The Protevangelium


The first hint in the Old Testament that the coming Christ would be born of a virgin occurs right at the beginning.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Genesis 3:15

This prophecy, known as the Protevangelium, comes from the most ancient oracle known to man—the oracle that the Lord pronounced when He found our first parents, Adam and Eve, guilty of sin. The Lord is speaking to Satan, who has enticed "the woman," Eve, into disobeying the Lord's command against eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He is saying that Satan will someday be crushed and utterly defeated by the seed of the woman.

The pronoun used to designate the seed is "his" (in "his heel"). In place of "it" (in "it shall bruise"), the more accurate translation is "he" (1). Therefore, the coming conqueror must be a single man. But why is He called the seed of a woman? A child is ordinarily regarded as the seed of his father and forefathers. The striking and unnatural character of the expression "her seed" suggests that it is a uniquely fitting name for the victor over Satan. Unlike other men, He would be the seed of a woman only. He would not be a man's seed. A virgin would conceive Him without losing her virginity.


Isaiah's Oracle


Over seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah enlarged upon the Protevangelium.

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

The name Immanuel means, "God with us." Isaiah is appending to Genesis 3:15 the information that the virgin-born conqueror of Satan would be God Himself in the flesh.

Controversy has long raged over the word rendered "virgin" in the KJV of Isaiah 7:14. Translators of the RSV substituted "young woman." The contention of many critics who disbelieve prophecy is that Isaiah in this verse is referring exclusively to his own wife (2). She has already given birth to Shear-jashub, which means, "A remnant shall return" (Isa. 7:3). Later, she will give birth to Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means, "Swift is the booty, speedy is the prey" (Isa. 8:3). Therefore, say these critics, Isaiah's only announcement here, in Isaiah 7:14, is that his wife will give (or has given) birth to another son with a prophetically meaningful name. After all, the prophet himself says,

Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth in mount Zion.

Isaiah 8:18

To defend their identification of Immanuel as a son of Isaiah, the critics assert that the prophet himself, within his human limitations, could not have intended any other meaning. Yet, the prophets of old were merely obedient mouthpieces for the Holy Spirit of God (2 Pet. 1:21). In that role, they left us intimations of the Messiah which they themselves did not fully understand (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Thus, the view that Isaiah 7:14 must refer to Isaiah's own family betrays an antisupernatural bias. At the heart of this view is a settled disbelief that God placed in Isaiah's mouth an utterance wholly concerned with matters then hundreds of years in the future. But we should examine Isaiah's prophecy without bias, according to the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. We should start with the precise meaning of each word and build an interpretation that fits the context.


The Meaning of Almah


The word translated "virgin" in the KJV is almah. This term in either its feminine form (almah) or masculine form (elem) occurs nine times in the Old Testament (Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; 1 Sam. 17:56; 20:22; Psa. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; S. of Sol. 1:3; 6:8; Isa. 7:14). So far as we can judge from the contexts, the term never refers to a married person or even to an adult. In some instances, the term obviously refers to someone young and unmarried. For example, Moses' sister Miriam was an almah when she hid him in the bulrushes (Ex. 2:8).

According to Alfred Edersheim, the great Jewish scholar converted to Christianity over a century ago, the Jews recognize eight stages of growth (3). He says that the word almah pertains to the sixth stage, which is between dependent childhood and independent youth (4). By its connotation of firmness and strength, the word suggests the rapid bodily growth of early adolescence (5). Thus, an almah was a girl about twelve to fourteen years old. The closest English equivalents to almah are "maiden" and "damsel" (6). "Young woman," although passable as a translation, stretches the concept too far into adulthood.

The rabbis taught that a father should betroth his daughter to his slave rather than keep her unbetrothed beyond puberty (7). A girl was normally married before she passed much beyond fourteen (8). Thus, since almah specifically denotes a girl at the stage of growth just before marriage, the term apparently came to signify "unmarried girl of marriageable age" (9). And since nearly all unmarried girls in ancient Hebrew culture were chaste, the term seems to have acquired the further meaning "virgin" (10). In some of the texts exhibiting almah, "virgin" is clearly the most appropriate translation.

43 Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin [almah] cometh forth to draw water, and I say to her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher to drink.

44 And she say to me, Both drink thou, and I will also draw for thy camels: let the same be the woman whom the Lord hath appointed out for my master's son.

Genesis 24:43-44

The speaker is Abraham's servant, who has been sent to a far country to find a wife for Abraham's son Isaac. The servant would certainly have found it natural to call Isaac's prospective wife a virgin.

Another instructive text is the following:

There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins [plural of almah] without number.

Song of Solomon 6:8

The list comprehends all the women within the king's household. Although many queens and concubines were young women, the term almah is reserved for girls unmarried to the king—in other words, for virgins (11).

The Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament dating perhaps from the early second century B.C., renders almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos, a word that indisputably carries the specific meaning "virgin" (12). The Jewish scholars who produced the Septuagint were certainly familiar enough with Hebrew to know what almah meant. Also, when the Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, it substitutes parthenos for almah (Matt. 1:23) (13).

We conclude that although Isaiah's wife might be called a young woman, she could not by any means be called an almah, for two reasons (14).

  1. She was too old. At the time of Isaiah 7, she had already given birth to Shear-jashub (Isa. 7:3).
  2. She was not a virgin.

Demonstration That the Prophecy Refers to a Virgin Birth


Many compelling arguments can be brought against any attempt to remove the idea of a virgin mother from Isaiah 7:14.

  1. There is no record that Isaiah's wife actually bore a son named Immanuel (15). Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz are the children intended in Isaiah 8:18. The allegation that the almah of Isaiah 7:14 is merely Isaiah's wife creates the anomaly of a prophecy without a recorded fulfillment.
  2. The promise of Immanuel falls at the end of a conversation between Isaiah and King Ahaz.

    3 Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;

    4 And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.

    5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying,

    6 Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

    7 Thus saith the Lord God, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.

    8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.

    9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

    10 Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying,

    11 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.

    12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.

    13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

    14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

    15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.

    16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

    Isaiah 7:3-16

    The Lord offered to show King Ahaz any sign that he chose—even any wonder in the heights above or the depths below (v. 11). Neither was a restriction on the power that God was willing to display. Yet the king declined to ask for anything, hiding his unbelief under the pious excuse that he did not wish to tempt the Lord (v. 12). The Lord therefore responded that He would give a sign of His own choosing. This sign, announced in verse 14, is presumably no less miraculous than the sign already promised (16). We dare not trivialize Isaiah's prophecy by supposing that after the Lord had offered any extraordinary sign that Ahaz could imagine, without limit in the heights above or depths below, the best the Lord could do was to grant another baby to the Isaiahs.
  3. The sign announced in verse 14 must be understood as the Lord's remedy for His complaint in verse 13. He was growing weary of the present ruler of Israel (v. 13). So, He would give the throne of Israel to another king, to the child called Immanuel (v. 14), who would supplant all evil rulers and inaugurate a new kingdom devoted to wisdom and righteousness.
  4. After declaring that the Lord Himself would give a sign, the prophet said, "Behold" (v. 14). In other words: "Look. Pay close attention. I am going to show you something strange and marvelous." The sign would be a great wonder, not just another son of Isaiah (17).
  5. Why would Isaiah refer to his wife vaguely as "the young woman" instead of naming her or, as he does later, calling her "the prophetess" (Isa. 8:3) (18)? The critic has Isaiah saying, "Behold, a certain young woman who will remain nameless but who is actually my wife is going to have another child." This is ludicrous.
  6. In saying, "A virgin shall conceive," the KJV misses the mark. "Virgin" is preceded by a definite article. Isaiah's actual words were, "The virgin shall conceive" (19). Evidently, he was thinking of a virgin of such singular renown and importance that she was rightly called "the virgin." No doubt he was thinking of the virgin mentioned first in Genesis 3:15, the virgin who would bear the conqueror of Satan (20).
  7. The child is called Immanuel, meaning, "God with us." The name shows that Isaiah was not thinking of an ordinary child, but of the child described just two chapters later, in Isaiah 9 (21).

    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

    Isaiah 9:6

    The holder of these august titles is not some obscure offspring of Isaiah, but the divine son who would become the everlasting King of all.
  8. The name Immanuel recurs in chapter 8. The prophet is foretelling that the king of Assyria would invade Israel.

    7 Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks:

    8 And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel.

    Isaiah 8:7-8

    In the expression "thy land," the substitution of "thy" for the expected "the" implies that the land of Israel was Immanuel's possession in a special sense, as a land belongs to its king (22). In other words, Immanuel would be a king of Israel, not Isaiah's son.
  9. The critics take Isaiah's concluding pronouncement to the king as proof that he expected the whole oracle to be fulfilled within a few years. The prophet stated that before the child could tell right from wrong, "the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings" (v. 16). A better translation is, "The land that you hate will be forsaken before both her kings" (23). In other words, both Israel and Syria would be forsaken before the child reached the age of moral responsibility. Among the Jews, that age was thirteen (24). But who is the child? He cannot be Immanuel, if Immanuel would be born hundreds of years later. The child intended here must be Shear-jashub (25). If the Lord did not mean to use him for illustration, why else did He send him along with his father to see the king? If Shear-jashub served no purpose in that encounter, why does Scripture bother to mention him at all? Notice that the child's name, which means, "A remnant shall return," brings his father's oracle to a hopeful conclusion, answering and balancing the dire prophecy that the land of the northern tribes would soon be forsaken.

Footnotes

  1. Jay P. Green, Sr., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew/English, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983), 1:7.
  2. Other critics allege that the mysterious child of Isaiah 7:14 is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The prophet is supposedly offering the birth of a crown prince as a sign of hope to the beleaguered house of David. Yet, besides incurring many of the objections that we state against identifying the child as Isaiah's son, the view that he is Ahaz's son has Isaiah prophecy a fact already accomplished, for when he went out to confront Ahaz, Hezekiah was already at least six years old. See John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 212.
  3. Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 103-104.
  4. Ibid., 104.
  5. Ibid. ; E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, trans. Theod. Meyer and James Martin, 4 vols. (n.p., 1872-1878; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1956), 2:44-45; Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (n.p., 1906; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 761.
  6. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (n.p.: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1930; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1965), 289; Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 1:287.
  7. Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 113a.
  8. William L. Coleman, Today's Handbook of Bible Times and Customs (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), 87.
  9. Hengstenberg, 2:45; Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on Isaiah, ed. John Eadie, 2 vols. in one (n.p., 1875; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1992), 1:168; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Isaiah, 2 vols. in one (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1968, 1971), 1:156; Young, 1:287-289; Oswalt, 210.
  10. Hengstenberg, 2:45; Alexander, 1:168; Leupold, 1:156; Oswalt, 210.
  11. Leupold, 1:156.
  12. Charles Lee Brenton, ed. and trans., The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha with an English Translation; and with Various Readings and Critical Notes (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1851; repr., n.p.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 842; William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 632.
  13. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (n.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 3.
  14. Hengstenberg, 2:64.
  15. F. C. Jennings, Studies in Isaiah (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Bros., 1935), 85-86.
  16. Hengstenberg, 2:65; Alexander, 1:167.
  17. Ibid.; Young, 1:284-286.
  18. Hengstenberg, 2:53, 64-65; Machen, 290; Young, 1:293.
  19. Green, 3:1626.
  20. Henry Morris, Many Infallible Proofs (San Diego, Calif.: CLP Publishers, 1974), 57.
  21. Hengstenberg, 2:48-50, 53-54; Alexander, 1:167-168; Machen, 291-292; Leupold, 1:158-159; Young, 1:289-291.
  22. Hengstenberg, 2:49-50, 65.
  23. Green, 3:1626.
  24. Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 63.
  25. Robert Govett, Govett on Isaiah, originally, Isaiah Unfulfilled: Being an Exposition of the Prophet, with New Version and Critical Notes, 2d ed. (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1841; repr., Miami Springs, Fla.: Conley & Schoettle Publishing Co., 1984), 151; Harry Bultema, Commentary on Isaiah, trans. Cornelius Lambregtse (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1981), 108.