Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues
Transliteration: hinneh ha‘almah harah veyoledet ben; veqara’t shemo ‘immanu ’el
KJV: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
NRSV: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
LUT: Siehe, eine Jungfrau ist schwanger und wird einen Sohn gebären, den wird sie heißen Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14 has been an important verse in Christian tradition, largely because of its quotation in Matthew 1:23. It is often used in apologetics to sustain the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. As such, there have been many debates about how to translate the verse. Without going into all those debates, it might be helpful to look at the translation of this verse from the perspective of the Hebrew language without allowing those other theological issues to determine the decisions. There are several Hebrew grammatical features that usually have not been incorporated into English translations of this verse. That is largely due to the traditional rendering of the verse as influenced by systematic theology and doctrinal concepts rather than using the Hebrew text and the theological perspective of the passage in Isaiah as a base.
We are all familiar with the traditional King James Version's (KJV) translation of this verse.
7:14 Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
It is the first part of the verse that presents difficulties of translation. There are five words in Hebrew in that first phrase.
hinneh, a particle that can be translated as "look!" or "behold!" However, it can serve other grammatical functions in Hebrew, as we shall see below.
ha‘almah, a feminine noun with a definite article, "the young woman." This noun has traditionally been translated as "virgin," but research reveals that more likely it means "a young woman of marriageable age" (that is, old enough to bear a child) without any specific indication of whether or not she is a virgin. This is reflected in most modern translations.
harah, in form either a masculine singular verb in the perfect tense signifying completed action meaning "he conceived" or "he impregnated." It can be used metaphorically as in Psalm 7:15. Or it is a feminine adjective meaning "pregnant." However, since context determines usage in Hebrew, and there are no masculine referents in this context, here it must be a feminine adjective modifying the feminine noun ha‘almah. In other words, as it stands in the text it is not a verb at all, but an adjective that should be translated "pregnant [young woman]."
veyolédet, a feminine singular participle from the verb "to give birth," with a connective prefix. The prefix can be translated "and" in some cases, but also serves other grammatical and syntactical functions.
ben, a singular masculine noun meaning "son."
In light of these observations, we can return to analyze the KJV.
7:14 Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Here, the translators took both the adjective (harah, pregnant) and the participle (yoledet, give birth) as coordinating main verbs. Yet, as we have seen on close examination of the Hebrew there is no obvious main verb in this phrase, only an adjective and a participle. It would have been easy enough to make these two words coordinating main verbs in Hebrew. However, if we are going to take the Hebrew text seriously, the translation needs to reflect these features of the Hebrew grammar and syntax.
There is one feature of Hebrew syntax that may provide us with clues about how to translate this phrase. A relatively common construction uses the same particle hinneh followed by a participle to communicate action that is about to happen. It is called the "participle of the imminent future" (or futurum instans, Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, 1910, p. 359). This construction is normally translated as "[subject] is about to [verb]" or "[subject] is going to [verb]." For example, Genesis 6:13 and 6:17:
6:13 And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. -NRSV
6:17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. -NRSV
Or in Joshua 3:122:
3:11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. -NRSV
In Isaiah 7:14 the particle hinneh is followed by a feminine singular participle "give birth" (yoledet). The subject of the construction is the noun "the young woman" (ha‘almah). If we understand this syntax here, then hinneh plus the participle functions as the main verb and the sentence reads: "The young woman is about to give birth." The adjective would then describe the "young woman" as "pregnant."
The oddity of this construction is the connective marker (ve) before the participle, which would not usually occur in this construction. The KJV took it as coordinating two verbs, which we have seen cannot be the case. However, there is no easy way to explain this connective here. This particular connective marker serves a variety of purposes in Hebrew, some of which are still not understood well. Hebrew simply has many anomalous (to us) constructions that do not make sense according to our modern western logical systems of grammar. So at this point we have to admit that we do not know the significance of this connective, while at the same time affirming that it does not coordinate two main verbs as in the traditional translations.
This leaves a suggested translation based on the Hebrew text and grammar of: "The pregnant young woman is about to give birth to a son; and she shall call his name Immanuel." It would also allow us in English to translate the adjective as a relative clause: "The young woman who is pregnant is about to give birth to a son . . ." .
However, another feature of Hebrew allows us one other option. Hebrew can make sentences by the juxtaposition of two nouns or a noun and an adjective, with the linking verb (copula) "is" understood. Here, the juxtaposition of "young woman" and "pregnant" can be understood as "the young woman [is] pregnant" (compare NRSV: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son. . ."). This is how Martin Luther understood the phrase, although he did not translate the definite article: eine Jungfrau ist schwanger.
At this point we might compare two other similar passages in the Old Testament, both in extended birth narratives in which a child to be born has some significance. Genesis 16 recounts the birth of Ishmael (v. 11, NRSV): "And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.’" This is almost identical in construction to Isaiah 7:14, differing only in the replacement of the third person subjective noun ("young woman") with a second person singular pronoun ("you"). From the above analysis this could be translated: "You are pregnant and about to give birth to a son . . .."
A second passage in Judges 13 recounts the birth of Samson (v. 3, NRSV): "for you shall conceive and bear a son." Note that the translation here is an English future, even though the grammatical construction in Hebrew is identical to the Genesis passage. However, there is another feature of Hebrew grammar at work in this passage. Since Hebrew does not have tense that marks time as past, present, or future but only whether actions have been completed or are still in process, narratives can shift back and forth between verb tense. The time of a narrative is established by other contextual means, and whether the overall action is considered as completed or in process is established at the beginning of the narrative and used for the entire narrative until another time marker is encountered. Note earlier in verse 3: "And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.’" This clearly establishes the time frame for the pregnancy as future. Even though the construction is identical to the Genesis passage, the time frame for English translation here must be future based on Hebrew syntax.
All this says that much of Hebrew syntax, and therefore accurate translation, is established by context not by the specific form of words. In the context of the Isaiah passage, especially in the context of the births of two other children in the immediately surrounding passages, the grammar would best be translated as an English past or perfect tense: "is [already] pregnant." This is followed by an emphasis on imminent action, something that is "about to" take place in the near future: "about to give birth."
In the larger context of the passage, the point is that a young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth. This is how most modern translations like the NRSV understand the text. So rather than translating this verse in light of Matthew 1:23, this suggests that perhaps we need to interpret Matthew’s use of this verse with some consideration for what the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 allows us to say. The emphasis in Isaiah 7:14 is not on the virginity of the mother, but on the imminent birth of the child and the child's name. It is this emphasis, especially on the child's name, that Matthew uses to make his own theological point about the birth of Jesus (see Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew).