Continued from Chapter 18e


It is a fact of biblical usage that betulah is the Hebrew word for “virgin,” consistently used in passages which leave no room for speculation or uncertainty as to its meaning (e.g., Leviticus 21:14; Deuteronomy 22:15-19, 23, 28). The word betulah is derived from the root btl, “to sever,” “to separate.”

It stands for the “woman separated (from man),” that is, a virgin, a woman who has had no sexual experience. The word betulah is found some fifty times in the Jewish Scriptures, in all of which the meaning may be presumed to be “virgin.” There is no question as to the meaning of betulah despite attempts to interject Genesis 24:16 or Joel 1:8 in order to prove the contrary. According to some Christians, proof that betulah does not always mean “virgin” can be derived from the fact that Genesis 24:16 uses the qualifying words “neither had any man known her” in its description of Rebekah: “And the maiden [na‘arah] was very fair to look upon, a virgin [betulah] neither had any man known her.” This verse actually presents no problem; the Bible quite often adds an interpretive phrase to a word in order to emphasize the meaning. For example, Numbers 19:2: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer, faultless, in which there is no blemish.” One could assume that anything that is faultless has no blemish in it. In 2 Samuel 14:5 it says: “Alas, I am an ’almanah[widow], my husband being dead.” Will the Christians question the meaning of ’almanah? Surely we could assume that if she is a widow her husband is dead. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the verse should say, “a virgin, neither had any man known her.”

Some Christians argue that the verse: “Lament like a betulah girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth” (Joel 1:8) provides clear proof that betulah does not necessarily mean “virgin.” But the argument is faulty since this verse may refer to a young woman who is bereaved of the man to whom she had recently been betrothed and with whom she did not consummate her marriage before his death. In biblical times a betrothal was considered as binding as a marriage and there were formal ceremonies to celebrate it. (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where such a woman is punished as an adulteress if she cohabits with another man.) This loss is truly a deep tragedy, hence its use as a simile for extraordinary lamentation. The idea of extreme sorrow and anguish is here portrayed by the figure of a betrothed maiden who laments the death of her future husband. According to the Torah, during the period in which a couple is betrothed, before the actual marriage, they were legally bound to each other and could separate only through a formal act of divorce. Deuteronomy 22:23f makes it clear (cf. also Genesis 29:21) that a betrothed virgin was known as a “wife.” Consequently, her betrothed would be termed “husband.” This also seems to be the understanding of the verse as found in the Septuagint. There it is rendered, “Mourn for me, for a bride [numphe] girded with sackcloth [who mourns] over the husband of her virginity [ton andra autes to parthenikon].” There is no doubt that the word as used in Joel 1:8 as always elsewhere in the Jewish Scriptures has the meaning of “virgin.”

The word betulah is often used in passages where the absence of sexual experience is not a significant factor; in such passages it means simply “girls,” “maidens” (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:17; Psalms 148:12; Isaiah 23:4; Jeremiah 31:13, 51:22; Lamentations 1:4, 18; 2:10, 21; Ezekiel 9:6; Amos 8:13; Zechariah 9:17; Job 31:1). It is also used metaphorically: “virgin daughter of Zion” (1 Kings 19:21; Jeremiah 14:17, 18:13, 31:4, 21; Lamentations 1:15, 2:13; Amos 5:2); “virgin daughter of Sidon” (Isaiah 23:12); “virgin daughter of Egypt” (Jeremiah 46:11); “virgin daughter of Babylon” (Isaiah 47:1). Nevertheless, when used in passages where betulah is used to define a legal status it refers to virgo intacto. In all instances where betulah is translated in the Septuagint text it is rendered parthenos or its equivalent. It is evident that betulah is the precise word to be used where it is necessary to refer to the complete absence of sexual experience on the part of a woman ‘Almah, despite a two-millennium misunderstanding by Christians of Isaiah 7:14, ‘Behold a young woman [LXX: “virgin”] shall conceive and bear a son,’ indicates nothing concerning the chastity of the woman in question. That being the case, does anyone seriously doubt that the respective authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke considered Mary, prior to her pregnancy, as anything but virgo intacta in the strictest sense as found in legal documents (e.g., Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27, 34)? Therefore, Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is based strictly on the Greek rendering using parthenos. The Greek text is not based on the literal Hebrew word ‘almah found in verse 14, which says nothing concerning the virginity of the woman in question.

If God wanted to make the point that the child to be born was born of a virgin he would have inspired the prophet to use the word betulah which in legal texts has the meaning of virgo intacta. Specifically, there is no reason to assume from the context that virginity is a critical factor in Isaiah 7:14. Nothing is known of the young woman’s state of virginity at the time Isaiah spoke, nor is that knowledge critical for exegetical purposes. Even if in all occurrences of the word in the Jewish Scriptures it were proven that the ‘almah in each case was, in fact, a virgin, that would not prove that ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 means “virgin.” The original meaning of the word and its use in the Jewish Scriptures have demonstrated that the word designates a young woman, without regard to her sexual experience; whether she is a virgin or not must be determined, if possible, from the context in which the word appears. Even if it were granted that by saying “the young woman of marriageable age” Isaiah could have been, in fact, referring to a virgin, the question still remains.

If it was the prophetic intention to declare parthenogenesis, the word betulah was available in the Hebrew language to make Isaiah’s meaning unmistakable? Why was parthenos used in the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14?

The Greek, parthenos, like the Latin, virgo, was used generally for “girl” or “young woman” (cf. Genesis 24:14, 43). The Septuagint understood by parthenos a virgin in its strict sense. Thus, the mother of Immanuel was at the time of Isaiah’s pronouncement a virgin, but not at the time of his conception. How parthenos is used in the Septuagint and specifically in its rendering of Isaiah 7:14 may be summed up as follows: By parthenos the Septuagint translator meant that the prophet was referring to a “young woman,” then unmarried, who would be married and in a normal way become pregnant and bear a son.

© Gerald Sigal