Does the Hebrew Word Alma Really Mean “Virgin”?
Dear Rabbi Singer,
I have listened to your tapes and I have also read a number of your articles on your web site regarding Christ's virgin birth, and you make some very good points.
I have discussed this issue with my pastor, and although he did remark that he finds your arguments "interesting," he brought up a good argument (I think). He asked that if the Hebrew word alma only meant "young woman" and not "virgin," why is it that in every place the word alma appears in the Bible it is always referring to a virgin? I think he has made a good point and will relate your answer to him.
I thank you in advance.
Your pastor’s contention that “every place the word alma appears in the Bible it is always referring to a virgin” is incorrect and misleading. This is not the first time that I have come across a Christian leader who has made this erroneous assertion; and each and every time I encounter this wild contention, I am puzzled as to why these apologists do not do their research before making this claim. This is especially the case in our modern age where computer technology has made it possible to quickly and easily perform exhaustive word studies. I will briefly explain your question for my readers who are unfamiliar with this subject.
For nearly two millennia the Church has insisted that the Hebrew word almah עַלְמָה can only mean “virgin.” This is a vital position for defenders of Christianity to take because Matthew 1:22-23 translates alma in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” The first Gospel quotes this wellknown verse to provide the only “Old Testament” proof text for the supposed virgin birth of Jesus. The stakes are high for Christendom. If the Hebrew word alma does not mean a virgin, Matthew crudely misquoted the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.
How accurate is this Christian claim? The only place to explore this assertion is in the Jewish Scriptures. If the Hebrew word alma means virgin, then each usage in the Bible must be either a clear reference to a virgin or at the very least appear ambiguous. The word alma appears in the Jewish Scriptures seven times in the feminine and twice in the masculine. If even one reference refers to a woman who is clearly not a virgin, then Matthew’s rendition of Isaiah 7:14 becomes untenable.
One of the places where the uncommon Hebrew word almah appears in the Bible is in the Book of Proverbs.
The word “proverb” means “to be like,” thus Proverbs is a book of comparisons between common, concrete images and life’s most profound truths. Proverbs are simple, moral statements (or illustrations) that highlight and teach fundamental realities about life. In the following passage, King Solomon presents the following vivid analogy:
There are three things which are too wonderful for me, for which I do not understand: 19the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the middle of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman [b’almah]. 20This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, “I have done no wrong.”
In the above three verses, King Solomon compares a man with an alma to three other things: an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, and a ship in the sea.
What do these four things all have in common?
They leave no trace.
After the eagle has flown across the sky, it is impossible to determine whether an eagle had ever flown through that airspace. Once a snake has slithered over a rock, there is no way to discern that the snake had ever crossed there (as opposed to a snake slithering over sand or grass, where it leaves a trail). After a ship passes through the sea, the wake behind it comes together and settles behind it, leaving no way to discern that a ship had ever moved through this body of water.
Similarly, King Solomon declares that once a man has been sexually intimate with an almah, i.e. a young woman, no trace ofsexual intercourse is visible, unlike a virgin who will leave behind a discharge of blood after her hymen is broken.
Therefore, in the following verse (Proverbs 30:20) King Solomon explains that once this adulterous woman "eats” (a metaphor for her fornication), she removes the trace of her sexual infidelity, “wipes her mouth, and says, 'I have done no wrong.'” The word alma clearly does not mean a virgin.
In the same way that in the English language the words “young woman” does not indicate sexual purity, in the Hebrew languagethere is no relationship between the words almah and virgin. On the contrary, it is usually a young woman who bears children. The word alma only conveys age/gender. Had Isaiah wished to speak about a virgin, he would have used the word betulah1 (בְּתוּלָה) not almah. The word betulah appears frequently in the Jewish Scriptures, and is the only word – in both biblical and modern Hebrew – that conveys sexual purity.
Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the masculine form of the noun עַלְמָה (alma) is עֶלֶם (elem), which means a “young man,” not a male virgin. This word appears twice in the Jewish Scriptures (I Samuel 17:56, 20:22). As expected, without exception, all Christian Bibles correctly translate עֶלֶם as a “young man,” “lad,” or “stripling,” never “virgin.” Why does theKing James Version of the Bible translate the masculine Hebrew noun לָעֶלֶם (la’elem) as “to the young man” in I Samuel 20:22, and yet the feminine form of the same Hebrew noun הָעַלְמָה as “a virgin” in Isaiah 7:14? The answer is Christian Bibles had no need to mistranslate I Samuel 20:22 because this verse was not misquoted in the New Testament.
Rabbi Tovia Singer
1. In fact, although Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah only one time in his entire corpus (7:14), the prophet uses this word virgin (betulah) five times throughout the book of Isaiah (23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5).
(c) Tovia Singer 2011