The Anti-Missionary’s Charge:
A common objection voiced by the anti-missionary runs along these lines: Since alma does indeed mean “literal virgin” in Isaiah 7, who was this sinless second Adam that was born during the reign of Ahaz? And further, what two kings or kingdoms were conquered during the childhood of Jesus?
Since there is an admission that alma means virgin we have crossed the major barrier. The conception and birth that is predicted has to be a sign – something out-of-the-ordinary. A young woman conceiving and giving birth is hardly a sign – it happens every day. However, a virgin conception and subsequent birth is out-of-the-ordinary and serves as a genuine sign. That is why the word alma is important.
The word alma clearly means “virgin” in spite of the objections of the Rabbis. In contrast to the vast majority of rabbis today, who will not admit that alma means virgin. We have the opinion of Dr. Cyrus Gordon, Professor of Assyriology and Egyptology in Dropsie College, in his article Almah in Isaiah 7:14 (The Journal of Bible & Religion, vol. 21 [April 1953], p.106):
The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean “virgin” here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation,…
In addition, the respected biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Ben Yitzhaki) states that alma means virgin in his commentary on Song of Solomon 1:3. Specifically, Rashi states that alma is synonymous with another Hebrew word that means virgin, the word betulah. The rabbis unequivocally state that betulah means virgin as well. Almah and betulah are nearly synonymous terms, meaning “virgin.” However, alma is the more restricted term and never needs explanatory information. In contrast the range of meaning of betulah includes virginity and marriage. The result is that betulah sometimes requires an explanatory phrase to indicate a virgin (see Gen. 24:16). Finally, Encyclopedia Judaica states in its article entitled “Virgin, Virginity” (Encyclopaedia Judaica – CD ROM Edition © Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Ltd.
The biblical betulah usually rendered “virgin,” is in fact an ambiguous term which in nonlegal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state.
The implication of this statement is that almah is the better term for virgin, as found in Isaiah 7:14.
The second point we need to realize is the fact that Isaiah chapter 7 contains two prophecies, a long-term prophecy (the fulfillment lies well into the future) and a short-term prophecy (the fulfillment lies within the lifetime of the prophet).
Isaiah 7:14 is a long-term prophecy designed to encourage the Davidic dynasty over the next 700 turbulent years until the Messiah comes. The House of David needed to know this. Over those long and dreary years they would read this prophecy and be encouraged regarding the arrival of the Messiah/King. The reference is to the sinless second Adam but it is not a statement that he would be born during the reign of Ahaz. He will be born 700 years later. This is why Matthew directs us to the verse in Matthew 1:23.
In contrast, Isaiah 7:15-25 is a short-term prophecy designed to encourage the house of Ahaz as well as chastise them for their lack of faith. Isaiah 7:15-25 would encourage Ahaz because it tells him that the Davidic dynasty will survive the warfare planned against it. However, it also chastises Ahaz for his lack of faith exhibited in verse 12. Judgment will descend and bring hardship because of his unfaithfulness-but the House of David will survive. Ahaz needed to know that. Please remember that Isaiah’s son, Shaar YaShuv, is present in Isaiah’s arms.
In Isaiah 7:3 God commanded Isaiah to bring along his young son. There has to be a reason why God wanted him to do this. The reference to the boy eating curds and honey and refusing evil and choosing good in verses 15-16 is a reference to Shaar YaShuv. In other words, in just a few years the foes that Ahaz fears (Pekah and Rezin – verses 1-9) will be gone. Shaar YaShuv will function as a sign for Ahaz. That is the reason why he is present. The sign lies in the timing. The timing is the crucial element. Before that little boy reached the age of moral discrimination, the enemies will be gone. The speed and precise nature of the timing is the out-of-the-ordinary element.
This sign would also authenticate Isaiah as a genuine prophet and support the inclusion of his book in the canon of Scripture. You see, Shaar YaShuv is so young that he is still nursing. The earliest food to be given to him after his mother’s milk would have been honey, followed later by milk. This will all happen in 2-3 years and amaze Ahaz. The kingdoms that will be destroyed in such a short time are those of Pekah and Rezin.
Let us combine the two thoughts with first-century historical perspective. The first-century Jewish reader of Isaiah 7 would know from past history that the virgin-sign had not occurred in Ahaz’s day. Past history would tell them that Isaiah 7:14 had not come to pass as yet. Past history would have also told them that verses 15-25 had come to pass exactly as stated. They would know from history that the timing-sign had occurred. Pekah and Rezin had fallen. Ahaz had survived and the land did suffer devastation by the Assyrians. However, the House of David and Judah had survived that as well. They would easily see what Matthew was driving at. Emmanuel had arrived after 700 years of waiting.