To fulfil what was spoken – the virgin is with child

“Hear now, O house of David? Is it too little for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; Behold, the maiden conceives and bears a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. But before the lad shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land shall be laid waste – the land you are dreading on account of her two kings.” (Isaiah 7:13 -16)

The claim that the virgin birth of Jesus fulfils the sign promised by Isaiah is one of the most fiercely disputed of all New Testament claims.

The Rabbis argue that this is impossible, that the sign promised through Isaiah cannot be for the time of Jesus, as the sign was given to King Ahaz, about six hundred years earlier, to deal with circumstances of that time. The Rabbis argue further that the conception and birth are spoken of in the present tense, thus implying that the maiden was already pregnant at that time. The substance of the sign is consequently not in the conception or birth of the child, or in the name given to him, i.e. Immanuel, but in the fact that “before the lad shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land shall be laid waste – the land you are dreading on account of her two kings”. The lad is taken to be Isaiah’s second son, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, whose birth is mentioned in Isaiah 8, and the fulfilment of the sign in the fact that Israel’s attack on Judah was defeated soon after his birth.[1]

Their second grounds for dispute lies in the interpretation of the Hebrew word almah – which the Septuagint translates as parthenos, i.e. virgin, which sense or meaning most English and other translations follow. Not so, say the Rabbis, for the Hebrew word for virgin is actually betulah while almah has a broader use and connotation.

Before I respond to these arguments, I want to consider an important point that the Rabbis have either neglected or purposefully avoided, namely the regular recurrence, and significance, of supernatural birth in the history of Israel.

To fulfil what was spoken

Throughout the Bible, events that result from Divine promise are distinguished from those that flow naturally in the course of human history. Miracles prove that God himself, rather than co-incidence or human effort, is responsible for the occurrence.

Throughout the Bible, God works through the agency of man. Some men are born for an appointed purpose in redemption or deliverance, or in response to a promise, and, in some of these cases, the birth itself is marked by miraculous circumstance.

The entire nation of Israel, in fact, issues forth from a barren woman and her aged husband, who left their home in response to the promise “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you … ”.[2] Isaac was born to his post-menopausal mother in her ninety-ninth year. “It ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen. 18:11).

The supernatural circumstance of Isaac’s birth confirms him as the Son born of God’s promise, in contrast with Hagar’s son who was born in the ordinary way.[3] The same miracle distinguishes the nation that stems from Isaac, from other nations – as one formed by God for a special purpose:

“But now, this is what the LORD says –
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel …”.
(Isaiah 43:1)

Similar circumstances prevailed in the case of Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac was forty when they married and Rebecca remained childless for twenty years.  “And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebecca, his wife, conceived” (Gen.25:21).

Rebecca bore only once and gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau. Jacob, the elect of the two brothers was tricked into marrying Leah ahead of his betrothed, Rachel. Rachel, “saw that she bore Jacob no children, and she envied her sister and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’ And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” (Gen.30:1-2)

“And God remembered Rachel, and God harkened to her and opened her womb, and she conceived and bore a son and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach.’ And she called his name Joseph…” (Gen.30:22-24).

Joseph was destined as a saviour of his people – the rejected brother who was sold out to the Gentiles in order that he might save both in their time of need.

In the case of Moses, the miracles are not found in the Bible text, but added by the Rabbis. They claim that Moses’ mother was 130 years old at his conception, and that the house was filled at his birth with a divine light “as bright as the son and the moon”.[4]

Beyond the Exodus other sons destined for the deliverance or preservation of their people, are born through God’s intervention. In the time of the Judges, Samson was born from a barren mother. “There was a certain man of Zorah … and his wife was barren and had borne no children. Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Behold, now you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son’” (Judges 13:2-3).[5]

A few generations later, Hannah, the barren and therefore much ridiculed second wife of Elqanah, begged God for a son and promised to dedicate him to the Lord’s service. The son given in answer to the prayer is Samuel, who became a priest in the service of the sanctuary.[6]Samuel anointed David, the one after God’s own heart, who serves as a type of King Messiah, and also received the promise that Messiah would be born from his line.

The Bible says nothing of David’s birth. As in Moses’ case, the Rabbis add certain details: David was born, according to Yalkut haMairi and the Sefer Hatoda’ah,[7] after a lengthy separation of his parents. David was thus tainted with the suspicion of “mamzer” (illegitimacy) and sent by his family to watch sheep in lion infested countryside, in the hope that he would become a prey. When Samuel identifies David as God’s chosen one, both he and his mother are vindicated. But, by implication, some miraculous circumstance must then have prevailed at his birth.

In view of this history of extraordinary conceptions and births, whether confirmed in the Scriptures or otherwise, we now return to the circumstance in which Isaiah announced God’s sign.

To fulfil the promise of Messiah

Isaiah prophesied towards the end of the first Temple period, about 150 years before the Babylonian conquest.

By this time, the people God had chosen as His light and agent of salvation to the world was split apart and engaged in civil war. The ten northern tribes broke away from Judah during the reign of Rehoboam (son of Solomon) and had established themselves as a separate state under their own king.

Judah was itself in an advanced state of apostasy. Ahaz was king of Judah and a descendant of King David, but he “did not walk in the way of his fathers”. Ahaz later turned to idolatry and sacrificed his own sons in the fire (2 Chron. 28:2-3).

Israel had previously attacked Judah in the time of King Jotham, father of Ahaz (2 Kings 15:37), and committed a great slaughter of the Jews – killing a hundred and twenty thousand in one day. Israel had also captured two hundred thousand of their Jewish brothers and taken them as slaves to Samaria (2 Chronicles 28:5-8). By the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, the campaign was threatening to succeed even against Jerusalem. Victory seemed certain: Israel and Aram had already chosen a vassal to install as king in place of Ahaz.[8]

But God remembered his promise to the House of David – to preserve David’s royal line until Prince Messiah, the eternal king, was born (2 Sam. 7: 12-16, Ps 132:11-12) – and also what was spoken by the mouth of Jacob:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you …
the scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.”
(Genesis 49: 8, 10)

In the desperate circumstances that prevailed at that time, for His sake and the sake of His servant David (cf. 2 Kings 19:34), God sent assurances through Isaiah his prophet. Isaiah met Ahaz at the Upper Pool – where he was possibly ‘inspecting his water supply in preparation for siege’ [9] – with the following message from the LORD:

“Say to him [Ahaz], `Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart  …  Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin … yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: `It will not take place, it will not happen … within sixty-five years, Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people … If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’”

The outcome of Judah’s most immediate crisis was thus determined: her deliverance from Aramand Israel had been announced, and was a foregone conclusion – it happened within four short years. The destiny of Israel was also determined: Israel would cease to be a nation within sixty-five years.

Ahaz had however put his hope in a coalition with Assyria (2 Kings 16:7), the superpower of his day, for which purpose he raided the Lord’s Temple for silver and gold, and sent it as a tribute to the Assyrian king (2 Kings 16:8).

God’s offer of a sign is made in this context.

“The LORD spoke further to Ahaz, ‘Ask for yourself (שׁאל־לך) a sign from the LORD your God. Ask it in the depths or in the highest heights.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.’”

No mere trifle, but anything in heaven or earth, is offered to Ahaz at his choice – as a sign by which to gain confidence in the God of his fathers, as the opportunity for Ahaz and his generation to return to faithfulness, and then to know the power and victory of YHVH – without the help of an idolatrous ally. God who nurtures faith and is gracious (רחום וחנון) is willing to prove Himself to those who would only believe, but Ahaz was not willing. Ahaz placed his bets on the Assyrians, rather than depend on the promise of YHVH.

At this point we return to the sign then given, the sign of God’s own choosing.

God with us

After Ahaz refused a sign, God offered a sign of his own.

“Hear now, O house of David? Is it too little for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign …”.

We should consider two things at the outset:

1.   The sign is no longer offered to Ahaz personally.  While a sign was originally offered to Ahaz using the singular form of ‘you’ in the Hebrew text, the sign of God’s own choice is given to ‘the House of David’ generally, using the plural form of ‘you’ in the Hebrew text. This includes any descendant of David according to the royal line, even of a future generation,[10] to whom God’s sign could thus be fulfilled.

2.   The sign is likely to be awesome and stupendous – in keeping with the scope of ‘anything on heaven or earth’ that was offered to Ahaz. If the sign was fulfilled in a series of ordinary events – namely, Israel’s defeat by the Assyrians (not even through a clear intervention of God), a number of years after a woman fell pregnant in the usual way and bore an ordinary son – it offers little that can be distinguished as an act of God. It seems to me that the Rabbinic interpretation falls flat on this basis.

This sign God gives is this:

“Behold, the maiden conceives and bears a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. But before the lad shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land shall be laid waste – the land you are dreading on account of her two kings.”

Could this refer to the birth of Messiah?[11]  If so, would supernatural circumstances not be expected, and consistent with other special births in Israel’s  history? Finally, what is meant with the curds and honey? And what the significance to Ahaz, in view of his tragic failure to return to faithfulness, of the fact that the destruction of Israel would occur first, before the reign of Immanuel?

  1. Of all the proofs that God could offer the House of David of His faithfulness, the birth of the promised Messiah must be the ultimate. The prophecies of Isaiah are in fact replete with hints of his birth, and with glimpses of the messianic age.

Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us’ links thematically to other prophecies in Isaiah, in particular with two from the chapters following the promised sign, both of which rabbinic sources interpret with reference to Messiah:[12]

“Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
(Isaiah 9:6)

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD, etc.”
(Isaiah 11:1-2)

The idea that Messiah is ‘God with us’ is related to God’s instruction in the wilderness: “have them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell among them.”[13]  As the Divine glory entered the Temple of Solomon and comprised God’s presence among Israel at that time, so it is with Messiah, when “the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, etc”.

Jesus spoke of his body as ‘the Temple’, i.e. the new sanctuary, in which God dwelt by His Spirit, among men. [14]

In further support of the idea that Immanuel refers to Messiah, Daniel Gruber notes as follows:

Immanuel is explicitly applied to the Messiah in the Targum. The phrase ‘your land, O Immanuel’ (Isaiah 8:8) is very distinctive. The land that is spoken of is either the land of Judah in particular or all the land of Israel. There are only three specific individuals in the Bible of whom it is said that the land of Israel is ‘your land.’ They are King David, the Lord God Himself, and Immanuel.”[15]

The rabbis’ idea that the promise of ‘Immanuel’ is fulfilled in Isaiah’s second son, ‘Maher-Shalal-Hash- Baz,’ is consequently difficult to sustain.[16]

  1. The rabbis’ preference for the word betulah over almah to indicate virginity is also problematic. Neither of the terms denote virginity without reference to context. The termalmah is strictly a young, unmarried woman, a maiden, who is presumed and indeed required by the ethos of that time, to be a virgin. The term betulah is described by theEncyclopaedia Judaica as ‘an ambiguous term’ which in non-legal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state [of virginity].  The Talmud speaks of a young married girl who has consummated her marriage, but not yet had her first menstrual period, as betulah.[17] Even in the case in which betulah denotes pure virginity, this could apply to a very old woman (a “spinster”) and this was clearly not what Isaiah intended.  The sense of almah is a young unmarried woman, who was by implication a virgin (i.e. a maiden).

In addition, the history and significance of supernatural births in Israel must lead to a strong presumption that something extraordinary, something miraculous was intended in the birth.

  1. Immanuel will eat curds and honey in order that he might ‘know to refuse the evil, and choose the good’. Considering that the prophets spoke in allegories and symbols, the best explanation I have for this is as follows:

Curds and honey are foods provided by God, in contrast with the produce of agriculture (see Deut. 32:13-14).[18] These two elements are regularly used to describe the Promised Land in its sublime state, i.e. when God’s favour prevails and its inhabitants live in peace under His care:“Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey”(Deut. 26:15).

Immanuel, the promised son, would thus be sustained by God and grow up by His provision, and under His favour and protection. (Compare Luke 2:52: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.”)

By connecting the eating of this food with the boy’s capacity for moral discernment (seemingly in a causal relationship),[19] the prophecy further suggests that ‘curds and honey’ have a deeper, symbolic meaning, i.e. the food spoken of must be of a spiritual nature. (Compare Deut. 8:3,“man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Jesus once told his disciples: “I have food to eat that you know nothing about”[20].)

King David used honey as a metaphor for God’s Word (see Psalms 19:10 and 119:103) and milk is used to describe elementary spiritual truths (1 Pet. 2:2-3). The sense is thus that the LORD would teach Messiah his Word and spiritual truths in order that he could reign with perfect understanding and discernment. In the same sense Solomon pleaded, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

  1. The sign concludes with a warning that the destruction of Israel must precede the age of discernment, and consequently the reign of Messiah. The purpose of this, as I see it, is that the unfaithful Ahaz shall have no part in the promise. For the destruction of Israelwould be, as revealed in verse eight of Isaiah seven, sixty-five years after that time.[21]This would place the start of the messianic age somewhere beyond Ahaz’s lifetime – a just consequence for his wickedness. That the messianic age could in fact take another six hundred and fifty years to dawn is nowhere precluded by the wording of the text.

I must therefore disagree with the many Christian commentators who regard the promised sign of Isaiah chapter seven as one given to King Ahaz, or his generation, with an immediate application for that time; so that its relevance or application to Jesus must then be secondary or analogous. It is clear to me that the sign has its first and only fulfilment in the birth of Jesus, of a young virgin mother named Mary – the event of which Matthew rightly claims, “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us’”.

[1] While this, in synopsis, is the view of the majority of modern rabbis, Rashi considers that the sign lies in the fact that the maiden should begin to prophesy. He concedes however that “some interpret that this is the sign: that she was a young girl and incapable of giving birth.” Here is the full extract, as taken from an English translation published on “Immanuel  [lit. God is with us. That is] to say that our Rock shall be with us, and this is the sign, for she is a young girl, and she never prophesied, yet in this instance, Divine inspiration shall rest upon her … Some interpret this [i.e. the birth] as being said about Hezekiah, but it is impossible, because, when you count his years, you find that Hezekiah was born nine years before his father’s reign. And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl and incapable of giving birth.”
[2] Genesis 12:2. The promise implies fertility and offspring, which is later confirmed: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).
[3] Cf. Galatians 4.28.
[4] Sotah 12a, Exodus Rabbah sect. 1, fol. 91.1.

[5]  Compare the wording in Judges 13 with that in Isaiah 7:14, being in the first instance

“הנה־נא את־עקרה ולא ילדת והרית וילדת בן׃” and in the second, “הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן”.
[6]  1 Samuel 1:1-21.
[7] sections on Sivan and Shavuot.
[8] The usurper is simply referred to as “the son of Tabeel” to show from his genealogy that he was not “a son of David” – in other words not a rightful heir to the Davidic throne. Isaiah 7:6.

[9]   John Bright, Covenant and Promise, SCM Press, Great Britain, 1977, p. 95.

[10] This includes Joseph the betrothed of Mary, a direct descendant of David according to the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel. The rabbis’ argument that the present tense rendition, ‘the maiden is conceived and gives birth to a son,’ indicates that the she was already pregnancy at that time, belies the fact that the prophets often spoke of future events in the past tense (the ‘prophetic past’), to bring home the understanding that “what is spoken about the future is as good as done”. The same sense can be conveyed where the present tense is used.  See Keil and Delitzsch on this verse, where they claim that ‘behold’ (hinneh) always introduces a future event.

[11] Both the Talmud and certain Christian commentators suggest that God’s desired purpose for the time of Ahaz was not fulfilled. Cf. Tractate Sanhedrin, 94a: ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah [the son of Ahaz] as the Messiah,’ and  Keil and Delitzsch suggest, in their commentary on Isaiah 7:12: ‘in that very hour, in which Isaiah was standing before Ahaz, the fate of Jerusalem was decided for more than two thousand years.

[12] Bab. Talmud, Sanhedrin 94a, etc.

[13] Exodus 25:8.

[14] John 2:19-21.

[15]  Op. cit.

[16] His name, which means ‘Hasten to the spoil, be quick to the prey’ was ominous not only forIsrael and Samaria, but also for Ahaz and Judah (Isa 8:8 & also the concluding verses of ch. 7).

[17]  “Who is regarded as betulah? Any woman, even though she is married, who has never yet observed a flow … Our Rabbis taught: [If a virgin] married and observed a discharge of blood that was due to the marriage, or if when she bore a child she observed a discharge of blood that was due to the birth, she is still called a betulah, because the virgin of whom the Rabbis spoke is one that is so in regards to menstrual blood but not one who is so in regard to the blood of virginity.”Niddah I,2, 8b & cf. 11b. See further Daniel Gruber, “God, the Rabbis, and the virgin birth”.

[18] The manna from heaven, God’s provision for the wilderness, also tasted like honey (Ex.16:31).

[19] Cf. comparable constructions in Amos 4:7 and Lev. 24:12 where a lamed is similarly prefixed in the Hebrew text, to bring about the meaning, “toward that end”.

[20] John 4:32.

[21] A number of conquests against Israel, in the subsequent decades, have been cited as the fulfilment of this prophecy. The most convincing is that Israel ceased to be a people when the last captives were taken by Esarhaddon, in the twenty second year of Manasseh, which was approximately sixty five years after Isaiah’s encounter with Ahaz.