Thursday, May 03, 2018

Isaiah 7:14

Virgin Birth (Isa. 7:14)

Wegner states, "There is little doubt that Isa. 7:14 and its reuse in Matt. 1:23 is one of the most difficult problems for modern scholars."67 This stems from a growing amount of evangelicals who question whether Isaiah 7:14 prophesies about a virgin birth. To be clear, these scholars acknowledges that Jesus was certainly born of a virgin as Matthew states (1:23). However, did Isaiah intend for that idea originally? Is there any movement from Old Testament to New Testament in this case?

Arguments against a messianic interpretation of the text appeal to three major pieces of evidence. First, the historical setting of Isaiah 7 seems to demand Isaiah's sign relate to the current circumstances. Isaiah 7 opens discussing how Ephraim and Aram are placing political and military pressure upon the southern kingdom (vv. 1-2).68 The discussion of the sign responds to that situation (vv. 3-14). This suggests it deals with something in the present and not future. Second, the wording of the sign implies this. Isaiah relates Immanuel's birth with the collapse of the kings of Ephraim and Aram (v. 15). That seems to say the sign relates to the current crisis.69 Third, later development of the sign in Isaiah seems to support this interpretation. In the very next chapter, Isaiah describes the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz in terms quite similar to [the] birth Immanuel (Isa. 8:4; cf. Isa. 7:16). Maher-shalal-hash-baz explicitly deals with the current situation of Ephraim and Aram (Isa. 8:4-8). That appears to confirm Isaiah intended the sign be fulfilled int he current time. Immanuel is a sign of the enemy's destruction and thereby Judah's deliverance.70

These arguments are admittedly compelling and make it seem that this is simply all the text discusses. However, several factors show there may be more involved. Like other prophets, Isaiah's mentality in this text does not merely focus on the present but the future:

  1. The context of Isaiah 7 shows Isaiah's redemptive historical awareness. Isaiah 7 is not the first chapter of the book. The previous chapters have set up important concepts and issues Isaiah 7 addresses. This revolves around how God will send Israel into exile because of their sin (5:26-30) but will reverse this in the end with a glorious kingdom (2:1-4; 4:2-6). Isaiah's call reiterates this paradigm. His job is to proclaim Israel's condemnation (Isa. 6:8-12) so that in the end, they will be made holy (Isa. 6:13).71 Isaiah's mission is one that connects present with the eschatological. Isaiah 7 is not in a vacuum. Its context suggests the present situation discussed relates to something greater.

  2. The immediate context exhibits this very perspective. Isaiah meets Ahaz with his son, Shear-Jashub, whose name means "the remnant will return" (7:3).72 The language is used earlier in Isaiah (cf. 1:26, 27; 4:3) showing the situation in Isaiah 7 is not just about the present but God's greater agenda of exile and restoration.73 Likewise, Isaiah's use of the "house of David" evidences Isaiah believed the current situation was a threat not only to Ahaz but the entire Davidic dynasty (7:2).74 Interestingly enough, the threat against the Davidic dynasty is the immediate context and concern of the sign (7:13). Again, the immediate context of Isaiah 7 does not merely describe a historical situation but one situated in a larger plan. Isaiah is not just speaking to the present situation.

  3. The grammar of the sign indicates this. As discussed, some have interpreted Isaiah 7:14-15 to say the child is a sign that the northern kingdom and Aram will be defeated. The language makes mention of the present situation for sure. However, that is not precisely what Isaiah says. Notice, the wording states the son will eat curds and honey (v. 15) because (כִּי) before the child is old enough to choose between good and evil, the kings' lands will be desolate (v. 16). Technically, the resolution of the conflict with Ephraim and Aram is not the content or purpose of the sign but rather the reason the sign occurs the way it does.75 It answers the question "why does Immanuel eat curds and honey, the food of poverty?" (cf. 7:22), as opposed to "what is the significance of Isaiah's sign?" Hence, to say Immanuel is a sign for Israel's present deliverance is not grammatically correct. Rather, the present circumstances will cause the tragic circumstances surrounding Immanuel's birth and childhood. Again, the present connect with the future.76

  4. Understanding this helps make sense of Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Isaiah 8. As discussed, some scholars parallel Maher-shalal-hash-baz with Immanuel. Indeed, in Isaiah 8:4, Maher-shalal-hash-baz signifies the upcoming desolation of Ephraim and Aram as predicted in Isaiah 7:16. That is the child's prophetic purpose. However, we just observed such desolation is not the purpose of the sign of Immanuel. In Isaiah 7:16, the desolation of those kingdoms explains why Immanuel will be born in poverty and not what Immanuel is all about. Accordingly, Maher-shalal-hash-baz and Immanuel do not share the same purpose. They relate, but are not the same sign. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the sign that the harsh circumstances surrounding the Messiah's birth will take place. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is near the prophecy that confirms one in the more distant future (Immanuel's birth in exile). Kidner's observation (reiterated by Motyer) sums this up nicely:

    The sign of Immanuel . . . although it concerned ultimate events, did imply a pledge for the immediate future in that however soon Immanuel were born, the present threat would have passed before he would even be aware of it. But the time of his birth was undisclosed; hence the new sign is given to deal only with the contemporary scence.77

  5. The rest of Isaiah 8 further supports that Immanuel is not Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Isaiah's wife does not name the child contrary to what is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Isa. 8:3; Luke 1:31). Isaiah also records how Immanuel will ultimately triumph over Judah's enemies and end exile (Isa. 8:10). Based upon this, Immanuel seems to be different than Maher-shalal-hash-baz. After all, the latter never delivers Judah from its enemies. Thus, Isaiah differentiates Immanuel from Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

  6. Isaiah 8 also affirms the logic we observed in Isaiah 7:14-16. It describes how the Assyrian invasion will desolate Aram and Ephraim. However, it also discusses how the invasion will flood Judah, the "land of Immanuel" (8:5-8). If Immanuel is a sign that Israel's enemies will be destroyed resulting in Judah's salvation, why does Isaiah 8 state the opposite result occurs? Instead, the description in Isaiah 8 fits with what I have suggested above. Isaiah 7 prophesies Immanuel would live in poverty because of the present circumstances. Isaiah 8 states the desolation of the Judah's enemies would lead to Judah's own desolation and so Immanuel will be born in exilic conditions.

  7. The rest of Isaiah 8-11 reinforces a messianic perspective to Isaiah 7:14. At the end of Isaiah 8, the prophet describes how Israel and its king will collapse in darkness (8:21-22).78 However, from that darkness a light will come (9:1-2 [Heb., 8:23-9:1]) based upon the birth of a child (v. 6 [Heb., v. 5]) who bears the authority of God upon his shoulders. This messianic individual in Isaiah 9:6 (Heb., v. 5) corresponds with Isaiah 7:14.79 Both record the birth and naming of a child associated with God's presence ("God with us" versus "Mighty God"). Both discuss how a child is born in exile and trial. Both texts ensure the security of the Davidic dynasty by virtue of the child's birth. With such parallels, Isaiah arguably equates his prophecy in 7:14 with the messianic figure in 9:6 (Heb., 9:5). This reinforces a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah 11 also reiterates this. That chapter introduces a child-deliverer (Isa. 11:2) whose dominion is at the culmination of history (11:9-12).80 With that, Isaiah 11 repeats the same pattern of a royal child born who secures ultimate deliverance and reign. The similarities and pattern argue that Isaiah tied all of these texts together. Isaiah shows how the Son born of a virgin in exile (Isa. 7:14) is the Son/Child who will conquer the exile (9:6 [Heb., v. 5]) and ultimately restore the world (11:1-12). Again, later texts reinforce Isaiah 7:14 is not just about the present but the future.

These factors illustrate what we have observed in this chapter. Isaiah did know complex theological concepts like the Messiah. His writing develops that idea (Isa. 9:6 [Heb., v. 5]; 11:2) which clarifies the nature of Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah also did not strictly write about his current situation but had in mind how the present relates to the future. Hence, he talks about how the current crisis relates to the sign of the ultimate deliverance and security for the Davidic dynasty (Immanuel). He writes with greater complexity than we might originally anticipate.

One factor remains. Intertextuality not only helps us to see Isaiah's directionality but also his theological depth. This relates to the sign itself, the virgin birth. One might ask how the sign of a young woman (rightly assumed to be a virgin) giving birth participates in Isaiah's theological agenda.81 Scholars have consistently wondered about this reality.82 Intertextuality can aid in this discussion. The phrase "conceive and give birth" (יֹלֶ֣דֶ + הָרָה֙) is actually a formula reiterated in the canon. The formula applies to individuals including Eve (Gen. 4:1), Hagar (16:11), Sarah (21:2), Jochebed (Ex. 2:2), the mother of Samson (Judg. 13:5), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:20).83 Ruth is a close parallel (4:10).84 The births are often miraculous because God overcomes barrenness (Judg. 13:5; 1 Sam. 1:20) or provides protection from harm (Gen. 16:11). Accordingly, the sons born are important individuals in God's plan.

The significance of the virgin birth seems to be an argument of lesser to greater. A virgin birth exceeds any other miraculous births. Consequently, the virgin-born Son is the most significant individual in redemptive history. He surpasses Isaac, Moses, Samson, or Samuel. In the context of Isaiah 7:14, the birth of this ultimate individual secures the Davidic dynasty and the restoration of a remnant (cf. Shear-Jashub, 7:3). He will be born in exile to end it. Hence, God will use this child in extraordinary ways to fulfill his plan and display his majesty. The child is truly "God with us" (7:14).

Therefore, Isaiah does not write better than he knows. He is aware his words will have bearing upon the future and the Messiah. His intertextual use of terms also shows why his prophecy is theologically significant. His appeal to the virgin birth showcases the Messiah as the most crucial individual for all time. In this way, Isaiah is a prophet-theologian who writes better than we give him credit for.


67. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 467.
68. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 195-96.
69. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 468-70; Walton, "Isaiah 7:14," 295-98.
70. Hamilton, "Virgin Will Conceive," 228-39. Hamilton summarizes these arguments well.
71. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 178.
72. Isaiah had already used the term "return" (שׁ֖וּב) in a pun on exile. On one hand, a remnant will return (1:26, 27), but the reason they return is because they refused to repent (6:10) and so God must judge them (1:25, 6:13).
73. Contrary to some (e.g., Walton) who argue that Isaiah 7:13-14 falls under a new section historically, there appears to be no real gap in the narrative. Furthermore, even assuming a historical discontinuity between the events, Isaiah enforces a literary continuity by placing the world "also" (גַּם) in the text. This adverb inherently places the information in Isaiah 7:13ff in parallel with the context above. The distribution of "house of David" also attests to this cohesion.
74. Isaiah describes how the present threat is a threat to the house of David (7:2), then addresses Ahaz directly (vv. 3-12), but then later addresses the house of David (v. 13). A change of pronouns accompany the change in titles. God addresses Ahaz in the singular but the Davidic household in the plural. These grammatical shifts argue that the different titles are not meant to be purely stylistic or synonymous. Isaiah addresses two different groups: Ahaz and the rest of the Davidic dynasty.
75. To make verse 16 the content of the sign, one would have to take the particle כִּ֣י ("for") as content ("that"), as opposed to causal or explanatory ("for" or "because"). However, two factors make this unlikely. First, to make verse 16 the content of the sign in verse 14 is unnatural since the verses are quite far apart. Second, technically the particle modifies the verbs in verse 15. The boy will eat curds and honey because the land will be forsaken. Thus, to claim that the sign is one of the destruction of the land is mistaken grammatically.
76. An additional grammatical observation supports this assertion. "Young woman" and "conceive" are in a predicate adjective construction. Conceive (or be pregnant) directly modifies the young woman in her current status. Just as the "man is good" means that the man in his current description as a man is good, so the virgin woman will get pregnant as a virgin. This counters the suggestion that while עַלְמָ֗ה may imply virginity, the young woman in Isaiah's day would marry, become pregnant, and then deliver a child. This too backs the notion that Isaiah had in mind a miraculous conception and birth par excellence. Contra Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 472. Wegner permits Isaiah 7:14 to influence the discussion which is circular reasoning. He suggests, based upon Ugaritic literature (particularly, the Nikkal poem), that glmt cannot include the semantic idea of virgin (471). In dealing with the Nikkal poem, it appears in the context that there is a prayer involved. Hence, the imperfect tld (to give birth) is not past-referring but rather denotes a request. See Vawter, "The Ugaritic Use of GLMT," 321; Goetze, "Nikkal Poem," 353-60. If this is the case, then his reasoning from Ugaritic is less effective.
77. Kidner, "Isaiah," 639; Motyer, Isaiah, 90.
78. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 239.
79. Ibid.; Motyer, Isaiah, 102-5.
80. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 239. Oswalt states "But this person will also be a child, and it is inescapable that the childish aspect of the deliverer is important to Isaiah, for it appears again in 11:6, 8 (as it is, of course, implied in 7:3, 14; 8:1-4, 8, 18)." See also Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 158-64; Motyer, Isaiah, 101-2.
81. Space does not permit an adequate lexicographical analysis of עַלְמָ֗ה, as opposed to בְּתוּלָה. However, the idea of a young woman who is marriageable and thereby presumably a virgin is defensible. See Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 471-72. Wegner critiques Walton's construal of the evidence for a helpful discussion. I disagree with Wegner's methodology of including Isaiah 7:14 in the discussion. If Isaiah 7:14 is the verse in question, bringing it as evidence of a certain lexical definition is circular reasoning. See also Feinberg, "The Virgin Birth in the Old Testament and Isaiah 7:14," 251-58; Niessen, "The Virginity of the עַלְמָ֗ה in Isaiah 7:14," 133-41. Two passages also raise attention to this issue, including Isaiah 54:4 where the term is used supposedly with a barren woman as well as Proverbs 30:19-20 where an adulterous woman is in the context. Reading Isaiah 54:4 as synonymous parallelism is misleading. Lexically if עַלְמָ֗ה refers to youthfulness, we are dealing with antithetical or merismatic parallelism. In the latter case, it demonstrates that Israel has been shameful in the context of her youthfulness as well as her adulthood. Seeing both other prophetic appeals to Israel's youthfulness as a sexual promiscuous woman (cf. Hos. 1-2) as well as the immediate context, which talks how God will be the faithful husband and make her glorious (Isa. 54:5-12). Zion's perversity as the shame of her youthfulness reinforces the notion of virginity rather than counters it. Similarly, if one takes Proverbs 30:19-20 as the adulterous woman perverting the purity of relationship between man and עַלְמָ֗ה, then it implies the chastity/purity of the עַלְמָ֗ה. That too harmonizes with the notion of implied virginity in the term.
82. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 467; Walton, "Isaiah 7:14," 297; Oswalt Isaiah 1-39, 210-11.
83. Genesis 16:11 uses a weqatal construction, instead of a participle found in Judges 13:5 and Isaiah 7:14. The use of weqatal probably accommodates Hagar's current pregnant state whereas the participle instans refers to a future event (i.e., that both conception and birth are future). See GKC §112.d (332); IBHS §32.2.4 (535); 37.6f (628). The implication in both Judges 13:5 and Isaiah 7:14 is that the women were not pregnant but would become so in their barren state or in their state as an עַלְמָ֗ה.
84. occurs in three hundred sixty verses without . Hence, the "conceive and give birth" formula is not just colloquial but a subset of communicating unique births.

(Chou, Abner. The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles, pp 113-19.)


  1. hi, how about muhammad, can you apply the same spin you have applied on isaiah and find muhammad in the bible?

    1. Where's your argument that Chou's detailed exegesis is "spin"?

    2. There are different ways to disprove Islam. Whether Isaiah predicts Muhammad is a downstream issue. We can ignore that and focus on upstream issues, like evidence that Muhammad was a false prophet.