Isaiah 7: Born of a Virign

Isaiah is a great book for understanding that Jesus is the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin is attributed to Isaiah 7. There's quite a bit of controversy surrounding this prophecy, so we'd better look at it in depth!

Introduction

Miraculous births are one of God's favorite things it seems. Isaac, Jacob (and Esau), Joseph, Samuel, Samson's mother, and John the Baptist were all born miraculously. Each of their mothers had trouble conceiving and only through God's help were able to have children. In each case, that child became someone of great importance. Miracle births weren't really new to the Israelites, so it would seem that God would have do to something even more miraculous to bring in the Messiah.

We all know that Jesus was born of a virgin; that's part of the miracle of His birth. It makes sense that God would choose this route because if a woman was intimate with her husband, everyone would assume it was the husband's child, including the woman and her husband. However, if you knew you were a virgin, and you became pregnant—especially during a time when IVF wasn't a thing—you really have no choice but to believe this is a miracle from God. Isaiah, which has the most messianic prophecies of any book, told us that the Messiah would be born of a virgin.

In Isaiah 7:14, God tells Ahaz (through Isaiah) that He will give a sign in the form of a virgin conceiving a child. This the verse most point to as the prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin. Let's talk about it.

Is The Passage About Jesus?

14Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. 16For 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 7:14-16 KJV
Of course, if you really pay attention or if you've ever had a conversation with someone who doubts, you might have some doubts about whether this verse is actually about Jesus. Let's break it down piece by piece.

Controversy Over the Word Virgin

The original Hebrew word, translated to the English "virgin," is almah. Many people argue that this word actually means young woman or woman of marriageable age. Unlike today, women who were unmarried back then would have been assumed to be virgins, so a word meaning single woman would have been practically synonymous with virgin. If almah meant young woman of marriageable age instead of virgin, there would be a very small chance that woman described was not a virgin...

As usual, I decided to dig deeper into the meaning of the word. Sources disagree as to whether the word does or doesn't mean "virgin." Some scholars assert that the word almah never occurs in reference to maiden who is not a virgin.[1] Others suggest that only the word betulah should be translated as virgin.[2]

Meaning of the Word Almah

Photocredit: Unsplash.com/Andrew Seaman
Almah is used 7 times in the Bible, sometimes it translated as maid, other times as virgin. Many Bible scholars who are believers, assert that there is no place where the word is used that designates a woman that is not a virgin.[1] However, there are probably just as many who claim this is false. Those who assert that almah is used to mean non virgin cite Proverbs 30:18-20. In this passage, almah is translated to maid. The consensus of interpretation for the passage is that all the things compared leave no evidence. Since almah is used to describe the woman who is presumably having sex with a man, people argue that almah could not mean virgin, because when virginity is lost, there is evidence left in the bed.

I find this argument by itself to be lacking. For one, a non-virginal woman can still end up bleeding during sex. For two, technically the proverb doesn't mention the bed or the sheets. Think about the example that relates the eagle and the sky. If you look at the sky after an eagle has flown by, you won't see any evidence in the sky, assuming the eagle is no longer flying you can't tell by looking at the eagle either. However, you may assume an eagle has flown through the sky at some point and that the eagle has flown through a sky. Now let's look back at the man and woman. Just as the proverb only mentions eagle and sky, the proverb only mentions the man and the woman. If you see either after the fact you may assume something has happened, but you can't know for sure. If you include the sheets of the bed in the discussion you might include the wake left behind the ship or the fact that the ship is wet...

The next verse (Proverbs 30:20), however, does lend credence to the argument. The proverb goes straight into talking about an adulterous woman, suggesting that the almah in verse 19 had sex with someone other than her husband. Many who refute that almah is synonymous with virgin interpret the verse to mean she isn't a virgin in the moment, but I'm still not sure you can make that assumption. It could be referring to her losing her virginity outside of marriage. This would be something highly unexpected (verse 18 says it's something the writer does not know or understand). Adam Clarke offers an interpretation that reminds us that in this scenario, the man and woman would both want to hide any evidence of the act since they are not married.[5] However it doesn't prove without a shadow of doubt that the woman was not a virgin before the act.

New Testament Understanding

In Matthew 1:22-23, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7 in reference to Jesus' virgin birth. He uses the Greek word parthenos (παρθενοζ), which definitely means virgin. Non believers who argue that almah doesn't necessarily mean virgin claim Matthew misquoted Isaiah. I ask this: if almah doesn't mean virgin and doesn't strongly imply virgin, why would the disciples go through the trouble of faking a virgin birth?

Think about this: if Jesus wasn't born of a virgin, He still wasn't Joseph's son. When Joseph finds out Mary isn't a virgin, he's angry and initially calls off the wedding. Though it was already disgraceful to have sex before marriage, it would have been considered even more disgraceful for Joseph to marry a woman he did not have sex with who could be proven not a virgin. If Joseph was the one who had sex with Mary, he wouldn't have been shocked and would have probably just pushed the wedding date up to cover their tracks. Since a man who has sex with a virgin is supposed to marry her, this would still fall in line with Biblical doctrine (Exodus 22:16). However, the fact that Joseph was shocked and initially rejected Mary, suggests it was not his child. If they were engaged during the time she became pregnant, she would have had to commit adultery (which was still punishable by death). If they weren't engaged when she became pregnant, it would have been obvious to the people that this baby was not Joseph's, which would have been quite the embarrassment for Joseph.

Only the latter rationale would give the couple a reason to lie about a virgin birth, but to claim your child is the Messiah and actually have Him fulfill the prophecies? That's a bit much. I also think it would be more likely for Joseph to go with his first instinct and simply dump Mary, not make up a virgin birth. Furthermore, if almah didn't mean virgin, the Jews would not have expected a virgin birth for their Messiah. Not only would it have been unnecessary to those following Christ, but it would have been easy for Matthew to ignore the quote all together. After all, if we translate almah to maid, Isaiah 7:14 becomes an unnecessary statement. Sure, an old woman could have a baby—like Sarah—but a young woman having a child isn't out of the ordinary. As I type this sentence, there is probably a young woman giving birth to a child somewhere and there's a 50% chance that child is male. There's nothing remarkable about the prediction. Especially when Mary doesn't name Jesus Emmanuel... Yet, Luke also confirms the virgin birth in Luke 1:27,34. Why?

I found an article that seems to blend both arguments to form a rationale for the "mix-up." The author admits that almah is to virgin as teenager is to high schooler—not 100% accurate but spot on for the most part. Where their explanation become interesting is in the assertion that it doesn't matter, because according to them, Matthew wasn't saying that Mary was the young woman spoken of in Isaiah. The author explains that Matthew quoted the Greek mistranslation on purpose, merely to draw parallels between what Isaiah meant back then versus what was happening at present. Essentially, the author claims that Matthew was merely confirming that Jesus' birth was a sign (just as the birth mentioned in Isaiah was a sign) for the people.[4] In Isaiah, this sign is for Ahaz (King of Judah) to prove that the kingdom will stand. Similarly, Jesus' birth was a sign to believers (kings and priests of God's kingdom—Revelation 1:6) to prove that His kingdom will stand. I'll talk a little more about the fulfillment aspect later in the post.

Immanuel

Immanuel or Emmanuel, means "God with us" and was the name meant to be given to the child. People often use this name to refer to Jesus, such as in the song "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Although this was not Jesus' given name, He is literally "God with us." The name only appears 3 times in the Bible: during the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, in Isaiah 8:8, and in Matthew 1:23. None of these verses explicitly show a son being named Immanuel, though Matthew seems to be connecting the prophecy to Jesus.

Eating Butter and Honey

The next part of the prophecy describes the diet of the child. Isaiah 7:15 tells us that the child will eat butter and honey which somehow tells him to choose good over evil. My first question was why not bread and water? The Word of God is often referred to or associated with bread (Matthew 4:4), while life is associated with water (John 4:14). Yet, here we're talking about butter and honey; what do they represent?

Diet Matters

Before we jump into exactly what the butter and honey represent, I want to point out something critical. We live in a society that has us believing as long as we do things in moderation, it's ok. Maybe we drink in moderation or eat foods we know are bad for us in moderation. We assume these things don't harm us because we don't do them often, but we're still polluting the temple that is our body.

In school, my teachers used to always tell us to get a good night's rest and eat a good breakfast before a big test. Studies have shown that healthy eating habits correlate to high academic achievement.[6][7] It makes sense logically because the food we eat fuels our brain. If we fuel our brain with garbage, it won't perform at an optimum level.

There are no scientific studies to translate this to moral action because morality isn't really scientific, it's spiritual. So I can't cite studies that verify what we consume affects our ability to decide between good and evil, but I can provide anecdotal evidence. It wasn't until I cut out pork and shellfish (unclean meats) from my diet that I really took off in my relationship with Christ. Before I was kinda jogging in place, but now I'm sprinting toward Him. God spends a lot of time telling us what we can and cannot eat, in fact he goes into this before sin even enters the world. I'm pretty sure it's a big deal.

Symbolism

Butter and honey are almost always used to mean something good in the Bible, unlike leaven which is often equated with sin. Later in Isaiah 7:22, we are told that the abundance of milk creates the abundance of butter. Although this passage is in the midst of describing the destruction of Judah, we have to remember that without a healthy source, there can be no milk. Whether the source is a goat or a cow, the animal must be pregnant to produce milk. This means that in order to have an abundance of milk, you must have at least 3 cows (or goats): the female providing the milk, the male who impregnating her, and the calf to be born. In those days, you couldn't just run to the store and buy such a thing. As such, butter sounds like a luxury item. I don't think God would be saying the baby will be bathed in luxury to know good from evil; that doesn't seem logical.

I found an article that goes through each Bible verse in which butter and honey are mentioned to determine a possible spiritual meaning for the words. They determined that butter was hidden knowledge of God, honey was the law and Word of God, and the act of eating symbolizes studying.[8] I like that they went to the Bible to define the meaning, but I'm not sure I agree with their interpretation. The part I'm really not sure about is the "hidden knowledge of God." I can see honey being the Word of God, particularly since Revelation 10:9-10 (also in prophecy) describes a specific book as being sweet like honey.

Something that catches my attention is that fact that The Promised Land was known as the land of milk and honey, or a land overflowing with milk and honey. Given this, perhaps it is the promises of God that the child is consuming. If the child takes his place among God's people and continues in faith (which would include studying the Word and law of God), he is within the covenant and set to reap the promises of God. Furthermore, the entire sign is a reminder of the promise God is making to Ahaz that Syria will not destroy them. I bel

Although this isn't an explanation of the prophecy, I want to point out another interesting connection. Let's go back to Revelation 10:9-10. John is predicting an end time event in which he eats a book that is at first sweet like honey, but bitter in his belly. Interestingly, Judah shared a similar fate. The child was a sign that Syria and Israel would not defeat Judah. Thus, in childhood (i.e., the beginning), everything was working in Judah's favor (i.e., sweet like honey). However, not too very long after, Judah suffered the same fate as Israel, only instead of the Assyrians defeating them, it was the Babylonians. They would go on to experience the bitterness of famine and defeat.

Timing

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 7:16 KJV
One of the most important things given in the prophecy is the timeline. God is seending this sign to let Ahaz know that they have nothing to fear from Syria and Israel, so it makes sense that he would give him a time period for which the danger would cease. Earlier in the prophecy, God tells Ahaz that the kingdom of Israel would be completing broken within 65 years (i.e. cease to exist), but here, God is saying that before this child is fully grown, the kings from both of these nations will be taken off their thrones. The destruction of the northern kingdom happened exactly in that manner; first the king was done away with, and slowly the people were forced into other locations until the 10 tribes were no more.

Fulfillment

So, how exactly was the prophecy fulfilled? Clearly, Isaiah meant for a child to be born soon. Does this mean that Jesus isn't Immanuel? Or does it mean there was a double prophecy? Or is it something entirely different?

If you skip to Isaiah 8:1-4, you'll see another prophecy concerning a child to be born—Mahershalalhashbaz. God says that before the child can all out for his mother and father, Samaria (Israel) and Damascus (Syria) will fall. Mahershalalhashbaz is Isaiah's biological son and seems to fit the prophecy.

Does Jesus also fulfill this? How do the events line up? It is true that while Jesus is very young, Herod the Great is killed, i.e. disposed, but Rome doesn't cease to be a threat. On a spiritual note, however, Jesus does defeat our primary enemies: death and sin. His birth was a sign of victory. Further, another destruction of Judah does come shortly after Jesus' resurrection. Spiritually speaking, a final destruction await everyone and like in Isaiah's prophecy, there will be a remnant that is saved. There's also the fact that Jesus is literally Immanuel...

I believe the prophecy is a double prophecy. When a seed was promised to Abraham, Isaac was the initial fulfillment, but Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment. When a king was prophesied to come out of the line of Judah, David was the initial fulfillment, but Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment. In both cases, there were things that didn't quite fit for the initial fulfillment: Isaac didn't defeat the serpent and David didn't rule forever. The same is true for Isaiah's son who is the initial fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14; he isn't named Immanuel and he isn't born of a literal virgin (though she may have been a virgin just before she conceived the child; there's no guarantee that the mother of Mahershalalhashbaz is the same woman who gave birth to the son mentioned in Isaiah 7:3). However, Jesus fulfills all of these: He is born of a literal virgin; He is a sign of the coming victory and the coming defeat; and He is literally Immanuel (God is with us).

References

  1. "Strong's H5959 - `almah". Blue Letter Bible; visited March 2018
  2. Tovia Singer. "Does the Hebrew Word Alma Really Mean “Virgin”?". Outreach Judaism; visited March 2018
  3. "3933. parthenos". Bible Hub; visited March 2018
  4. Joel M. Hoffman. "Was There Really a Virgin Birth in the Bible?". Bible Odyssey; visited March 2018
  5. Adam Clarke. "Proverbs 30:19 Commentary". Studylight; visited March 2018
  6. Lars Lien. "s breakfast consumption related to mental distress and academic performance in adolescents?". Public Health Nutrition, 10(4); pg. 422–428. 2007
  7. Howard Taras. "Nutrition and Student Performance at School". Journal of School Health. 75(6); pg. 199-213. July 2005
  8. Hystar. Butter and Honey Shall He Eat Isaiah 7:15". EZ Bible Study. August 28, 2008
  9. "Language of God Chapter 8". Aletheia; visited March 2018

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About

Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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