Reading Isaiah 7:14 and
Isaiah 7:14 remains a
difficult passage to interpret for a variety of reasons. It also causes the
reader to evaluate the nature of prophecy and fulfillment. The meaning of the
terms has been debated and disputed among Hebrew and Christian scholars.
One issue relates to the meaning of ‘almah. It is translated “virgin” by the LXX, KJV, NIV, and ESV, and “young woman” by the NRSV and JPS.
In ancient traditional thought, the Judaic reading is that the sign to Ahaz is Hezekiah and the Christian reading is that it only refers to the virgin birth of the messiah. “Tryphon, a Jew, responded to Justin saying that the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘almā was not ‘virgin’ but ‘girl’ and that the Isaiah passage simply referred to king Hezekiah and not to a future Christian messiah.” Later Judaic interpreters like Ibn Ezra and Rashi saw Immanuel as another sign-child of Isaiah (based, in part, on the chronological difficulties associated with identifying Immanuel as Hezekiah).
J. H. Hertz wrote: “Christian scholars today admit that ‘virgin’ is a mistranslation for the Heb. word ‘almah, in that verse. A ‘maid’ or unmarried woman is expressed in Hebrew by bethulah. The word ‘almah in Isaiah vii, 14 means no more than a young woman of age to be a mother, whether she is married or not.” This is fair enough as “young woman” often supported by the usage of ‘almah in Gen 24:43; Prov 30:19. The more difficult issue is Matthew’s use of the LXX translation of Isaiah 7:14––“virgin”—in the first chapter of the New Testament. The problem is not really at the level of the term, however, as the LXX and Matthew simply use a narrower connotation of the Hebrew term (see below).
The larger concern is what did Isaiah, Ahaz, and the ancient readers of the book of Isaiah, think Isaiah was trying to say? Is she a virgin of Isaiah’s day? Is Immanuel a sign to Ahaz? If so, did the young woman/virgin bear a son in Isaiah’s day in relation to this sign? For example, Isaiah tells Ahaz that Immanuel will be a sign to him (7:14). Then Isaiah’s wife bears Maher-shalel-hash-baz (8:1-3, 18), recorded just before oracles concerning Immanuel (8:8-10). All of which are discussed in relation to the resolution of the historical crisis rooted in the Syria-Ephraim coalition against Ahaz.
Here are the tangle of questions that these issues raise: Is/are Maher-shalel-hash-baz and Immanuel one and the same or two different signs? Is Immanuel a son of Ahaz, Isaiah, or someone else? Or, stated more broadly, Is Maher-shalel-hash-baz a sign-son of the prophet, but Immanuel is a Davidic heir, perhaps Ahaz’s own son, Hezekiah? The reason for wanting to see the two differently relates to the Maher-shalel-hash-baz birth report in 8:1-3, 18 who is not a Davidic heir like the “child born to us” needs to be in chapters 9 and 11, see esp. 9:6-7; 11:1, 10.
If ‘almah is translated virgin and Maher-shalel-hash-baz is a near-fulfillment of 7:14, then “Mrs. Isaiah” (8:3) needs to be rethought because she probably already had at least one child (7:3; 8:18). In this line, some see the “prophetess” of 8:3 as second wife of Isaiah, a virgin (Deutro-Mrs. Isaiah).
Survey of selected interpretive options:
(a) The sign of 7:14 is a messianic sign. If ‘almah is only definable as “virgin,” then 7:14 needs to be read with successive Immanuel oracles (9:1-7; 11:1-12:6)––esp. “child is born ...” (9:6) and “shoot will spring from stem of Jesse” (11:1; cf. 11:10)––and finds fulfillment in no sense other than Matthew 1.
(b) The sign of 7:14 is a child born to a young woman/virgin in Isaiah’s day as a sign to Ahaz. Thus (1) Isaiah's son Maher-shalal-hash-baz of 8:1, 3 is the Immanuel of 7:14; or, (2) Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah is Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz is simply another sign-son of the prophet (7:3; 8:18).
(c) A typological fulfillment, that is, option b [whether b.1 or b.2] as a shadow of option a. This works better when typological fulfillment is seen in retrospect; here, a larger possibility for reading Isaiah 7:14 in light of Messiah’s birth in Matthew 1.
Working with the views -- each are difficult and require compound inferential interpretations.
How could one argue view a? It needs to be based on examining the structure of the broader context (i.e. Isa 7-11). Isaiah 9:1-7 goes on to talk about the child, Immanuel, which will be born. If this poetry is taken literally, he is described in a way that only the Christian Messiah could fit––i.e., “... a child will be born ... his name will be ... Mighty God, eternal Father, Prince of Peace ... On the throne of David ... from then on and forevermore” (9:6-7). Further, the sign was given to the “house of David” (7:13). It seems that when Ahaz was judged (cut off) this left only a stump of David’s line (7:12-13; cf. 6:13). Then in 8:8 the land is said to belong to Immanuel. Later, “Then a shoot will spring up from the stem of Jesse...” (11:1) and “the nations will resort to the root of Jesse” (11:10). This implies that Immanuel later comes from the cut off line of David.
Ahaz received the near sign of Isaiah’s children––“I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonder ...” (8:18). Shear-Jashub (7:3) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1, 3) were signs against Ahaz (8:18) which also validate the far sign of Immanuel (8:1-8). Perhaps while “he” in 7:15 refers to Immanuel of 7:14, it is possible that “the boy” of 7:16 refers to Shear-Jashub (7:3) who Isaiah had brought with him. One reason to read 7:15 with 7:14 and 7:16 with 7:3—though awkward and asking a lot of the reader—is that 7:15 employs exile imagery (7:15 with 7:22) and 7:16 uses a near sign (7:16 with 8:4). Hence, Isaiah’s children, Shear-Jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz were signs for his day (8:18) and the Immanuel oracle was a sign for a later day––i.e., Messiah’s day.
How would one argue view b and/or c? In Isaiah, “sign” is fulfilled within a few years (see 20:3; 37:30; cf. 8:18; 7:11). Moreover, the context of Isaiah 7, and the poetic oracle in Isaiah 8 relates to salvation from the historical crisis of the Syria-Ephraim coalition against Ahaz (7:1-17; 8:1-10).
The call to “not be afraid” to Ahaz (7:4) and Hezekiah (37:6) invites readers to see a strong contrast between father and son, and to think of the related poetic oracles in 8-12 and 28-35 in reference to the two crises, Syria-Ephraim and Assyria. And, in the case of the third view, the historical sign-fulfillments are used as types of the greater fulfillment of the Christian Messiah.
The entire paragraph of Matthew 1:18-25 is structured around Isaiah 7:14 (LXX). Consider the several word for word parallels between these two contexts.
Matthew understood the virgin conception and birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah . Matthew quotes Isaiah from the LXX with only a slight shift from “you will call” [2nd sing.] to “they will call” [3rd plur.] (cf. “she will call” [Isa ]). The replacement of “you will call” with “they will call” signals a pivotal significance that Jesus had to Matthew’s readers. Joseph called him Jesus (, 25), but they will call him “God with us” (). This links the coming of Messiah in Matthew with the commission Jesus delivers at the closing of the gospel––“I am with you always” (28:20). Thus, the shift from you (sing.) to they highlights the epoch meaning of who he is (note significance of 28:16-20 for entire gospel).
 This summary of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho in Barrera, Jewish Bible, 511.
 See Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1—39, AB, 233-34.
 Hertz, Pentateuch, 202.
 Alternately, some have thought Josiah, a later descendant of Ahaz, fits the bill.
 On typological interpretation as a retrospective phenomenon see my article, “Multiverse.” Also see Childs, “Prophecy and Fulfillment.” Also see my notes on Matt 1:23.
 On “sign" see Childs, Isaiah, 65, 71-72.
 See See Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1—39, AB, 229-34.
 The several passages in this table are identical in Greek except as noted in bold-face type.
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