Day Thirteen of An Advent Calendar: The Hermeneutics of עַלְמָה

Friday, December 9, 2016     Friday after the Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7.10–25
2 Thessalonians 2.13—3.5
Luke 22.14–30
The text of the readings follows after the comments.


The passage from Isaiah contains a well known verse, namely 7.14. In the translation of 1611 known as the Authorised Version/King James Version it reads: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The New Revised Standard Version (the one used below) is significantly different: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The Hebrew word עַלְמָה almah  is translated as “young woman” in the NRSV and other more recent versions, whereas the AV/KJV translates it as “virgin”. What’s going on?

The reason the AV/KJV and other translations translate it as “virgin” goes back to Septuagint, a Jewish Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures done 150 years before Jesus. It translated the Hebrew word as παρθένος parthenos, which does indeed mean “virgin” (“The Parthenon”, the temple of Athena in Athens, was called that because the goddess  was a virgin).

The passage was definitely read as “virgin” by the first Christians. Both of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, while very different in many respects, agree that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin and gave birth miraculously. Luke alludes to Isaiah 7.14, but Matthew explicitly quotes the Septuagint version of Matthew 7.14, and adds an explanation of the name Immanuel: “”Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.” The Matthean reading of Isaiah controlled future translations of the passage in Isaiah, including the Latin Vulgate and the AV/KJV. More recent translations have acknowledged that the ordinary meaning of the word is “young woman” – she might be a virgin, but the term does not imply virginity.

It is an open question, though, whether the passage was being read messianically before the time of Jesus. After all, the translators of the Septuagint did not have to use the term for “virgin” but could have simply used “young woman”. In Greco-Roman culture to be born of a virgin was not considered unthinkable. Any numbers of mythic heroes were supposedly born of virgins, and there were rumors that some of the Emperors also had miraculous births, indicating their divine origins. Might it be possible that some Jews began to believe that their anointed one might also have such a striking birth?

However it was being read in the time of Jesus, the passage is not about the birth of Jesus, at least not in its original context. Continuing from yesterday we have the prophet Isaiah prophesying to Ahaz about contemporary politics. The king of Syria and the king of the northern Hebrew Kingdom of Israel (which broke away from the united kingdom of David and Solomon after Solomon’s death_ were threatening to join forces and attack the southern Hebrew Kingdom of Judea. Ahaz was King of Judea, and was understandably concerned. But Isaiah tells him (and I paraphrase), “Look, see that young woman over there [possibly the prophet’s wife] – she’s going to conceive and have a child, and he’ll be named “God with us”. And before he’s four or five year old the two kingdoms of Syria and Israel will be overthrown by Assyria.” Which, by the way, is what happened. Assyria, in what is now northern Iraq, conquered first Syria and then neighbouring Israel. The ten tribes of Israel that made up the northern kingdom were exiled into other parts of the Assyria Empire, and disappeared from the pages of history. The few people left behind – the poor and the peasants – became the ancestors of what, after much many centuries of evolution, became the Samaritans (whose descendants live to this day in what is now the northern part of the modern State of Israel). .

So what can we say about this? Well, prophecy has a tendency to be recycled; after a prophecy has been fulfilled it may yet be used in new circumstances. To our modern way of thinking this is illegitimate – what did the author intend, and what would the original hearers have understood? Yet a post-modern perspective, with “The Death of the Author” might not find this quite so strange; the late 20th century and early 21st century may have more in common with the 1st century than we think.

The Christian faith does not stand or fall on the virgin birth. The gospels of Mark and John make no mention of it, and neither does Paul. I believe, with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, that our faith does stand or fall with the Resurrection. With John I believe that in Jesus the Word was made flesh. So already I believe in a couple of miracles, things that make no sense in modern terms. After accepting these I personally don’t have a problem believing in the virgin birth, but I don’t get too upset with people who object. The virgin birth is an indicator of who Jesus is, and we can get to him in other ways. That said, I do wonder about how it was done in terms of modern genetics – where did Jesus get his DNA and that Y chromosome? I suppose that might be the working of the Holy Spirit, eh?

Isaiah 7.10–25
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thorn bushes, and on all the pastures.

On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.

On that day one will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, and will eat curds because of the abundance of milk that they give; for everyone that is left in the land shall eat curds and honey.

On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows one will go there, for all the land will be briers and thorns; and as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not go there for fear of briers and thorns; but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.

2 Thessalonians 2.13—3.5
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Luke 22.14–30
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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