[b-hebrew] Definite Article 7:14

Harold Holmyard hholmyard3 at earthlink.net
Sun Jul 15 16:02:23 EDT 2007

Dear Tory,
>  The portion of the commentary you quoted, I  
> actually agree with some of it, pushes for the definition of "almah"  
> from a distinctly christian theological standpoint: "the term  
> 'ha'mah' (sic!) denotes 'a girl of marriageable age,' but not  
> married, and therefore a 'virgin' by implication." This is wrong.  
> It's not wrong simply because it comes from a christian commentary.  
> It's not wrong because I disagree with it. It's wrong (a) because it  
> is an assumption that promotes a particular theology (perfectly  
> suitable for the commentary but against list guidelines?) and (b)  
> does not take into account the importance of Eigenbegrifflichkeit  
> when studying cultures and languages.

HH: Your accusation seems wrong because "a particular theology" is not 
necessarily why people say that the word generally should connote a 
virgin. Also, Christian theory is taking into account 
Eigenbegrifflichkeit, and that is what leads some to make the assumption 
that the Hebrew word would imply virginity. The Jews who translated the 
Septuagint in 200 B.C.E. or so evidently felt that the word implied a 
virgin. In addition, the law of Moses required that women be virgins 
before they were married. This word seems to describe young women, women 
before they were married. So one assumes that they were virgins.
> The assumption that physical virginity is implied in almah may seem  
> reasonable from a christian point of view; but it is not an  
> assumption that any scholar familiar with (b) would make. Thus the  
> very nonpartisan view expressed in the footnote to Isa. vii 14 in the  
> JPS study Bible:

HH: How is it that a Christian comment is partisan, but the JPS study 
Bible is non-partisan? How is JPS non-partisan?

>  "All modern scholars, however, agree that the Heb  
> [almah] merely denotes a young woman of marriageable age, whether  
> married or unmarried, whether a virgin or not."

HH: True, but quite a number of scholars believe that the word, while 
not strictly requiring virginity, would have been associated with it in 

>  This sense is already  
> in archaic BH where we see that the plural of almah may denote a  
> separate category of young wives in the royal harem among queens and  
> concubines (Song of Sol. vi 8; cf. BDB s.v. almah, "maid or newly  
> married").

HH: Nowhere does the Song of Solomon indicate that the women dubbed 
"almah" were part of a royal harem. The young women in Israel could have 
swooned at Solomon the way that young women nowadays swoon at Hollywood 
hunks or star athletes.

>  The semantic range is the same in the MH; in later  
> rabbinic vocabulary and idiom; in later medieval vocabulary; and in  
> modern Hebrew. Basically, there is no reason whatsoever to believe  
> that almah, by itself, was ever a term restricted to unmarried  
> physical virgins in the Hebrew speech community.

HH Yes, there is a reason to believe that. Loss of virginity before 
marriage was a capital offense:

Deut. 22:13 If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her
Deut. 22:14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I 
married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of 
her virginity,”
Deut. 22:15 then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she 
was a virgin to the town elders at the gate.
Deut. 22:16 The girl’s father will say to the elders, “I gave my 
daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her.
Deut. 22:17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your 
daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s 
virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders 
of the town,
Deut. 22:18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him.
Deut. 22:19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give 
them to the girl’s father, because this man has given an Israelite 
virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not 
divorce her as long as he lives.
Deut. 22:20 ¶ If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s 
virginity can be found,
Deut. 22:21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and 
there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a 
disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her 
father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.

> Since list members appear to be doing exegesis in order to explicate  
> the definite article, it seems to me that "the young woman" in Isa.  
> vii 14 is an expression similar to the way a man may refer to his  
> wife in BH as in Gen. iii 12 and Jdg. xiii 11. In both of these  
> examples the woman has already been introduced and is present when  
> her husband is speaking, but in Isa. viii 3 "the prophetess" has not  
> been introduced. Clearly Isaiah's wife is meant, and the motif  
> connecting "the prophetess" and "the almah" suggests to me that the  
> two women (assuming they are not the same) were Isaiah's wives. Both  
> gave birth to children who served as signs for the impending doom of  
> the Syro-Ephramite coalition, but the almah before the prophetess:  
> "the almah is with child (HRH) and is bearing (the Masoretic  
> participle YLDT) a son" (vii 14); "she [the prophetess] conceived and  
> bore a son" (viii 3). This birthing order makes sense since the name  
> of the child in viii 3 indicates that Samaria and Damascus are to be  
> pillaged immediately, even before Maher-shalal-hash-baz learns to say  
> "abi" and "imi", whereas the fall of the two cities relative to the  
> birth of Immanuel in vii 14 occurs before the child learns to choose  
> good over bad.
> Having switched to the first-person in ch. viii, Isaiah refers to  
> "children whom YHWH gave me for signs..." (Isa. viii 18).  But ch.  
> viii only mentions one child. Though the meaning of the name Shear- 
> yashub in vii 3 suggests that that child too was a sign to Israel,  
> the only other child in Isa. chs. vii-viii actually associated with a  
> sign similar to Maher-shalal-hash-baz (who seems to have been born to  
> Isaiah after Immanuel) is Immanuel. So if the definite article  
> implies anything in Isa. vii 14 it is probably that the almah in this  
> case was a/the young wife of Isaiah (a young woman absolutely well  
> known to the writer!); Immanuel was another of Isaiah's children, the  
> second born, and Maher-shalal-hash-baz the third. These two children  
> in particular were significant in terms of the recent crisis with  
> respect to Samaria and Damascus. Both nations were to be defeated by  
> the Assyrians while Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz were still  
> very young.

HH: You're right that it is obvious that "the prophetess" is a name that 
Isaiah gave his wife, since he is describing a woman he has sex with, 
and Isaiah was a man of God. Your theory requires the unsubstantiated 
assumption that Isaiah had two wives, the second of which was a virgin 
at this time. Since having two wives simultaneously was not God's ideal 
(Genesis 2), I do not want to saddle Isaiah with the assumption of his 
being bigamous. Of course, if the woman had been his wife for any time 
at all, it would be odd if she was still a virgin. It would seem a 
strange joke for a man to dub his wife "the virgin." And if she was not 
yet his wife, how would anyone know who he was referring to? So your 
theory seems to require a somewhat narrow set of circumstances. 
Shear-Jashub is most clearly a sign in the book of Isaiah, since the two 
words that comprise his name reoccur in these verses:

Is. 10:21 A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the 
Mighty God.
Is. 10:22 Though your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, 
only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming 
and righteous.

HH: Immanuel is not needed to fulfill Isaiah's assertion that his sons 
were signs and wonders from the Lord. If one claims that Isaiah's first 
wife died, the text gives no evidence of this, so it would be another 
unsubstantiated assumption.

Harold Holmyard

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list