahaz' membership in "the house of David" (7.2). It is NOT an unconditional promise, but one DEPENDENT upon Ahaz' faithfulness.


[NOTE: Therefore the similar statement in "Jury" is "off" by this 'dependency' issue:


"The promised child, Immanuel, was meant as a sign to King Ahaz that his kingdom would not be destroyed by Israel and Syria."


The reason I bring this up, is that later in the "Jury" passage we find this:


"II Chronicles 28:1-6 clearly states that Ahaz was defeated by Syria and Israel, thus rendering the prophecy false. This makes Isaiah a false prophet by the standard of Deuteronomy 18:22. It is doubtful that we will be receiving prophecies from Yahweh through a false prophet. "


This statement fails in the face of the CONDITIONAL nature of God's assurances to Ahaz. Even the passage in 2 Chron REPEATEDLY points out (e.g. 1, 5, 6, 19, 22) that his defeat was due to his lack of faithfulness to YHWH--present in OUR Isaiah text.--ENDnote]

This is the HISTORICAL context.


The DRAMATIC context puts a bit of a 'spin' on this. What happens now, in 7.10-25, follows up on that gracious offer in v.9. Ahaz is addressed "again" (7.10), but by this time he has NOT followed instructions! Instead, he has tested the 'patience' of God with his faithlessness--v.13. God still gives him 'another chance' commanding him to ask for a 'you name it/you got it' kind of sign--to encourage his weak faith (v. 11). Ahaz disobeys (while mouthing a bible quote!), and Isaiah proceeds to deliver an altogether 'un-asked for' sign--a sign of judgment on the House of David! So the DRAMATIC context is one of AHAZ's failure as Davidic king, and of YHWH's displeasure with (and coming judgment on) him.


The LITERARY context breaks down like this.


·         The Prophetic Word to Judah (7.1-9.7) forms a unit, organized around the use of kid's names as prophetic devices (7.3; 8.1-5, 18; 9.6,7)


·         The Prophetic Word to Ephraim (9.8-11.16) shows close parallels to the above (further arguing for the unity of 7.1-9.7):

o   to both there come the moment of decision as the Lord's word threatens wrath (7.1-17; 9:8-10.14)

o   the time of judgment mediated by the Assyrian invasion (7.18-8.8; 10.5-15)

o   the destruction of God's foes, but the salvation of a remnant (8.9-22; 10.16-34)

o   the promise of a glorious hope as the Davidic monarch reigns and brings prosperity to his people (9.1-7; 11.1-16)

(See J.A. Motyer, "Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14," Tyndale Bulletin 21:118-25)


The 'Immanuel' child, promised in 7:14, has some 'odd' characteristics, throughout this literary unit:


1.      He will possess the land (Isa. 8:8 "and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel !" )

2.      Thwart all opponents (Isa. 8:10 "Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us".)

3.      Possess the throne of David and represent "The Mighty God" among us (Isa. 9:6-7: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom)

4.      He is the only child promised AT ALL in this unit, and so the natural reference of 7.14 is this 'larger than life' figure of chapter 9.

So the literary context suggests (even without 7.14!) a child-figure that has characteristics MUCH LARGER than any 'normal' kid!


With these various contexts in mind, let's look at a few of the details of the passage:


·         In verse 14, the Hebrew translated 'a virgin' (NIV et. al) is actually the 'almah' word, WITH THE DEFINITE ARTICLE (e.g. 'the' in English). The significance of this for our understanding of the passage can be found in the standard Hebrew grammars. In Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar (as updated by Kautzsch and Cowley) this passage is discussed in 126q:


"Peculiar to Hebrew is the employment of the article to denote a single person or thing (primarily one which is as yet unknown, and therefore not capable of being defined) as being present to the mind under given circumstances. In such cases in English the indefinite article is used." 


The import for our passage is that 'the virgin' is SOMEONE 'unknown' to either Ahaz or Isaiah, and hence could NOT refer to Isaiah's wife (the Prophetess of 8.3) or Ahaz' royal court virgins (as many commentators argue for). This reference is left nebulous before Ahaz...a 'floating' referent, as it were...


Pushback: "Whoa, slow down cowboy-goyboy! There are major problems with your use of Gesenius here, which I would like to point out to you!"

Ok, go ahead

It sounds like you are saying that the "the definite article in Hebrew is the indefinite article" and that would mean that "from a scholarly standpoint, it would be impossible for (you) to have a more contradictory conclusion". This is a mistake at a 'comical' level!


Sorry, but you must have misread, misheard, or misunderstand the statement somehow. I made no assertions to that effect in the least.

The "Gesenius" quote is this: “Peculiar to Hebrew is the employment of the [tanknote: DEFINITE] article to denote a single person or thing (primarily one which is as yet unknown, and therefore not capable of being defined) as being present to the mind under given circumstances. In such cases in English the indefinite article [tanknote: “a”] is used."
The Gesenius text says EXPLICITLY that the Hebrew DEFINITE article (“the”, or HE, technically) can be rendered in ENGLISH as the INDEFINITE article (“a”), in such a situation. This is NOT a contradiction in any sense of the word. Read the Gesenius quote again and you will see what I mean.
To show how this statement is a mis-reading, let me add the word you might be implying in this ‘contradiction’ assertion:

You are saying here that the definite article in Hebrew is the indefinite article [in Hebrew].”

 If I were asserting that, you would be somewhat correct – it would look like a contradiction--but actually the statement so construed is impossible, since there is no such thing as an 'indefinite article' in Hebrew.
But I am NOT saying that—I am saying exactly/only what the Gesenius entry is saying:

You are saying here that the definite article in Hebrew is [can be rendered as] the indefinite article [in English].” 

That is what the Gesenius text is asserting, as being peculiar to Hebrew…


It's very convenient of you to cite a writer 'as Christian as you get' -- Gesenius -- to support your view, but even he changed his mind about that--as evidenced in his later writings. Your position seems to be based, therefore, on an out-of-date and religiously biased single source!

A couple of comments here:

One: I am not sure where you are getting your information about Gesenius bias for some traditional Christian interpretation, because all the data I have on him is contrary to this.

Gesenius is generally remembered as an early 'rationalist' and 'critical scholar', was considered such in his own days. Note a few of the 'pejorative' 'enemy of the faith' type descriptions:

"Gesenius, Wilhelm (-), 1786–1842, German Orientalist, one of the greatest Hebrew and biblical scholars. He is principally known for his Hebrew Grammar, which has been reedited so many times that it differs widely from his original. Perhaps his finest work was his biblical commentary. He was, in this, a moderate rationalist, and he aroused bitter opposition. He was one of the first to open Semitic to scientific study, because of his point of view that Hebrew and its sister languages were not sacrosanct, as most contemporary Christians thought them to be. See E. F. Miller, The Influence of Gesenius on Hebrew Lexicography (1927)." [Lagassé, P., Columbia University. (2000). In The Columbia encyclopedia. New York; Detroit: Columbia University Press; Sold and distributed by Gale Group.]

"Be it said that counterpoints to the critical school from more conservatively committed scholars, though minoritarian, have not been entirely lacking. Even in the nineteenth century, researchers such as E. W. Hengstenberg (1802–69) offered a vigorous defense of the historic Christian position. In strong opposition to the critical views of Gesenius and Wellhausen, he proposed exegetical methods strongly committed to the unity of the biblical text and the analogy of Scripture, while at the same time fully cognizant of the challenges involved." [Edgar, W. (2010). Parallels, Real or Imagined? A Review Article of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. Themelios, No. 2, July 2010, 35, 240.]

"In 1821 Tholuck commenced lecturing as a privatdozent at the University of Berlin, and in 1824 he was appointed extraordinary professor of oriental literature. In 1825 he traveled to Holland and England at the expense of the Prussian government. He aspired to a professorship in the school founded by A. H. Francke at Halle and gratefully accepted a position there in 1826 as ordinary professor of theology, a position he held until his death. When Tholuck arrived, the school was permeated by German rationalism, as represented by W. Gesenius and J. A. L. Wegscheider, but after a decade, and with support from Prussian officials, he was influential in effecting a change." [Olbricht, T. H. (2007). Tholuck, Friedrich August Gottreu (1799–1877). In (D. K. McKim, Ed.)Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press.]

"Hengstenberg was less interested in denominational matters than in the common fight against unbelief, although this focus made his efforts in any explicit sense scantly ecumenical. If anything, the Lutheran-Reformed Union of 1821 had, in his view, watered down theological convictions on both sides. In his long editorship of the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung (forty-two years, from 1827), he fought to drive back the influence of the materialistic Hegelianism, if not from the universities, then at least from the church Hochschulen. The infamous and anonymous attack on the unbelief of Gesenius and Wegscheider by E. L. von Gerlach in the journal in 1830 ignited a battle at Halle and showed that Hengstenberg was not above appealing to the civil authorities to enforce orthodoxy. He also managed to stop Vatke from gaining a chair at Berlin." [Elliott, M. W. (2007). Hengstenberg, Ernst Wilhelm (1802–1869). In (D. K. McKim, Ed.)Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press.]

Indeed, in the English translation of Gesenius lexicon (not his grammar) by Tregelles (in the 1994 Baker reprint), the translator notes this in his Preface:

"...while, as regards the translation of Dr. Robinson, considerable difficulty was felt, owing to the manner in which the rationalist views, unhappily held by Gesenius, not only appeared in the work without correction, but also from the distinct statement of the translator’s preface, that no remark was required on any theological views which the work might contain.

"It has been a special object with the translator, to note the interpretations of Gesenius which manifested neologian tendencies, in order that by a remark, or by querying a statement, the reader may be put on his guard. And if any passages should remain unmarked, in which doubt is cast upon Scripture inspiration, or in which the New and Old Testaments are spoken of as discrepant, or in which mistakes and ignorance are charged upon the “holy men of God who wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,”—if any perchance remain in which these or any other neologian tendencies be left unnoticed—the translator wishes it distinctly to be understood that it is the effect of inadvertence alone, and not of design. This is a matter on which he feels it needful to be most explicit and decided."

And from the "Note to the Student" (in the 2nd printing, 1857):

"Much of this has been introduced since the time of Gesenius, so that although he was unhappily not free from Neologian bias, others who have come after him have been far worse."

Two: I am not sure about the relevance of the 'later changed his mind' part either, actually.

Strictly speaking, I was not referring to Gesenius' personal view at any particular time--my reference to "his" GRAMMAR 'as updated by' indicated the source of my quote.

So, whether he changed his mind before his death in 1842, would not have any relevance to my quote from GKC published 1910--over half a century later.

Gesenius the historical person (henceforth, "Gx", as distinguished from "GKC" the later updated scholarly grammar) published 13 editions of his grammar before his death in 1842. His student Rodiger published editions 14-21 (1845-1872) and his follower Kautzsch published editions 22-28 (1878-1910). The last edition by Kautzsch incorporated all of Gx's known works (especially the Thesaurus volumes), but also updated Gx positions with new data from more recent scholarship. [For a major historical review of Gx's lexical works, see The Influence of Gesenius on Hebrew Lexicography, by Edward Frederick Miller, AMS Press:1966/ColumbiaUP:1927)]

My citation of "Gesenius, as updated by…" was to the 1910 work and therefore reflected the 'last suspected' position of Gx on the matter--even though it was 'updated' by Rodiger/Kautzsch over the years. The 'last suspected position' was the one I cited--about it being proper to translate it as 'an alma' instead of 'the alma' (although we will note below the two can mean the same thing in that context…).

This version of the grammar is the one used/recommended by scholars both Jewish, Christian and Other up until modern times (and is still used, although a little outdated now). It was the authoritative resource until being more-or-less superseded by the three major reference grammars of the last 20 years.


But historically speaking, did Gesenius (Gx) actually change his mind on these matters (e.g. the Isaiah 7 passage, use of indefinite translations for the definite article, the meaning of 'definiteness')?

My investigation of this (18-plus pages or so) can be found at gxmindchange.html. I look at various editions of his own work (grammar and lexicon), then those edited by others, with comparisons with outside sources.

Here is the summary recap at the end:



·         No change in his grammars.

·         No change in his interpretation of Isaiah 7.

·         Softened his position on the meaning of almah, but I cannot find any reflection of this in his lex/gram work.

·         No change in his translation practice (i.e. use of indefinite article in German for some cases of definite articles in Hebrew).

·         Changes in the 4 (5) 'contradictory' passages seem to actually be a softening of the definition of 'definiteness' (e.g. the concept of 'well-known' can apply to character and not just individual specific identity), or an assumption of 'well-known' to the audience.





Three. The GKC grammar has basically been semi-superseded by the three main reference grammars of the day (discussed below), but is still widely used (critically) by mainstream scholarship (Jewish, Christian, other). But even the 'last' works that claim dependency on Gx depart radically from his pioneering lexicon and grammar. We begin to move into the modern era of Hebrew study with these works (although AB Davidson's first work on syntax predate these, as does the work of Ewald--Gx's main competitor and antagonist).

The last lexical reference work to use his name is that of Brown, Driver, and Briggs (BDB) which appeared in English in 1906. And the last reference grammar is the GKC, 2nd edition from 1910.

Let's look at these separately.

Lexical: The last lexical revision of substance was the 14th edition in German (1905) edited by Buhl. It formed the basis for the English translation known as BDB.

The BDB is considered actually a 'new' work, and is significantly more advanced than the final labors of Gx himself.

"The most recent, as well as the best translation based on Gesenius' lexicographical labors is the so-called Oxford Hebrew Lexicon, prepared by Brown, Driver, and Briggs. The preparation of this lexicon extend over a period of twenty-three years. The first part was issued in 1892. The lexicon appeared complete, in 1906, as: A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Nominally based on Robinson's translation, this is almost an entire new work both as to material as well as to arrangement. Since its preparation extended over the period of time which was required for the publication of the eleventh to the fourteenth editions of the German Gesenius, the editors could avail themselves of their materials. Ges. Ed. 14. was not published until the Oxford Lexicon was in type, with the exception of the appendix, and could therefore not be of much use to the editors…Each article was thoroughly revised, so that this dictionary was really an entirely new work." [Miller, op. cit., 99]

"As Gesenius, Ed. 16., the edition by Brown, Driver and Briggs is almost a Hebrew thesaurus. The statistical exactness in recording the citations from the Hebrew language is, of course, greater than in Gesenius' Thesaurus… The purely linguistical (sic), comparative, geographical, and archeological materials in the edition by Brown, Driver, and Briggs are more accurate than those in the Thesaurus." [Miller, op.cit., 101]


The BDB version departs from Gx's wording (in the Grammar section on the definite article), but also contradicts it in places (e.g. the example of Num 11.27) and uses a more modern and nuanced understanding of 'definiteness'. Here are the entry's relevant sections:

"in gen. the use of the art. in Heb. is analogous to its use in Greek or German: but naturally there are applications peculiar to Hebrew (comp. with what follows Ges§ 126 Ew§ 277):

c. with nouns which are not definite in themselves, but acquire their definition from the context, or from the manner in which they are introduced: thus (α) in the standing phrases  to-day, Gn 4:14; 21:26 + often;  to-night, Gn 19:5; 30:15 +, once 1 S 15:16 last night; so  this year, 2 K 19:29 Jer 28:16;  this time, Gn 18:32 +,  in battle 1 S 26:10; 30:24 2 S 19:4. (β)  the river = Euphrates; Ex 2:15 the (local) well, Jos 8:11 the valley, 1 S 17:3; 1 S 19:10 the wall, v 13 the bed, 20:21  the lad (whom Jonathan would naturally take with him), v 34 the table. Hence occas. where a suffix would define the noun more precisely, as  2 S 19:27 + = my ass, Ju 3:20 1 S 1:9  = his seat, Ju 4:15 1 K 22:35 2 K 10:15 , 1 S 18:10; 20:33.

d. it is a peculiarity of Hebrew thought to conceive an object as defined by its being taken for a particular purpose, and thus by a kind of prolepsis to prefix the art. to the noun denoting it: 1 S 10:1 and Samuel took  lit. the cruse of oil, not, however, a cruse which had been defined previously, but one rendered definite by being now taken; in English idiom ‘a cruse of oil,’ v 25 lit. in the scroll or book, the one, viz. taken for the purpose, i.e. in a scroll (so Ex 17:14 Nu 5:23 Jb 19:23), 21:10 , Ju 4:18 , v 19; 7:13  a tent, 8:25; 9:48  hatchests, 20:16 every one able to sling  with a stone at a hair, 1 S 6:8  (unless indeed the was an understood appendage in every cart), Nu 11:27  a young man, 13:23  on a pole, Jos 2:15  with a cord, 2 S 17:17  a girl (cf. Dr 1 S 1:4; 19:13). Sometimes it is uncertain whether an art. is to be referred to c or d: e.g. 1 S 2:13 his prong or a prong, 2 S 18:9 his mule or a mule, etc"


BDB does not discuss the use of the H- article in the Is 7.14 passage, but the term there could easily fit under either C or D above.

* The example in C of 'the lad' (1 Sam 20.21) --translated 'a servant lad' or 'my servant lad'--shows that the definite article was used because of context. David might have known all of Jonathan's servant lads, but might not have known which DEFINITE/SPECIFIC one he was referring to. Jonathan might not himself have known which one he would be sending in the future. It will end up being 'one specific one', and hence the second use of the article in the verse ('if I say to the lad, look …') depends on the first one. There is no reason why this could not be the case with 'the almah' in Is 7.14.

* The examples in D of 'the young man' (Num 11.27)--translated 'a young man' and 'ein Knabe'--and 'the servant girl' (2 Sam 17.17)--translated 'a servant girl' and 'eine Magd'--are given as examples of 'objects defined by its purpose'. Since the almah in Is 7.14 is explicitly for the purpose of a sign to Ahaz (and/or the household of David), there is no reason why it could not be 'defined by its purpose' and yet still rendered in English as indefinite ('a' or 'an').


This is clearly an expanded understanding of definiteness, distinguishing more clearly between grammatical definiteness and 'conceptual' definiteness. We see grammatical definiteness being 'created' by things OTHER THAN being able to 'point to X' or being able to 'assume the presence of X'. And a good bit of prophetic discourse will contain future/unspecified elements which will 'acquire grammatical definiteness' by usage, by vividness, by being present in the mind of the speaker, etc. The categories of what might be considered 'definite' have expanded much farther than Gx would have allowed or expected perhaps.

So, this 'transitional' (from Gx to the modern era) lexicon creates several 'new spaces' in which we could situate the 'h-almah' of Is 7.14 with the 'indefinite but definite' understanding intact and viable.


Grammatical: The last grammatical revision of substance was of course the GKC of 1910. It makes explicit reference to Gesenius in the main title (unlike the BDB): Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, as Edited and Enlarged by the Late E. Kautzsch, Revised in accordance with the 28th German edition of 1909 by A. E. Cowley.

This is the grammar that added the (apparently--smile) notorious passage I had in the original article, that we have seen does not disagree with Gx's final position on the article after all (either his earlier or later views, since he broadened his understanding of 'definiteness' considerably).

Up until the early 1980's it was the go-to-grammar in the English speaking world. [Most of the Hebrew linguistic tools were written in German at the time--more on this later.]. James Barr could state this in his review of the 1980 2nd edition:

"This is the standard reference grammar for most serious students of Hebrew in the English-speaking world; it has been so for eighty years and looks like continuing for many more." [Barr, J. (1982). Review of Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch, Second English Edition by A. E. Cowley. Fifteenth impression. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980. Pp. xvi+616. £10/$25. Journal of Biblical Literature, 101, 138.]


It was cited as arbiter in many cases. For example, this response by Jewish scholar Geza Vermes might be representative from 1992:

"Professor Tabor questions my transliteration of hmytw as hemito and replaces it by hamito. This issue is admittedly of little importance because we do not know the vowel system in Qumran Hebrew. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize that my version follows the most authoritative Hebrew Grammar by Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley 72w (p. 200): “Before a suffix in the 3rd sing. masc … , the vowel of the initial syllable is Ḥateph-Seghol” (i.e. a short e). [Geza Vermes, reply to Tabor, in BAR 18:06 (Nov/Dec 1992), Shanks, H. (ed).]



The only other point I need to add here is that GKC is not only more current, but much more comprehensive than the works we have of Gx himself in Grammar. Although 'printed pages' are not a standardized metric (!), they give at least a visual/scale idea of content.


·         Gesenius' own Grammar (11th) edition has roughly 148 pages.

·         Rodiger's version of the 14th edition has roughly 300 pages.

·         GKC has roughly 530 pages.


But more substantial of a measurement would be the number of verses used to support the topic under discussion.


·         The 11th edition has 3 total verses referenced and only one translated

·         The 14th edition has 4 total verses referenced and only two translated

·         GKC has 52 total verses referenced and nine translated (and sometimes discussed).


(see the spreadsheet of these at gxmetanoe.pdf)


So, even though these are still older works, they are still more up-to-date and comprehensive than the original documents we have from the life of Gesenius. He was deservedly called the 'father of modern Hebrew lexicography', but the advances in the field have moved us into new generations.


These works, though, still support the position I have taken in the article… and now we come to the modern reference grammars, which provide even more support for this understanding…



Four. No grammars published since the time of Gx dispute or contradict the statement I quoted from GKC.

If you look at the timeline chart of Gx's life, works, and post-Gx work (gxtimeline.pdf), you will see 15 grammar works that are non-GX. One of those works (Ewald) was published in German prior to the death of Gx, but the English translation is later. The works labeled 'G+' are works that claim to build upon, revise, and improve some Gx-base. Those labeled 'non-GX' do not make such a claim (even though they typically will refer the reader to GKC).

These works represent authors from most theological and scholarly perspectives (Christian, Jewish, and Other).

1.      Syntax of the Hebrew Language of the Old Testament, Heinrich Ewald; trans from 8th German edition by James Kennedy.

2.      Introductory Hebrew Grammar: Hebrew Syntax; AB Davidson, 3rd Ed.

3.      A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, 2nd ed., J. Weingreen

4.      Introduction to Hebrew. Moshe Greenberg

5.      A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Joshua Blau.

6.      An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Waltke and O'Connor. [IBHS]

7.      Davidson’s Introductory Hebrew Grammar (27th ed.). Martin, J. D.

8.      A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (revised ed). C L Seow.

9.      A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, van der Merwe, Naude, Kroeze; Sheffield [BHRG]

10.  Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew. Marc Zvi Brettler

11.  A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew.  Joüon, P., & Muraoka, T. (2006)

12.  Williams' Hebrew Syntax 3rd Ed. Ronald J Williams, John Beckman (rev)

13.  A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Duane Garrett and Jason DeRouchie.

14.  A New Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Frederic Clarke Putnam

15.  Biblical Hebrew Grammar Visualized. Francis Andersen and A Dean Forbes.



I go through each of these works and identify and discuss each of the passages that address the use of the definite article in this 22-page supplement (grammarsx.html).

Here is the summary from that:

Summary of the above, for implications for our study:


1.      Ewald: The definite article can be used to make a noun more pronounced or weightier, and gives our passage as an example, rendering it with the English 'the'. Does not subsume it under the 'well-known' category. Supports our interpretive option (even with the English definite article)

2.      Weingreen: No real impact, except the possible mention that indefiniteness has a contextual dimension.

3.      Greenberg: No real impact, although his explanation of 'interpreter' in Gen 42 is very close to the frame-based reference model (of contemporary linguists)--see remarks by Bekins below.

4.      Blau: He is the first writer in our list to use 'determinate' instead of 'definite' (even though the two seem to be equivalent), and the first in our list to specify that determination is 'grammatical' (i.e., at the level of writing and not necessarily at the level of 'concept' or 'narrative imagination'). Since our discussion is specifically about the later (Isaiah's meaning, as suggested by the presence of the lexical definite article), Blau's distinction suggests that the two are not as 'tightly joined' as some might argue.

5.      Waltke/O'Conner: This work presents several semantic cases which fit our case, while still stating that the word is still 'definite' in the Hebrew text. The category of 'vividly portraying' matches both the earlier Ewald and the latter grammarians' comments on 'concepts'. It also gives an example of particular reference which has a future-unknown aspect ('go to the land I will show you') like our prophetic passage.

6.      Davidson: No data/impact.

7.      Seow: No data/impact.

8.      HALOT: No data/impact.

9.      Van der Merwe/Naude/Kroeze: Although it echos the work of Waltke/O'Connor, it doesn’t cover the exceptions mentioned by them. No real data/impact.

10.  Brettler: Uses the 'mind of the narrator', 'concept' and 'idea' words to allow definiteness to apply to things other than those being 'present in the room'. This is congruent with our understanding of the usage of 'h-almah' in our passage.

11.  Jouon/Muraoka: This is the first in our list to bring up the scholarly debate on the connection between grammatical definiteness and semantic definiteness (raised by J. Barr). He uses the determination (instead of definiteness) descriptions, and has a category ('imperfect determination') which matches our usage. Two of the use-cases (taken/used, mentioned-narration) match those in BDB, and are good candidates for understanding the use of the article in our passage (used for a sign; mentioned later in the text). Specifically says that h-almah can be 'a virgin' or 'the virgin' ('imperfectly determinate' to author

12.  Williams: Definiteness can be ascribed to the mind of the narrator (as mentioned several times above).

13.  Garrett/DeRouchie: No data/impact.

14.  Putnam: Differentiates grammatical definiteness from semantic definiteness (specificity), allowing for variety of interpretation of the definite article. Also mentions the disconnect between the renderings of Hebrew and English (a -> the, and the->a).

15.  Andersen/Forbes: No data/impact.


All in all, we have no data which eliminates our view, some data which supports it, and all data allows it.


Okay, where does this leave us?


In answer to the objection that we used an 'out of date' resource, we can reply that:


·         no subsequent resources in the intervening century-plus took a contrary stance to GKC,

·         most subsequent resources still used GKC as a 'still in-date' resource themselves,

·         all subsequent resources that spoke on the matter allowed the GKC stance;

·         some subsequent resources expanded the GKC stance to a wider range of cases;

·         some subsequent resources added additional support to the GKC stance by demonstrating additional nuances within the category; and

·         contemporary research in the field highlights the complexity of the topic.


So, even though these are all English resources (some being translations from German, Dutch, or French), they show that modern scholarly study is still aware of and in basic agreement with, the position taken in GKC -- used in our article.



And it's a shame you cannot read Hebrew (much less Biblical Hebrew) or you could have read Gesenius' writings without depending on an English translation. And you cannot even use the scholarly grammars of Biblical Hebrew written in Hebrew by Hebrew scholars, but instead you are dependent on these Christian English-only versions so far removed from the Biblical language!

You ARE kidding, right?

Gesenius wrote in German and Latin. Where in the world would you have gotten the idea that Gx wrote in Hebrew? He would have had access to Hebrew writings (e.g. especially the commentators and earlier grammatical authors such as Elijah Levita--he even mentions the Jewish commentators as holding the same interpretation of Isaiah 7.14), but Jewish scholarship at the time was not working in that area of discussion in a public way.

And I hope you are not disparaging the monumental works by Jewish scholars writing Hebrew grammars in English or German! The Moshe Greenbergs, Jacob Weingreens, and Joshua Blau's of the world have all been honored by the Jewish people for their works in English--and I would hope you would not denigrate them for their work!

And why would you assume that I cannot read Biblical Hebrew? I read all 300,000+ Hebrew words in the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic Text, mostly) on a three-year cycle. And have been doing this for 3+ decades. I have one year of undergraduate study in BH, and 4 years of graduate study in BH. I do detailed Hebrew exegesis constantly on projects. I 'depend' on the SAME reference grammars that Jewish/Christian/Other scholars do.

For a simple example, Simeon Chavel gave a presentation in Hebrew in 2004 on 'The Literary Development of Deuteronomy 12'. He then had it published in English. Look at the grammars he cites on a syntactical point in footnote 17:


"On the syntactical structure of vv. 10—11, see already Rashi. For the use of wéqatal in both the protasis and apodosis of conditional sentences, see Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar [=GKC] (ed. E. Kautzsch; rev. A. E. Cowley; 2nd ed.; London: Oxford University Press, 1910; repr. 1974), §ll2kk, 159g; Heinrich Ewald, Syntax of the Hebrew Language of the Old Testament (trans. J. Kennedy; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1879), §355—357b, esp. §357a; also Paul Jouon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew [ JM] (trans. and rev. T. Muraoka; 2 vols.; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1991; repr. 1996), §167g."


Look familiar? Yep, the same ones I went through above… and the same ones you will find in the literature over and over and over again…


But let's look more closely at the subject of "Hebrew grammars written in Hebrew"…



First, FWIW, here's a quick thumbnail of Jewish work on Biblical Hebrew grammar (in the scholarly arena):

·         Basically, Jewish scholarship on Biblical Hebrew was at its prime in the 10-16th centuries, with most of the writing being in Arabic (and not in some dialect of Hebrew).

·         According to one modern expert (Tene), there were no reference grammars of comparable quality written until modern times.

·         With the rise of "humanism", Hebrew studies expanded into the secular and Christian academic spheres (although the Jewish teachers had long influenced their Christian students like Jerome).

·         With the Reformation and its renewed interest in 'the text of the bible', academic positions became increasingly theological, with the result that Jewish masters exited the public linguistic stage.

·         A two-century period of stagnation in Jewish work on Hebrew linguistics stretches from 1500-1700.

·         All scholarly grammars by Christians from 1600 on are written in Latin, and switching over then to modern national languages in the next century.

·         Most scholarly grammars by Jews up until 1750 were in (local dialects of) Hebrew, but after that (with the Mendelssohnian period) grammars written by Jews were in languages other than Hebrew.

·         Once the academic situation reversed in the 20th century--with the rise of more humanistic and less-theological interests in the academies--Jewish scholarship returned to the international academic discussion.

·         However, most Hebrew linguistic scholarship of the time (and to a certain extent in the recent past) was focused on 'non-Biblical' Hebrew--i.e. Mishnaic, extra-Canonical, Rabbinic, etc.


These extended quotes from external resources lay this out:

First, a summary statement from BHRG:

"The 11th century is regarded as the golden era of Biblical Hebrew grammar. In those days Arabic-speaking Jewish scholars in Spain debated issues of Biblical Hebrew grammar even at big public venues. When these scholars and their students were later driven out of Spain, much of their knowledge was disseminated in Europe. Unfortunately the Latin mould of European grammar provided a very restricted framework for the wealth of Biblical Hebrew grammatical knowledge brought by these Jewish grammarians. The reason was that the European schools regarded grammar, rhetoric and poetics as three different language sciences, in contrast to the Arabic model that regarded rhetoric and poetics as part and parcel of a language’s grammar. When Christian scholars started to dominate the study of Biblical Hebrew in the 16th century, they, of course, did so in terms of their narrow view of grammar. The tragedy was that Jewish scholars then lost all interest in the study of Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew grammar was cut off from its only “living” tradition, viz. that tradition which survived in the Rabbinical circles. In this process much of what they knew about Biblical Hebrew rhetoric sank into oblivion. Two centuries later, when Jewish scholars returned to the scene, the European model had already been so deeply entrenched that they too accepted it as the norm. Furthermore, until the beginning of the 20th century the study of the forms of words, their history and the comparison of words dominated the study of language in European circles." [Van der Merwe, C. H. J. (1996). From Paradigms to Texts. New Horizons and New Tools for Interpreting the Old Testament. Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages, 1996, 2, 168–169.]


Then, selections from the original edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia (Singer, 1906):

"Elijah Levita. At the beginning of the sixteenth century a great and decisive change occurred in the history of Hebrew philology. From that time this science, hitherto cultivated exclusively by the Jews, took rank in the large circle of scientific activities inaugurated by the new humanism; and it soon became a mighty factor in the religious movement that revolutionized Germany. Protestantism, going back directly to the Bible, took up the study of the Hebrew language, which henceforth became an integral part of Protestant theology. But in Judaism itself the period beginning with this century was one of intellectual stagnation. The old classical literature of the preceding periods was more and more forgotten, and the one-sided study of the Talmud gradually displaced the study of the Bible and its language, rendering the literary productions in this field utterly unimportant. The beginning of this epoch of decadence was marked, however, by Elijah Levita’s activity, with which the creative period of Hebrew philological literature within Judaism was worthily closed. His works include: “Sefer Zikronot,” a Masoretic lexicon or, rather, a Masoretic concordance to the Bible, still in manuscript; “Tishbi,” a small lexicon of 712 articles (published in 1541 et seq.), containing mostly New-Hebrew words; and “Meturgeman,” the first lexicon to the Targumim (1541). Abraham de Balmes did not finish the lexicon of roots to which he refers several times in his grammar. The paucity of production in the field of lexicography during the three centuries of Jewish literature from 1500 to 1800 may be seen in the following chronological lists of works issued during this period, which are short and served chiefly practical purposes [List omitted]." [s.v. 'dictionaries']

"The Reformation. The Reformation marks a great change in the history of Hebrew grammar. The study of the holy language became a part of Christian scholarship and, because of the return to Scripture demanded by the Reformation, an important factor in the religious movement by which Germany was the first to be affected and transformed. The transfer of the leadership in the field of Hebrew grammar from the Jews to the Christians is in a way personified in Elijah Levita (1469–1549), of whom Sebastian Münster, one of the most prominent of the Christian Hebraists, writes in 1546: “Whoever possesses to-day solid knowledge of Hebrew owes it to Elijah’s work or to the sources proceeding from it.” Levita’s text-book on grammar, called “Sefer ha-Baḥur” after Levita’s cognomen, is confined to the theory of the noun and the verb, while he treats the theory of vowels and other special grammatical subjects in four partly metrical treatises entitled “Priḳe Eliyahu.” He also wrote a commentary to Moses Ḳimḥi’s brief grammar, which through him became one of the most popular manuals. Levita’s works were especially useful in the schoolroom, as he avoided on principle all abstract discussions of grammatical categories, on the ground that he was “a grammarian and not a philosopher.” Five years after Levita’s grammar had appeared at Rome there was published in Venice (1523) the work “Miḳne Abram,” by Abraham Balmes, the last independent work of this period based on thorough knowledge and criticism of its predecessors. "

"Johann Reuchlin.The great humanist, Johann Reuchlin, “is honored by history as the father of Hebrew philology among the Christians” (Gesenius). His “Rudimenta Linguæ Hebraicæ,” published in 1506, was the first successful work of its kind written by a Christian to introduce Christians to the Hebrew language, the attempt made by Conrad Pellican two years previously having been entirely inadequate. Reuchlin, who honored as his teachers two Jewish scholars, Jacob Jehiel Loans and Obadiah Sforno, took the material for his work from David Ḳimḥi’s “Miklol”; and for a long time thereafter Christian writers on Hebrew grammar owed their knowledge to Jewish teachers and Jewish works. The works of Christians, even in early times, differed from the works of Jewish authors only in the Latinized terminology (introduced in part by Reuchlin) and in the method of presentation.

"From the 16th to the 20th Century. Of greatest importance in the sixteenth century were the works of Sebastian Münster (“Epitome Hebr. Gram.” 1520; “Institutiones Grammaticæ,” 1524), who, following Elijah Levita, perfected the science of Hebrew grammar as regards both its material and its methods of presentation. … The greatest advance since the beginning of this period was made by the grammar of W. Gesenius (1813), which became the most popular and useful manual of Hebrew philology of the nineteenth century, and was several times translated (since 1874 ed. by Kautzsch). The new method of studying language as an organism, introduced at the beginning of the century, was applied by Ewald to Hebrew grammar, his “Kritische Grammatik” (1827) and “Grammatik der Hebr. Sprache” (1829) enjoying with the work of Gesenius the greatest popularity. Olshausen, in his “Lehrbuch der Hebr. Sprache” (1861), treated Hebrew grammar throughout with reference to Arabic. … The lion’s share in the subjoined list [406 titles]belongs to Germany, where after the Reformation Hebrew philology received an unusual degree of attention, especially as an integral part of the science of theology; and where in modern times it has been given its proper place also in general philology, so that Germany still retains the leadership in this branch of science. The first Hebrew grammars written in languages other than Latin appeared at the end of the sixteenth century; namely, one in Italian by Franchi, a converted Jew, “Sole della Lingua Sancta” (1591), and one in English by Udall, “The Key of the Holy Tongue” (1593). A Hebrew grammar in German, “Teutsche Dikduk” (1613), was written by Josephus, a converted Jew. But far into the eighteenth century Latin remained the principal language of these manuals, primarily designed to assist the learned in their studies." [Tanknote: the article gives a chronological list of manuals of Hebrew grammar written by Christians from the beginning of the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. 406 titles are given, initially all in Latin, shifting to national languages in the middle. Authors who were baptized Jews were indicated by an asterisk--12 such were indicated.]

"Later Jewish Works. A period of neglect of letters among the Jews of Europe followed the death of Levita. It lasted for two centuries, and manifested itself in the exclusive study of the Talmud and the Cabala, and in the neglect of the rational study of the Bible and consequently of the cognate grammatical studies. No attention was paid to the ancient classics of Hebrew philology; and the very scant output along philological lines contained not a single prominent work. Among the thirty-six works which were produced from the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century those of Solomon Hanau are probably the most important.

"Mendelssohn’s exposition of the Bible gave a new impulse to the study of Hebrew grammar. The most prominent in that department was Ben Ze’eb, whose grammatical works rendered valuable services to the East-European Jews during the first half of the nineteenth century. Besides Ben-Ze’eb, Shalom Kohn advanced the study of Hebrew grammar by his grammatical work, written in German, but printed with Hebrew letters. The new science of Judaism inaugurated by the labors of Zunz and Rapoport included a thorough study of the older grammarians, but it has produced no independent work that could be placed favorably by the side of the presentations of Hebrew grammar by Christian scholars. Nevertheless Samuel David Luzzatto’s works deserve especial mention; and of more recent writers Jacob Barth has published the most important contributions to this science.

"Up to the middle of the eighteenth century the language of the text-books was chiefly Hebrew; but as early as 1633—manifestly out of regard to the Portuguese Maranos, who had returned to their old faith—the Portuguese language came into use and was followed by the Spanish. The first German grammar with Hebrew characters appeared in 1710, and was soon succeeded by others. In 1735 the first text-book in English appeared; in 1741 the first in Dutch; and in 1751 that in Italian. Beginning with the Mendelssohnian period, text-books written in languages other than Hebrew began to predominate." [Tanknote: the article gives a chronological list of Hebrew text-books on Hebrew grammar written by Jews from the middle of the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century--155 in all.]

[Source: Singer, I. (Ed.). (1901–1906). In The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes. New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.]


Next extended selections from IBHS:

"Near the middle of the tenth century of the Common Era, Saadia ben Joseph (882–942) launched the linguistic study of Hebrew with two books written in Arabic. This versatile Jewish scholar, usually known as Saadia Gaon, after his service as dean or gaon of the Jewish academy at Sura in Babylonia, is most famous for his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Arabic. His Agron (Vocabulary) deals with lexicography, and Kutub al-Lugha (Books on the [Hebrew] Language) treats grammar. Saadia’s works were largely lost many centuries ago, but knowledge of them has come down through his successors, especially through the writings of Abraham ibn Ezra, who revered Saadia as the first grammarian of Hebrew and “chief spokesman everywhere” for such study. Profiat Duran tells us that Saadia wrote three grammatical works which did not survive in his own time. Saadia’s works were read and studied during the brilliant creative period of Hebrew grammar and served to shift the attention of Jewish intellectuals from talmudic to linguistic studies. Modern scholars still regard him as the father of our discipline.

"Around the end of the first millennium C.E. writing about linguistic issues was a new phenomenon in Jewish literature, considered by many important people as a vain, senseless activity. Therefore, in their introductions, the authors [of grammatical works] discuss the motivating factors which stimulated them to write their linguistic works. They seek to prove to their readers that it is incumbent upon Jews to take up the investigation of their language and their arguments include the following points: (1) language is the means for all discernment and linguistics is the means for all investigation and wisdom; (2) the fulfillment of the commandments depends upon the understanding of the written word, and in turn, the proper knowledge of the language is impossible without the aid of linguistics.

"The Arabic grammars of Muslim scholars provided an immediate impetus and model for similar work on the Hebrew language. The influence of the Arab grammarians on Saadia Gaon, who wrote in Arabic, is plain. Like them, for example, he classifies the words of the language into three divisions, nouns, verbs, and particles. Although Hebrew was the focus of his study, Arabic was the language of science throughout the tenth century in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. In the second half of this fruitful century, some Hebrew lexical studies produced in Spain were written in Hebrew, but most grammatical works over the next two centuries were in Arabic.

"In the late Middle Ages, as the intellectual and demographic center of Jewry shifted away from the Near East, so too the study of Hebrew grammar took on a European cast. Latin models replaced Arabic models. Though the grammatical works of this period are generally inferior, they are not without interest.

"Linguistic literature on Hebrew from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries was an exclusively Jewish province. With the shifts in European culture associated with the revival of classical learning and the reform of the Christian church, Hebrew grammar shifted to Christian scholars. The church’s new interest in what it referred to as the Old Testament was one of the reasons Jews lost interest. Alleging that the Mikhlol marks the closing of the “Golden Era” of Hebrew medieval philology, William Chomsky writes:


'Most of the Jewish scholars of the subsequent generations regarded the study of grammar as a waste of time, and some even considered such study heresy. Even the study of the Bible began to be regarded as of secondary importance and was gradually dwindling to such an extent that a German rabbi of the 17th century complained that there were certain rabbis in his generation “who had never in their lifetime seen a text of the Bible.


"When Jews reentered the field of grammatical study, the context had changed vastly. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), “the greatest thinker ever to write a treatise on the Hebrew language,” wrote his Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae in Latin and with an awareness of biblical writing that would have been incomprehensible to his forebears.


"Interest in Hebrew grammar developed among Christian scholars in the early part of the sixteenth century. The humanist Johann Reuchlin established the study of Hebrew grammar in the Christian European world through his book Rudimenta linguae hehraicae (1506), as well as through his immense personal reputation. The interest in scripture that mandated the study of Hebrew was new with Reuchlin’s age and its concern for returning to ancient sources and reforming the church.


"In spite of various contacts between Jewish and Christian scholars during the medieval period, no single name stands out in the history of “Christian Hebrew studies between Jerome and Johann Reuchlin.” Reuchlin is a thoroughly humanistic figure. His brief Rudimenta is not so much based on David Qimḥi’s Mikhlol as on Moses Qimḥi’s elementary Mahalakh Shebile ha-Daʿat (The Journey on the Paths of Knowledge), the first printed Hebrew grammar (Soncino, 1489). Reuchlin’s significance does not rest on the content of his simple grammar but rather on his pioneering efforts and tactical activity. Luther learned Hebrew using either Qimḥi‘s Mikhlol or Reuchlin’s Rudimenta.

"Among the factors that spurred on the work effectively begun by Reuchlin were the spread of printing and the controversies in the church. The itinerant Jewish scholar Elijah Levita (1468–1549) played a special role. His books include a commentary on the grammar of Moses Qimḥi (1504), his own grammar (1517), and his studies on the Masorah (1538). His personal contact with Christian scholars was also important; among his pupils was Sebastian Münster (1489–1552), professor at Basle from 1529 on, who translated his works into Latin. Levita transported the great fund of medieval Jewish philology with the Qimḥian stamp into the Christian universities.


"The medieval Jewish grammatical tradition died with Elijah Levita.


"The sixteenth century was the first great age of modern grammatical study. Near the end of the century John Udall produced the first Hebrew grammar in English (1593), a translation of Pierre Martinez’s grammar written in Latin (1567). In time the humanistic pursuit of Hebrew gave way to theological interests; chairs came to be occupied by men with theological training.


"During the nineteenth century Jewish scholars rejoined the mainstream of Hebrew linguistic work, a reentry “facilitated by the fact that non-Jewish [Hebrew] studies became once again more humanistic and less definitely attached to theology.” A signal figure in this reentry was S. D. Luzzato (1800–1865), a scholar and (like Saadia Gaon and other medieval grammarians) a poet. As our discipline has grown in the last hundred years it has brought together, albeit in a small way, Jews and all variety of Christians."


Then, from Barr's article:


"In the 20th century the convergence of Jewish and non-Jewish Hebrew studies was facilitated by the fact that non-Jewish studies became once again more humanistic and less definitely attached to theology."


"Jewish scholarship was particularly important in the field of post-biblical Hebrew, which had tended to be somewhat neglected by Christian scholarship, especially in the more modern period (the earlier epoch of Christian Hebrew studies had seen some profound rabbinic scholarship, as with John Lightfoot in England, 1602–75). The historical emphasis of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement promoted exact and discriminating scholarship. A subject of much interest was the linguistic situation in Palestine at the time of the origin of Christianity and the interrelation of Hebrew and Aramaic; names of note in this discussion are Gustav Dalman and Moses Hirsch Segal ; the latter provided the standard grammar of mishnaic Hebrew (1927). The main effort of Hebrew linguistics had always been directed toward the language of the Bible; but a historical perspective made it desirable to attempt the description also of other stages of Hebrew, and this task was given actuality by the revival of Hebrew as a spoken and written language from the time of the Haskalah onward [late 18th century]. The task of refashioning the language for modern needs involved considerable research into the resources of the past in order that these might be mobilized for the present; one outstanding monument of this effort is the Thesaurus totius hebraitatis (1908–59) initiated by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda .


[Source: Téné, David, Aharon Maman, and James Barr. "Linguistic Literature, Hebrew." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 29-61. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.]



Tene (in the same article) had made a telling point (for our discussion) in his comments about a ten-century writer (as cited in IBHS), 34-35:


"The successors of Saadia pursued their studies with zeal and profundity, as illustrated by the famous literature of “objections” and “replies” between the brilliant grammarian Jonah ibn Janāḥ (Abū al-Walīd Marwān ibn Janāḥ, ca. 990–1050), and the statesman, soldier, and poet Samuel ha-Nagid (993–1056). …  The sophistication of Hebrew grammar at this time can be seen in the issues being argued over: the Qal passive, a subject independently examined in modern times by Böttcher and Barth, the use of the term Inphial for transitive Niphal forms, etc. Of this literature Tene writes: “The study of the language never attained such fine and sharp distinctions as those in the controversy which developed around the works of Hayyuj in the generation of Ibn Janaḥ and Samuel ha-Nagid.” Of Ibn Janāḥ‘s later works, written in Arabic as all his books were, the most important is Kitāb al-Tanqīḥ (Hebrew Sepher ha-Diqdaq, The Book of Detailed Investigation). This consists of two parts, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ(grammar) and Kitāb al-Uṣūl (a dictionary). Tene rhapsodizes on the great Kitāb:


"This two-part work, with the writings of Ḥayyuj and the shorter works of Ibn Janāḥ…, form[s] the first complete description of biblical Hebrew, and no similar work—comparable in scope, depth, and precision—was written until modern times.

This description constitutes the high point of linguistic thought in all [medieval grammatical] literature."



What should be obvious from this amount of detail is this:


·         Up until the modern period, the best grammatical resource written by a Jewish author was a 10th century work written in Arabic.

·         Most Hebrew grammars written by Jewish authors after 1750 would not have been written in some version of Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew was not a spoken language at this time, and Modern/Israeli Hebrew did not exist--all we had were localized, hybrid versions of Hebrew--see Joel Hoffman's In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, NewYorkUP:2004, Chapter 9 "Post-Biblical Hebrew").

·         Hebrew grammars written in Hebrew (by Jewish authors) or Latin (by Christian authors) prior to 1750 would be grossly out of date for use as a reference grammar today (for a gazillion reasons).

·         After 1750 and prior to modern times, Hebrew grammatical works by Jewish authors (revitalized by the Jewish Enlightenment) were still not on par with the developed Christian works, even though they had freshly resumed study of the classical Hebrew writings.

·         Coming into modern times (21st century), the best resources for the study of Biblical Hebrew were based on the work of Gesenius and Ewald.


So, that basically answers half the question ('why did you not consult pre-modern Hebrew reference grammars written in Hebrew as authoritative sources?") with a 'because there ARE NONE that could function as such').


That leaves the 'other half' of the question then: "why did you not consult modern Hebrew reference grammars written in modern Hebrew as authoritative sources?".



Okay, let's look for academic-quality, publicly-available, Hebrew reference grammars written in Hebrew (any variant) since 1900.


Where to start the search?


Well, I have 15 grammars in front of me that we used for the analysis of the definite article/Gx objection above--it would make sense to scan the bibliographies of those for references to sources written in Hebrew, right?


And, since some of them are written by Jewish scholars (albeit in English--a hint of what we might expect to see), any suitable reference grammars in Hebrew might be expected to show up there.


So, let's go back through them, noticing any comments, references, etc to academic works written in Hebrew:


1.      Ewald: No biblio given, although it is actually only excerpts from the original Ewald to begin with.


2.      Weingreen: Jewish author, no biblio given.


3.      Greenberg: Jewish author, no biblio given, no references to any books other than Hebrew bible.


4.      Blau (1976): Jewish author, has written publications in Hebrew himself. Gives a short bibliography on pages 142-151. Biblio contains 216 entries, divided into topical sections. There are 7 of the 216 references which are written in Hebrew. None of the Hebrew references occur in the sections for Morphology, Tenses, Syntax, or Lexicography. The 7 entries comprise: 1 on the Samaritans, 4 on Qumran/DSS, 1 on Yemenite Jewish writing/phonetics, and 1 on Ben Aser writing/phonetics. 


5.      Waltke/O'Conner (1990): This work points out that the accumulated results of medieval Jewry feed into the (Christian) scholarship stream beginning with Gesenius: "The great native-speaker tradition of Hebrew grammar associated with medieval Jewry is the first basis of this study. This tradition has been passed on for centuries, and it fed into the modern European tradition canonized by Wilhelm Gesenius in the first quarter of the nineteenth century."; Biblio is given on pages 695-708, with pages 695-697 entitled 'Grammars, Lexicons, Concordances'. There are many, many Jewish authors referenced (writing in English and German), but not a single reference in the biblio written in Hebrew.

6.      Davidson: No biblio.


7.      Seow: Abbreviations list contains GKC and BDB; Excursus D ("Reference Grammars") mentions GKC as 'outdated', points reader to IBHS, J-M, and Williams on Syntax. No other biblio.


8.      HALOT: Biblio contains 45 or so pages of entries; 8 entries of which are written in Hebrew; No grammars (1 Arad inscriptions; 1 on Samaritan Midrash; 2 on Mishnaic studies; 1 on Ugaritic; 1 on Aramaeans; 1 on Lachish Letters; and 1 on etymology);


9.      Van der Merwe/Naude/Kroeze: Biblio has 68 entries, none referring to resources written in Hebrew. However, does make a note that a later reference grammar will emphasize the importance of new scholarship written in Modern Hebrew: "A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (1991) by Takamitsu Muraoka is a revision of a grammar published in 1923 by Paul Joüon. It is cast in the form of a traditional grammar and explains some BH syntactic constructions psychologically. However, Muraoka specifically attempts to incorporate the insights of grammarians who had published their research results in Modern Hebrew."


10.  Marc Zvi Brettler: Jewish author, no biblio. Points out that MIH and BH are different: ""Because modern Hebrew and the biblical lexicon overlap significantly, such student know much of the basic vocabulary of the Bible. Yet BH and MIH are two different languages--or at the very least, two substantially different dialects of the same language. MIH is certainly useful for reading the Bible, but no one can understand the Hebrew Bible knowing only MIH. There are significant differences in vocabulary, spelling, verb formation, use of verbal suffices, and word order." Refers to GKC and J-M as 'basic tools of biblical scholarship'.


11.  Jouon/Muraoka (2006): This work explicitly refers to scholarly writings in MIH, and says that the substantial revisions to the original J-M incorporate the findings of those studies:


"With the exception of the Preface to the original French edition, which is presented intact in English garb, there is hardly a paragraph which has been left unrevised. A revision may take the form of a new footnote, a rewriting of the body of the text to some degree, an occasional deletion of a whole paragraph or insertion of a whole new paragraph. In the interests of clarity of presentation and ease of comprehension from the point of view of the reader it has been decided not to mark the revisions externally or typographically. For the purpose of revision and updating we like to believe that we have read as extensively as possible in monographs and articles published in periodicals and Festschriften which have appeared since about 1920, including what has been published in Modern Hebrew. These days serious Hebraists or Semitists can ignore works written in that language only to their own detriment." [Joüon, P., & Muraoka, T. (2006). A grammar of biblical Hebrew (p. xiii). Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico.]


The biblio has 1109 entries, 78 of which are written in Modern Hebrew (7%). There are 5 that are labeled as Hebrew grammars: 1 of Mishnaic, 1 of Aramaic, 1 of DSS, 1 of Mishnaic plus Biblical Hebrew, and 1 one on BH syntax.


*The one on Mishnaic-plus-Biblical Hebrew (by A. Bendavid) is a two-volume work comparing the two language systems. Volume 2 is on 'Grammar and Style", placing the languages side-by-side.


*The one  on BH Syntax (of possible relevance to our question) is listed as  "Rabin, C. 1964. (as edited by S. Shkolnikov), A Syntax of Biblical Hebrew  Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the literature this is referred to as "Chaim Rabin, Syntax of Biblical Hebrew (ed. S. Shkolnikov) Jerusalem: Akademon, 1974) [Hebrew]


I cannot find the Rabin works in any nearby libraries, nor can I find a way to buy it anywhere.


Until I can find them, I will just have to notice that NEITHER one of these two authors' works are referenced anywhere in Muraoka' specific discussion of the definite article. This would mean either that (1) these Hebrew works do not comment on our matter; or that (2) their remarks essentially agreed with Muraoka's and the point did not need further substantiation.


Muraoka did his dissertation under Rabin at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so it is unlikely that his contributions would have been left without attribution.


One other indication that these works were probably not relevant to this pursuit is the fact that Joshua Blau lists neither of these works in the bibliography of HIS Hebrew grammar, even though he references several works in Hebrew. Blau's work is dated 1976, twelve years after the first publication of Rabin's work in 1964, so he was undoubtedly aware of it--but elected to omit it from the list of Hebrew grammars. He DID reference a later monograph by Rabin (C. Rabin, L- with Imperative (Gen. xxiii), JSS 1968, pp. 113ff [in the Syntax section], so he was obviously familiar with his work.


In either case, this implies that these works--the only ones listed of possible reference to our study--did not 'need consulting' on this matter. Any contributions they made to the discussion were already incorporated into Muraoka's position (and his explicit statement about h-almah in Isaiah 7.14). And therefore, that they would not have disqualified his 'imperfect determination' category or other 'semantic spaces' that we can situate h-almah of Isaiah 7 within.



12.  Williams: No Hebrew resources mentioned.


13.  Garrett/DeRouchie: References HALOT and the older BDB; No references to MIH resources.


14.  Putnam: No Hebrew resources; usual suspects for references: IBHS, GKC, J-M



15.  Andersen/Forbes: Biblio contains no references to grammars/resources written in Hebrew.



I should point out also that even when a Jewish scholar (writing in Hebrew) appeals to grammars for support on some point, any source in Hebrew is placed alongside of--and not 'over'--sources in other languages.


So, to draw another example from Chavel's article, here is footnote 26:

"Formulating the sentence as a passive verb followed by the affected objects (or by the grammatical subjects) with the direct object marker has the effect of delaying the completion of the comparison; the abrupt way the comparison then concludes gives it added punch. On the phenomenon of the passive followed by the accusative marker, see GKC, § 12 la—b; Carl Brockelmann, Hebraische Syntax (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2004; orig. pub. 1956), §35d, 99b; Chaim Rabin, Syntax of Biblical Hebrew (ed. S. Shkolnikov; Jerusalem: Akademon, 1974) [Hebrew], 43—44: JM §128b."


Here is a reference to the Rabin work mentioned by Muraoka (but to a later edition), and it is between a reference to GKC and a reference to Jouon-Muraoka (JM). This scholar places them all together, without deprecating the ones NOT written in Hebrew.

This is how scholarship works--there is no 'implicit ad hominem' working here. Whether it is written in Hebrew or not, if the content stands up under scholarly scrutiny and never-ending review (!), then is useful as a resource.



[I am still working through Nahum Waldman's work: The Recent Study of Hebrew: A Survey of the Literature with Selected Bibliography. HebrewUnionCollege:1989, for additional possible candidates, but the fact that they are not 'obvious' nor 'easily found' nor 'cited' by even Jewish scholars writing in English and German, makes me wonder about their presence and/or relevance to this specific issue.]




1.      The scholarly, academic arena does not manifest the "lingua-centrism" apparent in the objection. Jewish scholarship publishes predominantly in English and German, and occasionally in the languages of their residence (e.g. Spanish, French, Dutch).

2.      There is nothing 'magic' about knowing some Hebrew dialect for studying some OTHER Hebrew dialect--it might even be a disadvantage because one might make assumptions about 'continuity' between specific grammatical elements. [The fact that books like Zvi Brettler's "BH for MIH students" and Muraoka's "MIH for BH scholars" look suspiciously like "MIH for English speakers" and "French for MIH speakers" should be a clue…]

3.      As more research is published in MIH, English and German scholarship is increasingly interacting with it--and often translating the 'best of it' into other more widely spoken languages.

4.      Contemporary Jewish scholarship (in the Land) seems to have been focused most recently on the impact of the new world of extra-biblical textual data (e.g. DSS, Ugaritic, extra-canonical works), situating these areas in a historical plane along with the various layers of BH.

5.      In interaction on the world-stage of scholarship, Jewish writers contribute much more material in English and German than they do in MIH (something like an order of magnitude difference, from just the data in the bibliographies I went through). This means that there would be very little material about BH that would ONLY be available in Hebrew, and even if it initially was ONLY available in Hebrew, the growth of scholars who could/would read that and incorporate those findings into English-version publications ensures that very few important positions and truths would be 'isolated' in MIH and not available to influence the content in English and German-based publications.



So, the answer to the 'other half' of the question: "why did you not consult modern Hebrew reference grammars written in modern Hebrew as authoritative sources?" with a 'because the one or two of them that were referenced in the literature (as public, accessible, academic, reference-grammar-level, BH-specific) that could function as such were either already represented in the non-Hebrew-language literature or did not speak to the issue under discussion').

And this has nothing to do with any relative ability/inability to read Modern Israeli Hebrew, obviously!

But I must admit I learned a lot researching this issue, and it has strengthened my confidence in my position here. Apart from the fascinating historical studies on the history of Hebrew language scholarship, the most relevant and helpful things I learned are these:


·         I learned that the GKC reference to 'something definite yet unknown' had been expanded ever larger over time by modern grammarians.


·         I learned that the definite article could be used with such an 'unknown' referent as a means to emphasize the character of the individual--her "almah-ness", if you will.


·         I learned that the definite article in our passage could be used to make the noun more prominent--and hence implicitly differentiated from other individuals in the room.


·         I learned that the more 'normal' uses of the article would have fit the context better--either forward or backward contexts--than ours does. The 'unnaturalness' of referring to a wife of Ahaz or Isaiah by the word 'almah' makes no sense, if either of those persons are the referent.


·         I learned that the gap between grammatical 'definiteness' and 'cognitive specificity' can be significant, from both theoretical work (i.e. the modern linguists) and from numerous textual examples (e.g. the future bride of Jacob, the fugitive of Ezekiel, the land which the Lord would show Abram).


·         I learned that one cannot be dogmatic one way or the other about basic grammatical (descriptive) rules: "The use of the article appears to be inconsistent in BH, even in these categories, since specificity is contextual, and since “consistency” is language specific, not universal. Where its use 'violates' the rules, it is more likely that our rules are incorrect." [Putnam, F. C. (2002). Hebrew Bible Insert: A Student’s Guide to the Syntax of Biblical Hebrew (p. 9). Quakertown, PA: Stylus Publishing.]



But coming back to my statement about the identity of the almah being 'unknown' to Ahaz. I would make these concluding comments:


One: According to the statement in GKC 126q, which was applied to Isaiah 7.14 in GKC 126r, my statement that the 'import for our passage is that the virgin was unknown' was/is still correct. (If GKC had NOT applied it to Isaiah 7.14 in 127r, then my statement should have been softer: "import is that the virgin MIGHT have been unknown"). So, the statement itself is correct--in the context of GKC.


Two: Now, however, since additional elements in the text have been brought to my attention, the assignment of Isaiah 7.14 by GKC to this category of 'unknown-ness' is much more compelling to me. Compare, for example, the contextual elements brought out by even older commentators:


"Behold, a damsel is with child, and shall bring forth a son, and call his name Immanuel the Hebrew article is ambiguous: almah may mean either the damsel, or a damsel, or even damsels. …. if a particular definite individual is intended, it is curious that she is not more precisely specified. The damsel would be a strange mode of reference either to the wife (or a concubine) of the king, to the prophet’s own wife, or to some pregnant woman present at the interview and singled out by the prophet for his purpose…" [Gray, ICC, in. loc, 1912]

"But it is altogether improbable that the wife of the prophet himself should be intended. For if it were to her that he referred, he could hardly have expressed himself in a more ambiguous and unintelligible manner; and we cannot see why he should not much rather have said "my wife"(ishti)) or "the prophetess" (h-nabi'ah), to say nothing of the fact that there is no further allusion made to any son of the prophet of that name" [Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Vol. 7, pp. 140–141). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.]

"According to this view the Alma is the wife of the Prophet himself, either the mother of Shear-jashub, or a younger one, at that time only betrothed to him. But this is wrecked on the impossibility of referring ha-almah to the wife or the betrothed of the Prophet without any nearer designation and without the faintest hint of her being present. Others again understand by the Alma any virgin, not more particularly specified, that was present at the place of interview, and to whom the Prophet pointed with the finger… To account for the Alma by a second marriage of Ahaz, or of Isaiah, or by the presence of a pregnant woman, or the Prophet’s pointing at her,” “may be justly charged with gratuitously assuming facts of which we have no evidence, and which are not necessary to the interpretation of the passage.” [J. A. Alexander and Nagelsbach, in the old Lange commentary series, published in late 1800s: Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Nägelsbach, C. W. E., Lowrie, S. T., & Moore, D. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Isaiah (pp. 123–124). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software."


Three: The vagueness of the identity itself has an ominous character to it--in keeping with the negative aspects of the sign relative to Ahaz's dynastic ambitions. The starkness of the emphasis on the almah--without the presence of a suitable referent in the room--has an almost visceral edge to it.  The Immanuel-generating almah is elusively unknown (with no contextual clues as to her identity)--but absolutely certain to fulfill this role (the definite article's force of definiteness or concreteness). The "goodness" present in the name of the child thus becomes almost 'horrific' in its implications for the arrogant confidence of the Ahaz-version of the house of David.


Okay, back to the story…



·         The prophecy is given to not just Ahaz, but to 'the house of David'--the 'you' in v.14 is plural, and Ahaz is addressed as a representative of the line (whereas in 7.1-9, the phase 'house of David' is described as 'Ahaz and his people'--v.2). The point here is that the message is addressed to a historically-larger group (i.e. the dynasty and lineage of David) than a simple 'local' fulfillment would suggest.


·         The sign was NOT an encouraging sign at all, but rather a sign of judgment. Verses 17-25 picture a devastated future--not deliverance from enemies!:


o   v17: the king of Assyria will bring a time unlike any other!

o   v18: the 'stinging bees' from Assyria will take over all the places of the land

o   v20: Assyria would shame the nation by shaving all their body hair (c.f. II Sam 10)

o   v21-22: the developed agricultural society would be reduced to a more pastoral economy

o   v23-25: the land will become wild again--briers and wild animals will necessitate bow and arrow again.


·         The sign itself was NOT a 'historical present' kind of sign, but a 'future confirmation' sign, like that of Exodus 3:12--"And God said, 'I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.'". That it was to occur 'beyond' the present was obvious from the indications that the child would come AFTER the destruction of 17-25. The child would experience the destruction of the Davidic monarchy before coming of age. (Indeed, even the message in 6.9-13 seems to imply that the judgments fall on Judah as well.)


·         Jensen in "The Age of Immanuel" (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 41: 220-39) makes a compelling case that vs 15 should be taken in a final sense--that Immanuel will eat the bread of affliction/judgment in order to grow in obedience (unlike Ahaz)--without any reference to an 'age of discretion'. This would mean that the prophecy of 16-25 is NOT linked time-wise with the sign-child (in spite of the English translations in 16).


·         [It might be worth pointing out that even historical, non-messianic prophecies (esp. of national or international scope) OFTEN reached BEYOND the lifetime of the specific historical 'addressee'. Even in this section of Isaiah, Ahaz is promised that "Within 65 years, Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people" (7.8)! Ahaz would never live long enough to see the fulfillment of that prophecy (he would see the beginning of it, but not the end). Prophecy is OFTEN a process--not simply an event.]


The upshot of all this is this: In response to Ahaz' failure to exercise his royalty in line with Davidic mandates of loyalty and trust, God will step in to provide a TRUE Davidic king, Immanuel. This king will appear AFTER the consequences of the failure of Ahaz and family have manifested themselves in history, with the invasion of Assyria extending even to Judah (but stopping short of Jerusalem--cf. 8.8c). This Immanuel-child will appear with a 'larger than life' birth (to an unknown virgin) and manifest a 'larger than life' set of abilities/responsibilities, and function as a sign to the entire House of David, that God is active in delivering his people (in spite of Ahaz' unbelief).


This understanding of the text seems to do the best justice to the various historical contexts and literary details in the passage [notice, WITHOUT invoking notions of 'double fulfillment' , 'multiple senses', etc.--I may need those later, but not in this passage...;>) ]

In Isaiah 8:3-4, a prophetess gives birth to a son--Maher-shalal-hash-baz--who is clearly described as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.[3]

Actually, not only is it NOT 'clearly described', there are in fact, NO TEXTUAL REASONS to equate Immanuel and the child of 8.3! They differ in virtually EVERY detail:

1.       They have different names! And the passage in 8 is NOT cited as a 'fulfillment', as would have been typically done HAD it been a fulfillment (e.g. 1Kgs. 12:15; 1Kgs. 2:27; 2Kgs. 15:12; 1Kgs. 14:18; 2Kgs 7.17; 2 kgs 23.16). [the 'dual-names are okay' reply only works when the passages are far apart, btw]

2.       Immanuel's name is positive and encouraging; Maher-shalal-hash-baz (i.e. "quick to the plunder, quick to the spoil") is ominous, alluding to the Assyria swift-power, which was soon to overtake Ephraim and Judah (v. 6-8).

3.       The mother of Immanuel is an unknown virgin; Maher's mom is Isaiah's wife.

4.       Immanuel is keyed to a moral or dietary spec; Maher is keyed to linguistic ability ("mama")

5.       Immanuel is related to the larger destruction of the land; Maher is related to Damascus and Samaria (v.4)

6.       Immanuel is from the house of David (9.7); Maher, as a descendant from Isaiah, probably was not. (although Jewish tradition says Isaiah was of royal stock)

7.       Maher shows up as a 'bit' player (like his brother in 7.3); Immanuel is in the middle of passages that sweep wide spans of history (8.8,10).


J. Edward Barrett (1988, p. 14) points out evidence that early Christians rejected the virgin birth.

I am not familiar with Barrett's work, so I will have to wait until I can get a copy of his article, BUT I AM familiar with the historical data and find it very ODD for someone to make this claim.

The main writings of the early post-NT church--100 AD to 140 ad--[e.g. Ignatius (Smyr 1:1); the Apology of Aristides; Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, e.g. 43f, 68, 84); Irenaeus (Haer., 3, 21, 4f. and 9; 3, 22, 1-4); The Old Roman Creed] very vigorously defend the teaching of the virgin birth against two heretical movements: early Gnosticism and Ebionism. This 'defense' shows that it was an accepted part of the mainstream church. If Barrett is calling the Ebionites and Gnostics 'early Christians' and building an argument that they represented some 'mainstream faction', he is seriously mistaken!

One piece of Barrett's evidence is that in 1 Timothy 1:3-4, the writer (who may or may not be the apostle Paul) advises that his audience "instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith."

I have seen many strange examples of exegesis in my day, but this one ranks way up there in terms of implausibility!

A couple of quick points here:


                   1.            The word translated 'genealogies' here is used only twice, here and in Titus 3.9;

                   2.            This is most likely to have referred to Jews propagating pre-Christian Gnosticism (with its endless genealogies of aeons between God and man--cf. Irenaeus on the mythical Ophite genealogies, in Haer.1, 30, 9);

                   3.            Early church witnesses (Irenaeus and Tertullian) supposed this to be a reference to the cosmological genealogies of Valentinianism.

                   4.            The phrase "myths and genealogies" had been used pejoratively from Plato on (see. The IVP Bible Background Commentary--New Testament).

                   5.            The apocalyptic literature of first-century Judaism had developed quite elaborate mythological treatments of OT genealogies (along the allegorical methods of some Alexandrian Jews).


In short, there are plenty of plausible historical referents for this phrase--no need to invent one!

The earliest gospel, Mark, lacks an account of Jesus' birth, as does John, the latest gospel.

This is, of course, an argument from silence, with the assumption that if ALL FOUR of the writers didn't mention something (for whatever reason), THEN the early church must not have believed it.

For some reason, these arguments don't ever seem to be satisfied. If we have N witnesses to an event, they want "N+1"...And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event in EXACT detail, they are accused of "collusion" and "conspiracy". And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event, but uses different vocab, style, levels of precision, of selection of details, THEN the antagonists complain about 'contradictions' and 'disagreements'! What's a mother to do?!!!!

(I am always amused at these 'argument from silence' literary positions and the ability to spoof it are difficult to resist: "Since Jesus never spoke his own name in the Gospels, he must not have known it!").

But more seriously, there is no reason at all why ANY event has to be in EVERY gospel...even if it WAS important to the church. These authors knew about the others' works; the "synoptic problem" is ample witness to this!

And, for what it's worth, there is some grammatical evidence indicating that Paul knew of, and alluded to, the special circumstances around Jesus' birth. Scholars recently have noticed that Paul used a special vocab to talk about Christ's birth:

"Whenever Paul speaks of the birth of Jesus Christ, he uses the verb ginomai , which has the broad meaning of "come to be." This is particularly significant in Gal 4:4, 23f. Jesus Christ "comes to be" by a woman, whereas Isaac and Ishmael, born of two women, are begotten and born, since the vb. gennao, used here, carries overtones of the father's act. Paul uses the same general word in Rom 1:3 ("came of the seed of David according to the flesh") and Phil 2:7 ("coming to be in the likeness of men"). On each occasion, Paul avoids the normal word for born, which is understandable if, as the traveling companion of Luke, he knew that Jesus was born miraculously."
(J. Stafford Wright, "Son", in Dictionary of New Test. Theology, p.661)


Virgin birth is obviously quite relevant to genealogy, and both Matthew and Luke present Jesus' genealogy in close proximity to the story.

It is NOT AT ALL "obvious" to me--esp. in the context of Jewish legal practice (but more on the genealogy issues later). The virgin birth passage in Is 7.14 is used STRICTLY as a messianic prophecy fulfillment, not as an argument over lineage or sinlessness or human nature (or any of the other things the church has tried to make it into!). The link with the genealogy is strictly 'locational'--in other words, one normally groups material about a common theme (e.g. background and birth) together in the same general literary 'location'. There are no explicit links, no alluded links, no theological links present in the assert otherwise requires a least a little evidence.

Conclusion: When the linguistic, historical, literary, and cultural factors are considered in looks messianic to me! ("If it LOOKS like a duck, and SOUNDS like a duck,...") 

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