Continued from Chapter 18d


The Christian understanding of the scriptural uses of ‘almah is usually governed by the attempt to prove that the word means virgin in Isaiah 7:14. Christians attempt to translate this verse in the Hebrew text to conform to the way Matthew used the Greek Isaiah 7:14 as a reference to a virgin conception. Of the relevant scriptural verses where ‘almah is used, Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Isaiah 7:14, Psalms 68:26, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Songs 1:3, 6:8, only the Septuagint’s Genesis 24:43 and Isaiah 7:14 translates ‘almah as parthenos. It is understandable that the Septuagint translates ‘almah in Genesis 24:43 in this way since Genesis 24:16 already says that Rebekah is a betulah, “virgin.” In Genesis 24:16 it renders both na‘arah, “damsel,” and betulah, “virgin,” as parthenos: “And the parthenos [na‘arah] was very beautiful in appearance, she was a parthenos [betulah], neither had any man known her.” Clearly, ‘almah is to be equated with na‘arah, the two terms being interchangeable; betulah is used to refer to the fact that this “young woman” was a virgin. In Genesis 24:43, “it shall come to pass, that the ‘almah who comes out to draw water,” the word parthenos in the Septuagint translates ‘almah who, in this case is Rebekah. Although correct in that Rebekah was a virgin, the Septuagint translation does not precisely render the Hebrew in context. In verse 16 of the chapter, it is said of Rebekah: “the na‘arah was very fair to look upon, a betulah, whom no man had known,” which is precise and accurate in the use of the two words. The Septuagint, however, has, “the parthenos was very fair in appearance, a parthenos, whom no man had known,” which is tautological and an inexact translation of the Hebrew. It cannot be maintained, on the basis of this inaccurate translation that the Hebrew word na‘arah means “virgin.” The Septuagint inaccurately rendered na‘arah as parthenos in verse 16 and in a similar fashion inaccurately rendered ‘almah as parthenos in verse 43. The Septuagint, as noted, has parthenos for all three terms: na‘arah (verses 14, 16a, 55); ‘almah (verse 43) and betulah (verse 16), and uses pais (maiden, child) twice for na‘arah (verses 28, 57). Although factually correct (for Rebekah was, in fact, a virgin), the Septuagint does not exactly convey the differences between the three terms in its rendering of the passages. Consequently, the rendering of ‘almah by parthenos in verse 43 may in no way be adduced as proof that ‘almah means “virgin.” The Septuagint renders na‘arah twice in Genesis 34:3, “he loved the na‘arah, and spoke kindly to the na‘arah,” as parthenos. This is inexplicable since the passage is concerned with the sexual assault of Dinah who consequently was no longer a virgin. This brings further into question how parthenos is used for translating purposes. Unqualified support cannot be found for the rendering of ‘almah as “virgin” by referral to Septuagint usage. The quote from Isaiah 7:14 found in Matthew 1:24 follows the Septuagint (or a related rendering), but does not do so exactly. The Greek translation gave Matthew an opportunity to exercise his inclination to find some sort of biblical basis for his claims. This is significant in that it was not the biblical text, but a Bible translation that was used to support his theological assertions. The remaining passages in which ‘almah is found are consistent in showing that the word simply means “young woman” (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalms 68:26; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Songs 1:3, 6:8). In the occurrences of ‘almah in the Jewish Scriptures there is never any reference to sexual experience as such. The word simply indicates a young woman sexually mature, whether a maiden living in her father’s house (Exodus 2:8), a young woman soon to become a bride (Genesis 24:43), young women living or working in the king’s palace (Song of Songs 1:3, 6:8), a young woman in a relationship (perhaps sexual) with a man (Proverbs 30:19), or the young women in a religious procession (Psalms 68:26). As we can see, the basic controversy revolves around the meaning of the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14. The use of the word in the Jewish Scriptures leads to the conclusion that the word refers to a sexually mature young woman, capable of having sexual intercourse, without specifying whether she has had it or not. A study of the masculine form of the word ‘almah supports this conclusion. In 1 Samuel 17:56, Saul, referring to young David, tells Abner: “Inquire whose son the young man [ha-‘elem] is.” In 1 Samuel 20:22 the word ‘elem is used of Jonathan’s young servant: “But if I say to the young man [ha-‘elem].” In verse 21 (twice), verses 35-36 (three times), and verses 37-41 (seven times) the word na‘ar is used of the same “lad.” It is thus apparent from the two occurrences of the word, and the contexts, that ‘elem, “young man,” “lad,” is used synonymously with na‘ar, “boy,” just as ‘almah is used as a synonym for na‘arah. There is no reference to sexual experience, but simply to age. The ‘almah is a young woman of marriageable age and within this word virginity is neither included nor excluded. If one renders this word as “virgin,” it introduces an implication that does not convey the contextual meaning of the word. In short, without Matthew’s interpretation of the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14, one would never suppose that ‘almah was the specific word for a virgin. © Gerald Sigal Continued