When I was at Fuller Seminary, I had the opportunity of being the teaching assistant to a number of the professors. One of those was Dr. John Goldingay. And the course was on the exegesis of Isaiah, which incidentally he is currently teaching. John, yes we are on first name basis, allowed me to grade the various exegesis papers that the students submitted. And through it I realized a big folly even among Christian leaders. We interpret the Old Testament as though it was written in New testament times and as a result we often do not hear the Old Testament. We rather consistently hear the New Testament in the pages of the Old.
Christians have a fixation, or rather, an obsession. Actually, we have two. Make it three! And the text for today, reveals all three very succinctly if we would but spend some time with it. The inevitable result of these obsessions is that very often we do not truly perceive what the Old Testament is saying. I will not keep you in suspense. So allow me to reveal the three obsessions.
First, we love miracles. And so we want to see miracles everywhere. We love things out of the ordinary, thinking perhaps that miracles somehow prove that God is working among us.
But if we read our scriptures carefully, we will see a deep ambiguity about miracles that can be summed up in Jesus’ words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Miracles prove nothing to someone who is not already convinced.
Second, we want to see Jesus all over the pages of the Old Testament. We believe that when Luke tells us, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” it means that every page of the Old Testament has some references to Jesus. While it is definitely true that the Old Testament points to Jesus here and there, we sometimes go overboard in our zeal to identify him.
Third, we promote gender inequality. Women are not treated with the same dignity with which we treat men despite the opening chapter of scripture telling us that God made men and women in his image. We identify men as good or bad. David was a good king; Saul a bad one. But when it comes to women, there is no good and bad.
Rather, we see them solely in terms of their sexuality – either as chaste or as promiscuous. And this shows up in how we translate and interpret our scriptures. And unfortunately we don’t have a very good record as far as women are concerned.
Let us deal with each of these obsessions in reverse order and we will understand what our text is saying.
The word often translated ‘virgin’ in English bibles is the Hebrew word עַלמָה (almah). Those who reject the doctrine of the virgin conception of Jesus vehemently indicate that עַלמָה means ‘young woman’ and that there is another Hebrew word, בְּתוּלָה (betulah) that means ‘virgin’ and that, had Isaiah meant ‘virgin’ he should have used בְּתוּלָה rather than עַלמָה. Those who accept the doctrine of the virgin conception argue the reverse equally vehemently.
So where does the truth lie? Obviously somewhere in the middle. My way of interpreting is to look at the context.
As an example, consider the unfortunate news items we read often these days of women being molested and raped. Suppose one of the items read, “A young woman, 18, was kidnapped by a gang of men and taken to an isolated location, where she was raped.”
What do we conclude? Are we looking at the atrocity committed? Or are we asking ourselves, “Was she a virgin?” The context is a report on a crime, not a report on the woman’s sexual experience. And we need to be mature enough to separate the two.
If we follow this interpretive strategy, this is what we will find. In no passage for either of the two words is it required to translate the word as ‘virgin’. Using ‘young woman’ is more than enough. If you desire to check on this, and I encourage you to, I can give you the verses later by email. If you check on it, you will discover that your bible reads ‘virgin’ in most places. Replace it with ‘young woman’ and see if it makes sense. Let us take an example.
The scripture text that comes most close to requiring the translation ‘virgin’ is Leviticus 21.13-14. Concerning priests the NIV reads, “The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people.” Putting aside the male desire to have a virgin bride, there is nothing in this context that necessitates translating בְּתוּלָה here as ‘virgin’ – ‘young woman’ will easily suffice.
This is how it would then read: “The woman he marries must be a young woman. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a young woman from his own people.” Of course, in this passage by implication, the woman would likely be a virgin, but that does not mean the word means ‘virgin’ and that certainly does not mean we translated it as such. There is a big difference between translation and interpretation. In this place, to render the word with ‘virgin’ is interpretation, not translation.
If we put aside the male desire to sexualize women, we will find that none of the passages that contain בְּתוּלָה or עַלמָה actually require that the word be translated as ‘virgin’ though it may be implied. That is the sole reason why each of the sparring schools is capable of debunking the other position. You argue most comprehensively against what you already oppose, while ignoring the holes in your own arguments.
With that in mind, we can see that Isaiah 7.14 would actually read: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: This young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
So now you are thinking, “Deepak does not believe in the virgin conception of Jesus. Let us throw him out of church.” Do not prejudge me. I have only addressed one of the three obsessions! Perhaps you will have more arrows in your quiver once I am through!
So to the second obsession. In the historical context, King Ahaz of Judah is afraid because Syria and Israel were amassing troops to attack Judah. And Ahaz knew he did not have enough men. So God sends Isaiah with a word of assurance and judgment. Isaiah was to take his son, Shear-Jashub, which means ‘a remnant will return’ to a place where clothes were washed, a detail we easily ignore.
When Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, God gives him a sign for each of the messages. Shear-Jashub points to the fact that Judah had also been unfaithful and that they would be attacked by Assyria and reduced to a remnant. Only a small portion of the soldiers would return home from the battlefield. That was the message of judgment.
But there was also the message of assurance. Isaiah points to one of the women washing clothes and says that she will conceive and name her son Immanuel and that before he was old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the Assyrian empire would utterly destroy Israel and Syria.
The Jews preserved the messages of Isaiah as scripture because they realized that he was a true prophet. Within a matter of years, Assyria did indeed destroy Syria and Israel. And they did indeed attack Judah, but left a vassal king there so that Judah would be a buffer between Assyria and Egypt. We can therefore conclude that the woman Isaiah pointed to did indeed bear a son and name him Immanuel.
So now you are thinking, “Great! Deepak not only does not believe the virgin conception of Jesus; he also does not think Isaiah was prophesying about Jesus. Bring the fire and let him burn!” Hold on to your horses! There is still one more obsession to tackle. I just might give you more ammo for your cause!
So if Isaiah was simply saying that a young woman there, who was washing clothes would become pregnant and name her son Immanuel, we can see that the passage does not speak of any miracle.
Many women who wash clothes become pregnant. All of them, in my view, would have done so without any miracle other than the everyday miracles of conception and birth themselves. We don’t need to suppose anyone who heard Isaiah or anyone who read Isaiah in the seven centuries that intervened before Jesus’ birth ever thought, “One day, as Isaiah prophesied, a young woman will conceive miraculously without the involvement of a man.”
To the contrary, in Jesus’ day, many young Jewish women wanted to be the mother of the promised deliverer. But they expected to become pregnant in the normal way, not by some unthinkable miracle.
So there you are. When it was first written, our passage did not speak of a virgin conception. It spoke directly about the birth of a child everyone then living could verify. And it spoke about a birth as normal as any other.
Yes, there is more.
But, then comes Jesus. And in the light of Jesus’ life, Matthew goes back to the scriptures he loves in order to interpret the Jesus he loves. “Who is this Jesus?” asks Matthew.
And the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary, then inspires Matthew to go to the prophecy of Isaiah. And Matthew realizes something that we perhaps don’t. This prophecy of Isaiah does not point forward to Jesus. Rather, it is Jesus who points back to Isaiah. For scripture is not static. It is dynamic. It might have meant something centuries back. But in the light of this new thing that God has done in and through Jesus, it takes on new meaning.
Mary was not just a young woman, she was also a virgin, because she and Joseph had not had sexual relations. But if she had not conceived in the normal way, how did she conceive? And Matthew tells us about the role of the Spirit. And so we get to know about this miraculous conception, something unheard of, something never thought of, something never repeated.
But even here, scripture does not encourage belief based on a miracle. We have it the wrong way round. If you had told Isaiah that one of his prophecies would be fulfilled through a virgin conception seven centuries later, he would have asked Ahaz to have you checked for mental instability. For him the sign was a natural event that would happen within a few years.
And if you asked Matthew if Isaiah 7.14 is about Jesus, he would say, “Yes, certainly.” If you pressed him and asked if that were because of the miracle of virgin conception, he would say that you had it all wrong. The point of the prophecy was not the miracle. The miracle was just something that happened alongside the major thrust of the prophecy.
The point of the prophecy was that in Jesus, finally God is with us. The miracle would mean nothing if Jesus were not God with us. And actually, once we realize that Jesus is God with us, the miracle pales to insignificance. Virgin conception? Yes. But that happened at one moment in the past, never before, never again. But forevermore, in the past, in the present and in the future, Jesus is God with us!